When Toronto-born comedian Will Arnett picks up the phone at the New York apartment he shares with his wife Amy Poehler, I have one simple question: What does it feel like to be called a future king of comedy?
Arnett, a lanky guy with a voice that scratches the ear like fine-grade sandpaper, starts to chuckle at the title recently bestowed on him by Entertainment Weekly. "I've also been ranked No. 9 on Best Week Ever's Top 15 Sexiest Nerd Boys," he points out.
"Am I naturally funny?" he muses. (One pictures his fingers thoughtfully stroking his pointed chin.) "I've always considered myself a jackass more than anything."
After only a few moments of chatting with Arnett, I beg to quibble - only a bit - with that self-assessment.
He tells me that he and Poehler gave their newborn son the unusual name of Archie "because we're fans of old Germanic names," and that he often dons the skintight, sequined skating costumes he sported in Blades of Glory for spins on the ice at nearby Rockefeller Centre.
So maybe "jackass" is a bit strong. "Extremely articulate smartass" might say it better.
The 38-year-old then moves on to all sorts of unfiltered confessions. There's the former drinking problem. ("I like to call them the blurry years" - he doesn't touch the stuff now.) There's his career being in the dumpster in the 1990s. ("They wrote me out of, or fired me from, almost every pilot I auditioned for.") There's being booted out of an impressive number of Toronto public and private schools. ("It was often mutually agreed - upon frisking - that I was allowed to leave the premises.")
But to use, I suspect purposely, a tired cliché, the reformed bad boy notes that "it's always darkest before the dawn, and that's certainly been true in my life - on a number of occasions."
He easily credits Fox's critically acclaimed 2003 series Arrested Development, created by Mitch Hurwitz, for turning him around. "It came into my life seemingly out of nowhere. I was rehearsing a play in New York that was not going well, and all of a sudden this show came along - which I initially balked at even reading for. I was so sick of sitcom pilots. And rejection.
"But I remember being faxed scenes, and I read it on the subway, and everything felt right. There was something about it that spoke to me," says Arnett, who played George Oscar Bluth II, a bumbling out-of-work magician. "In 48 hours, I had the job, and I was doing a read-through in Beverly Hills - wondering: 'How the hell did I end up here?' "
These days, Arnett, also dubbed one of the 20 hottest new faces in comedy by Premiere magazine, is in demand from movie executives as well as television honchos who like his sardonic geekiness.
In addition to recent appearances on such TV shows as 30 Rock, Arnett is scoring film offers - including When in Rome, co-starring Kristen Bell, Danny DeVito and Anjelica Huston; and the upcoming Arrested Development movie. Further, thanks to his gravelly bass, the actor is landing voiceover gigs on animated blockbusters like the upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens and Fox's new animated comedy, Sit Down, Shut Up, another Hurwitz concoction.
In Sit Down, Arnett is the voice of bodybuilder Ennis Hofftard, a fitness aficionado who sidelines as a teacher. The animated sitcom has live-action backgrounds, and a plot that involves unconventional high-school teachers, in a small fishing town, who always put the students second.
Included in the cast is Arnett's Arrested Development co-star Jason Bateman as Larry Littlejunk (a gym instructor, and the only one at the school who can teach), and Henry Winkler as Willard Deutschebog, a suicidal German teacher.
Arnett was born in Toronto into an upper-middle-class family. His dad, James, was a Harvard-trained lawyer who ran Molson Breweries for a few years. The main preoccupation of his mom, Alexandra, was raising her kids - one of them seemingly hell-bent on driving her crazy.
Arnett says he's not sure why he had such a predilection for landing in hot water back in his teen days; but he adds that, now that he's finally acting like an adult, he has newfound respect for the patience most of his overseers displayed. "Any teacher I had, especially when I was 14 or 15, I feel sorry for. Let's just say if they were predisposed to have a drink or two - I may have added a couple of ounces to their daily intake."
After being kicked out of the Toronto French School and Lakefield College near Peterborough, Ont., Arnett finally graduated from Leaside High. He then went to Concordia University in Montreal, but dropped out after one semester.
His mom, by then about fit to be tied, encouraged him to pursue acting, and at 20 Arnett moved to New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. He began appearing in plays, but then the lean years - and the drinking - began. "Was I depressed? Hmm. I don't know if I'd use that word. Let's say I was so low I'd have to rally to die.
"In my 20s, I wanted to be taken seriously. I was young and dumb, and I didn't know what I was good at. I'd roundly rejected doing sitcom pilots - and would only read for the odd one - and that was because I had to make rent. In the end, I fell backward into comedy. And it's funny now that it's ended up being my career.
"By the way, as an actor, you should never use the expressions 'my' and 'career' in the same sentence. It's embarrassing."
Arnett started dating Poehler (whom he'd met in New York years before) in 2000. They married in August, 2003, and he says their life - especially with the addition of Archie - is rich. Arnett can't help but brag about Poehler's SNL appearances with Tina Fey during the runup to the U.S. presidential election. "For me, what I thought was the most awesome moment was when Amy did her rap on Weekend Update. Sitting next to her, you had the candidate for vice-president [Sarah Palin] swaying back and forth, as Amy spewed out this - in a lot of ways - pretty damning ditty. It was exciting to see, firsthand, all that stuff go down. Amy, Tina and Seth [Meyers]did a great job of keeping all that in check."
These days, Arnett says he's looking forward to making the Arrested Development movie - in particular working with Bateman, Hurwitz and, he hopes, Brampton, Ont.-born Michael Cera (the only regular cast member not yet to have officially confirmed).
"He was 15 when he started on the show. In comes this nice, grounded kid who comes from a really good family, and was just very comfortable in his own skin. It's pretty amazing to have that in someone so young. I certainly didn't have it. It sounds kind of patronizing to say: I'm proud of him. But I'm in awe of him."
Despite all the grey hairs he gave his parents, Arnett says he's close to them and his siblings, and tries to get home to Toronto whenever he can. "It's not as often as I'd like, but you know how it goes. You've got your work. You're busy in your life. But I love going up there. I still feel a real connection to Toronto."