Pacino. De Niro. Fox? When it comes to the holy triumvirate of great thespians, the star of Teen Wolf is usually not at the top of the triangle. Unless you happen to be Justin Long.
Taking his cue from Michael J. Fox, Long’s career has actually followed a path similar to that of his boyhood hero: Both got their starts on the small screen (Long starred in “Ed” and is, of course, the ubiquitous Mac Guy), count a cult classic among their early film work (Jeepers Creepers for Long) and landed themselves on the comedy A-list by the age of 30.
Now 32, Long, a Connecticut native, has amassed just as many film credits as he has years on this planet in roles comedic (Dodgeball), dramatic (He’s Just Not That Into You), romantic (Going the Distance) and a little bit scary (Drag Me to Hell). The Dell Guy must be pissed.
1. What is the first movie you remember seeing in a theater?
Empire Strikes Back (very vaguely). I remember being terrified of Darth Vader and whenever he came on screen apparently I’d lean over to my dad and whisper, ‘Now I know why they call him Dark Vader’—except I had a severe “r” problem so it came out, ‘Now I know why they call him Dowk Vadow.’
2. What is your favorite movie?
Back to the Future. Everything about it is perfect. My friends won’t watch it with me because I’m the annoying guy who can’t help quoting all the lines seconds before they happen on screen. Manhattan; Annie Hall; Way Out West; A Night at the Opera; Love and Death; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and GoodFellas are all close seconds.
3. When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an actor?
Four specific things contributed to me wanting to be an actor: My mom was an actress and I grew up watching her in plays and seeing a lot of theater as a kid because of her. I looked up to my older brother more than anyone else and he was (and is) a great actor; I followed him into it just to be around him. (“Monkey see, monkey do.”)
I looked up to Michael J. Fox right after my brother; I thought he was the coolest guy on the planet when I was growing up—and he was. I also remember watching that great scene in Stand by Me, where River Phoenix talks to Wil Wheaton about being accused of stealing lunch money at school. It affected me so dramatically and I remember thinking, ‘These actors moving me are my age. What a beautiful thing to be able to do. I want to do that.’
4. Which moviemaker most inspires you?
Woody Allen. I love the seamlessness with which he entwines comedy with profound philosophical meditations—the way he sees the world and shoots it makes me think and laugh more consistently than does the work of any other filmmaker. I am also very inspired by Frank Oz as a filmmaker; he’s responsible for many of my all-time favorites, most of which inspired me and made me laugh when I was a kid, and they still hold up.
5. What’s the one thing you can’t live without on the set?
A way to play music in between takes—iPod and headset. Boring but true. That and a Laotian tranny hooker for longer breaks between takes.
6. Of all the characters you’ve played, which has been the most challenging?
The most challenging have been the ones that were probably closer to who I am. There’s a comfort and safety in hiding behind or masking your own truth with a character whose voice or mannerisms or quirks are quite different than your own.
Playing Brandon St. Randy in Zack and Miri Make a Porno or Zerk in The Sasquatch Gang were far easier and less challenging than playing Alex in He’s Just Not That Into You. I just did a new play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival that was about two brothers, one of whom was adopted, called Samuel J and K. It was easily the most challenging role I’ve played, not only because it was a medium I wasn’t used to and there were just two of us on stage the whole time, but because quite a bit of who I was playing was me. Not sure what that says about me psychologically.
7. Who’s the one director you would most like to work with in the future?
Paul Thomas Anderson. Every time he makes a movie, I have to bump something else off my top 10 list. Martin Scorsese wouldn’t be so bad either. I love him so much I even defend Shutter Island—adamantly.
8. Who’s the one actor you would most like to work with in the future?
Dustin Hoffman, if only so I could steal a moment in between set-ups and tell him how much his work has meant to me. This could’ve also been my answer to the question: “Who do you think is the greatest actor of the 20th century?” I think Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell are in the running for the 21st century.
9. Which is harder—comedy or drama?
I think drama is more difficult for me because it feels more like work. It’s something that is also harder for me to access and requires far more focus and concentration. When I was in kindergarten, I was kind of a quiet, very little, outcast of a kid and I used to watch Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers—even W.C. Fields—like kids today watch the Disney Channel. One day I was assigned to be the “line leader.” While we were walking to lunch or an assembly or something, I opened a door to the cafeteria and stopped it with my foot right before it hit my face but jerked my head back as though it had actually done so. I turned around, holding my nose in fake pain, and slowly, as the kids realized I had been joking, the line of my classmates—the most important audience to any kid—erupted into fits of laughter. The teacher got mad at me, which only made it funnier (the best comedians were anti-authoritarian)! That was it. I’ve basically been doing the same move for the same reasons ever since. Does anyone ever really “grow up?”
10. What’s the one question you’ve never been asked in an interview but would love to answer?
The one question, oddly, I’ve never been asked is “Why do you love acting?” I love it because, if done right and well, it can not only be fulfilling and gratifying to you as a performer, but anyone else who chooses to experience it can also glean something positive from it. It can be the gift to yourself that keeps on giving to others. What a rare, wonderful thing. MM