Director Jay Roach On Unshackling Your Inner ‘Austin Powers’ Powers

By Bailey Holtz | Feb 6, 2018

When you meet Jay Roach in person, the director and producer’s demeanor doesn’t scream, “Yeah, baby, yeah!” In fact, his aura is more, “I have spiritually prepared myself for the end of days.” But Roach, a Hollywood powerhouse, is responsible for the creation of such comedy classics as the “Austin Powers” series, “Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers,” “Borat” and “Brüno” (not to mention the Golden Globe-winning “Game Change” about Sarah Palin’s run for VP and “Trumbo,” which earned Bryan Cranston a 2015 Best Actor Oscar nomination).

Roach recently visited the Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City, where he is an Advisory Board member, to discuss the strange disconnect between man and work, and his words of wisdom were conveniently distilled into four easy-to-digest imperatives.

Roach and Myers on the set

Don’t Shackle Yourself

At the very beginning of the discussion, led by HRFS chair Trevor Albert, Roach proclaimed, “I’m not a funny person.” Interesting, I thought. You’re not funny, and yet you’ve worked on some of the most successful, beloved comedies of the modern age. Why would you take these jobs if you don’t think you’re funny?

The trick is, says Roach, to not let your self-perception shackle you. He didn’t actually consider himself a “comedic” director when the opportunity to direct Second City alum Mike Myers in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” popped up, but Roach didn’t let that stop him from taking the job. He said yes—and kept saying yes—to things he felt unqualified or unfit for, until suddenly, he was a bonafide comedic director.

Nowadays, the Emmy winner chooses to work on serious political pieces that more constitute his passion. But who knows if he would have gotten there if he hadn’t initially agreed to direct a wacky spoof about a British spy?

Be Open To Opportunities From Any Direction

Speaking of the “Austin Powers” franchise, Roach’s big directorial break on that film was not something he had been steadily working toward. He hadn’t been schmoozing with comedy stars or beating out a director’s reel in order to increase his odds of getting the gig. It just so happened that Roach’s wife, Bangles co-founder Susanna Hoffs, and Myers’ then-wife knew each other and introduced their husbands to one another. (I’m learning that if anything matters in this industry, it’s picking the right mate.)

Roach and Myers eventually got to talking about Myers’ idea for a spy movie spoof only after they started chatting about their mutual interest in the Third Reich, a topic that couldn’t be any further away from the Austin Powers universe. Turns out, any connection, any tie, any depressing mutual interest could lead to something great. The lesson here? Be yourself, be authentic, and be open to whatever comes your way. 

HRFS Chair Trevor Albert and Jay Roach

Be Serious And Demanding

In comedy, there is an amateur tendency not to take one’s work terribly seriously. In truth, it is almost more important than in drama to show that you can take your work seriously and complete a project satisfactorily.

This is what Roach did when he was called into a meeting to discuss his qualifications to direct “Austin Powers.” He had none. Instead, Roach researched and prepared a presentation to show the executives his ideas for the film. To this day, Roach says, he over-prepares for shoots. He writes a director’s cheat sheet, which describes the essence of the scene and reminds him what he absolutely needs to get out of each shoot day.

Be Resilient And Have Faith

Early in his talk, Roach told us a personal anecdote. While trying to finish film school at USC, he was offered two different opportunities to work on projects. Unable to choose between the two (and weighed down by the imagined importance he projected onto this decision) Roach experienced a full-blown crisis of confidence. He packed up his car and started driving home to New Mexico. On the road, he had a change of heart and turned back toward L.A. Then, he faltered again and started driving homeward. This happened several times, until Roach, probably exhausted from having to make all those left turns, just decided to go back to Hollywood.

He ultimately lost both offers because he waited so long to make a decision. However, he started teaching at USC, and, as a teacher, found his confidence and passion for film once more. This is really what success is all about, isn’t it? Having the resilience to keep at it and the faith that if you do, something good will come.

So often, we imagine that the successful have an innate sense of purpose. Of direction. And the talent to back it up. Surely, none of the comedians we venerate today ever wrote sketches that bombed or sat alone in dark rooms, wondering if their lives had any value. The truth is, anyone who seeks to “make it” must grapple with insecurity and uncertainty, until slowly…excruciatingly slowly….the image of your life becomes less hazy.

Until you see pink satin curtains, a fur-covered bed, and a guy lounging around in underwear with the Union Jack printed on them. And then, you know you’ve made it.

Bailey Holtz is an actor, writer, improviser and student at the Harold Ramis Film School.

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