Parks and Recreation Actor (and Westchester Resident) Ben Schwartz Debuts New Disney Series, Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja
We chat with actor Ben Schwartz, who plays Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation about his new animated series, Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja
By Marisa LaScala
Photograph by Disney XD/Rick Rowell
Turn on your television and you’ll likely run across Westchester native Ben Schwartz at some point, even if it’s just his voice. You might catch him doing some management consulting (whatever that may be) on Showtime’s House of Lies, or strutting around as the über-confident Jean-Ralphio on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. (Personally, I always thought Jean-Ralphio’s bravado made him seem like a Westchester kid, someone who was used to being praised all his life.) This week sees the debut of his newest show, Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, an animated show on Disney XD. Schwartz is the voice of Randy, a student charged with protecting his school from nefarious forces — with the help of a super-powered ninja suit and an 800-year-old ninja guide. We chatted online with Schwartz to discuss his new projects... and the sharpness of his ninja skills.
How did you get involved in Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja?
The whole process started with a series of auditions. I’m a big fan of animation and started auditioning for some animated projects. Luckily, one of them was the awesome Randy Cunningham, and I loved it right from the beginning.
Did you always want to do voice-acting or work on an animated series?
Always. I was a big, big fan of The Simpsons growing up and watched countless hours of cartoon shows: Inspector Gadget, ThunderCats, Ren & Stimpy, Yogi Bear, Transformers, everything. My first staff writing job was on [stop motion animation show] Robot Chicken, and to this day I try to see every Pixar and Dreamworks animated movie that comes out.
There are a lot of funny people working on Randy Cunningham, like John Oliver and Megan Mullally. What kind of collaboration goes on between the cast, and is it different because you’re voice-acting?
There are definitely some differences between voice over and live action. The biggest difference is that, most of the time, when I record animation, I’m alone in the booth and the creators of the show — Scott [Thomas] and Jed [Elinoff] — will read the other characters’ lines. Also, in Randy, you’re encouraged to be as big and crazy as you can, so it will translate well when animated.
Are there any surprising similarities or differences between your high school and Randy Cunningham’s?
To my knowledge, there were no ninjas in my high school... although honestly if there were, and they were any good, I probably would have never known. I liked high school. I kind of dabbled in a few different groups. I was really into video games, sang in chorus, and played basketball. I grew up in Riverdale in the Northern Bronx initially and then moved to Westchester, and had a pretty good time in each place.
Do you have any ninja-like skills in real life?
As far as throwing ninja stars and wielding a sword... no. That would be awesome, but no.
You’ve gone from a very adult House of Lies to the kid-friendly Randy Cunningham. Is the diversity in your projects a conscious decision, or is it a coincidence? What attracts you to a project?
It’s not a coincidence. The idea of juggling a little bit of everything is really fun to me. When I do this show, I get to be as big, childish, and silly as I want. With House of Lies, it’s more internalizing feelings, which is so fun. The things that attract me to different projects are the scripts and the people I would get to work with. I really liked the script of House of Lies and it felt like a dream to act next to Don Cheadle, who was the only one attached to the project at the time. And for Parks and Rec, I think Mike Schur, the showrunner, is a genius and to act beside Amy Poehler — who created the UCB theatre and is one of the funniest people in the universe — is one of my favorite things in the world to do. With Randy, Scott and Jed were so amazing in the room and the scripts they were turning out were so funny, I’ve been very lucky to work with genuinely nice and talented people.
What other upcoming shows or projects are you excited about?
I just did a movie called Coffee Town, which was me, Glenn Howerton from [It’s Always Sunny in Pennsylvania], Steve Little from Eastbound and Down, Josh Groban the singer, and Adrianne Palicki from Friday Night Lights. That’s coming out sometime soon and then I’m writing some movies for different studios that will hopefully, fingers crossed, get made one day.
Have there been any movies, TV shows, or books that you aren’t in that you’ve really enjoyed recently?
Yes! I think that TV has been amazing lately. Louie, Community, Futurama, Dexter, Homeland, Children’s Hospital, Family Guy — there are so many great shows that I try to watch.
Whenever some of our editors have a case of the Mondays, we use this video of you and Zooey Deschanel singing “You Belong to Me” to cheer up. Can you say how that came about?
That’s amazing! That’s so sweet. That came about because my friend Sophia Rossi created a Web site called HelloGiggles with the talented Zooey Deschanel and Molly McAleer. Sophia asked me to do a video for them around the time when they launched, and I asked Zooey if she wanted to sing an old song that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sang from The Jerk. Zooey is a professional singer and amazing at just about everything, so I was so lucky when she said yes. She learned the song on her ukulele in two seconds. We hit record on Sophia’s laptop, sang it a few times, and picked our favorite take. I love that people are watching it. The trick is to get someone who is an amazing singer to sing with you, then hopefully she sings loud enough to make everyone forget that you are singing, too.
Associate Editor Marisa LaScala joined Westchester magazine in 2003, and ever since she's blown every paycheck at the Greenburgh Multiplex. She also staunchly defends Richard Kelly, doesn't mind spoiling the endings of trashy movies you're curious about but don't want to pay to see, wishes the Hold Steady would come back and rock out Westchester, misses Arrested Development more than anyone can imagine, and still watches cartoons and Saturday Night Live. You can find more of her cultural criticism at www.popmatters.com, where she is a staff writer.