Like many, I have been a devout fan of The Office for years. That’s why it is so exciting for me to share with you this week’s interview with Oscar Nuñez! With the series wrapped, and only three more episodes to air, listening to Oscar explain how he went from working in a dental lab to playing an accountant at Dunder Mifflin felt like I just won a Dundie.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
ON: I guess I kind of knew in high school a little bit, but not really. I never really thought about it till my early 20s because I went through high school having a lot of fun and partying a little too much. So, I never really thought about the “real world” until I had to.
I had my degree in dental technology and I was working in a dental lab, and I realized I really didn’t want to do that. I asked myself, what do you really want to do?
I’ve always liked making people laugh and comedy. I thought, Okay, okay, you really have to do this and hopefully you can make a living at what you like doing.
You worked at The Groundlings in LA. How did that help set you up for a successful career?
I had done improv in New York City for about three or four years in the 80s. The Groundlings was a great place to meet people and I met a lot of people who I still know today. It was a very good place to network and if you didn’t have an improv background, it’s a great place to learn it. It’s a lot of fun. They have great teachers. It’s a great program.
You also studied at the Warner Brothers Comedy Writer’s Workshop. What was that experience like?
I got in with a writing partner of mine, Michael Player. We wrote a Frasier spec, it was the first spec we wrote together, and we got in. I think something like 2500 people submitted, then they whittled it down to 50, and then they interviewed us. After that they picked 24 of us and we were one of the teams that got in. Everyone who got in had been writing together for years and had written a lot of specs and they couldn’t believe that it was our first one when we got in.
What you learn at the program is how to take notes and how to keep rewriting and rewriting and to not think that your stuff is so precious (which is a hard thing to do because I usually think that the first draft is usually my funniest.) If you’re going to work in that environment, like writing for a sitcom, you do have to learn how to take notes and sacrifice a lot of stuff that you’ve written. That’s just how it goes.
How did your part on The Office come about?
I just auditioned for it. I think they needed people to fill the office. They had Phyllis and Stanley and then needed more. That’s where Kevin Malone, Oscar Martinez, and Angela came in. We auditioned for the parts and then we got them. Then there were other people like Creed and another guy who were hired as background; they did not have to audition. Then as the show grew and lasted longer, they started to incorporate us more in to the show. It got to the point where Creed was upgraded and they started writing for him. Low and behold we all had parts in the show!
When did you realize that it was a hit?
They ordered six shows (which is a weird number) after the pilot and then we got picked up for a season. That’s when I thought we had a shot. When we got picked up for the second season and started getting accolades and awards, the critics liked us, and we had a nice fan base following us.
In 2007 you took a break from The Office to work on a show you created, Halfway Home, for Comedy Central. How did you come up with the idea for the show? What’s it like to completely improv a TV show?
Damon Jones (another guy from The Groundlings) and myself shot a couple of videos and were pitching stuff to Comedy Central. Then I was on Reno 911, which sort of re-sparked an interest in me and we pitched a bunch of shows to Comedy Central and they liked Halfway Home.
I’d been doing improv for a long time so it was really fun. All you need is a place you’re going; we’d write an outline and all that. Then you would improvise within those parameters.
Did you guys improv a lot on The Office?
Sometimes. Steve [Carell] and Rainn [Wilson] improved more because they had big chunks of stuff where they got to riff. But we got to improvise a lot, too and a lot of it made it into the show. But the show was written and we did definitely have a script.
What’s it like to lose a leading man, Steve Carell?
It was very, very, very sad and it was really nice that Will Farrell was there to usher him out. It was a very emotional episode; for me it was sadder than the show ending.
Oscar has had a very dramatic storyline the past couple of seasons. How involved were you with the creation of the senator/Oscar affair?
The writers would ask us where we saw our characters going. I never really had any strong feelings one-way or the other because I thought they were doing such a good job on their own. I think they were the ones who thought of the whole affair. I thought it was great and very funny and dramatic, the rivalry/frenemies with Angela. It was a great storyline.
Do you think there is an art to acting in a mockumentary?
In the beginning I thought, oh this is the best… I just have to act like I don’t want to be filmed! How cool? A guy working who doesn’t want to be filmed.
You just have to keep things normal. Of course there are those funny people; it seems like the show has the wacky people and then the normal ones. There’s Pam, Jim, and myself who were the normal ones and then you have Dwight, who ever the boss happens to be at the time, and Kevin Malone.
What do you think made The Office a success?
I think that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant came up with a really basic premise. It was just a workspace where a documentary is being filmed about it…where the boss happens to be an idiot who’s so full of himself. Then you just go with that and all the other characters are just supporting and kind of a mirror for the boss to reflect off of. It’s a classic and iconic character that has grandiose ideas about himself. That’s the perfect comic foil.
Do you have a favorite episode?
I would say “Gay Witch Hunt.” But there are so many.
Playing a character for nine years is a very unique experience. How, if at all, do you think that has helped your acting?
When you do anything over and over again, you get better at it. It was great to be on a show for nine years and have that under your belt. It’s a great boost for the ego, confidence wise.
What are you currently working on?
I shot an episode of Family Tree with Chris O’Dowd, which was a lot of fun, and tomorrow I’m shooting an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I’ve always wanted to do.
What did you learn early on in your career that you still live by today?
This goes for anything; show up early to whatever you are doing. And this pertains to writing more, if you’re not happy with something before you open you mouth to criticize it have a fix for it. So, if there’s something wrong with the script and you can’t just say “This doesn’t work.” You can say it and then have a fix for it and say, “I think this is better.” Always have an idea to better what you’re criticizing.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
If you’re not talented and you’re fooling yourself that’s so sad and weird, but if you’re really talented and you think you have a shot, just keep at it and don’t wait for work to come to you. Especially nowadays with YouTube and all that stuff, people should just start doing their own thing.
What are some of your favorite TV shows? (Besides The Office)
Hmm what do I TiVo? I like Justified, Shameless, Game of Thrones, The Simpsons (I’ve watched forever.) I watch The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Breaking Bad. Oh and Modern Family. I love Modern Family. ♦