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B.J. Novak on Where Vengeance Tells the Truth: John Mayer, Dating in the Digital Age, & More

B.J. Novak’s first feature film, Vengeance, out in theaters on July 29, is partly exactly what you’d expect from the breakout comedy star known widely as Ryan from The Office, and partly territory you’ll instantly (and correctly) assume is unfamiliar to him. Vengeance tells the story of Ben Manalowitz (played by Novak), a New Yorker writer who travels to a small town in Texas for the funeral of a girl he was briefly hooking up with. He meets her family, who are convinced her death wasn’t an accident, and thinks he’s found the perfect fodder for a gripping podcast that can diagnose all America’s ills — the type of podcast he’s been hoping to make for a while now. But that same family, played by Ty Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron. Dove Cameron, and more, leads Ben to question his initial, cynical assumptions about them and their way of life — and to question his own way of life too. SheKnows spoke with Novak and Holbrook about the making of this film, how much of Ben’s experience is true to Novak’s own life, and what they’re hoping viewers will pick up from Vengeance‘s take on digital life, culture clashes, and more.

Let’s get this out of the way: “My real name is Ben. My family’s Ellis Island name was Manalowitz,” Novak says — yes, the movie is about him and a certain era of his life from which he was eager to break free. Novak explicitly doesn’t mind the comparisons: Throughout the production process, he wanted to be as true to himself as he could be, in the hopes of telling a more honest story.

“I [named Ben that] to remind myself, play yourself as much as you can; play the truth of yourself anyway,” Novak says. “And that means show people what you don’t want to show them. And it might be better than you think, or worse than you think. I would confer with [executive producer Leigh Kilton-Smith] after every take, and she would really just get me to strip away anything that was me trying to be funny, trying to be cool, trying to be likable, like no, no, no, no.”

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B.J. Novak, Ashton Kutcher in ‘Vengeance’ ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Nonetheless, he had a story about his life that he wanted told, and so he embraced the challenge: “I wanted to tell a story about where I had been in the world that I was living in,” he begins — and what he says next could easily have been scrapped lines of dialogue from his feature film.

“We think we’re connected to everybody, but we’re not. We’re dating people, but they’re kind of just names in our phones. And we’re listening to music, but it’s really just playlists, where you don’t remember the names of the songs. You say ‘lol’ to somebody, but you’re not really laughing. And we don’t know how close we are or aren’t to people.”

“The hardest thing to be is yourself, in every part of life.”

As Novak discusses the parallels to his own life, I can’t help but ask him about the opening scene of him and John Mayer standing in a bar and scrolling through dating app options, explaining the coded ways they save women’s names in their phones to remember key details and riffing on the importance of exercising one’s options. Was that, too, just Novak being as real as he possibly could be?

“That is the one scene that I feel is — I’m kind of like showing the audience, it’s kind of the opening credits, bit, and it is meant to be a little more of like the jokey version of the way we date,” Novak admits.

“I do know John Mayer in real life, and I don’t think we’re quite that shallow. We’re also talking about other things than just — but you know, we do think we’re cooler than we are. In the script, it said two guys who think they have it all figured out. So to me, it’s a parody of guys who think things are going well, and you look at them from a distance, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, these guys.'”

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Issa Rae in ‘Vengeance’ ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection.

So, Novak wrote a character like himself, then took that character as far out of his digital comfort zone as he could think of: Texas, a place as unfamiliar to Massachusetts-born and currently Los Angeles-dwelling Novak as you might think.

“There’s something funny and interesting to explore about taking someone like my character from that comfort zone, into an actual vengeance story, and an emotional story and a family story,” he explains. “All the things that he has nothing to do with instinctively — and see how he adapts. So there’s the comedy of that, but there’s also the emotion of the growth.”

For Boyd Holbrook, who plays the brother of Ben’s now-deceased pseudo-ex, the challenge was to balance the obvious comedy of Novak’s script with the need to make his character Ty Shaw so lovable and real that both Ben and the audience’s desire to mock him in any way would be stripped away.

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B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook in ‘Vengeance’ ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection.

“I’ve never played a character as vulnerable as Ty, who was just such a selfless character that was willing to put himself in the line of fire to figure out what’s happened to his sister,” Holbrook explains. “So yes, as myself Boyd, I know that there are many laughs written on the page. But the most difficult thing was not playing to the joke. It was to always stay rooted in the reality and just know that that comedy will take care of itself.”

The whole Shaw family needs to work in order for Vengeance, as a film, to have the desired effect, and they do, so well that I ask Holbrook whether the cast did any extra behind-the-scenes work to develop those relationships before filming began.

“We all went to the waterpark and risked our lives together and played with fireworks, just dangerous things to know that we could rely on one another,” Holbrook shared — and J. Smith-Cameron, who plays his mom, blew them all away with her willingness to take risks.

“She comes across as a very well-put-together woman, but she’s reckless and death-defying like you wouldn’t believe,” Holbrook shares. “The character she plays on Succession is nothing like what a renegade she really is.”

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J. Smith-Cameron, Eli Bickel, Boyd Holbrook, B.J. Novak, Louanne Stephens in ‘Vengeance’ ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Both Novak’s dialogue and Holbrook and Smith-Cameron’s winning performances make it easy to fall for the Shaw family and their world far away from Twitter wars and instant gratification. Novak, whose enmeshment in the digital world is obvious from the Vengeance script as well as previous projects like The Premise, says he doesn’t have “an answer” on how to get out of the traps that social media can set for us, but that he hopes a movie like Vengeance can remind us that more exists.

“A discovery of the movie and the characters in it is that we spend so much time online that we kind of think, well, that’s who I really am. And it’s not,” Novak ways. “When you put people in the same room, they connect way more than they do in these exaggerated ways that you use to get attention [online], which feels like connection. There [are] all these tricks that are played on us online, that really tear us apart — to use a cliche, but it’s true. So I think the movie is about the emotion and the comedy of suddenly not being online.”

Watch our full conversation with B.J. Novak above.

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