Jason Bateman has made a career out of playing put-upon nice guys, so his newest role isn’t just a departure, it’s a holy-four-letter-word departure. It’s also the 45-year-old actor’s directorial debut. In Bad Words, which opens Friday, Bateman plays a foul-mouthed man who exploits a loophole in the rules to qualify for a children’s national spelling bee. And he’s going to destroy those kids, not to mention enrage their parents. When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Globe and Mail sat down with Bateman to talk about stepping behind the camera, playing a jerk and whether there’s such a thing as too many bad words.
When did you start thinking seriously about directing?
My father was a writer-director-producer. So he never took me to the park to throw the ball. He would take me to movies. That was our bonding. He would explain to me what is good acting, what is bad acting. That’s kind of how I got my passion for acting. But in those same conversations we would talk about the film, why you were so emotional in that moment. I was too young to intellectualize it, but it’s been on my radar for a long time.
How did you come across the script?
I told my director agent to please not wait for a dead spot in my acting schedule to try to pursue the directing stuff. I’ve been acting just to create an opportunity to direct. They sent me three scripts, and this was one of them. I sat with the writer and worked on it for about a year.
Is it fun to play such a misanthrope?
Things that make me laugh the most are things that come from people not at their best, people who are making bad decisions, people who are confused, people who are embarrassed, people who lose their dignity. People who are flawed. And whenever you have someone that is as in pain emotionally as this guy is, it’s going to lend itself to deep drama and painful humour.
Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of Arrested Development [which starred Bateman], once said that it was his job to make the characters on the show as despicable as possible and the actors’ job to make them as likeable as possible. Was that a guiding principle for you and your character?
Hopefully there’s something that you see that assures you that he’s in a bit of pain and somehow you can find some empathy for him.
Was it always the plan that you would star as well as direct?
No. I took a couple of swings at some big shots and they were busy or not interested, I don’t know. I always promised the financier that it would be me at worst.
Do you see yourself one day only directing, or do you prefer the combination?
I think the combination is probably the more realistic balance because I do really like acting. But I’m so attracted to the challenge of directing. It is incredibly more involved.
As a director handling some pretty foul-mouthed material, is it inhibiting to think that a joke might cross a line?
That’s all execution. People can put vulgarity in film, elements that could be distasteful. But it really does come down to execution. You could say the same thing about thrillers. Is the blood too much? You have to find what it is that is justifiable about that story, those people and this world to ask people to view it as entertainment. And by entertainment, I don’t necessarily mean feel-good or comedy, but a true window into people different than you. Hopefully we got the balance right.
Do you think your dad is going to like the movie?
I think he’ll like parts of it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.