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Chris Parnell, Voice Of Cyril Figgis On Archer - Exclusive Interview

Season 11 of Archer is coming to a close. There's been lots of unusual character development this season, but none more so than Cyril Figgis. The formerly meek ex-comptroller is now buff, confident, and in charge... or at least he was until Archer woke up from that coma and bullied Cyril to the point of snapping. Chris Parnell has voiced Cyril for all 11 seasons of Archer. He's set to continue the role next year, too: FXX announced via press release that Archer is coming back for season 12. Even in a pandemic, the animation industry can't be stopped.

Looper interviewed Chris Parnell halfway through the season as part of our Archer coverage. We spoke about the new season, new scenario, new writers, and new Cyril. We also took time to ask about his Saturday Night Live years, the truth behind 30 Rock's Dr. Leo Spaceman, and his early career in radio and teaching.

New Cyril

No character has undergone more development during the coma than Cyril. How did you make that work with three years of character development you didn't see?

It's not too hard. They write it so well and they certainly know how to write in Cyril's voice, whether it's super insecure Cyril, needy Cyril or, in this case, Cyril who's kind of got it together, but obviously is ready to crumble under any sort of threat to that confidence. I don't know.

Like when Archer points out that Cyril's a fridge hog and it just ruins everybody's day.

Yeah, it's not a good feeling, not a good feeling for Cyril. Can I relate?

Did you get a chance to see what Cyril would look like before you did the voice acting this season?

No, I didn't see it. I didn't figure he'd be too different.

What's your reaction to seeing the Cyril completely ripped? Because that's kind of out of character for him.

I haven't actually seen him ripped yet. I haven't seen any of the episodes yet. They're on my DVR, we've just bought a new house and I've got two young kids, so I don't get a lot of TV viewing time, unfortunately.

Favorite moments

Do you have any favorite moments from the series? It could be this season, could be any season.

The one when we're all in the elevator together, that's a favorite one. ["Vision Quest"] I think when we're all stuck in there and we all sort of revert to our not-best selves, that's a favorite one. We just did a reading of it the other day: "El Contador," where I get to be actually good at being an agent. That was exciting for Cyril.

Do you draw inspiration for Cyril from anyone in particular?

No, just myself. I've got — as we probably all do — but I certainly have got some of the same insecurities.... like Cyril can also not always have the best motivations, Cyril from season to season eight sometimes he seems like a good guy and I like to think that I'm generally a good guy, but he also in certain seasons is not a good guy, for sure. Like when he was a Nazi.

I forgot about that. Oh my God.

Yeah. Well, he wasn't technically Cyril. It was Danger Island.

So what were your thoughts on the dream sequence seasons, then?

I thought they were fun. It was nice to go to different places and times. The lack of limitation there for the writers, I think, was fun. Just got to see the crew in different universes.

Did you have a favorite dreamland setting?

I think I liked outer space probably the most, just 'cause I like sci-fi.

Do you have any favorite guest stars from your time on Archer? Could be this season, could be any season.

In the voiceover world, unless you're recording in an ensemble, the fact is that you're [probably not] recording with another actor who is not part of the normal group. Sometimes I'll ask and I'll say, "Oh, who's playing this." I mean, it was cool that Kenny Loggins came and played himself, or a version of himself. That was exciting. And then I think we got Burt Reynolds at one point. That was pretty awesome.

Waiting between seasons

How do you keep a character fresh and engaged after doing it for 11 seasons?

Well, again for voiceover, it's not like you're going in and to a studio, or a stage rather, and then shooting scenes. You're just bringing yourself to a little recording booth and you get the new material at the most every three weeks — and usually it's a little bit longer than that. And then you'll go for a giant break between seasons. So it's not hard to keep it fresh. Usually I think most of us are just hungry to record the next episode and get to do it some more, it's fun to do and it's a privilege, it's not really anything where you feel like, "Oh, I've got to do Cyril again."

There was a big gap between this season and last because of the state of the world, to put it lightly. Was that hard on you to wait that long?

It's not fun to wait, obviously, but, it's the nature of the business. I mean, especially with animation, there's so much waiting, and Archer, there tends to be less waiting than other shows, like say Rick and Morty. By comparison, Archer is not a big wait.

I've talked to a bunch of your fellow cast members — Amber, Jon, and Lucky — and something they all had in common is they had a hard time remembering what happened this season because it was recorded so long ago. Did you have a similar issue?

I remember sort of the beginning of it and then how Cyril's status sort of changes as the season goes on. But yeah, it's hard to remember specifics because other than that sort of — for whatever reason, maybe because I've talked about it, more people have asked me about it more — the beginning part of the season has stayed in my memory more. But yeah, I mean, I'm usually like that. I usually do watch all the episodes. I will watch these eventually, but, once I record, it kind of goes out of my brain.

Voiceover and regular roles vs. guest spots

You've done some live-action lately, but over the last few years, your career seems to have mostly been voiceover. Is there a particular reason you gravitated toward the voiceover more lately?

It's just whatever work is available. Sometimes it's a part in a TV series that is a guest star or occasionally a regular and occasionally a little part in a movie, but, the voiceover stuff has been the most consistent, certainly with Archer and then now with Rick and Morty, I haven't been on any show as long as I've been on Archer, so it's very near and dear to my heart.

Do you find it easier to just be a guest star or would you prefer these longer-running roles?

Well, I think most actors would say they prefer the longer-running roles, unless they're maybe Brad Pitt or somebody, but I think for most actors, it's great to have a steady gig and that's kind of the goal for me. I just love working and I love working on a show and getting to do it for more than one season, several seasons, if possible, or 11 seasons of it in the case of Archer. And it's fun to do guest star roles too. Obviously you get something like Dr. Leo Spaceman and it was pretty a pretty great gift. And just the level of writing on that and the craft that goes into all the dialogue, it was on that show. So yeah, when you get a guest star part like that, it's, you feel very lucky and then, I've had some series regular parts that weren't the most fulfilling, but I was happy to have a gig.

Dr. Leo Spaceman

Was Dr. Leo Spaceman based on anybody in particular?

I think from what Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] told me, he was sort of loosely based on Lorne Michaels' real-life doctor. I remember the first time when I was on the show and I got sick or something. And so they referred me to this doctor and my experience was relatively normal with him, but he was kind of a showbiz doctor in a way. Definitely the seeds of Spaceman were there in him.

In the past, you mentioned one of your favorite Spaceman lines is "we have no way of knowing the heart is. See, every human is different." Any other favorite moments from that show?

I like the one where there's just a moment where I'm running through the halls, with the music from, was it Amadeus? And I was in a cape that was pretty ridiculous. ["Succession"] And then when I come into a hospital room and I'm covered with blood, and then I explained why I was covered in blood, which I can't even remember all the details, but I just remember doing that scene and reading it and then seeing it and be like, "Oh, that's a pretty clever bit of writing there." ["Hiatus"] And that was the case with it all the time. I just tried to serve the lines well, serve the material well.

The Iceman of Saturday Night Live

I was reading the oral history of the famous Cats sketch on SNL and I saw that your SNL nickname was "The Iceman." Can you confirm that?

Yeah, for a few people. I think it was Colin Quinn who gave me that nickname based on my first show. [September 26, 1998] I believe he said it was because I was in the cold open with John Goodman and I think Cameron Diaz. Cameron Diaz was the host and I think she was in it. It was a lot of people in this [sketch], the heavy hitters of the SNL cast, and I was playing Kenneth Starr. And I think Colin looked over and saw me just sort of standing there on the sides, getting ready to make my entrance. And, I guess he thought I didn't look nervous or flustered. So I think he gave me that nickname... and I now insist everyone call me that.

Good, you should! You also had a reputation for not breaking much during sketches. Famously, you're the only guy who didn't break during the More Cowbell sketch. How do you handle not breaking during sketches?

Well, it helps to be a somewhat joyless person, something I sort of struggle with, I'm a bit of a heavy guy, in terms of emotionally and all that. That's not bragging, it was not that hard usually for me to stay in character and to try to be in the moment and do it. Cowbell was really hard because of Will being up in my face and everybody else breaking. There was another sketch I did with Molly [Shannon] and Tim Meadows and Will was in that too — the Will Ferrell sketch where he was a crazy doctor and Tim would come in [mid-sketch]. I think everybody broke in that too, maybe Tim didn't. I would have broken, except I had just done a sketch as Tom Brokaw. For whatever reason that night, my contact lenses — the brown contacts that I wore — even though they had been taken out, they left my eyes burning for some reason. And so my eyes were on fire during that sketch and that's that made it very easy to not break.

I don't know if you know this, but "Lazy Sunday" is being taught in colleges and universities right now. And the reason why is because that sketch made YouTube mainstream. I don't know if you remember when that came out, it blew up YouTube. Because everybody wanted to see the sketch and —

Yeah! I remember people talking about it in those terms, and then it wasn't too long before NBC decided they needed to take it down. So it's like free publicity, NBC, but take it down! Go ahead! No, it's a cool thing to feel, to be a part of internet history a little bit.

Early radio work and time as a teacher

You kind of got your start doing voiceover work with your father. Was it your father's radio station, if I remember correctly?

Well, it was. I did eventually do a summer or two as a disc jockey at what had been my dad's radio station many, many years ago, but he had his own recording studio and would sometimes use me and my sister when he needed the voices of kids. That's where I got my start, just recording commercials for my dad and he would pay us. So that was good.

Do you know if any of those ads are out there circulating?

Gosh, I have no idea. I've never, I've never sought them out, but that's a good question.

So in between all your acting, you spent a year as a high school teacher. How did that come about?

Well, when I left, after I graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, I went to Houston and worked at the Alley Theatre down there in their apprentice program. And I left kind of disenchanted because I thought I was going to sort of be moved into their repertory company, even though they didn't officially have one, but I sort of left disenchanted and my high school drama teacher and mentor and still a good friend, Frank Bluestein, said, "Hey, you want to come back and teach for a year?" Because it was my school that I had gone to and I was teaching acting and film and video and helping out with the theater and television studio, all these things I'd done when I was there.

So yeah, I tried it for a year and I loved working with all the kids after school, on the plays and the musicals and the TV productions, but the regular day-to-day teaching was awful. It was so hard. I mean, I was like in my mid-twenties, not ready to be an authority figure, not really having a sense at all of how to apply discipline in the classroom. As with any class it felt like there were a small group of students who were very dedicated and really wanted to learn about whatever the subject was. And then there's sort of the bulk of them that are just like, "eh, okay, whatever." And then there were a few who were a-holes, who just wanted to make trouble and made a lot of trouble for the 25- or 26-year-old me. So I couldn't do that for very long.

And then I also just realized, If I'm going to try to be an actor, I've got to really give it a shot, working as an apprentice for a theater for one season doesn't really count. So that's when I decided to head out to old L.A.

Adam Reed, new writers, and the future of Archer

What future do you see for Archer? Do you see it keep going after the season? [Note: since this question was asked, Archer was renewed for a 12th season]

I mean, I think so. I hope so. The fact that we now have a little group of writers, I don't even know how many there are, but we have sort of a writing staff, I guess, people who can write the show other than Adam Reed. That's part of what's given the show the ability to keep going. It's a lot to write a series all by yourself. I think everybody was happy that we found some other people who could write in the spirit and the voice of the characters. I think it has got the potential to go on for a while. If FXX wants it to. And because I know we all want to keep doing it, obviously.

Adam almost single-handedly wrote the first few seasons and then he kind of started to delegate a little bit. Have you noticed any differences in writing style or anything of that nature?

I would notice it's in the beginning and in the early scripts that were by other writers. But now I don't really think about it as much because I'm sort of used to these other voices, whereas before it felt more like somebody trying to write an Adam's voice and I feel like the writers now just sort of own it more and that's probably just also just me making an adjustment to what they've created.

Advice and upcoming projects

Do you have any advice for people who want to get into acting comedy, voice acting, anything like that?

Well, there's so many different routes now that weren't there when I was starting out. I can only say what helped me a lot, which was actually going to drama school and going to a real-life program and sort of learning theater and all these different things. I mean, I had to get rid of my Southern accent and there was a lot to learn, but then after that and I came to L.A., getting involved with a Groundlings theater out here was kind of like my master's program because I learned just so much more you've been doing that and just improvising and then writing and I took workshops. I did student films. I kind of did as much as I could do, have as many irons in the fire as possible while I worked in my toy store day job.

It's just, try to do as much as you can, but now, I think it's even different because obviously you can create your own content and put it out there on the internet for people to see. So I would advise, if you can get some training, if you can work with some other people in an improv theater setting, whether it's the Groundlings or Second City or maybe Improv Olympics or Upright Citizens Brigade, I think those things only help.

So is there anything else you want to bring up?

I'm working on a new animated show called Dogs in Space, which I think is going to be a lot of fun. It's geared towards maybe seven years old and up, it's well written and it's fun. It's I think kind of inspired by Rick and Morty a little bit. So I think that's going to be a good one. What did I do? I did a pilot, I guess, doing a pilot, see if it gets picked up, and did a couple of little movie parts and stuff like that.

Catch the season finale of Archer on Wednesday, October 28th at 10pm on FXX.