Posing questions to Oscar winner Rash

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2012 

  • The third season of "Community" with Jim Rash premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC. For details, see nbc.com/community.

  • Born: In Charlotte on July 15, 1971

    Education: Graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill 1994 with a Radio-Television-Movie degree

    Current: Plays Dean Pelton on the NBC series "Community"

    Other television credits: "Help Me Help You," "Sky High," "Smiley Face," "Slackers," "Friends," "That '70s Show," "Cybill," "Reno 911!"

One of the most indelible moments of the 2012 Academy Awards was an inspired bit of improvisation by Charlotte native (and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus) Jim Rash.

Fresh from being handed his best-adapted-screenplay Oscar for co-writing the George Clooney film "The Descendants," Rash struck a leg-out pose mimicking presenter Angelina Jolie's sultry posture. The audience erupted, and online pictures and spoofs instantly went viral.

It was a theatrical gesture worthy of Dean Pelton, the strangely quirky college dean Rash plays on NBC's comedy series "Community," which has its third-season premiere Thursday night. "Community" represents Rash's most high-profile role to date after a decade-plus of small parts on "Friends," "That '70s Show," "Reno 911!" and other shows. But the Oscar is opening up new opportunities for him behind the camera, too, including a still-untitled action comedy starring Kristen Wiig and the chance to direct a version of his screenplay "The Way Back."

We caught up with Rash by phone when he was still aglow from his Oscar triumph.

Q: So what does one do with an Oscar?

Right now it's still in the phase of friends wanting me to bring it places, so they can hold it and take pictures of themselves with it. So it's still a travel buddy. I do have a home for it in my office, where it will live after that. I guess I'll use it to try and inspire myself to keep writing.

Q: Did you write at UNC?

I took a screenwriting class where you wrote a screenplay up to the hook, the first 30 or so pages. I wrote this horrible thing called "Gnat Boy" that I don't remember. I hope it was more clever than a boy turning into a gnat, but that's probably what it was. Writing for me really took off when I joined Groundlings, the improv troupe in L.A. It was like a boot camp for writing because you're writing sketches constantly, always trying new material. I started falling in love with writing there, and it's where I met my writing partner Nat (Faxon).

Q: How long did it take to break through to good parts?

A long time. I started out waiting tables, just like I'd done in Chapel Hill. Then I got my first commercial, for McDonald's, and I thought, "This is it, I'm off and running!" With pride, I quit my job - not thinking that this was a limited one-month run, not enough money to last very long. I did a lot of odd things after that. Then luckily because of Groundlings, things gradually started to happen.

Q: So the Oscar pose was spur of the moment, not premeditated?

It certainly was not my intention to steal the show. When you're one of multiple nominees, you get a letter telling you to designate one speaker. Alexander (Payne) was ours. I did not set out to mock Angelina by any means. But I was watching her own that moment up there, rocking that look and sort of laughing as she posed. Then after your name is called, you're overwhelmed by emotion you can't articulate, and I wanted to silently show my pride. So I did that. And although everyone took it as me spoofing her, I was just trying to own that moment the way she had.

Q: Did you get a chance to speak to her afterward?

No. I did not think there would be such a reaction. I don't know her but I'm definitely gonna write her a little note about it. I owe her that much at least.

Q: Regardless, it's good timing for "Community."

We did a couple of "Community" promos, one that mentions "Oscar-winner Jim Rash." They tried to get me to wear a dress and I said no. I wear enough dresses on the show without doing that in the promos, too.

Q: So what's the biggest effect of winning? People ask what it's like after winning an Oscar. For an actor, I'm sure it's a flood of scripts to be read. But as a writer, it's more like, "I'm off to the coffee shop again, alone, for the next three months. Thanks, I'll see you when I'm done." Now that's a high-class problem. I love writing and great opportunities are coming my way, so that's not lost on me at all. But writing is still a very tough thing.

Q: Will this get "The Way Back" to the screen now?

Yes, I think so, although we had to change the name to "The Way, Way Back." But it's a coming-of-age story based on something that happened to me in my youth. The title pertains to the way-back seat in a station wagon - the dangerous seat. It alludes to that, and the emotional journey of a mom and son reconnecting. Our goal is to shoot this summer, maybe in North Carolina. If all goes according to plan, I hope to be in North Carolina in July.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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