Jon Stewart seems exhausted, and with good reason. It is late Friday afternoon, the tail end of election week, traditionally the busiest five days of the year for his Comedy Central program The Daily Show. And that’s just the half of it. The big week for news collided with the marketing of Rosewater, the feature film that marks Stewart’s directorial debut — which meant his every spare moment was given to interviews and other bothersome aspects of promotion.
And yet, the 51-year-old comedy icon springs to life when I enter the hotel room, perhaps a Pavlovian reaction to the Mets cap I was wearing. “How could you wear the symbol of a team that has been so disappointing to me?” Stewart asks, only half kidding.
We commiserate about the sorry state of the hapless baseball team, which has missed the playoffs for eight straight years. As with most Mets fans, Stewart is both animated and depressed.
He fondly recalls the team’s last championship, which happened way back in 1986: “I wearing my suspenders and bowtie, covered in salsa, watching Lenny Dykstra hitting that homer in Houston and them going to the World Series.” Stewart, who grew up in New Jersey, had moved to New York City and was working as a waiter at a restaurant in Rockefeller Center. The aspiring stand-up comic was also hustling local comedy joints for a few minutes of stage time.
Now, of course, he owns countless Emmys — and the devotion of a young and liberal-minded generation. His reach, in fact, is now global, as he learned when journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested for being an alleged spy in his home country of Iran just days after appearing on The Daily Show. Bahari was imprisoned and tortured for 118 days before international pressure, some of which came from Stewart, forced the Iranian government to release him.
Stewart was moved by Bahari’s story, and ultimately sprung to adapt the reporter’s book, Then They Came For Me, for his directorial debut. The film — called Rosewater after Bahari’s nickname for his interrogator — stars Gael Garcia Bernal. It debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, and hits theaters on Friday, November 13. After lamenting the Mets, Stewart spoke with Yahoo Movies about the film, politics, Star Wars, and of course, his beloved Mets.
What do you think the Mets will do in the coming off-season?
They’re going to do what they always do. They’ll make us believe that they’re two pieces away [from winning] and not sign someone like Nelson Cruz, who could hit 30 home runs, but sign Chris Young for $10 million, because 10 years ago he hit 20 homers in AAA. They’ll f—k it up.
Do you think the Wilpons [the penny-pinching, cash-strapped Mets owners who lost millions in the Bernie Madoff scam] should sell the team?
I would be delighted. That would be a wonderful step in the right direction.
Moving on to your movie. I thought the the prison guard accusing Bahari of doing seedy things in New Jersey was a joke that you added. But Maziar’s writing reveals that people in Iran really did think that New Jersey is a horrible, depraved place. As a Jersey native, how does that make you feel?
Well, the real America to them is New Jersey, because the only real experience that Iranians could have in America at this point, other than being ex-pats, is if you work for the diplomatic mission. The United States has a rule that you can only live within a 20-mile radius of that diplomatic mission, which I think is on Third Avenue [in Manhattan].
So you’re either going to live in Queens, Manhattan, or New Jersey. And Jersey is the most conveniently-located spot for them. So if they’re going to hear about America, and there is a fascination there about America, chances are that New Jersey is going to step in as the exemplar of America, for better or worse.
I was upset that you told the world about Fort Lee, our “great sex massage playground.”
I tried desperately to keep that a secret for many years, but at a certain point, you have to unburden yourself, you have to get it out.
Was this your first time in the Middle East?
Yes. I really have not traveled much other than in the States for comedy. So I’ve been to Buffalo a lot.
You’ve been talking about the Middle East on TV for 15 years at this point. Did going there change your perspective on anything?
No. In many ways it reinforced the idea that it’s not the monolith, and it’s not the inexplicable enigma that we may present it to be. The bad people there aren’t super villains, it has the complexity and nuance of any society. There were moments where I felt a great kinship with the people, and then there were other moments where I saw the distance between the cultures that I thought could look insurmountable at times. It was exciting. Hopefully, it was educating, but it was also hopefully a way to better my perspective, just broadly.
You joked on CNN that you didn’t vote, and then it became a whole big thing. And to me, that became a microcosm of everything the internet and cable news are about.
Yeah. I mean the stupid thing there is that I was trying to avoid talking about the midterms because I wanted to talk about the movie, and stupidly…
And then everyone picks up on it, and it becomes its own thing.
That’s correct. And then you try to address it, and that itself becomes its own thing.
It’s been amazing that you’ve been able to avoid a lot of those things over the years, being on TV four nights a week, telling topical jokes.
I feel like, every time we do a bit, it does that. “Stewart eviscerates…,” “Stewart and Oliver destroy…” And you’re like, “Whatever happened to poke gentle fun at,” or “Share a laugh over?” Obviously, look, people are trying to get eyeballs.
You’ve become a Transformer in the eyes of headline writers.
That is correct, I’ve disemboweled many an individual, and yet, like Lazarus, they rise up the next day and continue to do the same day.
Having acted in movies, and run a TV show for years, you certainly have a lot of experience. What aspect of film directing did you have to learn most about?
I think vocabulary. There’s a vocabulary to filmmaking that they’re all very fluent in and very comfortable with, in the same way there’s a vocabulary to television. It was stepping into that, and making sure that the department heads that I’d brought in were really comfortable knowing that I didn’t know.
So I was very clear with them, not in a Rumsfeldian way, that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wanted to make sure they felt empowered to raise flags early and often about things that they felt were either putting too much pressure on the production, or they wouldn’t be able to accomplish.
What didn’t you know?
Well just in general, there’s a process and a mechanics to running your scene for your department heads so that they can see what are some of the adjustments that they’re going to have to make. I understand that at a cellular level in television, but I had to absorb it in film. And in TV, we’re in the same place every day, so I know where the makeup trailer is at my studio. I do not know where it is on some days when we’re in a Jordanian prison. So you don’t want to wander.
Jon and Clare Stewart, Maziar Bahari, Amir El-Masry, Claire Foy and Dimitri Leonidas at the Rosewater premiere during the 58th BFI London Film Festival on October 12, 2014
They don’t have a set makeup room.
That is correct. Generally, Jordanian prisons do not come with a makeup room.
Luckily you’ve got a lot of friends who are filmmakers. What did JJ Abrams, Kathryn Bigelow, and Ron Howard tell you that you were able to use?
They said just always look angry. They said that was the main thing, they spend a lot of time furrowing their brows in the mirror… For them, it was more a question of trying to get a sense of, is this viable? Kathryn Bigelow, who did Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker in Jordan, was really helpful on a logistical level, like “Call this guy. Or, here’s a person that could help you with locations.” But the other people were more to get a sense of, You see scripts all the time, if you got something like this, would you go, “This isn’t a movie, this is a short story?’ It was just to get a little bit of reinforcement.
JJ Abrams just announced his Star Wars title, The Force Awakens. What are your thoughts on that?
I like it very much. I like it very much. The Force Awakens, that hits me right in the Ewok. I’m excited about that.
I thought that the country had taken a progressive direction after 2012, and though minimum wage and other liberal initiatives passed on Tuesday, the Democrats got trounced in the midterm elections. Was I wrong about the big shift?
Well you know, we did a little piece in 2012, when all the pundits pronounced the death of the Republicans. And in the exact same clichéd language, they just pronounced the death of the Democrats. I think because of the way that media operates, we ride it all pretty hard, and we feel the ups and downs.
People say this is the craziest time in history, and I’m like, well, we did have a Civil War and we did drop an atomic bomb on a country and we did firebomb Dresden, and three of our greatest leaders that arose through the 60’s were killed, and then we fought a war for no reason in Vietnam. I just think it’s important sometimes to take a breath and go, “Huh, well maybe Ebola isn’t the worst thing we’ve ever faced in this country, and ISIS isn’t the X-Men, it’s not what it’s portrayed to be sometimes.”
It would be kind of cool if they were the X-Men.
It would be weird if it did turn out to be that Baghdadi pulls back the beard and you’re like, “Magneto?! How did he do it?!”
Let’s say you can make any movie on any budget. Is there a story you want to tell, a book you want to adapt, what would you do?
Wow, that’s so wide open a question I don’t even know.
I’m handing you a blank check.
I think the Bible has some wonderful stories in it, has anyone ever tapped that? Or what about an inept police academy that, even though they’re bumbling, ultimately end up capturing the bad guy.
That wouldn’t work.
Nah, you’re probably right.
Want to see Rosewater? Visit our Showtimes page to get tickets.
Photo credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images, Getty Images