Fresh Face Forever

[Written this for Bullett in 2013 — never published, but unearthed in light of this casting news]

Johnny Pemberton finds out that being eternally young isn’t easy

TV lately is full of people who get what they want and come to regret it. Reanimating her boyfriend’s corpse seems to have been a poor decision for Taissa Farmiga on American Horror Story: Coven (although I guess we can wait and see on that, maybe it’ll turn around). Making a little money by cooking meth didn’t quite produce the results Walter White was looking for. Don Draper, of course, always gets what he wants, and is always miserable.

Johnny Pemberton must know how these people feel; he’s got eternal youth, and he’s not sure how he feels about it. One of the stars of new Adult Swim special/maybe eventually a series Filthy Sexy Teen$ (remember to include the $ if you Google it at work), he plays a teacher who’s younger than his students, but still can’t get invited to any cool parties.

A live action show (increasingly the case with the entire AS lineup), Teen$ was written and produced by Paul Sheer and Curtis Gwinn (the team behind CSI: Miami satire NTSF:SD:SUV). It brings the mix of deadpan re-creation and mild exaggeration they’ve been targeting at action cop shows since 2011 on NTSF and moved it to another genre already so over-the-top that it’s pretty difficult to satirize: teen dramas like Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl.

It featured a lot of familiar teen show tropes: a hyper-sexed student body, rich kids behaving badly, a “mystery vlogger” who torments the popular kids, an incredibly young teacher (played by Pemberton), and a reenactment of the “wealthy adults essentially adopt a poor kid” scenario that was at the heart of The OC. The show, which was basically okay and had a pretty good running joke about a girl who demanded that someone kill her parents before sleeping with her, hasn’t been ordered to series, but it hasn’t not been ordered to series, either. It’s in a wait-and-see place.

Playing an awkward teen is something in which Pemberton, now in his early 30s, has a lot of experience. In the past five years, he’s been played them in web shorts, feature films, and on TV. He’s been a guest star (“Prom Date” on a New Girl episode earlier this year), a series regular (“Mason” on the recently-canceled ABC show Family Tools), and a reasonably important minor character (young White House official “A.J. Brown” in Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop, one of Channing Tatum’s nerd crew in the 21 Jump Street remake, and a bully who’s eventually eaten/murdered by an alien in The Watch).

While being eternally young sounds like a dream, it’s a curse, as well. “I can’t do things like I feel like I prepared for, things that are about where I actually am in my life,” Pemberton told me on a recent weekend, speaking over the phone from his back yard in LA. “Some people will be like, ‘Oh, you have it great, you can play young,’ But, you know, I can’t play closer to my own age. I’m not really interested in it any more, unless it’s something special or unique. Being a teen eternally is so shitty and boring.”

Whether he likes it or not, Pemberton has done a lot of it. In the process, he’s become an expert in the subject of playing young. During our conversation, he brings up classic TV and movie “teens” like the mid-30s cast of the original 90210, and 1950s movies about dangerous college ruffians obviously starring men in their late 40s. He’s got some theories about what allows an older person to play half their actual age. “With a lot of age stuff, it has to do with the environment, who you’re around,” he explains. “You can look pretty far off from the actual age you’re playing, as long as you’re not surrounded by a bunch of people who are actually that age.” It also helps if your audience hasn’t seen an actual child in a long time. “The older you get, the less you can suss out someone’s true age,” he says. “If you were to ask me what a fifth grader looks like, I would probably say a toddler. My reference is off.”

The role that tested the limits of this theory was his turn on Family Tools. A prime-time ABC show starring King Of Queens’ Leah Remini and SVU/Oz/Juno’s J.K. Simmons, Pemberton was cast as the “oddball teenage son,” in the words of a review in the LA Times. Maybe it’s just me, but he looks absolutely nothing like a teenager in the show. The youngest he might be is 25. When his character talks about college as if it’s about to happen in his future, it’s hard not to feel a little mental dissonance.

Of course, full disclosure, some of my problem here may come from the fact that I actually went to college with Pemberton, in real life, a decade ago.  We had a public access TV show together, and worked at the same college radio station, where he hosted a wildly popular program full of prank calls and long, podcast-style riffing. I always felt a little competitive with him, but I basically gave up on that when he started appearing in films before I’d even started my 401 class at the UCB.

We also studied abroad together in London, and stumbled on Iannucci’s work at the same time, watching episodes of I’m Alan Partridge together on the old couches in the common room of our flat. Less than 10 years later, Pemberton was working for Iannucci, in In The Loop, the feature film version of his long-running BBC TV show The Thick Of It.

In as much as “big breaks” are a thing that actually exist, that was his.  “It was like a fairytale kind of thing,” he says, his voice getting a little far off. “Or, not like a fairytale, like a dream.” He sighs. “But that was a long time ago, and I was . . .  it was great.”

As for now, Pemberton is moving away from playing a teen. He’s only interested in acting closer to his age, college kids at the very least. As for what’s up with the future of Teen$, he has no idea. He did his part in a day or two, he says, and doesn’t even exactly remember when they shot it. “The spring?” he guesses, when I ask him. “Or the first part of the summer?” His main memories of the show are: 1) that he made a smoothie too thick to drink the morning of the shoot, and made himself late by thinning it out; and 2) he wasn’t allowed to sit on a particular chair during a party scene, presumably because the owner of the house they were shooting in had declared it off-limits. So, if you hear anything about the show being renewed, maybe drop him a line?

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