Photo by Evan Mulling
When Jimmy Tatro first got the script for Theater Camp, he was a little confused.
“Typically, you’re getting a script that’s going to be around 100 pages,” Tatro explains to Los Angeles Confidential over a phone call. “This was much more of a detailed outline than a script, so a lot of the dialogue wasn't even in there. It would say things like, ‘Troy and Rebecca Diane have a conversation about the direction the camp is headed.’”
Following its award-winning debut at Sundance Film Festival, Theater Camp rolls into theaters on July 14 and presents an inside look at one contentious summer at AdirondACTS. The theater camp in upstate New York is an oasis for the kids that prefer the stage to soccer or capture the flag, making the camp’s threat of financial ruin all the more dire.
The fate of the camp’s future comes to a head when founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma and her non-thespian, wannabe entrepreneur vlogger son Troy (Tatro) must keep camp running with the help of camp alumni and longtime counselors Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon).
A mockumentary, the debut feature of directorial duo Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who co-wrote the script with Noah Galvin (who plays stage craft savant Glenn) and Platt, captures the laugh-out-loud eccentricities of theater camp with lots of heart.
“After [our first] meeting, I just was well aware that they were the right people to tell this story,” Tatro says.
He later adds, “It's just an exploration of the joy that these camps can bring out of you. Whether you went to theater camp or sports camp or whatever it was, I think everyone will enjoy reliving those camp experiences. And it's also got some great music, [there’s] a great musical at the end. It just will leave you with a smile on your face. And for me, I'm always looking for movies that make me feel good. And Theater Camp is just the ultimate feel-good movie.”
The film required plenty of improv from its actors. With memories of summers at theater camp in their own back pockets, Gordon, Lieberman, Platt, Galvin and their cast had plenty of inspiration.
Tatro never attended theater camp, but this worked in his favor because his Troy Rubinsky is far more crypto bro than arts aficionado. And though Tatro says Gordon, Lieberman and team were happy to give insider knowledge of theater camp, he steered clear of knowing too much.
“My character in the movie is supposed to have no idea what they're talking about,” Tatro says. “For a lot of it, I preferred to be left in the dark and just actually be confused about what they were talking about.”
Troy isn’t exactly loved by the campers the way the counselors are. His relationship with the adolescent performers is perhaps best summed up in one scene when he fails to gather their attention during morning announcements in the mess hall. He calls out from the stage to no avail, while Platt’s Amos effortlessly rallies the group with a call-and-response song.
But Troy is no heartless jabroni. An outsider stepping into a space steeped in tradition is difficult for anyone, even for someone as breezy and confident as him. What’s more, Troy’s earnestness in doing his best makes you root for him.
“He has a lot of heart deep down,” Tatro says. “I think he's just been inspired by the wrong things. And what I think is great about his arc in the movie is you watch him get won over by this wild, eccentric world that he really wouldn’t be involved in the majority of his life. And he starts to realize that maybe this is his world.”
Tatro knows all too well the sorts of things Jimmy’s been inspired by. The SoCal native’s career jumpstarted on YouTube where he created his channel, LifeAccordingToJimmy. An onslaught of comedy skits and the birthplace of satirical series The Real Bros of Simi Valley (which later moved to Facebook Watch), LifeAccordingtoJimmy has 3.4 million subscribers as of today.
“I have spent a lot of time around YouTube creators being someone that started out making YouTube videos. I used to go to VidCon and there's a lot of wild personalities. And I also think in the last year or so, there's been this crazy surge of tech bros who just seem to give unsolicited advice to anyone who would listen. And this idea of just standing behind the camera giving you some kind of credibility to give people advice has always been funny to me.
He adds, “I thought it was a good opportunity with Troy to just make fun of that world of these ridiculous business-tech-podcast-vlogger-type people who don't really have any actual credibility besides just being in front of a camera and giving people advice… What Troy wants is to be a business vlogger. He wants to give business advice. The problem is that he doesn't really have any business experience. And I think that's true of a lot of people that you see on the internet today.”
Jimmy Tatro and Ayo Edebiri in Theater Camp.
Tatro shares that the Theater Camp team wrote the role with him in mind. Given his filmography, Troy is clearly a perfect fit among his history of frat bro-like characters.
In addition to his web comedy work, Tatro’s credits include Grown Ups 2, 22 Jump Street and Boo! A Madea Halloween. He also starred in the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal as Dylan Maxwell, the student accused to be at the center of a high school prank gone wrong; in ABC’s Home Economics as the wealthy sibling to Topher Grace’s middle-class Tom and Caitlin McGee’s struggling child therapist sister and, most recently, as a young Bert Kreischer in The Machine.
His performance in Theater Camp alongside the likes of American Vandal and The Real Bros. of Simi Valley suggests Tatro’s inclination for mockumentaries. As an actor, Tatro says the key is to play the role “straight,” not as if you’re in a comedy.
“There’s just a whole other element of humor,” Tatro reflects. “When it comes to comedy, it can feel more real when you use this format. And I think what we were able to do with American Vandal was make it feel like we were really capturing the real life of this guy. And then you just make it so ridiculous, it’s funny… You’re just watching someone live their real life and that real life happens to be insane to you.”
Photography by: Evan Mulling; Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures