Will Arnett spent years toiling away on failed sitcom pilots before the script for Arrested Development came to him in 2003. “I instantly knew it was different,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It was funny on the page. I’ve worked on things that had moments that were funny, but this was funny on so many different levels. I remember we were first shooting this big scene in Lucille’s penthouse in the pilot. I was looking around the room and thinking, ‘This really works.’ That’s a rare feeling.”
When the show went off the air in 2006, Arnett stayed in demand: he teamed up again with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz on the short-lived Running Wilde and had a recurring role as Devon Banks on 30 Rock. He also did a lot of voiceover work in animated films. Rolling Stone spoke with him about returning to the role of G.O.B. in the new season of Arrested Development, which premieres on Netflix on May 26th.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
I’m working on a science project.
Yeah. I just finished the eighth grade, so I’m going back and trying to play catch-up. I’m just being honest with you. . . No, I’m sort of working. . . Not sort of. I’m working on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
Right, right. I just saw pictures on the Internet of you with Megan Fox on the set.
WHAT?! On the WHAT?!
They were on the Intern-
On the inter-WHAT?
On the Internet.
Oh my God! How embarrassing.
Do you feel that, in hindsight, Arrested Development belonged on HBO or a network like that?
Maybe at the time it did. I guess it did. It’s funny. I almost feel like the show has never been more popular than it is right now. It sounds pretentious to say “it was ahead of its time,” but compared to what else was out there and what was successful in the ratings, it was very different. Also, things like Netflix didn’t exist back in 2003. There was HBO and that was kind of it.
Did you always have faith that the show was going to come back someday?
I did. I really did. Not just sort of blind faith. I knew the whole time that Mitch was working on various things and I knew he wasn’t just gonna go away. I knew it was going to come down to him just being able to pull the elements together. It was just more a question of when.
It happened in the best possible way. You know, forever it was going to be a movie. I don’t think anybody saw it coming as an anthology or whatever we’re calling it. . . mini-series. . . whatever it is. I don’t think anybody saw this. But once Mitch laid out to everybody what the plan was, it was obvious it was the only logical move.
Tell me about the first day of filming. What was it like to walk back onto that set and see everyone back in character?
Remember that iconic shot in The Right Stuff, all those astronauts with steam coming up?
It was so unlike that. It was whatever the opposite of that is. [laughs] No, it was great. I’m trying to think. . . My first day of shooting was with Jason [Bateman], but the first day all of us worked together was amazing. Everybody was kind of nervous. I remember we walked in, we were shooting at Lucille’s penthouse set. I could tell everybody in the crew kind of gathered around to shoot the first scene. They were like, “What’s gonna happen?” It was almost like a scene from a weird science project that’s about to unfold. “Let’s see what happens if we mix these two chemicals together.”
Within a couple of minutes, everyone calmed down and settled into their role within the context of the show and within the context of our personal relationships. We all have different roles in that way, too, the way we interact with each other.
How long did you film?
Oh boy. I don’t know. A lot. We started the first week in August and didn’t finish until maybe February. But that’s finishing the whole thing, re-shoots and all that kind of stuff. Because you don’t just walk away. You do it, they look at it, then you go back and there are pieces and elements and things. It took awhile.
Was it confusing to shoot and not quite understand how it fit within the larger context of the show?
Sometimes. It was more confusing when we knew. The next scene often wasn’t fully written, so we’d be looking at a scene and be like, “Well, wait, what’s happening?” There’d be some discussion. Mitch would say, “Well, I think what’s gonna happen is blah blah blah.” It was confusing, but everyone had a lot of faith in Mitch Hurwitz. But there were certainly days where it was very, very confusing.
What’s happened to G.O.B. since we last caught up with him?
I would say that he’s probably more lost. When we pick up with him, we find him in a state of trying to fit in, but he’s gotten more lost. And then through the course of the episodes, you see him trying. . . he’s really looking for a human connection. I’ll put it that way.
It’s gotta be so nice to have no concern about ratings this time.
Well, yeah. We used to go week to week. When the show was first on the air, it was a Sunday night, and by Monday morning, Jason would be in his trailer and he’d be explaining to me what the ratings were. He’d be like, “This is not good.” And we’d be like, “Fuck! We’re gonna get. . . This is it. . . We’re fucking cancelled.”
Then I think, much to the chagrin of the network, we won the Emmy for Best Comedy and they were like, “Ugh, crap! Now we can’t cancel that low-rated show. Yet.”
Do you think that ultimately served the show? It never had a chance to jump the shark.
Well, I’d like to point out, Andy. . .
Right, right, right. Horrible example, since you literally had Henry Winkler jump the shark on the show.
Yeah. . . But I do think we were like the James Dean of TV shows. We live hard, die young and leave a good-looking body. Did he say that, or did somebody say that about him? Either way, there’s a certain benefit to kind of burning bright and fast and blowing out early so you don’t wind up soiling your own legacy. Knowing this group, we definitely would have wound up soiling ourselves.
Even the best shows start sucking after five, six, seven years. You just can’t maintain that momentum.
No, and honestly, for the most part, any time a show goes beyond a certain point, four or five years generally, it just becomes commerce. It’s rare that there’s still more story to tell. I doubt that we’re an exception to that rule.
Do you have a favorite memory from the original run of the show?
I’ve mentioned this before, but the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life was a scene where the family decided they were going to get Lucille to stop drinking and put her in rehab. And then it just turns into a big drinking fest and everybody gets hammered. Tony Hale was on the piano with his hook, hammering on the piano like a maniac. There’s a little cutaway of David Cross coming in wearing his cutoff jean shorts. He didn’t tell anybody he was going to do that, and he just came back into the scene. Jason was wearing Franklin’s wig and I was on the table. I was laughing and tears were just coming down my face.
I remember thinking, “This is such an absurd scene and such an absurd group of people.” It just made me laugh crazy, crazy hard. I laughed the whole way home. I was just dying.
Netflix is uploading all 15 episodes at once. How should fans watch them?
I think you’ve gotta hammer your way through. I think you just gotta hit play and don’t stop until you run out of battery on your viewing device.
They are full of jokes that don’t pay off for a few episodes, right?
Yeah, especially in this version. It’s gonna be hard to just watch and watch through because you’re going to have to go back. There are jokes that pay off in different ways. You’re going to be like, “Oh shit, I didn’t see that!”
It’s funny to think that if the show had aired just a few years later, it might have been saved through DVR, Facebook and Twitter.
Well, turns out the show didn’t need to be saved. . . Or look at it this way: it was.