Los Angeles, October 4, 2011
Up-and-coming actor Toby Meuli made his feature film debut in David Fincher’s “The Social Network” where he portrayed one of Mark Zuckerberg’s friends. Meuli also played a strong supporting role in the Lifetime TV movie, “The Craigslist Killer.”
Hailing from Parker, Colorado, he has been in Los Angeles for only 6 years but has already managed to carve out a solid reputation for himself. On television he has been a guest star on shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Cold Case,” and “Bones” and “NCIS” and most recently he landed a co-starring role in MTV’s new hit show, “Death Valley” in which he plays a young reporter covering the Zombie invasion that is the subject of the fast paced series.
The actor however might perhaps be most recognizable for his part in the award winning Aretha Franklin “Snickers” commercial in which he is the ‘diva’ complaining in the backseat.
We caught up with Meuli (pronounced My-Lee) to talk about what’s it’s like being a young working actor in Hollywood.
HR: When did you first realize you’d have to move to Los Angeles to pursue what you love?
TOBY MEULI: My high school, Ponderosa in Parker, had a fantastic theater department and Kim Moore, the director, encouraged me early on. Then my senior year in high school I studied at a professional acting studio in Denver (The Acting Studio) where I was introduced to acting as a craft AND a possible way to make money. It really opened my eyes because I didn’t know anybody who was a professional actor and here were people saying, “I think you can do this.” So I decided to major in theater with my goal being moving to L.A. My parents also consistently encouraged me to do what I loved.
HR: In a recent Q&A, Anton Yelchin (star of “Star Trek” and the Sundance winning film, “Like Crazy”) said that he never studied acting, just dove in professionally at the age of nine, learning tons by being on sets. You got a B.F.A. in Theater Performance from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Where do you stand on the” to study or not to study” question? Has it really made a difference in your career, or do you think jumping in at an earlier age might have been a more beneficial career move?
TOBY MEULI: Great question. In my experience, acting is an experiential art form, meaning you have to do it to get better. The danger with studying acting is that you become really good at talking about acting and disconnected from the play of it. The danger of going straight into the profession is that you don’t get to act very often because the actual work can be scarce. Baylor Theatre does a great job of always putting their students on stage using great texts—it was as close to an acting boot camp as you could get. It’s the best way to learn. Whether it’s formal or not, the key for me is constantly being in a posture of learning. Nobody has ever mastered acting and I think doing good work (paid or not) and then learning from it is the real joy of this craft. I’m not taking class right now but a couple times a week I rent a theater in Hollywood and work on various scripts. Some of them are for auditions or jobs, but some are not. I want to play leads in a great movies so I’ll get good screenplays and prep the roles. It’s invigorating. Maybe I’ll get the call, maybe I won’t, but I’m ready and I’m learning.
HR: Does acting come easy for you, or do you agonize over the roles you play? How do you prepare?
TOBY MEULI: Acting is fun. That’s why people love to do it and why it’s fun to watch. Inside of action and cut or from lights up to lights down is my favorite state of being. The prep can be a long process—often not conducive to an LA actor’s life, but my process is essentially trying to see into the world of the story. Meaning I try not to look too much at my lines and more at what’s happening from a story perspective. Then it’s just about igniting my imagination in the context of the story so that when action is called you can just hop in and play.
HR: You still study?
TOBY MEULI: See above. Posture of learning.
HR: What was the first thing you did once you officially moved to L.A?
TOBY MEULI: Sent letters to agents announcing my arrival. They weren’t as excited as I was but I eventually got a meeting with a commercial agent. I told him I was a “damn good actor”. He said it didn’t matter in commercials (not true) and he couldn’t rep me because I wasn’t in SAG. I told him I’d be in SAG soon and he shouldn’t be so shortsighted. He told me to leave his office. I was initially discouraged then I went to the Griffith Observatory and in an overly sentimental moment, looked over the city and ultimately felt good about joining a group of people pursuing their dreams. A few months later I booked a series of national commercials, joined SAG, and the agent I ultimately signed with bought a car with the money from my commissions.
HR: Think that original commercial agent you went to see knows he blew it?
TOBY MEULI: Maybe. If he watches TV he does. That said, there’s a culture of bitterness and cynicism here in L.A. so I try to let that kind of stuff go. It’s a good story but I came out on top so I’m not going to hold a grudge. I try and forget the rude people like that guy and focus on the people I’m grateful for along this journey. I keep a running list (close to 150 people) who have encouraged me, invested in me and kept me going. Whenever I’m feeling cynical I like to look at that list and think about those people. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.
HR: Nice. So what kind of kid were you growing up? Jock or a creative type? Outgoing or shy?
TOBY MEULI: Total jock. I played football, basketball and baseball in high school. I have 3 brothers (and a little sister) and we were constantly competing and giving each other shit. Football was my favorite and planned on playing in college but after a knee injury my senior year I found my way over to the theater department.
HR: What was your first acting role?
TOBY MEULI: I was in the ensemble of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at my high school. At first I was just looking for an opportunity to be goofy on stage but then I got a taste of the camaraderie of the creative process and the intoxicating drug of a laughing, applauding audience. I was hooked.
HR: Who from the entertainment world were your influences back in Colorado?
TOBY MEULI: Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber” were definitely two favorite movies for my buddies and me growing up. So much so that my middle school drama teacher said I imitated Jim Carrey too much in every scene. I took it as a compliment. As I grew artistically, I started admiring a bunch of great actors and stopped saying “Alllll righty then…”
HR: What was “The Social Network” set like?
TOBY MEULI: Really fantastic. Everybody was focused, professional and knew their job. Every single person seemed to have a confidence and mastery of their specific role. It was inspiring.
HR: Was Fitcher intimidating?
TOBY MEULI: No, he was just focused. I loved it. I was there to do my job and make this movie the best it could be and so was he. I do well under that sort of leadership. Playing sports growing up I had some tough coaches and my Dad is a US Marine so I wasn’t at all intimidated by David’s focus. He’s one of the greats.
HR: How did the leads interact with him on the days you were there?
TOBY MEULI: Everybody was incredibly professional and committed to doing his or her part in telling the story.
HR: What was your first big break here in Los Angeles?
TOBY MEULI: From a moneymaking perspective it was a Taco Bell commercial where I danced around with a burrito. It was really goofy and made me an instant celebrity amongst my friends and family. From an artistic perspective, which probably meant more to me personally, I was cast in Eugene O’Neil’s Mourning Becomes Electra at A Noise Within Theater Company here in LA. They’ve got a great reputation around town and it was an honor to be around a great group of classically trained actors.
HR: How did you land your role on “Death Valley?”
TOBY LEULI: The auditions were a lot of improv, which is right up my alley. I’m an alumni of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv comedy program and still perform there occasionally. The producers described the show at Reno 911 meets Zombieland—and like most people who watch our show; I got the essence of it right away.
HR: Tell us about your character on that show.
TOBY MEULI: My character, Jamie, is fresh out of film school and the only guy in the Death Valley world who is unarmed and untrained in how to deal with the undead monsters. Jamie is scared a lot but still trying to be professional. Following the Undead Task Force may be what Jamie gets paid for, but staying alive is a full time job. Also, the cops can be terrible at their jobs so it’s a lot of me looking at the camera and going “what the?!?”
HR: What’s the vibe like on “Death Valley?” Is it a fast paced schedule?
TOBY MEULI: Everybody involves knows that we’re a part of something original; both funny and scary, which is a terribly difficult balance to pull off. There is an excited energy about it. It’s fast paced but tremendously invigorating. There is a lot of improv so the producers and directors work hard to cultivate an atmosphere conducive to that type of comedy–not an easy feat in the 16th hour of a night shoot.
HR: Is the show coming back for a second season?
TOBY MEULI: We don’t know yet. We’re 5 episodes into our 13-episode season and viewers of all backgrounds, not just typical MTV viewers, are enjoying it (including my Mom). MTV is known for creating innovative TV so I’m hoping they give us a second season and let this show help define their scripted programming for the future.
HR: Did you get any respect from Aretha Franklin? Was she cool or a diva?
TOBY MEULI: She was very cool. At first I was kind of in awe but then we all just became actors working together. She did a great job.
HR: Name three actors or actresses you’d like to work with?
TOBY MEULI: Man, there are too many to name…Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Matt Damon, Steve Carell, Thomas McCarthy, Paul Giamati, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo. Everybody. Basically, if your movies come out around November, I want to work with you.
HR: What do you think about the current trend where people like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians have become famous for doing little to nothing, launching careers by doing porn.
TOBY MEULI: If this is a veiled offer to do porn you’re going to have to call my agent. I’ll need to read the script. That said, being famous as a career choice has become increasingly popular and I don’t so much blame the individuals who are famous as the consumers, including myself, who put them there. Celebrities are the one people group where everybody feels like they have to have an opinion. I long for the day when the paparazzi can’t sell their pictures because everybody, me included, is so engaged in their own lives that they don’t care.
HR: If you could pick a past decade in which to have been an actor, which decade would it be and why?
TOBY MEULI: Maybe in Shakespeare’s time when troupes of actors traveled from town to town doing shows. I did a national tour a few years ago and it was a blast, traveling around to different cities and playing different venues.
HR: What celebrity have you met out here that has left you speechless?
TOBY MEULI: Nobody really comes to mind. The past few years I’ve mentally made a transition to viewing famous actors as colleagues in the same industry. We’re all professionals. Pro athletes however, will leave me speechless pretty quickly. I met Adrian Peterson and I wanted to kiss him on the face. He’s a specimen.
HR: Are most of your friends in the entertainment business?
TOBY MEULI: It’s a mix of both. I love to hear what my artistic friends are up to– what stories they are excited about telling, what they are dreaming about, how we can collaborate. But I get tired of the who-do-you-know fame culture of Hollywood.
HR: Do you have a career game plan or still waiting to see what gigs show up on your doorstep?
TOBY MEUIL: I’m a planner. I’ve always had an idea about where I want to go. That’s not to say that I’d alter my plan based on what showed up on my doorstep. It’s all an adventure. Long term though, I want to do great movies.
HR: What have you seen lately that you’ve loved?
TOBY MEULI: Some great movies so far this year: Win Win (probably my favorite), Tree of Life, Crazy Stupid Love, Midnight in Paris.
HR: We understand you are writing a feature film script.
TOBY MEULI: Yes, I’m writing several things right now. My management company has a production company arm so I’m developing a really exciting original TV show with them right now. I’m also writing a feature based on a true story of a 27 year old car salesmen who runs for US Congress. Its sort of a Moneyball set in the world of local politics. The other feature is about a copywriter who develops an algorithm that guarantees a successful ad campaign. More on both of those soon. Maybe our next interview will be during the press tour for one of those projects that I just completed as an actor and writer. Stay tuned.
HR: Describe your perfect L.A. weekend.
TOBY MEULI: Hiking, beaches, new restaurants, cool bars, hanging with my wife and our friends, watching football, reading a great book, seeing movies, maybe catching a band, finding fun. Nothing too original—L.A. is a great city if you can get past the traffic. The perfect thing would be a trafficless L.A. That’s heaven to me.
HR: What’s the worst thing about being an actor?
TOBY MEULI: The isolation. I’m a people person so moving from gig to gig or audition to audition can be tough. That’s why I like to create my own projects, if only to work with my talented friends.
HR: And what’s the best?
TOBY MEULI: First, the work. Hands down. The actual acting is the best. Second, the people. Collaborating artistically is the fastest way to become friends and share your life with somebody. It’s a special bond.
HR: When can we next see you on “Death Valley?”
TOBY MEULI: Monday nights at 10:30 on MTV. Get excited.
Learn more about Toby at www.TobyMeuli.com