One of triple threat actor, writer, and producer Don Lake’s most enduring qualities is his ability to nurture interpersonal connection, both behind and in front of the camera. He’s certainly proven his multi-hyphenate chops: Lake and frequent writing partner Bonnie Hunt co-penned the coda to the 1990s romantic comedy boom Return to Me. He also served as the co-creator and executive producer of the acclaimed 2002-2004 series Life with Bonnie—and now he’s stealing some of the best lines from the soon-to-be-released second season of the Netflix series Space Force.
A talent for dissecting human relationships in the pursuit of thoughtful character arcs lends directly to his acting style. Lake’s on-screen turns are informed by his training at The Second City, the Chicago-founded improv comedy troupe in which John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Steve Carrell also honed their craft. Second City auteurs famously build gags upon relationships and interactive quirks—which, come to think of it, is exactly the modus operandi of this season of Space Force.
The show’s creators Greg Daniels and Carrell use their Second City-heavy cast (Space Force‘s roster includes Carrell, plus new addition Tim Meadows, Jane Lynch, and Tawny Newsome) to build on the relationships that viewers and critics alike took to in season one. Serving as the comedic ingredient that both binds and blitzes the office’s relationships, Lake’s Brad has a much larger role this time around. Lucky us, because in this season, Lake proves he’s more than capable of carrying a series—and steals some of the new episodes’ best lines.
Ahead of Space Force’s second launch, I had a chance to speak with Lake about the acting prowess of fellow Force members, watching Con Air with John Malkovich himself, and more.
48HILLS Have you seen the new season yet?
Don Lake Yeah, we got together and watched the episodes just before Christmas. I’m so happy—what people are really picking up on is the heart this season, and how you really see the different relationships forming between the [characters]. There was definitely more time to improvise and explore scenes, and it was just a great group of people—really fun to be around, and generous.
48HILLS That focus on the character development and interpersonal relationships this season is palpable—it adds another layer to the show’s heart. Ken Kwapis brings consistency to this season in directing all seven episodes. What were your conversations like with Ken, Greg, and Steve regarding their vision for this season?
Don Lake Well, I know that Greg usually does this on his shows, and I know that Steve Carell knew that, too. Even with The Office [which Daniels produced, and in which Carrell starred] in the second year, they kind of did the same thing: “Let’s focus on the key group, and on the relationships and the camaraderie.” Now, bringing Ken Kwapis in was the icing on the cake because, like you say, to have that consistency was so tremendous. Usually, a director will come in for one or maybe two episodes, then leave. But having Ken there [throughout the season], we had that reference level of every episode, every scene, every shot. He thinks like a writer, and Ken is arguably—in my opinion—the best single-camera comedy director there is.
We had Norm Hiscock come on this year too, as a writer and co-showrunner with Greg. Norm is fantastic. He’s just a really, really sharp writer.
48HILLS This season was pitch-perfect.
DON LAKE Any conversation I had with Ken is always about exploring Brad and making him—not dense or stupid, but maybe just naive. At his heart and soul, Brad is committed 100 percent to General Naird. That’s what he does—he’s like a dog with his master, he protects him to no end. And then, of course, he’s totally inept. But we’re told that he pulled General Naird from a burning jet engine, and so ever since then, Steve will not fire [Brad]—he won’t, no matter how bad was something [he’s] done, or stupid or whatever. He will not. He’s loyal to me as I am loyal to him.
48HILLS Brad takes center stage a lot more in season two. He’s always been the glue that holds the office together. He’s even got his own Brad wisdom now when he speaks to Tony about family. I feel like Greg and Steve realized that you were the scene-stealer last season. Did they talk about wanting to make your character bigger?
DON LAKE Yeah, they did. It was a good first season, and it was like, “Oh, you see that hitting a note with people.” And then doing things like when Diana is working at the station and she’s an intern with me, they put her with me, and that was so fun because she’s so good, and she’s going to be a movie star.
48HILLS I love you going toe-to-toe with John Malkovich.
DON LAKE That was fun this year too, I got to do more stuff with Steve and with John. It felt like a little one-act play—I know it’s never that long when they cut it together in the show, but we had some good stuff to do. John’s such a funny guy, and I never expected that. He’s obviously got an incredible resume, and it’s intimidating at first, and then you get there, and he’s so fun, and he’s so good. But that’s what it was like with everyone, I swear. The comedy is all headed in the same direction, but everybody has a little bit of different approach. We all look through different glasses, and that’s what’s fun—and the diverse ages of the group. Tony’s brilliant, and her character, and so is Jimmy O. Yang.
48HILLS You’ve got some new cast members in Tim Meadows, Jon Lovitz, and Terry Crews. Does having them on the team boost your collective confidence that you’ll succeed? If we’re doing sports analogies.
DON LAKE I love sports analogies. Yeah, it’s like you’re making a good trade, and you get excited to get back out there. Tim was tremendous, and he has such a comedic presence, and did so much with a role that was so bureaucratic. But when you get to show up and play with people like that, that’s exciting. And if your day is exciting and you’re looking forward to that, it usually translates onto the screen.
48HILLS What’s also exciting is the intensifying rivalry between Naird and Mallory, with Diana’s Erin caught in the middle. And, like you say, Diana is going to be a movie star, and I couldn’t agree more. She’s super-talented, and she can go head-to-head with Malkovich and Carell, who are titans in the industry. You told me that Brad used to babysit Erin. So as her babysitter, are you team Naird, or are you team Mallory? Who has her best interest?
DON LAKE Well, I mean, I have to be team Naird, right? Brad’s character thinks of himself as Uncle Brad, and yeah, he babysat [Erin]. He used to take her bowling on her birthdays where Naird couldn’t be there. They have a little history that we created, and so that’s why in that opening scene of this season, Brad goes to General Naird and Erin and says, “I’ll take care of her if something happens to you.” And of course, Steve’s touched by it. But Erin is horrified. So, yeah, there’s a bit of a family feel to Brad and Erin. He might have taken her to school. He might have picked her up from school. But Brad is definitely on the Naird team. Respects Malkovich’s character, Mallory. But he’s definitely a Naird player when it all comes down to it.
48HILLS There are so many great moments in this season. Which one was your favorite to shoot?
DON LAKE The one that keeps rising to the surface in my head is the scene where myself and Mallory and Naird get handcuffed to the fridge, and I reach in and grab a soda from the fridge. The reason it comes to mind as my favorite is because I haven’t had a soda in five years. The madder Mallory got at me, saying all these terrible things … he’s doing all the heavy lifting in the scene, and I’m just making these drinking sounds and getting higher and higher and higher on the sugar.
The next scene I was going to shoot was with the jive parsley scene with Ben. I was higher than a kite from the sugar, and Ben was videotaping me backstage in my chair because my whole body was, in a happy way, shaking. I was flying, just flying.
48HILLS As an audience member, what is your favorite scene? For me, it was when Mallory and Chan try on the SpaceX VR goggles, and Mallory becomes unraveled. I lost it.
DON LAKE [Malkovich] has got that intensity. It was always fun hearing him scream the word “fuck.” Some people curse well, and he curses well—it’s like music. I think one of my favorite scenes is when Mallory is stuck between the two vending machines, and he’s talking to Erin. Another fun feeling is when she was interviewing to get into the college. Steve and I felt like the parents. Another favorite scene I had was with Erin and Patton Oswalt when he’s up in space. And all of the Tawny and Jimmy stuff, when you talk about relationships, that whole “are they going out?”—that’s a testament to why people like the relationships so much this season, was their great work together.
48HILLS The cast clearly has a chemistry that pours into screen.
DON LAKE We were all up [in Vancouver] together, and because of COVID, you’re very segregated. We would go out on a Saturday night and have dinner and then go back to Ben’s hotel, where they have a screening room, and we would watch movies all as a group. On and off the set, we grew closer as characters and as friends.
48HILLS You need a name for your little movie club.
DON LAKE We’d watch all these great movies from the ’80s and stuff. It was fun one night to have John Malkovich there when we watched Con Air. He was so gracious, because it can be a bit of a head journey when you’re watching [a younger version of] yourself. We kept pausing the movie to ask him, “OK, what about this? Was that moment improvised? Was that real?” Or, “Tell us about this scene, how that was to shoot?” He’d so graciously have a story for each one. And then, of course, we’d watch other movies and just heckle the crap out of [each other].
48HILLS John Malkovich doing commentary on Cyrus “The Virus” is a beautiful thing.
DON LAKE You don’t get opportunities in life that often to do things like that, right? But that was something that just brought us all closer together and hopefully, that also came out on screen.
Space Force season two will be released on Netflix Fri/18.