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We all love a good Hollywood success story: The struggling young actor who takes any part and every waiter job he can get to pay the bills until finally it happens—the Breakout. The long-sought role that confers household-name status, ensures a future in the business, and defines him as an artist. Adam Scott probably would’ve been fine with that version, but life, as it does, took him down a decidedly different path to success. As a young actor, Scott cobbled together various and sundry jobs, episodic TV appearances (Boy Meets World, ER, Party of Five), and not-destined-for-Sundance movies to keep things going until finally… Well, suffice it to say some breakouts can sneak up on you so slowly as to be indiscernible to the naked eye.
By the time Step Brothers and Parks and Recreation rolled around, he was one of the more recognizable faces on screen. But if one singular role never came along to define him, sheer numbers did the job, and he has proven himself to be an incredibly versatile actor in the process.
Scott is the son of two teachers, but a trifecta of movies aimed squarely at his adolescence—Lost Boys, Stand By Me, Dead Poet’s Society—was all he needed to be convinced he wanted to act. It was an ambition he held close to his chest in high school to avoid the dreaded “drama geek” label, until he graduated and entered L.A.’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
His plan was to be Ethan Hawke, something he laughs about now, as he does at his tie-dye-and-earring wardrobe phase (hey man, he liked The Dead), donning a fake penis for The Overnight, and loving every bloody moment of making the 2010 gorefest Piranha 3-D. Odd, then, that he’s never considered himself funny. If he’s overlooked that axiom about the funniest people being those who can laugh at themselves, maybe he’d agree that at the very least, they demonstrate an innate sympathy for characters they play, regardless of their absurdity or jerkiness.
Patiently toiling along in guest spots and film shorts, he took a big leap up the comedy ladder in 2008, playing the successful but sulfurous younger brother Derek in Step Brothers. It was intimidating, but a chance to hone his improv chops in the company of comic geniuses Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. After that, things started to pick up steam. In 2009, basically screwing around in a friend’s backyard, he wound up making the pilot for Party Down, which became a cult classic, with Scott playing the role of an ex-actor caterer who’s one big commercial sunk his career down the Pigeonhole of No Return. A year and two audition attempts later, Scott landed the role of the earnest accountant Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation and wound up staying for the rest of its run.
Though the comedies kept coming (Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Bachelorette, A.C.O.D.), the business did a rare thing: it lifted the yellow do-not-cross tape and invited him over to less overt films that demanded more shaded performances, including his critically acclaimed turn as a bitter construction worker with serious case of misogyny in The Vicious Kind. As Caleb Sinclaire, he wasn’t goofy, adorably square or dimwitted. Instead, per a review in The New York Times, he was “…a flailing, emoting bundle of contradictions whom Mr. Scott [made] eminently watchable.”
In 2015, he joined Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon and Benedict Cumberbatch in the ensemble cast of Black Mass, the American biographical crime drama that followed the career of the infamous Irish-American mobster Whitey Bulger. A quick scan of upcoming projects shows no end to the tape-crossing. First up is this fall’s My Blind Brother, in which he walks the fine line of portraying a rather unlikable disabled person. There’s Netflix’s The Most Hated Woman in America, based on a true story about an atheist’s fight to overturn prayer in public schools, and his X-Files spoof Ghosted with The Office alum Craig Robinson. He recently signed on to star with Zoey Deutch and Kathryn Hahn in the coming-of-age feature Flower, and for good measure, he’s optioned Chuck Klosterman’s novel Downtown Owl.
He’s a humble guy, and talking to him, you get the feeling that despite the expanded profile, he’d still get a kick out of being Phillip the Coffee Boy or doing Krampus 6. Maybe the real Hollywood story here is that if you love what you do, and keep at it, you eventually get really good at it. Scott has said he’s happy his more recent roles are characters that show you can still evolve as an adult. In Scott’s case, they’ve more than proven you can evolve as an actor as well. And the more gradually, the better, since, as Scott says, your best work is always right around the corner.