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B.J. Novak learned a lot about himself — and Texas — while working on 'Vengeance'

Boyd Holbrook (left) as Ty Shaw and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz are pictured in a still from the movie <em>Vengeance</em>, which marks Novak's directorial debut.
Patti Perret
Focus Features
Boyd Holbrook (left) as Ty Shaw and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz are pictured in a still from the movie Vengeance, which marks Novak's directorial debut.

Updated August 1, 2022 at 10:18 AM ET

B.J. Novak says his new movie, Vengeance, is all about breaking down assumptions — an experience he had onscreen as its lead actor, but also off-camera as its writer and director.

The dark comedy follows Ben, a New York City-based journalist who travels to small-town Texas to investigate the death of a woman whose family falsely believes the two were dating. They also believed she was murdered. Cue the twists, turns and ensemble cast, which features Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron and Dove Cameron.

Novak himself has appeared in several films, including Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but is probably best known for his portrayal of corporate climber Ryan Howard on NBC's The Office, on which he also served as a writer and co-executive producer.

Novak says making this movie, his directorial debut, offered a welcome change in perspective. Namely: He's much nicer being the boss (which does sort of sound like something Ryan Howard might say).

Novak explains to Morning Edition's Rachel Martin that while he wouldn't exactly have called himself a diva before, he has a new appreciation for what a production takes.

"Any employee can get impatient. When I'm the boss of a film set, I am humbled and in awe of all the jobs that everybody has to do," he says. "How do I keep everyone happy, how do I keep them motivated ... I was much nicer and more professional and more respectful of everyone's job than I've ever been when I realized that it fell on my shoulders."

Novak spoke to Morning Edition about the movie, pulling pranks with Kutcher and his views on the evolution of comedy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On his misconceptions about Texas

I thought it was a bad-a**: big people, big guns, big trucks, everything's bigger in Texas, and that it would be, as a result, very unfriendly to a guy like me, who was so clearly an outsider. And I was right about a lot of it but it was also so much more than that. It was not unfriendly at all — it was the most friendly place I've ever been. It is filled with intelligence and diversity and just surprises everywhere. And it was fun to show that through my character.

On working with Kutcher, who plays a music producer

Ben goes to make fun of him, but ends up meeting someone way smarter and more charismatic and intelligent even than he thinks he is. And he's really blown away by the surprises in Texas and what [Kutcher's character] tells him about the people there ... And really who better than Ashton Kutcher for that, who is so easy to underestimate ... [but] in reality is this brilliant producer and tech investor.

My first job on camera was pulling pranks for him on Punk'd ... He was very detail-oriented, meanwhile he's wearing the trucker hat and he just looks like this kind of iconic celebrity. But he was calling all the shots.

On the balance between staying true to himself and caring what others think

To me, it's the same thing, because I'm thinking like the audience all the time. I'm thinking of my cousins in the theater, I'm thinking of me when I was a teenager going to see a movie. I'm thinking: I cannot let anybody down for a second, I got all this way ... I'm always thinking like the audience, because that is why I do what I do. I think some people make art for themselves, but I'm making art for — or art, I'm making what I make, whatever you call it — I'm making it for an audience. And I feel like that's my purpose.

On what he considers comedy's broad appeal

I feel, maybe naively, but I feel that funny is funny and everyone has the same sense of humor. And when we made The Office we were making the most particular, obscure types of jokes and characters and it ended up becoming so popular ... And we pictured the audience while making The Office, but we were the audience. So I do think that if you work hard enough for what you think is good, I don't think there's any limit to who likes it.

On whether there are jokes the former stand-up wouldn't tell today

When you're a comedian, which I have been, you read the room. And some things work better some nights, and some jokes get stale, and some jokes are wrong for one context and not in another. So to me, I don't think anyone should have regret over what worked in 2004 because it was a completely different room and a different context. But I also don't think anyone should be moaning that they can't tell the joke from 2004 in 2022; you're not telling a joke about Bill Clinton now either ... I don't think anyone needs to or should have regret, unless you really caused some pain that nobody spoke up about at the time.

This interview was conducted by Rachel Martin, produced by Marc Rivers and Claire Murashima, and edited by Simone Popperl.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.