TORONTO — Actors making their first stab at directing are mainstays at festivals, often never heard from again. That is not the case for Jason Bateman.
Over the weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bateman premiered his spelling bee comedy “Bad Words,” a foul-mouthed R-rated riot. Just hours after it had festivalgoers roaring with laughter, it was picked up for distribution by Focus Features, with Universal Pictures distributing internationally.
“It was exactly what I would have scripted,” Bateman said. “It was pretty surreal to see such a long dream come true.”
Bateman’s career has already undergone several evolutions, from child star to an “Arrested Development”-powered comeback. His next chapter, he hopes, will be as a director.
“I want to be able not to act,” Bateman said in an interview. “My ambition is true.”
The film, from a script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge, is about a 40-year-old man (Bateman) who enters a national spelling bee with uncertain motives for sabotaging the children’s contest. For Bateman, so often the mild-mannered straight man in the middle of chaotic stories, it’s a cathartic shift into a darker comic personality.
He plays a man on a questionable and mysterious mission, with no patience to explain himself or coddle his younger competitors. He calls one 10-year-old Indian boy (Rohan Chand) “Shawarma” and “Slumdog.” And that’s just what’s printable. In the quaint spelling bee environs, Bateman is a cruel but hilarious villain.
“Its humor is similar to mine, I somewhat cautiously reveal to you,” Bateman said. “We’ve all got different parts, and I’m fortunate that I’m friends with a lot of the different parts in me. I know each of those parts really well and I can ask them to come to the party whenever I want.”
But the part of the 44-year-old “Identity Thief” actor that most comes across is the seriousness of his directing plans.
His models, he says, are filmmakers that mix drama and comedy with an edge, like David O. Russell, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson. Of becoming an actor-director, he speaks with careerist clarity of taking “a Ben Stiller route or a Clooney route or an Affleck route.”
It’s a goal he’s harbored since he first was exposed to Hollywood by his directing and producing father, Kent Bateman.
“I never wanted to be obnoxious about jamming myself into the director chair any more than the community would truly embrace me,” Bateman said.
He and his team, he says, are “reading furiously,” pursuing his next script. He hopes to be in pre-production by February on his next directing effort.
His aim is certain: “I want to do this a lot more.”
PHOTO: Jason Bateman, left, and Rohan Chand attend Entertainment Weekly’s Toronto Must List cocktail party at the Windsor Arms Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Photo by Alexandra Wyman/Invision for Entertainment Weekly/AP Images)