Steve Little might be the greatest character actor working on TV today. As Kenny Powers’ (Danny McBride) sycophantic assistant Stevie Janowski on HBO’s ‘Eastbound & Down,’ Little’s performance is so convincing that people rarely think he’s truly playing the part. New York Magazine wrote of Little, “There’s no particular reason to believe he’s anything other than a talented character actor delivering a virtuoso performance…But every now and then there’s a nagging suspicion that maybe, just maybe, during certain vaguely slurred lines, that Little as well may be just the slightest bit … off.”
“I don’t know why people’s first instinct isn’t like ‘Oh, he’s acting!’” Little says. “I guess it’s the ultimate compliment.”
In real life Little is talkative and funny, and hardly embodies Stevie’s submissive awkwardness.
With season two of ‘Easbound’ concluding Sunday night, Little called from his Los Angeles apartment to chat about the joys of working opposite series co-creator McBride, why people react so viscerally to his body, and what lies ahead for the recently renewed comedy.
When you were first getting your start, were you ever an assistant?
That’s a good question. I was a receptionist, which is an assistant of sorts. I was also a production assistant on a video for how to use fax machines in hotels. Uh, yeah…
How do those gigs compare to being Kenny Powers’ assistant?
Well, I think they were worse because they were real life – which is even more depressing than a fake Kenny Powers yelling at you. But if it was real, there might be grounds for a lawsuit there.
Was comedy always sort of your thing?
I guess I was always kind of silly. I started in comedy. I knew I wanted to do writing or acting. I started at [improv comedy troupe] Groundlings doing both. I took poetry in college, and even the silliest poems could become funny.
How did you wind up landing the role of Stevie?
It was just a straight audition, really. I did it once, and then I came back a few weeks later for the call-back. At first Danny [McBride] wasn’t there. The second time, he was. It was before ‘Pineapple Express’ had come out, so I didn’t really know who I was reading with. They gave me [McBride's film] ‘The Foot Fist Way’ to watch, but I didn’t want to watch it because I didn’t want that to get in my head and mess me up. I also kind of felt like the fact that it was HBO, maybe they could go weirder. I thought, Oh, I can get this.
What do you mean, weirder?
I guess if that same part was on another show they’d take a hot guy and put glasses on him, and call him a nerd. That’s what I mean.
So you went in full-nerd.
I went full-nerd. Exactly.
How did you decide how to play Stevie? Did you have any other characters or actors in mind?
To be honest, I did the pilot, [but] it’s not like I had it all figured out. Then six months or a year later I got some of the script for the rest of the show and there was that, Oh wow, how do I do this? It had been so long. I didn’t know what he was going to be like when he got mad or angry or drunk. I didn’t have all those answers. I had to think about it for a while.
You’re so convincing. Do people often assume there’s something a little off about you in real life?
Yeah. Even when I performed at the Groundlings people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re not crazy in real life.’ It is kind of surprising. I’ll read ‘Oh, Stevie’s disabled.’ If that really was the case, wouldn’t a bunch of groups be up in arms that this guy is out smoking pot? I don’t think of my character like that. I just think he’s goofy and awkward.
So when you were crafting him, there weren’t any other characters you had in mind?
Well, one thing I think of, is that before guys get laid, when you’re like 14 — you’re not in puberty anymore, but you also don’t know how to work with women. There’s this awkward kind of age or goofiness. I think he might exist right in there. There are also people in high school who I drew on.
You had a friend like him in high school?
I have one friend right now who I’ve known for quite a while. He’s still obsessed with high school. We went to high school for four years and he spent eight years talking about those four years. I think there’s a little of that when Stevie is obsessed with this guy he went to high school with. I do have feelings sometimes like, Oh, this is a Stevie Janowski moment.
When we first went to North Carolina [to shoot season one], I was on a plane with Adam McKay, Chris Henche and John Hawkes. When we got off, John was walking way ahead of us. I thought I’d keep pace with him, but he was walking too fast. Then Adam and Chris were behind me walking slow. I was trapped. So then I just went to the bathroom for eight minutes. I felt like, This is what Stevie does.
How much of what you guys are doing is improv?
There is a lot of improv – but improv around the scripts.
For instance, in season one when Stevie shouts “ass blood” at a baseball scout. Scripted or improv?
How about the Mexican showdown with [actor] Deep Roy this season?
That was sort of script and improv. [Another scene this season] When Stevie is on the car talking on the phone, some of that is script and some of that is improv. It’s mixed. What I like about it is that sometimes in improv comedy the audience can tell its improv, and hopefully you can’t see the actors trying to be smart or clever in this.
Watch A Compilation Of Stevie’s Greatest Moments From Season One:
Had you ever worn a thong before this show?
Good question. You know, I’d never worn a colored thong before. I did ‘Reno 911’ and they put me in a flesh [colored] thong which was pixilated out. That was quite a thong.
How do you feel about lending your often very unclothed body for the sake of the show’s humor?
It’s sort of weird because I’ve read some stuff and it’s like, ‘Steve Little is not afraid to show the more distasteful part of his body,’ or someone’s like ‘It’s the worst image imaginable – Stevie having sex.’ I don’t think it’s me. I don’t think somebody I’m having sex with is horrified by the thought. It’s acting. It’s silly. It’s cool that people think it’s me but it’s also weird.
What do your friends and family think?
My mom loves it. She’s 75 and she said to her friends, ‘If you can get past the language, it’s a really good show.’ I don’t even hear the language anymore, I’m so used to it. At the premiere my mom got to meet Marilyn Manson. I love that.
Is she a Manson fan?
No. [Laughs.] The next day I showed her his videos on Youtube and she was so scared.
So is Manson going to appear on the finale? There’s been rumors he will.
I can’t say!
What about Don Johnson? Was he a fan or did they reach out to him?
I think they contacted him. It is fun to see who’s a fan. I went to the HBO Emmy party and the guy who was the new werewolf on ‘True Blood’…
Yeah. He came up to me and said he told his manager he’d grow a mullet to be on the show. The same week I meet him, he’s on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with his shirt off.
Is sharing the same name as your character a blessing or a curse? Can you no longer be called Stevie? Actually, were you ever called Stevie?
I used to be called Steve-O in college. I think every kid named Steve has been called Stevie. This one guy started calling me Stevie Wonderful…
That sounds like a Stevie Janowski nickname.
It does. [Laughs.] Maybe they’ll put that in next season. I think if I had two choices, one, to have a character with the same name as me, or the alternative being a different name, like Casper or something like that…I’d rather have people yelling my own name. Some people are like, ‘Oh, I hope Little Stevie comes back this year!’ And I’m like, Where do they get that? Maybe it’s my last name.
Has this buoyed your career? Or because he’s such a memorable character it’s been more difficult to get roles?
I think it’s too early to tell. It’s not like there’s a line of movies being made this second.
Has Danny’s upward trajectory since season one caused him to become a raging diva?
No! [Laughs.] People have said that he’s the least changed person. ‘Eastbound’ is all a bunch of North Carolina friends and he’s just not different at all. He’s the nicest dude. He’s nothing like his character, either.
How much do you know about season three?
I know some of the ideas going around.
Will Stevie be back?
You gotta watch! I don’t know how to give you spoilers. We’ll see…maybe, maybe not. Maybe I’ll be on ‘True Blood’ next year!