Since her premiere on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in 2004, Mary Elizabeth Ellis has primarily been known to many fans as “Waitress,” the unrequited love interest of Charlie Day’s character, Charlie Kelly. Through 10 seasons, Charlie has stalked and pined for the Waitress, leaving many fans wondering if she’ll ever finally give in to his advances and make him the happiest King Of The Rats alive.
Of course, in one way she already has. The two are married in real life, meaning that for over a decade she’s lived a double life as his wife at home and his mortal enemy on set. Last year, Ellis finally got to step onto a different set to play the family matriarch. She can currently be seen on Fox’s The Grinder, playing the wife of Fred Savage’s character and a mother of two, as well as the sister-in-law to Rob Lowe. It’s a completely different world than Sunny—which just premiered its 11th season on January 6—but that doesn’t make it any less weird. She also appears in the new movie comedy Masterminds, which comes out this summer.
The A.V. Club: It seems like these days people are more hesitant to believe the recommendation of a network show because it’s a network show. Is it fair for people to judge network more harshly than cable in today’s TV landscape?
Mary Elizabeth Ellis: My personal sense of humor is edgy, I would say more cable-like: words you’re not allowed to say, ideas that the majority of people might say, “That’s too risqué for me.” That’s one thing that I love about The Grinder. We do get to have a little bit of an edgy sensibility.
The network audiences are getting smaller as well. People are going to cable and Netflix and new media places. As the networks see that the audiences are going to those places, hopefully there will be more room for edgy, “cool” comedies on networks.
AVC: What was it about The Grinder that made you realize this would be your type of comedy?
MEE: I didn’t think I was going to do a pilot this year; I thought I would take the year to do my own stuff. And then when I read the script, I was like, “This actually is really funny.” [Show creators] Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul wanted to meet with me and I had read their script for The D-Train and it was one of the funniest, most fucked-up scripts I had ever read, and so I was like “I definitely want to meet these guys.” They were so cool. Then you think about Rob Lowe, this part was perfect for him. And I was already friends with Fred Savage; he had directed a lot of episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. So I agreed to go in and do the test and it was one of the most fun acting moments I’ve ever had. It was so fun to play around with Fred. It was all of those things coming together.
AVC: Which feedback has been the most important to you, regarding The Grinder?
MEE: I’m not good at going on the internet and trolling around and finding information. I’m not good at reading reviews and things like that. Rob and Fred are on top of it, so it’s really nice because they come into work talking about what our numbers were and what critics are saying. So I take joy in those guys being excited about it and proud of it, because we have been really well-reviewed; the critics seem to love our show. Which is great because there’s nothing better than putting out something that you think is good and funny out and having people that you respect say, “This is good and funny.”
AVC: Do you also rely on that feedback from your husband and the Sunny crew?
MEE: Definitely. I showed Charlie the pilot as soon as I got it, and I know when he’s pandering, and so watching him watch it and having him laugh was definitely—I just watched him watch it, you know? He’s one of the funniest people I know and also my partner in life, so I want him to think that what I’m doing is funny and good. And everybody at Sunny has been super supportive.
AVC: Fred Savage is someone that most thirtysomething Americans have grown up with, but also someone you’ve known personally for years through Sunny. Was it weird to make that transition to playing his wife on TV?
MEE: I mean, there’s nothing weirder. I have the weirdest job. The hair and makeup people were talking the other day about how weird their job is. And costumes, they have to be in people’s faces and have to reach in their skirts to pull their shirts down and stuff. I was like, “You guys, I meet someone, I shake their hand, and then I kiss them. And sober. During midday. For money.” I know Fred, and his wife, and his kids—I have to kiss so many people for work, that it wasn’t that weird. But Fred was like, “I’ve never played a TV husband before. And I’m married to someone else.” And it was super sweet during the pilot because it was like, “I’m really glad this is with you because I was really nervous about it.” Because it must be weird for him.
AVC: It must also be weird for you to transition from being the Waitress in this insane world on Sunny and then boom, you’re a suburban wife and mother of two.
MEE: Definitely. It’s definitely finding the part of myself for each character that can live in those different worlds. It was a bit of a transition to do the part in this TV show. I was like, “I don’t know if I’m funny, because I’m used to being like ‘AAAH!’” My character’s drunk, and taking shits in purses in shoe stores, and slurring her words, you know? We’ve been doing Sunny for 11 years and I’ve always come back to that for 11 years. I came home from the pilot feeling like the straight person and I don’t know if it’s funny. So it’s nice being able to find comedy in that as well.
AVC: What should we expect from Waitress in season 11?
MEE: I have no idea what they’re going to write for me. I think that they have gotten to a point where they try to take a break from writing when they’re not writing. So I don’t think that they know what they’re going to write for me. It’s fun to be debaucherous and the worst version of yourself, because that’s what everybody is on that show. I’m always happy when it goes further in that direction. We’re in a place with Sunny where we’re like, “How many more years of this are we doing?” We’re definitely doing one more after this, but I think that’s all the contract is right now. It’s going to be an interesting journey.
AVC: What allows a show like Sunny to stay fresh and consistently funny through so many seasons?
MEE: I think it’s having the freedom to do the things that make them laugh. To not have to censor yourself. To not have to listen to notes from an overbearing network or studio. I think shows get watered-down a lot because of notes, and that’s one of the things that Sunny is really lucky for. Doing 10 episodes also really helps, not having to bang out 22 episodes. Which would be impossible. They’d just be dead if they had to do that; they write them, act in them, edit them.
AVC: Do you get publicly shamed a lot by people who want Waitress to be with Charlie in the show?
MEE: Yeah. People still tweet me like, “Oh my god, I just found out you guys are married!” Which makes sense to me because I’m not the type of person who is like, “I love this actor, let me find out everything about their lives.” So it’s fun when people find that out and they’re really excited. When we did the live tour of “The Nightman Cometh,” where Charlie proposes to the Waitress, my parents came to Los Angeles to watch it and it was the way people were yelling at me when Waitress says “No” to him was so aggressive. My mom was taping it and I watched the videotape later and people were calling my the C-word while my mom was taping it. It was really intense.
AVC: What’s your favorite look that Danny DeVito’s ever had to wear in the show?
MEE: I guess I have two. In both of these it was like, “Oh my God, will you please look at what you’re making Danny DeVito do?” And by the way, he loves it. When he was birthed out of the couch naked, that was pretty incredible. And his Native American man in the Lethal Weapon one was pretty amazing.
AVC: What was it like to be in Masterminds, playing alongside such a talented, diverse cast of comedians?
MEE: It was incredible. It was an incredible thing to be cast in. I’m from Mississippi, so I went into the audition with [director] Jared Hess and I was like [in thick accent] “I’m from Mississippi, y’all, so I’m just gonna let my accent come out.” And he loved that. It was kind of a long process of waiting to hear if I was going to get the role, so when I got it was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” Shooting was incredible. The cast was incredible. Another super weird job where you’re like, “This is your husband Owen Wilson and you will now kiss Owen Wilson.” This is my job. So weird.
AVC: Do you now feel like with roles on The Grinder and Masterminds, people can remove you from that “Waitress” role and expand your possibilities for other types of work?
MEE: It’s definitely fun having a bigger part in a show, you know? It’s fun to have more of a lead role because I love being the Waitress, but I come in for a couple of episodes, do a little thing, and then I’m out. It’s definitely nice for me to be able to have just a bigger part and more to do. I got cast in Masterminds before The Grinder and I think a big part of the reason that I got cast in it is because Jared loves It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and liked that sense of humor. So I’ve gotta say that the Waitress has been great for me too!