Surviving a blood clot on the brain has given TJ Miller some perspective on his life and career, the stand-up and co-star of Deadpool tells Siobhan Synnot
You may not think you know TJ Miller, but you will because he’s everywhere: on YouTube with his standup comedy, on TV in the Mike Judge sitcom Silicon Valley and on your kids’ TV in animations like Disney’s Big Hero 6 and the How To Train Your Dragon series. He’s even coming to Edinburgh this August for the festival.
Before that, however, you can see him in Deadpool from Wednesday, tossing insults at his A-list co-star, Ryan Reynolds. You may feel that the age of spandex has gone on long enough, but Deadpool is a pungent palate-cleanser to much of the previous superpowered heroism.
Deadpool knows it’s a movie; the opening credits list the participation of “Comedy Sidekick”, “British Villain”, and assert that its direction is by “An Overpaid Tool”.
The hero also knows he’s in a movie, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to chat to the fans in their own language, or pawswipe Hugh Jackman, because Deadpool made his first appearance in Jackman’s underwhelming Wolverine: Origins.
“We’ve seen so much of the same PG 13 formula, with the same CGI, that I think people really need this film,” says Miller. “The bravery here is trying to be original, raw and R-rated. I hope it’ll reinvigorate the comic book movie genre, because I think it was getting kinda tired, a little worn. We call out those movies that pander to the audiences – especially all these DC Comic properties.” (Deadpool is a Marvel character.)
“Yeah, I don’t care for those DC movies at all,” says Miller, then shoots me a sly look. “Until I do a film with them…”
Before Wade Wilson undergoes disastrous experimental surgery and becomes Deadpool, his main power is superfast banter. “He’s doesn’t buy into the superhero kind of thing. As he says, he’s a bad guy who beats up worse guys, for money, and his best friend is a totally selfish leader of a band of mercenaries.”
Miller, a bearlike 34-year-old slumped in a Knightsbridge chintz sofa, plays the pal, Weasel. Reynolds and Miller had never crossed paths before filming, but discovered a mutual delight in riffing ruthlessly on Deadpool’s horribly scarred appearance, resulting in a scene where Weasel notes that his friend now looks like Freddie Kruger had sexual relations “with a topographical map of Utah” and Reynolds agreeing that without hair he resembles “an avocado that f***ed an older avocado.”
“I knew Ryan would be funny, but he was above and beyond nice, and he was also a quick, quick improviser. He was really quick-witted, very collaborative and open to pitching lines to me, me pitching lines back. So we get these great little moments in there, because Deadpool is amoral and so is Weasel. Weasel is almost this Ayn Rand, selfish egoist; he’s only out for himself. Even if he’s your best friend, he’d still bet a few dollars on your death.”
It’s the start of a working relationship that may last five or six years, “if there are two more instalments – which there will be, because they’ve already started on the second one.”
Miller says he doesn’t consider himself a good actor, just a busy one. His gritty, sardonic delivery is particularly sought-after by voice connoisseurs: in his first film, he’s only onscreen for a few minutes before his character picks up a camera and narrates a monster attack as it happens in Cloverfield (2008). Besides How to Train Your Dragon, Disney’s Big Hero 6 and the TV show Gravity Falls, he’s also an over-sociable talking ball of mucus in commercials for Mucinex.
“With voiceover, I can do as many takes as you want because the animation comes later. So I’m alone in a glass booth throwing out ideas. There were times in Big Hero Six and How to Train Your Dragon when I’d do 40 different lines for each take, and then someone would press a button and ask, ‘Do you have any more?’ I’m like: ‘I gave you more than you could ever use!’”
To date, his most high profile live action role has been as dotcom millionaire Erlich Bachman on Silicon Valley, a sitcom that lampoons hi-tech tycoons, powerful entrepreneurs and geeky engineers. An abrasive, bathrobe-wearing, pot-smoking investor, Erlich’s vulgarity and faux-philosophical musings are a few megabytes closer to Miller’s standup comedy persona.
However in the publicity material for Deadpool, Miller improbably claims that it’s the live-action/animated Yogi Bear (2010) that is his greatest work.
Does he regret that his supporting character of Ranger Jones has been overlooked? “Well, it was the pinnacle of my career,” he drawls. “A rare performance in a talking bear comedy, done under very difficult conditions. Everything since has been a downhill slide.”
The difficult conditions included a haemorrhaging cerebral arteriovenous malformation that could have killed him. Filming deep in a New Zealand forest, Miller had begun to behave erratically, involuntarily narrating things as he was doing them, and experiencing hallucinations while fighting over picnic baskets in Jellystone Park: “I was literally going insane, while interacting with and talking to an imaginary bear. And because my act is surreal and absurd, people thought this weirdness was just me being me.”
Even Miller didn’t suspect a blood clot pressing down on his right frontal lobe: “They say that the only real test of insanity is that the person does not think they’re insane. If you think you’re going crazy, you’re not. I just thought my thinking had become elevated and perhaps I’d reached a new level of consciousness. And because of filming delays, I was still on set weeks after I was supposed to have finished, going more and more crazy.”
After filming wrapped and Miller flew home, he went to a restaurant, collapsed and was rushed to hospital, where a dangerous tangle of veins and arteries was finally identified. In surgery they pulled out a piece of brain the size of a golf ball, “which is why I’ve been much less funny since 2010. I was lucky; arteriovenous malformations are usually found in the autopsies, that’s how few people survive that type of haemorrhage.”
Miller is now on medication, and requires eight hours sleep a night to keep stress at bay. “That can be tough. My doctor also told me I couldn’t get blackout drunk, but I’ve never been trying to do that that. Nobody thinks, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to black out and wake up the next day embarrassed about things that I can’t go back and change’. But this is not a profession where sleep is very highly prized commodity. People tell you that you have to fly to London, then fly back three days later, and go straight from the airport to headline a comedy festival in Los Angeles. So the schedule, paired with my almost god-like reverence for work ethic, makes sleep difficult.”
He rubs a reddened eye. “But I have to focus on it, because I can’t do much for people if I’m dead.”
The experience has tempered his lifestyle, and his outlook. “It’s a really great confirmation that this is all totally ridiculous and could all go away in a moment” he says, which is why he’s set to embark on his first standup world tour, taking in Ireland, Australia and a string of dates at the Edinburgh Festival.
He’s especially excited about coming to Scotland for the first time. “Edinburgh is unlike anything else. It’s bigger that Melbourne’s comedy festival and Montreal’s comedy festival, and I think that Scotland will get into my stand-up more than some Americans because you guys are open to the bizarre. And that thing where you say ‘Sorry!’ – even your apologies are sort of backhanded comments.”
• Deadpool opens on 10 February. Details of TJ Miller’s Edinburgh Festival performances will be announced on http://tjmillerdoesnothaveawebsite.com/