Justin Long is not a dick but he plays one onstage.
In Do You Feel Anger?, Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s surrealist comedy now off-Broadway, an empathy coach attempts to enlighten a debt collection agency terrorized by toxic heterosexual masculinity. Long stars as Howie, an ignorant sleaze who’s dangerously out of touch with his feelings.
The 40-year-old Bernie backer, who also stars in the animated Netflix sitcom F Is for Family and upcoming BBC/Netflix series Giri/Haji, tells NewNowNext how it feels to play a predator—and revive his most memorable gay character after more than a decade.
Justin Long, you are my second favorite J.Lo.
Behind who? [Laughs] Jennifer Lopez and I used to have the same manager, actually. She was obviously the bigger client, so I’d call his office and say, “It’s J.Lo calling.” They’d get really excited, and I could register the disappointment in my manager’s voice when he realized it was me.
Do You Feel Anger? angered me. Thanks for the reminder that straight men are the worst.
As if we needed it, right?
Howie’s dominant personality trait is his terrible temper. Why did you want to play him?
The play is dark but I immediately reacted to how funny it is. I liked the idea of exploring someone who has such lack of control, someone who’s never learned how to properly process his feelings and emotions. I saw it as a potentially fun challenge. There’s something primal about him. It’s almost like playing a baby.
The story couldn’t be timelier.
It’s been so satisfying to participate in this play because it examines gender dynamics in the workplace in such a clear and bold way. It’s been provoking such interesting conversations that, whether people like it or not, have been an honor to help bring to life. As an actor, I don’t hold what I do in high esteem, but it’s so rewarding to use that skill to help tell stories that contribute to the long-overdue conversation that’s happening now in our culture.
You’ve made a career out of playing likable, self-effacing guys in movies like Herbie: Fully Loaded, Drag Me to Hell, and He’s Just Not That Into You. Howie is offensive and menacing. Is it tough getting into that headspace?
There’s something almost therapeutic about it. Have you heard of these clubs where people can go break things? I imagine that’s a similar feeling of relief. It’s not really cathartic, but I’m sort of letting go of darkness that, as a guy, I try to manage. Luckily, I don’t think my well of darkness is that deep.
You strike me as one of the nicest guys in show business. But what have you learned as a straight male actor working in the #MeToo era?
First of all, that’s nice of you to say. I suppose I’ve become more aware, and it’s made me ask a lot more questions. I’ve been working in this business for 20 years, so I’ve definitely witnessed a lot of that darkness. But I’ve always tried to treat everyone with respect, and I’ve always looked up to those who comport themselves that way. I’ve never been intrigued or charmed by men who wield their power in a shitty way.
We shouldn’t blast straight dudes as if gay men have been excluded from the #MeToo conversation.
Yeah, there’s a whole spectrum of toxicity out there.
What was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?
My mom is an actress and she was very involved in local theater when my brothers and I were growing up. Both of my parents’ had gay friends, actually, so that was never foreign to me, and I never thought about being gay as different or wrong. I guess I was lucky for a kid from suburban Connecticut. It’s when something is seen as different that fear and prejudice creeps in.
You played gay porn star Brandon St. Randy in Kevin Smith’s 2008 comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. I genuinely consider him one of the funniest gay characters in modern cinema.
That’s very flattering. I’d met Kevin on Live Free or Die Hard and he asked me to do it. It’s a ridiculous character, a little broad, but he’s also based on people I’ve known. A friend of mine was dating a guy who did gay porn, and every time my friend left the room, this guy would assert his sexuality. He presented himself in a very butch way, but as he got more inebriated, his more feminine traits would come out. I found it so interesting and a little sad that this guy couldn’t be himself unless he was drunk, and I tried to incorporate that into my character. I also based him on another guy I knew who was like a 7 on the Kinsey Scale. He was disgusted by the thought of touching a woman, and the idea of vaginas just repulsed him.
Brandon St. Randy is the star of films like You Better Shut Your Mouth or I’m Gonna Fuck It.
I had another friend who might’ve been the only straight waiter at the Viceroy in Chelsea, and the staff was very protective of him. He’d tell me great stories about these big muscular guys who would come in and flirt with each other in a really macho, aggressive, almost hostile way. He once overheard a guy say to his partner, “You better shut your mouth or I’m gonna kiss it!” We found that sexual expression so fascinating, because we obviously don’t talk to girls that way. That type of guy was also in my head for the character, and it was fun to explore that.
Superman Returns hunk Brandon Routh played your boyfriend. That must’ve been an ego boost.
Yeah! Brandon Routh really is like Clark Kent. He’s even from Iowa. When we were riffing in the scene where we’re fighting and make up, I remember leaning up to kiss him, and he sort of turned his head a bit, like maybe he wasn’t expecting it. I was recovering from the flu, so I later apologized and said, “Brandon, I’m sorry I kissed you on the mouth.” He was like, “Oh, no, we’re playing boyfriends, it’s for the scene.” I was like, “What? No, because I’m sick!” Then he got all cocky, like, “I never get sick. I haven’t been sick in years.” I later ran into Brandon and his wife, and she told me that when he came home from shooting Zack and Miri, he was so sick. I had this weird burst of pride that I had made Superman ill. I was his Kryptonite!
Were you conscious of representing the gay community respectfully?
I’d never want to play a gay character that was perceived as disrespectful or as a stereotype. I try to ground my characters in truth as much as possible, and the best way I know how to do that is by finding and imitating the traits of real people.
Like when you played Jesse, the gay best friend in For a Good Time, Call…, didn’t you model his mannerisms after gay director Jamie Travis?
That’s right. I respected Jamie and I respected that character. I loved playing him. I’d played “best friend” parts before and didn’t want to do the same shtick. Jamie had such a sweet, thoughtful way about him, so that’s what I tried to emulate. Every time he’d give me any direction, I’d be studying him and listening to his voice. But when you can present any character in a sympathetic, understanding light, I think that’s respectful.
I assume that Christopher, the enthusiastic gallery assistant you played in The Break-Up, was also gay.
[Laughs] Oh, what makes you say that?
There’s increasing pressure on Hollywood to cast LGBTQ actors in LGBTQ roles. What’s your take?
I don’t know. I’m not quite sure what the rules are now. Like, I’m asking you.
The rules are unclear. It’s an evolving conversation.
I just revisited my Zack and Miri character for another Kevin Smith movie, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It was such a blast, but it did get me thinking. I’ve met a lot of gay people who have been very supportive of my work, which means a lot to me, and people occasionally quote that character’s lines to me, so they seem to really like him. But 10 years later, I wondered if it was okay that I was playing a gay role when I’m not gay myself. And is it an issue that this gay character is sexually aggressive? Is that appropriate?
The internet will let you know.
Yeah. I was recently watching that Seinfeld episode where the reporter thinks Jerry and George are gay—“not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It’s a classic, but I wondered if that episode could be made now.
The homophobic humor in your 2005 comedy Waiting… wouldn’t fly today. There’s a running gag where waiters make guys look at their junk and then “ridicule them mercilessly for being a fag.”
I rewatched that on TV recently and thought the same thing. I hadn’t seen it in so long, and yeah, it’s aged poorly. That movie wouldn’t and shouldn’t get made today. But I had to say the word “fag” in Idiocracy, and that’s one of the best scripts I’d ever read. It’s a satire about a future where people get dumber and dumber, and my character was so ignorant. I think putting a word like that in the mouth of an obvious moron can actually be an effective way to highlight how stupid and offensive that word is, but it’s tricky line to walk.
You and Mike White played husbands in a 2010 PSA for the Make Homosexuals Marry campaign, supporting the repeal of Prop 8. Why did you want to be a part of that?
There should be a real sense of national shame that it took so long for us to have marriage equality. I’ve always had loving relationships with members of the LGBTQ community, so it became that much more apparent that there were strong, financially motivated forces preventing those changes from happening. Acting brings me joy, and I take pride when people find joy in what I do, but I don’t consider it very important. So when I’m asked to do something with my acting or my reach that I do feel is important, I’m very eager to do it. It’s fulfilling and gratifying.
You also use Twitter to promote the many causes and politicians you support.
Yeah, I’m a huge supporter of Bernie Sanders. I find him very authentic and earnest.
Is Pete Buttigieg on your radar?
Sure, he’s fantastic, but I don’t know too much about him. I’m also a huge fan of Tulsi Gabbard. I know she’s had a sketchy record when it comes to LGBTQ issues, but I appreciated how forthcoming and self-reflective she was in her apology and explanation of why she’d had those prejudices. I think that should be encouraged. I’m troubled in this culture when people are so filled with outrage that they’re unable to hear an apology for past behaviors or have a discussion about how we can evolve.
Well, you’ll never hear me apologize for my endless love of Crossroads.
Wow. That is a deep cut. I actually got a request at the theater the other day from somebody who wanted me to sign a photo from Crossroads of me in bed with Britney.
I have nice memories of that time, but I don’t often go back and look at pictures that old. I couldn’t believe how pale I was. I look like a little larva.
Thanks for that autograph, J.Lo.
[Laughs] No problem.
Do You Feel Anger? runs through April 27 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York.