-by Ken Plume
With the first of the 2-part season finale of The Venture Bros. airing this Sunday Evening (October 8th) at 10:30pm on adult swim, we thought now would be the perfect time to run our in-depth interview with James Urbaniak - better known to fans as Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture.
He’s also the voice of Rusty’s brother, Jonas, Jr., and the villainous Phantom Limb.
An OBIE Award-winning stage actor, cinephile’s will recognize him from Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool and the upcoming Fay Grim - not to mention dozens of other roles, including Robert Crumb in American Splendor.
On the small screen, he’s currently starring as the murderous “Accountant” on NBC’s Kidnapped, airing at 10pm on Wednesdays.
You can read his actor-y blog at http://urbaniak.livejournal.com/
Let’s say we get this show on the road…
KEN PLUME: I’ve very much been looking forward to speaking with you. Especially discussing the picture that’s been painted of you by Jackson (Publick) and Doc (Hammer).
JAMES URBANIAK: The what?
KP: The picture that has been painted of you by them.
URBANIAK: I’m not aware of that.
KP: It’s mostly complimentary.
URBANIAK: Does it hang in the AstroBase?
KP: Yes. Doc paints it in his free time.
URBANIAK: I haven’t seen the painting. I didn’t even know it existed. Is it one of his detailed portraits?
KP: Well, you’re wearing lingerie.
KP: One of his frillier choices.
URBANIAK: Yes. He just put my face over the girl’s body.
KP: It’s really how he sees you.
URBANIAK: Yes (laughing). He sees everybody that way.
KP: But no, it’s quite flattering and you have the most provocative come hither look.
URBANIAK: Well, I can’t wait. Are you joking or are you serious?
KP: I can’t believe you think I’m actually serious about that.
URBANIAK: No, I - you’re saying there’s a painting of me that Doc made. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had actually done that.
KP: That’ll be for the DVD cover art.
URBANIAK: I wouldn’t think it would be a detailed portrait, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d rigged up a cartoon…
URBANIAK: That’s what I thought you meant.
KP: No. They had painted a portrait through words of what it’s like to work with you.
URBANIAK: Oh, I see…
KP: But naturally I fell into the pitfall of not thinking about exactly how I was saying it - since Doc is a painter, I should have been more clear…
URBANIAK: It’s a late hour and I start to get tired…
KP: Well, that’s good. It means you’ll be more free in revealing everything.
URBANIAK: Got it.
KP: Tell me everything about Hal Hartley.
URBANIAK: Yeah. (laughing)
KP: So if we were to go back, you were born in New Jersey, correct?
URBANIAK: I sure was.
KP: Would you say that there were any inclinations toward this sort of actorly path, or were there other things that held your attention earlier on?
URBANIAK: Well, when I was a kid I always enjoyed performing, like in school, and when I was in elementary school I was always sort of picked to be in, you know, school plays and… I remember, like, third grade, fourth grade and fifth grade, all those years in a row the teachers would spend part of the day having us perform little sketches and plays that we would write and perform. And I really loved doing that sort of stuff, and I was always picked to be in everyone’s shows.
KP: What’s the earliest one you can remember?
URBANIAK: I remember writing a puppet show that I did with my friend Roger Stein in, I think, the third grade. And it was sketch, and it was two sock puppets… actually, it was a sock puppet who won the lottery. It was a very short play. I was the puppet, and my friend read the radio announcer who was announcing the winning lottery ticket. And the sketch was that I talked about how I bought a lottery ticket and they were gonna announce the winner, and then my friend said, “And the winning number of the lottery is, 1, 7, 8, 5, 3, 4, 7, 2, 1, 8, 9…” and it just went on and on for like, you know, a minute. And that was that sketch. And then later that year, Roger Stein and I, as eight year old boys are wont to do, got into a fight. And Roger said, “I can’t believe that I did all those things for you and I read all those stupid numbers in that play!”
KP: Really knows how to dig the knife in…
KP: Was that a template for other creative battles you would have as a professional actor?
URBANIAK: (laughing) Exactly! I spent three years within the 70s in these elementary school classes writing and performing these little skits. I later realized that not every school system in America did that, but I just kinda worked out, and it was something I always enjoyed. No one in my family was in show business or anything.
KP: How would the kids respond to the sketches?
URBANIAK: They were very successful. It was a kind of a weirdly formative time for me, because it was a really early time just kind of creating stuff and performing.
KP: And how would you respond to the audience reaction?
URBANIAK: I would get all jazzed and, you know, excited. A major event in my life was in the fourth grade. I tell this story to many friends, but I think it’s the first time I’ve talked about it in an interview.
KP: I could be a friend.
URBANIAK: It was the… was it fourth grade? I think it was fourth grade. Yes. We were gonna do a school… the class was gonna do a play. And the play was called “Penelope’s Perilous Predicament.” And it was a published children’s play about a girl who was kidnapped by Martians and essentially sold into white slavery on Mars.
KP: Oh, lovely.
KP: Very progressive school.
URBANIAK: (laughing) Well, she’s basically kidnapped by Martians and then becomes a servant on Mars, and then her family finds her and she comes home.
KP: Gotta love those elementary school allegories.
URBANIAK: Yeah. And I was very excited about auditioning for it, because I knew I was a good little actor. On the day of the auditions I got sick, and I… hold on… I gotta tell my wife I’m telling the fourth grade play story. (laughing) She just said, “Oh my god.”
KP: Tell her that’s gonna be part of the interview.
URBANIAK: So… uh… he forced it out of me….
URBANIAK: So, I got sick and I missed the audition. And I was crushed. And I ended up getting a, you know, a part sort of as a supernumerary in the background.
KP: A Martian tree?
URBANIAK: Yeah, a Martian with no lines who just stood there. Well, I resigned myself to that. We rehearsed the play. I was still very excited about being in the play, even though I had no lines. And the teacher knew I was a good little actor, so she assigned understudy parts, and I… now, I understudied one of the lead guys. And then I also was given the job of doing the announcements in the beginning. “Parents, teachers…” - you know, “fellow students, welcome to the play.”
KP: Friends, Romans…
URBANIAK: So, I was really excited about the play. And I was so excited that I memorized the entire play. I memorized the lines I was understudying, but I just couldn’t help it. I learned the whole play. And I remember being at recess reciting it to friends of mine, the entire play. And I understudied a kid named David Briman, who played one of the main characters. There was also a kid in the play named Mark, who was kind of a weird kid who had a sty in his eye - he had this red mark in his eye - who was one of the other main characters, and his understudy was a kid who everyone felt probably wasn’t up to the job. And that kid’s name was Lance. And you could tell Lance wasn’t really into plays. He didn’t seem to really care. And I remember the day before the show someone saying to Mark, “Hey, don’t be sick tomorrow ’cause Lance is your understudy.” And the next day, I came into school and Mark was absent. And I remember a bunch of kids gathered around Lance, and Lance was reading the script, looking really uncomfortable, and kids saying, “Well, maybe your character could have a book on stage, and you can have the lines in the book.” And I said to my teacher, “I know all the lines in the play. I could do the part.” And they said, “Lance, is that okay?” and he said, “Oh yeah.” And he was really happy to be relieved of that duty, and I went on. I went on… (laughing)
KP: Lance could have won an OBIE one day.
URBANIAK: That’s right. And the next day, the kids had to draw pictures and send notes to our class, and there were all these pictures of me on stage, and kids were writing things like, “Jimmy Saves the Day.” And I told this story to a good friend of mine and every time I’m in a play or something she calls me up and says, “Jimmy saves the day.” But that was a pivotal event of my youth.
KP: Now, I want you to hand the phone to your wife and have her tell me her version of the story.
URBANIAK: (laughing) She only knows my version. So, that was kind of the pivotal… that was the highlight of my elementary school acting years. And then when I got into junior high there were a couple plays. But then in high school, I kinda lost interest in that, and I didn’t really… I was in the course of Bye Bye Birdie, freshman year, and I had a part in The Boyfriend. Two classic high school musicals. Senior year. But I didn’t really do much…
KP: But you didn’t do The Pajama Game.
URBANIAK: I didn’t do The Pajama Game. I didn’t do much in high school.
KP: Where did your interest drift during that period?
URBANIAK: In high school my interests kind of drifted all over the place. Sort of everywhere except my studies. I kinda spaced out in high school. And I kinda got into… I was never that much into comic books per se, but I was really interested in my cartooning and illustration. And it was around that time that I was thinking that might be something that I’d want to do, is actually be, like, an illustrator or cartoonist. And I got very influenced by a lot of the classic illustrators. Ralph Steadman, of course, was a big influence. And a lot of classic guys. New York illustrator guys like Arnold Roth…
KP: Was there a specific type of illustration that appealed to you… That you gravitated towards?
URBANIAK: No… You know who was also a great influence? Terry Gilliam. The Python illustrations. And I still draw cartoons to this day, and a lot of them still look like sort of Terry Gilliam drawings.
KP: Do you just draw for recreation?
URBANIAK: Yeah, just recreation.
KP: And yet you have a livejournal.
URBANIAK: I have a livejournal, yes, but I don’t have any drawings on there.
KP: But everyone else does that with a livejournal. That and poetry. Maybe you should do that for April Fools Day next year.
URBANIAK: What’s that?
KP: Just turn into your teenage livejournal.
URBANIAK: Well, I did do a post in the early days - and I started it almost a year ago. One day I did a post where I pretended to be a teenage girl. And that was a pretty successful entry.
KP: Because everyone bought it.
URBANIAK: I did my research. One way to research a livejournal would be just type in a girl’s name. Like Melody.livejounal.com, and chances are you’ll get a teenager named Melody’s page. So I was just putting in random girls names to see what they were writing about. So I did this post where I wrote poetry and talked about how people shouldn’t be mean to each other.
KP: And it was the most free you’ve ever been.
URBANIAK: But hey, sometimes I write little fictional pieces and I write little political posts which are basically me saying people shouldn’t be mean to each other.
KP: Don’t take what I said as a critique. I enjoy your livejournal quite a bit.
URBANIAK: Well thanks.
KP: Particularly its insight into the life of a working actor.
URBANIAK: Yeah. That’s sort of the idea, but the life of a working actor includes a lot of down time. So there’s a lot of other stuff that goes on in a livejournal.
KP: Well, that and the fights…
URBANIAK: Oh, the Josh Emery contretemps, of course.
URBANIAK: Yeah, there are a couple of characters - we call them characters - who sort of appear and take issue with me. Josh Emery… I’ve addressed the question of whether these individuals are real people.
KP: Quite well.
URBANIAK: I kind of think of them as professional wrestlers. The professional wrestling ring, you know, a guy comes out in a big costume and another guy fights with him, and people watch something happening and they’re entertained. That’s certainly a real event. Something’s happening. If strings are being pulled behind the scenes, well, how relevant is that really?
KP: No one can say that there wasn’t some entertainment value to it.
URBANIAK: That’s right.
KP: But the candor you have in the journal is quite nice.
URBANIAK: Oh, thanks. It was influenced by Jackson Publick, really. He’s got his, you know, which I was reading and enjoyed and then one night, I just thought it’d be fun to kinda start one on my own, and I took very, very… I was very tentative in the first couple posts.
KP: As anyone sane should be.
URBANIAK: I kinda plugged it on Jackson’s blog, and pretty soon I started getting some of his readers, and eventually this thing just snowballed out of control. Now it’s just… it’s unstoppable now.
KP: Now it controls your life.
URBANIAK: In fact, yes, I got a nice plug on GreenCine Daily a couple days ago. You know that movie blog?
KP: Yes, it’s one of the ones that links to us, as well.
URBANIAK: And so I got a couple readers saying, “Hey, I saw about your blog in GreenCine,” and I didn’t even realize they plugged it. So it’s slowly spreading. Like a noxious gas.
KP: There’s plenty to find there. There’s no one that can’t say it’s not entertaining. And eventually you’ll have to check out Doc’s MySpace page.
URBANIAK: Oh, I read it fairly often. He doesn’t update very much.
KP: No. He considers it purely a parody of what you and Jackson are doing.
URBANIAK: Right. But he had his before I started mine. Mine is kind of a combination of real life events and possibly how… you know, possible fantasy sort of theatrical situations. (laughing)
KP: My main goal is to make sure that many people visit your livejournal.
URBANIAK: Oh, thank you. Well yeah, I’m just… I haven’t really done much about promoting it. I just figured, you know, it’s the old shampoo commercial. Two friends tell two friends tell two friends, and you slowly get…
URBANIAK: And there’s a little regular community of readers and it’s fun.
KP: You do know you’re this close to having a livejournal party…
URBANIAK: A livejournal party. Ah. Well, I think part of the enjoyment of that is the fact that I don’t… we don’t really know each other. All the people communicating on here.
KP: Oh, they’ll organize it…
URBANIAK: I do have a couple friends who write in.
KP: They’ll organize it themselves.
URBANIAK: (Laughing) That’s right!
KP: They’ll send out the open invitation saying, “We’re having it at the bowling alley/Chuck E. Cheese combo.”
URBANIAK: Yeah, I had a post where I talked about - you know, one or my made up posts, where I talked about VoucherCon 2006 in Las Vegas. The convention. Because, you know, the journal is called “Voucher Ankles,” and my readers are the Voucher Anklets. And so I did kinda have this little fantasy that we had had a convention in Las Vegas.
KP: I’m telling you, you’re this close to a bowling alley in Kearny…
URBANIAK: That’s right - Bowl More Lanes. We can get the New York City/Jersey reader over there.
KP: Doc will come down with his guitar.
URBANIAK: Doc will come down. Tiny Joseph, big Venture Brothers fan, lives in Brooklyn.
KP: I’m telling you, it could be the happening of a Saturday afternoon/”we gotta get back in time before curfew.”
URBANIAK: Yes, that’s right. Well, I don’t get out of the house much anymore because of my beautiful children.
URBANIAK: I got a good excuse.
KP: Well you have what, 50, 60 of them on livejournal? Why do you give all the attention to your biological ones?
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