Marc Maron Can Act With De Niro, Smoke With Keith Richards, but He’s Glad He Didn’t Get That Part in ‘Avatar 2’

Comedian also talks about his new HBO special “From Bleak to Dark”

February 15, 2023

The subject matter of Marc Maron’s new HBO special “From Bleak to Dark” seems to prove the old adage that tragedy plus time equals comedy. Nearly three years after acute myeloid leukemia took the life of Marc’s girlfriend, filmmaker Lynn Shelton, he addressed the devastating loss in front of an audience at New York’s Town Hall. On Wednesday, he opened up further to Howard about being ready to talk about Lynn up on stage and how the two came to be romantically involved.

“I was a fan of her work,” Marc said of Shelton. They’d first met when Lynn was a guest on his podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” and quickly formed a working relationship, writing scripts together and having Lynn direct a handful of episodes of Marc’s television shows “GLOW” and “Maron.” Love would come eventually, though Marc had to convince himself it was in fact genuine love between them.

“We could feel it. We were definitely making excuses to spend time together,” Marc said of their mutual attraction. “It became undeniable, but I was still like, ‘no, this can’t be real.’ But she directed two of my specials. She, I think, more than anything in my life gave me a confidence that lives with me still.”

Lynn’s illness happened incredibly quickly and was initially thought to be COVID. But when tests came back negative, antibiotics didn’t work, and her symptoms grew worse, Marc grew concerned and said they needed to make a doctor’s appointment. “That night, in the middle of the night, she collapsed. And it woke me up and I had to call the ambulance,” Marc remembered. “She went unconscious when they got her [to the hospital] and she was fighting for her life.”

One of the last things Marc ever said to Lynn was to ask for the passcode to her cell phone. “I don’t know why I said that and I scribbled it down … and I had to tell an I.C.U. nurse, I had to say, ‘Get into her phone and get me some Sheltons because I don’t know them.’”

Marc then had the difficult task of reaching out to Lynn’s family to update them on what had happened. And after Lynn passed away, Marc decided to also reach out to Lynn’s ex-husband.

“I said ‘Look man, I know there’s no reason for us to talk really, but I was with her this last week. If you want to know what it was like or if you have any questions, we can talk.’ And we did,” Marc recalled. “It was rough, man. But it wasn’t rough in like an anger way – it was just two men crying on a phone … it was heavy.”

Working With De Niro

The success of many of Marc’s projects such as “WTF” and “GLOW” led to more television and film roles including playing opposite Robert De Niro in the 2019 box office monster “Joker.” “I’ve done a lot of movies where people are talking about a movie and I go, ‘I’m in that movie’ and they go, ‘Really?’” Maron joked of his comparably small role.

But even if he was working with arguably one of the biggest and well-respected actors of an entire generation, Marc’s experience as an interviewer gave him some helpful perspective. “Eventually, everyone becomes human, so I wasn’t freaked out that I was with De Niro,” he insisted. “When it comes right down to it, he’s a guy just standing over there doing whatever he does.”

That being said, Maron is also aware that, to the Oscar-winning actor, he was likely also just a guy standing there. “It is De Niro and I know I’m doing a scene with De Niro and in retrospect, I started to think about how many guys have done three-line scenes where it changed their fucking life and he would be hard-pressed to even remember you being in the movie with him,” he admitted to Howard.

When it was time to perform, Maron was perhaps a little too enthusiastic. “I’m lit up. I’ve been in the trailer for four hours already and I’ve been running these three lines and I get out there … and I just start doing the lines,” Marc said of the initial take before revealing director Todd Phillips spoke with him shortly after getting feedback from De Niro on his approach. “Todd walks over to me, and he goes, ‘Ah, you’re coming in a little hot’ … But it was a good point … I’m like, ‘Oh right, this isn’t me — no yelling in casual conversation.’”

He came away from the experience with an education from De Niro, although he was actually a little skeptical of the acting great’s process initially. “It was interesting to watch … He’s going through stuff, they’re doing retakes … I’m thinking ‘This is a disaster,’” Maron said before adding, “And then you watch the cut and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he looks perfect.’ He’s De Niro.”

Auditioning for and (Thankfully) Not Getting a Role in ‘Avatar 2’

At some point, Maron received a call from his then-agent about possibly working on James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the sequel to the director’s 2009 blockbuster hit. While the agent was excited, Marc was not. “In the back of my head I’m like, ‘Am I going to do this? I mean, what is this thing? He’s shooting four movies at once, there’s no script,’” he told Howard before recalling the long drive he reluctantly took from his Los Angeles home to Cameron’s Long Beach headquarters for a general meeting. “Long Beach is like you’ve got to pack a tent. You’ve got to plan for the night.”

While Marc was impressed with Cameron’s offices (including the private museum dedicated to his work) he still wasn’t convinced the project was right for him. “We’re talking and he says, ‘This is the deal … the part is this and if you get it, you’re probably going to have to move to New Zealand for like nine years,” Marc said noting the challenges of that kind of commitment. “I barely want to go out on the road because I worry about my stupid cats.”

After reading some lines for the director, he left certain he didn’t get the part — and was glad about it. “I was like, thank God I don’t think that’s going to happen, I don’t have to move to New Zealand,” the actor remembered before adding, “I didn’t even want to be presented with the choice.”

On Oscar-Nominated Co-Star Andrea Riseborough

When Maron was up for and scored a role in the 2022 indie drama “To Leslie,” this time he was ready and willing. Once again, his experience interviewing people in the business helped. “Once I started acting, any actor I have on, I get a lesson,” he explained, also admitting he had his work cut out for him when he started on his television show. “When I did ‘Maron’ I knew just from other comics … that I’m going to suck for at least a year, but I’ll figure out at least how to, you know, not be conscious of what I’m doing with my hands.”

Going through a global pandemic and the loss of his partner also allowed him to put things into proper perspective as he stepped onto the set of “To Leslie,” working alongside celebrated actress and current Academy Award nominee Andrea Riseborough. “With Andrea … I wasn’t that intimidated man, because it was peak COVID and like somehow, they had convinced me that doing the movie would be safer than going to the supermarket,” he said with a laugh. “I just knew that I had to show up … and do this thing”

Still, he was blown away by Riseborough’s performance. “Right away when you start working with her you’re like, ‘Holy shit,’” Marc said. “She’s British and she’s doing this shattered Texan — it was astounding. But I think what helped me is that I knew right from the beginning when I was there with her, like this is her movie. This is a big thing for her.”

In fact, Maron used the high stakes to his advantage in the dynamic between his character and Riseborough’s alcoholic Leslie. “The co-dependency that comes out in the character, I was actually feeling that off-camera,” he admitted to Howard. “I’m like, ‘Don’t fuck this up for Andrea, alright? Just do whatever you’ve got to do to be there for her.’ And that was sort of the guy, so it informed that.”

It also helped for Marc that, since it was a low-budget film, he wasn’t even sure how many eyeballs it would get. “‘You know what, what’s the worst that can happen? I suck and nobody will even know it exists,’” he remembered thinking. “All I can say is, in retrospect, thank God I did okay.”

Despite limited support from the film’s distributor, a grassroots campaign helped score Riseborough her Oscar nomination, which has led to some criticism. “When an underdog kind of sneaks around the side, the people that spent millions of dollars panic and they have to explain themselves, so they start shit,” the actor said of the controversy. “If [the Academy] has an issue with how things are supposed to transpire on social media platforms, you know, update your rules behind closed doors and change it for next year.”

Lighting up With Keith Richards

After more than 1,400 episodes of “WTF,” Maron has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, comedy, and acting. Still, his greatest moment at the mic might have been when he sat down with rock god Keith Richards, his childhood hero. “I love Keith, and it was such a big day,” he recalled of the 2015 discussion.

When Keith, a notorious smoker, lit up a cigarette, Marc, who had kicked his own habit by taking nicotine lozenges, asked the Rolling Stone if he could hold one. “I’m like an idiot … he’s smoking and I’m just holding the cigarette talking to him and at some point, he literally throws a lighter at me and hits me in the head,” the host said. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to smoke with Keith Richards. This is the devil I waited for.’”

It wasn’t the first time he had been influenced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. “When I was younger, I wanted to play guitar, so I bought the same kind of guitar he had. I smoked Marlboro cigarettes because I read in an article that Keith smoked Marlboro cigarettes — I’m 14,” Maron said, also admitting he drank Jack Daniels and even got his hair cut in attempts to emulate his idol.

And when Maron interviewed Richards a second time years later, little had changed. This time, the focus was on a $300 cashmere beanie the guitarist was sporting. “I pestered him for 20 minutes … to the point where his publicist emails me and says, ‘This is where the fucking hat’s from. Shut up about the hat,’” Marc told Howard. “So, I buy the hat, I put it on, and I stand in front of the mirror, and I have the same fucking moment that I’ve had over and over with Keith Richards — that I’m not fucking Keith Richards.”

Catch “Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark” now on HBO Max.