Courtney B. Vance stole every scene he was in on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, bringing loquacious defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to life in an Emmy-nominated performance. His portrayal captivated viewers — including Will Speck and Josh Gordon. The co-directors of Office Christmas Party had followed Vance back to his Broadway days and his Tony-winning turn in Six Degrees of Separation. But it was FX’s stirring anthology series that impressed the duo.
“He literally just wowed us in the O.J. thing,” Gordon says. “What was surprising was that he’s this incredible technical actor with a drama foundation behind him, but he showed up willing to play and really hung himself out there in this hilarious way. Literally, some of the biggest laughs in the movie are his.”
Office Christmas Party‘s plot hinges on Vance’s straight-laced character, Walter. The ensemble comedy starring Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller, and Olivia Munn takes place at the titular shindig, where branch manager Clay Vanstone (Miller) goes all out on this year’s event to impress a potential client (Vance) who would do wonders for the tech company’s fortunes. But Walter can only try to keep pace with the wild office workers — and he can’t.
After being exhausted from the 10-episode miniseries, the 56-year-old Vance sought a more low-key gig that would not be a substantial time investment. It didn’t hurt if there was a good time to be had. “It was fun,” Vance says. “It’s all the same: talking and listening, that’s what it is. We jumped in, and all of a sudden, the situation got crazier and crazier. Before you know it, we’re levitating: things are happening that would never happen in an office, but the situation got crazy.”
Festivities aren’t as nice as much as they are naughty. Putting Vance in these scenes created fun murmurs of dissonance for the directors. “There were definitely those moments where we were like, ‘Okay, in this scene, you’re completely coked out of your mind, and you rip your shirt off and do an eggnog luge. Are you ready for that?'” Speck adds. “All we were thinking is, ‘This is a guy who was reading 16 pages of dialogue in a two-hander with Cuba Gooding Jr. talking about race in America, and we’re dragging him through this.'”
Vance didn’t mind taking the dive through the jolly libation, both in that one moment and for the whole movie. It helped to have someone he admired take the first dive. “I saw Jason do it, and I said, ‘Oh, that looks fun'” he says, “‘Oh, that’s what I’m going to do? I have to do that too? Okay! I see why I’m here today.'”
This might not be a one-project blip either. Vance wants to pursue more comedies down the road: “I’d love to do it all, to do the freedom to go back and forth. These days, with the rise of cable, everybody’s everywhere,” he says. “Animated, and movies, and sitcoms, and 13-episode miniseries: it’s a beautiful time to be in the game.”
Office Christmas Party opens Dec. 9.
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