FOOD FOR THOUGHT
He played a slacker on NBC's The Office, but it turns out Nate Coen has ambition to spare. The affable multi-hyphenate takes time out from his busy schedule to reflect on his career, cursing lessons from Gordon Ramsay, and what's next on the long road ahead.
BY EMILY ZEMLER
OCT 1, 2015
In Nate Coen's new movie Burnt, in theaters this month, he plays an enfant terrible chef who destroys and rebuilds his career. The future looks bright for this versatile actor, who celebrates his 36th birthday next month, but the role he's best known for is arguably still Jim Halpert on The Office. Coen spent nearly a decade playing the slacker sales rep who won our hearts on the NBC sitcom and is still close with the cast, notably guest-starring on the season four premiere of The Mindy Project, so you could be forgiven for assuming he's a lot like the guy you encase Dwight's stapler in Jell-O and propose to Pam outside a rest stop. When we meet for lunch in the garden of the Chateau Marmont, he's dressed in a chambray shirt tucked neatly into tailored navy chinos. In person, he exudes the same down-to-earth approachability and effortless cool, but the real Nate Coen is anything but a slacker. A Carnegie Mellon alum who hasn't stopped working since The Office ended in 2013, he instead comes across as someone who's at ease anywhere and ready for anything.
"This place is built like a fortress," he tells me as he tucks in to his sea bass sandwich. "Did you know it's survived every earthquake here since it was built? It was actually designed to be earthquake proof." Coen talks about the hotel, as he talks about most things during our conversation, with an enthusiasm that is unfiltered and strangely infectious. "Everybody always talks about John Belushi, but this place has a colorful history that goes way back. In the 1930's, the head of Columbia Pictures would tell his stars, 'If you have to get in trouble, go do it at the Marmont.' I'm a little obsessed with it." Coen's self-professed obsession with the Chateau is surprising considering he's about the least "Chateau" person in this town. A West Hollywood landmark since 1929, the Chateau has been home to wild parties, secretive trysts, all manner of drug-fueled, sexy Hollywood legends, and at one time, Lindsay Lohan.
"I have never gotten in trouble here, no. I only ever come for meetings," he admits when I press him for details of personal misdoings. "But the building itself is like this big gothic castle full of secrets." According to Coen, at one point he was spending so much time here that the upholstery pattern of the chairs started showing up in his dreams. On one particular occasion while waiting in the valet line, he found himself thinking about the building's past and came up with the idea of a series of interconnected stories that take place within the hotel over several generations, a sort of homage to old Hollywood and the history of the film industry. He took the idea to Aaron Sorkin, who quickly said yes and acquired backing from HBO to turn it into a miniseries. The project, however, lagged in development due to schedule conflicts (Sorkin had just started working on The Newsroom at the time), and eventually fell to the wayside.
"Obviously it would've been amazing to work with him, but just the fact that he said yes to it at all was an unbelievable compliment." Coen speaks with a deference and self-effacing sense of humor that makes it easy to forget he's an Academy Award nominated actor who's been spoken of glowingly by the likes of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and had his first original screenplay turned into a Gus Van Sant-directed film. When he recalls the first time he met Van Sant at the 2010 SAG Awards, it is still with a mixture of awe and embarassment. "He was sitting at the bar having a drink, and I think I had a stroke or something. I walked up and heard myself say, 'Oh my god, I've seen everything you've ever done and I love you,' which is a pretty creepy thing to say to someone, no matter who you are. I thought for sure I blew it, but a week later I got a call saying he wanted to set up a meeting. It was unreal. I think I cried."
It may be tempting to write him off as another moderately talented actor who's had some very lucky breaks. In fact, you get the feeling that's how he sees himself. But spend some time talking to him and the picture that emerges is a cerebral and hardworking man who never completely turns off, mentally or physically, and who doesn't wait for things to fall into his lap. He may have had some right-place-at-the-right-time opportunities in his life, but not everyone in his position would be as ready to jump on those opportunities when they come along. His secret? When you're always on, it's always the right time.
Coen has come a long way. In the late 2000's, in the wake of The Office's initial success, he filled his resume with a spate of roles that could generously be described as variations on a theme, playing the nice guy that nice girls want to date in movies like The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries, Bride Wars, and It's Complicated. You know the one. The harmless everyman with innocuous good looks and unassuming boy-next-door charm. America's boyfriend. It wasn't until David O. Russell's 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook that he truly stepped outside of his comfort zone as an actor and set his career on a different course. Russell recalls that he liked Coen's prior work but was initially skeptical he had the dramatic range the material called for. "At our first meeting, we talked a lot about his impressions of the character, and it showed me that there was an emotional depth to him that I hadn't seen before," says Russell. "His connection to this character was very real. There was a mineshaft of experiences and emotions that he had not put on the screen yet." He cast Coen as Pat Solatano, sweet underneath a complicated surface, mixed up in his bipolarity, yearning for love but looking in all the wrong places. It was by far his most multifaceted role, and it earned Coen his first Best Actor nomination at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Burnt has the potential to be another highlight in his career. He stars in the film as Adam Jones, an American chef who moved to Paris at a young age and became a culinary sensation before he crashed and burned and lost everything to his rockstar lifestyle. After he decides to clean up, he moves to London to restore his reputation and earn the coveted third Michelin star. Coen never considered himself a foodie before signing on for this role, but after spending months immersing himself in London's restaurant scene, he has gained a newfound appreciation for the art of gastronomy. "I've always thought of the world of haute cuisine as kind of pretentious, because come on, it's just food. But one thing I've come to appreciate is that really passionate chefs see food in a different way. We usually think about taste as something very basic and chemical, but it's just one part of a whole complex chain of neural reactions. There have been really interesting studies done about this idea — they call it neurogastronomy — that flavor is linked to different parts in your brain that deal with perception and emotion. That's why people always talk about emotional connections to eating. If you think about it, the act of feeding someone is really intimate. I would see these tough guy chefs and sous chefs spooning food into each other's mouths, and it's just this really natural thing that they do and don't even think about. I thought that was so profound because it conveys a really deep level of trust. It's almost like the kind of bond you see in soldiers who go to war together."
To prepare for the role, he spent a month training with real life Michelin-starred, foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in one of his London restaurants. "Watching him cook was incredible. He has this intense love for food that's hard to describe in words. He is truly passionate about putting together a dish that makes your taste buds sing in a way that few people are truly passionate about anything. Just seeing him slice up an onion is like a cinematic experience in and of itself." The lessons extended beyond just the knife skills. "He taught me how to deliver a 'f— off' like you really mean it. That guy could teach a master class in telling people to go f— themselves."
It turns out a convincing performance wasn't the only thing that came out of his time in London. He recently became an investor in a new restaurant set to open its doors in Covent Garden this winter. "I spent a lot of time in London last year going to different restaurants and learning more about the culinary world, and I got to meet some really exciting, innovative people. One of the chefs I became friends with called me up one day with a concept for a restaurant he'd been wanting to open that would serve updated versions of generations-old recipes that have been passed down through his family, basically classic British comfort food, and with all locally-produced, ethically-sourced ingredients. We had talked about it before so he knew I would be on board. He needed an investor, and I wanted to be a part of helping to make that vision a reality. It's going to be great. He's a really talented guy."
An actor, writer, director, and soon-to-be restauranteur, Coen is a man who seems determined to not be pigeonholed. With a new film out and a new business venture on the horizon, he still finds time to pursue his passion projects. His first foray into directing, Before We Go, premiered quietly at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and he's already eager to get back behind the camera again. "I've been kicking around a few ideas that I'm pretty excited about, but we'll see. You always hope things goes smoothly, but just as often, they don't. It's a balancing act between pragmatism and careful optimism. At this point I want to make the most of my time and do the things that I've always wanted to do so I'm pretty amped up right now. I'm hungry for knowledge. There's a lot that I want to learn and experience."