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On a balmy autumn afternoon, business at the Chateau Marmont’s restaurant is brisk; no one works 9-to-5 in L.A., evidenced by the bartenders already straining ice-flecked vodka into martini glasses. Silver-haired sugar daddies eye sculpted women materializing in clouds of $220 perfume, and waiters practically bow to everybody. There are probably several famous people seated in the dining room, but c’mon, act like you’ve been here before. This is Hollywood’s cafeteria, and you can’t sit with them, anyway.
Kicking back in his chair and rolling his eyes, Charlie Day plays his part, the archetypal class clown observing from a distance. “This place,” he mutters, amusement and disgust threaded in his voice as he surveys this scene of scenes. The irritation is probably compounded by Day being more into daddy duty with his five-year-old than sugar daddy duty. Scratching the side of his mussed hair, he jokes about Kim Kardashian complaining about a dessert fork’s misplacement, and the disgraced waiter’s body subsequently being hauled to the desert.
Despite evidence to the contrary—a respectable resume that includes both a long-running black comedy that helped usher in the golden era of television (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and a big sci-fi blockbuster (Pacific Rim), a wife who’s also in the business, a house in the (Los Feliz) hills, this Marmont waiter deferring to him—Day has always seemed a bit of an outsider in Hollywood. Turns out, there’s some truth to that. The script for his new movie out on February 17th, Fist Fight, which co-stars Ice Cube and Day as teachers who duke it out after school, was being batted around New Line Cinema. Day searched it out, not the other way around.
“If I didn’t hustle to get movies made or write original things and sell them, I don’t think you’d see much of me,” Day, 41, says, popping an olive in his mouth. “The phone wouldn’t ring that much. Or it would and I’d feel like I had to take what was offered. I’ve been able to avoid the low-hanging fruit.”
In 2005, Day and two other struggling actors, Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney, spent $200 to shoot a pilot that would become It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a sitcom about a group of pals who run an Irish bar in Philadelphia. FX marketed Always Sunny as “Seinfeld on crack.” “The Gang,” as they’re dubbed, is sort of like the crew on Friends if Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler and Phoebe huffed paint and hatched plans to game the welfare system. Twisted, brilliant, and teeming with controversy, the show is still on the air after a decade, and at least two more seasons are on the way. It’s a hell of a show, and as an executive producer, writer and star, Day is at its center for good reason. Racing just below the top layer of his performance is a frenetic energy that imbues his every move with electricity. He’s a magnetic presence on screen, yes, but your eye also gravitates toward him because he seems right on the brink of falling off a cliff. He never does, but that internal balancing act means he’s always in motion—thus naturally always drawing the audience’s attention. It’s a shrewd play.
“People see him as this crazy character he does so brilliantly, but they don’t know he’s probably the smartest actor I know,” says Richie Keen, the director of Fist Fight and a couple seasons of Sunny. “In drama, there are always at least a handful of ways to do something in an interesting way. In comedy, it’s pretty binary. People laugh or they don’t. Charlie’s hit ratio—what his instincts are and what makes people laugh—is almost a perfect score.”
Yet Day is right. Sunny hasn’t set his career on fire the way similarly iconic shows have for some of his contemporaries. Even though comedy is harder to play than drama, comedic actors generally have a harder time transitioning to movie stars, and when one does, it’s generally with a dramatic role (think Adam Sandler and Punch-Drunk Love or Jim Carrey and Man on the Moon).
Then again, he really doesn’t care about any of this.
“Truly, I’ve always been so happy to have the opportunity to do this that I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, I want to be doing that.’ Maybe someday I’ll do drama—and if people don’t like that, they can go fuck themselves,” he says, laughing.
Day wasn’t always so insouciant. “I was raised in an anxious household and I think that gets passed on to the child,” he says. Still, growing up the son of music teachers in Middletown, Rhode Island, surrounded by “beaches, baseball, and neighborhood friends” made for an idyllic childhood. He was always cracking jokes—or “constantly seeking attention,” as he puts it.
As a kid, his creative bent surfaced through music. He picked up and discarded various instruments until he found the trombone, which stuck through junior high and gave him one of his nicknames, “Charlie Trombone” (his school band’s sweatshirts were monogrammed with the player’s first name and his instrument). He dropped the trombone in favor of the guitar in high school because the latter was better for getting girls.
Girls were also the motivation behind his decision to trade his first passion, baseball, for theater. “I was really a diehard baseball guy but it didn’t bear much fruit. Then I was doing plays and all of a sudden, I had attention from girls,” he says of his senior year. “Perhaps you subconsciously pursue the lines of work where you get the most attention from the opposite sex.”
At Merrimack College in Massachusetts, he discovered he had a real talent for acting, and eventually scored an internship at the famous Williamstown Theatre Festival (a young Gwyneth Paltrow made the rounds there, too). After school, he followed so many other theater majors into the service industry in Manhattan.
“I put myself on a dollar-per-day budget for food. You could get a couple little takeout things from the corner store, or there was a pizza place that had a slice and a coke for 50 cents each. I was not my healthiest,” he says wryly. Within a year or so, however, he had joined the ranks of the lucky few who book and pull fat paychecks from commercials.
Still, he wasn’t having much luck getting in the door for film and television gigs. This was also right around the time when film and television actors started sniffing around Broadway, hoping to legitimize their careers with hard stage time, so auditions became even more scarce.
“I thought I was never gonna leave New York. That was my town,” he says. Moving to L.A. to make a name for himself so that he had cache in New York seemed like a good idea, though. Plus, his now-wife, Mary Elizabeth Ellis (the waitress on Sunny) was already living there. That was 13 years ago. He snorts. “And now that I’m probably at the place where I could [do theater in New York], I don’t have the desire anymore.”
Fist Fight is the kind of movie adolescent boys will love. The plot is simple: Day is a harried, sweet teacher who runs afoul of Ice Cube, a fellow teacher with a short fuse, by accidentally getting him fired. Cube challenges Day to a fight after school. The movie then walks through all the ways Day tries to get out of the brawl before finally just fighting and getting his ass handed to him.
Day didn’t start the project, but he certainly shepherded it. After wrapping up Sunny in the spring of 2015, he was staring at a blank calendar. He called his agent and asked if there were any scripts stuck in development hell that could use a rewrite or an injection of imagination. Fist Fight wasn’t yet stale, but Day asked to read it. The next morning, he rang his agent and floated his interest in grooming the script. They bit and he had his summer gig. Unsurprisingly, the hardest part of the whole thing was the actual fight.
“I did a lot of it myself. You can’t have a movie called Fist Fight, then watch all the stunt guys do all the fighting. It was excruciating,” he says.
“We spent eight days filming that one sequence,” Keen says of the fight scene. “I defy anyone to spy a stunt double in this fight. They were warriors.”
Both Cube and Day got pretty banged up during the weeks of fight choreography. Day, who turned 40 before shooting, sustained a hip injury. It was a “mind fuck,” he says, “a more real injury that I ever had before.”
It wasn’t the only one though. “There’s one moment when Cube throws me into a school bus and we’re doing take after take after take,” Day says. “He’s not a stunt man so he doesn’t know how to fake throw me, so he’s throwing me into the school bus. It was kind of the thing where the next day I was like, ‘Well, I can’t toooootally lift my arm, but let’s keep going. This better do well!’”
It very well might. One trailer on YouTube has over two and a half million views. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia clearly has a fiercely loyal fan base that already followed Day into the theater for the bro-tinged black comedies Horrible Bosses and Horrible Bosses 2.
If not, Day won’t sweat it too much. He knows Fist Fight won’t make him a movie star, but the next role he finds might. And at the end of the day, he still has Sunny, a juicier role than most actors will see in their careers.
“I don’t have a problem with my day job, as it were. I still really like making comedy,” he says, standing up and moving toward Marmont’s exit.
Three waiters step out of his way.