NEW YORK — As usual, Jason Bateman is calm in the midst of chaos.
Sitting down for lunch at Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, Bateman’s two-year-old daughter, Francesca, wants to play with dad. His wife, Amanda Anka stops by. Publicists want to discuss his appearance later in the evening on Letterman.
But Bateman is composed and serene — just as he was in Arrested Development and is again in his new film, Extract. Both plop him in the middle of a universe of eccentric characters.
The director of Extract, Mike Judge, marvelled that there’s not a hint of nervousness about Bateman on set, “not even close.” A life in TV and film has made him unusually at ease amid the bustle of film sets; it’s been a kind of home for him ever since his child acting days began at the age of 10.
Asked what he remembers of those days, Bateman says: “The only thing that really sticks with me is an innate sense, an intangible sense that this is all very normal. And that gives me relaxation and comfort and ease, which just simply allows me to let my instincts come out.”
Decades after Bateman was a child star on Little House on the Prairie, Silver Spoons and The Hogan Family, it’s clear that another chapter has unfolded in his career. It was spawned by Arrested Development, the acclaimed but ratings-deprived series that ran for three seasons from 2003-2006.
Since then, Bateman has chosen his roles carefully, charting a revival as an in-demand character actor with impeccable comedic timing. He’s played a husband fearful of adulthood in Juno, a super hero’s PR aid in Hancock and a sleazy D.C. insider in State of Play.
In Extract, he’s playing the lead role (as a factory owner undergoing a crisis of conscience) in a film for the first time in 20 years. More big parts are on the way, too, starting with Up in the Air, an Oscar-hyped film starring George Clooney and due out this fall.
He has a small part in Ricky Gervais’ upcoming The Invention of Lying. Next year, he’ll star alongside Jennifer Aniston (an old friend of Bateman’s) in the romantic comedy The Baster, and with Vince Vaughn in Couples Retreat.
Laying out his career plan, Bateman says he’s trying “to figure out a responsible, a respectable way to box-office relevance.”
Bateman speaks thoughtfully and ambitiously about his future; earning respect, he says, is the “fuel for longevity.” But he knows it all started with Arrested Development.
“It put me here, literally,” he says. “Without that show, I don’t really know what I’d be doing. You couldn’t ask for a better resuscitation of one’s career than what that show did for me.”
Following his youth stardom, Bateman’s spent much of his ’20s living out his teenage years — drinking too much, having too much fun. His acting career stalled and he became known in the industry for one unsuccessful pilot after another.
Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of Arrested Development, didn’t think he wanted to make “another Jason Bateman pilot,” but he was blown away by the actor’s audition.
“He’s just a very honest, real actor,” says Hurwitz. “I think he’d been — as he often says — performing in some sitcoms instead of acting — which happens to everyone in front of an audience.” Added Hurwitz: “He has the benefit of 30 years experience even though he’s 40.”
Playing Michael Bluth on Arrested, Bateman was a marvel of a straight man. Surrounded by an absurd family of characters, he gave the most unadorned performance on the show as a suit-clad, do-gooder and single father. But as the show went on, Bateman revealed Bluth to be nearly as flawed and delusional as the rest.
“There’s nothing funny about someone who’s completely secure,” says Bateman. “Vulnerabilities and cracks in the armour are what’s funny. And what’s really funny is someone who’s attempting to hold a shield up to those things and thinking that they’re pulling it off.”
Arrested was hugely acclaimed and Bateman won a Golden Globe in 2005. The show’s cult status is firmly lodged now, perfectly illustrated by a photo that recently circulated online of a young man among health care protesters holding up the sign: “Obama, bring back Arrested Development.”
Among Bateman’s fans was Judge (Beavis and Butthead, Office Space).
“It’s just funny to watch him react to things,” says the writer-director. “He’s able to have this crazy stuff going around him but make it all believable. That’s harder than it looks and he makes it look easy.”