If you've seen Patton Oswalt do stand-up, it's clear that he understands obsession. Easily cranked up about a wide variety of personal passions -- comic books, film noir, molecular gastronomy -- his act riffs on the hilarities of fanboy excitement and its emotional corollary: mercury-spiking indignation. Only an avowed foodie could fume so brilliantly (and famously) on KFC's everything-lumped-together menu option, which he memorably termed a "failure pile in a sadness bowl."
That the 40-year-old comedian can currently be seen playing a lonely, easily peeved, rabid New York Giants buff in the independent film "Big Fan" isn't lost on a supergeek like himself. Sports aren't among Oswalt's pursuits, but he gets it.
"We all have these passions, and most of us use them to enhance our lives," Oswalt said recently over breakfast at a Los Feliz eatery. "But for some people, they replace a life. When it takes over and you start wanting to exclude people . . . you've gone to an ugly place."
Oswalt's "Big Fan" character, Paul Aufiero, which began earning him raves when the movie premiered at Sundance earlier this year, is a lonely, lumpen 35-year-old Staten Island parking garage attendant whose well-being is inextricably tied to his football team's "W" column. After years of small turns ("Magnolia," "Blade: Trinity," "Reno 911!: Miami") and various television stints as a secondary character ("The King of Queens," "The United States of Tara"), it's Oswalt's first live-action lead. (He memorably voiced Remy, the similarly food-obsessed rodent, in the Pixar film "Ratatouille.")
"Usually I'm the guy who buttons things with a laugh or a look," says Oswalt, whose bit-part acumen can be appreciated in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming "The Informant!" "But here, I had to let the scenes breathe. The nature of this character is to shut other people out. The actors I've always liked were people like Warren Oates and Bill Macy and [Walter] Matthau, who are comfortable enough to let people get the better of them, to not be the sharpest guy in the scene. I thought what would make me watchable [in "Big Fan"] was if I totally loved this character without judging him or trying to be cool. If you're up there trying to be cool, you're done. I have that philosophy as a comedian, so I just took it over to acting."
"Big Fan" writer-director Robert Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year's breakout film "The Wrestler," offered Oswalt the part without an audition or screen test. "He was the closest actual human being to the guy I had in my head," Siegel says. "He knows those guys. He goes to Comic-Con every year. And he's got an interesting, expressive face, and I needed that, where subtle changes in mood or emotion really register on it. There are a few shots of him sitting in his booth where my cameraman would secretly roll after the take was over and we got some good stuff of him sitting there staring off and waiting."
Ultimately, Oswalt has an enthusiast's take on acting in "Big Fan," which he likens to early-'70s low-budget character studies such as "Fat City" and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" that are among his favorite films. "It was that feeling of, I'm showing my appreciation for the movies I love by actually doing one and supporting it."
It's that enthusiasm that a few years ago spurred him to assemble the Comedians of Comedy tour, a showcase for stand-ups he admires.
"I don't understand the mentality of, 'I've got to make it and then slam the door behind me,' " says Oswalt, who recently scored a hit with his latest comedy CD/DVD, "My Weakness Is Strong." "I want as many people who do the stuff I like to get through so I can do more stuff I like."
Adorer to adored
Oswalt was born in Sterling, Va., to a Marine dad and legal secretary mom, and raised on a diet of superheroes, horror, fantasy, Monty Python and anything imaginative. "I had a poster for 'Godzilla vs. Megalon' that was awesome," Oswalt says, describing his childhood bedroom decor.
He initially wanted to be a writer, but it was between his freshman and sophomore year at William and Mary College that he tried open-mike nights at Washington, D.C., clubs. "It went so horribly," he says, "but I loved it. I thought, 'Well, if there's a thing that gets me no reward and I still love it, that's what I should probably do.' "
Better feedback was around the corner. Working his way through the San Francisco and Los Angeles alternative comedy worlds, he made his culturally encyclopedic yet personal act -- which now includes material on becoming a first-time parent this year with writer wife Michelle McNamara -- a unique fixture in stand-up. Of his fanboy following, Oswalt notes, "Say what you want about geeks and nerds, those guys are connoisseurs. If I'm doing well with people who are picky, that feels really good."
Next up for Oswalt is, well, anything interesting, as he puts it. "Even though I'm nowhere near that position, I like to act as if I have the power to choose what I'm going to do next," says Oswalt, who nonetheless isn't sitting around waiting for "Big Fan" to make him a star. He's writing comic books, an autobiography and screenplays; he's developing television shows; he's touring his act; and he's taking offers for guest spots, not to mention recurring character roles on series and movies.
Then there's that fuel that motivates any ultra-fan: the work of other artists. "The new James Ellroy book, I can't WAIT," he blurts out. "I re-read the entire 'L.A. Quartet' in a week, and then the first two of this trilogy. Then there was an excerpt of the new one in Playboy. It cannot come soon enough. I'm going crazy. I need that book."