Old friends are the best — but they can also be the worst.
That's the central truth of the new Netflix series "Friends From College" created by writer-director Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "The Five-Year Engagement") and his wife, novelist Francesca Delbanco, and directed by Stoller. Like a bawdier version of the "The Big Chill," Friends From College" follows a group of Harvard buddies as they wrestle with midlife angst and their tangled personal histories.
At the center is Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), a frustrated author whose wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders), lands a lucrative but soul-crushing corporate job in New York.
There he is reunited with Sam (Annie Parisse), with whom he's been carrying on an intermittent affair since their undergraduate days, trust-funder Nick (Nat Faxon), Bohemian actress Marianne (Jae-Suh Park), book agent Max (Fred Savage) and Max's boyfriend Felix, (Billy Eichner), who happens to be a fertility specialist treating Lisa and Ethan.
All of whom, with the exception of Savage, recently sat down for a boisterous conversation about friendship, comedy and why Fred Savage won't hang out with them.
[To Stoller and Delbanco] You both went to Harvard. To what extent is this inspired by your lives?
Stoller: It's not based in specifics on our group of friends but on the relationships we have with each other. We have a group of friends in L.A. Our families all live on the East Coast, so they have become our de facto family. We tend to regress around each other. The age you meet someone is the age you're locked in, in a certain way. We all see each other as 20.
Delbanco: Having that kind of history with someone is the best thing and the worst thing in the world.
What were you looking for in the cast?
Stoller: We needed people who are obviously really good at the comedy and really good actors. And people who seemed like they could be old friends.
Park: It was pretty immediate when we first got together, the chemistry.
Smulders: I think Nick has honed this skill of not hiring [jerks]. I don't know how you've weeded out the bad ones but it's like every person on this cast is a nice, normal person.
Parisse: On the first day we were like, "Oh, where's the drama going to be?" And there's none.
Delbanco: That's the nice thing about a show where everyone is hovering around 40. Everyone is a grown-up, already has other responsibilities in the world beside just being on TV.
Stoller: But it made for kind of a boring set because there was no gossip. "What happened?" "Well, we shot the scene and everyone knew their lines." "Did anyone have sex?" "No."
Faxon: We didn't even have a practical joker.
Eichner: There was no Clooney on this set.
So Sam and Ethan have been carrying on this casual affair for decades. Why can't they move on?
Parisse: It stems from this very long-lived affectionate relationship from college. Why would we ever end that? Who's it hurting? They're like, "It's not an affair."
Key: It's a preexisting condition. "We did this in college, and then it' s once a year and I happened to get married in the middle of it." It never occurred to him that they'd live within 60 miles of each other.
Parisse: The way that the circumstances change suddenly reveals what it is and what's it's been all along.
Faxon: It feels like you guys are really defending them. Is this an actuality? Are you guys hooking up? [laughter]
So do the rest of you regress around the people you were friends with at this age?
Parisse: I have a friend I went to school with from seventh grade. We behave badly together in a way that I wouldn't with people I met when I was 30. I think that goes for everybody who I met between high school and college.
Smulders: All my friends are up in Canada and whenever I go back I feel like I become more fun because I see these people I knew in high school [when] I didn't have children and I didn't have a job and my main responsibility was, like finding a sixer for Friday night.
Felix is new to the group, and views them warily. What was it like for you to play a more subdued character?
Eichner: I like that I got to be a bit more quiet and emotionally mature. It's also one of the few things [I've done] where there's little to no pop culture talk. I think Max brings up "Damages" at one point and Felix is like, "What is that?" But it does come naturally to me to be the judgmental outsider.
I also liked how much he was trying to make [his relationship] work. Having to act like you like your boyfriend's or girlfriend's friends is a nightmare. [pause] I've been single for 17 years.
Was there anything about the creative process on this project that was unique?
Delbanco: We were able to write everything before we started shooting. Usually you're writing and shooting at the same time and you don't know how things are going to end. We were able to approach it more like a movie.
Stoller: We had rehearsals for two weeks before we started shooting and did a ton of improv and discovered, with no pressure, a ton of stuff that then went back into the scripts.
Key: Any project I've ever been a part of or seen that's been wildly successful has been one where they rehearsed. It's the smartest thing any director can do. Once you start working with someone, you have a vocabulary.
Eichner: Somehow a tone is set where you're not too embarrassed to try something that might be really too much or too stupid, because you have to be able to try those things. It's the opposite of an intimidating set.
[To Key] You're making the transition from the sketch comedy of "Key & Peele" to an ensemble sitcom. How has that been for you?
Key: Sketch was never a plan in my life. I love sketch comedy as much as the next person, or I wouldn't have done it for 19 straight years. But this has been a thrill because there's a genuine connection that I've been feeling between all of us, on camera and off camera. That's the only thing I wanted when I was young man and undergrad.
I feel like we should say something nice about Fred Savage since he's not here.
Key: On set, Fred is the mayor. Off set, he doesn't hang out. We're not even talking trash. If he were here, he would wear it like a badge of honor. He does not hang out.
Stoller: We were all at a Hampton Inn on the North Fork of Long Island. There's nothing. There's a highway and an outlet mall. We were like: "Do you want to go to dinner?" And he's like: "No, I'm going to the outlet mall." And he walked across the highway, and didn't get hit by a car somehow, while we just ate dinner.
Key: Four-hundred yards away from him! He did it on principle!
Faxon: He was very matter of fact about it right from the start. He said, "We will all hang out and be best friends but when they call wrap, I am, like, no longer your friend." Then it was the mission of the season to get Fred to hang out.
Stoller: I texted him to hang out a few weeks ago. He was like, "Nope, I'm staying in to watch 'This is Us.'"
Key: He would come on set the next day. And I'm like, "This Is Us?" and he'd be like [in a dramatic voice], "Tear-jerker last night." And, "I tell you what: best 'Designated Survivor' yet." He was perfectly fine not having to spend any time with us socially at all. "I'm going to grab a granola bar and some kettle corn and have a night." He's such a good, old Midwestern Chicago mensch. But that's part of being a mensch — having boundaries.
Faxon: I got him twice. One day I didn't have to work until like 3. I was like, "I'm going to the beach to hang out does anyone want to come?" I drove an hour there and then Fred texted, "Have you left yet? I would love to go." And I was like [mimes dramatically turning a car around] and I went all the way back because I was so floored. I was like, "Fred wants to hang out!" I got him to the beach, then I might have gone too far when I took him to jazz. I pressured him so violently.
Smulders: It's an old strategy: leave 'em wanting more.
Eichner: If you hosted "SNL" when you were 12, why would you want to hang out with me?