In television and film, secret agents are known primarily for two things: their license to kill and their way with the ladies. They’re smooth operators, if not always the nicest guy in the world. However, there’s one super-spy whose unique blend of immaturity and narcissism has made him repellent to his colleagues and enemies. His name is Sterling Archer, and he returns Thursday in the third season of FX’s animated comedy Archer.
To promote the season premiere, the voice of Sterling Archer, H. Jon Benjamin, recently fielded questions during a conference call with the press, delivering answers with his signature brand of deadpan humor. He immediately set the tone of the Q&A by trying to convince the operator to disconnect one of the moderators for having too many rules.
Asked how he balances Archer with his voice work on the Fox animated comedy Bob’s Burgers and his recent Comedy Central show H. Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” the actor replied, “It’s a constant stream of protein shakes and a very regimented workout schedule, which keeps me energized. The rest I leave to my rabbi and the group of people I consult with.”
The self-absorbed Sterling Archer is a complex character with many … interesting … traits, but Benjamin admitted he most enjoys the agent’s appearance. “I like the way he looks. He’s handsome,” he said. “That’s a big advantage. I’m not so handsome. And I like all the stuff I get to say, obviously. I like being rude and it gives me a good opportunity to do that.”
While voicing a secret agent is interesting work, the tale of how Benjamin landed the part isn’t quite as engaging: “It’s not a great story. Adam Reed, the creator of Archer, God rest his soul, called me. I think he had heard me do some other work on Adult Swim shows. He called me to read the part. I don’t know if other people have been asked. I don’t know if I was first choice or literally his last resort. I accepted and it worked out well. I was hesitant, though, because I didn’t think I could pull off a spy. If you knew me you’d know all the reasons why.”
Archer’s job as a secret agent frequently pits him against intriguing characters, and in the season premiere he comes face to face with a man he finds particularly fascinating, his hero — Hollywood veteran Burt Reynolds. Reynolds voices himself in the episode, something Benjamin initially pretended to know nothing about.
“He was in it? No one tells me anything about this shit! That’s great!” the actor joked. “Archer has obviously referenced Burt Reynolds a lot. So I’m sure it popped into Adam Reed’s head to just try and cast him. It’s funny I assume you call these people and must think they’ll never do it. And then they’re probably like, ‘Of course I’ll do it.’”
Much of the dialogue on Archer involves fast-paced quips and clever references, but Benjamin revealed that very little of that is improvised. “There’s not a lot of room. The scripts are really tightly written, but it’s sometimes encouraged. On occasion they’ll be like, ‘Do you want to add anything?’ and usually I’ll say, ‘No,'” the actor said with a laugh. “It’s not the same kind of production as Bob’s Burgers, which is a lot of improvising all the time. The scripts on Archer don’t really require it.’”
They also don’t require the voice cast to interact much, as each actor’s lines are recorded separately. “So I don’t get to do much interaction with the rest of the cast although I did try to get Aisha Tyler fired once,” he joked. “That hasn’t worked out — yet.”
Benjamin is often called upon to yell to make sure Archer’s voice is heard, but he admitted he would love for future episodes to feature some quieter dialogue.
“It’s not grueling or anything, but recently whenever I finish, my vocal cords don’t recover for like a day after a session,” he said. “It’s not like I’m at war, but it’s hard on the throat. So, yeah, I would like less yelling some day.”
Archer’s lines are often peppered with clever and obscure references, leading one reporter to reveal she often has to use Google while watching the show. Benjamin explained that he, too, is often unfamiliar with what his character is talking about.
“There’s like a 50-50 chance of me knowing what they’re referring to, but I’m always getting questions about those things and occasionally I don’t have an answer,” he said. “I forget to check. Fortunately, I’ve read some Melville and some William Blake. So I knew a couple references, but there were some things where I don’t know what they’re talking about. I always get a question about Johnny Bench, who we made reference to in the second season, and wondering why we talked about him. I did not know about him and a lot of people asked me, ‘Well, why did you say that?’ So it’s a relatively educational show, too.”
Benjamin only voices Archer, but thanks to the magic of animation he recently had the chance to become the secret agent. A special feature on the Season 2 DVD set involves Benjamin being transformed into the title character. When asked about the segment, the actor explained that he came up with the concept.
“I think it was my idea initially because it was actually made for a comedy festival that this comedian Eugene Mirman does,” he recalled. “They were doing an Archer event at the festival. So it was made for that. Adam Reed wrote it and then they spun it off to put it on the DVD.”
Being Sterling Archer often means being unhappy because one of the running gags involves robbing Archer of moments of happiness. One journalist wondered whether the character would ever get a moment of happiness — and if he did, what might it look like.
“I don’t think it would behoove the show for him to be happy,” Benjamin replied. “So I assume that will be avoided. Plus, I think by nature he’s a troubled character. So I don’t think he’ll ever be happy. I got asked this recently though and I think my stock answer was maybe if his mother died. I’m not sure that would make him happy, but it would change everything for him. I don’t think their relationship is Oedipal, but I do think his mother created a lot of problems.”
One journalist was curious what traits Benjamin and Sterling Archer had in common. “Well, obviously, personality-wise I can be a little surly,” the actor replied. “That comes from the way I look, and just having to go out in public is a struggle. So I think my penchant for anger, my general poor attitude, failure to recognize authority, and my sense of entitlement from being American and white and rich. Those things I share. And I drink a lot in real life.”
Benjamin’s voice is distinctive, but because he works primarily in animation many fans don’t know what the actor looks like. One reporter asked whether the actor ever got suspicious stares from people wondering where they knew his voice from. “It happens all the time in the steam room, where I do most of my talking,” he quipped. “Actually it happens very rarely, obviously because nobody cares. But on a few occasions I’ve been recognized for my voice. It’s only by people who have been really keyed into the shows I do. There’s been occasions where I’m ordering tea at a coffee shop and the person behind the counter will get excited. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, the voice of Archer is ordering a green tea!’ That happens very rarely, though.”
Archer’s job as a spy means he get’s to go on lots of thrilling and often humorous adventures. One reporter asked if Benjamin had any ideas for future Archer exploits to give the show’s creator.
“That’s a tough question. There’s so much spy world stuff to explore and I’m sure he hasn’t gone through all the possibilities yet,” he said. “I guess I’d want him to sing more? Maybe start a band? Like a really bad Jim Belushi-style blues band or something like that.”
Two reporters asked which villains Benjamin would like to see Archer match wits with this season. One was particularly interested ii whether the agent had any unfinished business with Barry Dylan, who murdered Archer’s wife in the second season finale.
“I think that character is the most prominent nemesis to Archer,” he said. “I don’t think that character comes back this season but I’m not certain. I don’t remember. That character is really funny and bionic, though, so I’d love for him to come back.”
Another journalist asked whether Season 3 would bring more appearances by other recurring characters, like Cheryl the secretary’s pet ocelot, or the wee baby Seamus, whom Archer once believed was his son. “I forgot about the ocelot,” Benjamin said with a laugh. “I don’t think so, though. I hope Seamus is all right, but I don’t remember doing a lot with the character this season. I know we see Archer’s tattoo with his name a lot, but I think that’s all you get of Seamus. I think he’s off in some very exclusive pre-K.”
When Archer isn’t interacting with his supporting players he’s off on his own exciting adventures. Would Benjamin ever want to engage in similar behavior?
“I guess sleep with a prostitute? I just never had the courage,” the actor replied with a laugh. “I think that would open the floodgates for me. And I would like to yell at a butler some day.”
The past few story arcs have seen the character become controlled by a microchip, develop and be cured of cancer, and quit the spy life to become a pirate. So one journalist wanted to know where the chaotic series will go next.
“It doesn’t get crazier, but there are definitely moments of pure insanity as there always is in the show,” Benjamin explained. “Archer returns to his regular life. The show gets back to what it did in the second season, which was focus on all the characters that work for the spy agency. They do go to some strange places like space, but I think that was part of a mission. So it’s not like he decides to go there on a whim and takes off.”
Another chaotic aspect of the show is that you never know what will come out of Archer’s mouth next. One reporter asked Benjamin whether he had any favorite dialogue from the past two seasons.
“I never remember lines, but I do like whenever I have to say something really falsetto and quick. It used to be like, ‘The Danger Zone’ or something. And I really like doing his answering machine messages,” he said. “They’re written out exactly as I do them and they make me laugh every time because in real life I do that stuff. So I like when he really fucks with people on his answering machine. That really makes me giggle.”
The line of questioning moved from favorite lines to one of Archer’s favorite articles of clothing, his black turtleneck, leading a reporter to ask how Benjamin looks in one.
“It’s been a while, ever since my bar mitzvah. So it’s a totally different body now than it used to be when I was 13. I can’t imagine I would look good, though,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think anybody but Archer looks good in turtleneck. Maybe Sammy Davis Jr., too. Or Burt Convey. I think nowadays, though, it’s a huge fashion faux pas to be walking around like that. Unless you work at a club called Turtlenecks.”
With talk turning to Benjamin’s youth, the actor was asked whether as a child he was a fan of James Bond and the other spy stories that inspired Archer. “I was into the Torah mostly and into the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! because it fooled me. I thought it was about being Jewish and it was actually a movie about Kamikazes,” Benjamin joked. “There was nothing Jewish about it except maybe perhaps some of the pilots or the people killed were Jewish. So as a kid I was strictly all about Judaism. I was crazy for it. So I didn’t have time for spy stuff.”
The spy stuff on Archer is handled in blend of standalone episodes and multi-part stories. One reporter wondered whether Benjamin had a preference for telling shorter or longer stories.
“I think it’s very successful when they try and do longer arcs, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a detriment when they don’t,” he replied. “The television I watch is more narrative, and Adam Reed is so good at crafting narrative threads that run through everything. It’s like any good sitcom where you start to love all the characters. I think the episodes where Archer got cancer and the three-parter we did to set up this season were a lot of fun to do.”
Those story arcs involved some serious emotions for what is usually a laugh-a-minute show. For instance, the three-part story detailed Archer’s actions in the aftermath his wife’s death in Season 2. One journalist wanted to know whether voicing Archer’s anguish and grief was difficult for Benjamin.
“There’s acting when you’re doing voiceovers, but it was definitely strange to do that. It’s always odd when you have to do things like cry for real,” he replied. “You’ve got a situation where your wife died and you’re crying, and it’s so easy to do a ‘boo-hoo-hoo.’ I’d always ask them, ‘Was that terrible?’ It’s not like a movie, I guess, where everybody is standing around and people are watching and you really got to do it. So there’s something very false about standing in front of a microphone and crying. Hopefully the cries are believable.”
Archer begins its third season Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.