"What I wish they would tell kids in high school is that you have to understand that high school is an artificially compressed ecosystem where it's all cranked up, so everything is up in the reds," Patton Oswalt says, straightening up and shifting straight forward in his chair. "Everything: The victory, the heartbreak, the loneliness, the togetherness, the horniness, the outsider-ness; it's all cranked up to these unnatural levels that aren't realistic."
The good news for the comedian and actor is that, with his buzzy role in the upcoming pitch-black comedy "Young Adult," he's got a chance to send the message to high schoolers himself.
In what feels like a part crafted especially for him by screenwriter Diablo Cody, Oswalt plays a 30-something "Star Wars"-obsessed comic-book nerd and amateur distiller named Matt, still living in his childhood home in Minnesota. The role has significant personal meaning for Oswalt, though perhaps not in the way his self-deprecating and hyper-intelligent stand-up comedy, essays and Twitter feed might suggest. While he was bullied and pushed around relentlessly in elementary school, he says, he later switched his allegiance, to his own great regret.
"I was worse; I was the bully's little friend," he remembers of his days in high school. "In no way was I physically capable of being a bully, but I was so afraid of being bullied that I'd preempt my bullying by befriending the bully and helping with his. Which I think is a prevalent condition, and that's a lot of guilt that I carry around, and I'm just trying to prevent other people from having that."
From the look on Oswalt's face, it's clear that this is a man who understands the pain of the adolescent outsider, from the perspectives of both aggressor and victim. His character in "Young Adult," directed by Jason Reitman, falls decisively into the latter category; sticking to local bars and his own basement, Matt has killed much of the last 20 years reliving the past.
When he's not dulling his pain with homebrewed liquor that he names after planets in "Star Wars," Matt re-paints disfigured superhero action figures, an obvious reflection of his own disability -- his legs were irreparably mangled as a teenager by a bunch of bullies who beat him with a crowbar in the woods. Stumbling on crutches through town, he appears destined for another night of wet regrets when Mavis, the former high school snob portrayed by Charlize Theron, happens into the local watering hole.
Matt acts -- largely unsuccessfully -- as Mavis' conscience as she tries to win back her high school beau (Patrick Wilson), who is now married with a newborn daughter. It's a seemingly unlikely friendship -- and maybe more -- that develops between the two polar opposites; Mavis, gorgeous and self-obsessed, hardly remembers Matt, despite having lockered next to him all four years of school. It works, Oswalt says, because for all their differences, Matt and Mavis suffer the same affliction.
"They're both at the far, far ends of the spectrum, which they think is a straight line," he explains, drawing diagrams in the air. "Mavis is off in the ultraviolet of being shut off because she's so gorgeous and so negative, and I'm off in the red of being shut off because I've been damaged and I'm emotionally and physically handicapped, literally and figuratively. What we don't realize is that the line is actually a circle, and now we've met. The far ends meet and then we're just in this airlock of mutual despair. That's kind of what it feels like for me, is that we don't realize how much we have in common, just because we're at different ends of the spectrum."
Indeed, Matt pities himself enough that, as harsh as it may seem, the audience's sympathy for him begins to wear thin. Mavis, of course, voices the audience's sentiments, calling out his woe-is-me attitude with a harsh reality check that Oswalt says is quite vital, both to his character and to the message he's trying to send off-screen.
"By being Matt, I'm saying a lot of things. And I'm saying it on both ends," he says. "I'm saying, 'Yeah, look at what fear and violence creates. But then also, look at what ultimately the one thing you have that your abusers do not have is: they have more liberty to hurt you, but you have more freedom to choose how it affects you. And you can change that.' That's kind of what I hope to say with that character."
The most important parallels between the permanent adolescence of "Young Adult" and high school, he advises in his imagined plea to teenagers, is this: both have endings, and both are fictional.
"I don't even want to tell people, 'It gets better,'" Oswalt says, alluding to the famed anti-teen suicide campaign. "I want to just go, 'It's over in four years.' It's, literally, the day after you graduate, you could run into people you went to high school with and you will literally both go, 'What the f*ck was that all about? Jesus Christ, I'm sorry, man.' It literally ends like that, if you let it. Because you know what everyone is in high school, whether you're gay or straight or male or female, you know what you are? You're a f*cking high schooler! And a high schooler is an unnatural state of existence, and it's not humanity, and it's not real life."