Ben Schwartz on Joining Netflix’s ‘Space Force’ and the Legacy of Jean-Ralphio

Lon Harris
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Ben Schwartz has been a mainstay among comedy fans for years – especially since his popular Parks & Recreation appearances as the free-wheeling Jean-Ralphio Saperstein – but it’s undeniable that the actor is having a big career moment, even while the world remains in lockdown. His very recent or current projects include Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz long-form improv specials, while he’s voicing Dewey Duck on DuckTales, Leonardo on Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, multiple guest roles on Bob’s Burgers, AND freaking Sonic the Hedgehog, plus he JUST revived Jean-Ralphio on the mega-hit Parks & Rec reunion special. And that’s not even going back a single year on his filmography!

Schwartz stopped by for the latest episode of our new interview series, Hey, Fandom!, to talk about his NEXT big project: the original Netflix comedy series Space Force, debuting on Friday, May 29. Steve Carell stars as Air Force Gen. Mark R. Naird, who takes uncertain control of the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, while John Malkovich portrays science chief Dr. Adrian Mallory, and Schwartz plays Space Force’s PR chief, F. Tony Scarapiducci. The show was created by Carell alongside Greg Daniels, who created the US version of The Office and was a major reason that Schwartz wanted to get involved.

“It’s The Simpsons that got me to fall in love with Greg Daniels,” Schwartz explained. “I was obsessed with The Simpsons… Different episodes that Greg wrote, that was how I initially recognized the name, and then SNL, and The Office, and Parks and Rec. It’s an honor to say his words. I feel very, very lucky.”

He was also eager to work with legendary screen talents like Carell and Malkovich. “I think Michael Scott is one of the greatest TV characters of the past decade, so to play with [Carell] and then Malkovich — like, my actor friends who are very sincere about acting, when I say John Malkovich, they cannot believe I get to breathe the same air as him. So, it’s been very surreal and so wonderful. The show is really funny and everybody is so good in it.”

Listing off an impressive roster of fellow castmates — including Tawny Newsome, Diana Silvers, the late Fred Willard, Lisa Kudrow, Don Lake, and Jimmy O. Yang — Schwartz marveled: “Everybody’s in this show. It’s crazy. It’s really crazy.”

FINDING SPACE TO IMPROVISE

In response to a query from a fan, Schwartz talked a bit about his approach to improvising in general, stressing the importance of paying close attention to your scenemates. “Always be open to listening. The biggest thing in improv is you listen. Listen as much as you can. Two people can keep a scene afloat if they’re listening actively and responding truthfully.”

Space Force unfolds on a massive scale, and had a relatively short and ambitious shooting schedule, so there was limited time for the ensemble to find new jokes on set. “We play within the words a little bit, but it was a big show and we had very little time to shoot,” Schwartz explained. “So every scene, you had to move, move, move. You always want to do justice to the writers and get their words, and then, if the director had time and trusted you, you would always play a little bit.”

In fact, according to Schwartz, only once did improvisation result in a significant change to an episode. “Only one time, the end of a scene was so drastically improvised that we cut the next scene because we’re like ‘this is how it should end instead.’ Steve and I did it, and I’m excited for people to see.”

Still, Schwartz didn’t really find the lack of improv too limiting, as he was still discovering the nuances of his character in the early episodes. “I feel like the more episodes we did, the more leash was given, and we’ve figured out our characters more and we know how to improvise,” he said. “So you’re kind of like learning. The first season of any show, you watch the characters… you see the characters starting to build… You really get to see that in this season.”

NO LONGER THE WOOOOOOOOOORST

One concern for both Schwartz and Greg Daniels was distinguishing F. Tony from that other sitcom character with whom he’s become inextricably connected in the minds of comedy fans the world over. Schwartz explained: “Jean-Ralphio has become a thing that people really know me for… that’s the one that people really love, and it’s on Netflix now so it has a bigger audience.”

So before shooting anything on Space Force, Daniels and Schwartz specifically discussed ways to set the two characters apart in everyone’s minds. Jokingly comparing Jean-Ralphio to “a Muppet” who lived a life free of repercussions for his actions, “even if he got run over by a car,” Schwartz sees F. Tony as someone who occupies a more realistic, human world. “He’s grounded, he’s Machiavellian in the fact that he wants to get up in the job that he’s in right now. Right now he’s the media manager. How does he become bigger? Does he want to get into politics?”

Also unlike his carefree Parks & Rec predecessor, F. Tony is ultimately an unhappy guy. “My little secret in my head,” Schwartz told us, “is that probably all of his friends are on Twitter and Facebook, and he probably goes home and he’s pretty sad… He wants to really get the respect of [Carell’s character], but he’s a military man and it’s hard to get respect from him.”

Schwartz and Daniels also made some key aesthetic decisions to highlight the gulf between the two characters. “Greg made sure I wore shoes instead of crazy sneakers,” Schwartz said. “He made sure that I wasn’t wearing crazy outfits and we cut my hair down so it wouldn’t look the same.”

Plus, F. Tony has never been run over by a Lexus. As far as we know.

FORETELLING TAILS

Many fans, of course, also wanted to hear about Schwartz’s experience working on this year’s big Sonic the Hedgehog feature, and pressed him on any potential news about a sequel. Sadly, he had no breaking updates to share, but did note that he would sign on to play the character again “in a second,” after it was brought up that Sonic co-screenwriter Pat Casey mentioned on his own recent appearance on Hey Fandom! that some early conversations have been had about a potential sequel. “Nobody’s greenlit it yet,” Schwartz noted, “which to me is, like… We did pretty well!”

Schwartz is particularly excited to see Tails join the franchise for the second film. “I love the reveal of Tails,” Schwartz remarked. “One of my favorite things is, when we were dropping by theaters to say ‘hi’ and ‘thank you,’ I would stay for the Tails reveals. You know how we all stay for the end of Marvel films because we love the tags. To have even 1/100th version of that, to hear the audience go bananas when Tails came on screen, I loved it. It made me so happy.”

In particular, he’s looking forward to seeing Sonic interact with other non-humans next time around. “I was the only CG character in there, so I wonder what happens if we have another CG character in there. It seems like Tails was transported from a world where Sonic was from, so I wonder what knowledge Tails has that Sonic could find out. Because Sonic left when he was so young. There’s so much he doesn’t know.”

GOIN’ BACK TO PAWNEE

Finally, of course, we had to talk about the return of Jean-Ralphio on the Parks and Recreation remote socially distanced reunion special, a critically acclaimed ratings successs that raised $3 million for Feeding America.

Schwartz told us he was happy to take part just as an excuse to return to Pawnee. “I missed all those characters so much… I think that show is about friendship and family and it has a strong female protagonist who is positive, who is a hard worker. And I think having a show that has such a positive strong lead and such a talented actress playing it is a perfect thing right now.”

Check out our full Hey, Fandom! chat with Ben Schwartz below! 

Lon Harris
Lon writes for Screen Junkies and "Honest Trailers," Rotten Tomatoes, Inside Streaming and elsewhere. He still can't believe critics didn't like "Three Amigos" when it came out.