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Bill Burr Talks About Growing a Mustache and Learning How to Act

The comedian chats about his recently released projects, ‘The King of Staten Island’ and the new season of ‘F Is For Family’

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Bill Burr isn’t quite sure how he got to this point in his acting career. Well, that’s not quite true. He credits Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan for giving him a chance and casting him as lovable utility henchman Patrick Kuby in the series; if that hadn’t happened, Burr isn’t sure he’d be acting at all. But he is acting, and the longtime stand-up comedian has kept right on doing it for some seven years after last working with Gilligan.

Last Friday, two of Burr’s latest endeavors debuted. He’s in the new Judd Apatow movie The King of Staten Island, along with Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, and Steve Buscemi, among others. The fourth season of his animated comedy F is for Family dropped, too. Burr was particularly excited about welcoming his old Breaking Bad buddy, Jonathan Banks, to the cast. A few weeks ago, in advance of those respective releases, I spoke with Burr about trying to improve as an actor, the importance of using sunscreen on set, the value of growing a proper mustache for your character and—independent of those things, but just as crucially—Tom Brady splitting his pants on national television in a moment that seems like a lifetime ago.

You want to start with The King of Staten Island?

Sure.

Looks funny. I’m excited to see it …

Looks all right. I like the lighting.

In addition to being a comedy, it also has some heavy material. In the movie, Pete’s dad died in an accident and you’re playing the dude who replaces Pete’s dad. It feels like quite the Judd Apatow balancing act.

They didn’t do it literally—I don’t want to give away anything. If you watch the movie, it’s loosely based on Pete’s life. They did keep that aspect that, obviously, his dad died in a fire is how they have it. But yeah, heavy stuff.

The role seems like it has some nuance to it. How do you feel about your performance?

Well, we’ll see. People got to go watch it. It was a lot of fun. I got to work with all these great actors. Steve Buscemi. Marisa Tomei. Dom Lombardozzi. There were some real heavy hitters in every scene. And then a ton of improv going on and stuff. What I remember about the whole shoot, it was just fun. You just kind of went to work and you had fun. It was what was on the page, and then what people added to it, and what it became. It was a real creative process. There were some younger guys in it that just blew me away—Ricky Velez and them. Pete’s friends and them, I loved what they did.

Fun-stuff wise, I particularly like in the trailer when you essentially suplex Pete into the above-ground pool. How many takes did you do? That’s some serious pro wrestling maneuvering by you.

With a little help, too. I don’t know. What I do remember from that day is I cooked the top of my head. The umbrella they gave us, we thought it blocked UV rays. It didn’t. It just blocked the rain—and it wasn’t raining. It was sunny. My head was medium-well by the end of the day.

How do you normally like your head—medium-rare? A little less cooked?

I like it rare. Actually, it was red like it was rare so it’s probably a bad analogy. I have learned my lesson time and time again about the sun. The sun does not dig me. The sun is bigger than me so I stay out of it. Then you get those awful old-man age spots on top of your fucking head. It’s hilarious that I would never do hair plugs but I would absolutely, if there was some sort of tattoo removal for old-age spots if I ever get them, those things are gonna be gone the second they ever show up.

It’s probably a better look for you without the cooked head and old-age spots. I also liked the monster mustache you had in the film. Was that real?

Yes.

Very impressive. Are you still rocking it?

No. That thing had its own zip code. It was a lot. My tour manager, Club Soda Kenny, he’s a former cop. He told me, “You gotta make sure the hair comes down over the top lip.” Eating with one of those things—as much fun as I had, I remember calling Judd going, “Judd, I’m gonna shave this thing. Are we good? Are we good?” He goes, “Shave away.” I think I did it live on Instagram. I made a video. I was just so psyched to get rid of it … It was a whole other movie with that mustache.

Great character work by you. You said on The Rich Eisen Show that Staten Island reminded you of where you grew up. Did you see the video—it was recent—of people in Staten Island wearing masks chasing the non-mask-wearers out of the supermarket?

No, I didn’t.

The only reason I brought it up was because you mentioned Staten Island and also because my buddy from New York tweeted that when he scanned the words “Staten Island,” “masks,” “drive out,” and “grocery store,” that is not how he expected it to go. He was very proud of the Staten Island people.

It’s obviously a strange time. And then to go beyond that, you know, people with no medical degrees, on both sides, telling people what is and isn’t safe. And everyone wants to be right. And everyone wants to say that the Center for Disease Control somehow hasn’t figured this thing out the way they have, without being in a lab. When someone talks to me, unless there’s a medical degree right over their shoulder hanging on a wall with their name on it, I just go “Oh, is that what I’m supposed to do? Oh, OK.” I don’t listen to any of it. I just listen to [the CDC]. Whatever they say to do, that’s what I’m gonna do.

You have other stuff coming out—a new season of F is for Family comes out on Netflix the same day as The King of Staten Island is available on demand.

Yes, it does. We welcome Jonathan Banks this season. He plays Frank Murphy’s dad. I had a ball going into the studio with him. I got to know him back on the Breaking Bad days. We were so thrilled he said yes. He’s one of the great people. It was so much fun to work with him. Netflix lets us do whatever we want. So we have another crazy season.

It looks wild. In the trailer, Frank describes his dad as “the worst fucking father in the world” and also tells him to “walk off a fucking cliff.” That’s fun for the whole family.

[Banks] would read some of the dialogue and say, “Oh my God. This guy is horrible.” And then, action, he would just become the guy. It was incredible to watch. It was surreal. You have to understand, I have been a fan of Jonathan Banks since Beverly Hills Cop. He plays the guy who whacks Axel Foley’s friend in the beginning of the movie—which makes Axel Foley go out and meet Victor Maitland and all of that. In fact, when we were working on one of the episodes of Breaking Bad, when we robbed the train, I remember asking him about that. He was telling me the whole story of working on that movie and what it was like to be around Eddie [Murphy]. Eddie Murphy is one of the biggest things ever to come through Hollywood. [Banks] had a lot of great, great stories about watching Eddie improvising. It was cool. I got to work with this great actor and he was telling me these cool stories about one of the best stand-up comics ever.

That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. I’m always interested in stand-ups who make the jump to acting. How do you feel that transition has gone for you, and what kind of actor do you think you’ve become?

Um … I hope I’m getting better. Anybody who grew up watching movies wanted to be in one. But stand-up was the thing I was really drawn to. And through stand-up, I remember early on people saying, “You better learn how to act because you’re only new to Hollywood one time.” So if they see you at a festival and they want to try to build a sitcom around you, which is what they did back then, you better know how to act. So I started taking acting classes. It wasn’t until I got better at stand-up that I tried to get better at acting.

When was that? Do you remember a specific moment?

I did a movie with [director] Mike Binder called Black or White. I had a really cool role and Mike gave me the freedom to try a lot of different things. I was in a courtroom playing a lawyer and I was opposite Anthony Mackie and it was just electrifying to watch him do his thing. That was the time when I remember thinking, “How does what I want to do fit into the whole thing of this? The whole movie. What Anthony is doing. How can I do something cool that’s different from what he’s doing and that will also complement how you would really be in the scene and how I want to really win this case?”

What was the process for what you came up with?

Anthony was doing this amazing performance where he was using the whole courtroom. And it’s like, if I go up and do that, Mike, the director, is gonna have two of the same performance, and then I’m not gonna do it as well—I’m just gonna look like a poor man’s Anthony. So what would I do in real life? In real life, if I’m against a lawyer and they’re going all over the courtroom and all that, I would do the exact opposite. The choice that I made was that I would be really still, hoping that it would make it seem that we had a really solid case. It’s kind of like, if you look at a used car salesman, they’re always flapping their arms—“Come on down, hurry up, I got another guy looking at the car in 10 minutes.” They don’t do that at a Porsche dealer because they’re selling a Porsche. So I looked at it like, I’m not selling a fucking hooptie here, I’m selling a Porsche. That’s what I would have done in real life. That would have been my vibe to try to sway the judge.

Did you approach acting differently after that?

I wasn’t comfortable, 100 percent, with acting back then. I’m not saying I am now. I used to just look at the scenes my character was in and I would just do the scene. I wouldn’t be looking at the sum of all their parts and the arc of the whole thing. I think it’s because I had so much anxiety.

I learned so much from working with Marisa [Tomei]. She was doing so much stuff that I didn’t understand until I watched a cut of the movie. And then I watched how it all fit in with the whole performance. I learned so much from getting to work with her. Dom Lombardozzi and Steve Buscemi and guys like that, they can just do the smallest little thing. And they have that thing where they just disappear. Like the first time I was on set and Marisa had the glasses on and they gave her that haircut, she was gone. I did a double take. Like, where did she go?

I am obviously not an actor and have zero understanding of the actual execution of the craft, but the disappearing thing where I don’t see the actor and instead see the character always feels like a magic trick.

I feel like acting doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I think everyone feels like they can do it. What happens sometimes is people go into it and they play themselves. It’s like a basketball player in a movie and he plays a basketball player. Real acting, whatever the hell you are, before you research the role, you’ve never even read about it. And then when you do the performance, people that actually have that job or live that life walk away going, “There’s no way that guy isn’t a sea captain. There’s no way that guy wasn’t in a gang. There’s no way that guy didn’t go to prison. There’s no way that guy wasn’t in the military.” The great ones can do that.

Doing that is way, way, way, way, way different. Some of the people I admire, each character they play has a different walk. And I’m thinking “Yeah, it should.”

You’re talking like an actor. How close do you think you are to walking like one?

Jesus Christ. Every character I ever played walked the same way I did … In [The King of Staten Island] I made [my character] eat right handed, which was different from what I do. The way I carried flowers into the hospital, I felt, was the way this guy would carry them. I started thinking more like that. I have a long, long, long, long way to go.

It’s that fucked up thing in life of making something happen because you’re not trying to make it happen. You take a step toward it and it takes a step back. But then you start walking away and it comes toward you. It’s fucked. It’s like a cat. You try to pet a cat and it walks away. You don’t give a fuck and it’s up on your fucking shoulder.

Hey, I have time for one more, dude. I have a Zoom thing I have to do.

No worries. Well if you only have time for one more, then I have to ask you about your guy Tom Brady splitting his pants while playing golf.

I didn’t know he split his pants. I’m sure a lot of people who aren’t even remotely living his life enjoyed that.

I enjoyed that almost as much as watching him drop that pass in the Super Bowl. It was a great day for me.

You know what I love about that Super Bowl? I love how we [the Patriots] called that play, and it didn’t work, and then you guys [the Eagles] called that play and Cris Collinsworth acted like he hadn’t seen that play since the 1950s. [Cris Collinsworth voice.] “That’s like an all-time play. Where’d they pull that one out of?” Well, we did it in the first half.

I loved that part, and also the result. It was a good day all around.

My take on that day was nobody on either defense should have gotten a ring for that game. When the punter is just sitting there scrolling through his fucking emails for three, four hours, I mean it was ridiculous. That was the weirdest game. But I was really happy for you guys. As a Boston fan, we sucked for so long. I always loved watching the [New York] Rangers winning it in [1994]. The Twins winning a World Series [in 1991]. The Blue Jays as Canada’s first thing. I love seeing that shit, breaking curses. I always used to think, “That’s what the fuck it’s gonna feel like when we finally do it.” So seeing the Eagles win their fourth title—because I count NFL titles. You won in ’48, ’49 and ’60.

On behalf of Philly, we appreciate you counting all those.

Yeah. The fact that the Patriots won six and now they look like they’re the fucking Yankees is stupid because the Green Bay Packers won like nine titles and four Super Bowls, so they have 13 rings. So they threw the first nine out the window? And the fucking Lakers count a BAA title? They somehow won an NBA title before the NBA existed. It’s fucking crazy. Actually, the guy who told me that, I have to go now and do his show—I’m doing Bill Simmons.