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Michael Showalter, ears cushioned by a pair of giant headphones, has no idea that his security system has chirped several dozen times during the course of a February evening Zoom from his Hollywood home. He is not being robbed, we discover. His wife and twin daughters just keep going outside, tending to the burger dinner that they’ll share before the filmmaker heads back to set.
A founding member of the alt-comedy trio Stella, which came out of the MTV sketch show The State and birthed the 2001 feature Wet Hot American Summer, the 51-year-old has gotten busier as his tastes have embraced the more dramatic. He’s become a go-to director in recent years, thanks in large part to his work on Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick. That 2017 breakout birthed more films — his latest, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, just earned an Oscar nomination for star Jessica Chastain — and, most notably, a string of producing-director gigs on such TV series as Search Party (TBS/HBO Max), The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+) and Vanessa Bayer’s upcoming I Love That for You (Showtime).
His latest is The Dropout, Hulu’s dramatization of the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. And while it might seem like the furthest project yet from the surrealist humor that defined the first half of his career, Showalter argues that a serious filmmaker might just be who he’s been all along.
With The Dropout, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Shrink Next Door and even The Big Sick, you’ve developed a reputation for dramatizing real-life stories. What’s the draw?
True stories are the things that really grab my attention. There’s something about finding the moments in these authentic, real things that — as a consumer of entertainment — I’m very drawn to. Reality TV, documentaries, podcasts, true story articles, true crime, that’s what I’m drawn to much more than narrative fiction.
What’s one surprising thing you learned about Elizabeth Holmes?
During our research, one person we spoke to had gone to high school with her and talked about how she was in this dance troupe. And there’s video. They’re pumping C&C Music Factory or something, and she’s doing some weird Cabbage Patch [dance]. Somewhere in there is just a normal person who wants to fit in and be liked. It was important to tap into that version of her.
Did your opinion of her shift during the course of making the series?
I don’t think she’s a Bernie Madoff who knowingly and intentionally deceived people for greed. I think Elizabeth Holmes exercised horrifically bad judgment and made many, many, many deals with the devil in service of what she believed was going to be a good thing — and then dramatically lost her way.
Search Party, which you co- created in 2016, was not grounded in reality at all. The final season devolved into a zombie apocalypse. Do you think you like to ignore the area between true stories and the totally fantastical?
I wish I could take more credit for that show. Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers really invented it. I [got] very involved as the show found its feet, because it was very much of a total shoestring kind of thing. We cast it and shot a pilot, Jax Media financed a very low-budget pilot. We shopped a finished pilot.
Does that even happen anymore?
TV was in the process of changing a lot at that time. It doesn’t feel as viable now, but it’s a great way to communicate a proof of premise.
Kathy Griffin had an arc in the last Search Party episodes after years of essentially being blacklisted. Do you think we’re going to see more people hiring her again?
I hope so. There was never any pushback to our doing it. She took a lot of flak for speaking her mind, but, in general, the casting on Search Party marched to the beat of its own drummer. The pool of actors that they were working with — John Waters, the late Louie Anderson — were on the fringes.
You met Sarah-Violet and Charles while teaching writing at NYU, which seems like an odd detour for you. How did that happen?
I taught screenwriting in the graduate film program for about six years. I was in a period where my career wasn’t really going in the direction that I wanted it to. It wasn’t enough to just kind of get jobs. I wanted a career. So, I thought, “Get a full-time teaching job and maybe make a movie every couple of years!”
I read that you’ve quit acting.
I’m not done acting, I’m done thinking of myself as an actor. In retrospect, I don’t know that I ever thought of myself as an actor. Now that I do what I do, I realize I never enjoyed acting nearly as much as this. Like, I love going to the theater. But there’s no part of me that’s looking at these actors and thinking, “Man, I wish I was up there.” As someone who is very competitive, very prone to professional jealousy, that strikes me as an interesting sentiment on my part.
So, how did you end up getting back to Hollywood full time?
I had written a script with — not a student of mine, but another NYU grad film student — Laura Terruso called Hello, My Name Is Doris. We got Max Greenfield and Sally Field to star [in the 2015 film] and I just threw myself into that project. It felt like my chance to show people how I see myself as a director, as a writer, my aesthetic, which is more in this dramedy space — not so straight comedic as Wet Hot American Summer. I felt like I’d done that prior with a movie called The Baxter, which I’m really proud of, but it didn’t have the kind of impact I’d hoped it would.
Doris made $15 million off of a $1 million budget, which I’m assuming played a big part in you going on to direct The Big Sick.
Yes, that’s when the doors flew open for me — after many years of being in the game but not necessarily finding continuity. So there were sort of all of these huge projects all happening in a very short period of time, and all of them were really well received. That was kind of a big moment.
In terms of collaboration, so much of your early career was intertwined with your Stella partners David Wain and Michael Ian Black. Do you three discuss doing anything together in the future?
We did come back for those two seasons [in 2015 and ’17] of the Wet Hot American Summer series on Netflix, which was so great.
Reboots remain such a huge part of the marketplace. Do you think you could pull that off again?
The door is always open for that kind of thing. It’s not something that I feel any sense of urgency about, but I could certainly see something happening somewhere down the road. But again, I like the behind-the-scenes part. It doesn’t feel as urgent because it would involve me performing, and that’s not something that is super exciting to me — partly because I’m getting old and misshapen.
Eh. You’ve got a good head of hair, so you’re ahead of a lot of people.
If everything was just from here up [gesturing above his torso], then I would do it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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