Not strictly commercial
JUSTIN LONG has about an hour and a half before he has to drive from Santa Monica to Burbank to shoot some footage for the website of his upcoming movie “Accepted.” And though the hip and trendy Urth Caffe on Main Street does have awesome soup, and he is very into soup, the line is prohibitively long so he suggests Mani’s Bakery, which is just a few doors down, as an alternative.
There he does indeed order the soup, some of which he actually eats while discussing the events that led to him having a half-dozen films in various stages of postproduction while, even as we speak, his pop icon status grows with every “Get a Mac” TV spot released by Apple.
“If I had been egotistical about the movies, I have been brought back to earth,” he says. “Nine out of 10 people who recognize me recognize me from the commercials.”
Although he is currently playing in theaters near you as Jennifer Aniston’s gallery co-worker in “The Break-Up,” Long was previously best known for his role in the TV series “Ed” (unless you are a horror fan and then it would be “Jeepers Creepers”). But now, as he prepares to ratchet up his film career (two of his movies, strangely enough, deal with Bigfoot -- “What are the odds,” he says with a laugh), he is fending off computer geeks who either find his Mac guy righteous or maddening.
“I had a guy come up to me, in my face, saying, ‘You think you’re so cool? You’re not cool’ and I’m saying to him, ‘Dude, it’s a commercial.’ ”
There have been seven spots so far with Long playing the slacker-hip Mac guy to John Hodgman’s nerdy PC guy and there are almost 20 more in the can, guaranteeing that what is currently the hottest campaign on TV can last as long as the heat does.
“It’s not even a good story,” he says of how he came to embody a computer-obsessed demographic. “I got a call from my agent about it and at first I was very wary. I was in this false arrogance, deluding myself that I was beyond that -- ‘I’m doing movies.’ ” He laughs sheepishly. “Seriously. I thought that. But I grew up in a house where my mom was a commercial actress; she made a living making commercials, so I recognize the value of them.”
He learned that Phil Morrison was going to direct the spots, and that swayed him. “I loved ‘Junebug,’ ” he says of the indie director’s film. “It was one of my favorite films, my favorite type of film. And he wanted it to be very uncommercial so I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Although the Mac guy utilizes the same laid-back look and mien Long has in real life, filming the commercials was actually pretty difficult. “Commercials are hard because you don’t have a lot to work with but you have a lot to work against. You don’t want to look silly and polished but still, you know, you’re selling something,” he says. “We were fighting with the company people who didn’t want it to be too subtle and I didn’t want to come off too smug. People who haven’t done commercials,” he adds, “don’t appreciate how hard it is.”
A crash course
LONG, a Connecticut boy who has been very ambivalent about the fame part of the job since his breakout role as the young sci-fi geek in “Galaxy Quest,” was shocked at how deeply affected people have been by the ads. “I didn’t really know about computers,” he says. “I didn’t even have one -- though I do now,” he adds quickly, “a Mac of course. But I was very surprised at how passionate people are about their computers, how deeply attached.”
Are he and Hodgman the latest commercial demigods, the next Bartles and Jaymes? Long laughs delightedly.
“I am proud to be the new Bartles and Jaymes,” he says. “Those guys got a lot of babes; they really cleaned up.”
At 28, Long has a slightly goofy, very appealing face, the large and varied vocabulary of the literate hip and a syntax that reflects an already mature career as well as having a father who is a professor. If J.D. Salinger is reading this, and considering selling the film rights to “The Catcher in the Rye” any time soon, he might want to give Long a call. He’d make a perfect Holden.
Meanwhile, the young actor is about to find out if he can carry a movie. “Accepted,” which Universal will release in August, follows high school loser Bartleby, as his scheme to rig a website that will fool his parents into thinking he has been accepted into college backfires. (Hence the importance of Long’s participation in the film’s website.) When people actually begin enrolling, Bartleby and his best friend are forced to create their own university.
“And highbrow hilarity ensues,” Long says.
Fit for the job
ALTHOUGH he has been a successfully employed actor for seven years, Long found life as the star rather than the supporting player quite an adjustment. Before filming started, he turned to some of his higher-wattage friends -- Vince Vaughn, Sam Rockwell -- for advice and was pretty much floored by what they had to say.
“I’m asking ‘How should I prepare for my character, what research should I do?’ and they’re saying, ‘Sleep a lot, drink a lot of water, take care of your body.’ ” He snorts. “I thought they were just blowing me off. But Vince kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about the character, you are the character but you have to be in shape because it’s a marathon, man.’ ”
Long admits he pretty much blew off their advice. “And then, about 10 days into the shoot, I got insanely sick. I mean they had to have a medic on the set. It was highly embarrassing. I had to keep trying to convince the director that he hadn’t hired some sickly weakling.”
Now he understands what his friends were talking about: the 12- and 14-hour days are indeed a marathon, especially when you feel like you should be on-set even when you’re not in a scene. But it was worth it, at least in this case.
“I hate saying this because it sounds very arrogant,” he says, “but I saw it and I love it. It reminded me of the movies I grew up with -- you know with John Cusack and Michael J. Fox, who is my hero. Now of course people will read this,” he adds, “and say, ‘How dare he compare himself to Michael J. Fox?’ But those movies inspired me and now I am doing things that remind me of them.”
Meanwhile, he’s adjusting to life in L.A. He came out two years ago for the standard reason -- it’s easier to get film work here -- and has been following the standard industry arc: enthusiastic determination to hit every premiere or party in town followed by realization that they are called industry parties because they are work.
“I used to go to premieres when I first got out here,” he says. “Free popcorn, free soda, people knew me.... Now it just feels like part of the job. Which makes me wonder if I am really cut out for this.”
Hanging around his friend Vaughn during this last year has also given Long a taste of what it’s like when you do hit it big. “It’s crazy,” he says of the way people approach Vaughn with seemingly limitless requests -- for an autograph, a photo, a deep and meaningful chat. “Vince handles it beautifully; he is just able to be very gracious and friendly and still establish boundaries.
“And Aniston,” he adds, “she is just lovely. Reacts to every compliment like it is the first one she’s ever heard. I don’t know how she does it. But I watched her at ‘The Break-Up’ premiere in Chicago ... " He shakes his head. “There were no ropes, you know, so she gets out of the car and moves toward the crowd to shake hands and suddenly there is just this enormous surge of people. She had to almost run back to the carpet. It was kind of scary.”
Long says he finds himself thinking more and more about Connecticut, about how nice it would be to live there again. “There was definitely a time in my life when I thought it sounded cool to be famous and recognized and all that,” he says. “But a lot of what I thought was fun about this job has become a bit empty.”
It’s the work itself, as it turns out, that he likes. Watching “Accepted” and the upcoming “Sasquatch Dumpling Gang” (one of the two Bigfoot movies), Long began to understand the satisfaction of doing something well. “ ‘Sasquatch’ is one of my favorite movies,” he says. “Just to continue the arrogance. I can watch it over and over. I have watched it over and over.
Of course, he quickly admits, others might feel differently. “We’ll find out soon enough I guess.”