LMU alumnus Charley Koontz’s (’09) face lights up as he leans out of his seat to shake the hand of a student who’s just recognized him as “the guy from ‘Awake.’” As the boy leaves, excitement is still evident on Koontz’s face as he reveals this is the first time he’s been recognized for his appearance on the NBC crime drama.
That’s not to say Koontz is rarely recognized. His recurring role as Fat Neil on the massively popular NBC sitcom “Community” ensures that he’s stopped by fans of the show everywhere from Disneyland to Alumni Mall.
Koontz is never far from LMU, returning to grab coffee with friends at the Lion’s Den, offering his insight to graduating seniors in the theatre department and reconnecting with the professors he credits for inspiring his passion for acting.
A theatre arts major who’s doing exceptionally well after just three years in the entertainment business, Koontz is an example for the graduating class of where hard work and talent can get you.
Zaneta Pereira (ZP): I know it was a while back, but what made you choose LMU?
Charley Koontz (CK): LMU really just kind of fell into my lap. … They sent me back an acceptance into theology because the call letters for theatre [arts] and theology were so close. It was like this clerical error and they’d accepted me into theology so I was here on a complete mistake, but I’m glad that it worked out the way it did.
ZP: What would you say was the highlight of your time at LMU?
CK: I really loved just being in the theatre department as a whole. One of my favorite things about it was that we’d work on these plays for like seven hours and then we’d all go out after and we’d just sit around and talk about the plays, about acting and about what we think acting is. So that’s what I really loved about LMU, being able to find the group that you really connect with and just go through all these events together. That’s what I really loved, all the people.
ZP: Did you always want to go into a career in acting?
CK: It was initially just a hobby, I did it in high school because there was a girl I liked who did it, and I thought it would be an easy credit. I actually didn’t like it that much because I didn’t feel like anybody took it that seriously. … Then my sophomore year, this Del Rey Players show had a stack of fliers for auditions in the McKay game room and I stole an entire stack of them just impulsively. So I got back to my room and thought, “That was really weird, why did I do that?” So I guess I must have had some interest in wanting to act.
ZP: So when did you begin to consider it seriously as a profession?
CK: I was a film major for two years and then I went and did the show with the Del Rey Players, which I loved, and then right after that I did [LMU theatre professor] Ron [Marasco]’s production of “This Place on Third Avenue.” That was where I really started to consider acting. Working with [Marasco], I came to see it as such hard work, but really, really rewarding work. And he was really patient with me too, to get out a lot of things that I didn’t really know were there, and it became rewarding really quickly.
ZP: Do you have any advice specifically for those who are looking to get into acting?
CK: The thing that I would say getting into it is [to] get comfortable with yourself. You’re going to be meeting a lot of people and a lot of people are going to be making decisions that sort of affect your life and ... they really respond to someone genuine. And that’s the thing about acting, too. You’ve got to get comfortable enough in your own skin to be able to be somebody else.
ZP: How did you hear about “Community”? Were you a fan at all before going on the show?
CK: I started watching it about mid-way through the first season and loved it. So when my agent called me and said I had an audition, even though it was just for one or two lines, I was super stoked and I just didn’t want to ruin it.
ZP: So how exactly did that happen? How did you get bumped up from the part you initially auditioned for to your central role as Fat Neil in the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode?
CK: I did one episode and just got really, really lucky that I happened to be around when they were writing the “Dungeons and Dragons” episode. They have a video feed that runs from the set to the writers’ room so while they were writing it, they were trying to figure out who they were going to get for the role, and I just happened to be standing in the right place. It was a huge, huge chance they took on me because, who was I? It was kind of a joke initially, they mentioned my name once, I did one or two lines, and then, third shot out of the gate, it was this heavy episode.
ZP: What was that like, to suddenly have your role change like that?
CK: The best thing about this show is that they all care about it so much. They do so many awesome things with their episodes and spend the time to work it out and say, “This is the tone. This is what we want to say.” It was also really awesome that they were like, “It’s OK not to be the funniest person in the scene because you’re serving a different role right now.”
ZP: Were you nervous at all?
CK: Oh my God, yes. I went to the table read and was convinced that I was going to throw up immediately, and I was really worried I couldn’t do it. I was just starting out, I did it in Nov. 2010 and I’d just graduated May 2009 so it wasn’t supposed to be that fast, and I thought I would have five, six years to figure out if I was any good. So I was just really, really nervous about whether or not I could do it. I didn’t want to ruin my favorite show.
ZP: Do you have a favorite character on the show?
CK: Britta might be one of them, I love Britta. I think it might be a toss-up between Britta and the Dean.
ZP: Definitely, I love the Dean, and it was so great to see him getting more and more time on the show.
CK: Yeah, they made him a series regular and I think that’s the best decision they could have ever made. He’s so funny, he’s amazing. I guess he’s my favorite. I have to call it – Dean Pelton.
ZP: So you did “Awake,” and you have your recurring role as Fat Neil on “Community,” what else have you worked on?
CK: Well, I was in a film called “Wrong,” which premiered at Sundance, and it was actually the second film I’d done with Quentin Dupieux, who’s also a big French DJ called Mr. Oizo. The first one was “Rubber,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. That was actually my first job – so I got my SAG card and six months later I was in the south of France. It was insane. Then of course I came back and nobody knew who I was so I was like, “OK, you don’t just make it in one step.”
ZP: With all the different things you’ve been involved in, do you have a preference at all between film, TV and theatre?
CK: I don’t. I wish I was doing more theatre, but they’re all just different, which is what I like.It’s fun to put the challenges of doing a bunch of different things in your way, because then you have to figure out a way around them.
ZP: Since this is for our commencement issue, is there any advice you wish you’d been given at your own commencement?
CK: I wish the advice that we’d gotten is that it’s a process. You don’t graduate and then just become your 50-year-old self. You don’t graduate and jump into a job you’ll be in 40 years. So it’s about allowing yourself to take time and experience the things you want to experience. It doesn’t always swing your way, but it doesn’t always end there either. You just work around it, you navigate.
ZP: So what was working with all the regulars on "Community" like? On screen I think it’s really the group dynamic of the characters that fans respond to, is that true of the actors as well?
CK: With this kind of comedy that’s really pushing the boundaries of what TV is supposed to be, when you’re really trying to do something different, you need a really protective group. So one of the things I was worried about is that I’d come in and this group of seven people would be fully formed already and not want to let anyone in. But it doesn’t work unless you let everyone in equally so they really embraced me and made it clear that we’re protecting you now, as long you protect us. And that’s what made it so great, it wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t have that because I would have been really uncomfortable and really tense and nervous. I wouldn’t have had the comfort level, with people I barely know, to let Neil be as sad as he needed to be.
ZP: What do you think makes "Community" work so well?
CK: Well [series creator] Dan Harmon is so creative. It’s amazing how creative he is, and all the writers are, to come up with these ideas. And the thing that I think makes it work is their empathy for these characters. That’s what I’ve always been really shocked about – that the goofiest episodes are where the characters make the biggest leaps in their development.
ZP: The characters on "Community" are all incredibly funny people, are the actors as funny off set?
CK: They’re so funny. Donald Glover is so funny and he is one of those amazing people who is just good at everything. He does improve at the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre in LA and the music [as Childish Gambino] is so good. Danny [Pudi]’s most impressive thing to me is just how much he knows Abed. He’s nothing like Abed at all but when we were doing the D&D episode he’d be “Kyle the Gnome Waiter” and he’d do a couple of takes as the character and then it’d be like, ‘do it like Abed,’ and one take – that’s all he need. And Kim Jeong is just the most amazing human ever, Jim Rash – it’s just great, they’re all great.
ZP: I know one of the criticisms of "Community" is that people who stick with it really love it, but people do say it’s a little hard to get into. What do you think about that?
CK: I think what’s hard for people to realize is that it’s not just a regular laugh-track sitcom where you just have these crazy characters who get into crazy situations, you’ve got all these crazy characters but they’re all so interested in growing, they want to grow and they want to change. And just how many really poignant moments the show has is one of my favorite things about it.
ZP: Apart from “Wrong” do you have any other projects coming out soon?
CK: I did this movie called “Road to Juarez” that’s trying to finish itself up right now. I play someone who ends up as drug smuggler in Mexico by accident and that one’s got some comedy stuff in it but it’s a little more dramatic.
ZP: Favorite place to eat on campus?
ZP: Favorite study spot?
CK: We usually studied in the theatre.
ZP: Strangest class you took at LMU?
CK: Mathematics of Symmetry.
ZP: Do you have any Hobbies?
CK: I golf, I love getting coffee and I love seeing movies.
ZP: What was the last movie you saw?
CK: 21 Jump Street.
ZP: What music are you into right now?
CK: I’m into older music right now, like Mavis Staples, but I’m loving the Childish Gambino album for sure.
ZP: Do you have a favorite song of that album?
CK: It’s either “Backpackers” or “Firefly.”