Spinning Platters Interview: Judy Greer on “The Descendants”

by Jason LeRoy on November 18, 2011

Judy Greer with Matthew Lillard in THE DESCENDANTS

The Descendants is a very strong contender for the best film of 2011. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) from a script he co-wrote with Jim Rash (Dean Pelton from Community) and Nat Faxon, it tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii lawyer whose life is turned upside down after his wife is left comatose following a jet-skiing accident. He attempts to rally their daughters, troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley in a revelatory performance) and tween Scottie (Amara King), but is devastated when Alexandra spitefully informs him their mother was having an affair. As his wife’s condition continues to deteriorate, Matt and his daughters embark on a journey of emotional discovery that eventually leads to Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, in a surprisingly potent dramatic performance), the other man. It also leads to his wife, Julie, who is played by Judy Greer.

This is my favorite kind of movie: deeply felt and finely observed, genuine and true, subtle and nuanced, smart and complex, very funny without being too broad, profoundly moving without being manipulative. Its cast, which also includes Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and Rob Huebel, is phenomenal, from those with the most screen time (Clooney continues to get more interesting as an actor with each passing year) to those with the least – such as our interview subject today, noted scene-stealer Judy Greer. While Greer doesn’t show up until well into the film’s second half and has just a few minutes of screen time, it is a pitch-perfect performance that reveals exciting new dimensions of her talent. In A.O. Scott’s rave New York Times review of the film, he singled Greer out for praise, noting, “As the wife of Elizabeth’s lover, Judy Greer, in just a few scenes, slices to the heart of the movie’s marital crisis.”

Since her breakout performance in Darren Stein’s 1999 cult classic Jawbreaker, opposite Rose McGowan and Julie Benz, Greer has appeared in a remarkably diverse collection of projects, but is best-known for two things: mastering the art of playing sassy best friends or similarly sassy supporting characters in romantic comedies such as What Women Want, The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30, and 27 Dresses; and, most immortally, for her strikingly weird performance as the narcissistic exhibitionist secretary Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development. In case you’ve forgotten her legacy:

She is also the voice of Cheryl on FX’s animated cult hit Archer, on which she reunites with fellow Arrested Development MVP Jessica Walter. But now, with her beautifully played turn in The Descendants, she is poised to begin an exciting new chapter in her career. She recently sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss always playing supporting parts, the origin of her work on Arrested Development, the kind of role she’d like to play in an action movie, and the frequency with which people lift up their shirts at her.

What drew you to the character of Julie Speer?

I would have played any character in an Alexander Payne movie. I was happy that this was a good one, and that for such a short amount of screen time, I got to do so much. It was so well-rounded and really had that great journey. That is so rare, and I would know because I play a lot of supporting characters. Well, I play all supporting characters. [laughs] It’s hard to have a role that size be that compelling. I did all of my movie scenes for my audition. I prepared a lot for that audition. And when it was time to go to work, I asked Alexander what he wanted me to do or think about or how to prepare, and he said, “Just so what you did in your audition.” So it was kinda easy.

I don’t understand [my final] scene at the end in the hospital. Like, I still don’t, which is what I like about it. I think if that was a play and I did that scene every day, then it would be different every day. There’s so many layers to it, and it’s really sad and disturbing, and I think what she really wants to do – I think if you find out your husband’s cheating on you, you want the woman to fucking die, and then you go and she’s fucking dying, and that feels horrible, and you see her children [Greer chokes up], and you have children, and you don’t want your kids to lose their father although you kinda want him to die too, but not really. There’s so many layers to it, you know?

What do you think will surprise viewers the most about this movie?

I think people will love seeing George play this role. It’s a role where I think his fans will connect with him in a way that they haven’t before, because they’ve never really seen him play a father, a struggling man, someone who’s been cheated on. He plays these really strong, cool, sexy characters all the time, and this is a really vulnerable role for him. So I think that will be surprising for audiences. And what I’ve noticed from doing lots of Q&A’s in LA is people are saying that they’re crying, but then they’re laughing at something, and they don’t know how that’s possible. Like how during some scenes they can be laughing so hard, and then crying again. They’re not used to that.

They’ve never seen Steel Magnolias?

[laughs] Obviously! I love that movie.

You worked with George early in your career on Three Kings, and this is 11, 12 years later…

I know! We’re like, “We’re so old!”

What was the reunion like?

Awesome. I’ve seen George out and about over the years. We’ve always been friendly. We didn’t, like, stay in touch or anything, but I’ve run into him at different events. One of his best friends is Richard Kind, and Richard and I did a play together a handful of years, so then George came to the play. It was really nice to see him again, and there’s this sense – I haven’t experienced it yet, but I’ll probably start because I’ve been doing this for 14 years now – you work with someone in the beginning of their career, and then you see them still acting. It’s nice! It’s cool.

I felt that from him. He didn’t say that, but I felt that he was like, “You’re doing it! You’re working a lot, you’re still here.” So many people drop away. And truthfully, I was so nervous to work with Alexander that had I also been nervous to work with George Clooney, I don’t know how I would have handled myself on set. I would have been a basketcase. To be on set for a movie with Alexander Payne was like an all-time high for me. Like, I had to make an all-new list of goals for my career. “I guess I’ll just try to make like a gazillion dollars now.” [laughs] Just kidding. There’s nothing left, I just wanted to work with him!

As you mentioned, you tend to play characters that don’t have a lot of screen time, but they’re always important. Like on Arrested Development, you could expose the Bluths. In Adaptation, you’re part of Charlie Kaufman’s sexual awakening…

Yeah! [giggles awkwardly] Creepy…

How you do make sure to stress your role and assert your character in a limited time frame?

I think the examples you gave are all incredibly well-written and well-directed, and I just think of it as not really my job to stand out. I think it’s my job to be part of the story that I’m telling. I was lucky enough to work with Spike Jonze on Adaptation, and Lance Acord, who shot that movie and painted such a beautiful picture. So I’m just lucky to be involved with something like that.

Arrested Development, that was a one-scene role that I did before the show was on the air, and then they just kept bringing me back and bringing me back and bringing me back. My manager and agent were like, “Oh, there’s this new show, it’s not on yet, it’s still shooting. You’d play this weird wacky secretary.” I literally went to work for one day. My bags were all packed because I was going to Pennsylvania for three months to shoot The Village. So they were like, “Well, you can shoot it, but they have to let you out of work at 5pm. We’ll just put you on a red-eye to the east coast.” So I was like, “Oh, okay,” and I just went and did this weird scene where I was like, “Glasses on, hair up.” I did all that, and I had on like a sweatsuit, and I got in the car that took me to the airport, and I [would have] never thought about it again. And then they were like, “They want you to do that character again.” And I was like, “Oh? Well, okay.” I was lucky to have some great material to work with, but I’ll take the compliment. [laughs]

I don’t like to go into a job thinking how I can stand out, because when you do that – I think I’ve seen it in acting classes – when you try to steal focus, you just end up looking like an asshole. You have to just put yourself with good people. People try to do scenes with the worst actor in class because they think it makes them look better, but it just makes them look worse. You want to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood. You want to be the worst actor in the scene with the greatest actor, and you’ll be raising yourself in that way. So I’ve been lucky to do that, not even really by choice, just by luck. Because I audition for everything, so when I get cast in stuff, it’s just great.

So I have a local interest question…

Okay! I love San Francisco!

Peaches Christ lovingly suggested that I ask why you passed on the lead role in her horror movie, All About Evil, because she and I both think you would have been wonderful in that role!

I think so too! I turned it down because I had another job that paid a lot of money and I needed it! I’m not that much of an artist! I needed money so bad, and I got this other job and was like, “Ahhh!” [laughs] I love Natasha [Lyonne, who took the role], though. I’m a huge fan. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I kept asking, I was like, “Who are they getting for the movie, who are they getting for the movie?” Because I couldn’t do it, and I was like, “I hope it’s someone awesome!” So that’s my answer. Sorry!

You’ve done The Village and Cursed. What draws you toward a horror movie or any kind of genre project like that?

Wes Craven was a draw. M. Night Shyamalan was a draw. Sigourney Weaver in The Village was a draw. I mean, Ripley is like the greatest character ever. Those things were a draw. And I was like, “Well, I gotta do a horror movie, because if you’re an actress you have to be in a horror movie.” And if you’re going to be in a horror movie, you have to do it with Wes Craven if you get the opportunity, right? So that was why I wanted to do that one. And that ended up being kind of crazy and a really intense experience. But I like to do horror movies. I would like to do another one. There’s some really cool directors in other countries who are making some really creepy shit that would be fun to do, especially if it shot in another country. But I’ve never done an action movie. I really wanna do an action movie!

What kind of role would you like to play in an action movie?

I would like to be Matt Damon’s love interest in a Jason Bourne movie. [laughs] But I don’t think he’s doing the next Bourne, I think someone else is [ed. note: it’s Jeremy Renner]. When I saw the second one, The Bourne Supremacy, and I saw Julia Stiles in it, I was like, “Ooh, I could do that!” Because she’s not your typical action girl. And I’m obviously not going to be, like, your undercover agent…

Why not? You could totally play an undercover agent! Kitty was kind of an undercover agent at the Bluth Company.

Oh my god, totally! [laughs] Yeah, I’d like to do that. I haven’t done that yet. Being in an action movie would be cool, if I got to run around and shoot a gun and jump in water from a car or something like that.

You mentioned that you’ve been doing lots of Q&A’s and other promotions for The Descendants. Do you have time for other projects? What do you have coming up?

I’m always recording Archer. Do you guys watch Archer?

[cheers and applause]

Oh, I love it so much! So I’m finishing the third season of that. I’m doing Two and a Half Men, I’m doing more episodes of that. I’m working on a movie right now. I sold a television show idea to ABC, so that’s in development. And then promoting this movie is a job. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never been in an Academy-considered movie, so this is something totally different. I do a Q&A somewhere almost every night, usually with Shailene [Woodley] and Matthew Lillard, and sometimes George will show up and Alexander and Jim Burke, the producer.

So we all kind of hang out every night, and then around 9 we go and sit and answer questions from, like, completely stunned audiences. And it’s funny, because we’re backstage like, la la la, being stupid, and then we all go out there laughing and are like, “Hey!” And they’re all like [makes catatonic expression]. They’re like, “I can’t talk now.” So it’s fun and cool to see the reactions and it’s a different part of the business that I’ve never experienced before. I get to wear a lot of different outfits. I’ve never had to wear this many outfits.

The Descendants filmed in Hawaii. Did you hear a lot of pidgin speak? Do you have any you can share with us?

No. Yes, I was in Hawaii. I didn’t hear a lot of pidgin speak. I didn’t catch onto it, I can share nothing about it. [laughs] It was awesome being in Hawaii, but the thing is I was shooting another movie at the same time in New Orleans, a movie called Jeff Who Lives At Home by Jay and Mark Duplass, which will be coming out soon. I love that movie too, because I’m so proud of it. It’s so different from The Descendants. I was shooting them at the same time, so I didn’t really get to enjoy Hawaii the way everyone else did. I had a bit of free time in Kauai, and they put us in this hotel that was amazing, but it was like a honeymoon/babymoon hotel. Everyone there was either pregnant with their first baby or on their honeymoon. So there wasn’t a lot of pidgin speak at the hotel. [laughs] There was, like, a lot of young couples from Texas.

And then I would shoot my scenes and then get on a plane and go back to New Orleans and work, and then go back. I did my last scene in the hospital in Honolulu, and that’s so touristy too. I just didn’t have a lot of time to explore the island so much, unfortunately. But I thought it was cool because everything works out the way it’s supposed to when you’re shooting a movie, and I feel like because I wasn’t really there with everybody all the time, it added to that sense of separation from what was happening in the movie. It was, like, built-in. I was this new person who just showed up. So maybe it helps.

How was it moving between the Duplass and the Payne worlds? Besides the jetlag.

The jetlag was crazy because it was a six-hour time difference. There was some technical things that were difficult. Like, the Duplass movie takes place in one day, so they were like, “Don’t get a fucking tan.” And I was like, “Shit.” Because I get freckles when I’m in the sun, and they were like, “Well you can’t come back here with a tan, because of continuity.” So I was like, “Aw! I’m going to Hawaii! I’m staying on the beach in Hanalei Bay, and I can’t lay out in the sunshine or get a tan!” So that was a bummer. And my wardrobe – I was eating and drinking all the beer and deep-fried everything in New Orleans, and then I had my costume fitting [for The Descendants], then went to New Orleans and then came back, and everything was a little bit tighter. [laughs]

But as far as the actual process of making movies, they couldn’t be more different in their style of filmmaking. Going to Alexander’s set felt like very old-fashioned movie-making. He was in control, in charge, sort of quiet and emotional and intimate with his directing, and it felt like we had all the time in the world to do what we needed to do. And the Duplass brothers have two cameras going all the time, they don’t use a lot of natural light, they don’t light the shit out of every scene; they would just have the cameras going. In Alexander’s movie, I memorized everything word-for-word. The Duplass brothers want you to improvise. They want you to go off-text and figure out how to make the scene better. They figure no one knows the character like you do, so do it better. “You talk and we’ll just shoot it.”

And yet all three directors have the same type of confidence in their team and their actors and their crew. They’re all really lovely people who are really excited about the process and interested in how it’s going to play out. So I feel like in tone they were similar, but their styles are so different. I would go to work and be doing all this improv, and it didn’t matter, my hair didn’t matter, nothing mattered. Then I’d get on the plane and fly forever to Hawaii and get there and it was all very specific and very precise, and then I had to get used to that again. So it was cool, it was good for my brain. It definitely kept it working. [laughs]

You have a lot of projects coming up. Do you tend to pursue things on your own accord, or do people come after you?

I wish that more people would come after me. [laughs] I don’t do a lot. My manager and my agent are so awesome. I’ve been with my manager for 14 years and my agent for 10 years. I love them both. They listen to me when I tell them what I want, and then I just kinda let them figure it out. I mentioned to them maybe two years ago now that maybe I wanted to do some more kinds of dramatic roles, and I said, “People aren’t going to see me that way, so maybe you can see if there’s little independent movies where I can try to exercise that muscle.” And they totally did! Some of them are indies that haven’t come out yet, and one of them is The Descendants. So I’ve been looking for something a little different, and they listened to me and found those things, which has been great. Alexander said he likes working with actors who started in comedy to do dramatic work, because you get a more layered performance.

You’ve starred in a lot of endlessly quotable things.

I know!

What are some of the quotes that people most frequently come up to you –

[quickly] “Say goodbye to these.”

How often do people walk up to you and lift their shirts up?

Yeah, all the time. That is definitely the number-one quote people say to me. I probably get it on average once a day. It’s so awesome. I like that. Also, when M. Night Shyamalan cuts a movie trailer, he always has one phrase in it, like, “I see dead people.” So when he cut together the Village trailer, I had the line! So it’s like this whole beautiful trailer, and then at the end I’m pulling that thing down, and I’m like, [whispers] “Don’t let them in!” So I was like, “Fuck yeah, I got a quote! I got the quote in the M. Night Shyamalan trailer!” [laughs] And then my friends would always be like, [whispers] “Don’t let them in!” They’d be all the time doing that to me. So that was funny. I remember when I was shooting that movie, my makeup artist Bernadette, who’s so awesome, when we shot that scene she was like, “That’s going to be the trailer.” And I was like, “Whatever.” [laughs] But “Say goodbye to these!” is the best one.

The Descendants opens in San Francisco today.

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