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Exclusive: John Michael Higgins Talks 'The Ugly Truth,' 'Best In Show,' 'Arrested Development' And His David Letterman Experience

July 22nd, 2009 5:09pm EDT
John Michael HigginsIt's possible you don't recognize the name John Michael Higgins -- as he even points out in this interview -- but everyone has seen him in something. John Michael Higgins joins us to discuss his two upcoming films -- "The Ugly Truth" and "Couples Retreat" -- plus speculate on the return of his "Arrested Development" character, Wayne Jarvis, in a possible feature film. He also takes a look back at his roles in "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind" and poignantly discusses what was not the happiest time in his life: Portraying the most powerful man in late night television, David Letterman, in HBO's "The Late Shift."

Mike: How did you get involved with "The Ugly Truth"?

John Michael Higgins: How did I get involved in that one? I think I was suggested to the director by someone. The parts that Cheryl Hines and I play are kind of small but flashy -- I guess that's a specialty of mine. I think I was suggested, perhaps, and I'd always wanted to work with Cheryl who I'm a big fan of. We're like newscasters who are -- and my guy is pretty dumb. I mean, he's one of those newscasters who is kind of a "pretty horse." He's just this vain, sort of, stupid person.

Mike: That's rare for you. Usually your characters are quite...

John Michael Higgins: Smart. Yeah, I've played a whole bunch of really dumb characters, too. But for some reason the last batch have been pretty low wattage people.

The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Truth © Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.

Mike: You're also in "Couples Retreat" -- and I know you worked with them before in "The Break-Up" -- but Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have known each other forever ... what's that like to work with these people that have known each other for so long?

John Michael Higgins: It was not a big issue for me. But I hadn't worked with Jon before but he and I had crossed paths a couple of times because our first children were both born on exactly the same day in the same hospital.

Mike: Oh, wow.

John Michael Higgins: Yeah, it was kind of freaky, but there we were. But Vince I've worked with now in three movies. "The Break-Up" was the first one and we did "Fred Claus" together in London and then "Couples Retreat." Obviously the two of them have a very old, deep relationship which you just let them have and you just fill in the cracks where you can.

Mike: And that's obviously not the first time you've kind of infiltrated a group that was already together. You weren't in "Waiting For Guffman" but you've been in all the other Christopher Guest movies post that, correct?

John Michael Higgins: True, yes. I guess it predates even that, back to Rob Reiner's movie "Spinal Tap" ... but I guess Guffman was the first real ensemble, improvised type thing Chris did on his own. But I've been in all of them since. It wasn't that difficult coming in to the group, I feel like I've done so many movies with them now I feel very established in the group and I have a real place in the group.

Mike: Did you approach them for "Best in Show"?

John Michael Higgins: No, "Best in Show" wasn't the first time I worked with Chris. I did a pilot for HBO with Chris and Eugene Levy and we worked together on that and we got along really well and he asked me to be in "Best in Show."

Mike: I'm not one that often laughs at commercials and I'm not one that often does real-life spit takes, but I have to admit I came close -- I laughed obviously but didn't do a spit-take...

John Michael Higgins: (Laughs) What did you spit?

Mike: (Laughs) Well, it was at a Superbowl party so there could have been some alcohol involved. But the DirecTV "Youthanize America" commercial... Who writes those?

John Michael Higgins: I largely improvise those commercials myself although I will give credit where it's due on Youthanize: That came from the ad agency. I was very pleased to have it, but they're largely improvised. The original batch was me and Christopher Guest was directing ... Youthanize came in the next batch which was directed by the husband and wife team that did "Little Miss Sunshine."

Mike: So I interviewed Mark-Paul Gosselaar recently and he was very excited that you were going to be on "Raising the Bar." At the time I hadn't seen your episodes, now I've seen a few. That's an interesting character.

John Michael Higgins: First, I really think Mark-Paul is fantastic; I just think the world of him. It's really rare for a guy who came up the way he did, heavy in television as a juvenile talent to not just keep his sanity, but keep his sanity in a very impressive way (laughs).

Mike: Right ... He's just this normal guy and he was great.

John Michael Higgins: I know, he's really unusual that way. he's a really rare case of somebody with that background that ends up with the perfect balance of talent and generosity. It's very impressive to me. I love working with him and I hope we get more scenes together; they keep using me for other things in the show. I guess I've reached that point in my career where I get to put on a robe and and sit on a bench and say "Sustained" and fall asleep (laughs).

Mike: If you're walking down the street and someone approaches you, what project do you get recognize for the most?

John Michael Higgins: It's really weird, it comes and goes in waves. It's really hard to say because it's not like normal celebrity where someone says, "Oh my gosh, it's John Michael Higgins." They don't know what my name is but they've all seen me in something. If I'm in the middle of the country somewhere, it will be from television for the most part.

Mike: Do you get "Seinfeld" a lot?

John Michael Higgins: I get a lot of Seinfeld, although, I always look so different from project to project which is part of the charm and part of the problem. I used to get "Best in Show" a lot and people would be shocked that I wasn't like that guy.


They thought I was that guy -- the people would say that they figured that's what I am in real life. That the "Best in Show" guy was who I am when I'm at home. I don't know where people get such an idea, but there it is. Oddly, I get recognized a lot for the David Letterman thing 12, 13 years ago.

Mike: Yeah, "The Late Shift."

John Michael Higgins: "The Late Shift," I get that a lot even though I didn't look anything like myself in "The Late Shift." Honestly, I'm 10 or 12 years older than I was then and I don't look anything like I looked in that film and people will say, "You're the guy who played David Letterman." I just can't believe it because I will have been on TV the last night on "Raising the Bar" or something ... it's very hard for people to wrap their heads around the same guy who played David Letterman is the same guy who was the gay dog handler, it doesn't quite compute.

Mike: It would have made me laugh if I asked that question and you immediately responded, with no hesitation, "Bicentennial Man. Every time."

John Michael Higgins: (Laughing) No question! First of all, who hasn't seen it?

Mike: Right, it's a cult classic now.

John Michael Higgins: No.

Mike: Do you think we will see the return of Wayne Jarvis [from Arrested Development]?

"The Ugly Truth" Los Angeles Premiere © PR Photos



John Michael Higgins: I don't know. There's always rumors surrounding all that with movies and this and that. It's so hard to get all of those people together because they all did so well from that show. They all wound up with these very nice careers and it's very hard to schedule anything. But, if they get the money together they'll get the people together. I would love to do Wayne Jarvis again, I love Wayne Jarvis.

Mike: You mentioned "The Late Shift." To me, I find it fascinating because it was a huge project and at the time you were -- I don't want to say "up and coming" -- obviously not where you are now. Did you have to struggle with that decision to play someone as powerful as David Letterman and if there was going to be a backlash from that?

John Michael Higgins: Oh, absolutely. They had a hard time casting it for that reason. And he was very powerful -- and is. He didn't like the project from the beginning and didn't make it easy for me -- or for anyone doing that project. It was (pauses) it was hard. I took it because I needed to fix the steering column on my Subaru is why I took it. I needed $300 or I wouldn't have a steering wheel. So, I ended up making more than $300 but in the end it's one of those jobs you just can't... I could not turn it down. I may be able to turn it down now, but I couldn't at the time. It would just be completely crazy and irresponsible.


You know, it was scary. I was scared of it. No question. Actually, doing the job itself was a tricky acting challenge but I had had harder acting challenges onstage. That part wasn't so bad, it was the appendant hoopla which was difficult for me to navigate and I didn't do it that well because I was so inexperienced. There was a lot of press, there was a lot of interviews and comparing me. And [Letterman] saying things about me on his television program. It was difficult. I didn't know what I was doing.

I had a lot of help from HBO's publicity department who was holding my hand through it because I suddenly was in a rather glaring spotlight. Mostly not because of the project, which was good, but it wouldn't have gotten all that press. It was mostly because of the nature of the project. An inside, big Hollywood story where people were actually getting represented on the screen. People who are alive and well.

Mike: It does sound like it would have been irresponsible to turn it down but it also came with some baggage.

John Michael Higgins: It sure did. That's a very good question. You said it perfectly. It was a great opportunity and it was really daunting and scary. It was like, "Should I do this? This could end it all. This could start and end the whole thing." Thankfully, it didn't. Although, it didn't really explode me in the way a lot of people thought it might because it was such a character. I wasn't available to see in the character. When they would pitch me for casting they'd say, "What are we going to do with a Letterman impersonator?"

Mike: Isn't that a good thing you didn't explode right after that?

John Michael Higgins: I think you're right. I would love to had exploded -- it would have been nice -- but how long would it have lasted?

Mike: You said earlier that people forget the guy who played Letterman was also in "Best in Show." I think that's a good thing.

John Michael Higgins: I think you're right. That my career is so varied it really has been a, kind of, blessing. I do fine and I don't particularly want fame -- not of the type where you can't go to the grocery store. That doesn't interest me at all.

Mike: Have you ever spoken with Letterman since "The Late Shift"? Any contact at all?

John Michael Higgins: Oh, no. There was a famous incident where he invited me to the show and I got bumped off the show. Everyone sort of tried to figure out what happened there ... it's odd though, it's an interesting job. It's really interesting to industry people. To still be talking about a job I was in 12 years ago is very unusual.

Mike: Well, I'm glad you brought it up before I did. I didn't know if you enjoyed talking about that.

John Michael Higgins: Well, it's a slightly tricky subject because there were weird instances with the press after it, but that was that job. It was a crazy job. It was an incredible trial by fire for me as an actor.

Mike: I have two questions from readers if that's OK.

John Michael Higgins: Sure.

Mike: (From Steve in St. Louis) Did you write any of the songs for "A Mighty Wind"?

John Michael Higgins: I did ... I wrote a song for the record -- I guess it was in the movie -- it was called "The Main Street Rag." The record is actually really good. I encourage your readers to go and get the record. When I think of that project, I don't even remember making the film, I remember making the record.

Mike: Last one (from Kathleen in Houston) as written: John Michael Higgins has amazing hair, it's almost its own character. Does he think it factors in his hiring?

John Michael Higgins: Tell her that it absolutely factors in my hiring. In fact it's the only factor in my hiring (laughs). Tell her, also, that when I was a stage actor, I was known as a "hair actor." Which is a phrase that means if you have a good head of hair and you just get it right, you really don't have to do anything else.

Mike: You mentioned "hair actor." Do you know what name just immediately popped in my head? My definition of "hair actor" is Dirk Benedict.

John Michael Higgins: Well, of course. Now you understand. There's been great hair actors through out history, I'm really honored that she has put me in that category ... (Laughing) I'm still laughing about hair actors, I'm so glad she noticed my hair. I'm so pleased. Such a good question. That one I'll have to tell my wife about, she'll like that.

Mike Ryan
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at miker@starpulse.com
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