Hometown boy makes weird
T.J. Miller is speeding down a highway outside of Atlanta in a rental car full of fireworks.
“If I get in a crash, it’s going to be a spectacularly beautiful one,” says the Denver native, who’s driving from Nashville to Atlanta to headline a New Year’s Eve show at the Atlanta Improv. “It’s going to be a great finish. A finale to be remembered.”
Much like his stage act, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. Miller, 34, has built a brand for himself by playing wily, absurdist characters in Hollywood fare such as “Get Him to the Greek” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” as well as a patchwork of prominent voiceacting roles (“How to Train Your Dragon,” “Big Hero 6”) and TV comedies — most recently on HBO’s critically acclaimed “Silicon Valley.”
It was that last role, as shaggy entrepreneur Erlich Bachman, that nabbed him a 2015 Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
In his acceptance speech, delivered with a mouth full of food and wearing a tuxedo with a gold chain around his neck, Miller said awards “are for children, because children need a tangible representation of their achievement. ... But what do I know? I just play an arrogant blowhard who says whatever ... he wants to.”
Not only did the speech fail to anger the show’s voting panel, it nabbed him the hosting gig for this year’s 21st annual ceremony.
Miller is already relishing
the chance to unleash his surreal, edgy humor at the event, which airs live on A&E on Jan. 17.
“I’m actually playing my (2015) speech in the beginning of the show because it’s exactly the tone I’d like to set: irreverent but grateful, positive but playful,” said Miller, who also has hosted the Golden Trailer Awards (for film trailers) and the Crunchies (for Internet startups).
The latter, which took place in San Francisco last year, didn’t go quite as well.
“They invited the guy from the show that’s making fun of Silicon Valley, the character that’s the most outspoken, unpredictable and nihilistic, and when I did my thing they couldn’t believe it,” Miller said. “They were expecting me to sort of bow and kiss the ring, but they forgot that the only place that’s more bloated and arrogant than Silicon Valley is Hollywood.”
The same things that make Miller a gamble for live TV also make him a clutch player for L.A. casting directors. With an energy that pivots from drawling slackerism to trembling intensity, they trust he can deliver when the cameras start rolling. They just don’t know what they’re going to get.
Off stage, Miller is more philosophical about his career and growing fame, owing partly to a 2010 surgery that removed a golfball-sized chunk of malformed tissue from his brain.
This (relatively) newfound maturity is hinted at in that same Critic’s Choice speech, in which Miller thanks his parents and his East High School drama teacher, Melody Duggan, whom he has credited frequently for preparing him for show business.
In the press and at hometown shows at the Gothic Theatre (where Miller recorded his Comedy Central special “No Real Reason”), he praises Denver’s scrappy, rough-hewn energy and traces his success back to the Mile High City ethos. On his 2011 comedy-rap mini-album “The Extended Play EP,” he also offered the paean “Denver,” accompanied by a FunnyOrDie.com video filmed at local spots such as Civic Center, Pete’s Kitchen and Casa Bonita and starring a who’s-who of Denver comics and friends.
“Denver didn’t try and emulate some other city and scramble to be something else,” said Miller, who’s still a bit sore he’s never headlined his marquee hometown club, Comedy Works. “Because I lived in that environment, I never once lived according to any other law. I’m so proud of the city and the fact that my parents moved there, and I’m glad I get to be one of the national voices talking about it.”
Miller’s parents — psychologist Leslie and lawyer Kent — reared him and his three sisters in the former governor’s mansion at 1075 Humboldt St. in Cheesman Park. Miller held his wedding reception there in September after marrying longtime flame Kate Gorney at Denver Botanic Gardens — an event sufficiently lavish to appear in Town & Country magazine.
He attended Graland Country Day School before getting into comedy at East High School then graduating in 2003 from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he further cemented those interests in the Recess sketch and improv group.
After training with Chicago’s famed Second City and its national touring company, he moved to Los Angeles to perform stand-up. There he began nabbing an increasing number of high-profile roles that allowed him to explore goofy, unstable characters in films like 2008’s “Cloverfield” — J.J. Abrams’ lowbudget monster movie and Miller’s first big break — as well as “She’s Out of My League,” “Yogi Bear” and “My Idiot Brother.”
Casting directors love Miller for his unpredictable charm, which the scratchy-voiced comic (he describes its texture as “a drag queen after a night of chain smoking”) has honed on stage in bars, comedy clubs and theaters. But so do advertisers. That Mucinex commercial with the talking, computer-generated globs of snot? Miller’s in that. He also plays the blue-faced genie Greg in a new series of Slim Jim ads, adding to a résumé that includes spots for Moto X, Smirnoff and others.
“That’s me trying to figure out how funny I can be in the most accessible way,” Miller said.
That accessibility is paying off in a bewildering array of projects for 2016. In addition to filming a new season of Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley” for HBO, there’s the Feb. 12 release of Marvel’s “Deadpool” (Miller plays supporting role Weasel alongside star Ryan Reynolds), the new Comedy Central series “Gorburger” (about an alien talkshow host, created and voiced by Miller) and his biggest project yet — the action-comedy “Ex-Criminals,” which Miller sold to DreamWorks last year.
A recent phone conversation with DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg notched up the “surreality” of Miller’s current status in Hollywood.
“I was preparing to smoke some marijuana from my five-chamber Sherlock bubbler, which I got from Purple Haze on Colfax, and I get this call saying ‘I have Steven for you,’ ” Miller remembered. “Thank God I didn’t smoke weed four minutes earlier or that would have been bad news.”
Miller, who will co-write and star in “Ex-Criminals” for DreamWorks, said getting Spielberg’s vote of confidence was probably the high point of his career. But he was still incredibly nervous.
“I’d been preparing for that conversation for a long time. But how do you tell the man who has no time that he can trust me with $15 to $20 million of his money?”
Hollywood’s investment in Miller allows him to spread his absurdism far and wide — as messy as it can be at times — and for the moment, it shows no signs of lagging.
Take that $300 stash of fireworks in the trunk of Miller’s rental car, for instance.
“I wanted to burn down the Atlanta Improv because the entire complex was being torn down the next day,” Miller said of his New Year’s Eve show. “I actually tried to set off the fireworks off inside because I thought it would look cool.
“But the curtains were not flammable and the room just filled with smoke. When I tried to tear down the Improv sign I cut my hand and was bleeding all over my tuxedo shirt, so an audience member had to give me some napkins.”
At least he’s still trying.
T.J. Miller of the series “Silicon Valley” crashes the 2015 New York Comic-Con.
Denver-bred comic and actor T.J. Miller has seen success in Hollywood over the past few years with his blend of calibrated absurdism and professional drive.