Josh Duhamel is turning a personal ritual into a cottage industry — and turbocharging his career in the process. More than two decades ago, he and several childhood pals started a tradition in which they’d meet once a year and engage in a series of challenges designed to test their physical and mental strength, pushing both to their limits.
That led Duhamel to co-write, produce, direct, and star in the 2019 comedy Buddy Games, which co-starred Kevin Dillon, Dax Shepard, Dan Bakkedahl, Nick Swardson, James Roday Rodriguez, and Olivia Munn. The movie didn’t exactly ignite the box office, but it has developed into something of a cult favorite over the last few years, which led to a sequel in which even more shenanigans ensue.
Buddy Games: Spring Awakening reunites most of the original cast while featuring appearances from Jensen Ackles and Ginnifer Goodwin. In addition to the sequel, Duhamel is prepping a reality competition series titled Buddy Games that will debut later this year on CBS. Not too bad for a guy who started out on the soap opera All My Children, went on to star in a long-running CBS series (Las Vegas) and a hit movie franchise (Transformers), and recently romanced Jennifer Lopez in the action-comedy Shotgun Wedding, which is now streaming on Prime Video.
Above the Line recently caught up over Zoom with Duhamel, who discussed his desire to step behind his camera and his amazement at how a yearly ritual with his friends became a brand before sharing his thoughts about the international nature of the entertainment business and dealing with disappointment.
Above the Line: Over the years you’ve directed, you’ve done motion capture for video games, and you’ve acted in movies and on TV, balancing comedy and drama. Is that wanting to try a little bit of everything? What’s driving that range?
Josh Duhamel: Just wanting to work. When I first started in this business, you had to take what they give you. As you go along in your career, you hopefully get more and more opportunities that are diversified in tone and themes. I’ve been lucky to be able to do a lot of different things. I’ve had a lot of experience on big sets, on little low-budget sets, on — like you said — some motion capture stuff, and I got a chance to direct.
Having done all these different types of things over the years, it’s helped me have some confidence as a director in knowing how to shoot something in an efficient way and get it done properly, to shoot it in a way that looks bigger than it is. The thing about this is that you have to try to make the most of what you have. You never have enough time and you never have enough money, but I’ve done this for so many years now [so] I feel like I’ve had experience [with] how to do that.
ATL: What’s the kick you actually get out of directing?
Duhamel: There were a bunch of different instances where, as an actor, I put myself out there, saw the final product, and I was like, “That’s not what we meant to do. How did it go from what was on the page and what we did on the day, to what I saw on the screen?” I wanted a little bit more creative control and a little bit more ownership over the storytelling. I wanted to be able to shape it, and that’s where I get the most satisfaction from this. It’s a giant puzzle that you have to put together, and all the magic is done in the prep, the shooting, and then the edit. You can shoot a beautiful movie, but if you don’t edit it in a way that fits the story that you’re trying to tell, it doesn’t land.
ATL: Who were the directors that you shadowed, or at least paid attention to as an actor, as you began to think about a career behind the camera?
Duhamel: I [learned] from a lot of different people I’ve just been watching for years and years. I wish I would have watched a little closer when it comes to the technical side of things, as far as cameras, lensing, and all that kind of stuff. I knew that I didn’t know everything, but I knew enough to know that I didn’t have to know everything and that I could lead by just surrounding myself with people [who] were really good. We would all work as a team to build it. Michael Bay was a great, great guy to watch because he’s such a great shooter and such a great storyteller. There are just a lot of people [who] I took different things from over the years, and that’s really where I got most of my inspiration.
ATL: Talk to me about your crew on Buddy Games: Spring Awakening. Who could you not have made this movie without?
Duhamel: That goes back to the idea that you have to surround yourself with great people.
ATL: That’s what I’m getting at. Who were your great people?
Duhamel: There’s not one department that you don’t lean on heavily, whether it’s in the prep with your art department or working closely with a writer if you haven’t written anything yourself. You need a great DP. Alex Chinnici is a guy I worked with recently [on Bandit] who was just fantastic. Shawn Seifert was my DP on this one, [and he] was fantastic, [too]. You work very closely with those guys, the camera guys, your props department, and the actors. You’ve really got to have a great rapport with your actors.
ATL: You have this movie and then the competition show version of this coming up. How crazy is it to you that something you did as a tradition with your friends has become something of a cottage industry?
Duhamel: I still can’t believe it, to be honest. It was something stupid that we’ve done for 20-25 years. Every third weekend of August, every year, we got together and we did these games. It’s evolved into a total tradition and, for the guys, it’s not so much about the games as it is the camaraderie and those lifelong friendships. As we’ve gotten older, those have become that much more valuable.
It does truly amaze me that, after having success [with] the first movie, to see that people have the same silly sense of humor that I do, [and] that I then get to do it again. Then, to sell the same [idea] to CBS in a reality competition environment is a dream come true for me. At the end of the day, I get to go have fun and do the things that I love to do — just have fun and play.
ATL: You and I last spoke for Jupiter’s Legacy. You sounded so stoked for that, and I remember you saying you were ready for a long run — if you were lucky enough to have that. Even after all your years in the business, how hard is it when something doesn’t click and doesn’t go that second, third, or fourth season that you hope you’ll get when you sign on?
Duhamel: Having done this for many years now, I’ve learned that you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. There are so many things that are out of your control. Jupiter’s Legacy did really well. It was number one internationally for weeks, but it was an expensive show. There were some production issues that we had. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the show not being good, or people not liking it [or not] watching it. It was more about the massive undertaking that it was to pull it off. I still have a bit of a sour taste in my mouth after not getting that second season. It felt like that second season would have been great, but that’s the business and you can only control so much.
ATL: The reverse of that is you posted on social media a few weeks ago about the fact that Bandit and Shotgun Wedding were #1 and #2, respectively, in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland. I’m sure when you started out, you just wanted a job in anything, and you didn’t realize your voice would be dubbed into 16 different languages all around the world.
Duhamel: You never know what’s going to hit and what’s not. I wasn’t expecting Buddy Games to do as well as it did. I was just stoked to show the world a fun romp [of a] movie that reflected what my buddies and I like. You couldn’t have predicted it. Oftentimes you think something’s going to be a big success and it’s not. Sometimes, things you don’t have [high] expectations for go on to [be] #1. Like I said, I don’t get too high or too low about this stuff. I just try to continue to show up, do the best I can, and do things that are true to me.
ATL: Which brings us to our last question… what’s next for you?
Duhamel: I’m going to do a movie in Italy. It’s a working title right now, but I’m very excited about it. I’m a guy who’s on the run and hiding outside this little village in Italy. It’s a fun thriller. Then I’m going to direct another movie after that for Paramount. I’m starting another one [as an actor] at the end of the year called London Calling, which I’m also very excited about. [That’s] with the same director that did Bandit, Allan Ungar.
Buddy Games: Spring Awakening is now playing in select theaters, and it will be released on all major VOD/digital platforms on June 2.