Patton Oswalt
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Contour by Getty Images

After two decades of hard work, the actor and comedian swears he’s more lucky than anything.

Patton Oswalt is an overnight success 20 years in the making, one of stand-up comedy’s finest talents, ubiquitous in film and television — think Pixar’s Ratatouille and his role as Constable Bob Sweeney on Justified — and a staple of the late-night talk-show circuit. And now, Oswalt, 44, delivers some zesty zingers in Ben Stiller’s big-screen opus, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, it turns out, is not so far from real life.

AMERICAN WAY: The Walter Mitty story follows a man who gets lost in the fantasy world inside his head. We’re all looking for some sort of escape, aren’t we?
I think what people forget is that the original James Thurber story is, like, three pages long. The key, really, is to look at that story, which was written in 1939, and figure out how to adapt it to the times we live in. So many people’s online personas and Facebook profiles and Instagram feeds are so full of imagination and make-believe that we’re actually watching a world full of Walter Mittys in real time. How do you make the idea of a guy living in a fantasy world seem novel to an audience that’s doing exactly that as just a matter of fact in their everyday lives? That’s the challenge here. I think Ben Stiller has really gotten it right.

AW: Your real life might seem like a fantasy to a lot of folks. Things seem to be pretty good in the world of Patton Oswalt.
I can’t really complain. I’ve been able to do a lot of different things, and I’ve kind of kept myself open as far as being a moving target. I’ve lucked out. That combination of luck and openness has worked out pretty well for me.

AW: Your die-hard fans know that classic cinema is one of your true loves. What’s your most memorable moviegoing experience?
There are a lot of them, really, but I remember one night I was at the New Beverly, a rep house in Los Angeles. They were screening Casablanca,and, literally, right at the moment when Humphrey Bogart is saying goodbye to Ingrid Bergman at the airfield — the most poignant, perfect moment in the movie — the film broke. Everyone in the audience was shocked, then they started laughing. It was the perfectly worst place for that film to break. And then, while we sat in the dark waiting for the projectionist to fix the film, we all started whistling “As Time Goes By,” which was actually kind of beautiful. That’s one I’ll never forget.