The actor: Rachel Dratch started her career by performing sketch comedy at Second City, then went on to spend seven seasons as a utility player on Saturday Night Live, where she found love for her “Debbie Downer” and Boston teen characters. Since then, Dratch has been a go-to bit player in all sorts of comedies, including Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Ugly Betty, and 30 Rock. (She was initially cast in the Jenna role, but was replaced after the pilot.) She recently appeared in the Nia Vardalos film My Life In Ruins as a stereotypical American tourist.
My Life In Ruins (2009)—“Kim”
Rachel Dratch: I did Second City, and Nia Vardalos also did Second City, so I knew her from there. That probably gave me sort of an edge. We got to shoot in Spain and Greece, so that was pretty cool. It was a small part on paper. It only had maybe 12 or 15 lines, so I thought I was going to be showing up a few days, then frolicking across Europe. But actually, we are in the background of every scene. [Harland Williams and I] came up with the term “back-ting” because so many of our scenes would just be our backs.
The A.V. Club: What did you do to kill all that time?
RD: The other actors were really fun, like there was this Australian couple that was really funny, and this Spanish actress who I guess is super-famous over there, but of course we didn’t know who she was. We would just hang and make each other laugh. There was a lot of downtime, and we were in some beautiful locations, so I felt pretty lucky to be just sitting around on top of some crazy seaside mountain. We were overseas, so it wasn’t like everyone went to their own homes every night, so it was almost like some sort of summer-camp situation—we would all eat together, and we were all in the same hotel. My Life In Ruins was not necessarily my comic tour de force—it was more the life experience that made it memorable, I guess.
AVC: What do you consider your comic tour de force?
RD: [Laughs.] Ahhh, no, I can’t answer that!
Saturday Night Live (1999-2006)—various characters
RD: [Laughs.] Ahhh! I’m a tour de force! I guess the stuff on Saturday Night Live feels like what I do more, where you’re creating your own characters.
AVC: What was your audition like?
RD: I was the last one of the day to audition—they make you wait. They’ll say, “Come in at 2,” and then you don’t go on until, like, 5. So you go in all hyped-up and ready to go, and then you sit around and wait for two hours. I went through all these phases: "I’m ready," "I’m not ready," "I can do this," "I’ll never do this." By the time I went, I forgot the whole importance of the thing, and I actually can say that I had fun in the audition, which is crazy. I was so nervous. I didn’t get the job that year because they hired Horatio [Sanz], Jimmy [Fallon], and Chris Parnell. They didn’t hire any women, and I was told, “Well, maybe next year.” But I didn’t really put much faith in it. I auditioned the following year, but I had already used all my, quote, good characters. [Laughs.]
AVC: What were the characters you did for the first audition?
RD: A lot of them I never did on the show, but one that I did do was a Boston thing, I don’t even remember what I said in it.
AVC: So the characters don’t have to be celebrities? You can do character types?
RD: You do characters, and then if you have impressions, they want to see those, too.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of impressions on the show. What’s the secret to doing impressions so the joke is more than just the impression itself?
RD: I don’t really consider myself an impressionist. Darrell Hammond’s just amazing; you need someone like that on the show to be all these people in the news, and to address topical things. Usually there’s an angle on it, so it’s not just the voice.
AVC: How do you find that angle?
RD: You sort of make your face how you feel like they look. That’s how I did it, anyway. I think I did three. I did Liz Taylor, but I just did the aura of Liz Taylor; I wasn’t studying tapes on her or anything. I just threw on this movie-star voice, so I’m not the precision instrument that Darrell is, by any means.
AVC: SNL has notoriously long hours. Was it difficult to do other projects while you were on the show?
RD: I only did other stuff when I was off in the summer. I actually didn’t do that much compared to people now; there’s more of a flow going on with people now. You have to stay there for whatever weeks you’re working, so you’d always just work around it. But you do get a lot of weeks off, so it’s actually a pretty nice schedule, except when you’re in that three-week stretch and you can’t think of any scene ideas. That’s when it becomes psychological torture. But then you have two weeks off afterward to forget the whole thing. I’ve been off it for three years, so I totally idealize the place. I don’t remember all the teeth-gnashing, and the walking the halls without a scene idea, and hearing laughs coming out of another room. [Laughs.] There were many hurdles every week, but now I only remember the fun times. No matter what the ups and downs of it, it’s always exciting to be doing a live show.
Serious Business (1999)—“Jude Russel”
AVC: This was the first movie on your IMDb credits.
RD: Oh my God, I barely remember that at all. I was sitting in a parking lot, and I was supposed to be crying, but it was supposed to be funny. I never saw it, and I don’t even remember the character. I might have been a social worker, I’m not even sure. If you have a list [of my roles], get ready for secretaries and lesbians.
AVC: What is it about you that exudes those things?
RD: I don’t know. I have theories, but I’m saving them for my one-woman show.
Martin & Orloff (2002)—“Southern Woman”
AVC: This was an Upright Citizens Brigade film, right? And you performed at the UCB Theater when you moved to New York from Chicago.
RD: I would sit in and perform with them for the improv shows, because they had a very welcoming open-door policy. I was only on that set for a one-dayer. There’s this whole Chicago fraternity, we all came up together. There’s a lot of cross-pollination and helping each other out.
30 Rock (2006-2007)—various characters
RD: I’ve talked about this to death, so I don’t know if it’s worth giving any air to. But yeah, I had the role [of Jenna], and then I didn’t have the role, then I had smaller roles. [Laughs.] It’s kind of a mystery to me, so I never know how to answer it. I guess my sort of theory on it is that when it turned into the smaller roles, I thought it was a really cool idea, and then I think when you’re developing a new show—they thought it might be more broad than it ended up being. At first, there were going to be sketches in the show.
AVC: TGS sketches?
RD: Yeah, in the pilot there were sketches. And then they decided that they weren’t going to do that, and so then the idea of having a person play different roles every week didn’t fit the tone. When you’re starting up a show, you don’t really know what direction it’s going to go. Unfortunately for me, it was so public, more press then I’ve ever gotten about anything.
AVC: In an interview around that time, you mentioned you had some downtime, and the story led with the headline: “Unemployment’s a downer for SNL-er Dratch.”
RD: I’m sort of getting used to being a regular old actor where, like, you don’t get to go to work everyday.
AVC: Is that because of SNL?
RD: Yeah, SNL was this nest where you get the luxury of having a job for seven years, and before that, I was at Second City for another four years on the Mainstage. So it’s definitely a change. I’d been doing things off and on, but just not with the same steadiness of SNL. Sometimes I say something kind of lightly—I said something in a little press line where they were like, “What have you been up to?” and I was like, “Honestly? Nothing.” I know you’re supposed to say that you’re working on all these things, but I’m really not doing anything, and then that got blown up into this whole big article, I was like, “Oh my God, this was not the tone in which I said this.” That’s what’s so weird about the whole showbiz thing: You have to make it seem like you’re super in demand, so just write that I’m very in demand.
It’s weird—just having done theater and then SNL, you really don’t have to deal that much with press and perception. In theater, it’s just you and the audience. It’s less of a popularity contest. It’s just you and the audience, and they’re laughing or they’re not laughing, that’s the only gauge you really have. But with TV and movies and everything, it’s like "Well, did you get a meeting at so-and-so?" and "So-and-so’s really hot right now," which is all the stuff I wasn’t used to, and I’m probably still not used to. I’m realizing things as I’m saying that.
Spring Breakdown (2009)—“Judi Joskow”
RD: Ryan Shiraki, who used to work at SNL, and I were friends. There was a string of silly-guy movies, silly comedies that came out that weren’t that great, and we were like, “We should write a silly comedy that stars women.” Ryan had this idea, and we wrote it up, we got Amy Poehler and Parker Posey and Jane Lynch and Missi Pyle, we shot it, and we were really pleased with it. I sat there in the test audience, and it got really good laughs, and then it went straight to DVD. I don’t really know why. It was at Warner Independent, and then Warner Independent closed, and they decided they would have to spend, this is what they said, $25 million to market this movie that cost half of that. So they said they wouldn’t release it, and we were pretty crushed.
AVC: What kinds of roles do you still find yourself hoping that you’ll play?
RD: Well, I feel like since I did Debbie Downer [on SNL], I’ve gotten typecast. Before, I would get various energies, but since that, I’m often the go-to for that schlumpy downer person. It’s fun to do, but I’d like to play different energies.
The King Of Queens (2002-2004)—“Denise”
RD: They just offered me the part, and then they brought me back a bunch of times. That was fun. I don’t really know what to say about it, but sometimes people in the street, when they recognize me—there’s a certain, um, breed of person, like “Hey! King Of Queens!” A whole other audience watches King Of Queens than SNL. I landed in Denmark, and in the airport, a Danish person knew me from King Of Queens. So I will say that has brought me international notoriety, even though I was only on it like five times. Say that I’m a tour de force with international notoriety.