Television

arts

Manchester-by-the-Sea native follows charmed path to stardom

Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon in “Ben and Kate” on Fox.
Beth Dubber/FOX
Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon in “Ben and Kate” on Fox.

BEVERLY HILLS — If you ever question whether a single decision can alter the course of your life, take a look at the case of Nat Faxon.

During his junior year of college in the mid-’90s, the actor/writer was supposed to go abroad to perform with a puppet theater in Bali. When that fell through, Faxon scrambled for a backup plan and ended up spending his time “abroad” at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., doing an independent study about taking classes with the famed Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings.

That independent study was one of a pattern of self-starting maneuvers that would eventually lead to three of the biggest moments of Faxon’s banner 2012.

Rick Friedman for The New York Times
“It’s not often that a guy like me gets to play the lead role in a TV show,” says Faxon. “Usually I am the fifth roommate who comes in and says, ‘Who burned my toast?’ ”
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Earlier this year, the Manchester-by-the-Sea native stood onstage at the Kodak Theatre with Alexander Payne and his longtime writing partner and fellow former Groundling Jim Rash to accept the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “The Descendants.” This summer he made his debut as a feature film director on the indie “The Way, Way Back,” from a script by himself and co-director Rash, and shot here on the South Shore. And on Tuesday, the new Fox sitcom in which Faxon stars as half of the titular duo “Ben and Kate” will premiere at 8:30 p.m.

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“It’s crazy, right?” he asks, still incredulous that he — “that guy from ‘Beerfest’ ” — has an Oscar, directed a movie, and is about to star in one of the few buzzed-about shows of the new fall season.

The series chronicles the misadventures that occur when a single mom welcomes her lovable doofus of a brother home to help care for her daughter. Faxon is that lovable doofus.

“It’s a role that I embrace,” the genially playful actor says with a chuckle.

Chatting at a hotel bar during one of his brief breaks at the recent Television Critics Association press tour, Faxon says that Ben Fox — a guy who always has a plan, and who, despite the holes in his plans, reliably lands on his feet and in everyone’s good graces — “is a role that’s not too far from myself.”

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And, he freely admits, a role he has previously played in different iterations.

“I think a lot of that started from ‘Grosse Pointe,’ ” he says of the short-lived but beloved early-’00s “Beverly Hills, 90210” spoof from Darren Star. “They gave me a tiny little thing and allowed me to run with the lovable idiot, and it sort of kept going and blossomed into a series regular and I started my path.”

It was a circuitous path that began even before his independent study.

Faxon performed frequently during his high school years at the Holderness School in Plymouth, N.H. When he went to Hamilton College, he and four friends started the school’s first comedy troupe, Bobby Peru, named for Willem Dafoe’s character in “Wild at Heart.”

“Our only other choice was to join an a cappella group, and I don’t think either of us could sing,” says Faxon’s former classmate and fellow Bobby Peru member Marc Campbell with a laugh.

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Campbell, who cofounded M.i.’s West Side Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, Calif., says Faxon was motivated from the start. “I remember getting up to the first show and it had never been done at our school and I had cold feet. I was talking to him about calling it off. We didn’t know if anybody would show up. He said, ‘Look, let’s just do it.’ I think of that as one of those bifurcation moments in life. If we had bailed, it certainly would’ve made a big difference in my life.”

After graduation, Faxon returned to the Groundlings — working his way up in the era that included folks like Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, and Cheryl Hines — and eventually started to land small roles in film and episodic television, like the aforementioned “Beerfest,” shows like “Mad Men” and “NCIS,” and voice-over work on the Fox sitcoms “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show.”

“It’s been a long road in terms of getting to the next step, acting-wise. That’s why I’m so happy to be in the position that I am now with ‘Ben and Kate,’ because it’s not often that a guy like me gets to play the lead role in a TV show. Usually I am the fifth roommate who comes in and says, ‘Who burned my toast?’” he says with a laugh. “It’s been such a delight to be the lead, and not in the most common way of the handsome guy who’s the romantic interest for the girl. It’s nice to be the offbeat kind of goofy and quirky guy.”

All the while he was looking for acting work, Faxon and Rash were writing away knowing that, like the Bobby Peru troupe, you have to create your own opportunities.

“It’s born out of coming to LA, and it’s like a huge game and nobody really teaches you the rules,” he says. “You sit around waiting for something to happen for a little bit and then you realize nothing’s going to happen.”

One thing that does happen is waiting. And while they waited, Faxon and Rash wrote “The Way, Way Back.” That got good industry feedback, which led to their gig on “The Descendants,” which led to the Oscar, which led to the pair finally being able to make “The Way, Way Back,” a coming-of-age tale based, in part, on events in Rash’s life, and starring Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell.

“It’s a labor of love, and the Oscar has enabled us to get the momentum to get the movie made and to be able to direct, so I think the reward from the Oscar means more creatively than it does financially,” or in street-level facial recognition, he says.

But that could change if “Ben and Kate” becomes a hit. Faxon’s friends hope it does, given how tailor-made the part seems for him — even though he’s actually playing a character based on “Ben and Kate” creator Dana Fox’s brother Ben.

“It fits all the wonderful things Nat can play and also builds off his best comedic talents. I’ve always thought he has a way of playing characters as very grounded and real,” says Rash, who plays the zany Dean Pelton on “Community.” (Rash is in his car on the phone just as a bus passes with Faxon’s face on the side and he jokes, “I don’t know if I’ve seen him in my life personally as much as I have seen him now on buses.”)

Rash believes Faxon shares his character’s ability to narrowly avoid a scrape with aw-shucks charm. “I have so many stories,” says Rash with a laugh, recounting an important business conference call to which both were late. Rash says he was chastised for his tardiness, but when Faxon came to the phone minutes later with no real excuse, “They all go, ‘Ahh, classic Nat!’ The best thing about him is he wears that very well, and I feel like that’s the Ben character.”

“I was a big booster because I believe he’s one of the funniest guys in the world. For years I’ve called him in to be hilarious in one to two scenes of a movie or TV show, and I’m not the only one,” says “Ben and Kate” executive producer Jake Kasdan, who has used Faxon in many of his films, including “Bad Teacher” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

The Oscar, which Faxon won within days of signing on to “Ben and Kate,” was merely icing, says Kasdan. “I think the fact that he was on the tip of everyone’s tongue made him a little more exciting to [Fox executives] in the moment. But he earned that role by being hilarious auditioning for it, and everybody involved could see that he was clearly the guy.” (Faxon is not writing on the show and says he feels no need as he’s in good hands.)

Faxon hopes for the best but continues to keep writing on the side, working on a family dysfunction comedy with Rash, developing other ideas, and occasionally flashing on the fact that he has an Oscar.

“It’s still so surreal to me, the whole experience,” he says. “People remind you of it and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right! That was awesome!’ No part of me has changed personality-wise as a result of it. It’s just a really cool thing that we were a part of that has now allowed us to take more steps towards things we really want to do.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.