Arnett oozes charisma and wit

Toronto native Will Arnett chose to be in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film because his sons are fans of the Turtles. -- PHOTO: UIP
Toronto native Will Arnett chose to be in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film because his sons are fans of the Turtles. -- PHOTO: UIP

Will Arnett is among the many successful Canadian funnymen working in the US

It is one of comedy's worst-kept secrets: Many of the biggest talents in the United States are, in fact, Canadian.

And to the long list of names that includes heavy-hitters such as Mike Myers and Jim Carrey, many would now add Will Arnett, the actor whose side-splitting send-up of Batman stole the show in this year's The Lego Movie and suggested that the caped crusader might be, well, kind of a lousy boyfriend.

Speaking to Life! and other journalists in Los Angeles about his latest film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the 44-year-old funnyman, who appeared in the cult TV sitcom Arrested Development from 2003 to last year, offered his own theory about why so many of his countrymen find success in Hollywood.

"I think we have the advantage of growing up very culturally similar to Americans, but we're kind of one step removed and it gives us an advantage. It's like we're doing a DVD commentary on the US. We don't actually do it, we just comment on it and that's kind of an easier thing to do," he says.

But Arnett himself serves up more than just observational humour.

There is a generous helping of charisma and fast-twitch wit too and both are evident the second he steps into the hotel suite where the interview is being held.

He works the room like a comedy club, asking in his booming baritone where each reporter is from and riffing on their replies with impish charm ("Argentina? A friend of mine has this beautiful farm in the Falkland Islands - ever heard of them?") .

When the laughs die down, the Toronto native explains that like other Canadian entertainers, he went to the US simply because he could not find work back home.

"There's only so far you can go in Canada in terms of movies and TV shows - there's a finite amount of work and outlets, and here in the States, there's just more opportunity."

And he is full of praise for the country, which has been his de facto home since he first went there looking to be an actor two decades ago.

"The US is where you go to if you want to reach for the stars. It is truly the land of opportunity and that's what's so great about this country," he says.

"In Canada, I feel like people are very nervous to fail. And you get criticised a lot if you fail. In this country, you get heralded if you try, even if you fail. They respect you if you take a big swing. If you fail, fail big, because they're impressed by it and there's something exciting about that."

He has taken increasingly big swings himself over the years, earning five Emmy nominations - one for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his role as the bungling-magician brother in Arrested Development and four for guest-starring in the sitcom 30 Rock (2008 to 2011).

He now has a starring role in his own show, The Millers, playing a TV reporter forced to live with his mother, played by Margot Martindale.

But he confesses that he did not always want to make people laugh for a living.

"When I was 20 years old, I wanted to be taken seriously. I didn't start as a comedic actor," says Arnett, who early in his career harboured serious thespian ambitions, attending the famed Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and doing plays in New York.

"I made the mistake of, when I was young, thinking I wanted everybody to take me seriously and that what I had to say was important. I laugh at that now. Who cares?"

And so, he tells Life!, he has no burning desire to make the leap to more serious dramatic parts that comedians such as Carrey and Bill Murray have taken.

"I don't have any real hankering to, I don't have anything to prove," he says amiably.

Instead he delights in light-hearted projects such as The Lego Movie, where his voice brought to life the hilariously vain Batman figurine, creating some of the funniest moments in the hit film and prompting co-star Morgan Freeman to declare Arnett's Batman superior to that of Dark Knight actor Christian Bale.

"I had a lot of fun. What I loved about that was taking an iconic character and kind of bending the rules of who he is a little bit," says the actor, who has confirmed he will reprise the character in the sequel.

In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, he has a small supporting role as the comic foil to Megan Fox's character.

"One of the reasons I wanted to do this was because my sons are big fans of the Turtles," he says of Abel, four, and Archibald, seven - his sons with ex-wife Amy Poehler, the 42-year-old Parks And Recreation actress and comedienne whom he divorced this year.

"It was an experience that I could share with them and that appealed to me."

Despite the cancellation of the last project he co-wrote - the short-lived TV comedy Running Wilde, in which he played the spoilt heir to an oil fortune - he is still writing and developing his own material, including an unspecified new project that he says is "genre-less - it's not really a comedy and not really a drama".

And although his fortunes seem to be on the rise, his goal is not to become more famous.

"It's more about the opportunity to work and do the things you want to do. It's not necessarily about, 'I want to be a star'. If the goal is to be famous, you're kind of on the wrong track anyway and you probably are pretty spiritually bankrupt, in my estimation."

Outside of work, his "number one thing is to spend time with my kids - that to me is the most important thing".

The comic in him cannot leave it at that though.

"I wonder on a certain level if that's a form of narcissism," he says with a smile.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is showing in Singapore cinemas.