On the UP
It's finally Jason Bateman's moment, and he won't let it slip away, he tells Paul Whitington
Most refreshingly for a visiting Hollywood actor, Jason Bateman claims absolutely no connection with Ireland. He has no maternal grandfather who would qualify him for the national football team, and no ancestral village he yearns to visit.
"I am fascinated by this part of the world, though," he says, staring wistfully out at the sheets of rain that pummel Upper Merrion Street.
Bateman's connections, it turns out, are English. "My mother was born in Shrewsbury," he says, and he dimly remembers childhood visits to the pretty market town. "Yeah, I haven't seen my family over there since I was a little kid," he adds, sounding vaguely guilty. "I should definitely do that one of these times."
Vague familial guilt may be the worst of Bateman's worries at the minute, however, because over the past few years he has staged one of the more remarkable showbusiness comebacks. Born in New York in 1969 and raised in Los Angeles, Bateman was a very successful child actor.
He was appearing in TV commercials by the age of 10, and in 1981 he landed a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie. A natural in front of the cameras, he achieved nationwide fame in the early 80s in the US sitcom Silver Spoons. Roles in shows such as Knight Rider and The Hogan Family followed, and, by his late teens, Jason was confidently embarking on a movie career.
But that didn't pan out, and by his mid-20s Bateman had seemingly joined the long list of forgotten child stars. It was TV that revived him from from dead: his portrayal of Michael Bluth in the acclaimed sitcom Arrested Development in the early 2000s put him back on the map, and he has since carefully plotted an impressive film acting career.
His latest film is The Change-Up, a bawdy comedy created by the artistes who brought you The Hangover and starring Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as two 30-something friends who magically swap bodies and are confronted with each other's lives. Bateman, as usual, plays the conservative, buttoned-down family man, but the script requires him to turn into a crass and feckless party animal 10 minutes in, and it's a challenge he enjoyed.
"What was really appealing to me was to be able to play the guy that I'm usually hired to react to," he says. "I'm always the straight guy, but in this film I got to play the antagonist, the crazy guy, and you always want to do stuff that's a bit different."
Stuff like allowing your twin babies to play with knives, carrying them around by the scruff of the neck and pouring cartons of milk over them. All of which is very un-Bateman-like behaviour, but Jason remains at heart a straight man.
"I love playing the straight man," he tells me. "I love that part and I'll always want to play it, it comes very naturally to me; it's very British, like my mother, and that's sort of where my sense of humour comes from -- buttoned down, keeping things boiling under the surface. I like that, and I think it's an important element to making comedy work, because the normal person in amongst all the craziness is the conduit to the audience."
Bateman is really, really good at being that conduit, the character who looks at the camera seeking your sympathy, the sad-eyed everyman who instantly lets you in. He has done it time and again in everything from Juno and Up In the Air to Horrible Bosses and The Switch.
He's become a very fashionable and increasingly bankable actor, but until very recently he was seen as more a go-to character actor than a leading man.
Last year, though, he started playing starring roles, opposite his old friend Jennifer Aniston in the underrated rom com The Switch, and alongside Aniston and Colin Farrell in this summer's gross-out hit Horrible Bosses. This switch to leading man, he says, was more a question of decent scripts than a cunning career plan.
"Any time I was given the opportunity to star in a film before last year," he says, "the idea wasn't usually that great, the script wasn't very good. Against that you'd get offered smaller parts in films like Juno, and you don't have to be super-smart to see the quality in a script like that. So when the choice is do you want to eat shit or do you want to eat a steak, the choice is very easy."
Bateman's self-deprecating modesty is perhaps another legacy from his English mother, but he's a shrewd operator who, since resurfacing in the mid-2000s, has chosen his roles and managed his career with exemplary realism and skill. And perhaps that clear-sighted wisdom comes from having tasted the bitter pill of failure.
For most of the 90s, Bateman couldn't get arrested. The child-actor legacy was a label he couldn't shake, and he plied his trade in one-off TV pilots until even they began to dry up. He hit the sauce -- he has since given up -- and faced up to the possibility that his acting career might be over.
"It's a tough business sometimes," he says. "In other professions you can work late or apply yourself a little harder, but with acting, you have to wait for the phone to ring. And when it stops ringing, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it."
He began to think about "what else I could do. I hadn't been to college or anything, so this business was the only one I knew. I was making a big push to become a TV director, in fact, when Arrested Development came along".
The role of Michael Bluth, the only relatively sane guy in a family of grasping, money-grabbing maniacs, suited him down to the ground, and up-and-coming filmmakers such as Jason Reitman began to take notice. It was Reitman who cast him in Juno, and that film, he says, is the one that really got his Hollywood career going.
"I'd done some bigger, sillier comedies before that, but when Juno happened I think people thought, 'oh, so maybe he's going to be kind of an actor too'. I mean there's a big gap between Dodgeball and Juno, so if you can do those two ends of the spectrum, well maybe they'll start thinking of you for everything in between."
Jason has since proved his considerable range by oscillating between serious roles in films including the war drama The Kingdom, and outright slapstick fare such as Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up. Now the offers are flooding in: next year he'll be starring in several new comedies, a film version of Arrested Development and he also hopes to find time to direct his first feature.
"The goal is to work for a long time," he tells me. "That really informs the decisions I make as an actor, and if I change into being a director full time it will inform those decisions too -- it's all about longevity for me."
The Change-Up is released nationwide today
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