Jason Bateman is not being interviewed here because he pleasures himself to a copy of this magazine in his new film The Switch. In the scene, he has to replace a sperm-bank sample that he has drunkenly spilled down the sink, and the only inspiration he can find in the magazine rack is Diane Sawyer on the cover of New York. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Diane Sawyer.)
No, Jason Bateman is being interviewed here because he is, at 41, the most likable male actor in Hollywood. I base this evidence not on rigorous reporting but on the reactions of people, of all ages and sexual identifications, when I mention his name: women, gay men, lesbians, and straight men, some of whom confess without embarrassment to man-crushes. The glazed, goopy joy his name inspires is rare; even Brad Pitt’s will curl a few lips. And that might explain the media shitstorm surrounding his iPhone purchase.
On June 24, Bateman was lined up outside an Apple Store in Los Angeles with 2,000 other people, waiting to buy an iPhone 4. After an hour and a half, he was spotted by an Apple employee, who pulled Bateman into the store, provoking two days of Internet hisses and boos, a Keith Olbermann smackdown of Us Weekly’s coverage, and a mea culpa from the star himself.
I meet Bateman a week later in L.A., at Soho House. Just as we sit down to talk, a writer friend of Bateman’s stops by to say hello. “I was driving my kid home,” the guy says, “and on the radio they’re reporting that Jason Bateman is sorry for cutting in line. I think, That’s not news!”
“I just got a coffee down the street,” says Bateman, “and another guy says to me, ‘How do you like the iPhone? Was it worth getting fucking booed for?’ ” He laughs. “I’ve been left alone forever, so it was really interesting to see how something can be 75 percent true, and then they take the remaining 25 percent and juice it for a headline that’s click-through-worthy. In the time it took me to get from the Apple Store to my office, five stories were on the Internet, and it was viral in ten hours. The whole angle was that I’m a diva, and what was completely lost was that I was on line!” His friend jumps in: “At first I thought it was publicity for a new film. I met David Duchovny last week, and only just found out the sex rehab was real. I’d always assumed it was promotion for Californication.”
“Because it was right on brand, wasn’t it?” says Bateman.
I suggest that the media fracas might have to do with Bateman’s super-nice reputation. “Right, everyone thought, Ha, ha, he’s had them all fooled. What a bastard!” he says. “I should just kick your chair over right now.”
Jason Bateman’s career can be divided in two: B.A.D. (Before Arrested Development) and A.A.D. (After Arrested Development). It’s a glib joke, though, because Bateman’s career prior to the groundbreaking sitcom (2003 to 2006, tragically cut down in its prime) was not really bad: Jason, like his older sister Justine, started acting as a child, beginning with Little House on the Prairie in 1981, then spending eight years on sitcoms, from Silver Spoons to The Hogan Family—all pleasant, middle-of-the-road shows that were never as good as he was. He did a few films, but only one stuck: “People still come up to me and say, hey, Teen Wolf!” says Bateman incredulously. “Teen Wolf Too closed a week after it opened. Where did they see it?”
Did he always know he was funny? “I got kicked out of a few schools for being a wiseass,” he says. “If I had been funnier, I probably would’ve been embraced by the headmaster rather than kicked out. Clearly I couldn’t write my own material.”
Becoming famous at an age when you’re still figuring out your identity is difficult. Drinking, drugs, and partying—often with his high-school friend Ben Silverman—were all but inevitable. Still, even while flirting with self-destruction in his twenties, Bateman had one foot in self-preservation. “I don’t feel sorry for people in the public eye getting eyed by the public,” he says. “If you’re stumbling out of a bar and people tweet about it, well, don’t be dumb. If you’re going to get falling-down drunk, stay at home—which I did a lot of. I think I was pretty smart about it. Of course, I was drunk at the time.”
His career got a little random in the nineties, including a part in one of Katharine Hepburn’s final films, This Can’t Be Love. “She gave me the greatest note ever: ‘Stop acting.’ ” Altogether? “No,” he says, laughing. “It was after a scene—it was about taking it down.” What was Hepburn like? “She only wore white Reebok high-tops, so for a dress-up scene, she’d just pull black socks over them. That’s what she was like. She hit ‘fuck it’ a long time before I met her.”
When Bateman got the call to audition for Arrested Development, “I really thought my baggage would deem me ineligible for this edgy new product. But, amazingly, they liked me. It’s always obnoxious to hear an actor say, ‘What a close family we were! How much fun we had!’ But it’s true. What was unique about the show was that it was everybody’s sense of humor, including [creator] Mitch Hurwitz, so it was just a dream.” Bateman’s withering cracks, the cocked eyebrow, the blank stare that speaks volumes, had found a perfect home in Michael Bluth.
David Cross, his Arrested co-star (and fantasy-baseball-league-mate, along with Olbermann), says Bateman “was a natural leader on set. He fought for us, and I remember being so moved when he won the Golden Globe. Jason thanked all of the crew—he memorized their names and said every one. I never thought I’d say this, until I lived in L.A., but the most grounded, egoless, rational, and down-to-earth people are the ones born and raised there. And that’s Jason. The dicks are the ones who come from New Jersey and Tacoma and everywhere else to be a star.”
Bateman’s co-star in The Switch, Jennifer Aniston, traveled in his circle of friends in the eighties, and their past makes for an appealingly relaxed chemistry onscreen. They play best friends, and when her Kassie gets pregnant using what she thinks is the sperm of the more obviously hunky Patrick Wilson, his Wally has to deal with unexpected feelings. “I might be projecting, but I think the film is about two people who aren’t necessarily typical candidates for a long-term relationship, and they just discover, Why not?” says Bateman, who is now shooting another film with Aniston, the comedy Horrible Bosses. “If you were to track Kassie and Wally in ten years, their relationship would be stronger and even more fun. And I think that’s true. Because that’s what I’m in with my own wife.”
Bateman had known Amanda Anka, daughter of Paul, for ten years before they started dating. “I only wanted to get married once, so when I felt I was ready to handle it, I looked at my relationships and noticed that boyfriends get tired of girlfriends, and vice versa, but you never get tired of your friends.” They married in 2001, and have a daughter, Francesca, who is nearly 4. “It’s really nice to be with your friend every day,” he says, with seemingly no sense of how adorable that is.
What Bateman brings to The Switch—to all of his best work—is believability. He comes from a more realistic gene pool, and gets cast as regular guys and businessmen. The funny, he says, comes not just from the wisecracks, but from knowing these guys are losing it inside. “It earns you a lot of snark if you’re able to convey vulnerability,” says Bateman. And it could earn The Switch a rare audience: men willingly accompanying girlfriends to a romantic comedy.
The film, initially called The Baster, was going to be released by Miramax until the studio shut down. After it was adopted by Disney, Bateman was concerned that the family-oriented company might go for traditional romantic-comedy packaging. So he was relieved to see an ad that shows him holding a sperm cup rather than “Jen and I, arm in arm, looking at each other like, Oh, you!” The actor, it turns out, is fascinated by marketing. Last year, he and another Arrested co-star, Will Arnett, formed an online advertising company, DumbDumb Productions. “It’s something that came from us wanting to tap into the community we’re part of—people who do shorts on College Humor or Funny or Die. And I’ve always loved commercials. I like working out how to organically weave a brand’s message into the writing process. It’s like an improv show, where comics ask the audience to throw out a word and a skit is built around it.”
DumbDumb’s first major gig came via Silverman, who is now attached to Barry Diller’s IAC. “Ben set up meetings with a lot of big brands, including Wrigley.” The resulting trio of Internet-only commercials for Orbit gum is unexpected and very funny. “We asked Orbit what their slogan was and they said, ‘A Good Clean Feeling,’ ” says Bateman, who co-wrote and stars in the spots with Arnett. “So we came up with the concept of creating dirty situations, and once you chew the gum it’s perceived as clean. In this case, the situation was statutory rape. The ones coming up are Internet porn and a strip bar.” And those are the ideas Wrigley didn’t reject.
Arrested Development opened a door to a comedy candy store Bateman can’t get enough of. His A.A.D. career is all about working with the cool kids, and taking even tiny parts to do so: Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball, Up in the Air,State of Play, and Juno (though he says Juno had less to do with the script than with “getting the hell out of the house for two weeks” when his daughter had colic). He describes feeling “giddy and vibrating” when Judd Apatow called about a cameo in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and talks reverentially about Saturday Night Live’s current cast (he co-stars with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in the upcoming Paul, and Jason Sudeikis in Horrible Bosses). After hosting the show in 2005, he even considered asking Lorne Michaels to let him join the cast for a year. “The comedy community is very friendly right now. I think that’s why you see all the synergy and people doing each other’s movies,” says Bateman, who hopes to get Aniston a role in the Arrested Development movie, slated for 2012. Either he was born twenty years too early—or the comedy world is catching up to him. “The new paradigm is to be talented and nice,” he says. “It’s considered a little rookie to be a douchebag.”