In 2019, actor and Cincinnati native Sam Straley starred as Lawrence in ABC’s short-lived sitcom, The Kids Are Alright. Shortly after the show’s cancellation, Straley talked with Cincinnati Magazine about the experience and said that he was putting his energy into finding his next perfect role.
Three years later, Straley appears to have done just that. He’s set to star in Fox’s Welcome to Flatch, a mockumentary comedy series produced and directed by Paul Feig (known for classics like Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids, and, yes, The Office) that follows the trials and tribulations of life in Flatch, a fictional Ohio town. Straley plays Shrub Mallet, a sensitive townie who spends his days hatching schemes with his cousin and partner-in-crime, Kelly Mallet. Ahead of the show’s premiere on March 17, Straley spoke to Cincinnati Magazine about auditioning for Feig, finding his footing in the industry, and pulling from his Cincinnati roots.
Tell me about landing this part in Welcome to Flatch.
The last time we talked, that was a very interesting time for me. The Kids Are Alright was a really incredible experience. I worked with really amazing actors and producers, but I was uncomfortable. I was really uncomfortable. It was my first thing, and I just felt like I was walking to marks on the floor and saying my line, and the whole time I was so insecure.
[After The Kids Are Alright got canceled] I just started being like, “Hey, the perfect thing, the perfect project for me, I don’t know what that looks like but I’ll just kind of let go and trust it’ll come my way.” And I was just sort of operating out of that for a couple months, and, weirdly, I got a call out of the blue from my ex-girlfriend. And she was like, “Hey, I just needed to call you because I’m in the room, I’m auditioning for this show, [and] you need to audition.” So I was like, “What’s the show?” And she sent me the sides, and I watched a couple episodes of the BBC show [that Flatch is based on] and I was like, “Whoa.” I don’t know why, if it’s being from Ohio, but there was a culmination of things that just sort of clicked in a way that hasn’t really clicked in my professional career up to this point. Where I was just like, “I don’t know why, but I just sort of know this character like the back of my hand.”
I immediately emailed my team at the time, and I was like, “Hey I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I need to go in for this.” Up to that point, I’ve been going in for CW callbacks for like, you know, a cute guy, and I’m like, “That’s not me.” I don’t feel cute. I don’t feel like fitting in that box. I’ll just feel silly.
If my ex hadn’t called me when she did, I don’t know if I would have gotten into the room. I auditioned for Paul [Feig] and Jenny [Bicks] in person. They were doing a nationwide search, but everyone in L.A. was auditioning in front of Paul. And I was like, “Whoa, OK.” To do it in person like that, there was such a level of like, “Oh, I’m gonna be so prepared for this. Stupid prepared.” It was the best audition I’ve ever had. There was just something about it when I left the room.
The show centers around you and co-star Holmes as cousins Kelly and Shrub Mallet. Who are these characters?
I’d say they’re kind of a classic duo, almost like husband and wife in a way. They’re partners for life, they’re best friends, and they want the best, but they also see what’s wrong in the other person and they get so frustrated with each other sometimes. But we kind of always come together, because we’re each other’s support system.
They’re in their early 20s. They’re sort of at the point in their lives where they should have things together, and everyone around them is getting married and they’re still, I think, clinging on to moments in their lives that brought them acceptance. And they are really excited about this new documentary crew and having “the movie people” around and feeling seen.
Shrub is, I’d say, more of the feminine to Kelly’s masculinity, which I think isn’t seen a lot on TV. Shrub is sort of the sensitive, artistic, detail-oriented control freak, and Kelly is the no-idea-is-a-bad-idea, throw-everything-at-the-wall-see-what-sticks one. And I think their dynamic is very much that they love each other but they fight a lot. They cover each other’s gray spots in all the right ways, and they are desperately, desperately trying to find connection and find a place where they fit. They’re absolute underdogs, and they’re always looking out for each other.
How did you approach the role of Shrub?
I feel like Shrub is honestly an amalgamation of my cousins, but also there’s so much of myself in him, too. Shrub’s an artist. He’s very sensitive. He has bouts of frustration and anger and can lose control sometimes. And I feel like I can relate to that, big time, especially if I didn’t have the support that I had early on in my life. If I grew up in a small town and none of my gifts were supported or fostered, I might be a little bit like a Shrub. So I really clicked with that guy.
There was so much that I went in with, but then as soon as I met Holmes, it was like, I got to improvise. They were coming from an improv background, just sort of making it up on the spot all the time, and I’m coming from this last show, where you know every one of your lines and, whether you sound like a robot or not, you had to say it in exactly that word order. Working with Holmes just became a really easy, amazing thing. My performance I would owe to Holmes, because they taught me so much along the way, both on and off camera, that I think really just helped us both settle in.
How was working with Paul Feig?
Paul is the best person I’ve ever worked with on so many levels. He is someone who makes that job look like the easiest activity that anyone has ever done. And he’s calm, he’s relaxed, he’s trusting toward everyone. I feel like I learned so much as a director and a creator just by being around him.
Working with Paul was literally a dream come true. I remember seeing Bridesmaids in the theater and just being like, “Whoa, you’ve made the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.” And what I love about Paul’s humor is it’s so inclusive. The butt of the joke is never punching down, he’s always punching up, and that is something I’ve always felt true to in my humor. I never liked when it was making fun of someone or showcasing someone’s insecurity, because, like, I’ve been on the other side of that and I hate being made fun of. I hate it.
Was your production affected by the pandemic?
The audition process was all pre-pandemic, and we were about to film this pilot in March 2020. The day we start filming, we start hearing about productions getting shut down. And we did a scene that was scheduled, and we thought we were done for the day, but we knew something was up because suddenly we’re on set and Paul is like, “OK, I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions, pull over here and just be in character and respond.” We did this so many times with everyone, and everyone in the cast who wasn’t scheduled that day came in, and he just filmed everything, because he knew we were getting shut down. By the end of the day we had a 15-minute teaser, basically a pilot. And then we got shut down, and we just waited for seven months. And luckily we got a call that we were not just going back to film a pilot, based on that 15-minute little proof, but we just got picked up for a full season. We were all just so hungry to get back.
Since Flatch is a fictional small town in Ohio, how much of your own experience did you bring to this role?
Even though Anderson Township is more of a suburb, there were some elements to it. I never felt too far from a Flatch. I was making movies in high school and we would always go out to these small towns to film, like, a 1950s movie trailer, because we were big into making movie trailers—none of them were good, but they were so fun. So I grew up around these towns and feeling that energy of being in a small town and being like, “Today is just today here, there’s nothing really going on.” And I can relate to that in Anderson, too, I think any kid can, not having access to a car or anything but just straight boredom and what comes out of boredom. Shrub and Kelly are trying to be entrepreneurial and creative in this boredom. And I always related to that because the creativity I was feeling as a kid I didn’t always have an outlet for it.
What would you say to someone who’s in the same position you were in high school, looking to get involved in acting and the entertainment industry but doesn’t know where to start?
My advice would be don’t put too much pressure and stake on anyone else’s opinion of it. Follow your gut. And my gut was telling me to go to a place where there’s a level of the entertainment industry, so I chose Chicago. It was very close, and there’s a lot of great theater and a small pool of TV and film. And I had to be adamant about it, I had to be, “I’m doing this, I’m doing this,” to the point where my parents were like, “OK, you’re doing this, and we’re gonna let you.” I don’t know what advice I could give, because I’ve made a lot of good choices along the way and I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. There is no one path. Just follow your gut and do it for the love of doing the thing.
You also play Christian Holmes, brother of Elizabeth Holmes (played by Amanda Seyfried) in Hulu’s new series, The Dropout. What was that experience like?
I got to work with some really amazing actors. Naveen Andrews, who I grew up watching on Lost, and Amanda Seyfried. I mean, come on. If I had told myself when I was watching Mean Girls at age 9, “Hey, you’re gonna play her brother,” I would not have believed you at all. But I felt really comfortable around them. It was so cool to be a little part of a really cool story that was literally unfolding when we were filming it. Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos trial was happening while we were filming. I actually went up to the trial for one day. I was like, “I’ve got to suss this out.” It was really dark and sad, but I was just like, “When else am I gonna be on a show where we’re depicting the actions that led to it in real time?”
When Flatch comes out on March 17, what are you most excited for people to see?
Just how good everyone in the show is. A big reason why I love the show so much is that it’s nontraditional in the sense that Paul is really amazing, a comic genius, and he could have had any actors he wanted but he cast a bunch of unknowns. And I respect the hell out of that. And these unknowns, people aren’t ready for: Holmes, Taylor Ortega, Justin Linville, Krystal Smith. Everyone in the cast genuinely shines. I’m excited for the world to bask in their talent. And I’m just grateful that I got to be a part of it in any way, shape, or form. Because, at the end of the day, anything you say about my performance is because of them. And I’m excited to hopefully do it all again.
Welcome to Flatch premieres on Fox March 17 at 9:30 p.m. and will be available to stream on Hulu.