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Were you a fan of the Muppets before signing onto this movie?
Truth be told, I sort of missed the whole Muppets period when it was a variety show. In the early '70s I was at University of Missouri and then in the mid-'70s I moved to Manhattan. I didn't have a TV all those years. I caught up by looking at some old YouTube [clips] to see what the hell I was dealing with.
Wow. You didn't own a TV?
No, I didn't. But boy, I do remember going over to a friend's [in college] and I probably [made] the best discovery of what was on TV in the '70s. Within, like, two hours, I discovered Monty Python's Flying Circus, Billy Crystal (who had a stand-up routine that was brilliant) and Andy Kaufman.
You've played a lot of villains, but you've never been up against heroes as lovable as the Muppets. How did you tap into your character's rage?
I was doing everything I could to find what I didn't like about the Muppets, so I'd treat them pretty poorly. I found that I could develop a dislike for Miss Piggy [based on] her strength of character. And most of the other [Muppets] were sort of on the periphery, so [I'd] find something to dislike about all of them. But I must say, Kermit is just heartbreakingly sweet.
The Muppets is a longtime pet project of Jason Segel. How was working with him?
There were a couple of days where our trailers were right next to each other, and I ambled over there and introduced myself; he had those backyard easy chairs down on the asphalt parking lot. I just saw immediate, total enthusiasm for what he had come up with. I think he was being very, very respectful of the purity of the Muppets, and I hope we haven't gotten too off the mark.
You bust into a rap during the movie, which seems out of character.
Granted, I wouldn't argue with you. I found a new respect for hip-hop because it took a little getting used to. I went over to Los Angeles a couple of weeks before shooting and worked with [Flight of the Conchords star and Muppets music supervisor] Bret [McKenzie] to lay down a track that they could play during the hip-hop number. We just had a blast coming up with different ways to present it. Bret would say, "Throw in a James Brown hah!" It was a lot of fun.
It reminded me a lot of Mick Jagger's singing-to-the-camera scene in Performance.
[Laughs] Well, I love hearin' that!
Would you consider starring in a straight-up comedy?
It's a little strange when I think about it. The [role] that got me the most recognition and awards and all that stuff was the closest to comedy I've been allowed to play. That was John Laroche in Adaptation. He had a lot of dry wit that I liked. Over the years, I've tried to put out the word that I've been looking for some comedy, light comedy. But you know, it's just never come to pass.
How is filming going for Robert Redford's The Company You Keep?
It's great. I'd worked with him before, in The Horse Whisperer, and I'm playing his younger brother once again. Anytime you see Redford on TV and in interviews, that's just what you get. He's really wonderful and a really great filmmaker.
The Muppets opens Wed 23.