Chuck is a terrible father. He’s either absent or screwing things up or, more often, both … all while remaining almost intentionally oblivious to the damage he’s inflicting on his son, Franklin.
So Franklin, struggling with depression and looking to hit the re-set button on his life, cuts his father out, blocking him on all social media. Chuck is briefly distraught, then decides to catfish his own son, posing as a beautiful, smart and compassionate young woman who takes a sudden interest in Franklin.
This is, needless to say, a terrible idea. This starting point for director and star James Morosoni’s “I Love My Dad” is actually based on a real situation Morosoni confronted with his own father. But in this comedy Chuck goes much further down the road, wreaking all sorts of havoc with his harebrained scheme, generating “laughter of disbelief,” says comedian Patton Oswalt, who plays Chuck.
Oswalt has done nine comedy specials and film and TV credits from “King of Queens” to “Ratatouille” to “BoJack Horseman.” But more recently he has been expanding his range and while he brings wit and absurdity to the funny moments — he also shares scenes with Rachel Dratch and Lil Rel Howery — he also grounds the more poignant and dramatic moments with honesty and vulnerability.
He spoke by video recently about his recent roles, finding common ground with Chuck and his stand-up. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. When you read a script like this with sharp tonal shifts and some cringe comedy moments, do you worry that while it could be good it could also be a total disaster?
That’s what attracted me to it. I love reading scripts that’re going to work or be a fiasco – not just fail, that’s forgettable. But a fiasco creates its own gravity and then memories. A film like “27 Dresses” isn’t really spoken of that much but “Battlefield Earth” has treatises and monographs written about it because people are still saying, “What was going on there on the freaking set?” The audience links together watching, saying “Wow, are we all seeing this?”
Q. Beyond a potentially epic fail, what actually appealed to you in the script?
It was that Chuck thinks, “Don’t I get credit for wanting to do the good thing?” And I’ve been guilty of that a lot. Chuck doesn’t understand that you need to actually follow through and do the good thing. He doesn’t do the freaking work. He has also fallen into a rut where he believes, “I can come up with a spectacular excuse after the fact so I’m already giving myself permission to screw this up.” It was interesting to find the energy of that guy – how do you get out of bed every morning if that’s your life?
Q. How did you find your way into this guy?
There have been moments where I’ve done things, not on that level of course, but sometimes you need self-delusion in order to exist. But as a parent, I thought about if you really screwed things up with your child — which to me would be such a nightmare — what is the emotional journey you would go on. And Chuck doesn’t have the tools to deal with it so there’s something quixotic about that need and that goal. That was really fun to play.
Q. You’re often acting in isolation, with your phone or laptop. Was that challenging?
It’s part of this guy’s M.O. that he is dealing in deceit and fantasy, so he gets into the rhythm of that. And I’m not saying I reached this level but there have been amazing scenes in films where people are interacting with machinery or screens — I instantly think of Robert Redford on the phone in “All the Presidents Men.” There’s an incredible scene at the beginning of “The Vast of Night” with the operator working the phones and scenes in “Margin Call” where they’re looking at screens but it’s such amazing acting as you realize the numbers on the screen are spelling out the end of the world for them. One of my favorites is Clint Howard in “Apollo 13,” when he looks at the screen and realizes something really is wrong.
Q. It’s a funny movie but you also have serious scenes, exploring your character’s many failings. You recently played Richard Nixon’s advisor Chuck Colson in “Gaslit” too. Are you seeking these more complex human characters?
I’m always looking to play people who don’t have the funny quip all the time. There’s nothing more fun to play than delusion and self-doubt. Chuck Colson is weirdly in line with Chuck from “I Love My Dad.” He was one hundred percent true believer and one hundred percent incompetent.
He’s one of those people who think “I win because I’m good” but he wasn’t smart or good. He just convinced himself he was good. You see so much of it today with regular everyday people who TikTok themselves doing something horrible or racist or homophobic but who think, “It’s OK for me to say that.” How do you exist in this world? That’s fascinating to me.
Q. Between films, TV, being a parent and touring with comedy, you seem pretty busy.
From years of doing comedy, I can project forward dates and times and know what is coming. But also I have an amazing wife [actress Meredith Salenger] who is in the business and knows when to say, “Tomorrow you need to do nothing so that your work down the road will be good.” Knowing I have someone who can bring me down to earth when I’m spinning off a little is incredible.
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Q. How has your standup evolved over the years?
Whether or not it’s better is not up to me, it’s up to the people who are watching to decide. I can say I’ve gotten even more comfortable on stage and more efficient in my storytelling. And I think I’ve gotten really good at finding my voice and talking about where my life is right now. I have fun with the contradictions as I look back to old specials where I said, “I’ll never get married” and then, “I’m never having a kid.” They’re brilliant bits but that stuff changes and people get after me about that. It’s who I was at that time.
Q. Your most recent tour was called “Who’s Ready to Laugh?” How has standup changed since pandemic?
Doing standup in front of a live audience, there’s such a sense of relief and joy. Everyone is so happy to be there. You forget the pleasure of being out with people or even just being around people. I love just going into a café and sitting and listening to the noise of the life around you. You forget how valuable that is.