Interview: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne and Ross Katz talk ‘Adult Beginners’

The independent dramedy is all the rage nowadays. Actors and filmmakers often make beautiful music together when they join forces to put together a truly solid indie and this particularly rings true with Adult Beginners, a charming story of sibling dynamics and the overcoming of major life obstacles. Comedian Nick Kroll shifts gears a bit as a tech entrepreneur who has fallen on hard times. He then begins staying at his sister’s (Rose Byrne), where he becomes the babysitter of her and her husband’s (Bobby Cannavale) child. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kroll, Byrne and director Ross Katz and the conversation was interesting to say the least.

Rose, your name has been coming up a lot this week just because I realized that you were involved with Tumble Down, which is opening at Tribeca.

Oh yeah!

You were involved with that for a while, weren’t you?

Yeah, I was. Yeah, it was a shame, it became a scheduling conflict. I was finishing, umm, I can’t remember what I was finishing up at the time. I’ve lost track, but yeah, it was a real shame. I love Rebecca, though. I think she’s brilliant, so I can’t wait to see it. And Jason as well. Yeah, did you see the film?

Yeah, I saw it. It was great.

Oh, great!

But what is it like for you, I mean, that was like seven years I think in development?

Yeah.

So, that’s like, that happens.

It does, unfortunately. Yeah, I mean, gosh, yeah. The business is littered with stories of, George Clooney was supposed to play your role in Adult Beginners! What happened?

(laughs)

Well, I told him I wanted it, and as the alpha, I said no, I’m doing it, and he was very kind. I offered him the role of Justine.

Right, oh! (Laughs) He wasn’t ready for that then.

No, he wasn’t. Not yet. I like your sense of humor, Rose.

Speaking of sense of humor, Nick, you’re obviously known more for your comedic roles. What was it like transitioning to dramedy?

It was really fun to do something new and exercise a new muscle. I would also sort of argue that it wasn’t, it didn’t feel like much of a transition because as crazy as some of my characters and things have been, I was always attempting to tell them from a dramatically honest or emotionally honest place. So there’s a difference between playing like a grounded character who has lost everything and is moving in with his sister and like a guy who is like a toilet baby with an infected lip-ring, but both of them are still trying to-

Eww! I’m eating!

(laughs)

I’m sorry, I won’t talk about brother-sister stuff anymore. (laughs) Sorry. How about this, a PR agent who is having issues with her best friend…

Yes.

…who is f$%#$@% the toilet baby with the infected lip-ring.

(laughs)

Ohhh! Gross!

Could you talk about getting inside the head of your character? Is she anything like you, or are you anything like her?

I’m the youngest of four, so I, honestly, probably relate to Jake more, weirdly, so, I have two older sisters and an older brother, and I think the eldest is always thought responsible. It’s a big deal, it’s a big pressure being the eldest of four children as my sister was, and this character has elements of that, so I look to my siblings to sort of understand the relationship you have with someone younger than you and the idea of raising children. Like, my sisters have small kids and juggling a million things like a lot of working mothers and fathers, so yeah, I really sort of looked to them.

And I feel like this situation is something that is happening a lot with our generation, like who’s going to take care of our parents when they get sick? I mean, we haven’t seen that many movies or stories about it, and do you think they’ll start now?

Oh, I think this will start a dialogue for the baby boomers’ medical care. (laughs) I think this will be at the forefront of that. I think so, I think, you know, the movie is called Adult Beginners, and I think part of that is that we are struggling with being adults or having the trappings of adulthood and yet in a lot of ways don’t feel like adults like our parents were. Like when my dad was my age, he’d had four kids and had started a company, and I am not, I can’t like get an ink cartridge for my printer. And so, I think that we’re all struggling with that and that also goes into parental care and stuff like that in the movie, that Rose’s character really takes the brunt of that. And that I think is something that is universal, even for, let’s say, folks that are older than us who went through or are going through it at a natural age, where as we, our characters, went through it younger than you would have expected. There are a lot of people who are doing that and understand that with older parents as well.

Can I ask you, when you first conceptualized this story and you brought it to Mark and then eventually to Ross and Rose, what were those very first conversations that you had and what you wanted to get across?

Well, with Mark, it was, here’s the basic story about a guy who loses everything and, you know, has to move in with his estranged sister and become their nanny to her son or daughter, didn’t know at that point, but that somehow takes care of her kids. That was what I brought to Mark, and Mark was very helpful in talking me through that and helping flesh out a little more, and then when I, when we brought in Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox, who wrote the script, they had themselves, they were a couple and had a young child. A two year old, and by the time we went into production, had just given birth to their second child. So we really had them give us their insights into what it’s like to be young parents, slightly overwhelmed, under-slept, and they brought so many amazing details to it, like the scene, the first scene where it’s me, Rose, and Bobby at dinner, and Rose and Bobby are shoveling food in their face really, really fast. It’s like a detail that is really specific, that young parents can identify with and that they were able to come up with, and then bringing in Ross, you know, and then Rose, then everyone starts to weigh in and finding where the similarities are, things to lean into or things that either don’t feel quite right and, you know, you just start to let everybody in to the creative process and give them creative ownership over it and just keep trying to, because I think within specificity is universality. And so having everyone being able to add those elements of their own lives, and it’s the beauty of having a story of sibling relationship stories is that just about everybody can relate and even if they’re an only child, they have a cousin or they have a best friend that was like a sibling that you just want to let people give their stories or details to flesh it out.

Rose, you’ve been playing Americans lately. What are the challenges of that culturally, and do you have to get into a different mindset to be an American?

Well, I’ve lived in America for probably 10 years, so I’ve soaked it up. Soaked up the culture, which I hope can reflect the work. Like what Nick said, within specificities of a story, there is universiality. Is that a word?

In Australia, it is. (laughs)

Except for that. For me, if something like Adult Beginners was so relatable and specific, that I could, it wasn’t an actual stretch, whereas when I did Neighbors, I didn’t understand college culture really at all. Because I don’t have any kids in college, and I don’t have any friends in college, so I didn’t know what hazing was, I didn’t know all these things. And I was playing an Australian in that, so it didn’t really matter, but I still had to understand whereas that I found very eye-opening and like, wow, I didn’t anything about this. Because the college culture is so specific to America. We don’t really have that, that doesn’t translate to me at all.

I will say working with Rose as an actor, she is a great actor and a pleasure to work with, and also her, and she steals fries. (laughs) That’s the trade, weirdly. I compliment her, and she takes fries. But her American accent is flawless, and it’s, you oftentimes, you can hear her, I feel like you can hear her Brit or Australian preclude. There’s somewhere in it, the R’s are too hard or whatever, but her accent is flawless that you forget and we’d call cut and she’d go back to an Australian accent, and you’re like taken aback because it’s so natural.

You’re also good with accents. Your Spanish is amazing. Bobby cannot get over how great your accent is. And your Cuban, it’s so good.

Thank you.

I think he’s actually Cuban.

(laughs)

I’m pretending to be an American, but thank you. So I, as someone who, I appreciate how effective – but also like, then there’s a moment in the thing where you’re doing, like, our Jewish mom stuff, and it’s like solid too! I can fake an Australian accent, but there’s no way, it’s like, now do a Brisbane accent, you know?

Ross, talk about the casting process. What did you look for in your actors?

Well, the movie, when I got the script, it had Rose, Bobby, and Nick attached, which is just a dream. It’s just amazing, and then we wanted to people the movie with, you know, these great actors. I mean, between Nick’s relationships and friends and our casting director Avy Kaufman, who is really extraordinary, we just wanted every small role to matter and every day playing role to matter because of the trajectory of these characters and who they are running into and how it affects them. And so we just kind of reached out, you know, we reached for the top and getting the best possible people, and it was amazing. I mean, every day was, you know, it was a revolving door. Today is Joel McHale, tomorrow is Josh Charles, the next day Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, Julie White, Jason Mantzoukas, you know, it was just extraordinary to get these actors to come in and do it, a day of work or two days of work.

Also Rose, one things that was really interesting about your character, I know she was pregnant but I feel like she wasn’t as precious about it as we’re used to seeing, which was refreshing.

It was refreshing. That’s part of the reason why I loved it. It was dispelling these myths that pregnant women, as Ross was saying earlier, are like saints and don’t have feelings and don’t get frustrated or bored or lonely or scared, and it’s a far more realistic representation of what can go on in their mind when they are going through, trying to keep up with all these things. So that was really refreshing and challenging because I don’t think people are comfortable with watching that, and I think they like the idea of –

People don’t like it in real life.

Yeah.

No, I have a friend who is pregnant, and she’s confided in me, “You know, I don’t think I’m allowed to say that I’m a little unsure about all of this.”

Yeah.

“Like, I don’t know if I’m ready to be a mother. I don’t know if I’m ready for the responsibility. I kind of like my life, you know?” People think you’re a bad person if you say those things. Unless you say, “Oh, I’m so happy, everything’s great.”

Yeah, it’s just another proof that the patriarchy is real.

(laughs)

Here we go.

Keep going.

It is a feminist movie, though. Nick set out to make a feminist movie.

That was a goal. Well, I want to talk about the masculine veil. When Gloria Steinem and I were writing the screenplay…

I broke the code.

And we’re very grateful.

I said, “This chapter…”

This is the one.

You know, “Gender is a Myth.”

Yes.

As per code.

While we’re on the subject of mothers, this is kind of an odd question about Mother’s Day, which this film is opening close to Mother’s Day. Is it on the same day or the same sorts of rituals in Australia as here, and what do you usually do on those days?

It’s not as big a deal as like Valentine’s Day. I think all those sort of, you know –

Corporate-created.

Holidays made by Hallmark tend to be more popular here, you know, which is just the reality. In Australia, it’s not quite, it’s not nearly as big. But saying that, of course, you know, I’ll call my mom and tell her I love her and send flowers and stuff. But I’m pretty sure it’s the same day as here I think, yeah. It’s soon, right?

And what do you usually do for your mother on Mother’s Day?

I’ll send her flowers, tell her I love her. Sometimes, I’m late. But they don’t really care. My parents are very like, they’re not like, they don’t care. But many people take it very seriously and it’s a very important gesture, but I’m a bit cynical because I’m like, this is just made by Hallmark, so they’re just making a billion dollars on a card that will then be put in the dumpster and then taken to Staten Island. Anyway, go on. That was such a downer! (laughs)

I guess this is a question for all three of you. When you first, like, got the script in front of you, is there anything discernible that you kind of grabbed onto? Like that spoke to you on that first reading?

For me, it was the combination of the comedy and the drama, and also I have an older brother that I tried really hard to connect with, but I’m more the Jake character and he’s more the caretaker. And he lives in San Francisco, and I thought a lot about siblings trying to connect who are sort of adults, and he’s got kids and he’s got a busy life, and I just, I really related to it on that level.

This is for everyone, I guess. What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I think they will be able to relate, like Ross said. Like I think that complex relationships that we all have with our siblings, and these people are like people in life. They’re not, you know, it’s like the extraordinary and the ordinary, about sort of the novel of everybody’s life. I think that’s why it’s really relatable and moving and funny, that these characters are funny because they’re flawed and because they have senses of humor and you know, so yeah, it’s the type of film I’d love to see.

I, this isn’t the goal of it, but one of the cool things that we’ve had in screenings of the movie thus far is at least one or two people come up afterwards and say like, “I gotta go call my brother,” “I gotta get back in touch with my sister,” and it wasn’t like that was the goal of this, but it’s very gratifying to hear that, to hear people relating to it, relating to being estranged or, you know, because that sibling relationship is the oldest one in your life and the person who is a witness to you at every stage of your life and can be proud of you or angrier with you than anyone else because they just know every stage of you and they can’t just know you now and they can’t just have a memory of you from the past. So I really kind of like that, and I think that for me, the idea that we’re all, as Rose said, we’re not all hero, we’re not all villain. And so I hope that there’s something to that.

And with the idea of, you know, crashing and burning, how did you then decide on swimming as like a metaphor for putting it back together?

That was an idea that Liz and Jeff brought to the script, and it just seemed to work. It seemed like it would work visually and then also just, one, to have a fun activity for Teddy to do and an interesting impediment for us as people, a good symbol of something stunted in our, even before our mother passed away. I don’t know if Ross, I mean, Ross obviously shot it really nicely.

Yeah, I think, I mean, the idea that these two characters are discovering, you know, that they, they’ve become grown-ups and what it means to be a grown-up and that this very basic, child-like thing to just swim, you know, just go underwater, is something they haven’t been able to do in their thirties. It’s something that I think is very relatable and a good metaphor for where they are in their lives.

I was just curious if there were any other titles other than Adult Beginners that were considered.

Yeah, like Brother’s Keeper.

Brother’s Keeper was the title for a long time.

Until we discovered that it was an Oscar-winning documentary. (laughs)

And I was worried that Adult Beginners would remind too much, people too much of Beginners, the movie, which I thought was a fantastic film. And then we tested it with Adult Beginners and asked the audiences and everyone was like, “What?” Nobody thought about it.

And then we had Going Under, which people thought was sort of pornographic.

Yeah, Adult Beginners ended up working well. Gives you a sense of the whole movie.

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