Wayne Knight is the definition of a journeyman actor. Yes, Wayne Knight. Forever known as Newman from Seinfeld (a fate he’s cheerfully embraced), his contributions across the landscapes of both film and television have at times been overlooked. Regardless, this is a man with some serious acting cred.
First appearing on film in 1979, Knight went on establish himself as a go-to character actor whose distinctive look and short stature has allowed him to sidle up and bring life to a variety of contrasting roles. From Dirty Dancing to Jurassic Park, JFK to Punisher: War Zone, Wayne Knight, humble as he may be, still manages to bring a fresh and distinctive approach to his work.
In between film work, dude stayed busy making television history on Seinfeld and popped in from time to time as Kristen Johnston’s love interest, Officer Don, on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Now he finds himself returning to television fulltime in the form of divorcee Haskell Lutz on The Exes (Wednesdays at 10:30PM / 9:30 C), the latest offering in TV Land’s continued sitcom revival. Sitcoms have seen a comeback in recent years, revived amidst a deluge of reality shows and late night procedurals. As Mr. Knight will tell you, this artform won’t be dying on his watch.
Tim: You’re known primarily for your work on television with Seinfeld and 3rd Rock, and yet you’ve also put your stamp on the world of cinema with work in classics like Dirty Dancing, Jurassic Park and a personal favorite of mine: Punisher: War Zone.
Wayne Knight: That tells me a lot about you, Tim.
Tim: I wish they made ten of those and were currently in production on the eleventh. Hey, I’m of the opinion that the violence and debauchery found in Punisher should only ever flourish in one place – on film.
WK: Well, I suppose that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Tim: So back on point, how different is working on a three-camera sitcom versus acting in a film?
WK: Really, it’s about tone and concentration. They’re both different in their own way and present different challenges. On a sitcom, you are pretty result oriented. You’re looking for the joke. You’ve got 22 minutes to tell the story and the story is peppered with things that are meant to be funny. So finding the funny is paramount.
And in film, you’re telling a long story. So you are trying to approach human behavior and not try to telegraph what you’re doing but experience it. So one is more thinking what you’re doing while the other one is a very active process. A sitcom is more active.
Tim: On set are you ever tempted to whip out “Hey people, I was directed by Steven Spielberg”?
WK: (laughs) Ah, no. Because to me it hasn’t done me a lot of good! Spielberg calls and says “Do you want to be in this movie?”, and then [later] you find yourself auditioning for an independent film for a guy who’s never directed before. So that’s just the nature of the business. Basically you’re a commodity. Your stock is up one day and down the next. And that’s the way it goes.
Tim: You’ve also done a lot of voice work throughout your career. Do people ever recognize your voice as that of the Toy Collector from Toy Story 2?
WK: The thing about that that was kind of upsetting was everybody said “Well, they wrote that Al McWiggin and it’s just you!”
I’m like, “No it’s not! [laughs] He’s a character!” But because the guy was fat and he had a goatee, at the time I had a goatee… whatever. But in general I don’t get a lot of that. People do recognize my voice in a line or in a grocery store or whatever. But it can be any number of things. I haven’t gotten a lot of McWiggin though.
Tim: That’s still insanely cool though.
I think about two years ago you appeared in the table read episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s “Seinfeld Reunion” season. Was that a surreal experience being back with that cast, given all the history?
WK: You know it is and it isn’t. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of television history. There’s good and bad to it in the sense that you just can’t shake it [laughs]. It is who you’re going to be for the rest of time and there are benefits and downsides to it.
But to get back together, and back together on the same soundstage where we had done the show originally at CBS Radford, was pretty amazing. You look around and all the writers are there. Some stand-ins who were there that were involved – so it was a true reunion in that regard. It was pretty cool.
Tim: So now you’re on The Exes on TV Land. Was there any trepidation to returning to a sitcom or is this a comfortable fit for you as an actor now?
WK: The thing about sitcoms is two-fold: I’m really glad TV Land is keeping the form alive.
There was a period of time when the majority of the shows on major networks were reality shows or hour-long, dramatic police procedurals. You know, there just weren’t any sitcoms, they were kind of going away like vaudeville. Like “Is it done? Is it over?”
I don’t think it is. As a form, especially in times like this when the economy sucks and you don’t see a lot of great stuff on the horizon, people like to laugh. Finding a place where you can do that again, without a lot of social impact, I think is good. I like doing it and it lends itself to a decent lifestyle. You go, you go to work, you come home, you’re not on location, and you’re nearby. It’s very impressive. It’s kind of like stealing! [laughs]
Tim: [laughing] A little bit, I’d imagine!
WK: I enjoy it. You just crack open a safe, you go home, it’s really nice.
Tim: Your character Haskell Lutz strikes me as a cynical guy, but also different in a way from the other cynical characters you’ve played. When you’re creating a new character are you ever informed by past roles? Do you ever come up with a mannerism and go “No, this is too Newman,” or “This is too Dennis from Jurassic Park“?
WK: Well, what it is is a complete lack of versatility that informs most of the work that I do.
WK: Aside from that, I think that finding the tone on this guy… When it (The Exes) starts, you know that he’s a couch potato and you know that he’s into gadgets and the web and electronics. You don’t know a lot about him. And as time goes on, writers discover stuff in what I play, I discover stuff in what is written – then the character just evolves. You get an idea of what makes the guy tick and what’s particularly funny about him and what’s particularly truthful about him.
What’s going to make this guy funny is something that is real. An obsession or something that I can play honestly, and that’ll be funny.
Tim: I find that interesting that you said we don’t know a lot about him yet. In the two episodes I screened he comes off as a bit of a man of mystery so I’d be interested to see him be fleshed out. But to your point, it sounds like that happens.
WK: Yeah. I think by the time we got to the 10th episode you’re beginning to get an inkling of that. What’s great about this character… the good thing about both him, and Newman in that regard, is that you never quite know what you’re going to get with them. The other characters have more set thought processes. One character wishes he was back with his wife, the other validates him through his conquests.
But what is Haskell about? Usually you find that Haskell will be what you need episode-to-episode and stitched together he’ll become something that is interesting. It’s not bad being a character that’s not fully revealed in the beginning.
Tim: Do you find it’s easier to work on a sitcom with a performer you’ve worked with before? Like Kristen Johnston for example, having worked with her on 3rd Rock from the Sun?
WK: Yeah! You certainly… I think it’s okay working with people you worked with before in general. Usually you do it in film, you do it in theater, but you don’t do it that often in sitcom because you don’t get very many opportunities – where you’re going to kind of remix with somebody who you’ve worked with for a long period of time in a previous sitcom.
You certainly know their tendencies and know their performance rhythms that make it easier to just kind of throw in and go to work.
Tim: As a prominent character actor, what are your favorite roles to play and what gets you excited for a role?
WK: You know, I… the things that I enjoy playing are oddly not curmudgeon. I generally play somebody who’s rather frenetic. So there was a role I play in To Die For, this movie I played in with…
Tim: Nicole Kidman!
WK: Right, and that was a very simple “not-much-going-on-there” role. But I really enjoyed playing it. I just got done doing Torchwood and the character in that was rather close to the vest, not playing it very over the top. So it’s always fun for me to just play human behavior because I don’t often get a chance to do it. Usually I’m playing a wild animal! [laughs]
Tim: Wayne I’m really looking forward to seeing more from The Exes, thank you so much for your time.
WK: Thank you, Tim!
The Exes premiers on TV Land tonight, 11/30 at 10:30PM E / 9:30 C