IMAGES OF PETER VACK, ABOVE, COURTESY OF ZACK DEZON
With a background in theater, soaps, and indies, Peter Vack's major TV comedic debut is a slight change of pace for the USC grad and native New Yorker, who was reciting Shakespeare with seasoned actors while his high-school peers toiled away with the Sparknotes. More recently, Vack stars as the heroic antihero for the quarter-life-crisis-ridden in MTV's much-anticipated I Just Want My Pants Back.
Vack plays Jason, a recent college graduate and Brooklyn settler working thankless jobs and rather uneasily easing into adulthood. When a beautiful kleptomaniac with a penchant for denim abandons him, Jason embarks on the proverbial mid-20s search to recover his pants and, of course, find himself. Aided and often abetted by his co-stars, Jason's pursuit takes place in an identity-assassinating New York City, making sure he never becomes too big for his wayward britches. The show is honest and referential—a poorer, worse groomed, and considerably more amusing cousin to those other TV shows alleging to cover urban young-adulthood. The Tofurky to Gossip Girl's prime rib, perhaps.
We caught up with Vack in the days before the show's premiere to talk scripting MTV, his father's Crown Heights pizza place, and the case for keeping the "crisis" in identity crisis.
AMANDA DUBERMAN: Tell us about your background with acting.
PETER VACK: I've always known that I wanted to be an actor. My family kind of was a theatrically inclined family. My father came to New York when he was a young man to be an actor and he, over a course, was in a couple Broadway musicals. I grew up in family where theater was always part of the vocabulary. By the time I was a teenager I was just totally obsessed, and it was the only thing I could imagine myself doing. I was a child actor for a little while, and then I quit that, thank God, to have a kind of normal upbringing. But what upbringing is normal, I guess. A "normal childhood," in quotes. I was unhappy where I was going to high school, and I wanted to be more immersed. So I went to the Professional Children's School, which allowed me to do some professional work. That was really enriching.
DUBERMAN: What sort of work did you do then?
VACK: I did some television. I did some soap operas for a while. I did Richard III at the Public Theater, which was really a great and encouraging experience. Here I was, this senior in high school, and everyone was studying for the SATs, and I was getting to speak Shakespeare with really seasoned New York actors. I still think about that all the time as one of those sort of benchmarks of success, when you feel you realize you're on the right track. After that, I went to USC and studied theater.
DUBERMAN: Tell me about the show I Just Want My Pants Back.
VACK: Almost a year after I graduated, I got an audition for the show. I was really struck by how well it was written, and by how authentic the voice was for young people. The relationships that they have, friends and dating and how the sense of humor was fun but quirky and original, and so specific instead of just something that was devised by a marketing team. That's all thanks to David Rosen, who wrote the book that the show is based on as well as the pilot. He's just extremely funny in a very intelligent, self-aware way, which I really admire. Thank God they kept calling me back in and kept considering me for the role. I think went through seven auditions. When I got the role, it was thrilling.
DUBERMAN: Your background seems to be primarily in drama. How has your dramatic background informed that your role in a comedy? What differences have you noticed?
VACK: I have done much more dramatic work than comedic work, but I think comedy is harder than drama in a way. I think it's one of those things that's constantly discussed—people who do comedy think it's harder, people who do drama think it's harder. Usually drama is the one that gets this highbrow respect. My philosophy is that if you're playing a moment truthfully, that it's a funny moment, then hopefully it will be funny. I like to just go for a truth in the work as much as I can. There's a lack of ego when you're working with comedy that I really love. It's hard to come up with something funny. It's become a fun game in a way. Everyone is going for the gold, for that humor.
DUBERMAN: Where do you shoot the show? It's rare that shows and films shoot New York as New York, and even more rare than they actually capture this particular milieu in Brooklyn.
VACK: Right, we shoot it in Greenpoint.
DUBERMAN: Do you think the New York setting lends itself to the subject matter of the show?
VACK: I think that people anywhere are going to relate to what the characters are going through, the themes are very universal, these post-college problems. I think that because we shoot in New York, we get to inhabit the New York world. The world of living in Brooklyn and going out to bars in Brooklyn. The culture of Brooklyn. I think it's cool that we actually shoot in Brooklyn. We get a chance to hopefully bring a level of greater truth to that, as opposed to if we didn't shoot in New York.
DUBERMAN: My impression is that situating this identity crisis moment in a comedic and really fun setting seems to take the "crisis" out of identity crisis. Do you think that's accurate?
VACK: Actually no, I don't. When I step back from any moment of crisis that I've ever had, I'm always struck by how humor and tragedy can kind of live in the same moment, holding hands together. How life can go from the ridiculous to the sublime to the tragic all in one breath. Our goal in shooting Pants was to capture that, how things can be absurdly funny, and kind of heartbreaking, and kind of weird all in one instance. To take anything humorous out of a story about people going through a life crisis would make the situation less authentic. I think the humor our show is based in some real pathos. Don't you think that being a post-collegiate person, early 20s, is really funny?
DUBERMAN: I graduated recently—maybe too recently for it to be funny. Any day now!
VACK: Right. Life seems pretty hard, I graduated recently too. But I guarantee when we're 50, we're going to look back and probably laugh at the things we thought were so important, and the things we got so bent out of shape about. I think the humor in our show adds to the level of trust, also.
DUBERMAN: As someone who grew up on MTV, it's been interesting to see its trajectory. It's gone from mostly music-driven programming, to a big focus on reality, and in more recent years to fiction, narrative programs. I was wondering what your take on that is, and to that end how you think the MTV "brand" or ethos informs the show.
VACK: I'm really excited to get to see the show on MTV. The type of shows that MTV are gravitating towards, I find them very interesting. They're funny and smart. MTV has always spoken to young people and what they're going through. I think that Pants is very much in line with that. People will be able to relate to the struggles and what the characters are going through.
DUBERMAN: Does music play a big role in the show?
VACK: Definitely. I know that David Rosen, our writer, has done a lot to find bands. They want the soundtrack of the show to feel as though it could be the iPods of the characters. New stuff, old stuff, unsigned bands. I know some people are unhappy with the fact that MTV doesn't show music videos anymore. But there is a lot of music on the show. You can still watch MTV and hear great music.
DUBERMAN: Can you talk about some other upcoming film projects?
VACK: Last summer, I shot this movie called Unicorns. It's a story of a 16-year-old girl whose mother has MS. She has a lot of responsibility, and she has to take care of herself and her mother. She retreats often to this fantasy world. So the movie is part magical realism, and part sort of hyper neo-realism. She meets this 20-year old drifter character, who I play, and the two spark this really intense—you know, that type of relationship that you can only have when you're young, where it's that first love that becomes very intense very quickly. But ultimately it becomes very unstable and volatile. So the movie is at once very realist, but also has this element of fantasy. It's the first feature of the director Leah Meyerhoff.
DUBERMAN: Any other projects?
VACK: My father recently opened up a Neapolitan-style pizza place in Crown Heights. I helped him with the design of the restaurant and creating the menu, and that was a big project for me not related to acting. The food's delicious, the atmosphere is awesome. It's doing really well, we're all very happy.
I JUST WANT MY PANTS BACK PREMIERES TONIGHT ON MTV AT 11 PM.