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Q&A: Taran Killam On SNL, Hamilton, And Working With Schwarzenegger

Killam talks new film ‘Why We’re Killing Gunther’ on ‘Happy Sad Confused’

Actor Taran Killam recently visited Josh Horowitz and “Happy Sad Confused” to discuss his time on Saturday Night Live, his current role as King George in the Broadway hit Hamilton, and his upcoming film Why We're Killing Gunther, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Listen to the full conversation with Killam and subscribe to “Happy Sad Confused” on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

You’ve essentially been in the next best thing to a Star Wars film, that sketch you guys did on SNL.

Taran Killam: Yeah, thank you. One of my favorite things. Undercover Boss.

Not only just comedically — like, a great concept and super funny — but from, like, a production standpoint, did you guys blow your entire year’s budget on those sets? It looked amazing.

Killam: You write it Tuesday and you read it Wednesday, and they don’t know that it’s happening until 10 p.m. Wednesday night. So overnight, they’re drawing up the plans, and then they ship them out to Brooklyn and start building.

It was definitely one of at least a dozen times where we showed up and, you know ... I don’t think it’s a surprise that Bobby [Moynihan] and I are big Star Wars fans, nerds. And it was overwhelming. It was emotional, because they built this incredible Starkiller base, and there was minimal use of green screen.

I think there’s one shot where they wanted to show, like, a TIE Fighter hangar in the background that we use green screen on. The rest was entirely practical, and Lucasfilm flew in the Kylo Ren costume. So we all got to finger the hem of his garment, literally. Adam [Driver] was also one of my favorite hosts.

I was frankly surprised he was game and comedically gifted. I haven’t seen a lot of Girls, but clearly he’s gifted and can do anything.

Killam: I would’ve guessed that maybe he’s got a process, and it’s like, “Don’t bother him while he’s the character,” but no. He fully got the joke, was in on the joke, had fun.

Mad TV happens relatively early in your career, prior to you doing improv and getting into that scene. It kind of happened in reverse. Did you feel a struggle before Mad TV or post–Mad TV and pre-SNL?

Killam: There was the tween-teen turmoil of adolescence and feeling like an outsider at times, and I would swing back and forth. In middle school, I was very small and sort of a late bloomer, and into things like Star Wars and comic books. But then I was good in the plays, and for whatever reason that was cool in its own right to a certain demographic. Then I went to an arts high school, and it was very cool there. So high school felt good.

Toward the end I started just doing auditions casually, guest-star stuff, and the first recurring gig out of high school was on The Amanda Show on Nickelodeon. I did seven episodes of that. Doing Hamilton now, I still go out the stage door and there are people who either [recognize] me from “Moody’s Point,” which is the sub-series within [The Amanda Show] I did, or Stuck in the Suburbs, which is this Disney Channel Original Movie where I played a pop star. I’m literally all over the map. I did MTV’s Undressed.

I would say between all these gigs, in general, my career has been very slow and steady. I’ve been so fortunate to have made a living since I was 19 and [been able to pay] my way through life, which is a blessing. But [there are] definitely long years, two years, where I’ll do a pilot that nobody ever hears about, and then, thank god, I can file my tax returns and get a big return because they’ll take a lot off the top.

At the time when Mad TV came around, did it feel like both a new level for you, a new exciting opportunity, but also something you were equipped to do? Did you feel like you were qualified to do the job you expected to do?

Killam: Not at all. No, that was very flukish, and thrust me into the comedy world. I was always a good mimic and I could do impressions, and was always funny socially but not professionally. It just worked for whatever reason. They offered me this challenge and it was very scary. I was like, “No, wait. What? Maybe. No. I couldn’t! They wouldn’t! Should I try? Why not? What have I got to lose?”

So it worked. I was on for half a season, basically. I got to work with some of the funniest people to this day that I’ve ever met. Michael Hitchcock, who is a writer and on all of the Christopher Guest shows, really looked out for me. He was from Groundlings. Michael McDonald was the star of the show at that point. Stephnie Weir, Mo Collins. Will Sasso became a really good friend of mine and was brilliantly funny.

At the end of that season, they asked me back, but at a reduced contract. They wanted to renegotiate for less, because they were like, “We don't know what to do with you, and we’re pretty sure you don’t know what you’re doing.” Under the guidance of my reps at that point, I said no, but I loved doing it, sketch and the art form, so I starting taking classes at Groundlings.

There was a bit of a gap in 2010 when you came aboard SNL. What was the goal in those years in between? Did you have a game plan of where you saw yourself ending up?

Killam: SNL became the singular focus, for sure.

There’s exceptions, certainly, but was there a sense that Mad TV was like a pro or a con for folks at the time for getting to SNL?

Killam: Because of my age, and because of the length of time I was on it, I didn’t see it as much of a con. If anything, it opened the door to it being a possibility. It put it on my radar, as opposed to being a lifelong fan, which I was — I grew up watching it every weekend. It now became a reality. I always knew that if I were seen, if I had the chance to audition, I’d at least have a good shot. I was certainly not like, “I deserve to be on that show,” but I knew the odds were in my favor if I could be seen.

I’m sure you’ve told these stories a thousand times, but I’m curious [about] the SNL audition: What was your repertoire?

Killam: I did it, like, three times. The first year that they came, I did, like, 12 impressions and two original characters. Then they called me back two or three weeks later and said, “We want to see you again. We want new material.” So I did eight or nine different impressions and added an original, so three originals I had done for Groundlings. And then we got a “no, but you’re on our radar” behind the scenes, which I took with a grain of salt, and continued performing at Groundlings for the next year, and then they called me back the following session. All new stuff that time, too.

What were the go-to impressions at the time?

Killam: Brad Pitt has always been one that I’m very proud of, just because I don’t know anybody else who does one. So that was good. I had a Paul Giamatti that I did. At the time it was all very timely. Seth Rogen, I did one that's his laugh. I have a really bad Tom Hanks one. But I’m more interested in impressions you haven't seen before, if you can capture an essence of somebody that seems uncatchable.

It’s interesting, jumping ahead to when you’re a part of the cast. A lot of people fall into a type or a niche at SNL, in kind of a role that they play, and, to your benefit, I almost feel like you’ve had a few different incarnations. You could be the mimic, as you obviously have a great talent for impressions, but you can also be that plug-and-play guy that fits in most sketches.

Killam: Thank you. Yes. I’ve always pushed against and fought to not be any one thing, as someone in 12 Years a Slave and Stuck in the Suburbs can joke. The show itself definitely feels comfortable in assigning those roles to people, so as much as it allowed for me to do lots of different things, I think there was at times a struggle as well, in higher-ups wanting to define me and me feeling like I was something new. Something you can’t define by a singular trait or voice or talent.

Here’s a round of thought I’ve always had watching SNL. If I were on SNL, which would never happen because I don’t have that skill set, I would dread those last moments of the show where you say goodbye. It feels awkward to me. You’re clearly a people person, from the sound of what you talked about. I feel bad sometimes for the host. They don’t know what to do in the goodbye, they’re looking around for somebody. It feels like everything awkward about life encapsulated in 45 seconds to me.

Killam: Yeah, there’s a genuine fascination with that, I’ve found. Because I’ve always took that for granted and it seemed very celebratory and it seems casual.

I mean, how many times can you hug Bobby?

Killam: A lot. I’m far from done.

So that wasn’t on the list of your anxieties?

Killam: Oh god, no. The most anxious I got, or the most stressed or nervous I got, was for [“Weekend Update”]. I think it’s a similar tool to stand-up, which I tried once, and still am deathly afraid of, in that I have very little interest or drive to stand and address a crowd, breaking the fourth wall and saying, “Here is me!” I much prefer a character or a story or existing in an ensemble to create a show for an audience.

Over the course of your tenure there, were you surprised? Did you have a handle on the sort of things that went over well, in terms of what would resonate with the audience after the fact? In terms of the digital shorts, etc. ... some that really broke through in a big way. Does that tend to be the stuff that you believe in yourself? Or do you feel like there’s a disconnect between the audience and the stuff that actually becomes big?

Killam: I think there’s both. What happens over time is that you calibrate your success meter. The first time you have something on, you’re like, “That was great, it was on,” and the first time you get a really big laugh, you go, “Oh, OK, there’s the bar that’s where we’re shooting for.”

I get a lot of very nice feedback and love for things I was proud of and are very much of me. “Sloppy Swish” is one. “Glice” is another one people that people really liked, and those are specific and particular to me.

But then, people really liked the Matthew McConaughey, which Mikey Day and I wrote in, like, 20 minutes, because we had just seen the Oscars and were like, “This guy is a maniac.” I had been watching all of True Detective, and I really had those rhythms down, I thought. And that was so easy, and people loved it, which was wonderful and also infuriating, because you’re like, Why didn’t you love the thing I spent two days on? So yeah, it happens. Some of my favorite things that I ever saw on the show were sketches that Fred Armisen ran that never saw the light of day.

Fred was just in here a couple weeks ago. I mean, he’s a genius, obviously.

Killam: He is. He truly is.

So, you wrap up SNL this past year. This always happens when someone wraps up, whether it’s on their own time or not. You had a seven-year contract, you thought it would go another year. Looking back on the way it went down, do you have any bitterness or anger in terms of the way you found out, or the way it was handled?

Killam: No, not now. My feathers were ruffled. It more just comes out of life-planning. You know, I’m a family man. I’m from L.A. originally, so the fact that it happened quickly. But I also did not make it any secret that I was appreciative of my time there, and that I was excited to go back to a normal sleep schedule. Now I’m getting to do Broadway, which is still so crazy to me. It’s worked out very very much for my lifestyle, for my creative satisfaction.

I definitely want to talk to you about the film you wrote and directed. You were in the middle of that at the time, and something like Hamilton would not have been able to happen.

Killam: It’s literally as complicated as it could be, and I think that both sides are happier for it. You know what I mean? I think the show felt that it definitely needed to shake stuff up. And things changed for me personally when Seth [Meyers] left. Seth, for me, was somebody I really looked to and respected, and I think he’s doing most of the best late-night.

Yeah, he’s found his groove.

Killam: Yeah, he sure has. So the dynamics were shifting and changing. And I shot this Showtime pilot that was an opportunity that came up, and these were all factors that were weighed. And now I’m doing Hamilton.

Is it weird or too soon to watch the show right now?

Killam: I started the first couple of episodes, but I’m still seeing the behind-the-scenes, still seeing the wires and the social and political dynamics, as opposed to just the content itself. But if something really connects, then you know ... I thought Kate [McKinnon's] Kellyanne Conway Chicago piece was so good. Julio [Torres] wrote the “Fisher Price Wells for Boys,” which I think is one of the best things ever written for the show.

OK, let’s talk Hamilton for a second. How the hell did this happen? Was it something that you kind of let it be known that, “Hey, I could do that?” Or did they just come calling? What’s the genesis of this?

Killam: Column A and B. When I got to New York, musical theater was something I've loved my whole life, so I tried to get involved in the theater scene as much as my schedule allowed. So I would do 24-hour plays, I did 24-hour musicals a couple times, and started meeting really incredible and great people. One of those said people was Tommy Kail, director of Hamilton. He and I hit it off. It was a very fast and friendly relationship, built off of quoting the U.K. Office, and sharing our favorite soundbites from that. And [Lin-Manuel Miranda], both Cobie [Smulders, of How I Met Your Mother and The Avengers, and Killam's wife] and I kind of knew, because he would write music for How I Met Your Mother, and they would hire him to do musical pieces for them, so we had a relationship there.

They invited me to a bunch of rehearsals, and I think I went to two for, like, a couple of minutes. I was like, “Great! Yeah, this is awesome! I’m not really sure what’s happening. I have to go!” Had I but known. What a fascinating work of art, story, music, people, and team.

I was always kind of around and friendly with the creative team, and then had a little more free time. Then Tommy said, “I have to find a replacement for the king, is this something you’d consider doing?” and I said, “Yeah, man, I'll do nine-and-a-half minutes in a silly cape and crown!"

I would imagine you’re seeing an audience unlike any other. They know they've got the golden ticket. They’re seeing something very special. Can you equate it to the SNL experience in any way? It's obviously a much different environment.

Killam: There are absolutely parallels. Just being in New York, being live performing, being a hot ticket that’s hard to get, even if you’re a part of the show. There’s a sincere emotional connection, an earnest authenticity to the way people feel about Hamilton. The feeling of gratitude. And SNL draws people from all demos, ages, types, shapes, but there's a sort of dismissiveness ... you know, “Comedy! Funny! I like that character! Hey, catchphrase!” And this is, “I flew 9,000 miles from Australia and spent all the money I had because it was important to me to see this and experience this.” And “thank you” with tears in their eyes. It’s overwhelming. It really is. I’ve only been doing this three weeks now, and to be this small part of this huge show is overwhelming.

Is it tough or incumbent upon you to make this character your own and give it a little bit of your own twist, or no?

Killam: I mean, I’m still defining that because I’m so early in my run. The actor in me of course wants to go, “Well, I’m going to do all these new tricks,” but then you realize you also owe it to Lin’s work and his genius, and the genius of the creative team of Tommy and Andy [Blankenbuehler] the choreographer and all these people who have been living with it for years, and have explored a lot of these things already, and maybe have a more selfless, broader goal than just being the funniest person onstage, and see the bigger picture of tone and connective tissue between characters and moments.

And then, of the 1,300 people per night who see it, almost all of them have purchased the album and have been listening to it on repeat, so there’s an expectation of how things should sound. People absolutely sing along. So finding the balance, satisfying the ego of like, “I'm going to do something nobody else has done with this,” and also honoring this multi-Tony-award–winning, perfect piece of art is a balance.

I wanna hear about the film, Gunther.

Killam: It’s called Why We’re Killing Gunther, starring me, Bobby, some friends, and then as Gunther: introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pretty cool.

This is insane.

Killam: It was insane.

We bonded in the early run on pop-culture references, so I’m guessing he was an important part of your childhood, as he was mine.

Killam: Huge. The first rated-R movie I saw in theaters was Terminator 2. In the theater. Conan, Terminator. Commando, for me, is one of my faves. And Predator, obviously. Total Recall, Last Action Hero. I love it. Being a young boy with actual Arnold Schwarzenegger action figures, and the idea of him coming through the screen and being like, [Arnold Schwarzenegger impression] “You're the only one who can help me,” is full wish fulfillment.

So the Arnold experience. How do you direct Arnold Schwarzenegger? Does he take direction well?

Killam: Incredibly well. I mean, he was game for everything. He was prepared, on time. SNL is great, great training for dealing with different-size bodies of work, egos, all of these things. It was so easy, which is insane, because we had him doing a lot of funny, dumb stuff. He knew his lines, he was memorized, he brought his own ad-libs for different beats. It was truly a dream. It was really, really awesome.

We shot a week with him, because he’s the villain, and the premise is [that] it’s the world of hitmen, and we've shot it in a sort of mockumentary structure. So this group of up-and-comers, who want to establish themselves in the industry of assassins, hires a documentary crew at gunpoint to film them tracking down the most mysterious, infamous, well-known hitman, who is kind of monopolizing the industry. And they’re going to murder him on camera and use that as their calling card. It very quickly goes badly. It goes downhill for them pretty early on. He plays Gunther.

Was there, like, a list? Was it like Jean-Claude Van Damme types? Was it ’80s action heroes?

Killam: Literally, Arnold is the most perfect person. I approached it more like the people I’ve worked with on SNL, who I’ve at least spent a week with, and could put a name to a face and I think had a good experience. So we went to Bruce Willis, and he considered it for a while, but he was doing Misery on Broadway at the time and ended up saying no. But his reps represent Arnold. And they said, “Arnold is really looking to do something like this,” and I literally went, “Yeah right,” and they said, “No, no, we think he’d dig it.” And he did!