Home­town boy makes weird

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

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.

Pro­vided by Mandee John­son

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.

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