INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER | PHOTOGRAPHY by JASON COOPER
Talk to Oliver Cooper, and you’d never know he was about to go from a self-proclaimed “nobody” to comedy’s new “It”-man in just a few weeks time. The star of last weekend’s much-talked-about new film (by producer Todd Phillips of The Hangover fame), intriguingly titled Project X, Oliver’s face is one you soon won’t be able to avoid at the box office. In addition to calling the film “courageous,” the New York Times’ review of Project X included a nod to Oliver, citing his “mischievous likability that anchors the enterprise.” At BR!NK, we like to call that “impressive.” I spoke with Oliver for over an hour, leaving the interview with a sense of his unique character. He’s fascinating to watch and listen to, if not because of his hilarious storytelling, then for his quirky, unpretentious honesty.
You’re a total newcomer to the film world. Let’s start at the beginning. How did this all happen?
I grew up in Ohio, and I started doing standup comedy when I was in high school. …I really didn’t want to go to college, I didn’t get good grades. And my family – everyone, grandparents – everyone’s been to college. So they made me go, and I just wanted to get out of Ohio, so I went to Arizona State. And they took forever to accept me. I waited for their answer until July, because I had such poor SAT scores. They were so bad I didn’t even share them with them – I basically said I didn’t take the SAT. So then I started doing standup at Arizona State – I would open for the comics who would come through.
How were you doing with standup at this time?
I was never very good. I was never a good writer, but I would get laughs. I was always experimenting. After a year at Arizona State, I basically wasn’t going to class. One semester I took History of Elvis, History of the Beatles, and History of Broadway. All three online classes. It was useless. I was wasting my parents’ money. I dropped out after that year.
During that summer I was set on moving to New York City. I went there to visit a friend, I found an apartment, I was all set. So I get back and one day my dad started flipping out on me. He’s like, “What do you think you’re going to do in New York? You better find a job within three weeks, or you’re not going! Or I’ll cut you off completely!” And I didn’t know… how the hell was I going to find a job? I’d never been able to hold down a job in my life. So I like, chickened out going to New York, and I think my dad felt bad.
And about a month later, he was like, “Your aunt lives in LA. She’s a flight attendant, I called her up, and she would love to have you live there and take care of the dogs.”
The next semester my brother Jason got me an internship at the Conan O’Brien Show, he was working at NBC. It wasn’t much, I was getting coffee for people, but it was cool to see inside. I was there for about three months, and I would always call my dad and bullshit, and I’m telling him that I’m getting to know these guys, everybody loves me, it’s just a matter of time before I get a job. [laughs] But I wasn’t doing shit, I was getting coffee.
So then what happened after Conan?
I met this guy, Shaun Weiss, (he was Goldberg in the Mighty Ducks movies, and he was in Heavyweights) and it became this unlikely friendship between the two of us. We just started writing comedy together. And I would go to his apartment, and basically we’d hang out all day, write jokes. He became this mentor for me. One of the funniest, most talented people. He was the first person that actually said, “No, you can do this. You’re right for this. Just trust it.”
I was out here about nine months and was in an acting class. This one kid was hanging around and he said, “Hey, go online, Todd Phillips is casting unknowns for his new movie.” I literally walked to the other side of the acting school, and this other kid I know was reading the sides for the [same Todd Phillips] movie and I asked him if he could print me off a copy. And he did, and I immediately got in the car and called Shaun and was like, “I have to get an audition.”
So what did you do?
For two weeks, I memorized these lines. I’d never had an audition for a commercial, nothing, and for two weeks I’m going nuts trying to get this audition. Every day, Shaun and I would meet up at his place at nine in the morning, we were emailing casting directors. I made a video tape of me doing the audition, I sent it to them, I took headshots with his iPhone, sent them to him.
So here’s my question. Why did you want this one so badly?
That’s the weird thing! I think about it sometimes, I don’t know. I’d never had an audition before, and I… I don’t know. I felt like maybe, if I live in LA, I should try to get a fucking audition. I was reading the sides, and I was like, I can play this character. No question I can play this character.
What’s funny about it is… Shaun told me he was going to get me the audition, and I trusted him. So… I told everyone in acting class the next day, “I got an audition for this movie.” And they were like, “Yeah, whatever.” And then a week goes by and they’re like, “How’d the audition go?” and I just lied. I couldn’t tell them I actually didn’t have the audition, so I just said, “Oh, I got a call back tomorrow.” And the next class, they’re like “How’d it go?!” and I still hadn’t had the audition. And I was like, “Oh, I got another call back!” And everyone’s like, “Dude, this is HUGE, Oliver! You got this part!” And nobody even knew I existed.
It really is a bizarre story.
So how did you end up getting the audition eventually?
Shaun and I were getting coffee at Starbucks, and we were ready to give up. But we had put so much effort into it. So Shaun goes, “This is it.” He opens up his phone and he starts emailing Judd Apatow, who did Heavyweights. He writes him this crazy email. He hyped me up, saying “I’m telling you, get this kid an audition.” And Judd got back to him three days later, and he said, “You’re using your last favor on a friend?” And then he called the casting people, got me an audition. He asked Shaun who my manager was, I didn’t have one, so he wrote down his manager, Jeff. Who knew of me, but didn’t know me. And the casting people called Jeff and was like, “We’re confirming an appointment on Monday for Oliver Cooper…” and he was like, “Who?” And they’re like “Judd Apatow called…” and he’s like…
“Oh, right! Oliver!”
What was that first audition like?
I went in there, and it was just the casting director, and Shaun waited out there. And I had practiced this whole script for like two weeks at this point, so I was balls out. The big slogan for this project was, “We’re looking for nobodies.” So when I walked in, I was like, “Heard you were looking for nobody. You found me!” He laughed at that, and then I did the sides. It seemed like it was a good vibe, he liked me, and I walked out of the casting office with Shaun, and I threw up all over outside.
Because I was so nervous! I was drinking a bunch of coffee. I get nervous really easily, so I drank a lot of coffee to sort of play this big character. So I threw up all over the place.
So how did you finally hear you got it after your eventual nine auditions?
They told us they were going to let us know by 3:00 on Thursday. I was so nervous I was sweating, like, shit. They called and were like, “You’re going to do one last reading.” I showed up and these two kids – Jonathan and Thomas – were there. We did this reading and we all knew it was a different vibe, thinking that this could be it. Then they told me, “You’re going to meet with Joel Silver.” (Producer of The Matrix movies.) So we show up in his office and, and he’s like, “How would you like to be in the new Warner Bros movie?” They didn’t officially ever say, so I was like, “That would be cool. Great.” Then that night, Jeff called me and was like, “You got the part.”
I feel like I should applaud at this point. Let’s talk about the movie. What was it like to film a giant party?
You know how you’ll see a movie and there are people in the background, and it looks kind of fake?
Yeah, especially party scenes.
Yeah, exactly. Well, we had a DJ (who was actually one of the characters in the movie) and in between, he would spin. And the extras in this movie were a major part of it – maybe more so than any other movie made. The director was constantly watching these people to make sure that… well, that it was a party. The atmosphere is a big part of what makes a movie feel genuine, and he is the best at that.
When you started this whole story, you seemed to be unsure of what you wanted to do, other than to be in front of people. What have you learned about what makes you tick, or what makes you want something?
One thing is that I have a very good level of commitment to things. I’m good at turning off my brain where I’m not thinking. Nothing was planned. I’m just such an idiot that sometimes it tends to work for me. I’ll probably say something in this interview that I regret saying – I always do that.
You seem to just jump in the water headfirst.
Yeah, honestly, that’s something I’ve learned has worked super well for me, just in life.
What else are you working on now?
I did a short film called Rick White.
I did a short called Marriage Drama with Virginia Madsen for Funny or Die.
And my friend, Joe Burke, and I decided to do a feature film. We shot fifteen days in a row, all at my aunt’s house and an Indian restaurant. My aunt plays herself in the movie, and it’s called In-Between Meals. It’s a movie about a kid who’s lost in life.
What can our readers do for you?
The only thing I can say is… go watch.