A chat with Jon Lovitz, Jon Lovitz interview, Casino Jack, Happiness, Saturday Night Live
Jon Lovitz

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Although Jon Lovitz is best known for his work as a comedian, his latest film, “Casino Jack,” (now on DVD) is about a serious subject: the decidedly scandalous adventures of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Fortunately, the film’s director, the late George Hickenlooper, decided to spin the Abramoff saga so as to play up the ridiculousness of the whole thing, thereby giving Lovitz a chance to shine in his role as businessman Adam Kinan.

Bullz-Eye had the chance to chat with Lovitz about how he came aboard “Casino Jack” and how much his performance owes to Hickenlooper’s work both behind the camera and in the editing bay. We also found time to ask Lovitz about an often-forgotten musical performance with Robbie Williams, had him reflect on a rare dramatic performance (“Happiness”), and found out which unaired “Saturday Night Live” sketch he remembers most fondly

Bullz-Eye: I was able to catch “Casino Jack” at the Virginia Film Festival last year and really enjoyed it…though, of course, there was somewhat of a pall over the proceedings because it was almost immediately after (director) George Hickenlooper had died.

Jon Lovitz: I know. And he really made the movie. I mean, of course, the director makes the movie, but I thought he did a terrific job. The whole cast loved him, and…he was very, very bright, and very humble and grateful that we were in his movie. He just created an atmosphere where you could really do your best work, and he really helped you with that. (Hesitates) I don’t know, it just felt great. It felt like we were making a special movie as we were making it, between his enthusiasm and Kevin Spacey’s enthusiasm. Kevin was like that, too, just very generous to all of us. It was just really fun to work on. It’s one of those rare movies where the whole lot of the cast became friends. Everybody. We hung out during the movie and after. I became good friends with George, and his death…well, it was just horrible, really.

BE: How did you find your way into the film? I mean, it’s not a drama, per se, but it’s still about a decidedly serious topic.

"Kevin Spacey recommended me (for 'Casino Jack'). He and George (Hickenlooper) talked about it. You know, they were looking at different actors, and then I can’t say who it was, but one guy they were thinking about, he might not have been available, so when that changed, George told me that Kevin said, 'Look, let’s just get Lovitz.'"

JL: Well, Kevin Spacey recommended me. I’ve known Kevin for years, and he and George talked about it. You know, they were looking at different actors, and then they decided to… (Hesitates) I can’t say who it was, but one guy they were thinking about, he might not have been available, so when that changed, George told me that Kevin said, “Look, let’s just get Lovitz.” (Laughs) So it was kind of luck. I read the script, and I thought it was okay, but I thought, “Well, this is different, and it’s a political movie.” And I didn’t know who George was, but I spoke to him on the phone and he was really nice. He asked how I wanted to play the part, and he said, “That’s great.” And even though I didn’t know who he was, I thought, “Well, if he’s good enough for Kevin, he’s good enough for me, ‘cause Kevin’s really smart.” And then when I heard that he’d made “Hearts of Darkness,” the documentary about “Apocalypse Now”…I mean, that thing was amazing. Anyway, I had a really great time making it. And the other thing was, George kept saying, “You’re so great in the movie!” And I said, “Well, George, you’re the one who left in all my scenes!” (Laughs) I was just grateful that he did that. I mean, you’re trying to create a character, and you shoot all the scenes, but they don’t always leave them all in. So I was very grateful that he did that.

BE: How much leeway did he allow you to do improv for your character?

JL: Well, it was all written. The thing at the end, where the FBI comes and then I say, “Come on in, fellas,” and then I run out…? That I made up. I mean, it was in the script as the FBI coming and I say so-and-so and just leave, but I said, “George, can I try something? I have a funny idea.” And I told him what it was, and he goes, “Well, I don’t know…” And I go, “Just do one take! Just try it!” So I kind of helped set up the shot, and we did it, and everybody was laughing and it looked pretty funny. So he says, “Okay, but let’s have the guys chase you sooner.” And he ended up using it in the movie. But Norm Schneider wrote the script, and…the only line I added was toward the end, when I’m yelling at Kevin, and I go, “You fake Jew!” (Laughs)

BE: Did you have any interest in researching your character, since he was a real person, or did you just decide to take what was in the script and run with it?

Jon LovitzJL: I had an interest, but there was hardly anything on the guy, so I just played the script. There were, like, two pictures of him on the internet, I think one quote of him talking, and a video of him walking from far away. So I used that, but mostly I just used the script. Because you have to play the script, anyway, you know? Whereas George met with Jack Abranoff, and then Kevin went and met him, so from those meetings, they realized…they go, “Well, this is not the guy they write about in the press. He’s funny, he’s charming, he does impressions…” So they changed the script and put that in…which is funny because a lot of the reviews go, “Spacey’s doing these impressions, and he’s doing this and doing that, and the way he’s playing him…” And it’s, like, well, that’s how the guy is! They didn’t just make it up. That’s how the guy is!

BE: I wanted to ask you a couple of quick questions about some other projects. First of all, I’m a big fan of Robbie Williams’ Swing When You’re Winning album, and I was curious how you came to duet with him on “Well, Did You Evah”?

JL: A friend of mine, Lisa Marie Elwes…she happened to be married to Cary Elwes, the actor, and I’m friends with him…her sister-in-law is English, you know, and was friends with Robbie Williams, and she was into photography, so Robbie hired Lisa Marie to photograph a video he was shooting in…I think it was the south of France. And he was talking to her about that album, and he said to her, “Who should I get to sing this song?” And she said, “You have to use my friend Jon Lovitz!” So she totally got me the job. And she called me and said, “I got you the best job!” ‘Cause I love to sing, and she knew that. So she told me, and I’m, like, “Oh, my God!” And then I go, “Well, who is he? Is he big?” I’d never heard of him! She goes, “Big? He’s, like, the biggest rock star in Europe! He’s huge!” And then I met him, and we really hit it off, and he was super nice. And his father’s a comedian, so we had that in common, and…he’s a very nice guy. Very charming, very fun…and very vulnerable. And you can see why he’s so popular. He’s really talented. And so we did the song, and then he said, “Hey, we’re going to do a show at the Royal Albert Hall. Do you want to do it?” And I’m, like, “Hell, yes!”

BE: (Laughs) I’ve got that DVD, actually.

JL: Yeah, it was really fun! And he couldn’t have been nicer. So, yeah, Lisa Marie got me that job.

BE: My stock question for anyone who’s been on “SNL” is if you’ve got a favorite sketch that didn’t actually make it on the air that you still remember fondly.

On singing with Robbie Williams: "(Lisa Marie Elwes) called me and said, 'I got you the best job!' ‘Cause I love to sing, and she knew that. So she told me, and I’m, like, 'Oh, my God!' And then I go, 'Well, who is he? Is he big?' I’d never heard of him! She goes, 'Big? He’s, like, the biggest rock star in Europe! He’s huge!' And so we did the song, and then he said, 'Hey, we’re going to do a show at the Royal Albert Hall. Do you want to do it?' And I’m, like, 'Hell, yes!'"

JL: Well, there was one sketch…I did it with a bunch of different people, but I’d done it in the Groundlings theater. Actually, Tim Stack, who starred on that show “Son of the Beach,” he used to do a character in the Groundlings who was a soldier in World War II explaining how he wound up in the war. And I was in their B-company at first, but when I got into their main company, I was friends with Tim, and he said, “Do you want to do it with me?” So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So we wrote a speech and…well, anyway, you know how in so many movies you’ve got, like, Dana Andrews or Charlton Heston going, “Oh, my God…” It was a sketch about that, where it was in World War II, and stuff kept happening, and I kept going, “Oh, my God…” And he would tell a soldier how he ended up in the war, and then he’s say, “And now I’m here.” And…say the other soldier’s name was Goldstein. Someone would say, “Goldstein’s dead!” And I’d say to Goldstein, “What? Oh, my God. You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!” Or the character would say, “I think I like you.” And I’d say, “I like you, too.” And he’d say, “No, I really like you.” “You mean…? “Yes.” “Oh, my God…” So it was a spoof of that. It’s funny, but I actually met Dana Andrews’ granddaughter, just coincidentally, when I was somewhere with friends and they said, “This is so-and-so, Dana Andrews’ granddaughter.” And I go, “You’re kidding! I did this thing about your grandfather! Do you want to hear it?” She goes, “Yeah!” So I did it for her, and she was dying laughing. She was, like, “That’s him, that’s him!” And I said, “Did he really talk like that?” And she said, “Yes! He really did!” (Laughs) So that was funny. But, anyway, when they put together my “Best of ‘SNL’” disc, I think it’s on there, from, like, a dress rehearsal or something. But Lorne (Michaels) just wouldn’t put it on. I don’t know why.

BE: On a related note, I’m putting together a piece of the best dramatic performances by “SNL” alumni, which will definitely include your role in “Happiness.” I was just curious how you came to be a part of the film and what your recollections were of the experience.

Jon LovitzJL: Well, Todd Solondz, who wrote and directed it, I met with him, and we just talked about it. He said, “Well, I think you could do it.” But he was considering me for the part that…I think it was the part that Philip Seymour Hoffman played. And then I didn’t hear anything for, like, five months, and then he wanted me to play Andy. So he cast me in that role, and I worked on it for a day, and it was just myself and Jane Adams and him, and…you know, he wrote a great scene, and he’s really smart and bright, and it was… (Hesitates) When I met him, I said, “I really want to play it real,” because a lot of times I’ll get a movie, and they’ll go, “Can you do that thing where you’re, like, bigger than life?” And I go, “All right…” But I wanted to do it like a real guy, and he let me do that. And it was a hard scene, because it was really emotional, so I was crying for, like, twelve hours. It was tough. But it was great working with him. He’s very funny, too. He has a very dry sense of humor. He was terrific, though. He really knew what he wanted, and it felt like you were in the hands of a great filmmaker. He was just terrific, and I enjoyed it very much. And Jane was great to work with, too. It was cool.

BE: I know we’re up against the wall, so I’ll start wrapping up. What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JL: “Mom and Dad Save the World,” which I did right after I left “Saturday Night Live.” Actually, I left “Saturday Night Live” to do that movie, and I had a blast doing it. I had a great role, and I got to be really funny, but unfortunately it was… (Hesitates) They kind of took the edgy jokes out, and it came out two years later for, like, a week. But the people that have seen it, they really love it. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve done. One of the guys who wrote it, Ed Solomon, wrote “Men in Black,” among other things. It was a great script, but…you just never know. Even if a movie’s great, they’ve got to release it right, and they don’t always do. So, yeah, that would be the one I’d say.

BE: Lastly, how’s the stand-up experience been for you? I know you did a tour awhile back.

JL: I’m doing it year round now. The tour was about seven years ago, I guess, where I was kind of learning how to do it, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I have my own comedy club, The Jon Lovitz Comedy Club, on the Universal City Walk, and I do my own show there every Saturday. And lately Kevin Smith, the director, he does these podcasts, and he’s been doing them at our club on Fridays. He’s done two there so far, and he’s going to be doing more. And Adam Carolla has also been doing his podcast from there, too, on Thursdays. So we’ve been adding those to the club, and it’s been very exciting. People seem to be really excited about it, and they’ve been flocking to the club to see these things…which I’m excited about! (Laughs)

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