Anthony Breznican
March 28, 2014 AT 05:22 PM EDT


That pretty much spells out Jason Bateman’s savagely sinister directorial debut, Bad Words, which features him as a man determined to destroy a national children’s spelling bee by exploiting a loophole that will allow him to compete against the little geniuses.

The film opens nationwide today, and Bateman talked to Entertainment Weekly about his decades-long desire to direct a movie, being very nasty to smarty-pants little kids, and the little boy who got it the worst.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You play a brilliant but angry guy in this. Despite being incredibly intelligent, he’s also kind of a loser. Is that why he wants the world — at least in regard to this spelling bee — to burn?

JASON BATEMAN: This guy’s a bit of a misanthrope. He hasn’t had an easy path. When we first meet him, he’s not your typical up-and-peppy character. And what he’s up to here is not what one would assume. It’s a dark comedy about a spelling bee, and it sounds like this guy is pulling a prank. That’s what everyone in the movie thinks as well, but you realize he’s on much more of a cathartic evening-of-the-scales mission.

Everybody in the movie hates him. Do you want the audience rooting for him or against him?

Hopefully by that point you empathize with this character. It’s certainly not just another spelling bee movie. God knows we don’t need another one of those. It’s basically a venue for him to exact some revenge. Still, he comes out — somewhat — on the redemptive side of this thing.

I wouldn’t say the movie goes soft, but it does go a bit deeper than expected.

I was able to find the humor of this film through something a little more human, and wounded and darker than some broad, high-concept comedy. This is really much more in keeping with the kind of comedy films that I like, films that very easily can be dramatic on one page or comedic on the next page, or on the same page – sometimes in the same line.

How long have you been nursing a desire to direct a feature film?

A very long time. Probably 25 years.

Wow. That is a long time.

You just sort of wait for the right time, you wait for an opportunity, you wait for ability. All the while your taste is changing. This just finally happened at a time when my ambition met the requirements of the homework and work ethic. A lot of people are relying on your work and guidance and clarity, and ability to articulate. I didn’t want to do it at any time before I was able to step up, and live up to the job.

You directed the “Afternoon Delight” episode of Arrested Development, and a handful of other TV shows. But your first directing credits were in the late ‘80s on Valerie, when you were just a kid actor on that show.

I think I was 18, and I’m not sure if it still stands, but at the time I was the youngest ever admitted to the [Directors Guild of America] That was kind of a cool phone call to get that week from the guild. I think I was ahead of Malcolm Jamal Warner by a few months and Steven Spielberg by a few more months. It was a weird kind of grouping. It was a nice thing to do, and directing television was sneaky-tough.

That’s just two years older than you need to be to drive a car. Did you know what you were doing, or were you fronting like crazy?

I was very happy that it was comfortable as it was. A lot of that directing feels like directing a play. I knew what I was doing only because I’d been doing it so long. At that point, I’d been [acting] for eight years already. And I was surrounded by a crew who had been at it a few years on that show. I was very, very well taken care of.

You work with a lot of kids in Bad Words. Did your experience as a child actor come in handy while directing them?

It was very helpful to have all my experiences as a kid actor under my belt. I just remember what it was like when directors were working with me, and how some of them just assumed you’re super young and can’t really understand X, Y, or Z. But I always appreciated when I was talked to like an adult actor, and was given the responsibility a director would give them.

You face down one particular pint-sized scene stealer …

There were quite a few kids when we got into some of the spelling bee scenes, but there’s only one kid in particular who had a lot to do. He’s a 9-year-old actor named Rohan Chand [now 10, best known as Issa, the terrorist’s son from Homeland], and he is just a great little guy, and a real good actor. He and I have quite a number of scenes together, just the two of us.

Your character is extremely harsh toward him, so how do you avoid actually scarring him for life? Or did you?

I was of course very gentle with him, but I treated him with the respect I would give any of the adult actors, and it was really fun. It’s weird for a kid to pretend to be somebody different. All you’re really trying to do as a kid is figure out who you are. Acting can be kind of a head-trip for a kid. I was happy to be there with him and for him as he tried to figure out how to pretend to be somebody else.

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