The star of Todd Margaret talks about his own increasingly poor decisions: Snorting coke near Obama, terrorizing Jim Belushi, getting naked in public and, worst of all, starring with the Chipmunks.
PLAYBOY: Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: You’re an American comic who went to London to make a TV show called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, about an American office temp who goes to London to sell energy drinks, and the show was picked up in the U.S. by a cable network devoted to independent films. Is there not an easier way to get on TV?
CROSS:*[Laughs*] I guess I did choose the more roundabout way. I totally bypassed being a YouTube sensation and signing an eight-digit contract with one of the big four networks. Well, it’s not like I went looking for it. I was in London doing stand-up, and a U.K. production company asked if I’d be interested in developing a show that could potentially be sold back to the States. It wasn’t just about an American idiot in a foreign land: “Gee, I’m in Britain and things sure are different!”
PLAYBOY: After shooting Todd Margaret in London, do you feel it’s more like home than New York, where you've lived for more than a decade?
CROSS: In the beginning I vacillated wildly about whether I liked London or not. It can be frustrating and lonely, but that’s no reflection on London. I guess New York is about as close to London as you’re going to get in the States, even though the two cities are very different. They’re both condensed, conducive to walking and aesthetically beautiful. They also both smell like urine, but New York pee has more of an asparagus quality and in London it’s like sour clotted cream and broken enamel.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been an avid recreational drug user until very recently. Is there anything in which you still dabble?
CROSS: Not really. I still get curious about whatever new drug comes down the pike. I remember somebody giving me meow meow at a party in London last year, but I didn’t get anything out of it. There was a long period when I indulged in drugs, but I don’t think I was ever addicted to any of them. I do think crack is addictive. I smoked it once, and it was a huge wake-up call. It was pretty amazing. I totally get the hype on it. But when it came time to get some more, I knew very clearly that if I stayed there—and I wanted to—my life would change right then and there for the worse. I never touched crack again.
PLAYBOY: Rumor has it you did cocaine at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, just 40 feet from President Obama. How the hell did you not get busted by the Secret Service?
CROSS: Maybe 40 feet is a bit close. It was probably more like 65 feet. And it wasn’t even that much cocaine. It was literally the size of, I don’t know, a tick. It was a tiny granule of coke that I put on my wrist and said, “Watch this. I need a witness.” And then I ducked under the table and did it. It wasn’t like I got high. The jolt was similar to licking an empty espresso cup. It wasn’t about that. It was just about being able to say that I did it, that I did cocaine in the same room as the president. I’m not proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it. My one regret is that I got my girlfriend [actress Amber Tamblyn] in trouble by association. I was her date, her plus-one, and she got dragged through the mud because of what I did. She had nothing to do with it. She didn’t know I was going to do it. And because of that she’ll never be invited to the White House again. That’s not cool.
PLAYBOY: You’re a big supporter of political protests, and you took part in several big demonstrations against the Iraq war. What’s your take on Occupy Wall Street?
CROSS: I rode my bike down there about a week ago. I have mixed emotions, and I did from the very beginning. My fear, which is born out of experience, is that the majority of the people will be well-meaning but ultimately feckless and perhaps may do more harm than good. I hope I’m wrong, but it feels as if not a whole lot is going to come of this.
PLAYBOY: There’s a popular YouTube video of you being dragged off the stage by bouncers at a Jim Belushi concert. What happened exactly?
*CROSS: *I had a very unpleasant experience with Jim prior to that. We were working on a movie together [1995’s Destiny Turns on the Radio], and his behavior was reprehensible, shitty and awful. I don’t want to rehash what he did, but from that point on he was fair game. My girlfriend and I were visiting friends on Martha’s Vineyard, and I saw in the local paper that Belushi was performing. We went to the show, and it was like $45 to see his shitty cover band, which is basically just a vanity project. I decided to hop on stage and dance with him. I got kicked off, and then I hopped on again. I thought it was hilarious that I got kicked out of the club. Jim Belushi is such a cock.
PLAYBOY: Arrested Development, the short-lived but beloved TV series, is finally returning in 2013 with a final season on Netflix and a movie. Is there a part of you that’s worried you’ll ruin the show’s legacy?
CROSS: It is going to be 3-D CGI, so we’re already off to a bad start. No, based on what was described to me, it seems to be a very smart, original, interesting idea. I have high hopes for it. I’m definitely more confident than I was before, but that’s not to say I’m 100 percent confident. I will not be 100 percent confident until it’s completely made.
PLAYBOY: Tobias Fünke, your character on Arrested Development, had an obsession with joining the Blue Man Group and often wore blue makeup. Was putting on all that blue paint a pain in the ass?
CROSS: It was a huge pain in the ass. It took a long time to get completely made up, and then you couldn’t touch anything. The paint is fairly greasy, and if you touched anything at all, even just a finger to your nose, it’d smudge and you’d have to go back to makeup. So I’d be sitting there for hours, trying not to touch anything. At the end of the day I’d have to take a minimum of two showers and quite often three before I’d get it all off and could go to bed. There was no jerking off without serious colorful repercussions. Then in the last season the real Blue Man Group was on the show, and George senior [played by Jeffrey Tambor] had become a member. They were putting the blue makeup on him, and the Blue Man guys were like, “No, no, no. What are you doing? We don’t do it that way.” Apparently they just wear a big blue unitard with an oval opening for the face, and their face is the only part they actually paint blue. Makes sense if you think about it, but I wish I had fucking known that two years earlier. It would’ve saved me a lot of misery.
PLAYBOY: Tobias suffered from “never-nude” syndrome, a fictional disorder that made him extremely uncomfortable with being naked. But there’s a real phobia called gymnophobia, a fear of nudity.
CROSS: Gymnophobia — that’s going to be my new rap name. I’ll be Jim, spelled J-I-M, No Phobia, two words. Jim No Phobia. That’s my Christian rap name. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You don’t seem to be the kind of guy who’s bashful about his body. When was the last time you were naked in public?
CROSS: I’ve been kicked out of a number of places for getting naked. The last time was the Soho House. Or was it the Metropolitan? It was some fancy place in London where I took my pants off because I didn’t want to be there anymore and all my friends wanted to be there. I was really drunk and being a brat, so I was trying to get us kicked out. It worked, by the way.
PLAYBOY: So you’re actually the opposite of a never-nude.
CROSS: I love nudity. It’s just such an easy, cheap laugh. And it’s fun to do. I have no qualms whatsoever about taking my clothes off for no reason.
PLAYBOY: You grew up poor in Georgia, sometimes sleeping in cheap motels or on friends’ couches. Do you still have those survival skills?
CROSS: One of the skills I learned early on was how to get cheap food. You learned which bars and restaurants were having happy hour specials, and where you could get a baked potato on Thursday nights for half price. I was a kid for most of the really poor times, from seven to about 15, so it’s not like I was being asked to do all that much, except at a minimum just understand what my mom was going through. She found herself suddenly abandoned with no real skills and three hungry kids who were going, “Why do we have no money? What happened to Dad? What’s going on?” You just have to mature a little bit faster.
PLAYBOY: You were voted most humorous at your high school. What kind of class clown were you?
CROSS: I was very much a playing-to-the-back-of-the-room guy. I still am, I suppose. Also, it was the South in the 1970s and early 1980s, so just saying the word transvestite could get you into trouble—which in sixth grade, it did.
PLAYBOY: When you first moved to Los Angeles, in the early 1990s, you lived in a frat house on the UCLA campus. Was it a nonstop party or a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery?
CROSS: It was both. It was a nonstop party for them and a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery for me. The rent was something like $210 a month. It was a low-rent frat house. They were not very well respected in the frat hierarchy. And they all gave themselves these really stupid names, like Doctor, the Frenchman, Dutch and Smoky. It’d be like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I’m Animal!”
PLAYBOY: Did Animal name himself after the Muppet Show drummer?
CROSS: He might have. I don’t know. But he wasn’t a drummer. He did, however, throw furniture off the roof because he was drunk and pouty. He was a big guy in that John Matuszak way. It was as if everybody who lived in the frat had just watched Animal House. There’s no other explanation for why a 21-year-old college student would be smoking a pipe.
PLAYBOY: You have strong opinions about music. You once criticized popular bands like Staind and Creed, claiming you would rather “hear the death rattle of my only child” than listen to their albums. Were you being hyperbolic?
CROSS: Of course it’s hyperbole! I mean, if I had a number of kids? That’d be different. But my only child, no. With Creed and a lot of those bands, it wasn’t so much the music as the posturing. The music is insipid, cloying, empty and pretentious, but it’s the posturing that really annoyed me. I guess I just hold music and musicians to a higher standard.
PLAYBOY: You played Allen Ginsberg in the movie I’m Not There. Were you cast just because you’re a bald, bearded Jewish guy with glasses?
CROSS: There’s that, sure. But Ginsberg and I also both happen to be dues-paying members of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. That’s where the similarity between us started. I tried to do my homework on him. I studied his videos and familiarized myself with his poems. But really, my performance was almost entirely based on the man/boy-loving part of him. I even picked up a copy of the NAMBLA newsletter from the magazine store over on St. Mark’s Place.
PLAYBOY: You infamously appeared in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and its sequels. Given your reputation for subversive humor, were you ever tempted to tell any of the chipmunks to go fuck themselves?
CROSS: [Laughs] What good would that have done? It just would’ve ruined the take and I’d have to stay on the set even later. All I wanted was to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible. They encouraged me to improvise and come up with funnier lines if I wanted. But my entire strategy on those movies was to come in on time, shoot as much as I could as quickly as I could and then get the hell out of there and buy a summer home with the check.
*PLAYBOY: *Your stand-up has gotten more confessional in recent years. Your last comedy album, 2010’s Bigger and Blackerer, features stories about your chronic depression and struggles with drugs. Is that a product of age?
CROSS: It wasn’t something I consciously chose to do. I guess it’s a combination of maturity and just never being uncomfortable talking about the embarrassing aspects of myself. I suppose without thinking about it I steered toward confessional stuff because it’s unique.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been an outspoken atheist. As you grow older and closer to death, have you started to soften on religion?
CROSS: Of course not. Every day brings a fresh, exciting new example of religion’s and/or religious people’s hypocrisy and utter inability to reconcile with science and the basic, simple tenets for the betterment of all mankind. It’s a delightful patchwork of man-made precepts designed to dress up the chaos, injustice and disorder of life with ideas that supposedly make miserable, unfortunate people feel better and assuage the guilt of the better-off. I have no need for either of those things.