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Bill Burr on Baby Yoda and The King of Staten Island - Exclusive interview

Bill Burr has been doing standup comedy for almost 30 years, but the politically incorrect funnyman has branched out into more serious roles in film and on TV in recent years — though he's never far from providing a laugh.

Burr began his acting career in 1996 on the short-lived ABC sitcom Townies alongside Molly Ringwald, Jenna Elfman, and Lauren Graham. He then quickly moved on to bit parts on Chappelle's Show, voicing Jason Michaels in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, and starring alongside Tina Fey and Steve Carell in Date Night.

In recent years, Burr has had memorable roles on Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian and in the Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson film The King of Staten Island — parts that have all leaned more toward drama than comedy, albeit with humorous moments.

In this exclusive interview, Burr spoke to Looper about his time on Breaking Bad and what it was like to "work with" Baby Yoda on The Mandalorian, and deep dives into his father-figure role in The King of Staten Island. Here's what he had to say.

Bill Burr has changed his tune when it comes to Star Wars...sort of

You were a vocal critic of Star Wars in the past, making fun of the films and their fans. What are your thoughts about the franchise now that you're officially part of the Star Wars universe via your role in The Mandalorian?

Oh yeah, I used to. It was one of those comedian things. I saw people enjoying something and made fun of it. People get upset and you have a great time onstage. It's fun.

When [Mandalorian creator] Jon Favreau asked me to do it, I was like, "Jon, you know I have been making fun of this s—." He laughed and went, "But I think your fans would think it was funny if you were in it."

It wasn't a personal thing with Star Wars. It was just funny that grown people were dressed up like Chewbacca and Darth Vader — like, how do you not make fun of that? There's something hilarious about that. I'm actually really surprised that so many Star Wars fans accepted the fact that I was in The Mandalorian.

What was it like working on such an innovative set?

I just kept thinking back to starting out in my career when I first took acting classes, and all the acting coaches that I had, and hearing about these big-budget projects and thinking, "Wow, man, am I ever going to be able to do that?" And to actually get to do it was wild. It was definitely a feeling of pinching yourself and going, "Am I really on something like this? This is crazy."

What was it like shooting your scene with Baby Yoda?

Here is where my lack of Star Wars fandom comes into it — I don't really remember. I know that there was a lighter one and there was a heavier one. I think the heavier one had the mechanics in it, but I don't really remember.

While you were filming, did any part of you predict that people would go crazy over Baby Yoda?

Man, I would love to tell you that I had the foresight to see that, but I didn't. I was just trying not to get fired — what I always do in acting gigs. I was just focused on that. I didn't really even think that dropping the Baby Yoda was going to be a big deal [but people were really upset]. Fortunately, Jason Sudeikis punched Baby Yoda a few episodes later and all the hate I was getting went over to him. If I ever see him I'm going to thank him because he caused the herd to look his way and I was able to slip out the back door.

Bill Burr really wanted to be on Breaking Bad

You were also on Breaking Bad. What was that experience like?

That was a show I was just a total fan of — I watch anything [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan does. I watched it from the first episode and was one of the first people to start bothering my agent to try and get on the show, which is how I ended up getting in front of Vince before all of Hollywood asked to be on the show. They had me read some dialogue for one of Jesse's friends, I think, just to see if I could act. And they said they were going to try to get me on the show. The next thing you know — well, I mean two, three years later — I was in on the show.

What was it like working with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul?

They were incredible. I was such a huge fan that it was definitely a pinch-yourself moment when I was actually on the show.

You were supposed to appear on Better Call Saul but had to bow out for personal reasons. Do you think that chance might arise again?

I don't know. It's tough because it's such a big show. I hope so.

Bill Burr says his mustache and Steve Buscemi helped create his King of Staten Island character

The King of Staten Island follows Pete Davidson's character Scott, a direction-less slacker whose firefighter father died in the line of duty. It's loosely based on Pete's real life, and you play the new firefighter boyfriend of Scott's mother (Marisa Tomei). What attracted you to the role of Ray?

It's Judd Apatow! If he comes up to you and says, "Do you want to be in a movie?" What am I going to say, no? The guy has made a billion dollars at the box office!

He came on my Monday Morning Podcast and said, "Hey, I want to pitch you this..." So afterwards we went out and got a burger and some fries, and he laid the whole movie out. I was like, "You're Judd Apatow, of course I'm saying yes." Plus, it also meant I was going to do a movie with Pete, who I've known for a long time.

I met Pete right as he started doing standup, when he was a gangly, awkward 15-year-old. He and his mother actually came out to my show, and I never forgot him. I was always friends with him, but getting to spend a whole summer with him filming The King of Staten Island really solidified our friendship. I'd do anything for that guy, man. He's the best.

How much like his character is he in real life?

The sense of humor is definitely Pete, but he's not a slacker. He is very, very professional and hard-working. He was always the first guy there and the last guy to leave, and he would do things that a lot of movie leads don't do. If you only had a few lines, he'd say, "Hey, why don't you shoot him out of this so he can get out of here." He was always looking out for other actors and did a lot to keep morale high on set, which meant a lot.

And what was it like working with Judd onset?

I had a great time with him. I love how much he likes improvising — at this point it's legendary.

How was doing improv for you as an actor?

It was cool. I don't know where I learned how to do it, but I think I've done enough. I mean, I used to be terrible at it and sounded too self-conscious — I worried about remembering my lines or when I was supposed to talk, and trying to not freak out that I was going to get fired. I don't know when that changed, to be honest. It was a very gradual thing.

Was Ray based on a real person in Pete's life?

Pete has talked about his mother dating after his father died, and I think Ray sort of represented all of these new guys that were coming around. He also represented "not Pete's dad" and life going on. He represented everything that Pete's character didn't want to deal with.

Where did you draw inspiration from for the character?

I talked to some of the firefighters those characters were loosely based on. But I've got to be honest, after growing out a mustache and looking in the mirror, a lot of the character choices just fell into place — like how Ray eats and how he sits at the table. Plus, Pete and Judd had written that he always uses sports analogies and stuff like that. Somewhere in all of that muck, I found this guy.

Steve Buscemi has a small part in the film. What was it like working with him?

The guy's a legend, and he was so cool and down to earth. Within two seconds he was one of the guys. I'll be honest, I was sitting there going, "Holy s—, that's Steve Buscemi." But he was also was a firefighter in real life, so I was watching him as all that muscle memory came back. I'd kind of look at him to make sure I was doing things right [as a firefighter]. They also had a number of actual working firefighters on the set, so I always made sure I was asking them if I was doing stuff right.

Bill Burr wants to be taken seriously when he's not on the standup stage

In terms of acting, who are some of your influences?

I like all the old guys that I grew up with: Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood. I watched all of those guys a zillion times. And in the 1980s I watched all the Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris movies. Then in the early '90s I saw Reservoir Dogs and got into Harvey Keitel, Buscemi, and Chris Penn. I just kind of loved everybody in that movie. It's almost like a band that you like when you find all the other bands that they were in and you listen to all of it. I kind of did that.

Do you watch your own work?

I'll watch it one time and that's it.

For a standup comedian, you tend to gravitate toward more serious film and TV roles. Why is that?

I always try to get my agents to get me drama work, so I won't just be pigeonholed as a standup guy. There's a tendency to think that because someone tells jokes, they can't do drama. But there have been other comedians like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Ray Romano who have been showing [their range]. Like Jerry Lewis when he was in The King of Comedy. But at this point there is a bunch of people out there that have been [making the transition.] The first time I saw Tiffany Haddish, she was playing sort of a straight character in Key and Peele's cat movie [Keanu].

Anyway, I just sort of really lucked out as far as paratrooping into some great TV shows and movies. I'm in them for five seconds, but I get all this credit. I didn't write or come up with any of this stuff, I just lucked out.