Standing a towering 6’3″, Joel McHale has always cut an imposing figure. During his college football days he used it to his advantage playing for the University of Washington. His love for the sport lives on through his outrageous devotion to his hometown’s team and SuperBowl champs the Seattle Seahawks. But since taking over host duties for long-running pop culture commentary program The Soup for E! Network, his build has been hidden underneath designer suits and skinny ties, the show’s feverish fan base only realizing his height when guest stars like Aaron Paul or Jon Hamm appeared onscreen only to be dwarfed.
It wasn’t until Joel was cast as the smooth-operating lawyer Jeff Singer in the NBC quirkfest Community – which has a new home on Hulu – and the story line required a shirtless scene or two, that he found himself the object of attraction to the show’s feverish fan base. That kind of attention can influence a ratings-hungry series, and thus McHale’s abs became a regularly occurring character. In his latest project, the exorcism thriller Deliver Us From Evil, his physique is also well utilized playing the knife-wielding hard man Butler, who has an unhealthy penchant for violence. Directed by Scott Derrickson, the film would seem to mark a departure from McHale’s usual happy-go-lucky fare, but Butler provides much needed comedic relief in the high-tension horror. We’re beginning to wonder how long Joel McHale can actually go without cracking a joke.
So this is a pretty scary movie, Joel. One of those rollercoaster rides of a movie.
But like riding a rollercoaster with fireworks also, right? If a rollercoaster doesn’t have fireworks as well, I’m checking my phone the whole time.
Sounds like a great way to lose phones.
Usually, but if there’s a loop, then I can catch it on my way down.
I like that optimism.
Do you remember the ride a few years ago at Great America when the guy got out of the Superman Ride?
Yeah I remember that.
That was what I call an impressive death.
Talking about horrible things: Was Deliver Us From Evil really based on a true story?
The guy it happened to, Officer Ralph Sarchie, was there on set with us every day and telling us his side of all the stories.
You guys filmed up in the Bronx where some of the events happened. Did you ever feel like you were in danger all?
We had a bunch of Bronx cops who were assigned to guard the set. We would show up to a location and they would just casually mention, “Oh yeah I remember this building. They had to install bulletproof glass to the front doors because they were killing too many doorman.” It is pretty unbelievable that that’s the reality they deal with on a daily basis.
How was it hanging with those guys every day?
Well, they loved Eric Bana, who plays Sarchie in the movie. As you know he’s Australian, but he’s amazing with dialects and they legitimately thought that he was from the Bronx for the first few days. Then when he finally dropped it between takes, they were absolutely shocked that he wasn’t really a home-grown Yankees fan.
Did you interact with the community a lot?
First I want to say that, for the most part, the people were great up there. They would bring their lawn chairs, set up, and just watch us film. It was like their own little theater show. For my character, I had to wear a Boston Red Sox ball cap as a joke in the movie, but people were coming up concerned about my safety. That was sweet of them.
Were you ever worried?
Have you heard about “air mail”?
Well, that’s what cops call it when someone drives by them and throws bottles or garbage out of their windows at them. We got a taste of it. There’s a scene where Eric had to be down on his knees by a dumpster and be mourning the death of this child. It’s a really intense scene, we had the rain machine going, which is pouring on him, and all of a sudden a glass bottle just explodes out of nowhere right next to him.
Yeah, the cops jumped up and said, “That was a real life air mail. That could have cut his leg open.” They had our back so they figured out what building it came from and ran up to find him. They got back a few minutes later and said, “We got him.” I was like, “So you guys arrested him?” They just said, “Don’t worry, we got him.”
Well, after this movie, it seems like you’re able to handle yourself with a knife.
I did three-and-a-half weeks of straight of knife training. I would wake up in the morning, work out, eat breakfast, fight with knives for two hours, then go to set and shoot the movie all night. We were working with fight coordinator Chuck Jeffreys and learning Filipino knife fighting. Those scenes were all choreographed down to every step, as you can imagine. We used metal blades for the close-ups, and rubber blades for the faraway shots. It was a great way to get in shape while also learning how to kill people very well.
What kind of exercise regime did you do beyond the knives?
You know I usually am doing some sort of workout plan at any given time, but I was training with Ali Gritz from New York every day. I did a lot of weight lifting when I played football, but I always tended to do the exact same muscles every time, and Ali was great about forcing me to mix up my routines. You don’t want to do a chest press every single time because then your body gets into a habit and is just going through the motions and not improving anything. I personally was only concerned about making my chest, my arms, and my shoulders as big as possible. My legs I could care less about personally, but she was not letting me get away with that.
What’s your usual diet?
It was almost all protein, and then I allow myself to have a cheat day. When I’m working out, I can typically eat a lot because I’m constantly burning calories. If I’m not hitting the gym, I just eat less. I keep that pretty simple. Recently I’ve started working with Berocca, a vitamin supplement. And as far as vices, I find that I can’t get away from the coffee. It’s a necessary evil every morning.