Chris Parnell Talks Archer Season 3
The whole gang over at ISIS is back for another season of Archer, which airs Season 3 episodes Thursday nights at 10 PM ET on FX. Chris Parnell is one of the many talented voice artists on Archer, portraying the inept field agent Cyril Figgis. The actor recently held a conference call to discuss the rest of Season 3. Here's what he had to say below.
You show up on a bunch of shows and you guest star on a bunch of shows besides Archer. How do you find the time to work on everything or show up on everything all of a sudden?
Chris Parnell: I'm glad it seems like I'm constantly working. I do okay. I can't complain. But it's kind of scattered around, so there's usually not too much trouble fitting stuff in. Every now and then things will get in a bit of a press and it will be a little hurried and maybe not as much sleep involved, but normally things fit in without too much trouble.
How did you actually get involved with the show?
Chris Parnell: Well, I originally auditioned for a different role for the pilot for Archer, I believe it was maybe a Russian interrogator, like the fake interrogator who's testing Archer, and I didn't get that, I guess my Russian's not that great, my Russian accent, and I thought that was it. And then, lo and behold, not too much later after that I found out that (series creator) Adam Reed, he was making me the offer to play Cyril. And I didn't even have to think about it because I knew the pilot was great, so yes, it was kind of great.
As I understand it, everybody on Archer and most animated shows, for that matter, record in isolation. I know that you have a background in sketch and ensemble comedy with the Groundlings and obviously Saturday Night Live, so being in a booth alone recording lines for Cyril, does that ever present a challenge for you? What is that like?
Chris Parnell: It's a little challenging, in the sense that it's very easy to go in there and then just do the lines in a variety of ways without actually connecting to the lines, to use a little actor speak, so I have to remind myself to try to be present while I'm there. I sometimes picture the other actors there with me and try to imagine that I'm really speaking to them. Adam Reed will, if it's a long back and forth kind of sequence I'm usually on the phone with him in KC, or Matt Thompson, and we will read back and forth, I'll do my part and he'll do the other parts. But I've also found, having recorded in more group kind of situations, especially if it's scripted like Archer is, you probably don't have the lines memorized anyway, and so trying to actually look at or make contact with somebody while you're reading these lines, yes, there's a certain energy that can happen there that is helpful and it probably in some ways makes it easier. But once you get used to it, it's fine. I enjoy it. Time wise, it's fantastic. If we recorded it all together in a room it would certainly be a lot of fun, because we actually all really like each other, but it would take a long, long time. And this way I'm usually done in less than an hour.
What has been the most enjoyable part of playing Cyril?
Chris Parnell: I guess watching it after it's done, because usually between the time we record it and the time that it airs, or I see it on DVD or something that FX will send me, I've probably forgotten a decent amount of it. So to actually then see it animated and see the facial expressions and the things that the animators do with Cyril, it adds a whole other dimension to the character. bring as much as I can vocally and acting wise to it, but they add a whole other level to it, so that's really fun. I like doing voice over stuff. I like acting obviously. But to do a voice over character like that you don't have to worry about what you look like, you can just be ridiculous physically and focus all your energy into this vocal performance, and that's kind of freeing in a certain way, so I quite enjoy that.
Would you say are there any similarities in terms of personality between you and Cyril?
Chris Parnell: Certainly there's some insecurity there that I can relate to. I don't think I'm too much like Cyril otherwise. I'm not whiny, I don't think. 'God, I hope not. I do not commit infidelities. I haven't gone on any missions like an agent. And I don't really know that much about accounting and comptrolling and such. So he's a pretty different person than me, which is also part of what's fun about doing it.
Archer has been around for three seasons now and it's taken a while but you guys are finally really starting to get a great groundswell, a really great cult following. I was wondering if you had a take on why it took this much time, or if you just think it's getting better, or your opinion on that.
Chris Parnell: I think it's true with pretty much any show, and obviously a lot of people have cable now, but a cable show is going to almost always have less viewership than a primetime network show. But we went to Comic-Con, I guess for the second season, I don't even know, we might have gone at some point in the first season, but even from the very beginning the rooms were filled, we had a bigger room this year, but it definitely had an audience from the beginning, it feels like. And, yes, it's definitely grown and I think a lot of it's just word of mouth. My parents even, or my sisters, they'll say, hey, somebody told me they really like you on Archer, so it spreads. I think people that watch it almost always like it and want to continue to watch it and then tell other people about it. Hopefully that will just continue. I think it's been a strong show from the start. I don't know that it's gotten better. I think probably the actors have gotten better. Adam was writing stuff from the beginning, but I think in some ways we've settled into our performances more, certainly I like to think I have, and have a better footing for the character and are thus able to add more personality, more nuance, and that kind of thing to it. But, no, it's great. Last year at Comic-Con it was a pretty good size room and it was packed and to be able to watch an episode with a room full of people like that who are really enthusiastic and love the show and hear how they respond to it is pretty fun, it's pretty exciting, because I really haven't had that kind of experience before with a television show or something.
When you're reading the script and you have really different types of interactions with each of the characters on the show, which characters do you find the most enjoyable and why?
Chris Parnell: To interact with? Archer, or Lana, or Malory, so those are the first ones that come to mind. Malory is such an evil b****, so that's very specific to respond to and to deal with, although we did have a romance, a bit of an afternoon of love last season. Lana is a very strong, interesting character, and we of course have our history. Then, like I said before, with Archer, Archer is also not the nicest guy and it's fun to play that reaction to him and just let all my feelings about him come out. Adam writes subtly, so it's not all black and white. There's definitely a range of reactions there to the different characters. Cheryl/Carol, and Pam, and Gillette, they also make me laugh a lot. I don't interact with them as much, I guess, but I don't know that I could pick favorites exactly.
I was just wondering, do you think there's any area in being an actual agent that Cyril will ever become confident at?
Chris Parnell: You know, we found out in "El Contador," which I think was two or three of this season, that Cyril actually is surprisingly competent at this mission. I don't know that he'll ever be a well rounded agent, and I don't know how far Adam's going to explore his being an agent. It definitely comes up some more. I hope I continue to get to do that. But, yes, he actually pulls off some stuff surprisingly well. He cuts it really close a few times in that episode doing things that aren't that smart, but overall he impresses Lana and Archer, and I think himself at a certain level. It impressed me when I read it. I was impressed with him.
What do you look for in a screenplay, whether it's television or a feature screenplay, and maybe if you can say which scripts you've read that really, really jumped out at you and seemed great to you over the years?
Chris Parnell: Wow! The truth is, if I'm going to get a part it's often because somebody offers it to me. I've certainly gotten things that I've auditioned for, but I think about Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, that was brilliant and fantastic and I felt lucky to be a part of that. Miss/Guided, a show I did for ABC a few years ago, which I actually did have to audition for and was able to make it through to that even though it was very short-lived, that was a great script. Every 30 Rock script is fantastic. Suburgatory, the show I'm working on now, that was happily an offer, even though I came in later on as just a guest star this season, it made me laugh, and I guess that's what I look for. Archer, when I read it, it was just so dense with nuance and specificity and comedy and all these characters that he just weaves into this little compact, tight 30 minute thing, I guess actually less with commercials, but at the end of the day I'm hopefully going to laugh at it, assuming it's a comedy, which is most of what I am going to audition for or be offered if I am. Lately, I've got a little part in 21 Jump Street and The Five-Year Engagement that are coming out in the spring and I got into those through table reads, but when I read them I was like, oh yes, these can be really funny, I knew who some of the actors were and could picture those. But I got those parts due to doing table reads, which I wish I could get all my parts that way that weren't offers. But it also helps too if I know who has been cast in it thus far, who the leads are or whatever and then I can picture that actor doing it, and that makes it come to life a lot more in my mind.
Can you talk about the table read process in comedy?
Chris Parnell: Yes. Happily, I had a lot of experience doing it at Saturday Night Live. Every Wednesday that we had a show we'd read all of the pieces that had been written in the writers' room at this big table with everybody around listening and watching, and so we'd do about 40 pieces and you're probably not going to be in every piece by any stretch of the imagination, but you're going to be in quite a few. And then you're playing different characters in each one, and you may or may not have seen the script before, so sometimes it's a cold read, so you're called upon to make these choices that are quick and hopefully strong and right. And then doing a table read for 21 Jump Street and The Five-Year Engagement, because they're not going to have the whole cast there, generally it's a table read because it's at an earlier stage in the making of a movie and casting it even, you are asked to play multiple roles in that setting, at least one of which you're hopefully being considered for as a possible real role, and then these other parts, so it calls on those same SNL skills of making character choices and all this. So it gets to show a range of what you can do, which is fun. You also have time to prepare. It's not like SNL, where it's kind of a very quick thing, but you can actually read the script and look at it and think about the choices you're going to make for each character. So in a way you're not just doing the part that you might actually get, but you're also doing these other parts that show a range, and hopefully if you can get laughs on those other parts too it builds up that sense to the people watching, that oh, he's funny, he can do this, and he can bring something to it. But it's fun. I like doing table reads.
With the breadth of your comedy experience and with all the different things that you've done so far, do you still find that you're shocked or surprised by how outrageous some of these Archer storylines are?
Chris Parnell: Adam does surprise me sometimes, yes. Part of it is not being used to having these kinds of freedoms of what is said and the content and the subject matter and all that, that you can do on a late night table show like Archer, versus what we can even get away with on Saturday Night Live. The censorship on SNL, the NBC censor was a lot more censoring than what happens on Archer. And so that's always a little bit of a surprise and a delight to see what comes up in that. But honestly, not much surprises me, and now certainly having a pretty good sense of what Adam is capable of and his sense of humor and what he can get away with, there's not too much that surprises me on that anymore. But I guess I sometimes read it, and although I'm not shocked, but I am like, oh, okay, cool, nice. I wouldn't have thought you would have gone there, but it's cool.
I'm wondering if you've ever done any screen writing, and if so what kinds of things have you written or what would you like to write?
Chris Parnell: Well, it's funny you bring that up. I just turned 45 and so I think calling it a midlife crisis is a bit overstated, but I wrote a lot when I was at the Groundlings and I wrote a lot when I was at Saturday Night Live. I've never tried to write a screenplay or a pilot or anything like that. Honestly, since SNL I've done almost no writing, and I know that that is something that I probably should do. It's a confidence issue, frankly. It's like you have to believe in the idea and you have to believe in yourself enough to actually put the energy it takes into trying to write something, certainly something as massive as a screenplay. I've got my book, Story by Robert McKee, that is largely unread, and it's something I would like to do if I can ever get it together and ever had the idea that was right and that I felt strongly about. What it would be, I don't know. I would try to avoid clichés as much as possible. I would try to avoid doing things that I see in other movies. I would definitely try to avoid quirk for quirk's sake, even though a lot of those movies are funny too. I know that's a weird answer, but I guess that's the most honest answer I can give. I haven't, but I aspire to.