Emmy Watch: Nick Offerman talks the toughest thing he's had to do as Ron Swanson

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Image Credit: NBC

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

Four seasons into NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman has turned burly libertarian Ron Swanson into one of TV’s most well-defined characters. It’s impossible to read the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness and not hear his voice in your head, which makes it easy to take Offerman’s deadpan performance for granted. Perhaps that’s why we’re hoping Emmy voters revisit the September 2011 episode “Ron and Tammys,” in which Ron’s first ex-wife, Tammy 1 (guest star Patricia Clarkson), turns him into the anti-Ron Swanson (a “neutered wimp,” to borrow Leslie Knope’s words). Watch a clip below. Offerman reflects on his transformation. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When it comes to Ron’s backstory, how much input do you have with the show’s writers?
NICK OFFERMAN: I have input in a very loose, general way. Like with [season 4's] Pawnee Rangers: For years, I’ve been convincing the writers of the validity of a scouting episode. I said, “You gotta give Ron a troop of scouts.” Or when we coached the boys’ basketball teams [in season 2], that was also at my urging. In this case, they wrote the line early on, “I have two ex-wives, both of them are named Tammy, and they’re both bitches.” When we came up with Tammy 2 [played by Offerman’s real-life wife, Megan Mullally], we knew eventually we would probably meet Tammy 1. So there’s been a lot of discussion about Tammy 1, and also Ron’s mom, Tammy [played by Paula Pell]. But by and large, my input ends when they go into the writers’ room and flesh out the stories.

What did you think when you first read Ron’s history with Tammy 1?
I loved the perversity of her being my Sunday school teacher [Laughs] and a candy striper at the hospital when I was born [Laughs]. I loved the way that that’s kind of gross but also sexy in a twisted hot-for-teacher way. Patricia was the perfect person to cast. When her name came up, I was just over the moon because she’s always been an absolute hero of mine in the business. Only because she had [already] told me what a big fan of the show she is did I even think it was a possibility. She was initially trepidacious about saying yes, because she loves the show so much she didn’t want to ruin her perception of it in any way. Or like any actor, she was like, “Oh no, I don’t know if I could be on your show, it’s so great.” [Laughs] I’m like, “I think you’ll be okay, Patricia.” [Megan and I] actually just recently had drinks with her in New York. Sitting at a table with Megan and Patricia, I just can’t believe what a lucky son of a b—- I am to get to play somebody who had been married to both of those powerhouses.

Tammy 1 prefers Ron clean shaven. Did the cast and crew treat you differently without Ron’s trademark mustache?
Yeah, everyone was really freaked out. There was a real sense of having shorn Samson of his locks. And it really felt sacrilegious. That was by far the hardest, strangest thing I’ve had to do as Ron Swanson. Maybe it was predicated by the scene in [the season 3 episode] “Ron and Tammy II” when Ron lost half his mustache and had to get cornrows. To have him be clean shaven, wearing an Easter shirt, and turned into a little boy was so bizarre and foreign. And it was so hard to speak dialogue as Ron Swanson without a big mustache. Certain consonants didn’t feel right without a huge bristle brush impeding their exit from my mouth. Just the things Ron had to say — the cute way that he talks to his coworkers as well as Tammy 1 on the phone when he calls her [Laughs] — it was really hard to speak that dialogue without getting nauseous. The writing is like a big old aunt throwing her blousy arms around you and embracing you.

But you don’t break character easily.
No, I’m known for maintaining my stiff deadpan. I usually don’t laugh when I’m involved. The time when people get me is when I’m a bystander in a scene. Chris Pratt can really lay me out with something out of left field.

At one point, Leslie (Amy Poehler) slaps Ron. Did she make contact?
Yeah. Amy and I have the kind of relationship where we’re both old school hardcore entertainers, and so I don’t think it was even discussed. She just said, “Let’s see, the camera’s there… Alright, I’m gonna slap you right there.” And then boom. And I have to say we did a couple more takes of that scene than I would have cared for. I think I probably got slapped eight times. [Laughs]

In the end, Leslie, Tammy 1, and Ron’s mother fight for Ron in an “old-fashioned prairie drink-off” involving Swanson family mash liquor. I feel like you have a good real-life moonshine story for me.
It doesn’t play out like a great piece of storytelling, but I did a great play when I was in Chicago called The Kentucky Cycle. It’s the Pulitzer-Prize winning piece of drama, seven hours long, and I won a Chicago Jeff Award for it [in 1997]. It was one of the most epic theater experiences I’ve ever had. And on opening night, our director had gone to Kentucky and gotten us all a jar of corn liquor. And they tell me I had a very good time that night. I may or may not have sired a few children and definitely woke up in a strange apartment without any trousers.

Yes, that’ll do. Ron also has tender moments with Leslie. Are those something you and the writers think carefully about?
I think with every ingredient in the meal that we cook up week after week, they generally take care not to overuse any of our tastier spices. Just like the moments when Ron is hilariously macho or hilariously unfeeling, the moments when he’s touchingly heartwarming, we definitely try to keep them far between so that they maintain a strong impact.

Which heartwarming moment stood out for you this season?
The one that comes to mind is in the finale when Leslie’s disappeared, and I go find her in the city council chamber trying out her chair and Ron has to admit that he cares about her. We did it a bunch of different ways where, kinda like the Fonz never used to be able to say, “I’m sorry,” Ron really struggled with the words “We’re your friends. We care about you.” I think it was more effective in some takes where I would take a pretty good size pause before I could say the word “care,” but probably for time, [Laughs] they had to use a shorter pause.

Viewers got so invested in Leslie’s campaign. Like, I had to fast forward when it looked like she was losing the debate because I needed to know it would turn out okay. A lot of people got teary-eyed when she finally won the election. I love when a comedy makes me care that much about a character. That’s special.
I agree. It gets my every time, too.

You’ve teared up watching the show?
Always.

Really?
[Exec producer] Mike Schur is such a master of making me cry. When he delivers me personal news like, “You’ve got the job of Ron Swanson,” or when they handed me the script that had the Pyramid of Greatness in it — I read that scene and burst into tears because I can’t believe I’m the lucky bastard on the receiving end of this writing. I would love to see Mike Schur win a trophy more than anybody. I’m really hopeful on the show’s behalf. I think it would be nice to be recognized this year as the best comedy on TV. I feel like it’s been a little bit of a long time in coming, but I haven’t heard anybody with anything to say about the show besides it’s the best thing on TV. [Laughs]

Looking ahead, what would you like to see happen for Ron Swanson in season 5 this fall?
Mike and I have been talking about what’s happening with everybody next season. Each character is gonna have a new exciting life change. Leslie is gonna have the city council job. Ben Wyatt [played by Adam Scott] will take this job in Washington, D.C. I feel like they were hinting at Andy maybe getting involved in some sort of police work or going to the academy. [Laughs] I shudder to imagine Andy with a firearm. But we’re hoping to maybe see a new relationship develop for Ron. One thing Ron’s never succeeded at is maintaining a happy romantic relationship for any length of time. Maybe we’ll get to explore that a little bit.

Read more:
EW.com’s 2012 Emmy Awards coverage
Emmy Watch: ’30 Rock’ EP Robert Carlock talks ‘Murphy Brown’ and Liz Lemon’s future
Emmy Watch: Casey Wilson talks the most fun she had last season on ‘Happy Endings’

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