NBC's "Saturday Night Live" helped launch the career of comedian and actor Chris Parnell. Although he was let go twice from "SNL," he went on to a reoccurring role on "30 Rock" as Dr. Leo Spaceman and is currently playing Fred Shay on ABC's comedy "Suburgatory," which returns Jan. 15. His animated work includes the voice for Cyril Figgis in the popular FX series "Archer." Season five premieres Jan. 13. At 46, Mr. Parnell's plate is full. He is doing voice work for the PBS kids show "WordGirl" and the Cartoon Network's "Rick and Morty" on Adult Swim. He also has a part in a not-yet-released movie "Break Point" and makes an appearance in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," in theaters now.
Since Christmas is near, I was wondering what Christmas was like for you growing up.
Christmas was lots of presents. We would open presents on Christmas Eve, me, my mom and dad and sister. Those would be the smaller things. Then Santa Claus would come at night and bring the bigger stuff. The stuff that Santa brought was not wrapped. He would just kind of leave it out there and we would come in and discover it all.
How long were you a believer?
You know, I don't remember exactly. I feel like I was kind of young. Maybe 6 or 7 or something like that. It was when I had lost a tooth and put the tooth under the pillow for the Tooth Fairy. I started thinking about how that was actually going to work and that was not logical at all. I sort of extrapolated on that to think about the Easter Bunny and then on to Santa Claus.
So you were too smart for your own good.
I like to think about it that way. That makes me feel better about not getting a more well-rounded college education.
You do the voice of Cyril on the animated series "Archer." Did you see yourself more as the dashing Sterling Archer?
Oh, no, not really. I mean, I'm a big James Bond fan but [laughing] I never saw myself in that light. I probably am a bit more like Cyril than Archer.
I thought you'd be a great Archer.
Well that's very kind, but you've got to be a lot more self-confident and be much more of an [expletive] a-- than I am, hopefully.
When you first started out, did you see yourself more as a serious actor than a comedian?
You know what, actually it was more the serious stuff. I started doing plays in junior high and then in high school got into it even more, and thankfully had this amazing drama teacher, Frank Bluestein, in Germantown, Tenn. I was auditioning for this dramatic role and something just sort of clicked. He wasn't planning on giving me the role, but he kind of had to. So I did that and it went over well. Then we did a big comedy. My friend Dan McCleary and me did this show "Greater Tuna." We played, like 10 different characters each. That was my first big foray into doing comedy on stage. It went really well. I went to North Carolina School of the Arts and while I was there it sort of became clear, not that I couldn't do drama, but that comedy was really what I seemed to do even better.
What is it that you get out of it, because you are putting your ego on the line every time?
It's true, it's true. I don't know if this is really the seed of it, but I guess it had to be in some way. I used to be a big "Charlie's Angels" fan when I was a little kid. I'd watch that and I had a huge crush on Farrah [Fawcett]. I thought how would one get into a situation where one could be around women of this beauty caliber? I thought, well, you know, if you were an actor of course you'd be around them. You would be working with them [laughing]. That. somehow, I think, actually planted the seed.
I remember looking in the yearbook when I was in sixth grade about to go into seventh grade and one of my classmates was in the drama club and had done this play, which I was completely oblivious about. I thought that sounds fun. I think I want to do that. I think there was a gap there and hopefully a maturation of aspirations.
Speaking of that, has your career met your expectations thus far?
I think like most actors who aren't superstars, I would always love for a bit more success and a bit more work, but I can't really complain. I mean, hopefully, we will get another season of "Suburgatory" because I love doing that. I think "Archer" is going to just keep going for a few years.
I get a pretty good amount of voice-over work, commercial wise, so it's going pretty well. I am able to make a good living from being an actor. I feel really, really lucky about that. I have a certain amount of anonymity. Certain times I get recognized quite a bit, but I am able to go about my life pretty anonymously and not draw too much attention, which is not a bad thing.
Did your confidence take a hit when you were let go from "SNL" or were you fairly secure in your own talents at that point?
No, no, it took a big hit. It was really devastating. It was really out of left field, and I had no idea it was coming. I thought everybody was pretty happy with what I did there. So that was just a shocker. I mean, I never felt super secure at "SNL" just because of the nature of it and insecurities around my own writing. I think it was a confidence thing and I could have probably benefited from being on some anti-anxiety medication [laughs].
Yeah, it was tough. It was all the more tough because I had just sort of started to feel more confident after that third season and then the rug was pulled out from under me. But you know, there was a great outpouring of support from other cast members and even writers. So I felt very supported the whole time that I was gone.
You have chosen a career that can be hard on self-esteem. Have you found a way to deal with rejection and not take it personally?
I get enough work that I think, OK, clearly I can do this. I know I have certain skills and a certain amount of talent. There are going to be times when you hope to get something and you don't. I think the hardest thing is going out for pilots and stuff like that. I think most actors loathe it like I do. It takes a lot of work. There is usually a lot of material to memorize. You put a lot of effort into preparing for it and then for it not to go, it's hard.
In fact, I feel like the way I tend to get work, at least if it is on camera, is just from an offer, because somebody knows what I have done. They like Dr. Spaceman or whatever. I feel like if I audition, not necessarily for a voice-over, but for an on camera thing, my chances of getting it are actually less [laughs].
You do have a terrific voice, especially for broadcast news. Did you ever seriously consider going in that direction?
Thanks. You know, it's funny. My high school had a television station where I was actually one of the anchors in the weekly news program we did. I liked it, you know? I was pretty decent it at. But that was happening the same time I was doing theater at the school and that always appealed to me more. But I considered it. I definitely thought about it. My dad's a former disc jockey and still does voice-over work back in Memphis, Jack Parnell. He had me do some stuff, even as a kid, do some commercials and things. I ended up working as a disc jockey for a few summers. Having a voice-over career was not a goal in and of itself, but I always wanted to break into it. It wasn't until "SNL" that I had enough cache from that to be able to start going out for that stuff.
It seems like a great gig.
Yeah, it's pretty great and I love doing it. As I do more different kinds of voice-over jobs whether it is animated or commercials, I feel more confident.
When did you develop your talent for impersonations?
It is something I am not super confident about. It was strictly from "SNL." I had to come up with a couple of impressions for my audition, one of which was Tom Brokaw. But on the show they just throw you stuff. Some are political figures I may have never heard speak before. The research department would give me some --back then -- videotape and I'd study that. The people who are really great at it like Darrell Hammond and Jimmy Fallon, they go above and beyond. I can do decent impressions of certain characters and good impressions of a couple, but overall I don't feel that is a real strong suit of mine.
I read that you taught for a while. Do you find it to be a similar skill set as acting?
You know what? Not really. I was teaching at my old high school for a year and it was really hard. I was 25 maybe. I was young. I was not prepared at all to be an authority figure. After the bell rang and school was out, I was part of the theater program as a teacher. So I loved working with all those students. They were all into what they were doing and they really cared about it. But when it came to the actual classroom, it was only a small percentage of the students in any class who were really focused and going for it. There was sort of a big middle-of-the-road group who were like "whatever." Then there was a small group of little A-holes who made it very difficult. I was not really cut out for it. I think I'm too selfish. I think it takes a kind of big, giving person to want to do that and do it well.
I'm thinking those students who you taught are saying, "Guess who my teacher was!"
[Laughing.] They might be. I run into one of them every now and then when I go home, so yeah, it's kind of cool.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.