Spilling the Chili (with Brian Baumgartner)
Long before Brian Baumgartner became known as Kevin from “The Office,” he worked in theater just trying to bring in enough for rent. But within a few months of moving to L.A., he found himself auditioning for the role that would change his life. Brian talks with me about the long audition process and how he developed a backstory for his character (Kevin can’t rotate at his hips!) Plus, we talk chili recipes.
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Elyse Myers, Brian Baumgartner
Elyse Myers 00:15
Okay, actually, can you just pretend that you’re listening to a fully complete theme song here, I got really in my head. And I tried to make it perfect, and I couldn’t. So this is going to be the theme song right here Hello, and welcome to Funny Because It’s True. I’m Elyse Myers. During my interview with today’s guests, Brian Baumgartner I was called out for making him feel nerdy approximately one to four times which I live for. Brian is an actor he started off in the world of theater actually, and then moved to LA to pursue his career on screen. Shortly after that he landed the role of Kevin on the office. And if there is anything I like to nerd out about, it’s the office and creative process, and comedy. But what I loved so much about this conversation is how Brian dove into developing his character Kevin, over time, his devotion to craft be at Kevin or learning to act is what made this conversation so fun for me. So two things that are funny because they’re true. Number one, my only goal in this interview was to not call Brian, Kevin, I knew I would, and I did everything I could to not so I get a prep document before each interview and with that is my notes and keeps me you know, organized through the conversation. And in this document, my producer had accidentally written Kevin in place of Brian’s name multiple times. And because this was my only goal to not call him Kevin, I went through this document and changed Kevin O’Brien everywhere I saw Kevin so because this was fresh on my brain instead of Elise column, Brian column, Brian column, Brian, his publicist loads up on my Zoom. And the first thing that comes out of my mouth is excited to tell Kevin I’ve tried his chili. Nobody corrects me, verbally. All I see is a chat bar on the right of the zoom with my producer screaming in all caps. BRIAN. So that’s how the conversation started. And number two, I learned that Brian likes to hyper fixate on things as much as I do so much to the point where there is a loose connection between TiVo the recording device on a TV for those that don’t know. And then him landing the role of Kevin. Okay, let’s get into it. Brian, first of all, we’re both drinking from […]
Brian Baumgartner 02:34
What alcohol you’re drinking?
Elyse Myers 02:37
Caffeinated coffee, alcohol kind.
Brian Baumgartner 02:41
So iced coffee. This is what you drink, right?
Elyse Myers 02:45
No. So actually, this is a reusable tumbler that looks like a red solo cup. But it’s like insulated, so I put hot coffee in it. So I use both a very fancy. So you a while ago, I don’t know if you are like someone on your team sent me your chili cookbook. Yeah, I immediately made like the hero recipe. Like there’s like the seriously good chili? Yeah. Amazing. It’s the only chili I’ve ever liked it with beans in it ever.
Brian Baumgartner 03:09
Really? That’s mine.
Elyse Myers 03:10
Yeah, there you go.
Brian Baumgartner 03:11
That’s my recipe.
Elyse Myers 03:13
Yeah, I loved it so much. So I just I genuinely wanted to, you know, I loved it and wasn’t just like, Oh, it’s a good cookbook.
Brian Baumgartner 03:20
Thank you. That’s so nice of you. I appreciate that.
Elyse Myers 03:24
So do you do a lot of cooking outside? Like is that your thing that you kind of do to wind down and to be creative?
Brian Baumgartner 03:30
Honest to God, I wish I could say yes to that. But I will. I will give credit where credit is due. So I did theater for a long time. But I worked for on a number of shows over a period of years with a French director. And there was a French company was called theatre division loon in Minneapolis. And they would be working on multiple shows at the same time. So they would rehearse during the day, and then take a break for dinner, but like, three hours. And it was because dinner was very important to the French.
Elyse Myers 04:06
I will not lie to you. I know we just started but I was not ready for where this answer was going to go. I thought he was gonna say something like, I have to give credit to my mom. She taught me everything I know.
Brian Baumgartner 04:16
Specifically, Dominique Serrano, was a director took the time, so it would be like you have a huge rehearsal. And then you’re going to have a show that night. And he’s like making […]
Elyse Myers 04:28
So fun fact, I lived in Paris for six months. And when I was in school, they would do the same where they would take breaks for like hours. Everything would shut everything down. Literally cafes would shut down, bakeries. I would try and get a meal after a class. I’d be in class all day. Nothing is open. And I would finally ask a local and they’re like, what are you talking about? It’s like we’re prepping for dinner and like, what do you mean you’re prepping for dinner? It’s like 4pm We don’t eat dinner till like eight and I’m like, what do you mean? Like I go to bed at eight.
Brian Baumgartner 05:00
But I did love it and I would I would have meals with him and especially like if we were traveling on the road or, or you know doing a residency somewhere it would be like this yes, hour long thing and chopping things and braising things and doing the acceleration of food. But yes, and it felt so artistic and romantic to me.
Elyse Myers 05:23
I love that. So I want to go back because you said you did theater, so you must have like, been seriously into it. Because you said you were traveling.
Brian Baumgartner 05:30
Yes. So like, I thought that was my life. Like, okay, for like, for real. I mean, I went to school for it. So I went to a Conservatory Theater, at SMU, actually Southern Methodist University, all I wanted to be was an actor. And all I wanted to do was theater. And I mean, you know, the number of times I talked about the live theatrical experience being the only thing that’s important. I mean, you know, you can play back the tapes to me, and it would just embarrass me.
Elyse Myers 06:01
This is 100% going to be me with live shows and like live performing. I just know it. My walk on music for my first Stand Up Show will probably be a compilation of all the times I have said, I will never do stand-up.
Brian Baumgartner 06:14
So when I graduated from school, I joined a theater company, I took over the I became the artistic director of a theatre company. And then I was really kind of working on that, like regional theater circuit, some stuff in New York or touring around. And that’s honestly what I thought that my life was. And at a certain point, there were a couple of things. One is the look, it is incredibly difficult when you’re doing eight shows a week, and your only day off is Monday, and nobody else has Monday off.
Elyse Myers 06:50
It’s so lonely.
Brian Baumgartner 06:51
Yeah. It just becomes all consuming. Honest to God, what started for me it was at the time, there was a woman who I’m sure you know, Allison Janney.
Elyse Myers 07:02
You know, when someone says a name, and they’re like, who I’m sure you know, obviously, you’re like, obviously, but you don’t know them, because you’re terrible with names. So you just stay silent, and you look them up later. That’s what’s happening here. But I can confirm as soon as I looked up, Allison Janney for sure know who she is.
Brian Baumgartner 07:19
Every time I went to New York, she was in something huge. And she was hilarious, or, you know, maybe cry or whatever. And she was doing all of this stuff. And she was in a production of blue windows, fairly popular. And I went to see it because I was going to do the revival like next. And I’m like, just standing there against the wall like an idiot backstage. And I heard Allison Janney, the person must have said, like, what are you doing next? And she went into this monologue about how there was a place she wanted to do. That was really interesting and exciting for her. But it didn’t start for seven weeks. And so then she there was this other play that she could do that would start earlier. You know, she was saying, like, I have to make rent. I was sitting there and I went, Oh, my God. I’m like, if this woman who to me is like my dream at the time, this is the career that I want. I’m like she still cobbling together her calendar based on having to pay rent. I was like, this is and shortly after, it’s like, she’s on the West Wing. And I was like, yeah, there’s got to be some there’s got to be some other move. Like there has to be some for me. It was just this moment. Yeah, that I’ll never forget.
Elyse Myers 08:43
So how long between when you moved to LA and like, when you got your first big job? Like, what was that timeline like?
Brian Baumgartner 08:49
Well, I mean, this is where I get made fun of right. So I, I did theater for a long time. And I did small theater at times, no audience theater at times. When I moved to Los Angeles, things started happening for me very fast, really. And in fact, I met and was cast in the office was just a few months. That part of it. That happened very fast.
Elyse Myers 09:24
So this is when the interview turns into my actual dream. Getting to ask Brian about all things the office, could you just never tell that to any of the cast because I feel like if you did, everyone would have like, never wanted to talk to you because they know that like Jenna and like John, it took them years.
Brian Baumgartner 09:41
Yeah, I mean, I think yeah, I think and Melora Hardin who played Jana she did 13 or 14 pilots right so one episode that never got picked up and was just what you know, was just like an you know? Yeah, then normal actress. Yeah. Yeah, but again, and I was working really hard.
Elyse Myers 10:03
It’s not you didn’t deserve it.
Brian Baumgartner 10:04
Not even deserve. But yeah, it was because I think people hear that. And it’s like, I was born and then started working on the show, right? No, when I moved it, that’s when I say, at least in my mind that I changed careers. Because for me, it flipped to business. I wanted to learn the business. And I loved learning about that.
Elyse Myers 10:28
Well, I think no, there’s not a lot of like, not a lot of people talk about the business of creativity. Like they talk about the tip of the iceberg that people see on a screen or on their phones or whatever, and they don’t talk about the business of it, like in it, that is a whole other separate thing that some people don’t ever learn. I just, what was that like for you deciding that like, this is it for me, like I will learn like the business of acting like Did that come at the same time as getting the role on the office?
Brian Baumgartner 10:54
Yeah, I mean, those two things are tied in together, there was always this sort of artistic sentiment, like, I don’t have a TV I don’t, I don’t watch television, I read books and go to plays and I bla bla bla, which is fine. I hate it. But it’s fine. It’s totally fine.
Elyse Myers 11:12
I need that whole sentence on a shirt.
Brian Baumgartner 11:16
Here was the thing that never made sense to me from actors who would say things like this to me, I don’t I don’t know what television you’re watching now. But let’s just assume you know, white lotus, you’d have an opportunity to be on white lotus. What is it, it’s a comedy, okay. And then you have an opportunity on the same day to go in and audition for let’s assume, you know, Will and Grace. That’s a comedy. It’s a comedy to have, that those two shows are entirely different. The form the aesthetic, live studio audience versus not. And so, for me, it’s like, why would you not want to consume everything that you can and see what’s out there? What’s popular, right? Do all your research. And so I feel like for someone who had $0 I was like the first person that had like the TiVo, I recorded everything. And I was watching television all the time, I found a little show called the office, the British office.
Elyse Myers 12:17
Yeah, I find it so interesting that Brian consumed as much TV as he possibly could, so that he could understand what it means to be on TV. I think that that’s genius. And I really respect that I love that he turned his creativity and his craft also in to a very focused like business.
Brian Baumgartner 12:37
I was like, Oh, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And this is genius. And then there’s going to be an American version, the office, and I had a manager I still what’s the same manager? I called him and I said, this is the show that I need to be on.
Elyse Myers 12:52
So you did all that research. And then did you feel like you knew what you needed to know going into the audition? Did you do audition for Kevin? Who did you audition for?
Brian Baumgartner 13:01
Stanley. But I knew that the role of Kevin was mine.
Elyse Myers 13:08
How did you know that?
Brian Baumgartner 13:09
I just knew it. I don’t know. Like, I guess, fragments or pieces originally, of other characters that I played. I got the sensibility. I got the humor. I knew that was me. And so I auditioned for Stanley as though I was Kevin, and hoped that they would get it.
Elyse Myers 13:35
Did you hope that they would be like, hey, while you’re here. Can you also read for Kevin or did you read for other people as well?
Brian Baumgartner 13:40
That’s what happened. So I was home. I left the room and Allison Jones came running after me and said, we have this other role we want you to read for and it was Kevin.
Elyse Myers 13:51
Allison Jones, not to be confused with Allison Janney, who you obviously know, right? So Allison Jones is one of the biggest comedy casting directors. She’s casted movies like Superbad and stepbrothers and shows like Parks and Rec. Office Freaks and Geeks like she is the casting director. She is iconic. All right, we got to take a quick break. And when we come back, Brian tells us how casting the office came together to create the perfect ensemble.
Elyse Myers 14:35
So when you walked away from that, because you felt that like this? I am Kevin, did you? Did you expect to get that call?
Brian Baumgartner 14:43
I will say yes. Because I was naive.
Elyse Myers 14:51
I love that.
Brian Baumgartner 14:52
No, but like for real, like I understand now. There are there’s so much that come comes with constructing a cast and ensemble. Like for me at that time, it was like, oh, no, this is me. And I’m the best at this one particular part roll thing. This is mine. Yeah. But I think I understand now that that doesn’t always matter.
Elyse Myers 15:19
Yeah, there’s more things going on.
Brian Baumgartner 15:20
You know, there’s the age of another character that’s playing opposite you. There’s somebody else.
Elyse Myers 15:27
This just goes to show it is not all about you.
Brian Baumgartner 15:34
I’ll tell you this. Amy Adams was on the office.
Elyse Myers 15:37
Per salesman, right?
Brian Baumgartner 15:42
And then she begins to, you know, have a relationship with Jim whatever. She was not cast as that. So the producers turned down Amy Adams, because they thought Amy Adams looked too much like Jenna. Not that they look the same, but like the hair though, at the time. Yeah, the hair the time the look to this, that they were like, she’s too much. She’s too much like Pam, and they cast someone else. Someone else came in and started to do that part. And in one of the I mean, maybe two times that I can think of in 10 years. This woman you know what happens? She was let go and they brought they were like, well, she looks like our but let’s bring in this young girl called Amy Adams.
Elyse Myers 16:31
But the beautiful thing about that casting choice is that’s what causes so much tension in that episode. She looks like Pam that ended up being the cool thing.
Brian Baumgartner 16:40
Yes. And I think originally that was not the intent that was not the intention. So like anyway, as great as Amy Adams was and was great in that part and everything else like she literally was not cast because of that. So like, that’s just a small stupid example of just like it kind of doesn’t matter. There’s other things in the in the universe that are at play.
Elyse Myers 17:05
So when you got the call saying like, yep, you are, Kevin. What how much time like passed between that and set? Like, what was that prep like for you? And then how did you prepare for that first day of set?
Brian Baumgartner 17:16
They made me wait after the audition for a long, a long time. They made me they made me wait. They actually very quick story. When Steve Carell left the show. Allison Jones mazing genius casting director. She comes to me at the party for him leaving, she was like, I don’t throw anything away. And she hands me a piece of just literally just a piece of paper. And it says 123 Kevin Malone, Brian Baumgartner, Eric Stonestreet, who obviously goes on Cam on Modern Family. And then Jorge Garcia, who goes on to Lost and all these shows like literally at this point, seven years later, everyone has on a big show and has done all this stuff. And I was like, this is crazy. So like for two to three weeks. Yeah, they were just they had those three names. They like put them in different pieces and you know, with different Angela’s or Stanley’s or Dwight’s or whatever. And bantered around I you know, I don’t know. You know, I don’t know when they made a decision. But yeah, so then we show up to set, and then we shoot just one episode, and then go away for like, seven months, then shoot five more, and then go away. And then yeah, so we had shot six episodes of the show, between, say, February of 2004, and August of 2005. And then we start in 2005, season two, and then it felt like we never stop.
Elyse Myers 19:00
Because it took so long in that first season with those six episodes. Did you wonder if the show would be successful or not? Because it was so slow.
Brian Baumgartner 19:09
Again. I swear, I was too naive. I was too naive.
Elyse Myers 19:13
So you were like, This is gonna be huge.
Brian Baumgartner 19:15
Yeah. Yeah, I did. I really did. I mean, I was all in. I mean, I knew that the aesthetic was so different. I mean, when you think about that time, like Friends, Will and Grace. You know, the other shows that were on just so aesthetically different. I was bullish on the fact that we were doing something special and I ultimately thought it would catch on, you know, hearing the stories that I have that have come, you know, out of the podcasts about really how close we were to, to dying. You know, again, I was just naive aside.
Elyse Myers 19:58
I always like to joke with people that I have the gene of like, how hard could it be and run it is like, the least informed way to live your life like it’ll be fine. And like in my personal life, I don’t really have that outlook on life but in business and like making big decisions for like my job, I’m like, I could figure out how to do that. And genuinely that night, like naive, being that naive, like it really genuinely gives you this like platform that’s like, basically thin air clouds. But somehow you’re standing on it, and it works. And it makes you a successful person. And like, I feel like that was kind of your experience of like, I mean, I have nothing else to compare it to. So it’s going to be the best thing I’ve ever done. And it’s going to be great. And I look at it like it became this like, huge success. Like, I think that is so cool. And I’m curious because I’ve talked to a few that people like Jenna, you know, and Angela, Angela had a crazy improv background and Jenna didn’t. And I was curious to know, with your theater background, how you felt that that prepared you compared to the improv background?
Brian Baumgartner 21:07
Yeah, I do think that one of the things that made our ensembles so special was the variety of experience that happened before you know, Rainn Wilson and I, we knew each other, like passing ships from theater. I mean, he came from theater as well. For me, it was always about creating the character. And I mean, I think if you were to you don’t even have to use a magnifying glass to look at, you know, Kevin and Dwight, and the characterizations, you know, there’s physicality is really important to me. I mean, I don’t move like Kevin moves. Rain doesn’t move like Dwight moves in real life like that voice and posture and physicality. The creation of all of those things that make up this character for me is, is really important. I always thought Kevin couldn’t rotate at his hips.
Elyse Myers 22:07
Is that a choice you made?
Brian Baumgartner 22:09
Yeah. So what I mean by that is if something were happening to his right, even his head, he doesn’t look right. Know, his entire body has to move in that direction to do it, and so there’s no sort of fluidity of movement. That was just how I was thought of it. Rain had some other stuff. I had this weird jaw thing. I don’t know. It’s like so becomes so nerdy that it’s not even interesting.
Elyse Myers 22:38
Okay, time for one more break. And when we get back, we hear about how Brian developed Kevin’s characteristics over the nine seasons of The Office. I’m curious to know because watching the show. Season One Kevin is much different to me than season nine, right? We didn’t you guys had nine seasons. I say we like I’m in the show. We did nine seasons. Wow. I am too much of a fan. Step back at least. Okay. So yeah, season one to season nine. Kevin is different. And it’s interesting, because I’m like, at what point, if at all? Did you feel like Brian and Kevin kind of inched closer and closer together to kind of meet more in the middle if that happened?
Brian Baumgartner 23:29
Well, I would never say that. So I have a I have again, God, why are you making me be so nerdy artists?
Elyse Myers 23:41
It gives me all the nerd.
Brian Baumgartner 23:43
So the writers on the office fell in love with Kevin’s let’s call it childlike sensibility. And so my nerdy actor justification for this is that I mean, the entire premise of the show again, if you haven’t seen it, really sorry. You should probably should. I don’t know what to tell you this boy, is that a documentary crew shows up in the office with cameras. And this makes Kevin extraordinarily nervous and reserved. And then, as year one goes by, into year two, he becomes more comfortable. Maybe even goes out for a beer or four with some of the camera guys, and begins to feel more comfortable. So more of his true self comes out.
Elyse Myers 24:43
It’s like hard to not think about his character without laughing. It’s like you played him so well. It’s like crazy.
Brian Baumgartner 24:50
Well, thank you, but it does change. I’ll give you like the smallest exam. I mean, this is the dumbest but this is from Episode Two, diversity day. With the cards on the foreheads, and the game is over and has turned into a disaster, and Michael Scott has gotten slapped, because he, you know, says something to Kelly and the game is over. And we’re basically back in office, conference mode, debriefing what just happened. And suddenly, he says something, and it cuts over to Kevin, who was still wearing Italian on his forehead, and says, maybe some spaghetti. Now this is a childlike John very either dumb or childlike, or I don’t know what, but like, that’s what I’m like. That’s episode two. Yeah, that’s the hint of what we see later on later on. And Greg Daniels came from The Simpsons, right? So there is a joke that I would like, I would yell at the writers sometimes, like in a funny, like, exaggerated way, which is like going in after a table read and being like, guys, I am not a cartoon character. You know, it’s like, Oh, Kevin spills a vat of chili, and is now like, swimming on the floor in it or whatever. Or like, there was one which was like, it was something about grease on the floor. It was like Kevin, well, you suddenly Kevin walks by and slips and falls on his back. I mean, that’s the one that hurt me the most was like, that’s ultimately what happened. They found a specific place that they wanted Kevin to live in and started writing more to that, which just he had to come out of his shell more. And that’s my nerdy justification.
Elyse Myers 26:45
I love it. I need all the nerdy justification that was perfect. Well, it sounds like you know, Kevin, so well, and you’ve become so involved with that character is Brian, like, how do you even begin to say goodbye to him?
Brian Baumgartner 26:58
Well, when the show was over, I consciously said no to anything like him, or that it was like I needed to distance myself. You know, I didn’t want to be known as him forever. This is what I wanted to do. And then, in part with the office, just the resurgence of the office, the office, it became like, well, you can run, but you can’t hide. And so part of like, you know, The original podcast that I did an oral history of the office, going back in was my conscious was Mike, it was a conscious decision for me to embrace that. Him and that show, but also begin to define myself within that in a slightly different way.
Elyse Myers 27:44
You decided, like I don’t, when you first entered, you were like, I don’t want to play any characters like Kevin. And then did you ever play a character like Kevin after that once you kind of like embraced it?
Brian Baumgartner 27:54
Well, I mean, I voice a bear in a Netflix animated show. He has some similarities to Kevin. He has some Walther the bear.
Elyse Myers 28:06
I feel like I would never want to not talk about it and be in it. Because it’s like, it’s like the, it’s so big. It would just be like this huge thing that happens in your life. And it feels like you would kind of have to be like, at some point. Yeah, this happened. And it’s, I’m always gonna be in this light of Kevin, you know, this little like.
Brian Baumgartner 28:24
People I think a lot of people don’t know is, I mean, it was the number one show on NBC at the time, NBC had nothing on it at the time, by the way, and it was big, and we want me and people talking about us, but we were never like Friends, or Seinfeld, right? I mean, we weren’t like, on the covers of magazines and billboards. And like, it wasn’t like we taken over. And I think a lot of that, quite frankly, is we weren’t sexy. As a cast in general. I mean, that. I mean, there’s literally that was it I mean, by what the show was attempting to talk about was we were ordinary people. We were regular people who worked in an office in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that, like, this is the experience, right? Like, okay, yeah, I mean, yes, stuff happens, and you get dinner reservations, or whatever, and people stop you on the street. And then like, the show ends, and then five years later, you walk through an airport, and there’s a mob of people. I mean, literally, that’s it’s like, what happened?
Elyse Myers 29:25
Like, what would be so shocking,
Brian Baumgartner 29:29
It’s like, it becomes bizarre.
Elyse Myers 29:32
I will Yeah, it that sounds crazy. And I just want to say, as a huge fan, like I won’t, like make you feel uncomfortable, but I’m just grateful for like your role and how you played it. And like, genuinely The Office plays a huge part in my life and was a show that I watched and I was very, very happy and very, very sad. And you guys feel like family. And so I’m just grateful for the work that you did and all of the hard, you know, hours and days and years that you’ve poured into that and so I’m really grateful for the fact that you are part of it and what you gave to hit the fan base because it was it was bigger than a show.
Brian Baumgartner 30:03
Well, thank you for saying that. And I, you know, I mean that that’s the greatest gift that the show gave me is people, and particularly saying that they that the Office helped them get through a difficult time. And, you know, the last line of the show is Pam says, you know, basically the question is why make a documentary about this? People work in a paper company. And the last thing she says the last words that are spoken on the show is there’s beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point? And I think that feeling of the show throughout people, people say horrible things to each other. But yeah, you know, ultimately, there’s, there’s a lot of love that exists there and a celebration of other people who are just celebrating small, small victories.
Elyse Myers 31:02
It’s powerful. Well, I’m so grateful that you did it. And I’m so grateful that you are here. Thank you so much.
Brian Baumgartner 31:07
Thank you so much for listening to my conversation with Brian Baumgartner. If you want more, Brian, you can listen to his podcast and oral history of the office or off the beat, which is a full deep dive on the office. Brian also has books including one called a seriously good chili cookbook. I actually have his cookbook and I’ve used it the title is up. Hey, if you want more Funny Because It’s True, just subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Funny Cuz It’s True is a Lemonada Media and Powderkeg production. The show is produced by Claire Jones, Zoe Dennis and […], our associate producer is Tiffany Buoy. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paul Feig, Laura Fisher, […] and me Elyse Myers. The show is mixed by Brian Castillo and Johnny Evans. Our theme song music was written by me and scored by Xander Singh.