Q+A: 'Parks and Rec' joker Ben Schwartz serious on 'House of Lies'
Fans of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" know Ben Schwartz as wildly deluded, eccentrically coiffed Jean-Ralphio Saperstein -- a character who the actor says lives every moment like he's at Disney World. But we're about to see a brand new, considerably less goofy side of Schwartz on Showtime's "House of Lies."
The series, which premieres Sunday and costars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, follows a team of four management consultants who will do whatever it takes to close a deal, satisfy a client or boost their own career prospects. Although no one is a saint in this dark comedy, Schwartz's character, the cocky and calculating Clyde Oberholt, may be the most ruthless of all.
We spoke to the actor, comedian and writer during a break from his work on yet another TV project -- voicing the title character in the forthcoming Disney XD animated series "Randy Cunningham: Ninth Grade Ninja" -- about his role on "House of Lies" and how it compares to his gig on "Parks and Rec."
What kind of guy is your "House of Lies" character, Clyde Oberholt?
He's the arrogant management consultant, always hitting on women. But at the same time, his eye is always on escalating where he is in the company. What everybody cares about is making that money, getting the deal, but Clyde eyes [his boss, Cheadle's] Marty Kaan, thinking, "I'm gonna get there. I'm gonna take over for him. I'm gonna find a way to be where he is." He always has that in the back of his head. Marty is best friends with me, but I'm not necessarily best friends with Marty.
"Parks and Recreation" is known for featuring some of the most likable characters on TV. On "House of Lies," the consultants and their profession are more morally ambiguous. How did you approach playing a darker character?
When I'm playing Jean-Ralphio, I'm thinking, "How would a guy who thinks he's nailing it say something? A guy who isn't even aware of how stupid the words he's saying would sound." But Clyde says things with intent. He's not going to waste time.
Showtime is known for these flawed characters, and the idea of seeing the layers. Because of the way "House of Lies" is written, you get to see why [Clyde] would make a certain move or why he would act a certain way. Slowly, as the series goes, you see how the flawed characters either redeem themselves or keep crashing into oblivion. You watch all of us choose our paths and take our blows. It's a pretty exciting series arc.
"House of Lies" also stars Josh Lawson, who is an improviser from Australia. He and I clicked so hard. And Don Cheadle is so intensely funny in real life that he is able to catch on to any little bit you do. If we improvise, he is as quick as all of us. The amazing thing about him is that he can be hilarious, and then in the next sentence, he can make you cry. Kristen is hilarious -- if you saw "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," she was great in it. In between takes, we would all just play with each other. Our rapport has become so fun, and we've [developed] a great shorthand. I've been very fortunate. The casts on "House of Lies" and "Parks and Rec" are amazing.
Management consulting is a strange and mysterious field. How did you educate yourself about it to prepare for the role?
I lucked out. The show was based on a book by Martin Kihn. He came in one day, and we talked, and it was amazing. It was hilarious to find out that the hardest question for [management consultants] to answer is what they do. It's hard for them to explain because half of it is bull. They con their way into getting the job done. So when I asked [Kihn], "How do you explain it?," he said, "We have a word-for-word answer, but your job is whatever it takes to get the job done." Almost like a chameleon, you change into whatever [your client] needs.
The characters on "House of Lies" are working with big-business leaders, and they're very aware that some of their clients are ethically bankrupt. How did the economic crisis and the rise of the 99% movement affect the show?
Although we had wrapped before Occupy Wall Street and Occupy LA, you could predict that, in the future, these types of things were going to happen. Our showrunner, Matthew Carnahan, was very aware of it. It's definitely in the DNA of what our show is -- which I think is exciting. When we're going through something as a country, to have some sort of voice for it on television is pretty cool. If we got a second season, I cannot imagine the fun we could have with all the Occupy stuff.
-- Judy Berman (twitter.com/judyberman)
Photo: Ben Schwartz in "House of Lies." Credit: Patrick Ecclesine / Showtime.