Lovers of TV and movies learn to spot great character actors early on. Joe Reitman is the kind of character actor that makes everything he does at least a little bit better because of his presence alone. Not everyone knows his name, which is a shame because he really is that good. However, it's very likely that you have actually seen him in something.
He can now be seen playing Very Bad Santa on the new SyFy dark comedy series Happy! That started on Dec. 6, and airs on Wednesdays.
Reitman grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, California with a B.A. in theater, but he also writes, directs, plays music, is involved in philanthropy, teaches acting, rides a Harley and plays in the professional poker circuit.
Joe Reitman spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about his early life and career, what he originally wanted to be when he grew up, working with Kevin Smith, what makes his new series Happy! so watchable, how he has had one of the most friendly divorces in the history of the world, his skill as a poker player, what he likes to do for fun and more.
Michelle Tompkins: Where are you from?
Joe Reitman: I grew up in Brookline just outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
MT: Where do you live now?
JR: Los Angeles has been my home for a long time now, but I am still a Boston boy. I always feel the desire to go back.
MT: Please tell me about yourself/childhood?
JR: Where do you start with a question like that? Well, like I mentioned I grew up in Brookline. I had two parents, Richard and Sandy, who loved me very much and still do. My childhood was good. I always had what I needed and it was full of freedom. That let me be creative and eventually lead me down the path I am on now.
MT: What jobs did you have before becoming an actor?
JR: Well, I started out working at my parents' store Brookline T-Shirts and Jeans, which sold everything from iron-ons for t-shirts and Levi’s to custom lettering to scratch and sniff stickers and rock and roll patches. I was also a ball boy for the Boston Celtics from 1984 to 1986 and taught locking and popping at a dance studio for a summer. During college, I worked at an Applebee’s for a summer and a clothing store called The Oak Tree so I could get cheap, cool clothes. I was also paid to be an RA at Pitzer College where I went to school. I bartended in London at a place called Camden Palace and then got to LA where I worked at The Sidewalk Cafe in Venice as a waiter and bartender until I started working as an actor. Man, I have had a lot of jobs.
MT: How did you know you wanted to be an actor?
JR: When I was little I wanted to be a superhero. At some point, the realization of that not happening sunk in and I started to think of acting as something interesting, which was a lot like my pretending to be a superhero. Role-playing, living in a world in frames like a comic book, it just started to grow and develop.
I finally auditioned for my first theater company when I was 15 and that show went to London. By the time I came back to the States I was hooked.
Also as far back as I can remember I watched a ton of TV. Like five hours a day. My mother said, 'What do you plan on doing with your life? How are you going to know what you want to do if you just spend it watching the television?' I pointed to the TV and said, “I think I want to do that.” She said, 'I’m serious.' We now look back at that moment and she shakes her head and laughs.
MT: What kind of training did you receive?
JR: I took drama in school of course, but when I got to high school I started taking classes every semester. Then I studied theater and film at the Claremont Colleges. I took a semester and studied in London at Regents College and then came to LA where I took a class with a guy named Doug Warhit. He really got my career started and honestly did everything from helping me get my first jobs to getting my life together. He is the reason I booked my first film job ever which was a small part in Clueless.
MT: What was your first professional role?
JR: My first professional role, the one that got me my SAG card, was in a pilot for FOX called Blood Ties. I played a long-haired motorcycle riding vampire who could dance. We were a gang called ‘The Shrikes.’ I had one line but stood around looking like I was brooding a lot.
MT: What did you do to celebrate when you got it?
JR: I quit my waiter job and bought a motorcycle and a stereo. One month later I was back waiting tables.
MT: Do you have a favorite memory to share from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back?
JR: So many. Mark Hamill signing my Star Wars poster was one of them. Working with Chris Rock and him telling me to “shut the f*#k up” and meeting Joe Quesada. I could go on.
MT: You’ve worked relatively steadily in movies and TV since 1991, what do you do when not acting?
JR: Currently, I am writing a script I am really proud of. I’m always looking for a project to pitch to a network or something to make with my friends. I love to go hiking at Runyon Canyon in LA and play with my dogs, Rocky and Adrian. I go see movies, eat good food and travel. I also teach acting when I can. I love helping up and coming actors. It is exciting to watch them grow.
MT: Please tell me about your newest project on SyFy?
JR: HAPPY! My God, I love this show. Happy! is about an ex-cop turned hitman played by Chris Meloni who has a near-death experience. When he comes to there is a flying donkey, Pegasus unicorn voiced by Patton Oswalt flying in front of him talking about how he has to save his daughter Haley, played by Bryce Lorenzo. She has been kidnapped by a crack-smoking delusional Very Bad Santa, that’s me. And then it turns into the craziest buddy cop show you will ever see.
MT: Why should people watch it?
JR: Easy, because it is like nothing else on TV. Brian Taylor is an amazing director with a unique voice, and took Grant Morrison’s graphic novel and stayed true to it while putting it on steroids. The cast is also fantastic from head to toe, current company excluded. I just try not to suck.
MT: When and how can people see it? (Will it stream somewhere)?
JR: Well, it is on the SyFy channel Wednesdays at 10 p.m. It also can be found on the SyFy app. Other than that, iTunes for now.
MT: What are your hopes for it?
JR: That it becomes the biggest TV show on the planet? But I would be just as thrilled if it gets me my next gig.
MT: When did you get interested in poker?
JR: I learned about Texas hold ‘em when my ex-wife went on Celebrity Poker Showdown. We didn’t know how to play and they sent a rule book and a videotape and we studied it. We then started playing poker with some friends, and eventually, after we broke up, I started dating Annie Duke who not only was a professional poker player but a great game theorist. She taught me everything and I caught on pretty quick.
MT: Which tournaments do you compete in?
JR: I used to play online every day and I played in the World Series of Poker main event four times. I played in a bunch of smaller tournaments during the WSOP. Now I play casually and keep it primarily to celebrity charity events.
MT: Do you also play in small groups or at casinos or are you only interested in professional play?
JR: My friends don’t invite me over to play much, mainly because I don’t screw around when I play. If there is money on the table I want to take it all. Occasionally, I play in a casino if my friends are playing.
MT: What do you like to do for fun?
JR: Once again, play with my dogs. They are my kids. Other than that I wish I had more time to play video games because when I do I love to play.
MT: Is there anything you would like to add about your family/pets/personal life?
JR: Off the top of my head no, but I am not afraid to answer anything.
MT: You seem to have one of the most friendly divorces in the history of Hollywood. How’d you do that?
JR: I think people are afraid to ask about that a lot. Shannon and I are very close. She knows me better than maybe anyone on the planet. That was, of course, a difficult time, but there was a day at a poker tournament where I went up to her and I said, ‘I want to remember the 9 and a half great years we had without having any anger or resentment about this period. I want to think back on us and smile, so figure out how you can do that too and let’s make that happen. Let’s remember the love and not the hate.’ And to her credit, she heard me, and that has allowed us to be where we are today.
MT: How do you like fans to connect with you?
JR: I always love it when fans reach out. Many do it through Facebook or Instagram, but when someone says something like “’love your work’ on the street it always makes my day.
MT: What are your social media handles?
JR: @joeugly on Twitter and Instagram and I also have @therrealverybadsanta on Instagram.
MT: Is there any charity work you’d like to mention?
JR: Well like I said before, TACA is awesome, but Shannon and I also founded Animal Avengers which started saving cats and dogs. Now, even though I am not involved in the day to day work, I am on the charities board of directors. We have moved into a bigger picture including conservation and into focusing on more endangered animals and issues with poaching and gaming laws. Go to www.animalavengers.com to learn more about what the charity is up to. We are doing good work.
MT: What’s next for you?
JR: Well currently I am heading to Portugal for a Comic-Con in December from the 14th to the 17th. Then in January a movie directed by Happy! director Brian Taylor called Mom & Dad is coming out where I play a teacher. It was a nice change of pace from crazy people, and finally also in January, I am acting in a movie called Max Reload and the Nether Blasters with Greg Grunberg and Kevin Smith which should be a blast, pun intended.
MT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
JR: Not that I can think of. Just that I hope everyone watches Happy! and if I ruin Santa for you, I am sorry. Thank you so much for letting me run my mouth.
Joe Reitman can now be seen on Happy! on Wednesdays on SyFy and follow him here.