Fred Melamed on Casual, the Coens, and making Larry David laugh

Fred Melamed on Casual, the Coens, and making Larry David laugh

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Fred Melamed has had a unique career as an actor, stepping in front of the camera for the first time in the early 1980s, working steadily throughout the decade, and then almost completely abandoning TV and film in favor of voice work. That was the status quo for Melamed throughout the ’90s and the majority of the ’00s, but after experiencing a career renaissance in 2008 with his work in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, he’s had regular work on both big and small screens ever since. In addition to popping up on Childrens Hospital and making a variety of other one-off appearances up and down the dial, Melamed has most recently been found around the streaming scene: he had a recurring role on Hulu’s Casual, and next year he’ll be co-starring with Maria Bamford in her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite.

Benched (2014)—“Judge Nelson”
Casual (2015)—“Charles Cole”

Fred Melamed: Casual was a great opportunity that—like certain other ones—have just fallen to me through good fortune. I think it was my third collaboration with Michaela Watkins. Michaela, of course, is the lead in that show, and once again I was playing her father, as I did in In A World… A rather inept father. [Laughs.] He’s not a very loving father, at least not in outward ways.

Casual was interesting because I got to become friends with again and work with Frances Conroy. When I first came out of drama school, I went right away to the Guthrie, which is a repertory theater in Minneapolis. I spent a season there, and Frannie Conroy had also just come there: she was straight out of Juilliard, and I had come out of Yale. So we became friends there, and that was in 1981. That’s a long, long time ago. [Laughs.] So I knew her ever since then, although I hadn’t seen her too much in recent years, because she had been out in California, but of course I’d seen her on Six Feet Under and other shows and admired her always. So this was kind of a great chance to get to work with her and be friendly with her again.

The whole project on a personal level was very happy-making for me, because I knew everybody beforehand. Tommy [Dewey], who plays my son in it, he and I had worked together on a project of his. I knew Michaela well, and Frannie Conroy. Eliza Coupe also a good friend of mine, and we had worked together on another project that was written and produced by Michaela, a series that we did on USA called Benched. The only person I didn’t know was Tara [Lynne Barr], who played my granddaughter, so she was a new person but a person who I now have a great deal of affection for.

So I was attracted to it not only because I knew all these people, but because I thought [writer-director] Jason Reitman was great. I had been an admirer of his work for a long time, and the scripts themselves were just so strong. I know that’s a corny—probably the corniest—actor observation there is, but you don’t get that many that are really good. Even some that come from very hallowed writers, you go, “Well… Okay, what’ll I do with this? What can I do with this to make it interesting?” When something is really good, it stimulates you, and you come up with a whole lot of ideas easily. It isn’t burdensome to come up with a characterization that’ll enliven things. So with this, right away reading it, I liked it, I liked the character, and I liked being this kind of—I don’t want to say “thrillseeker,” exactly, but someone who is unabashed with finding his own happiness first and not really caring so much what that means for his family. That’s a familiar kind of dynamic to me, to some degree from my own life and also from the lives of many people I have known.

I like these so-called “dramedies,” both as an audience member and as an actor, things that explore why people are the way they are, which provides both funny and frequently heartrending examinations of people. It’s what—if we have to name it something—we usually call “dark comedy.” whether it’s more comedy or more something else is kind of up for grabs, but it’s kind of reflects real life, in that there are plenty of things that are amusing and plenty of things that are funny, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s harrowing and difficult. It’s kind of new category, but there’s a lot of good material being produced in this milieu that I really like.

The A.V. Club: The adjective “hedonistic” has been used to describe your character, Charles.

FM: Yeah, I mean, the word “hedonistic” to me means pleasure above all else. My pleasure above all else. [Laughs.] The truth of the matter is, in my own life, I’ve had periods where I’ve thought, “Well, gee, the answer to a happy life is just to collect enough pleasant experiences and string them together, and then you’ll have a happy life.” In various times of misery in my own life, I’ve thought, “Well, if all the world was just Ring Dings and blowjobs, life would be great!” [Laughs.] And I actually tried to make the world something like that, but it didn’t ultimately work. I was smart enough and I had enough money and other endowments that I could, to some degree, navigate this kind of thing that I wanted and constructed, but it wound up being more of a prison for me, because what I wanted was something deeper. A deeper closeness, a deeper meaning to life. But I think for a lot of people, they get sold on the idea that happiness has to do with the amassing of happy experiences or pleasant experiences or self-glorifying experiences. So they pursue those with abandon, and when one is over, they would like another. It’s kind of a way of distracting yourself from feelings that are deeply troubling. So it’s like a drug: when this episode is over, then you need another episode, so you don’t get to the rotten feeling.

One Life To Live (1981-1982)—“Alberto Cervantes”

AVC: You mentioned earlier that you got your start in theater, but it looks like your first on-camera role was playing Alberto Cervantes in One Life To Live.

FM: Yes, I think that was my first time on camera! My first film was called Lovesick, with Dudley Moore, but I think that was after that.

Well, what happened was that I went to the Guthrie right after I got out of drama school, as I mentioned to you, and when that season was over, I came back to New York and I got the job as a recurring character on One Life To Live, which at the time was already a very venerated and beloved soap opera. But, yeah, that was my first on-camera experience at all. When I went to drama school, we weren’t given any instruction at all in anything other than theater acting, the presumption—the probably incorrect assumption—being that if you could handle the theater, then everything else should come sort of naturally or easily. I’m not so sure that that idea is borne out by reality, but nonetheless we were given no instructions in acting in any other milieu. So I got this job on the soap opera, and I was extremely nervous in front of the camera. [Laughs.]

There was a guy who was one of the leads in the soap opera, a very nice guy called Michael Storm, and I had a lot of my scenes with him. The storyline was that there was a couple who was looking to adopt a baby in Llanview, the fictional town in Pennsylvania where all the action took place, and I was from a fictional Central American country, some country that was supposed to be around Honduras but didn’t actually exist. But I would heroically steward unwanted children out of the country there and set them up for adoptions for people in the United States who wanted to adopt babies. So I was introduced with that as kind of my main function, and then I developed a love interest with somebody who’d been on the show for a long time.

Anyway, I had a lot of my scenes with this guy Michael Storm, who was a lovely guy, but he had been on the show for probably 20 years or more already, and, well, you know, he took it seriously, but 20 years on a show is a long time! [Laughs.] And he realized that I was very easy to make laugh, and I’d crack up. One Life To Live was an hour show, and we had to shoot an hour show every day, five days a week, so you really had to slog through a lot of stuff and learn a lot of lines to do an hour show a day. And he realized that I was an easy mark, and he had this method—I don’t know how he did it—where he used to look at me and cross his upstage eye, so that the camera couldn’t see it, but anybody acting with him couldn’t help but see it. So once he realized that I was easy to get to crack up, he did it quite a few times. And after this had happened several times, I remember hearing when I was in the makeup chair somebody talking about it, saying, “Well, maybe he’s just a happy guy.” And the other guy said, “Yeah, but it’s costing a lot of money, because we keep having to repeat takes!” So I got the idea that I should kind of get it together.

AVC: In regards to how you found your way into acting in the first place, you would seem to have been in a position to be around show business from a young age—to some extent, anyway—because of your father.

FM: Yes, my father was a TV producer [on Car 54, Where Are You?], and I was always around people who were in the business from the time I was an absolute baby. I grew up in New York City, and my parents, my sister, and I had a house on Fire Island, and they were part of a set of people that were all close and friendly, most of whom were involved in show business in one regard or another. So it was always familiar to me, and I kind of enjoyed it. But I never thought of doing it as a profession, really, when I was a kid. I thought it was interesting, and I always did plays in school because I thought it was fun, but it just never occurred to me as a thing to do.

But then when I got to college, I had a friend that I had gone to high school with who used to like to direct and write his own plays, and he asked me to be in a play that he was directing. So I did it, and then other people asked me to be in their plays, and I went to Hampshire College, where you could kind of write your own ticket at the time. It’s since changed, there are more distribution requirements now, but at the time you could build a rocking chair and that could be your project that you worked on. [Laughs.] So I mostly just did plays all the time, and I enjoyed doing it.

Lovesick (1983)—“Psychoanalyst”

AVC: You mentioned that Lovesick was your first film. Was that filmed in New York?

FM: That was all in New York. I had only what little knowledge I’d gotten from my father about what it’s like to be on a movie set for a long time and what goes on. That was a Dudley Moore film, and Dudley Moore was going out with Susan Anton at the time, who was about a foot and a half taller than he was. [Laughs.] And I remember clearly one day, I guess we had wrapped shooting for the day, when they were walking hand in hand down the street, going to a restaurant. It was a funny sight. My memories of that film, though, are really just that I didn’t realize that even though I had such a small part—I only had a few lines, and I think only one or two of them made it into the movie—how long you still end up sitting on a movie set, and how often you’re called in. But I actually got to watch them shoot some stuff, and that was very interesting to me.

One of the real delights for me was that Alec Guinness was on that film, so I got to meet Alec Guinness, and that was a huge deal. I was and still am a huge fan. And I got to ask him a question, and his answer has always stuck with me. I said to him, “Mr. Guinness…” No, wait, I think he was knighted by then, so… “Sir Alec, I’m so excited to appear in the same movie with you, and I’m such a great admirer of your work. Is there any advice about show business that you can give a young man just kind of getting started in it?” And he thought for a minute, and he said, “Yes, my advice in regards to show business is, don’t get any on you.” [Laughs.] That has remained in my head!

In A World... (2013)—“Sam”

FM: That was a really great experience. I enjoyed that tremendously. At the time, I didn’t know Lake [Bell]. I had seen her in some things, but I didn’t know her personally at all. My agent called me one day—this is before I had moved to California, so I was still living in New York—and said, “Do you know who Lake Bell is?” And I said, “Well, I think so. I think she’s an attractive actress…?” He said, “Yeah! Lake Bell came in here to meet me, and she left a script for you, with a note for you.” I said, “Really…” He said, “Yeah!”

I was living at the time in the Hamptons, on Long Island, so I went into the city to pick it up and read it, and she’d left me this beautiful handwritten letter saying, “This is a script I wrote. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years. It’s called In A World… It’s all about the voice-over business, and there’s a role in it—my father, who’s a major character in the film—and I just think you’d be wonderful in it. I’d be very gratified if you’d read it and tell me what you think.”

So I read it, and I thought it was such a good script. I was so impressed with it, and the part was great, a really juicy part. In general, I’m always interested in characters who have kind of extreme aspects to them, who are in some ways larger than typical people. The whole thing about acting that’s so interesting to me is why people are the way they are. What makes certain people selfish? What makes certain people frightened? What makes certain people kind? You know, all the things that people are, what makes them that way? I find that really interesting. And here was a character I really thought I liked. Another bad parent! [Laughs.]

But what was so interesting about him was that he was obviously very pompous and full of himself and arrogant, but his feet of clay were so clear. I mean, it was his own insecurity about himself and about the voice-over business… In any business like that, where there’s that much money for such light work, there’s always a lot of insecurity. [Laughs.] And in his own screwy way, he loves his children, too. So be able to play all those things in one character seemed a great thing to me, a great opportunity. I was so impressed with the writing. So Lake said to me, “Would you like to meet and talk about it?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d be delighted to!”

She was living in California, but she’d come to New York, so we met and had lunch together at the Soho House, which is a big film hangout, and… [Starts to laugh.] It’s funny, but I did kind of an un-admirable thing. We were sitting there eating lunch, and I told her how much I liked it, and she said, “Yeah, I’d really like to have you do it.” She didn’t know that I’d had a long history in the voice-over world myself. I guess she just thought that my voice was plausible as a voice-over actor, but she had no idea that I knew that world so well. So I explained to her that I did, and she said, “Oh, that’s great!”

But then she had to excuse herself to go to the ladies room, and while she was in the ladies room, a guy got up who I didn’t know at the time, and… I don’t want to identify him, but he’s since become an extremely well-known and very respected screenwriter. And he’s an actor, too, although he doesn’t act so much anymore, but he’s really a top-notch screenwriter. Anyway, he came over to me while she was in the bathroom, and he said, “Oh, hi, my name is… You know, I saw you in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers’ film! I was just so enamored of your voice. I just think you’re fantastic!” I said, “Gosh, thank you! I really appreciate that. That’s very kind.” I didn’t know who he was. At the time, he wasn’t as famous as he is now. I just said, “Thank you so much! Would you do me a big favor?” He said, “Sure!” I said, “I’m eating lunch with somebody, talking about me playing a role in this movie. When she comes back, will you come back over again and re-do this scene with me and tell me how much you like me?” He said, “Yes, I will!” [Laughs.]

So Lake came back from the bathroom, and as good as his word, sure enough, he came over and said, “Are you Fred Melamed?” I said, “Yes!” He said, “I just want to tell you, I saw you in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers’ film, and I just thought you were fantastic!” I said, “Oh, thank you! That’s so kind of you to say. I really appreciate it. This is my friend Lake Bell, and we’re talking about working together on this film of her.” He said, “Oh, nice to meet you!” So he acted the whole thing flawlessly and has never told anyone what a jerk I was, that I asked him to do this horrible, self-aggrandizing thing. He’s remained mum about it ever since. But he’s a very decent guy and now a big star, and rightfully so, in the world of screenwriting. But I had to come clean about that!

Lake shocked me, because she was such a good director. It was her first feature! She had directed one short before that, and of course she had plenty of experience as an actor before that. But, you know, great directors really don’t say too much. They don’t go on ad nauseum about your performance or other things like that, or even about the atmosphere of the movie or the idea of the movie. They just say a little bit. But the ones who are really good have the ability to say certain things that open the floodgates and that are extremely illuminating and are of great usefulness in your creation of whatever it is that you put forward. She had this ability—you know, you can tell just from talking to me in an interview that I have to have a muzzle on me. I never shut up. [Laughs.] As a director, you really shouldn’t do that. It’s important not to be circumspect—I don’t mean you shouldn’t say anything—but you have to know the right thing to say. And that’s exactly the way she was.

The voice-over world has changed radically in the time that I’ve been in it. It used to be this rather small, select group of people who did 90 percent of the work. Now it’s kind of the reverse: 90 percent of the work is done by this very broad mix of people all over the country, and the guys who used to be the go-to guys are a much smaller percentage now. But there was this massive interest in voice-over as well as in the story, so I think that also added to the film’s appeal. But I’ve always thought that, in a sense, the more specific and sometimes even the smaller the world of a movie is, the more universal it is. The more that people can sort of try it on as their own. And when we got to go to Sundance with it, it was given a really rousing, very positive reception, and it wound up winning the Waldo Salt Award, which is the best screenplay award, and we all received a lot of very, very positive attention because of it. So it was great.

Courage The Cowardly Dog (2000 & 2001)—“The Magic Tree Of Nowhere” / “Spirit Of The Harvest Moon”
Wonder Pets! (2006)—“The Magician”
Superior Living (2014)—“Marty”

AVC: You’ve done at least a bit of cartoon work.

FM: Yes, but very little cartoon work, truthfully, because almost all of that is done out in California, and for so many years I was New York based. But Courage The Cowardly Dog was one show that was done in New York, so I did do that, and I did some Wonder Pets! Luckily for me, my kids were the right age to appreciate those when they came on. But I haven’t done much else. I had a pilot for a cartoon, a more adult cartoon, one more in the American Dad! kind of line, but it was never picked up.

AVC: Do you remember what the title was?

FM: Well, they changed the title, but it was called Superior Living when they released it. But Paul F. Tompkins and I were the two main characters, and then the secondary characters were played by Horatio Sanz and Julie Klausner, who’s now on that show Difficult People. Of course, we only got to do one episode, unfortunately, but I’d love to do an animated series. I’m a particular fan of a lot of stuff that’s on Adult Swim. I particularly like Seth MacFarlane’s stuff. But I haven’t been asked to do one.

Maria Bamford and I are leads on this new show called Lady Dynamite, which will start airing in April on Netflix, and she and I are quite good friends. I love her. She’s terrific, and I’m very excited about this new show, but I mention her because she does quite a bit of animation voice work eveb now. Even though she’s quite a big marquee comic, she still does a lot of that stuff, and she’s great at it.

Childrens Hospital (2015)—“Leonard Hillman”

FM: Yeah, that was really fun. I got to be friends with Rob Corddry because he was in In A World… and, of course, most of the people—well, not most, but a good half—of the people who were in In A World… were Lake’s friends from Childrens Hospital. So to do that with that same bunch of people was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed that. It was also fun for me because I got to work with some other people who I’d had admired and whose work I knew but who I’d never met before, particularly Erinn Hayes, who I thought was terrific, and Henry Winkler, who I’d always liked. Henry Winkler had gone to Yale Drama School, as I did, although he was there several years before I was. But because a star on Happy Days, of course, and he was always pointed to when I was there as an example of somebody who took the commercial route. The unadmirable commercial route. He told me when we became friendly, “Well, of course, they still hit me up for as much money as possible!” [Laughs.] So he was derided for having become a so-called “commercial” actor!

AVC: Did you actually get to work with Richard Benjamin in that episode?

FM: I got to meet him. We were in the same episode, but we didn’t have any scenes together. But I was already friendly with him through a mutual friend, Charlie Dennis. We did a reading of a play together, so I got to be friends with Richard and Paula [Prentiss], and then when they had kind of a premiere party where they showed three or four episodes of the show, including ours, I got to see them again, which was very nice. But, no, we didn’t actually get to act together. And David Wain usually directs that show, but the particular episode that I was in, he did not direct. He was off directing something else.

A lot of those guys came from The State, like Ken Marino, David Wain, and Kerri Kenney-Silver, so it was a lot of fun to do that, because I liked them very much. I always liked the crazy style of Childrens Hospital. It’s kind of not respecting any convention at all, yet it still has a sort of reality in it in the same time. I always really liked it and used to watch it, so it was a lot of fun to be on it. The only bummer about it was that my character gets killed. [Laughs.] My characters walks off the ledge at the end of the show, so no coming back! Unless I was to come back as an evil twin…

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2011)—“Dr. Thurgood”

FM: When I got that call to do that show, I had been a fan. My wife and I used to watch with great enjoyment and enthusiasm all the time. I remember we’d lay down in bed and put it on, and we really liked it. But I didn’t realize that that show is entirely improvised. [Laughs.] I just didn’t know it! You get a little piece of paper, about the size of a fortune cookie, that says, “You’re Larry’s psychiatrist, and you’ve billed him for some hours that you didn’t see him in the office. You just met him at this baseball card show.” That’s all it says! So you have to make the whole thing up. The first two or three takes, I’m, like, “Oh, uh, fancy meeting you here at this, uh, baseball card show, and, uh…” [Long pause.] Yeah, it was about like that. Fortunately, it’s all shot digitally, so you can just keep going and come up with some ideas.

I actually had a therapist who dropped some show biz names, much to my chagrin and shock, so I thought, “Hmmm… this would be a good thing to try.” So I just had this in my mind, and I wanted to initially choose a celebrity who was not a big, huge star, but kind of a mid-level star, to show this bad habit of naming celebrities. So I thought, “Who’s somebody who’s a rock star who’s not really that famous but is sort of famous?” And I was thinking of Grand Funk Railroad, and I had a friend who was always talking about Mark Farner. His thing about Mark Farner… He slightly made fun of him. He used to say, “The great thing about Mark Farner is that he only plays the important notes. He doesn’t mess around with the unimportant notes.” [Laughs.] So I thought, “I’ll try this.”

Larry had no idea I was going to do any of this, but I said, “You know, let me tell you a story about a patient of mine. I don’t want to reveal who he is, but he was the lead guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad. Oh, well, I guess you could just look it up on the CD now, because I’ve told you he was in Grand Funk Railroad. His name is Mark Farner. And the thing about Mark Farner…” And when I did this, Larry started laughing so much and so hard that he couldn’t respond. He couldn’t catch his breath. But he managed to say, “Go on! Go on!” So we had to repeat it a couple of times so that he wouldn’t laugh, but then we got through it, and I thought, “Oh, this is great! So I’ll be the psychiatrist who does the name-dropping!”

So then we were doing another scene, which was in the office, where he’s upset because I’ve billed him for when he’s talked to me, so I thought, “Okay, I want to mention somebody who’s more famous this time. Not a movie star, but still somebody who’s famous.” And Alec Berg and Dave Mandel, who are writers on the show, said, “Try a famous director.” “What, like a movie director?” “Yeah, try that!” So I thought, “Well, it’s got to be somebody that everybody knows. It can’t be somebody like [Michelangelo] Antonioni. It has to be somebody who’s fairly well known to everybody.” And I decided, “Well, people probably know Star Wars.”

I actually had some doubts about whether that was the right thing to do, and I have to be honest about it: I did think to myself before I said it, “Well, you know you’ll never work in a Star Wars film, right?” [Laughs.] “If you say this thing about how he hires prostitutes, you’re never gonna get that call. You’ve got that great Darth Vader voice, and you’re never gonna get that call.” But I decided, “Well, it’s a fair trade.” So I went with George Lucas: “I don’t want to tell you who he is, but I have a very well-known client who’s quite a well-respected movie director. I don’t want to say who he is, but he did direct Star Wars…” And Larry said, “Everybody knows George Lucas directed Star Wars!” And I said, “You know, not everybody’s in show business, Larry…”

So it was great to improvise like that, and it worked so well. I think honestly that, since I have this kind of respectable veneer about me, when I do these horrible, outrageous things that somebody’s never supposed to do, like be horrible to your children or completely tipping somebody’s identity who’s your psychiatric patient, I think comically it works out, because I look like such a trustable figure. [Laughs.] And, in fact, through the vainness of trusting authority figures, I’m revealing them as the scoundrels they are! But it was fun not only because I got to meet Larry, but I also got to become friendly with Dave and Alec, who wrote the show, and I’ve gone on to work with them on many other things, like Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.

A Serious Man (2009)—“Sy Ableman”

FM: A Serious Man was a huge one for me, for a number of reasons. I loved playing that character, and the Coens were absolutely terrific. I have great admiration for them and love for them as people, also. That was a strange story, though, as to how that actually came about.

In my career, I’ve had kind of a strange trajectory as an actor. I started out doing movies and theater and stuff, but then I had a terrible problem with stage fright as an actor on stage, and I quit stage acting for a long, long time. I had the good fortune to be able to make very good money doing voice-over stuff, which I did, but I wasn’t particularly anxious to take myself back into the cold rain of being an actor and be subjected to all the scrutiny and rejection that’s just a natural part of it.

So that went on, and fortunately for me I was getting lots of voice work, I was making very good money—especially for someone who was single, as I was at the time, and didn’t have any responsibilities—and I was getting my artistic needs met elsewhere. That went on for a good 20 years! But I had a bunch of casting directors who liked me—Juliet Taylor, who is Woody Allen’s casting director, was among them, and Howard Feuer and several others—who would just called me up. But I wouldn’t audition. They’d just say, “Well, Woody has a film, he wants you play a doctor—or a witness in a trial or an art director or whatever—and it’s two weeks. Are you interested?” And usually I’d say, “Yes, I love working with Woody,” or whoever, but I wouldn’t pursue things with any great fire or passion.

But then I got older, got married, had children, and all that stuff, and then the bottom kind of fell out of the voice-over world, at least for me. There was kind of a sea change in the voice-over world where they wanted people with real-sounding voices, not dramatic James Earl Jones-y kind of voices like I have. So all of a sudden I found myself with two kids, a son with autism, and all kinds of responsibilities, and not making very much money. Really, no money. I used to make $250,000 or $300,000 a year, and then all of a sudden I was making $8,000 a year, $11,000 a year… [Laughs.] This went on for a few years! And I had kids, I had a wife, I had two houses, and it was very scary! So I had about one year of savings left, and I was talking to a friend of mine out in the East End, where we used to live, and he said, “Listen, if money were not an issue, if you didn’t have to worry about it, what would you really like to do?” And I said, “Well, if I didn’t have to worry about it, I think I’d like to go back to acting and writing, like I did when I started out.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you try? If you’re going to have to change something at the end of this year, anyway.” So I said, “Yeah, you’re right!”

So I did, and to no great success initially, but then maybe about three or four months into this process of trying to catch on as an actor again, I’m sitting at home with my wife in Montauk, the phone rings, and my wife gets it. She says, “Do you know someone named Joel Coen?” I thought, “I know an accountant called Joel Coen. But do you mean Joel from Joel and Ethan Coen?” She said, “Yes!” And I knew them a little bit because I had gone to school with Fran McDormand, Joel’s wife, and I knew John Turturro and other people who’d worked with them. And I had auditioned for Barton Fink many years before that, although I didn’t get the part. The part was Jack Lipnick, the movie executive. It’s such a great part, and the guy who did it [Michael Lerner] is a wonderful actor and was terrific in it. But anyway, they knew who I was.

So I got on the phone, and I hear, “Hi, Fred, it’s Joel Coen. How are you doing? So, listen, we’ve written this script, it’s called A Serious Man, and there’s a part in it that’s just… I just have a feeling you’d be really good in it. Are you interested?” And I was, like, “Ooh, let me get my book and see if I’m available…” [Laughs.] I said, “Yes, I’m very interested.” He said, “Well, let me send it to you and you can see what you think about it.” So he sent it to me, and I read it, and I thought it was great. I thought the script itself was terrific, and I loved the character. He said, “All right, so come to New York and meet with us, and we’ll talk about it.”

So I went to New York, and they said, “Well, we definitely want you to do it, but the only thing is, we’re not sure when we’re going to do it, because we’ve got three movies that we’ve kind of all got slated at once. One is A Serious Man, one is Burn After Reading…” I don’t remember what the third one was, but they said, “We don’t know how it’s going to work, because the issue is that Burn After Reading has all these stars in it—Brad Pitt’s in it and George Clooney—and we have to do that based on the availability of the stars, because it’s tough to get them all together.” I said, “No, I understand.” So Joel said, “I don’t think we’re going to get to A Serious Man for awhile.” I said, “Well, you know, I have sort of a project I’m working on. My own personal project.” He said, “Yes? What?” I said, “I’m trying to bring the whole overweight, pompous Jewish/Rabbinic figure back to the center of American sexuality, where I feel it rightly belongs.” He said, “Well, that should take you at least a year, Fred.” I said, “Oh, you think so?” [Laughs.] So I went home, and I thought, “Well, sooner or later, this movie’s going to happen, so great.”

So a year passes, and I’m more or less out of money by this point. [Laughs.] So things are getting rather dire… and another six months passes. I’m thinking, “Shit! This is never going to happen! This is going to be one of those things in movies where you read something great, you’re all set to do something, and then the money doesn’t materialize or something else happens, and it never comes to pass.” But finally I get a call: “Okay, we’re gonna go ahead and do it!”

So I went out to Minneapolis and we shot the film, and I had an absolute blast making it. I enjoyed it so much. I enjoyed the film, I enjoyed them and Michael Stuhlbarg and everybody else in it. I really just enjoyed it tremendously. And it was an interesting character for me. There’s an acting theorist called Michael Chekhov who put forth a theory called “essential gesture.” What he said was, “Every character you play has an essential physical gesture that represents the way he behaves.” And I kind of subscribe to that way of looking at it as helpful, so I thought, “Well, Sy is a massager. Every word that he says, no matter how selfish or self-seeking his motives are, his style is that he massages people. He relaxes them. He makes them feel like, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. Let me take care of everything and all will be well, you’ll see. I’ll never do you harm, I’ll always take care of you.” So that was how I tried to play him. I tried to imbue him with that quality. Also, I had an uncle Jerry who had this slightly pained look on his face all the time, and the pained look somehow let him get away with all kinds of things. [Laughs.] He was an uncle I really liked, but he got away with a lot because of this expression. You didn’t calculate that he’d do anything bad or selfish or wrong, because he had this heavy, often trouble look all the time, as if he were carrying the weight of the world. So I tried to get some of my uncle Jerry in there, too.

So I did it, and it really rekindled my enjoyment of acting and my desire to act. And it got such a great response, and my performance was so lauded that I went from this really obscure actor—I hadn’t been doing much other than voice stuff—to all of a sudden being on the “deserves an Oscar” list from the New York Times critic and Roger Ebert. It suddenly got me back into the spotlight very clearly. And the film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, so that also got the film a lot of attention. So that film really, really kind of reinvigorated my career when I was… whatever I was. Fifty-two or 53, something like that. But it was a very unusual and happy thing to have happen to me, because it’s rare that you get that kind of a late chance to reignite things and get that kind of a positive reception. So I’m deeply grateful to the Coens, but also just to the people who saw that film and liked it, because it really introduced me again. And when I came out to California… Not everybody in the world knows that film, but everybody in the business does, so that was a very significant help to me, sort of a calling card. And then In A World… came out and then some other things that people saw, so that was very useful.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)—“Screenwriter”

AVC: You’ve reteamed with the Coens for Hail, Caesar! Your character name apparently hasn’t been revealed, however, because IMDB only lists you as “Actor.”

FM: Well, I don’t know how much you know about Hail, Caesar! and I don’t want to spoil it but so much because I, uh, took an oath of secrecy about it. [Laughs.] What I will say is that within the plot of the story there’s a bunch of Hollywood screenwriters who are all persuaded that the communists have the right idea and that the movie industry is not interested in helping out the plight of the common man, that in fact it’s just a part of the military industrial complex—“a sick part of the military industrial complex,” as President Eisenhower called it—and that they needed to do something to change things, to get America on the track of helping the little man instead of the big corporations.

So I’m kind of the second-in-command of these communist screenwriters, and we kidnap a rather famous matinee idol with the intention of convincing him that he should join us and join our ranks. And how successful we are at that, I’ll let you see the movie to find out, but that’s a large part of the plot of the movie right there. Hopefully I won’t get in trouble. [Laughs.]

Suspect (1987)—“Morty Rosenthal”
The Good Mother (1988)—“Dr. Payne”

FM: The Good Mother was an interesting experience, because Leonard Nimoy was the director. It wasn’t a big part, but it was one that was rather crucial in the story. And I’d always admired Diane Keaton, but I’d never met her. And it’s funny, but three of my early films were with Liam Neeson, before Liam Neeson was a big star. One was Suspect, which was a film with Cher, and he had a very interesting part, but one with no lines in it: he played a dumb homeless man who is suspected of murdering somebody, but he’s actually been set up for the murder. Then there was The Good Mother, where he played Diane Keaton’s lover, and then there was another film, The Mission, in which he has kind of a supporting role. But I did all three of those films with him before he was a star, when he was just kind of coming into the sphere of known actors. I knew him primarily at that time for having a beautiful girlfriend who he brought with him to Toronto, where we did The Good Mother, and at the time she was just Eric Roberts’ little sister, but of course she turned out to be Julia Roberts! [Laughs.]

Leonard Nimoy I found to be a really good director, and I enjoyed getting to know him. He was very friendly, and I remember—it’s been a long time ago—having lunch, just sitting down with my tray by myself, and he came over and sat with me, and we chatted. I was very interested in what his life was like, because he’d become a star from Star Trek, and he had been so closely associated with that, and he had struggled to some degree to get recognized for other things. And he turned to directing to some degree as a result of that. So we talked about that, what it was like to be a star and how that affected him, and he was a very candid, nice, interesting man.

The Mission (1986)—“Don Cabeza” (voice, uncredited)

AVC: You mentioned working with Liam Neeson on The Mission, but IMDB doesn’t actually list you as being in the film, only as a voice.

FM: That’s exactly right: I am only a voice. What happened was sort of an interesting thing. That was a movie directed by a man called Roland Joffé, and it was a script that had been floating around for awhile. David Puttnam, the British producer, had just taken over the studio, and Robert Bolt, who’s a monolithically famous playwright and screenwriter, wrote the story and the screenplay. Robert De Niro played the main character in that, which was a somewhat strange choice—or an unusual choice—for that character. He’s supposed to be an early 18th century adventurer who becomes a monk and goes through all this stuff in South America, but very much not the Mean Streets Robert De Niro that everybody knows! [Laughs.] Much more of a swashbuckling English character. The kind of thing you might imagine a very different kind of actor playing.

Anyway, Robert De Niro played the main character in that, and I and Richard Jenkins kept getting called in to audition and re-audition and re-audition for Roland Joffé. We each got called in three times, and he had us do various improvs together and all these things. And then my agent was told, “Well, he wants you to play the villain, Don Cabeza, in the film,” and I thought, “Okay, that’ll be great.” But then it turned out that after three auditions—I talked to Richard Jenkins about it last year when we did this film called Bone Tomahawk, and he said that after three he refused to go back anymore. [Laughs.] He said, “I’d had enough!” But I kept wanting to do it, and I kept going back.

Eventually, I found out that I wasn’t cast in this role. They cast an actor called Chuck Low as Don Cabeza. If you’ve ever seen Goodfellas, he plays Morrie, as in “Morrie’s wigs don’t come off.” [Laughs.] So Chuck Low played the villain in this movie, and Chuck Low was a friend of Robert De Niro’s. He’d actually been a real estate agent. But he was a friend of Robert De Niro’s, they cast him in this role with Robert De Niro, and I guess his accent, they thought it was a little New York when all was said and done. Or maybe it was his style of speech. But they were not happy with it, so they had me come in and voice-over his whole part, to ADR his whole role, which I did.

You know, when I look at it today, it hurts the film. I don’t think I was… If I could redo it now, I would. [Laughs.] I wish I could redo it! But it’s quite an interesting film. Something of a failure in certain respects, but an interesting one. So, anyway, I wound up voicing his whole performance in the movie, and that’s a touchy thing for an actor, obviously. And he’s a good actor, and I enjoy him, but for some reason they weren’t happy with the way it came out, and I got to do that. But in the course of doing the ADR, which is when you voice stuff after it’s already been shot and match it up, I had to do that with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons and various other people in the movie, including Liam Neeson, just to get conversations right, because you overlap one another when you talk and that sort of thing. So I actually got to act with them, even though it was only as a voice.

The Good Wife (2011-2014)—“Judge Alan Karpman”

FM: That’s gone over a couple of years: I did the first one maybe about four years ago, and then a year ago last summer I did two more. I enjoy that show. I enjoy it as a show, and I enjoy working on it. The Kings, who write it and produce it, are really good, interesting writers. They also directed one of the episodes that I did. It’s a good show. Julianna Margulies’ personality is very much felt in that show and dominates the show a lot, but it has such a broad cast and good supporting players. You know, when you’re a judge, you’re kind of separated from everybody. You have this kind of wall around you—literally, you’re up on a dais and far from everybody—but it also very much limits the kind of stuff that you do. But I really enjoyed it.

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)—“Dr. Grey”
Radio Days (1987)—“Bradley” (uncredited)
Another Woman (1988)—“Patient’s Voice / Engagement Party Guest”
Crimes And Misdemeanors (1988)—“The Dean” (uncredited)
Shadows And Fog (1991)—“Undesirables Onlooker”
Husbands And Wives (1992)—“Mel” (uncredited)
Hollywood Ending (2002)—“Pappas”

AVC: You mentioned how you’d worked with Woody Allen. You’ve actually been in seven of his films. Is there a particular role that stands out? Or one particular anecdote that kind of sums up the experience of working with Woody?

FM: Well, I remember the first one, Hannah And Her Sisters. Before I knew him very well, I attempted to make him laugh. You know, he’s a very serious person, Woody. He’s funny, but he’s an unusual person, no doubt about it. [Laughs.] And it’s very tough to make him laugh. But I gave it my all, and I succeeded. So I think he liked me because I actually broke through and got him to laugh once or twice.

Doing his movies, it’s funny, because my experiences of him and the Coen brothers—I’ve been in so many of his movies and two of the Coens’, and they have a deal unlike anybody else making movies. They get total carte blanche. They get a budget, and that’s it. Nobody comes around and says, “We’re losing the light,” or, “Can’t you do it with a cheaper actor?” or, “There’s too much cheese on your craft service table.” They’re totally left alone. Which is very, very unusual—really unusual—but that was the first I knew of much of moviemaking. But it’s different with Woody, because you don’t get a very clear overview… unless maybe you’re playing a lead in one his movies. I think then it’s different. But I’ve never done that. But you only get a little bit of the story, as much as you need to fulfill your part of the story, so you’re only acting within the rather tight confines of your storyline. And that’s the way he prefers to do it: he prefers to keep things under wraps.

Also, it’s very rare on a movie that you don’t go into overtime, because when you have locations, the locations aren’t yours forever, and you have to get certain things shot, so it’s quite common that you go into overtime and shoot long days. Woody would never go past 6 p.m. The rumor was that he had a standing psychiatrist’s appointment that he had to get to. [Laughs.] But I don’t know if that’s really true or not. It might just be that he didn’t want to go into overtime, and he was organized enough to keep that from happening. Like the Coens, he’s extremely organized. He doesn’t get to the set and think, “Well, maybe I’ll put the camera here, or maybe I’ll do this.” You know, he has a very, very sharp idea of what he wants already, I think both with the look of the movie and to some degree the performances as well, so there’s not a lot of waste.

Woody has a very, very unusual deal—or at least I’ve been told this, I don’t know that it’s true, but I believe it is—in that he gets a certain amount to make a film, and anything that isn’t up on the screen is his money. You know, he essentially gets a fee for making a movie. So therefore he’s very conscious about saving as much money as he can, making things as inexpensively as he can, but still respecting the needs of what’s necessary to make the film look the way he wants. But that’s often why he works in other countries: because the union demands in other countries are much less costly than they are here. Working with him is good if you don’t expect effusive praise. [Laughs.] You don’t get a lot of backslapping and “that was fantastic!” You don’t get too much of that. But, you know, he kind of shakes his head and goes, “That was good, that was fine,” and that sort of thing. And then you move on. He works fairly quickly.

I did a play once—Relatively Speaking—which was three one-acts, and his was one of the one-acts that was being done. And he said to me, and I think he was quite sincere about this, “You know, if I had my way, I would just write all day, at night I’d go out and have a nice dinner and go and watch basketball, and that would be it. I don’t love making movies so much, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t trust anybody to make my movies. There’s nobody around that I really trust to make them. So I have to make them.” And I think that’s the truth! I think the writing part of the thing is the part that he likes the best, and if he had his way, he’d just do that. But, you know, he’s used to cranking out a picture a year, and he does it, and he’s great at it.

That’s different from the Coens. The Coens seem to enjoy every aspect of moviemaking. They enjoy writing, they enjoy the actual process… You know, there are some directors who don’t like the set much. They like post-production, where you have all the ingredients in the can—you’ve got all the footage, all the music, the various effects—and then you have to do the alchemy necessary to make it all good, a long and very key process of putting everything together and making it into the cogent thing that you want.

I remember that Joel Coen said to me that the shape of things is always kind of the same on every movie. When you’re shooting the movie and you look at the dailies, you go, “Oh, this is pretty good!” And then you look at what they call your first loose assembly, your first loose edit, you think, “Oh, God, this is unsalvageable! This cannot be made into the movie that I want! We should just start again! Just throw this out!” Then little by little by little by little, it gets to be more like the movie you had in mind. But it’s slow and it’s discouraging, and then at the end… It’s never what you imagined, but hopefully you have something at the end that’s pretty good.

I was shocked… Well, I wasn’t shocked, but I actually looked at a site that lists how many times each actor has been in Woody Allen films, and I’m number four on the list. Woody is first, Mia Farrow is second, Diane Keaton is third, and I’m fourth.

AVC: That’s impressive.

FM: It certainly impresses me! [Laughs.] I’m of the age where he was already a big hero of mine before I ever met him… or, rather, before I worked with him. My father was friends with a guy called Kenneth Roberts, who was a very well known radio and television announcer, and who was the father of Tony Roberts. So I knew Tony Roberts when I was growing up, and Tony Roberts was on Broadway with Woody Allen on Play It Again, Sam. So as a kid—I was probably about 13 or so—I remember going to see it on Broadway and then going backstage and seeing Tony Roberts and getting to meet Woody and Diane Keaton. But then getting to work with Woody myself was also quite a big thing, because I was a huge fan.

AVC: So did he remember you from that backstage meeting?

FM: I don’t think so. [Laughs.] I don’t think I ever asked him if he remembered me when I was 13! But I did tell him that I was good friends with Tony Roberts and Ken Roberts, and I think that rang a bell for him.

Ishtar (1987)—“Caid of Assari”

AVC: By law, whenever we talk to anyone who was in Ishtar, we are required to ask about their experience on the film.

FM: Yes! A very interesting experience. Interesting, and kind of… disquieting. That was a movie where you felt the plug being pulled while it was still being made. It was shot—at least the parts that I was in—in Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York, and there were a couple of scenes, I think four or five, that were supposed to be in this big nightclub that was based on Rick’s American Café from Casablanca. It was a big set, and there were certain scenes that were based on those Casablanca scenes, so there were a lot of extras. There were probably 100 extras, maybe 80 of whom were sitting at tables and were supposed patrons, but there were waiters and a maître d’ and some people that were in the band, just like in Rick’s.

I remember going in on Monday—the whole week we were shooting these scenes on this café set—and things were not going well, but I didn’t know that, because I was just starting. I must say that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were quite tough on Elaine May. On Monday, there were probably 100 extras. Tuesday, it was maybe 70. By Thursday, there was probably 30. And by Friday, there were maybe 11 extras. [Laughs.] You just saw this thing, this film, it was like cotton candy in somebody’s mouth, just completely dissolving while it was still being shot. I don’t know how that actually transpired, but it was really obvious even while we were making it.

There was an actor in that movie that I befriended. His name was Ian Gray, an English actor. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty played this songwriting and performing team that gets this gig in the Middle East, and this friend of mine played the emcee in the club where they perform. They put him up in a hotel, and he and I became friendly, and he was very funny. Every year for maybe 10 years after that, he would send me a Christmas card, and the card always said the same thing: “Hope you’re getting plenty of work and… the other.” [Laughs.] So that’s something that came out of that.

But that was a strange experience, to be in a movie that had a big budget like that but see it dissolve before my eyes. And I don’t know what the dynamics were, but it was clear that somebody was not supporting Elaine May in making that movie. And that was disheartening to see, because she’s a great talent.

AVC: Do you know if that segment of the film was done before or after they shot in Morocco?

FM: I think it was before. [Hesitates.] Actually, to be honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t really know. And it’s a long time ago. [Laughs.] Oh, but I also remember there was a guy on that who played one of the waiters. His name was Kamarr, he was an Egyptian guy, and he later went on to fame—or a kind of fame—on David Letterman’s show.

AVC: Oh, my God, you mean the magician?

FM: Yeah! David Letterman called him “Kamarr the Discount Magician,” like Kmart. [Laughs.] But I remember we had long hours of just sitting around on the set, waiting for them to get the cameras operating correctly or something like that, and I remember helping him—in my horrible way—and telling him, “Listen, you know, you can really help your career as a magician. In this next take, you’re just standing in the background. Just do a trick! Make some flowers appear! People will remember you!” And he tried it once, and of course he got yelled at, so that was the end of that. Lucky for me he didn’t get fired!

The Crazy Ones (2013 & 2014)—“Fred”
Lady Dynamite (2016)—“Bruce Ben-Bacharach”

Photo courtesy of Maria Bamford

AVC: You mentioned that you’ve got Lady Dynamite coming up, but how did you find your way into the mix of the series?

FM: It was a total surprise, and a delightful one. I was a big fan of Maria Bamford’s. Somebody turned me on to her and I just loved her, and I started to look at her YouTube stuff. She had something called The Maria Bamford Show, which was really just her reenacting these scenes of when she had this nervous breakdown and then was forced to go back and live with her family—her father, her mother, and her sister—in Minnesota. But she played all the parts, and she was just great. I mean, a fantastic performer, so funny and yet so vulnerable. I mean, heartbreakingly vulnerable. But not weak. So I just thought she was great, and I was an enormous fan of hers.

When we moved to California, Michaela Watkins had this show called Benched, so Michaela hired me to be a recurring character on it, and she also hired Maria to be a recurring character. So I got to be friends with Maria, and I was just so thrilled, because I have so much admiration for her. She’s wonderful. Also, I just like her as a person. I just enjoy her a lot. So we got to be friendly, and it was all good. But that was as well as I knew her.

And then when I was working on Casual one day, my agent said, “Maria Bamford has a new series on Netflix, and the producer—Mitch Hurwitz, from Arrested Development—would like you to come in to talk to him about it.” So I said, “Okay, great!” I figured I was going to audition, the usual thing. But there was nothing to read, because there were no scripts yet, but I figured, “Well, maybe they just want to talk to me about it and see if I’m right or whatever.” The day before, I come down with this horrible, horrible stomach virus, where I have a fever and I can barely get from my bed to the toilet. Really sick. So I call and I say, “Look, I’m so sorry, but I’m really ill. I just can’t come.” And I just left a message, because it was like an answering services, so I thought, “Well, that’s the end of that. They’re going to see other people, they’ll fall in love with somebody, and that’ll be that.”

I called them a few days later, and I said, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it,” and they said, “Oh, no, no, no, we still want to see you! Come on, come in anyway!” So I made an appointment to see them, and I had all these things prepared to say, because I love Maria and think she’s such a great talent. I really do. So I go to Mitch’s office in Beverly Hills, and I get there, and there I see this casting director that I know very well—Wendy O’Brien—and she says, “Do you know what this is about?” I said, “No!” She says, “Well, I don’t, either! I was just hired today! “ [Laughs.] She said, “So you and I are going to find out together!” I said, “Okay!”

So we go into the office, and there’s Maria sitting there with Mitch Hurwitz and Pam Brady, who’s Mitch’s writing partner and showrunner, and she was one of the head writers on South Park. But Maria’s sitting there, so I said to Maria, “I had all these nice, flattering things to say about you, but now I can’t. You’re sitting there!” She says, “No, no, go ahead!” [Laughs.] So I did. I said, “You know, I don’t know much about this show or anything, but I really love Maria, I think she’s fantastic…” So Mitch says to me, “Well, listen, we have a show. It’s called Lady Dynamite. It’s already sold—Netflix has bought 13 episodes, so that’s done already—and we’ve had you in mind from the beginning. We never told you, but we want you to play Maria’s best friend/manager/confidant/therapist, Bruce.” And it’s based on a guy named Bruce Smith, a real person who I really know and who’s really her manager. So I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah. We’re not seeing anybody else, we’re not auditioning anybody. We just want you to do it.” So, you know my jaw kind of dropped, and I thought, “Wow…”

I mean, this guy, Mitch Hurwitz, he’s a legend. He’s a big, big guy in television. He’s famous for being a genius. So I said, “Gee, I’d be so thrilled! I’d be delighted!” So we get it all together, we make a deal, and it’s so interesting. I mean, it’s all one thing now. Digital, internet, web shows, network, and cable, it’s all kind of one thing, because people look on every platform. Like I said, people used to be dismissive of web series, but nowadays it’s not like that at all. These aren’t shows you’re doing in the back yard with your cousin and putting on YouTube. These are big budget shows where they have the best writers, the best actors—that’s where everybody wants to be! And what’s so interesting to me is that, after having done network shows, the model is so different in terms of how it’s run.

I was on a CBS show called The Crazy Ones, Robin Williams’ last show, and there was a heaviness to being on that show. Everybody wanted it to succeed, everybody tried, it had a really great pedigreed cast, and it was a David E. Kelley show, who’s a huge guy in television, and Jason Winer, who’s a brilliant director. But there was an enormous weight to it, that it had to be a success, and there was constant—I mean, just constant—presence of the network. Every decision, every table read… everything. And there was a constant feeling not only of intervention but of “we must change this, how about this, and how about that,” and they were so nervous about it that it felt like it was just punchline, set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline. There wasn’t room to develop characters very much because they were so nervous about having a space with no laugh in it for awhile. At least, that’s what it seemed to me. You felt this network presence very heavily. And everything on a network is done by committee, so it’s therefore tough to get a unified vision, because everything is kind of watered down.

With Netflix and Hulu, where I’m doing these shows right now, they come from a Silicon Valley mode where they kind of believe in mavericks. They believe in Steve Jobses and people like that. They find somebody that they trust, and they give them the ball. So you wind up getting a much more clearheaded, distinct product, one that’s not so doctored by many hands, and it’s very interesting to see the difference. I mean, our show, Lady Dynamite, they made a deal for 13 episodes with almost no episodes written—which is unheard of in regular television—just on the basis of the strength of the names of the people involved. And we did it, and it was a total joy to do.

It’s a very… [Hesitates.] “Radical” isn’t the word, but it’s a very, very honest show, and…I’m not describing it clearly. How do I describe it? I’m critical of the things I’m in, I don’t give universal praise to the things I’m in, but this I genuinely find really hysterically funny. It’s really, really funny. It’s loosely based on Maria’s own experience: It’s about a comedian like Maria—and with Maria’s name! —who’s kind of climbing toward stardom and then for some reason has a kind of breakdown. She disappears and winds up selling clocks on the street in Chicago, kind of like a homeless person, and finally—with a combination of therapy, drugs, and supportive friends and family and others—she gets back to being who she was, but it’s a long and eventful journey. I play her best friend, so she and I are the two main characters, but it has a fantastic supporting cast of really wonderful people. Ana Gasteyer is in it, Tig Notaro, and so many other really wonderful and funny people.

It goes on in April, and we wound up doing 12 instead of 13 because we went over budget somewhat. [Laughs.] Interestingly, though, unlike network… On network, they can always make more money on the back end, like with foreign sales and DVDs and all that. Well, with Netflix, they don’t, because they’re already doing it for the whole world. I was thinking, “How does Netflix make a profit?” They have 20 new original shows that they’re putting on the air this year. That’s a lot of shows! That’s like a network. Like a big network. That’s very expensive: you’re talking 20 shows, average budget is maybe two or two and a half million per show. They only charge eight or nine bucks a month, right? So how do they pay for all these shows? So I asked the lady from Netflix that was on the set, and she said, “Well, don’t forget: it’s all over the world.” And that’s the difference. So I said, “So when’s this show coming on?” She said, “Not until April, because we have to do subtitling in 112 languages!” I must say, though, that the quality of the programming on Netflix has been really, really good, which is very, very encouraging. What I’ve seen has been really excellent, so I’m proud to be part of it.

And the show is genuinely funny. It’s also sometimes kind of heartbreaking, but it is truly funny. So I’m very anxious for it to get on the air and very curious to see how people respond to it. But I’m really proud of it, I really, truly enjoy it, and I hope people like it as much as I do. Because Maria has a really big audience, and because Mitch Hurwitz also has a big following from Arrested Development and other things, I think we have a certain part of the audience that’s going to tune in just because of that. But we still have to win over everybody else. So hopefully we will!