Jason Bateman’s past lies in front of him, on a piece of paper, face down. Typewritten on the flip side is a quotation of his from 1987, when he was a teen idol starring in “Teen Wolf Too.”
“Ugh,” he says, turning the paper over. “I probably thought I was pretty hot s--- then.”
The quote — first printed in the Hollywood Reporter, reproduced this February afternoon by the guy sent to write about Bateman — is hugely aspirational and brazen in its ambition, especially in the shadow of a quarter century gone by.
He recites his own words softly, without emotion.
“ ‘Teen Wolf Too’ doesn’t represent what I want to do in the future,” the bygone 18-year-old says through his present 45-year-old self. “I’d like to play a dramatic role like Timothy Hutton did in ‘Ordinary People.’ What a great vehicle that was. I want to be a great actor.”
“I remember I was in the green room for Merv Griffin’s TV show and it was full of stereotyped Hollywood people chattering away. Then the news was announced that James Cagney had died.”
“Everyone stopped talking. They were touched by the passing of a great talent. That is the kind of career I want to establish.’’
Jason Bateman, in his new film “Bad Words,” plays a boorish man-child who at one point smears ketchup on the chair of a middle school girl to cripple her with pubescent embarrassment during a spelling bee.
“Bad Words” is not exactly “White Heat.”
And its director is not exactly Robert Redford. It is Jason Bateman, making his feature film directorial debut.
Bateman sets the paper back on the table, next to his non-fat dirty chai latte, in a corner of the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. That 18-year-old is “somebody who clearly was more focused on respect and longevity as opposed to fame and fortune and being a celebrity,” says Bateman, standing by his youthful cockiness. “And, you know, certain choices I’ve made in my career are consistent with that, and others aren’t.”
Jason Bateman is handsome in a cozy way, like he’s just finished unpacking his winter wools from an oak chest in the pages of a J. Crew catalog. In person, he’s pleasant but not phony, prickly but not distant. He’s a gentler version of his on-screen persona, the exasperated straight man who toggles between wholesome deadpan and gallows humor. And when confronted with his teenage stardom, he doesn’t recoil. He demonstrates how exquisitely well-adjusted he is today, how he has a firm-yet-supple grip on the rudder of his career, even as he lets out its sails.
“I’ve witnessed some people very close to me that have made decisions that are too far in either direction,” he says. “Either too precious, too I’m-not-gonna-work-for-the-Man — and they’ve been unemployed for years — or those that grab the low-hanging fruit because they think fame and fortune is the way to relevance and longevity. And neither really works. You have to strike a balance, all the while having very limited choices.”
Bateman has wanted to direct a movie ever since his father took him to the cinema instead of the park as a child. Imprinted on his frontal lobe are “Apocalypse Now,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” and other acclaimed box-office hits of the late ’70s and early ’80s, just before he entered the business at 12 years old with a role on “Little House on the Prairie.” Child stardom both stunted his directorial ambitions and girded them with years of on-set experience. Once he got comfortable in front of the camera, he started to observe and absorb what was going on behind it.
Long before “Bad Words” came along, though, Bateman had to experience three moments that define many Hollywood careers: The moment he knew he was in, the moment he knew he was out and the moment he knew he was back.
The first: “When NBC gave me my own show called ‘It’s Your Move’ [in 1984], which was on the heels of ‘Silver Spoons.’ ”
The second: After “The Hogan Family” ended in 1991, “I was auditioning for pilots or looking to be worked into pilots. . . . I remember [my attorney and I] talking numbers, and I said: ‘Boy that sounds low to me. Does that not sound low to you?’ And there was a pause and he said, ‘You know, you’re just not that hot anymore.’ ”
The third: It “was after ‘Arrested Development’ started to get its first wave of critical acclaim [in late 2003]. So it wasn’t just getting hired on that show, which was a very, very big deal for me, but it was once I knew the show was now being embraced by those who could perpetuate a career. . . . And we got nominated for a Golden Globe and the Emmys. And now basically my stink had been washed off, and I was on something that was critically acclaimed, and I was validated.”
A string of mainstream film comedies with respectable box-office receipts allowed him to accumulate “just barely enough capital as an actor” to be a “tolerable financial risk” as a director. In “Bad Words,” his character exploits a loophole in the bylaws of a spelling-bee organization to compete against spellers who are 35 years younger. On the one hand, it’s a predictable, bilious addition to the misanthropic frat-pack genre that is now a decade old (and rotting). On the other, it’s a calling card for a promising director whose confidence manifests in the sleekness and precision of his first self-made product.
“That was exciting, to say the least,” he says of Kidman’s overture. “I’m always shocked that anyone knows I’m on the planet.”
His planet is “very normal and predictable,” which maybe explains why his humor is often tinged with dread. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, Amanda, and his two daughters, ages 7 and 2. He drives the 7-year-old to school in the morning and then, if he’s not shooting, tends film and TV projects at his production office at Universal Studios. His motto is balance, his goal to marry commerce with quality. If “Bad Words” and “The Family Fang” enable a full-time directing career, he will gladly bet his relevance and longevity on that.
The screams of teenage girls echo in his past.
The fruitful but fickle nature of Hollywood defines his present.
And the future — a robust second career behind the camera? Or a second dance with oblivion? It doesn’t matter, he says. He long ago detached his ego from fame.
“This is probably going to sound trite, but I wanted to do three things,” Bateman says. “I wanted to be a dad, a husband and direct a movie. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Check. Check. Check. So what the hell is he going to do now?
“I’m gonna go jump off a bridge,” says the well-adjusted family man.