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Cheryl Hines is best known for her seven-season tour of duty patiently enduring Larry David’s unique sense of right and wrong on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role she inhabits so believably that some people—including, as she’s stated in interviews, her own relatives—have had trouble separating fact from fiction. But just as “Cheryl David” spent the last season of Curb forging her own identity, Cheryl Hines has slowly come into her own as an actress with supporting parts in films like RV, The Ugly Truth, and Waitress. While making the latter, Hines also forged a close bond with its writer-director, Adrienne Shelly. Sadly, Shelly was killed in 2006 before the film’s release, leaving behind more than a half-dozen completed scripts.
One was a black comedy about a middle-aged woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her and, incensed by his intention to flee to Paris, duct-tapes him to a toilet, refusing to release him until he falls in love with her again. Shelly’s husband, producer Andy Ostroy, decided to forge ahead with the script, only to discover that too many prospective directors insisted on making changes to it. So he did something unexpected: He called Hines (whose sole directing credit was an episode of the short-lived sitcom Campus Ladies) and suggested she take over. Not only would Hines have to bring the story to life without Shelly’s input, she’d also have to wrangle a cast of established actors including Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell, and Justin Long. Needless to say, as a directorial debut, Serious Moonlight was especially intense for Hines. The A.V. Club spoke with her about dealing with those pressures and the film’s uncomfortable premise, as well as how her work with the often-inappropriate comedy of Curb helped her to prepare.
The A.V. Club: One of the conditions of you taking on Serious Moonlight was that you had to stick precisely to Adrienne Shelly’s script. Did that—as well as working with an established cast of actors—alleviate the pressure of directing for the first time?
Cheryl Hines: Um… No. [Laughs.] I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I think there were probably advantages and disadvantages. I understand how scripts evolve, and a script might need to be adjusted when you’re shooting it, or right before you’re about to shoot. So that was challenging sometimes, to not be able to change the script. I feel very grateful that I got to work with Meg [Ryan] and Tim [Hutton], because they are—I don’t want to say “seasoned professionals,” because it’ll sound like I’m talking about Cloris Leachman or something. But they clearly have been working in this business for a long time, and they know what they’re doing, and they’re good at it, so that was very helpful. And then it was also challenging, because sometimes you have ideas that are different from something they might have. You’re at a crossroads, because it’s like, “Well, I’m a first-time director, but I’m working with an actor who already knows what they’re doing.” So sometimes that led to a discussion. But for the most part, it was probably very, very helpful that I got to work with Tim and Meg.
AVC: Between their input and wanting to honor Shelly’s intentions, did you feel as though you were still able to put your personal stamp on it?
CH: I did. Fortunately, Andy Ostroy, who was married to Adrienne and produced the film, and Michael Roiff, who worked very closely with Adrienne on Waitress, also produced Serious Moonlight. They really were very generous and said, “Make the film the way you think it should be made.” So there was never a discussion of, “Is this what Adrienne would have wanted? What would Adrienne think?” And I am grateful for that, because that would be an impossible way to work—because you would never have those answers. It would be very limiting. So they did turn it over to me and say, “Do you what you think you should do.”
AVC: You’ve said that you sought advice from some of your own former directors. What was the best piece of advice you got?
CH: Zak Penn said, “I don’t know why this is, but when you’re directing, you forget to eat.” And I thought that was absurd, but he was right. [Laughs.] He really told me, “Make sure you take care of yourself. Make sure you eat right. You have to make it through the day, and you have to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.” And I didn’t really understand it until I started shooting, but that was good advice. Literally, like, keep yourself alive during the shoot. And then Barry [Sonnenfeld] talked me through the bathroom—because so much of this film takes place in a bathroom. It’s a very small space. He helped me think about how the bathroom should be laid out—windows and lighting and the sorts of things that I probably would have never thought about.
And Larry Charles was so supportive and so encouraging, and he just kept telling me, “Try to enjoy it. It’s going to be stressful. There’s no right way, and there’s no wrong way. So just do it.” And I needed that. Because filmmaking is not an exact science. You wish it were, because then you could find an answer. But there are no answers, and there are things that you cannot possibly anticipate. Like, we were shooting this scene outside, and there was this frog that was really loud—so loud. [Laughs.] And sometimes we only had three takes for one scene. When you have a frog making noise over the actors, it’s very distracting. It was bringing the shooting to a halt. We couldn’t find that fucking frog.
AVC: If you’d found the frog, would you have killed it?
CH: I would’ve stabbed that frog in the throat. [Laughs.] But we never found it.
AVC: In the credits, would you have admitted that some animals were harmed?
CH: Yes, I would have said, “And by the way, Cheryl Hines killed a frog. Deal with it.” [Laughs.] When we were shooting, I learned that you have to be okay with the unexpected, because it’s going to happen. You can’t sit around worrying about it, because you don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be something. It’s going to be a frog, or a piece of clothing is missing, or one of your props is completely wrong and you have to wait for someone to run to store to get the right one. I don’t know why I was so unaware of problems like that happening on a set, but I was. Probably because I’ve always been the actor, and I wait in my trailer until all the problems are solved and they tell me to come to the set.
AVC: Meg Ryan seems to be having trouble making a transition from her earlier, “America’s sweetheart” days to more mature roles. How do you think Serious Moonlight will help or hurt that?
CH: I think this film is perfect for Meg, because it shows her as a mature woman, yet she’s still funny and sparkly, and she brings something to this character that reminds everybody of why we fell in love with her in the first place.
AVC: The premise—her character holds her husband hostage until he loves her again—makes it hard to sympathize with her. Is that something you and she were concerned with? Making sure that the audience didn’t hate her?
CH: Well, yes. Louise, the character that Meg plays, could be very unlikable, because she does hideous things. What I loved about Meg and what she brings to the project is she’s a very likable person. She comes onscreen and you can feel the audience like her. She has a way with this role where you feel like you could understand how she got there, instead of just feeling like she’s lost her mind.
AVC: One could make the argument that if the roles were reversed—that if it was a man holding a woman hostage—it wouldn’t be very funny.
CH: That’s probably true. But there are lots of things like that out there. Like, Will Ferrell running down the street in his underwear is really funny, but if you have an attractive woman like Tina Fey running down the street in her underwear, that’s “sexy.” I mean, it’s not the best parallel, but yes, probably that’s true. It would probably be a lot less funny. Although, look at Ruthless People. She was held captive. That was funny.
AVC: Was it ever brought up on set that this is like an alternate-reality version of French Kiss, what with Timothy Hutton playing Meg Ryan’s philandering husband again?
CH: [Laughs.] I have heard that, yes—and even Meg and Tim said that. But it’s a totally different vibe. Maybe they were meant to be together, Meg and Tim, in some weird universe.
AVC: This movie obviously deals with a lot of uncomfortable comedy. Do you feel like working on Curb Your Enthusiasm has blackened your sense of humor?
CH: It’s definitely helped me see comedy in a different way—that comedy doesn’t have to be big and over-the-top with huge laugh lines. It can be subtle, and there can be moments where the audience finds it. It doesn’t have to be presentational.
AVC: Speaking of Curb, did you feel a little left out this season?
CH: A little bit! It was really hard to watch the show and see Larry making out with other women. I don’t particularly like it. [Laughs.] And even when we did the Seinfeld scenes, there were moments when I felt like I was guest starring on somebody else’s show. It was just a strange season for me.
AVC: Do you feel as though your character became more selfish and unlikable as soon as Larry’s real-life marriage started falling apart?
CH: Yeah, probably. At least, what was presented to the audience was this character who’s really just about had it with him. It’s hard to find the funny moments in that. But I felt like Cheryl David had to have reasons to leave, otherwise she can’t just, in one episode, decide to go. It had to be a slow progression.
AVC: So much of Cheryl’s role is just acting as a voice of reason for Larry. How did you approach redefining the character this season, since you spent so much time away from him?
CH: People keep coming up to me saying, “You’ve never looked better on the show than this season.” And I said, “Well, this is the first time that you actually see me out of the house.” I’m out auditioning, I’m doing my own thing, and I think it’s kind of fun to see a different side of her, where she actually does have a life and enjoys people. It’s nice to see the other side, instead of just Cheryl sitting around the living room waiting for Larry to come home and tell her what idiotic thing he’s done that day.
AVC: Where do you see Larry and Cheryl’s relationship ultimately ending up?
CH: I think at the end of the day, Cheryl and Larry belong together. Who else is going to love him? [Laughs.] And, by the way, he is very entertaining.
AVC: Even though you’re branching more and more away from Curb, do you think you’ll ever stop being “Larry David’s wife”?
CH: I don’t think so, because that’s how a lot of people came to know me. I’m sure in a lot of people’s minds, I’ll always be Cheryl David. And that’s good. It’s a different place to be in when you’re an actor and you love the show that you’re on, and you love the people that you work with, and you don’t mind being associated with that for the rest of your life. It’s probably a different story when it’s a show that you were glad you got because you got to pay the bills and you’re a working actor, and you hope it leads you to the next project—but you never liked the character and you never really liked the show. That would be a little tougher.