[SNL] is highs and lows. Sometimes it's the best job in the world, and other times it's just sad and tough.
Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear shares the title of a cheesy educational children’s program found in his debut feature. It’s 25-year-old James’ (Kyle Mooney) favorite TV show, which chronicles the adventures of a life-size Teddy Ruxpin—think public-access Barney on acid—that imparts strange moral lessons: “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and “Trust only the familial unit.” After each episode ends, James trots to his computer to post vlogs and peruse the show’s online fan forums.
The wide-eyed young man lives with his parents, Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). We soon learn that, unbeknownst to him, they abducted James at infancy and is now keeping him isolated in an underground bunker. James wonders if he’ll ever see the outside world. Then, a conveniently timed FBI raid reroutes his path. Ted and April are apprehended, and a good-natured cop (Greg Kinnear) reunites James with his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins).
The biggest adjustment for James is making peace with the fact that, not only is Brigsby Bear fictional—no one has even heard of it. That’s because it’s a show that his electronic plush toy tycoon “dad” produced on a nearby soundstage as a brainwashing tool for a party of one. James is left to decipher his new and terrifying future in the only way left that makes any sense to him: with Brigsby Bear. He sets out to make a final episode of the show and picks up real life lessons with it.
Frequently cast as children and socially awkward misfits of indeterminate mental stability on SNL, Mooney has perfected the sweet naiveté of youth. His sincere portrayal of someone who grew up in isolation and warped by his environment mines warm laughs without any trace of condescension or cynicism. Anthem spoke to Mooney over orange juice—really—at the Shanghai International Film Festival last month while Brigsby Bear was competing for the Best Film Golden Goblet prize.
Brigsby Bear opens in select theaters on July 28.
You flew in last night. Have you even had a chance to do anything other than sleep?
Well, our producer, Allen [Di], is in essence our tour guide. He took us to this restaurant not too faraway. He just started ordering plates of food. I couldn’t even tell you what I ate. Fried fish, spicy chicken… I don’t know the names of the dishes, you know what I’m saying?
What are you gonna do here?
I don’t know. I’m thinking about maybe going to Shanghai Disney.
Brigsby Bear world premiered at Sundance earlier this year. How did that go?
It was awesome. That was the first time we ever showed it to an audience. It was scary. And my whole thing was, “I hope it sounds okay,” because I had just done ADR. When you watch it in the theater, there are moments early on in the film like, “Okay, if they respond to this, it’s probably going to be a decent screening.” Those audiences at Sundance were great.
Just how self-critical are you when you watch yourself played back?
Usually not very self-critical. But I kind of had to be with this one because I was in the editing room helping Dave [McCary] and our editor Jacob [Craycroft]. I got to be like, “This take I like, this take I don’t like,” so I got to kind of pick and choose what was on screen and what wasn’t on screen. So performance-wise for me watching it, I was pretty fine with it.
You’re the star of Brigsby Bear, but you also co-wrote it. Where did the idea come from?
I wrote it with my friend Kevin Costello. I was kind of obsessed with this notion of a kid watching a TV show made by his parents. Also, I have this pretty massive video collection of children’s shows from the 80s and 90s. I think I just pulled from that. I like that we got to explore the Brigsby Bear TV world as well as James’ life outside of it. Creatively, we got to do a lot of fun stuff.
What kind of stuff did you grow up watching as an impressionable little kid?
Everything. Star Wars, He-Man, Rainbow Brite, Care Bears, G.I. Joe, ThunderCats…
Isn’t it strange what our childhood obsessions have become in contemporary culture?
It is strange. Look at Transformers. It was this show we watched as a kid and toys we played with. Hollywood or whatever power knew that, somewhere in the recesses of our mind, Transformers is important and maybe we would go to the movies or our kids would go see it. It’s fascinating.
What’s something that made a resurgence that you thought was really great?
The 21 Jump Street movies. Incidentally, those were directed by [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller who produced our movie. I’m trying to think of other ones… I can’t say I seek those out or go see them a ton, but I usually like ones that put some sort of a spin on it, you know what I mean?
If you look back at your influences and what you aspired to become, whatever that might’ve been, does it make sense why Kyle Mooney became who we know now in pop culture?
Truthfully, when I was growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor or a filmmaker. I thought I’d be a musician or something like that. I was really into underground hip-hop, the Beatles and stuff like that. I was also into Saturday Night Live growing up. Then I started doing improv and sketch comedy in college. In college, I liked a lot of arthouse movies like Godard and Truffaut and Bergman and stuff like that. Also, I was in a sketch comedy group for a while and made Internet videos, so I was always into YouTube videos. These are mostly kids who just vlog, who have no audience. They’re like 12 years old and maybe in the middle of the country in the U.S. They talk to cameras like, “Heyyy, guys. Sorry I haven’t made a video in a while! Even though I only have 50 views or something like that…” you know what I mean? But I like stuff like that because it’s a peek into these characters that you wouldn’t meet otherwise. All these people upload videos and you get a chance to kind of get a glimpse into somebody’s world that you wouldn’t normally.
I knew what to expect coming here, but censorship in China is really batshit. Facebook, Instagram and Google aside, not having access to YouTube is really doing a number on me. It made me realize how culturally stunted I would become living here without those luxuries.
Obviously, we don’t have to deal with that in the States. But I just kind of operate from the standpoint of, “Whatever makes you happy, just go full into it,” you know what I mean? In Brigsby Bear, for instance, this kid is obsessed with a TV show. And it’s the only show he’s ever watched. He gets fully into it. Whatever little things you can get your hands on, just watch those over and over again, and learn from them. Just try to explore your imagination to come up with whatever cool things you can do on your own. Also, I’m fortunate in the sense that I made this movie with my friend Dave who I’ve known for probably 20 years. I’ve known him since I was a kid, and it’s the same thing with Kevin. Find like-minded individuals or friends that you can work with. Maybe they’ll expose you to things sometimes. It’s kind of like that’s the way we’ve always worked, you know? Dave will show me a video, I’ll show him a video, and it’s a dialogue.
You’re not only part of an ensemble on SNL, but a cornerstone player. Do you love your job?
There’s no other job like it that I know of, really. The hours are crazy. We get one day off, which is Sunday. Otherwise, we’re pretty much in the office the whole time pitching ideas, writing ideas, and then blocking the sketches that are picked. It’s cool, but also hectic. It’s very exhausting. One thing I like about it is that you get the opportunity to try and create something new every week. Sometimes I won’t get anything on and sometimes I will. Also, every week is kind of a reset. You get to come up with something completely new and start all over. It’s a nice thing to know that you’re able to do that. Even if you feel totally drained creatively sometimes, you can sort of knock some inspiration out. Obviously, I’ve gotten to interact with people I would otherwise never gotten a chance to. I’ve gotten to see musical artists that I never would’ve seen probably. It’s highs and lows. Sometimes it’s the best job in the world, and other times it’s just sad and tough.
If you got frustrated for real—like really mad—I don’t know that people would know it.
Sure, I’ll get frustrated. But like I said, next week you can try again, you know what I mean? It levels your head a bit. Also, I’ve been there a few years now so I’m kind of used to it, you know?
If you do even a quick scan of Brigsby Bear, there’s a lot to get excited about. It’s a high-concept and totally unique. What’s the most exciting thing about it on a very personal level?
From a general place, the most exciting thing about the movie to me is that I got to make it with my friends and that it’s also kind of a movie about making a movie with your friends. So there are these multiple levels happening where our experience off-screen is similar to the experience of James on screen. I just feel like I always wanted to make a movie. Even if it failed, that would’ve been okay because we had such a good time in the process of making it and hanging out with one another and shooting and messing around. We shot it in Utah. Now I’m in Shanghai. It’s been a truly rad experience. Definitely surround yourself with the people you trust. With this movie, it was nice because I’ve known Dave for so long that he was aware of me as an actor. He knows what I’m capable of or not capable of. Things went relatively smoothly considering it’s our first movie.
What were the difficult things to grapple with in production?
The tough things are like finding money to produce it, casting it… That’s pretty much it.
How does it feel to sort of distance yourself from a dominant SNL identity?
For me, it’s refreshing because, as much as I love working at SNL, that’s not all of me, you know what I mean? And there’s only so much material that you can get on that show since it’s supposed to be broad and it’s supposed to kind of make sense to a wider audience. So you can’t always get super weird or dramatic. For me, Brigsby Bear is just another extension of me. There’s stuff that I get to do on the show, but this is just another version of the things that I think about or the things that are important to me. It’s definitely something I want to continue doing. We wanted to make something that was as honest as possible. Sometimes you can’t always do that in a comedy sketch.
When you’re coming up with sketches, is there a constant desire to please Lorne Michaels?
I think we’re always trying to do the funniest, smartest things possible. You just want to make the best show possible every week, you know what I mean? We just try to make each other laugh. It’s crazy that, every Saturday at 11:30 PM, we’re just going on, whether we’re ready or not.
That must be a great comfort to you as well.
It is. Also, I’ve been through the process enough now that I know it’s all going to work out. Some jokes will hit, some jokes will not hit. That’s always fascinating because we’ll do a dress rehearsal where a sketch might perform super well, but then you do it live where it totally bombs. You never really know what’s going to happen. But in the end, it all kind of evens out.
Generally, how sure are you before going live that a certain joke will land in a sketch?
Going into it live, I can be, consistently, about 70% sure as to whether something will play or not.
That’s not too bad for a joke, considering all the uncontrolled variables on a show like that.
But you never know. Sometimes I’m totally wrong. There are so many factors. The host is in every single sketch so they might perform one sketch way better than the next one. They might have trouble on the one after that. That’s a factor. It’s a totally new audience every time and maybe they’re tired that week. Maybe they’re not ready to laugh. Maybe they’re really ready to laugh and it’s like everything hits. You have a pretty good idea from the dress rehearsals. You see what might or might not play after you’ve been kind of working on the sketches all week.
Now that you’re telling me this, I think I would be most afraid of unreliable hosts.
Yeah, but since I’ve been there, I can only think of maybe a couple exceptions to shows going pretty much as planned. They’ve been doing it for 40 plus years now. They’ve kind of got it down.
Who’s your favorite host from the time you’ve been at SNL?
It’s tough to say favorite. I generally like the hosts that I get to do sketches with, and sketches that I wrote or something like that. This year, we had Chris Pine and he’s somebody who’s kind of a friend of a friend of mine. It was rad hanging out with him. He’s super funny. Dave Chapelle and that show was one of my favorites since I’ve been there. I thought he was so great. But truly, I love everybody that comes through. There’s always something to learn, you know what I mean?