After despicably arch roles on 'Arrested Development' and '30 Rock' and big success on 'The Lego Movie' and 'Ninja Turtles,' the comedic actor (now starring in Netflix's 'Flaked') opens up about the series borrowed from his painful, personal battles with sobriety (it's why those harsh reviews sting even more): "It became this tough, uncomfortable process."
This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Will Arnett weaves through Venice's trendy eatery Gjelina to a table tucked way in the back, collapses into a chair and buries his face into his hands.
"It's been a rough week," he says, trusting that I'd understand what he's referring to on this early March afternoon. His new, highly autobiographical dramedy, Flaked, which would officially drop the following day on Netflix, was greeted by unrelentingly harsh reviews, which Arnett, 45, has studied far more closely than I have. Before our water glasses are filled, he's quoting from them, along with the barbs that have accompanied them on social media.
"Some guy tweeted at me, 'From Arrested [Development] to BoJack [Horseman] to this?' Like, shaming me," he says, a smile unable to mask his frustration. "It's like, was that guy with me for the 15 years where it was disappointment after disappointment? And when was it that I made a deal with everybody that I had to do what they wanted me to do?"
It would all be easier to stomach if Flaked were just another series that attached Arnett for his star power — and not something he had poured his entire life into. He wrote, produced and co-created the show with pal Mark Chappell and plays the 40-something man at the center whose struggles with sobriety are drawn heavily from Arnett's past. It is, without question, the most intimate, grounded piece of entertainment he's ever been involved in, and the first day of shooting was set to coincide with the 15th anniversary of his own sobriety.
The idea for Flaked had come to him in summer 2012, he says, when he was "in a tricky place in [his] life." His nine-year marriage to Amy Poehler, with whom he shares two sons, was unraveling, as was his once-promising NBC sitcom, Up All Night. "I started to write this character based on things that I loathed in other people and the sort of injustice of the world," he says. Where exactly that character — a quietly crumbling Venice, Calif., heartthrob named Chip, who spouts AA mantra despite the fact that he is secretly drinking again — begins and the man playing him ends is something Arnett is still working through. The lines had blurred in ways that unsettled him throughout the process.
"Look, I think Chip is a good person," he says. "I just think he never reached his bottom, and he got very comfortable in creating this persona for himself. He doesn't really have to try. He doesn't have to do anything. And he's not able to …" Arnett trails off. He leans back in his chair, running his tanned hand through the thick head of hair buried under his L.A. Dodgers cap, then continues: "He's had his heart broken, and I think that that's the part that I share with Chip. And then at the end of episode six, he's proved right: that when he finally let somebody in, he gets betrayed — and it's like, 'Yep, that's why you can't let anybody in.' " Another long pause. "And, yeah, I felt the same way."
Tackling something this personal and, until now, this private, was supposed to be liberating for Arnett, who's adored by friends and fans for his unfailing gregariousness. "He'll give performance energy to make the barista at Starbucks laugh," says Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, a producer on Flaked and a close friend. Arnett's buddy Jimmy Kimmel calls him the ideal guy to have on his late-night show or by his side on the Hollywood party circuit. "You know he's going to be funny," says the host, who's in his inner circle with Jason Bateman, John Krasinski and Justin Theroux. "Will's one of those guys like Bill Murray, Chris Elliott or Zach Galifianakis, where they make you laugh before they even say anything."
But that humor is hard to detect as Arnett discusses the toll Flaked has taken on him. "It became this tough, uncomfortable process," he says. "And because I was putting a lot of stuff about my own life in there, I noticed it really starting to affect my mood and my behavior."
It should be noted that Arnett didn't need to put himself through any of this. Ever since his career-making turn as the obliviously arch George Oscar "Gob" Bluth in the 2003 Fox comedy Arrested Development, attractive offers have flooded in. Among the more memorable: Jack Donaghy's flamboyant nemesis Devon Banks on 30 Rock, which earned Arnett four Emmy nominations. More recently, his résumé has been loaded with follow-ups to box-office smashes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Lego Movie, for which his Lego Batman is getting his own spinoff; the titular role in Netflix's animated darling BoJack Horseman; a regular gig on David Cross' IFC comedy The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret; a likely fifth season of Arrested Development for Netflix; a development deal at Sony TV for his Electric Avenue production company; and a revolving door of lucrative voiceover gigs for companies including GMC trucks and Bank of America.
"Will's a huge talent," says Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, "and there are other sides to him that are rarely explored because he's known as this great comedian." Flaked was supposed to be the addition that showcased Arnett's depth, but as his plate of pizza arrives on this late winter day, he's already questioning whether it's been worth it.
"Let's just say I was a restless child," says Arnett when asked why he and his buddies were kicked out of their all-boys school as teens. He had begun acting out at around 10, when his mother, a former actress, and his father, then a Harvard-educated corporate lawyer, announced they'd be having another son. "I was the baby for 10 years," says Arnett, who has older twin sisters. "And once my brother was born, I went kind of ape shit, and my parents didn't know what to do." By 12, they'd shipped him off to boarding school, where he and his pals were far more interested in "smoking cigarettes, drinking beers and hanging out late at night with girls."
Back home in Toronto, Arnett would discover a passion for acting. When he called his father a few years later to say he'd be dropping out of Montreal's Concordia College to pursue a career, his dad didn't try to dissuade him. "He just said, 'You gotta do what you gotta do,' " says Arnett. In 1990 he moved to New York, where he knew not a soul, and enrolled in the prestigious Lee Strasberg theater program to become a "serious actor." It didn't quite work out that way, but he never starved. Within a few years, an agent at William Morris persuaded him to parlay his deep, gravelly voice into a body of voiceover work. "All of a sudden, I was probably making more money than 95 percent of the people I knew," he says, "yet still nobody knew who I was."
In between voiceover gigs, Arnett would fly out to Los Angeles for auditions. "It was so f—ing depressing," he says, recalling one particularly grim pilot season where he stayed at L.A.'s Oakwood apartment complex with dozens of other out-of-town actors. "I'm so lucky I didn't own a pistol." He'd invariably return to New York jobless and, feeling rejected, would fall back into an unhealthy routine: lining his wallet with voiceover gigs during the day and pissing the money away at Chelsea bar Peter McManus at night. "I could've gone to law school a couple of times over with the time and money I spent in that place," he jokes. It didn't sit well with his then girlfriend, actress Missy Yager. "She'd be like, 'Are you for f—ing real? You're there every day.' And it would get earlier and earlier. It'd be like 4 p.m., and the weekends would start on Wednesdays," he says. "And it didn't matter if I was hungover because I could roll out of bed and go do a voiceover. Or at least I'd [tell myself that] at 3 a.m."
Then, in spring 1999, he finally saw his first pilot ordered to series. Arnett had been cast in his pal Mike O'Malley's eponymous NBC sitcom, and they got a call in early May that it had been greenlighted. Another call followed: The network's new chief, Garth Ancier, wasn't sure about Arnett for the part. He had to fly back to California and retest for the role. "There I was holding [lines] from a scene that existed because I had shot it already," he says. "It was definitely a low point." Ancier must have felt OK enough about what he saw because he hired Arnett back in the role. "It actually gave me this weird sense of invincibility, like somebody who had just survived a car crash," he explains. "And I think it was a turning point for me as an actor because it was like, 'I know what I can do and how to do it, so f— you.' "
The series was canceled after only two episodes, and over the next eight months, Arnett lost whatever semblance of control he had. A commercial strike left him without his steady diet of voiceover work, removing the last limits on when, and how much, he could drink. He had bought a two-bedroom apartment but never unpacked the boxes, much less moved forward with any of the work he had planned to do on it. "I spent four or five months doing nothing and feeling sorry for myself," he says, his eyes watering. A close female friend ultimately intervened, insisting he get help. Arnett didn't put up a fight. "I just crumbled," he says. "I went to an AA meeting that day."
Eager for a fresh start, Arnett packed up his things in fall 2000 and moved to Venice, Calif., where he found an apartment on Westminster, started attending daily meetings and quickly landed work doing network promos. Then a visit back to New York for the holidays put his life on a different trajectory.
"I was lucky that a friend called me when she did. I was a mess — spiritually broken. I just crumbled," says Arnett of getting sober in 2000.
He and a buddy met up with friends for a big group dinner, where Poehler was on a double date with one of Arnett's pals. "It was their second date, and it didn't really work out, so she and I spent the whole night talking," he says. Not long after, he and Poehler began dating. The following year, she'd get hired on Saturday Night Live, and Arnett would sell his place and they'd move together to New York. "It was a great time," he says, a smile back on his face. "I was in love with the person I wanted to be with, and I was back to making good money. It was like, 'Oh wait, if I get sober, this is all it takes?' "
As Poehler's profile grew on SNL, Arnett guested on The Sopranos and Law & Order: SVU — solid work but not yet enough to be known as more than Amy's husband. Then came word that a quirky Fox comedy called Arrested Development was looking to fill one of its last remaining parts, and Arnett was flown out to L.A. where he was up against Rainn Wilson and Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). "There's this thing in comedy where when you play an extreme character, you often have to be the opposite of it," says Hurwitz. "Nobody was quicker or sharper than Betty White, and yet she played the dumb one on The Golden Girls. It's the same with Will: He's such a smart, thoughtful, present person, and yet he excels at playing the opposite."
When Arnett's team called to say Arrested was picked up, he started to cry. "After years and years of frustration, it was the validation I needed," he says. The series was, in many ways, a life-affirming experience. The scripts were better than anything he had ever read, and the ensemble cast had undeniable chemistry. When the first reviews hit — one more glowing than the next — they were printed out for the actors to pass around. Things were finally coming together for him. Arnett took off on a red-eye to New York one weekend early in production to marry Poehler, then got right back to set. "It was that time in your life, your early 30s, when everything was happening at once," he says, "and it was great."
The comedy, critically adored but lowly rated, ran on Fox for three seasons before the plug was pulled. In that last year, Arnett was ready to say goodbye. Many of the series' original writers had moved on, and he didn't love the direction the new staff had taken his character. When he, Bateman and Hurwitz discussed shopping a potential fourth season elsewhere, Arnett voted against it. "Of course, I probably could have been swayed the other way," he says, deadpanning: "Trust me, I would do anything for money." (He'd come around years later when the cast reunited for a Netflix revival.)
Arnett bounced around following Arrested, drawing big paychecks and occasional satisfaction. He dabbled initially in film, starring first in the skating comedy Blades of Glory with Poehler (a hit) and then in The Brothers Solomon with Will Forte (a bomb). When a string of other projects stalled in development, he shifted back to TV with a recurring gig on 30 Rock. From there, he added more voiceover gigs, launched an ahead-of-its-time digital ad company with Bateman and reteamed with Hurwitz for an ill-fated Fox comedy, Running Wilde. As a co-creator of the latter, he got his first taste at the meddling that often goes on in broadcast television. "It became this great example of a network taking all the f—ing joy out of it," he says. Other short-lived sitcoms followed, first with NBC's Up All Night and then CBS' The Millers, which ended its first year as a top 10 hit before plummeting in year two. In between, Arnett scored two Netflix series (Arrested and BoJack), lined up projects for his company and began writing Flaked.
The ups and downs in his professional life coincided with those in his private one. He and Poehler had sons Archie and Abel in 2008 and 2010, respectively, then split in 2012. The breakup was said to be amicable, and their relationship has remained cordial. In the years since, Arnett has settled into the L.A. single-dad routine, coaching his kids' T-ball teams and adjusting his film choices accordingly. It was for them that he took the parts in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Lego Movie. "They're super into it," he says with pride. "The other day I came to pick Archie up at school, and a kid in his class goes, 'Archie, Batman's here.' "
Two hours into lunch, Arnett looks up from the scraps of pizza on his plate and reveals something he hadn't intended to share. "As I was writing all this shit [on Flaked] and I start shooting it, I started getting confused about where I was at," he says, then hesitates as he decides if he wants to continue. He does: "Hardly anybody knows this," he says, pausing a second time, "but I started drinking again."
He's vague on details, though he insists he's been clean now for at least a few months, back in AA meetings when they don't conflict with the boys' twice-weekly T-ball practices. "I described it at a meeting recently like a whistle off in the distance for a train you know is coming for you," he says. "It was a bummer, but it happens. And for me, it happened as easily as it had [the first time]: It was right there." He had tried justifying the slip to himself as something he needed to do to play the part of Chip, but over time, he hated the way it made him feel. "I was filled with shame."
Much like 15 years earlier, there was no cataclysmic event, no car crash or barroom brawl that jolted him back to sobriety. "I just know where this path goes, and it's a dead end," he says. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm smart enough to know that this is not where I want to live. And I'm a dad now, a parent first and foremost." He called up a friend whom he'd helped get sober years earlier, and got the support he needed. If Flaked scores a second season, he plans to have Chip follow a similar path and turn to his friend Dennis (David Sullivan) to get him sober.
A few hours after our lunch, a second wave of reviews will begin trickling in, and a handful are considerably kinder. Among them: Newsday, who called Flaked "a good portrait of a fallen man," and Indiewire, which praised Arnett's performance. Once the public has had a chance to see all eight episodes, Twitter becomes more supportive, too. Each day, Arnett responds to Flaked fans who tweet at him, offering a mix of humor and, for those who've used the opportunity to share their own tales of recovery, compassion. "I'm incredibly proud of what Will has done," says Netflix's Sarandos, who has become another close friend. "It's really impressive for a guy at his level to share that much of his personal life hoping that it talks to somebody."
But on this March afternoon, Arnett's still a bit piqued by those whom he wasn't able to reach with the show. "When you have a [reviewer] say, 'It's not even a good depiction of sobriety — that they do a better job on [CBS'] Mom,' you're like, 'What are you talking about?' " he says, his voice rising as he continues: "This is actually f—ing happening [to me], you asshole. This is actually happening in real time — as quickly as we can shoot, it's happening."