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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Speakeasy with 'The Venture Brothers'' James Urbaniak

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Gangly, charmingly quirky character actor and blogger James Urbaniak became a familiar face to indie movie audiences thanks to breakthrough roles in American Splendor and Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool. He’s most respected for his Drama Desk-nominated turn in the acclaimed one-man show Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), but may be most beloved as one of the lead voice actors on Adult Swim’s “The Venture Brothers,” a parody of vintage cartoon adventure shows along the lines of “Johnny Quest.” Local fans will get the chance to see Urbaniak in the flesh at Atlanta Supercon, Nov. 21-23. He’ll also has a guest spot on “CSI: Miami” on Mon., Nov. 24.

Since 2005 you’ve kept the urbaniak blog on Livejournal. Why do you blog?

I started because Jackson Publick, creator of “The Venture Brothers,” had a Livejournal account. He inspired me to start one. I was doing Thom Pain: Based on Nothing, which was a one-man show that lasted about an hour. I developed this routine where every night I’d come home from the theater and go on the “Venture Brothers” fan site, The People’s Republic of Venture. I used to write in anonymously and I got hooked on that kind of dialogue. When the play ended, I thought, “Well, why not blog as myself?” I was a little hesitant at first, but it’s an enjoyable way to communicate thoughts and ideas. Plus, if there’s a topic that interests me, blogging provides an excuse to research it. I’m not aware of the blog specifically affecting my acting career, but I have gotten some attention to it from larger media outlets. I guess in that sense, it’s raised my profile a notch or two.

“The Venture Brothers” has always struck me as appealing to slightly older fans more so than most of the Adult Swim shows. Do you think that’s the case?

The fans are definitely all ages. The initial audience for my blog was “Venture Brothers” fans, and a lot of them are pretty young, in high school or college. I just did an episode of “CSI: Miami,” and the director was this guy in his 50s who said, “I love ‘The Venture Brothers,’ and so does my son!" He asked me to call his son on his cell phone, and when the son picked up, I said “Hi, it’s Dr. Thaddeus Venture!” When we were done talking, the father got back on the phone and said “You owe me one.”

“The Venture Brothers” seems more plot-driven than most of the Adult Swim shows, which tend to be very surreal.

It seems to me there’s a certain kind of show on Adult Swim with nonsequitur-driven humor: “A piece of toast and a shoehorn will change a tire and talk about the Super Bowl for a half hour.” “Venture Brothers” has nonsequiturs, but it’s a classic narrative show.

A lot of the comedy seems to come from having larger-than-life heroes or villains who have to deal with mundane, smaller-than-life problems. Is that how you play characters like Dr. Thaddeus Venture and the villainous Phantom Limb?

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Most of the situations get reduced to this sort of humdrum world. The situations will be fantastical, but what the characters deal with are the mundane aspects — that’s where the comedy comes in. Dr. Venture (right) is always kind of pathetic and sad. Phantom Limb gets a little more bombastic.

What’s it like watching the show when the animation is completed? Does it look like you imagined it?

Because of the lag time in production, I don’t see the episodes for about a year after I record them. I get the script, I read it once, I go in and record my parts. I don’t think about it after I record it. By the time it airs, I’ve completely forgotten it, and feel like a new viewer every time I watch it. I won’t even remember having recorded aspects of it. I’m sure Doc [Hammer, co-writer] and Jackson have a much more specific sense of the show.

The Atlanta production of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) was my favorite play of 2007, and I was sorry I didn’t get to see you in the New York production. How did you play that character, who reveals so little information to the audience?

The key was just to figure out who that guy was, and what was going on. He’s not trying to be arty or confusing, he’s trying to communicate something. He’s a classic commitment-phobic guy at a crossroads of his life. You get to know him and he closes off. From the get go, the play puts the audience in his frame of mind, in a very unsettling way. That was really one of the great creative experiences of my life, doing that play. It ran for seven-eight months, and I will say that by the time it was done, I was really ready to move on.

What are you working on now?

I moved to Los Angeles recently, because I have toddler children, and I wanted to get better-paying work. I’ve done a couple of independent films and a lot of episodic television. I’ve had a couple of recurring roles on Fox’s “Terminator” show and “The Starter Wife.” On “NCIS” I play a high-tech scientist who rattles off expository dialogue about high-tech gadgets, like Q from James Bond. On a lot of crime shows, I tend to be the red herring — the vaguely suspicious character who didn’t do it. I often play a certain kind of acerbic, ostensibly educated, skinny guy with glasses. Dr. Venture and Thom Pain both fit in with that. But I don’t think I’ve been terribly typed since I’ve been here.

(Photos courtesy James Urbaniak and Cartoon Network)

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