It’s been 30 years since big and small screen “that guy” character actor Chris Diamantopoulos got his start as a Canadian child actor in commercials. Before, as he says, puberty wreaked havoc on him.
Theater and the prospect of walking in the footsteps of his personal hero and old school song and dance man Danny Kaye (White Christmas) re-lit the lamp and Broadway opportunities soon popped up. Then came voicework (which also offered a chance to sing here and there, such as in his role as the voice of Mickey Mouse) and an on-screen career purposely focused on avoiding typecasting while playing Moe Howard, Robin Williams, everyone’s favorite fictional VC douchebag Russ Hanneman on Silicon Valley, and a would-be homewrecker on The Office.
Now Diamantopoulos is popping up as villains of decidedly different flavors in Red Notice and True Story (dropping November 24 on Netflix) while lending his voice talents to Inside Job and the upcoming Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. The man is busy, he might also be the most “happy to be here interview” I’ve ever had, talking with boundless exuberance and a genuine affection for his craft, the history that surrounds him, and the chance to play with the biggest stars on the planet. Between those moments and him falling into tremendous impressions of Kaye, Sean Connery, and Mickey Mouse where he delivered full sections of dialogue lifted from various projects, there’s plenty of conversation about those two distinct projects (specifically the tonal changeup with his brooding True Story character), the pressure of playing Robin Williams, and that time everyone blamed him for almost wrecking The Office.
With Red Notice and True Story, obviously, these are both villainous characters where you’re trying to find shades and flavors within that same kind of role, so that you don’t get bored and so that you feel like you’re contributing something unique each time and don’t get pigeonholed. Can you talk a little about that?
So I mean, I’ve made a career of trying to avoid that as best I could. I did Silicon Valley, before that show I hadn’t really done a lot of comedy. I mean, I did Three Stooges, but I was on 24, I was more a dramatic actor. Silicon Valley hit and then all of a sudden everyone wants me to play a prototypical douchebag, which is fine, but you got to write it as well as it’s going to be written with Silicon Valley, and that was about as good of TV writing as you could get.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t want to play a role that I’ve played before, but with Red Notice and True Story, I will say, yes, they are both villains, but that’s really where it ends because Red Notice is larger than life, it’s a fantasy, it’s a 90s action-comedy romp that requires a little bit of a tongue in cheek, nefarious sort of quality. A mustache twirl if you were. It was an opportunity to work with the three biggest movie stars in the world, a terrific filmmaker, and to try my hand at that sort of Bond-ian trope. True Story is very, very rooted, very grounded, very Scorsese-esque. The character says very little, and only engages physically and quite brutally.
Oh, he’s like a human bullet, it’s great.
I appreciate that, and that was really the intention. I wanted the character to be like a lion in the prairie where it’s like, “Oh, so placid and he’s not really doing anything. He’s just kind of chewing.” And then when the gazelle shows, it’s just fucking on and nothing is going to stop him. And I love that idea. I love that notion. And that’s what excited me about that role. For an actor that’s as facile with words as I am and as verbose as I can be, it was a great opportunity to just turn all that off and put it all just into physicality and into the face.
In terms of the physicality, it’s interesting because Wesley Snipes would appear to me to be larger than you. And obviously, comes with a reputation of just kicking ass in Passenger 57 and Blade and everything like that. In Red Notice, obviously, you’re going up against Dwayne Johnson, who is a human mountain. How do you take on that challenge with the physicality of going up against guys that are, no offense, but if I were to do a tale of the tape, I’m probably giving them the edge in a fight.
That’s a great question and no offense taken. I mean, look, one of the great things about what I do for a living is the level of fantasy that I can allow an audience into and I can also allow myself that freedom to have the fantasy that… so what would it be like if I could pose a threat to these people? Right? And so it really just begins with the backstory of the characters. In each instance, as funny as this may sound, it’s not the size, it’s the quality. And it really is. Because I may be physically slightly smaller than Wesley and I may be physically much smaller than DJ, but in the instances that I am posing a threat to each of them, there’s no chance that they’re going to get out of it. Both of them are at the risk of losing their lives because my character has been either more clever or more vicious than them. So actually, there was something quite freeing about it. I didn’t need to peacock to pretend to be bigger than either of them, I was just going to be scarier.
A thing that I loved about the character [in True Story], is that Wesley was a window for the audience. Wesley showed our level of disgust and fear, and my character would look at him like, “What the fuck? What? You’re disgusted by this?” The amount of torture that my character in True Story inflicts, it’s like he’s taking a fast-food order. There’s nothing to it. That’s the true sociopathic nature, which I think actually makes for a good villain. And in that sense, I would love Hollywood to come calling with more villainous roles because there are so many ways to be a villain.
You’ve been a villain in a few different places. People could say you were a villain in The Office.
Okay. And people do. Sometimes people will scream at me and say, “I can’t believe what you tried to do to Jim and Pam!”
Walking up to that situation, knowing how beloved those characters were and that you were going to present a blockade to the happy ending that I think everybody was envisioning — what’s it like to go into that situation?
I was petrified because I loved the show and I loved Jim and Pam and it was an ever-evolving storyline as it was pitched to me, and Greg [Daniels, show creator] and John [Krasinski] and Jenna [Fisher] were so deeply engaged, and at times not necessarily in agreement as to how it should wrap up. And so it made for some tenuous moments for me because typically, I want to collaborate on a set. You know what I mean? I want to be able to add my input, but in this instance I knew my place, right? I mean, these people spent a decade crafting these characters, and for me to just come in and throw a monkey wrench in, I didn’t really have the currency to say, “Oh well, what if Brian did this?” You know what I mean?
I knew better to sit back and let them figure it out. To their credit, I think they did a good job, but we ended up shooting a bunch of stuff that didn’t end up in the show. I know Jenna had some ideas that were different than John’s originally, and I know that Greg had some ideas that were different than both of theirs as well, but there was a real collaborative spirit. And you could tell that all of them wanted this to go the right way. I think that there was also just that notion of, “There might be a couple of right ways. Let’s see.”
I want to get back to something you were saying about working with the three biggest movie stars in the world. Despite your experience, there has to be a level of intimidation, right? Tell me a little bit about how that’s changed in your career and just how you still deal with it?
Of course. And I get goosebumps and I get butterflies on every sound stage set and stage that I step on, partially because, as corny as it sounds, I still fucking love it and it still feels like the first time I get to do it. I mean I drive by Paramount and I’m like, “There’s Paramount.” I mean, I still do that. I don’t know why.
Is there an Imposter Syndrome aspect to it? Do you feel like somebody’s going to tap you on the shoulder one day and tell you it’s over?
Yes, for sure. Every job I do I think is going to be the last job I’m going to do. Not because I think I’ve done something horrible, but because I just think, I can’t be this lucky. At a certain point, my luck’s going to run out. And I love what I do so much that I don’t want it to run out.
Does that help to push your interest in staving off complacency with the roles you choose?
If it’s going to be my last one, I might as well go for it. That’s part of it. The other part of it is that I got into this because I enjoyed playing as a kid, pretending as a kid. And so when I show up in the room and there’s DJ and Ryan and Gal, for me to not play even more would be a disservice to myself and to my 10-year-old self. It’s like, yes, I mean it was hugely challenging for me to be in the room with those three and not be intimidated, and then I took that intimidation and just put it into my exuberance for being there.
In terms of, still speaking to that intimidation factor and that factor of trying to pay service to your 10-year-old self, you were familiar with the Three Stooges growing up, but when you’re playing a character like Moe Howard, or Sinatra, or Robin Williams what’s the intimidation factor to get that right? Especially with Robin Williams where it’s someone who was alive at the time.
So in that project, the challenge was that I was such a fan of Robin Williams. He was such a hero of mine, but I was a young working actor that was hungry to work. And so when I auditioned for this and I got it, I wasn’t going to say, “Oh, I can’t do this because it’s material about…” I had to do it. The other challenge was when I got the script, I realized that all the impressions in the script, we weren’t allowed to do them because it wasn’t an authorized biography and he wasn’t going to allow us to do any. So I had to go through and find impressions of characters that he’d never done before and make it seem like he’d done them.
So there was that challenge, and then the last challenge was that whole thing, for me, was an homage to him. And I’m sure, I’m not sure if he saw it, he probably didn’t, and if he did, if I were to be in his shoes, he probably wouldn’t have seen it as an homage. You know what I mean? Because it was invasive by virtue of what it was, but it was an homage. It was a love letter. So the challenge for me was to allow myself to get over that and to really just try and tell an honest story. To be frank, I love when I’ve had the opportunity to play a character that comes from history that I might have heard or seen, because it gives me a really fully loaded arsenal as an actor. If I know the voice, if I know the physical stature, if I know the cadence, if I know the gait, that eliminates so many variables that I don’t have to create, I can use those. I can mold my body, my voice, my face, my being into that.
With Silicon Valley and Russ Hanneman, have you had any interactions with actual tech bros and gotten any feedback? I would imagine, just based on the lack of self-awareness, that they fucking love it.
Well, let me tell you, as I… Hang on. First let me fill my cup with… [raises a “This Guy Fucks” mug]
There it is. Wow.
The VC startup bro billionaire world seems to have adopted Russ as their unofficial Patron Saint.
That must feel great.
I mean, look, what’s great about it is talk about a liberty and a freedom as an actor. When you’re playing the most reviled douchebag of a human being, when you’re playing the worst man on earth, well what can you be afraid of? If you’re already universally loathed, well, then you’re kind of impervious, then it’s like you’re from Krypton.
History has proven that out over the last few years, I’ll say.
But really there was something so liberating about not needing to be… Look, every character I play, I want to make sure that people like this or that or that it… With Russ, it didn’t fucking matter. It really didn’t matter. I mean, add to that the fact that I was given such tremendous writing, but really I could just go for it. I think that the community really embraced Russ very, very well, and it’s been a hoot for me. People yell, “This guy fucks,” at me all the time when I walk down the street. It’s not great when I’m with my children, though.
Not the best timing.
‘Red Notice’ and ‘Inside Job’ are streaming on Netflix. ‘True Story’ drops on Netflix November 24