Elisha Cuthbert on being “the funny one” and not competing with 24

Elisha Cuthbert on being “the funny one” and not competing with 24

Elisha Cuthbert got her start as a teen actor in her native Canada, but she received her big break as the daughter of Kiefer Sutherland’s counter-terrorist operative on 24. Her run on that show coincided with a few “scream queen” turns in Captivity and the 2005 remake of House Of Wax, but a starring role in The Girl Next Door and a bit part in Old School pointed toward a future in comedy. In 2011, Cuthbert took up the role of Alex Kerkovich on ABC’s Happy Endings, initiating the show by leaving her fiancé (Zachary Knighton) at the altar. As the show garnered critical praise and a strong cult following, Alex transitioned from jilting would-be bride to the show’s secret comedic weapon, a development aided by Cuthbert’s spirited performance and her unique approach to playing a character that, on any other show, would just be another spacey blonde. With Happy Endings expanding to fill an hourlong Tuesday-night block in the wake of Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23’s cancellation, The A.V. Club spoke with Cuthbert about her character’s evolution, how the fear of being unable to top Kim Bauer pushed her toward trying a TV comedy, and why she can thank some invisible hula hoops for taking her Happy Endings persona to the next level.

The A.V. Club: Is the production cycle going into overdrive because the episodes are being doubled up?

Elisha Cuthbert: No, I think because we’re getting the break in February, it gives us time to finish up the season. We’ll be doing full production, which would normally take place the second week of March, and we’re doubling up in March. So we’ll be way done before it goes through. The only difference is the show will end quicker than it probably would’ve if it’d been taken into April. But, you know, it’s good. When you get two episodes back to back it gives you a better sense of what we are as a show and what we represent. We’ve been on different nights in different slots and it’s a shame we’re not on during sweeps, but people are watching other things, so I think they’re smart in putting us in March and doubling up so that people get a big dose of us—and if they like us, they can keep watching.

AVC: And it’s reflective of how people watch TV now. They don’t watch single episodes; they like to take it in big chunks.

EC: Yeah, and I guess in that way, for recording, it’s good. It’s interesting where TV is now. Something has to change, there’s got to be some sort of shift. It’s similar to what music went through, where there was this weird, bizarre fighting against old vs. new—a transitional thing where we went from buying CDs to purchasing everything online. TV is kind of in that same place where we were a while back with music. It’s a bizarre market in that we don’t know how to gauge who’s watching what and when. With the Internet we’re so accessible to all these shows, people are not watching the same way they used to. The Arrested Developments of the world—and that includes our show—we have such a strong following, but sometimes that doesn’t always reflect in the ratings, which is a shame.

AVC: How did you feel when you heard the news about the cancellation of Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23?

EC: It’s sad. We’ve gotten to know them over the last two years and have done some panels with them. They’re all wonderful actors, and the creator of the show [Nahnatchka Khan] is very talented. You never want to see a show go down, especially when they’ve been at it and they’ve become this sort of family and then all is lost. That could have easily been us, but we lived to see another day, which is fantastic—and believe me, we’re all very grateful for that. But it’s sad, especially when shows that you know and have partnered up with don’t quite make the cut. It’s not easy, but it’s part of the business. 

We’ve never been in a place where we’ve all been 100-percent comfortable. Our show from day one has overcome obstacles and battled against the odds. So we’re fighters too, we know the pressure and what that feels like. But at the same time, we’ve been sort of a success as well. We haven’t gotten to be big-headed about it, where you get those crazy weird ratings. [Laughs.] But at the same time, there’s so much to celebrate. We go into the TCAs and everyone is so supportive and we feel like rock stars, and then sometimes the numbers come out and they don’t always reflect that. They haven’t let it get to our heads yet. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve said before that you try to find a different way of playing Alex so that she’s not just the stereotypical sitcom ditz. Is part of that difference the enthusiasm you bring to the role?

EC: Yeah, that’s been the biggest word to explain how I go into it. I told the creators right away that I loved the way the character is evolving. But at the same time, it’s very easy to get into a place where it’s like, “Let’s just write her dumb constantly.” But I felt like that was almost too easy. I felt if I approached her as not a ditz, but as someone who is just genuinely enthusiastic about everything she does—whether it be eating or going to conventions or her pets—she goes full force every time. It was a nice contrast with a lot of the characters on the show, who are very sarcastic and quick-witted and cynical. Especially when you see Adam Pally’s character, Max, and my character come together—it’s such a yin-yang thing, and I think it works really well. His grumpiness mixed with my “let’s go get ’em” mentality is really funny. I try not to see it as so simple as, “Oh, she’s a ditz and it’s been done before and I’m doing it again.” I’m doing my own thing with it, but at the same time I think it’s a cop-out to say she should just be a dumb character. I really try to have some truth behind it, which is that as long as I play her as optimistic and enthusiastic, she’s still a real character in the midst of all this insanity.

AVC: Adam’s in a similar situation with Max. That’s not a stereotypical “gay guy” character that you’d see on other sitcoms. Have you and he had any conversations about putting new spins on old TV tropes?

EC: Yeah, he was the first one. He knew what he wanted to do with his character before my character even had a voice. Adam knew quite early on that he didn’t want to be the cookie-cutter, quintessential gay character on a sitcom, and had his own take on it, which was also developed with David Caspe. The character was somewhat written that way, there was no over-the-top, flamboyant lines. The character Derrick is written that way, and Stephen Guarino brings that to the table as well—and it’s hilarious—but it just wasn’t the take that Adam had, which made him so unique. I think we both felt like we had an opportunity to do something that had been done but to put a spin on it.

AVC: When you’re on set, and you feel like you’ve given all the enthusiasm that you can to a certain line reading or certain story thread, where do you find the last bits of energy that you can throw into the performance?

EC: It’s funny, I don’t ever feel like it’s a huge pressure. It’s the funny thing about doing a half-hour show. The days are actually pretty good. There’s days off and the schedule for a half-hour comedy is so much easier than that of a one-hour drama. I found myself on 24 trying to muster up the energy to get through those real physical scenes day after day. As much as Happy Endings has been a challenge in getting my comedy across, the energy and physical aspect has been a breeze. Maybe because I have 24 to compare it to, I don’t know. Now, especially since I’ve been playing the character for three years, it just makes sense to play it that way and to do it that way. So I don’t ever feel like I’m struggling to get my energy levels up, unless I’m sick or something. It just comes pretty naturally right now. And when you get around the rest of the group, the energy is so electric that you can’t help but—we’re constantly back and forth with one another, doing bits, trying things, laughing, and having a blast. It’s hard not to. It kind of just happens.

AVC: What was most challenging about finding the comedy of the character? How did that process at the start of the show compare to doing so in the third season?

EC: There are so many layers to it, personally and character-wise. Trying to understand where this character fit in with the group was one challenge. Especially being set up as the one leaving the great, nice guy at the altar and having to apologize to the rest of the group—it left me really in a pickle. [Laughs.] The first season was all about winning back the audience and winning back the characters in the show, and getting people to like me against the odds. The second season was about, now that everyone’s okay with you, what’s your comedic voice in this hilarious show? Trying to find a way to bring my real-life, natural sense of humor to the show. Because with the gang I wasn’t quite getting the dialogue season one—I mean, there were some funny things—but I was certainly contributing with the improv side of things. So I felt like, “I just have to find a way to make this translate through the character.” 

In the second season’s first episode, where I was doing the hula-hoop bit, that was an add-on that David Caspe had suggested to me because I had done that goofing off off-camera during the first season. He had said, “This would be a perfect place for it.” That was a moment where I was on the edge and made the leap to just go for it; and I thought, “If I mess up, at least I tried and they will cut it and won’t use it, and the scene will just play as is.” Next thing you know, they send me the episode and Jonathan Groff says to me, “We kept the hula hoop.” That gave me the confidence I was looking for. Even though it seemed crazy and went against all the dramatic instincts I had, it worked and I was able to go anywhere. Then it was about finding a way to do it that wasn’t the typical ditz. I feel like that was a huge, pinnacle moment for me, where I felt like I could have the confidence to keep going and try new things and be as funny as possible.

AVC: And that’s where the confidence to dance up on Hip-Hop Santa in this season’s Christmas episode comes from?

EC: Exactly. I don’t know if those moments would have happened without that moment, and having it stay and make it on the episode—it was something that I came up with. It gave me the confidence to try anything after that, and to trust in the creators that they would cut or exclude things that wouldn’t work—I had nothing to lose.

AVC: At what point last season did the producers come to you and say, “Hey, we’re going to try to put Alex and Dave back together?” 

EC: During our beginning-of-the-year meetings before we started the third season. There had been a little bit of talk about it—but to be honest with you, it was something that was pitched to Zach and I, and I thought it was great. I was thinking, “Do I just keep going like this, or am I going to have different dates and boyfriends and how is this going to play out?” I loved the idea because I thought it gave us a chance to show why these two were at the altar and possibly why it didn’t work. The creators were like, we’ll probably see them break up after five eps. So we thought, let’s do what we have with the five, let’s make it fun and show the audience why we work together and why we don’t, and then see what they come up with after that—and we’re on episode 16 or 17 and we’re still together! It ended up working out, and it’s crazy. We had every intention of breaking these two apart after a little bit but we sort of managed to stay together. I’m happy about it. It’s great. It’s nice for Zach and I. I think we really do work as a couple—we know we can work as individuals as well, but it’s great.

AVC: What sort of adjustments did you make to your performance once the couple came together?

EC: If Zach is going down a route where his storyline for that episode is crazy, I’ll try to take a more subtle approach. But if his a little more grounding then I know I have freedom—and I take that scene by scene, even. So I really do play off of where Zach’s at. If we do 100 percent all the time with the two of us, it would be too much, I think. I evaluate what’s going on in each scene. I feel like it’s natural, it’s what’s couples do. It’s like when you go out, and your partner’s drinking so you have to be the sane one because you have to make sure we get home somehow, but on another night you let loose and he takes care of you—it’s sort of like that thing. I feel like that’s true to what couples are like.

AVC: Alex is a unique position within the core cast because she has a sister among the main six and we’ve also met both of their parents. Does knowing so much background information on the Kerkoviches give you a better feel for the character?

EC: I think it gave a better feel for the people that came in to play our parents. Eliza Coupe and I had some story stuff, like we had some Serbian ancestors and a grandmother, and we imagined she was either like the father and I was like Mom, or vice-versa—it didn’t really matter which one, this is why we’re so different. Which was great, because by the time Christopher McDonald and Julie Hagerty came in to play our parents, we had that to give them and the writers had that to write for them. But I felt like we had that all along, I feel like we didn’t even need the parents to get that sorted. You make up your own backstory when you’re doing comedy—you kind of have to. It’s not like a drama where all the information is given to you and then you go with that. You’re really discovering these characters along with the writers as you go. 

AVC: Do you feel like you have a different connection with Eliza than anyone else on the cast because your characters are sisters?

EC: We’ve gotten really close this year actually. I think in season one, just the cast in general became very close and tight but at the same time were a little reserved because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to do this again with these people. Second season was bonding, but I feel like it went by so quickly, it was such a blur. Knowing this was our third season, I think we’ve all been around each other long enough it really is like family. You get to know the ins and outs of each person, not just on set but personally. Eliza and I have gotten very close this season, and she is a very dear friend of mine. I have a different relationship with the guys too. We’re not all best friends, but I have a great relationship with them individually—my relationship with Damon Wayans Jr. is different than that with Zach or Adam. We’re very close with one another, for sure.

AVC: It sounds like it’s a reflection of what ends up on the show.

EC: Yeah, because you go into every storyline, depending on who you get paired up with, a totally different vibe. Like I said, Adam and I, our stuff is so different from when I’m doing my stuff with Damon. The sisterly stuff is one thing, and then me and Penny [Casey Wilson] feel like a totally different thing all together. It’s interesting and it’s very similar to real life.

AVC: Because of the ad-libbing that’s encouraged on set as well as the show’s connections to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, you’ve had the chance to do some live improv the past few years. Is it something you could see wanting to pursue down the line? Is live performance something you’d like to do more of as your career goes on?

EC: I don’t know. I think I got a taste of it, I think it’s something that’s definitely a rush, thrilling and exciting. I could never understand why stand-up comedians would put themselves in that predicament and expose themselves like that. But when it goes right, it’s like no other thing. I get it now. I don’t have any focus to be doing that right now—my focus is on the show. Maybe when it’s done, maybe it would be something I’d be interested in.

AVC: In your mid-teens, you made your first onscreen appearance in an episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, and you eventually became a regular on the show. Do you still get recognized for that? 

EC: Yeah, I get recognized for a whole slew of different things. The Girl Next Door resonates with certain people. I did a children’s show growing up in Canada but it aired in different parts of the world as well—it was called Popular Mechanics For Kids. I have fans who come up to me, telling me they grew up watching me. And, obviously people have such a passion for 24 and the horror films. There’s so many different things that it just depends on what resonates with what person. But it’s such a thrill to be getting recognized for this show, and having people come up to me and say how funny I am. Out of all the 20 years of this process and journey, this is the first time anyone’s told me I’m funny. [Laughs.] It’s pretty crazy—I’ve never been the funny one. I don’t know how to explain it.

AVC: It has to feel a little bit empowering.

EC: Yeah, because I think that I wanted to do comedy based on the fear that I couldn’t compete with 24. It wasn’t about, “I have to prove myself in comedy”—of course there was that, but it was like if that happens, then bonus. But it was like, “There’s no way I’m doing another one-hour drama—it’s going to tank and burn.” I can’t compete with 24, I can’t compete with Kim Bauer, forget it. [Laughs.] I think out of the fear of knowing that I wasn’t going to be successful in another one-hour drama—I mean, unless they came to me with Homeland. [Laughs.] I needed to reinvent myself and take a risk and [be able to] say at least I took the risk, and I had my reasons for doing it. To have all this extra stuff come from it, it’s just been such a surprise. A surprise to myself, I’ve sort of broken down barriers I thought I had on myself.

AVC: Has being integrated into Hollywood comedy circles put you back in contact with your Popular Mechanics co-star Jay Baruchel?

EC: You know I haven’t seen Jay in so long. But I’ve been in touch with, I don’t know if you know Ricky Mabe, but he was sort of in that Canadian circuit, too. I just recently ran into Kevin Zegers, who I did a film with when we were 15 years old, and he’s doing well. It’s just nice to run into people who you’ve worked with over the years. But Jay is not one I’ve run into in quite some time. I hope we do. I know he’s doing well as well.

AVC: It seems like he and Seth Rogen could have a little Canadian comedy mafia going—you have to get hooked up with that.

EC: Seth is so nice, too. He’s such a great guy. I’ve gotten to meet him a few times over the years too. It’s a great time to be involved in comedy because there’s so much talent, and there’s such a great group of actors that are so good at it. There’s a lot to draw from. I don’t know if you saw that Vanity Fair issue that Judd Apatow co-edited, all comedy-based and such a great tool for me to read at that time in my life. I think if that would have come out a couple years earlier, I probably would have just been like, “Oh, neat”—wouldn’t have as much invested in it. I was reading all those articles about why he thinks Canadians are funny, and all this stuff about The Blues Brothers, and it was so great.

AVC: That issue could almost serve as a textbook on the last 50 years of comedy.

EC: I know. It was everything from Steve Martin to Martin Short. I couldn’t believe it, it was like every page I was learning something.

AVC: Martin Short, another funny Canadian.

EC: I know, I know. Then Judd saying Jim Carrey is the “funniest to ever do it,” which we debate about this on set all the time. I’m in total agreement, he is definitely the king of comedy, and also another Canadian.

AVC: Not to make you rat out your co-stars, but who argues against Jim Carey?

EC: I think we were arguing the second position. Maybe we weren’t quite disputing Jim, because he was No. 1 but I think we were disputing No. 2. I think Adam was saying Dave Chappelle, and Damon and I were saying Eddie Murphy.

AVC: Do those kinds of conversations come up often on set?

EC: Comedy is talked about quite a bit, yeah. [Laughs.] We all love Louis C.K. We talk about comedy a lot, we discuss comedians and funny shows. It’s interesting. In comedy, it’s such a tight-knit group. Everyone is so much more supportive than that of being in drama for some reason. It just feels like so much more of a community. And once you’re in that community, you feel very loved—I’ll tell you that.