Garry Shandling finds heroic acting inspiration in ‘Iron Man 2′

May 17, 2010 | 7:36 p.m.

Gary Shandling in Iron Man 2

On the set of “Iron Man 2″ last year, during the filming of a key scene in which a conniving military-tech tycoon named Justin Hammer — played by Sam Rockwell — unveils his company’s new battle-suits in front of a large expo audience, there was an extra seat set up next to director Jon Favreau back by the monitors. That seat was for Garry Shandling. In between takes, he and Favreau would compare notes on the comic nuances of the scene, which needed to present Hammer as a buffoon but also a viable threat to the film’s title hero.

After watching Rockwell run through a few takes of the scene in front of hundreds of extras, Favreau turned to the longtime comedy writer with a  one-word question: “Suggestions?” Reflecting on that moment now, Shandling, who was also a scene-stealing actor in “Iron Man 2,” still marvels at his unexpected (and inspiring) membership in Favreau’s on-the-set creative team for a movie that has now surged past $457 million in global box office receipts.

“I wasn’t [acting] in that scene that day. Jon had just invited me down,” Shandling said. “When he asked if I had suggestions, my reaction was ‘Are you kidding? You’re asking me?’ But that’s the wonderful approach that Jon has and I can say that in the final version of that scene there is a move or two by Sam that he would happily tell you came from my suggestions. Seeing that gives me more satisfaction that seeing the scenes where I was on camera. I get a bigger thrill from watching that part of the movie and the fact that I was part of this great, great experience.”

In the film, the 60-year-old Shandling portrays a grandstanding U.S. senator named Stern who wants the military to confiscate Tony Stark’s high-tech Iron Man armor in the name of national defense. Shandling’s glib politician is most memorable in a congressional hearing sequence that comes early in the film — it also happened to be the first major scene filmed for this sequel to the 2008 hit “Iron Man.”

Shandling had a bit of an out-of-body experience looking out on the hundreds of extras gathered for the Capitol Hill scene, which was filmed with a sort of C-SPAN vérité. His years of experience in stand-up comedy and celebrated sit-coms (he won an Emmy for his writing on “The Larry Sanders Show”) didn’t quite prepare him for the massive machinery of a $200-million special-effects film. In short order, though, he found that the verbal sparring with Robert Downey Jr. and Rockwell put him on familiar ground.

“I was part of an improv group. It was just an improv group with a slightly higher budget than most improv groups,” Shandling said on a recent afternoon. “There was an enormous amount of freedom to improvise. There was nothing cold or creaky about it. There was a lot of energy and Jon and Robert have this wonderful way of finding unexpected things in the scene. For me, it’s a way that I can do what I do the best — or the way I can do the best I can, whichever is the most appropriate from your point of view.”

The congressional hearing scene was just three pages of the script when Favreau first approached Shandling about the role but, after Shandling and Downey sat down to map it out, it grew to a dozen pages. Finally, by the time the cameras were rolling, the scene was 15 pages and an integral part of quickly establishing the film’s themes and sub-plots — Stark’s growing hubris and lone-wolf complex, the strained relationship between the maverick billionaire and his duty-bound Air Force buddy Rhodey (played by Don Cheadle) and the antagonism between Stark and weapon-industry rival Hammer.

The scene even became a key part for the film’s trailer…

Like any summer special-effects film, the huge set pieces of “Iron Man 2″ (such as the race-track battle) require months and months of visual-effects work and NASA-like planning. But the rest of the film — the mortar between those high-tech bricks — were exercises in improvisation to take full advantage of Downey’s flair for ad-lib and charismatic comedy. That can be a challenge for many, but Favreau’s approach was a tonic for Shandling.

“I can say that I really, really had fun. It’s got me excited, too, about doing more things like this and building on it.”

Larry Sanders show

Did Shandling base his character on a particular politician, perhaps someone such as U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.)? Not so much, Shandling said. It was more about the ethos of the Beltway careerist than it was a composite of any particular people. (Although it should be noted that Favreau has said that the character was named after Howard Stern, which will bring a smirk to the face of the shock-jock’s fans) 

“The key to that senator is the fact that he is extremely pleased to have all the cameras and this audience and this opportunity to grill Tony Stark. He could not be more thrilled to be up there showing his constituency that he’s talking tough and doing the work and making an impression that will help him in the next election. He’s selling himself.”

Shandling has been in Hawaiian-retreat-and-low-key career mode for a decade after feeling creative burnout from the “Sanders” run. He had carved out a strange and memorable corner of television in the late 1980s with “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and he had one of the signature comedy series of the 1990s with talk-show send-up “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO, which had potent effect on a generation of comedy. Ricky Gervais is a clear disciple, for instance, and Sarah Silverman, in her new book, hails Shandling as a key mentoring figure in her career.

The humor of Shandling is somehow self-deprecating and soaked in mock arrogance. If that doesn’t make any sense, well, that’s what makes it funny. Shandling says he hopes to find more opportunities like  “Iron Man 2″ even though he says he “didn’t get armor this time even though I needed it more than somebody like Downey.” Super-suit or not, Shandling says he left his mark on the film that may end up as the highest grossing release of 2010.  

“I’m at the beginning of the movie and at the end, so my hope was that all the other actors would keep people interested in the film during that part in the middle there. I didn’t want people to lose interest in the story after that first scene and the very important final scene. Without me, the closing credits can’t start. And when I say that, that’s a joke needless to say. You will mention that I was joking?”

– Geoff Boucher

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Photo: Garry Shandling in “Iron Man 2.” Credit: Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures


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