The SNL alum-turned-Hollywood actor talks about what it's like to never even visit the set of the show he stars in.
Jason Sudeikis is the star of the new Fox sitcom Son of Zorn—but no matter how hard you squint, you're not going to recognize him. Sudeikis plays Zorn: A bloodthirsty warrior from a mystical land called Zephyria that's just different enough from He-Man's Eternia to avoid a lawsuit. Zorn, like He-Man, also happens to be an animated character—but suddenly thrust into the live-action world of Orange County, California, where he starts a new life as a soap-dispenser salesman in an effort to get closer to his ex-wife and son (Cheryl Hines and Johnny Pemberton, both human).
What's it like to be at the center of such an unusual new sitcom? GQ talked to Sudeikis to find out.
GQ: Son of Zorn is a show with a pretty unusual central conceit. If you were approached on the street by a stranger who asked you to describe what your new TV show is and why they should watch it, what would be—for lack of a better term—your elevator pitch?
Jason Sudeikis: Ooh, golly. I don't see many elevators on the street, but I'll let the premise exist. Maybe… you live in New York? Then you know, down by West 4th—by the basketball court—there's an elevator on the street there. So I'm going to pretend we're there. Just for logical reasons.
Okay. That's where we are. Pitch me.
What would I say? I would say something very similar to what was pitched to me. "It's an old-school, classic sitcom… with a demented, alpha male, obnoxious He-Man character as the dad." [laughs] That's not great. Maybe just, "From the guys that made The LEGO Movie!" Gosh—as much as it's been a part of my life for the last year, I haven't even thought about this yet. Let me see if I can give you a better one. I'm on the street. Some guy hears me talking. And he says, "Wait a minute. I recognize your voice. You're the guy from that Zorn commercial. I was watching football, and then this commercial popped up. What the hell is that show, man?" And I'd go, "Oh! It’s an old-school sitcom with a new-school take."
Nailed it in two.
That's all you need! All writing is rewriting. [laughs]
At this point in your career, you've done plenty of both live-action and voiceover performances—but never a hybrid like this. What’s it like to star in something when you’re not actually needed as a physical presence on set?
It's not what I signed up for when I wanted to be an actor. I was always drawn to—and I think it comes from sports, growing up—the team mentality. The ensemble mentality. As well as a healthy dose of fear. I think that's why I didn't go the route of standup comedy. I love the improv world. I love sketch comedy. I was lucky to get to do that from a young age, and get to see it from a young age. My folks are from Chicago, so we’d go see Second City around Christmastime. I was always drawn to that. And [Son of Zorn] is a version of that, to a degree—yet I am, much like the character I play, isolated.
Well, I'm on this island of Manhattan while everybody else is out in Hollywood, eating craft services and getting makeup put on their faces, sitting in fancy trailers. But I'm slumming it in the Big Apple, going in [to the recording booth] to scream my brains out alone in a room. It's the most unusual thing. And these are people I would love to physically perform with: Johnny [Pemberton] and Tim [Meadows] and Cheryl [Hines]… I wish there was a way for me to be there for them to interact with. I've made this joke in a couple of interviews, but it's the truth: I really look forward to Elon Musk developing this pneumatic tube so I can zip back and forth. Go to work, come back and put my son to bed, give him high-fives when he pees… That I'll only do until he's out of the house, by the way. He won't always get a high-five after he pees. But to go help [the Son of Zorn cast] out, and be there off-camera… it's a part of the experience I am deprived of, and genuinely miss.
Son of Zorn is built around Zorn's relationships with his ex-wife and son. How do you create a sense of history and intimacy when you're in a recording booth and they're on set talking to—what, a tennis ball on a stick?
You know what [Zorn's on-set surrogate] actually is, I think? Like, a stand with a big X on it. "Oh, here's my dad!" Poor Johnny Pemberton. I think the hardest acting is the stuff Johnny and Cheryl and Tim and Artemis [Pebdani] are doing—though there is an argument to be made that a tennis ball might be a better actor than me. But as we did more episodes, and I got to see what [the other actors] were doing, I could picture it in my head a little bit. Emotionally, it’s not too hard, because I just put myself in the position of what Zorn would feel like. Issues. Don't we all have these things—minus the furry briefs?
"I think the hardest acting is the stuff Johnny and Cheryl are doing—though the tennis ball might be a better actor than me."
Have the unusual requirements for playing Zorn actually helped your performance, or the show in general, in any way?
As the recorded part and the animated part, I'm fairly inexpensive. [The other cast members] need to have a cameraman, and a camera, and hair and makeup, and a trailer. All that stuff. I get to go in and rerecord things inexpensively, so I can always keep improving things. As choices get made, and things get edited down, you can always make it seem like I'm actually in the room. I'm shooting a movie in Toronto right now, but I'll go in up here to record a couple new jokes and plot points. It's ongoing.
I suppose the great thing about animation is that you can keep workshopping new Zorn jokes, and sub them in, right up until the day the episode actually airs.
I got a few texts after the show premiered, from my early teachers and mentors, wondering exactly [how that works]. "Are you in the room [with the other actors]?" To be asked that is like when you people ask you if something that was written was improvised. I always take that as a compliment, because it means something sounded spontaneous, like it does in real life. Like you and I are talking now. To create that is a credit to the writers, and the actors that you are seeing, and the people doing all the magic of the technical stuff in between.
Since Son of Zorn is ultimately such a fish-out-of-water story, I'm curious as to how you think he might react to some unfamiliar situations that could actually arise in the real world. What if he, say, received a spam email promising millions of dollars from a Nigerian prince?
Oh, my gosh. I think he'd do it. I think he'd return the email. I think he'd then go spend a million dollars, knowing that he'd be able to pay it off. I think he'd buy stuff for his son, I think he'd buy stuff at work, I think he'd just go nuts, and spend a million dollars in about two hours—only to have someone tell him about Snopes.com. And then he'd probably go and kill an animated bird. Take it out on someone. Some people have punching bags, some people squeeze a tennis ball, other people take a sword to a big bird.
What if he was getting tailgated by an SUV on the 405?
Gol-ly. I could see him slamming the brakes, hopping out of the car as the person went through their windshield—but then catching them, and driving them to the hospital and saying, "They're suffering… from being an asshole." He is a thoughtful guy. He's a sweetie. He's a work in progress. But he does believe in justice!
What if Kanye took a shot at him on Twitter?
Ohhhh, gosh, I think he'd be flattered. I gotta think he would feel a little bit like Steve Martin in The Jerk—like he's made it. It's the same way I would be if Kanye took a shot at me on Twitter. "I matter now!"
What if he were invited to pose for the cover of GQ?
I think he'd probably demand a centerfold… just for his dick.