Growing up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, actor and screenwriter Nat Faxon knew his place was in the limelight. Never could he have suspected, however, just what riches would be waiting there for him to claim. By Meg Quinn-DeBoer
During an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show in October, actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Nat Faxon gently poked fun at the name of his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea. He said that the town’s multihyphened name, when compared to the names of Boston-area towns that are reputedly more tough (like Revere and Roxbury), it’s “not a very tough-sounding name.” But in a recent phone interview with Northshore, the actor shares only good memories of his youth in Massachusetts.
“I loved growing up in Manchester-by-the-Sea. It was about as idyllic a setting as you could have for your childhood. It was beautiful and safe,” Faxon says. “In winter, I would go down to Dexter Pond and we would play hockey every day. Then in spring and summer, I’d bike on back trails with my friends. And I loved being on the water. That’s where my love for the ocean started, and it’s why I live near the beach in Los Angeles.”
Like most New England transplants, Faxon says he deeply misses the change of seasons. “I think anybody who grew up on the East Coast [and then left] would say that’s one of the things they miss the most. Of course, when I go back to see my parents, I become such a wimp. After three days of cold, I’ve had it,” the actor jokes.
“I miss the fall, too, when the leaves change color and things get crisper. There’s a different smell to the air at that time of year, and I miss it,” he explains. “But L.A. is wonderful for many other reasons. The weather is beautiful, and it’s nice to be able to be outside all the time—but when you’re hungry for a big fire and a cable-knit sweater, it’s hard to recreate that out here.”
Faxon, who currently stars on the FOX sitcom “Ben and Kate,” says he travels back east whenever he can. His wife, Meaghan Gadd, has family on the South Shore, and Faxon’s own parents live in Boston. But with a hectic schedule and two young children in tow, Faxon says the trips are becoming a little harder to make. “Otis is two-and-a-half and Ruthie is almost five, so it’s a more challenging endeavor to get back there. It’s not an easy flight, but I try to get back as often as possible,” he says.
For two months last summer, Faxon returned home to Massachusetts to film The Way, Way Back, which marks his big-screen directorial debut. Filming locations included Green Harbor, near Marshfield, and Water Wizz Park in Wareham. “It was so much fun to be back there and be able to settle in a little bit,” he says. “Usually, a visit is a frantic tour of running around visiting friends and family,” he says.
Faxon describes the film as a “coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old who is told by his mother’s new boyfriend on the way to a family vacation that on a scale of one to 10, he’s a three. The boy comes out of his shell over the summer and is able to stand up to his mom’s boyfriend, and he finds his way back to his mom.” Faxon explains that the title not only alludes to the mother and son finding their way back to each other, but also to “the horrible, ill-conceived seat that faces oncoming traffic in the back of the car—known as the way, way back.”
The script is based on real-life childhood experiences of Faxon’s writing partner, Jim Rash. Rash and Faxon met at The Groundlings, the famous improvisation company in L.A. that has launched the career of many a comedic actor. While The Way, Way Back marks the first time the duo are working together as directors, together, the seasoned screenwriters won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants last year.
Faxon still has trouble wrapping his head around the fact that he won an Oscar. “It’s still crazy to me. I don’t think it will ever be not crazy to me,” he says. “I watched the Oscars as a kid, and I always dreamed of things I would say if it ever happened. I would look in the mirror and practice speeches, because when you’re young, you think that’s attainable. Then, when you get to L.A., it’s sort of like a big game, and no one really teaches you how to play.”
Faxon is also still adapting to himself as a writer. “I always hoped I would get to a certain level, but I never thought it would be in writing. I was an actor coming out here. Writing was an outlet for Jim and me when we were at The Groundlings. It was a way to write fun characters for ourselves that we weren’t getting auditions for, and then it kept growing and it blossomed into this other career.”
Still, Faxon is modest. “When we worked on The Descendants, we knew we had a fantastic book, and we felt like there were very talented people who were part of it, but I don’t think we ever imagined we’d be standing on that stage accepting the award,” Faxon says. “So when it did come, I was certainly thinking it was a surreal experience. I don’t think you can ever really prepare for that. You have hopes and dreams, but you don’t really think that it truly will happen until it does. I’m still blown away by it.”
Faxon found directing his first feature to be much tougher than he had anticipated. “I really enjoyed it, but it was very difficult. It was the organizational and logistical aspects of the movie that became a challenge. The biggest stressor was managing the time, and it was exhausting. But there was something so thrilling and satisfying about seeing my vision all the way through, from writing it, to casting it, to shooting and editing it.”
Although he enjoys writing and directing, Faxon’s true passion lies in acting. “I came out to L.A. as an actor, and I knew from a young age I wanted to do that—just from imitating my family around the dinner table to upstaging my classmates at Brookwood School,” he says. “We did mostly musicals, and I found out that I’m a horrible singer. So it was difficult for someone like me, who enjoys being in the spotlight, to not be able to sing at all. I would be in the chorus in the back completely mugging and pulling faces to upstage my friends. It was clear early on that I wanted to be an actor and that I was drawn to comedy.”
The Groundlings troupe is where Faxon honed his comedy skills. “I like the spontaneity of improv, and there’s that immediacy of getting a laugh that’s very intoxicating,” he says. “I love the adrenaline rush that comes when the audience reacts to what you’re doing. I’ve always been drawn to that and fed by that, and I give credit for what has happened in my career to The Groundlings for teaching me all of that.”
With an Oscar and a hit TV show under his belt and a new movie coming out at the end of the year, Faxon is doing quite well in L.A. But the native New Englander says there is still one thing that Hollywood can’t offer: the quintessential North Shore sandwich. “I dream about Nick’s Roast Beef constantly. There is no really good roast beef restaurant in L.A. I dream about a Junior Beef with sauce and mayo all the time,” he gushes, adding, “Trust me, I’ve thought about opening one out here.”
Of course, he’s just joking, but bringing Nick’s to L.A. would render him a quadruple threat: actor-writer-director-restaurateur—an impressive would-be moniker with just as many hyphens as his beloved hometown. “Ben and Kate” airs on FOX Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30 Central.