Jason Gray first met Jon Heder when the actor moderated a panel featuring “Studio C” cast members at the Silicon Valley Comic Con in 2016.
Meeting Heder was a landmark moment for Gray. He revered Heder after seeing “Napoleon Dynamite” as a high school senior in 2004. Gray still has a large movie poster depicting the nerdy character with curly permed hair and glasses on a bedroom wall in his parents’ home.
“I loved that movie,” Gray said. “It’s probably one of my top 10 favorite comedies of all time.”
Gray had no way of knowing at that 2016 meeting that within five years he would co-star with Heder in his first feature film, “Funny Thing About Love,” a holiday romantic comedy written and directed by Adam White. The film, which also stars former “American Idol” finalist Brooke White and “Deal or No Deal” model Summer Bellessa, opened in theaters nationwide on Dec. 3.
In Heder’s experience, comedy types can sometimes be “a bit much,” but he found Gray to be “humble, down to earth and extremely likable.” Heder thought his co-star was a little quiet at times, but genuinely appreciated the opportunity to work with him on the film.
“He’s awesome. Very professional and knows what he’s doing,” Heder said of Gray. “You would think he’s been working in the business for a long time. He really gets it.”
Gray has been in the acting business for many years, just not in movies.
He came to Brigham Young University with plans to be a dentist, but changed course when he became involved with the “Divine Comedy” troupe, which led him to become an original cast member of BYUtv’s “Studio C.” Through nine seasons, Gray used his talents to impersonate popular movie characters such as Batman, Severus Snape from “Harry Potter” and Darth Sidious, a parody based on “Star Wars,” and many others.
In 2018, Gray and other “Studio C” cast members left “Studio C” to create a new digital media network called JK! Studios. This last fall he returned to “Studio C,” which now has more than 2.5 million YouTube subscribers. Gray has another movie role that was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic that will likely resume filming in 2022. He has also been in several commercials in the past year, he said.
With the release of “Funny Thing About Love,” Gray spoke with the Deseret News about his career path, lessons and highlights of his time with “Studio C,” including the power of a good spit take, his family life and other topics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: After years of sketch comedy, what was it like to be part of your first complete feature film?
Jason Gray: I was really excited. I love doing sketch comedy, but it was fun to do something on a little bigger scale with some amazing actors. In a sketch you do something for three or four minutes, then that character goes away. But in a movie, you get to have more of an arc that’s 90 minutes and more of a journey. Working with actors like Jon Heder and Barry Corbin was a really cool experience.
DN: What was your experience like working with Heder?
JG: It was a little surreal to work with someone that I grew up kind of idolizing. It was nice that Jon’s such a laid back, chill person because sometimes they say never meet your childhood heroes. But with Jon it was cool because after we were done filming they kind of quarantined us back at the hotel — they didn’t want us leaving for safety reasons — so we spent a lot of time in our rooms. Jon and I played a lot of PlayStation and all these video games. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, if my 18-year-old self could know that in 15 years I’d be playing video games with Jon Heder in a hotel room, I’d be giving myself a high-five or I wouldn’t believe it.”
I’m trying to remember if we did any impressions? I think we did a few from “Harry Potter.” I’m a big Snape fan and Jon is really good. He can do any British or German accent. But I didn’t have the guts to do a Napoleon impersonation because I never know how that is going to go with people. Maybe as the friendship grows I will work the courage up to impersonate him in front of him.
DN: How would you summarize this movie for your best friend?
JG: I would say think Hallmark, but with more comedy than romance. My niece saw the premiere in Utah and said it’s more of a Com-Rom than a Rom-Com.
I think this movie is meant to be watched in a group. I watched it with my family over Thanksgiving and they all had a good time. It’s a great, family-friendly comedy.
DN: How did you first become involved in “Studio C”?
JG: I went to BYU to be a dentist. I was a biology major. My dad is a dentist, my brother is a dentist, my grandpa is a dentist. That was definitely the plan. That’s who my wife thought she was marrying — a dentist.
Then I got into Divine Comedy, which is a sketch group at BYU. Right before we were all graduating, Matt Meese approached BYUtv about doing “Studio C,” at least a pilot episode. I think they were cautious and didn’t have a lot of confidence that it would work because comedy on BYUtv hadn’t been attempted before. But they gave us a shot. The first season did well enough that they surprisingly renewed it for a second. “Studio C” had modest success. The big turning point for “Studio C” was definitely “Scott Sterling.” Our goal was to get a sketch with one million views. Within a month, “Scott Sterling” had close to 30 or 40 million views. Now it’s up to nearly 85 million views.
DN: How would you describe your experience with JK Studios?
JG: Overall, very positive. After doing nine seasons of “Studio C,” we were all looking for a change. We were able to do some really fun shows. We were on an NBC reality competition called “Bring the Funny” and got to meet and work with a lot of great comedians.
Probably the hardest thing, we were starting to get a lot of momentum with projects and things when COVID hit. That made it really difficult for all 10 people to rely on JK Studios full time. We didn’t have enough projects for everybody.
But I think everyone is still glad that we took the chance to do JK and I think it still has a really good chance of continuing forward.
DN: Why did you decide to return to “Studio C”?
JG: I’ve always been such a big fan of live sketch comedy, and with the pandemic we weren’t able to perform at all in front of audiences. So when the opportunity came to perform live again, especially on a show and audience that I was obviously familiar with, I couldn’t pass it up. It also helped to have a regular paycheck again.
DN: What’s one thing you learned from your years of experience at “Studio C” that has helped your acting career?
JG: The first thing that came to my mind was I do a big spit take in the movie. On “Studio C,” there were four or five sketches where I do a spit take over and over. I remember when we were filming this scene in the movie, they said, “We need you to do a spit take and hit the actor. We can do a couple takes or whatever.” I just blasted him on the first one and they were like, “Holy cow, how are you so good at spit takes?” It was a lot of practice from “Studio C.” I’m glad that weird little thing came back to help me.
But I think the biggest thing is so much experience. We started in 2012 and I’ve been in more than 700 sketches. So just having that comfort in front of the camera and working with comedians and sharpening my timing and themes. And it’s a fun playground studio. One day I’m playing Batman and the next day I’m Voldemort, then Snape or Gollum. There was so much variety and it helped me grow as a comedian, which has helped me in feature films.
DN: Speaking of your character impersonations, which one do you think fans like the most?
JG: I would say the top one is probably Batman, although I feel like everyone can do a Batman. He just sounds like a chain smoker, so it’s not that hard. I think I’m most known for Snape. I get a lot of requests to do Dobby from “Harry Potter” and Gollum from “Lord of the Rings.”
DN: As you reflect on those hundreds of “Studio C” episodes, what memories or episodes stand out?
JG: So many great memories. One of my favorite memories was going on “Conan” with the cast in 2017. I wasn’t on the show. I sat in the audience and Matt Meese and Stacey Harkey were interviewed by Conan O’Brien. It was just cool.
We were in California at a pizza restaurant and we saw him walk by. We were like, “Oh my goodness, that’s Conan.” He started walking closer and closer, and we’re like, “What’s going on here?” Then he said, “Hey, are you guys with ‘Studio C‘?” It was one of those surreal moments where he was approaching us. He asked if we could take a picture with his kids. Then he paid for our meal, which was so nice of him. Then he said, “Let me get you guys on my show.” We got on the show a few months later, so that was a very cool memory that I’ll never forget.
Favorite sketch? The Scott Sterling sketches were such, I don’t know if “Studio C” would have kept going without Scott Sterling because that was the one that put us on the map and got us more recognized outside of Utah. That was Conan’s favorite sketch. I feel like that’s how a lot of people got exposed to “Studio C,” so I’m grateful for that sketch because I think it’s why I’m still able to have a career in acting and writing.
DN: What are you like away from the cameras? Do people see you and expect you to be as funny in person as you are in a sketch?
JG: That’s funny. I was at Disneyland yesterday with a group of friends and I got stopped a few times. It is interesting because some people are like, “As soon as you say hi to Jason he will instantly put on a Batman mask and do a five-minute sketch for us.” I’m actually more of an introvert. I’m pretty shy by nature, but for whatever reason, when the camera is on I step into a different persona, I guess. I’m much more shy than people expect, but most people are gracious. They just want a picture so they don’t expect me to do a full-on routine.
DN: What are some of your hobbies and interests? What do you like to do with your family?
JG: We love to hike. Well, I should say my wife loves to hike and I go along. We have three kids and a big Bernese mountain dog that loves the mountains. We love going to the recreation center pool, Lagoon, skiing and doing outdoor things.
I love playing video games with the old “Studio C” cast members. That’s kind of how we all stay in touch, we all have a PlayStation 5 and we kill zombies together a couple of times a week.
DN: You grew up in Boise, Idaho, but graduated from BYU. Who did you cheer for when the BYU football team played Boise State earlier this season? (Note: Boise State won, 26-17)
JG: I am a Boise State fan, although this year I was definitely cheering for BYU. I usually cheer for whomever the game means more. Boise State’s season was already shot. So I wanted BYU to win because they had a lot to play for, and of course, that’s when Boise State beats them. That one hurt. I know BYU’s quarterback was injured, but they still should have beat Boise State this year.