There are two types of people: those who aren’t familiar with Mike Birbiglia’s work, and those who are obsessed with it — and lately, the latter group has been adding some very famous names to its ranks.
Take Taylor Swift, who cast the 44-year-old as her entitled adult son in the “Anti-Hero” music video. Or the A-listers who visit him backstage at his life-affirming, one-man Broadway show, The Old Man and the Pool, like Drew Barrymore, John Mulaney, and Tom Hanks, who joins Birbiglia in next month’s dramedy A Man Called Otto. In the movie, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, Hanks plays a widower for whom grief has calcified into a defensive grumpiness. “And I’m a character who is unwelcome in Otto’s life,” Birbiglia says.
Death comes up a lot in his work. His Broadway show is a continuation of themes he’s explored in five Netflix comedy specials, two autobiographical movies, several memoirs, and a podcast. In each, the Massachusetts native reckons with his personal history, which includes a life-threatening sleepwalking disorder, a teenage bout with cancer, ambivalence about fatherhood, and longing for a more honest emotional connection with his parents.
His topics are heavy but his touch is light. “What I’ve found is the more authentic something is, the higher chance you have of connecting with people,” he says. “That’s what I look for in art.”
Below, Birbiglia talks with Bustle about truth-telling, a nightmare experience with Tom Hanks, and “Anti-Hero.”
Congrats on these stellar Broadway reviews. You’re like an overnight sensation who’s been grinding relentlessly for 20 years. How does it feel?
It’s nearly impossible to truly enjoy something when you’re in the middle of performing it for 2,000 people a day. It’s almost like, if I rode bicycles really fast, I don’t think I could ever stop in the middle of the Tour de France and go, like, “Man! I’m riding this bike really fast!” The moment you do that, you fall off the bike.
Was the Taylor Swift video a pinch-me moment?
Oh yeah, for sure. I met her socially through my friend Jack Antonoff when she was writing that song. She texted me a few months after and said, “Hey, I thought you’d be really funny in this part. Do you want to do it?” She sent me the script, and I laughed out loud and said, “Absolutely!” Taylor as a director is such a joy. I’ve worked on a lot of TV and movie sets, and there are definitely [some that] aren’t fun. The energy is from the top-down, and it’s either tense and un-fun or loose and fun. That was a quintessentially really fun shoot. And then the way the video came out, I just lost it laughing.
Has your daughter, Oona, who’s 7, seen it?
We showed it to her once, [but] I don’t show my daughter almost anything I make. I don’t want her to experience her dad through the lens of being an actor or performer on the screen.
Have your parents seen The Old Man and the Pool?
They haven’t. I generally shield my parents from my work because it’s so autobiographical. I remember when my mom came to see Sleepwalk With Me in 2008. James Rebhorn and Carol Kane played my character’s mom and dad, and I was so nervous that my parents were going to be offended or hurt by it. I go, “Did you like the parents?” And they just said, “Yeah, they were funny! They’re nothing like us!” And it’s just funny, because the characters say literally exact phrases my parents have said. Which goes to show you, no matter how autobiographical you get, people never see themselves the way you see them.
Tell me about A Man Called Otto.
I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s possibly one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Every actor on the set was fantastic, and Tom was just the Tom Hanks one would dream of working with. There was a point where I had the actor’s nightmare experience — it was in the middle of this elaborate shot, where I had to drive around a corner and open my window, and Tom Hanks was there, and a crane with the camera came in for the shot, and I didn’t know my lines. I just had nothing. And Tom was so nice. Instead of being mad about it, he tried to feed me my line. He goes, “How do you feel about me?” It was truly an actor’s nightmare and an actual nightmare.
When did your memory come back?
By the next take. I was fine after that. It just so happened that my first shot in the whole movie involved me making sure I didn’t run over Tom Hanks with the car. So I was like, “OK, well, there’s a bad version of this scenario where I run over Tom Hanks by accident and then I guess we’ll all go home?”
The New York Times described your talent as “gentle genius” in their review of your last Broadway show, The New One. Under what circumstances do you lose your gentleness?
Oh my God. If my wife were answering that question, she would say that when I’m overtired, I’m irrational. I feel like the most undervalued commodity in society is sleep. So it’s not that I’m not gentle — I never shout — but the more tired I am, the more claustrophobic my life feels.
How do you balance prioritizing your daughter and your wife’s career while also working at such a high level?
So much of any relationship is about communication and, if not honesty, an approximation of honesty that’s beneficial to the relationship. I think total honesty is hell. Jen and I met in our 20s, and early in our relationship, I was super straightforward, like, “My life is very, very strange and there are no indicators that it will change.” So we check in about that every few months, but we’re just trying to be respectful of the other person’s wants and ambitions. She has this wonderful poetry career. She expresses herself so beautifully. Sometimes I’ll read one of her poems and go, “Wow, she said in 40 words what I couldn’t express in 400.” It’s fortunate that I’m her biggest fan.
And I’m sure she’s yours.
I’d like to think so, but I don’t pose the question too often.
Does she have boundaries about what you can and can’t share about your family life?
We talk through it a lot. I vet different things with her, like, “Here’s a line I’m working on.” And she’ll almost never say, “Don’t say that.” But sometimes she’ll say, “Well actually, it happened more like this.” She’ll tell me her version of it, and I’ll usually incorporate that into the story. As an autobiographical writer, you’re an investigative journalist of your own life, so the more sources you can get, the more layered your story is going to be.
On your podcast, you ask guests, “What do people like most about you? What do they not like about you?” How would you answer?
I’d like to think I’m generally friendly in a way that isn’t snobby. But sometimes I’m so focused on my work that I lose sight of the things going on around [me].
I’ve skipped the weddings of everyone I know in the last 20 years. I work on nights and weekends. When people are doing social activities, I’m the person who’s entertaining them.
Going back to an earlier special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, does your high school ex know how awesome you’re doing now?
I don’t know. I’m not really on Facebook. The majority of my best friends came from college, where I auditioned for the improv group and all of a sudden I was like, “Oh my God! There are 14 people like me! This is unbelievable!” That was a huge epiphany for me.
You found your people.
Yeah, it’s true.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Old Man and the Pool is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th Street) in New York City through Jan. 15, 2023.