Will Arnett has a not-altogether-outlandish theory: play a TV character long enough and audiences will find it increasingly difficult to separate you from that fictional construct. "People have this preconceived notion of me," contends the actor, best known as Gob Bluth, the egotistical, moronic magician on Arrested Development. "I'm Gob to them: this thoughtless sociopath who lives this bizarre, ego-driven life. That would be insanity. As I get older, I'm sort of fascinated with the idea of somebody who could construct an entire persona for themselves — one that was really, in a lot of ways, fundamentally at odds with who they really were as a person."
The idea, in fact, lies at the heart of Arnett's latest show Flaked, which he co-wrote and produced, and premieres today on Netflix. He's quick to clarify that rewiring the public's perception of him as someone who only plays confident, oft-clueless characters was not the principal goal: "At no point was I like 'Man, I gotta write me a part where people are going to take me seriously.' I don't fucking think like that." Still, the 45-year-old Canadian actor admits that in portraying the show's central character, Chip — a platitudes-spewing recovering alcoholic from Venice, California, who fashions himself a self-help guru — viewers might finally begin to distinguish him from, say, BoJack Horseman's failed equine sitcom star or that Bluth family member who loved Europe's "The Final Countdown" not wisely but too well.
"I had this idea of this fucked-up character and I wanted to do something stylistically that was a little bit different," Arnett explains. "I wanted to do a comedy that was a little bit dryer, where the jokes are much smaller."
Flaked's executive producer — Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz — is more explicit in articulating the series will, among other things, help audiences see Arnett's skills as a dramatic actor. "People haven't really given Will a chance to show his other chops," Hurwitz says, recounting Arnett's pre-Gob career on Broadway. "I've never doubted that he could do anything. But it was just, 'Will the town let him?' When you're as funny as he, is it's like 'Let's keep using him as the funny guy.'"
Arnett admits he was initially scared to show Hurwitz the script; he feared his friend and longtime collaborator would dismiss the material. "But [Mitch] called back the next day" and not only encouraged Arnett to pursue the project; he wanted to help reshape the pilot and let Arnett and a team of writers work out of his office. When the producer wasn't knee-deep in developing his forthcoming Netflix series Lady Dynamite with comedian Maria Bamford, he would pop in and offer creative insight. "I think he trusted that my interest was in supporting him," Hurwitz says. "Frankly I would have done the same thing I did even if I wasn't involved in it."
Arnett, who called Venice home for a time and still regularly visits the beach community, understands that some may still see the show's narcissistic, kooky (and yes, flaky) SoCal characters as caricatures. But, he contends, the adolescent behavior depicted onscreen — notably the way Chip and bromantic man-children buddies Dennis (David Sullivan) and Cooler (George Basil) engage in brattish arguments over who has "dibs" on their diner's new waitress, London (Ruth Kearney) — is actually "very accurate" to his own experiences. "I don't spend all day conversing in the manner of 'Bro. Dude. Bro," he says adopting a surfer's accent. "But I have witnessed it! And it's not in a fratty way. It's in a way that's very unique to Southern California — and especially that part of it. I have been a party to conversations like that where I'm actually in the moment commenting on how inarticulate [people] are."
Co-writer Mark Chappell, who first worked with Arnett on the David Cross-helmed series The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, had never been to Venice when Arnett presented the idea for the show to him nearly four years ago. After visiting the notoriously laid-back beach town, however, the British writer was struck by its residents' tendency to, as he says, not do very much. "You walk around and you're like "Don't these people have jobs?!?'" Chappell says with a laugh. "They must. How else do they spend so much money on coffee and kale? It's a fascinating little community, and a great backdrop for a show."
Arnett has said Flaked is his most personal show yet, and it's easy to see why: Much like the actor, Chip is a fortysomething man, separated from his famous actress wife (in Arnett's case: Amy Poehler, whom he divorced in 2014; in the show, it's a paparazzi-swarmed ex played by Heather Graham) and obsessed with the concept of self-reinvention. As outlandish as it may have appeared on paper, poring over the trials of flighty Venice bros at a wedge in their life ultimately gave Arnett and the writers the means by which to consider their own lives. Chappell, who recalls working intense 12-hour days "poring over the script," says he and Arnett started from a place of "frustrations at people we know who constantly make promises and don't quite break them enough for you to be able to call them out on it. [But] you don't go too far down that path of criticism of others before you realize that what you don't like in other people is what you don't like about yourself."
As much as the actor says Flaked is "all a send-up," and that he and Chappell "don't take it seriously" it's hard not to sense, if nothing else, the show offered the star a better understanding of the blurred line between his past characters and himself. "You meet lots of people in your life, and sometimes you think that people are a certain way and then they reveal themselves to be a different way," Arnett says. He could speaking about Chip, his motivations for writing Flaked or himself. The line is blurry. "You realize that and you're like, 'Wow!'"