If you were a fan of the American version of The Office, Paul Lieberstein’s already a familiar face thanks to his role as the mild-mannered Toby, Dunder-Mifflin’s HR representative and Michael Scott nemesis. Behind the scenes, however, Lieberstein was also a major participant in the development and longevity of the show, starting as one of the writers and producers, and eventually taking on the role of showrunner and frequent director. All this after cutting his teeth as a writer for shows such as King of the Hill, Drew Carey, and Bernie Mac. All this, while Lieberstein was dealing with chronic back and neck pain…caused by a questionable decision to suffer in silence.
That silence refers to more than two decades of NEVER showing anger. According to Lieberstein, he didn’t start showing anger until over the age of 40. Before then he had developed and lived by the philosophy, one he now admits was “a bit misguided”, that no one wants to be around someone whose angry all the time…so don’t get angry. “I had this philosophy, something I came up with, that no one wants to be around an angry person…so I never allowed myself to get angry. I think of that now and can’t believe I thought that would be a good idea.” Laughing at the thought today, he’s not even sure when or how he made that decision, as his siblings didn’t share a similar hang-up. And it became a true affliction when he developed constant, agonizing pain in his back and neck. Believing for years it was a physical ailment, he claims to have tried everything to try to find relief from the pain, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until his wife gave him the self-help book Healing Back Pain, that he found relief (within days of doing the steps) …and discovered years of pain had been caused by decades of suppressing his anger.
Amazed by the idea that such severe pain could have been 100% psychological, I was curious exactly how a person can go so long without expressing one of our basic human emotions. During a phone interview, I pressed further to determine how far Lieberstein tried to keep anger at bay. Was it about not letting his anger show externally or actually trying to block the emotion from himself? Giggling at the question, Lieberstein explains “well, I definitely tried not to show anger, but I think I was consciously trying to deny myself even the emotion. I don’t know if that really worked, I think people could tell when I was upset, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself. And cutting off one emotion has an impact on how you experience your other emotions.”
Being in the creative field, I was asked how this emotional compartmentalizing effected his writing career. After all, fellow The Office writer BJ Novak once described him as “the darkest of the writers” on staff. Somewhat surprised by the question, he admitted “I’m sure it did have an impact on how and what I wrote. But I think it was more noticeable that I made issues at work really personal. I’d get notes, or something would be changed in a script I wrote, and I’d take it far more personally than I should have.” Oddly, if Lieberstein had a darker streak during The Office, it’s not on display in his far more personal film Song of Back and Neck, a semi-autobiographical film that he wrote, directed, and produced and stars in.
Not only is it a very funny, effective romantic-comedy (co-starring Rosemarie DeWitt in one of her best performances), but is an unexpected mix of satire, absurdity, and philosophy. Lieberstein plays Fred, a paralegal whose spent the majority of his life working at the law firm his father owns (despite his general distaste for the whole thing), divorced, and suffering from back pain that begins the moment he steps out of bed. Starting an affair with a woman on the verge of a divorce (DeWitt) who renews his life, and suggests he buy into the mind-body connection by seeing an acupuncturist. But needles in a body with that much repression causes such intense vibrations, every acupuncture session becomes a musical interlude in which his body emits a beautiful, yet deeply sad tone.
It’s a strange idea to make something as “average” as back pain into a surrealist comedy, but Lieberstein wisely argues his storytelling technique was the only way to make this story of a man suffering palatable. “Nobody wants to watch a movie about a guy in pain” says Lieberstein “that would just be unpleasant for an audience. The love story adds something sweet to the story and grounds it. The music in those acupuncture scenes is absurd and funny, but there’s also something beautiful about that sadness. And that has its own honesty, there is something beautiful and moving about sadness and we shouldn’t feel the need to shy away from it.”
As for the casting of Song of Back and Neck, he selected DeWitt, an actress he’d long admired for her often-underused comic abilities and sense of grounding she naturally brings to every role. Theater and film actor Brian d’Arcy James (Spotlight) plays her absent husband, and Office alumni Clark Duke plays yet another Lieberstein nemesis, the new partner in his father’s law firm who like Michael Scott, seems to irrationally hate him. One other Office alumni joined the cast, frequent series director Paul Feig, taking a break from his many directing and producing gigs to return to his first love, acting. Lieberstein claims it took very little convincing to get the Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters director on board, claiming “Paul likes to act and he’s good at it, but he’s not asked to do it as often because he’s always busy. So I just asked and he said he thought it would be fun.” In it, Feig plays the typical bad doctor, offering no medical advice regarding the trifecta of pain (his words) Fred’s experiencing. Regarding that character, Lieberstein admits “I’ve seen more frustrating doctors than that character. He’s pretty realistic actually.”
Of course, the film largely hinges of Lieberstein’s performance and his ability to create a passive character with an honest and satisfying arc in a rather brief running time. For a writer turned actor who was originally somewhat resistant to working in front of the camera, Lieberstein came to enjoy working on camera thanks to the master class that was The Office. “At first, it’s just observing really talented people like Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson, and then you start to work with them and I came to enjoy playing off great actors.” It helped because Lieberstein’s film is “loosely inspired” by his real-life, playing the lead meant “I didn’t have to give another actor notes about an experience I went through.”
But on his next film, he implied he might not be taking the lead. He has more film ideas in the pipeline, but don’t expect him to completely walk away from TV. Lieberstein still likes and wants to work in TV (since The Office he’s been showrunner for the final season of The Newsroom and Ghosted,) but sees the value of having the two mediums at his creative disposal. “I really enjoyed making a movie. I won’t be stepping away from television permanently to make movies, but I think some stories can be told better in a film than in a television series and I want to make both.”