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Since the early 2000s, character actor Judy Greer has made a name for herself playing often-thankless roles. She was a waitress in Adaptation. She was the best friend in 13 Going On 30, 27 Dresses, and seemingly countless other romantic comedies. She was even Orlando Bloom’s longsuffering sister in Elizabethtown. But in recent years, Greer has spent more and more time working in television. Kitty, her recurring character on Arrested Development, became famous for one line of dialogue (“Say goodbye to these!”), and she was the warm center of CBS’ short-lived, unjustly overlooked Love Monkey. She’s guest-starred on series as diverse as How I Met Your Mother, ER, and WordGirl. Now, she’s getting back into the TV-regular game on CBS’ new sitcom Mad Love, airing Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern; meanwhile, she’s doing regular voice work on FX’s Archer (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern). On Mad Love, she plays Connie, the scruffy-girl type who’d be the supporting player in most romantic comedies but is the unlikely romantic lead of this one. That show only made it onto the air because Greer stepped into the Connie role, taking over the part from the departing Lizzy Caplan. Greer talked with The A.V. Club at the recent Television Critics Association press tour, addressing the process of being cast in Mad Love, working on pilots that never get picked up, and being part of Arrested Development.
The A.V. Club: On Mad Love, your character and Tyler Labine’s character obviously hate each other, and eventually, will probably love each other. That’s an old, old idea. How do you make it new?
Judy Greer: I don’t know if this is going to answer your question, but I never really put pressure on myself to make things seem new and spontaneous, mostly because I think everything is kind of derivative at this point. I enjoy the old-fashioned idea of like, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, those old movies. Those relationships are kind of where I’ve gotten inspiration for this character and this relationship. But I think what makes it new is just the words coming out of my mouth personally, and my take on it based on my own personal life experience is hopefully going to add something a little different, and add some flavor to it. Not that my life has been so crazy and exciting, but you know, it just seems like if I can bring more of myself to the role, and not think as much about playing a character, it’s going to help for the longevity of the show. It’s going to help keep it spontaneous and exciting, instead of thinking in terms of this box of a human that I have to slip myself into every week, which I tend to do more when I’m shooting a movie. On a television show, this is all kind of still new to me, doing many episodes of something, so I want to try to keep it as fresh and close to home as possible, so it doesn’t get stale and I still like it every day.
AVC: So where do you find the overlap with this particular character? You often play perkier people, and this one is very crabby.
JG: You know, I have played several characters that are crabby and cranky. I don’t know if I’m just not a very well-developed human being or if I don’t know myself very well, but I tend to find I can take on elements of the characters that I’m playing. Like when I play Connie, I feel like I am a little bit more acerbic at work, and I am a little bit more snarky, a little bit more dour, but with energy. And when I was playing a character like Becky Freeley in Miss Guided (Greer’s short-lived ABC sitcom about a high-school teacher), I found that I was insanely positive and happy all the time. So I think that I have a lot of these different personalities inside me, and I can just draw on them when I need to. And that, I don’t know, maybe that makes me sort of schizophrenic in my real life, but it helps at work. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve played the quirky best friend in a lot of romantic comedies. This show seems to be a romantic comedy from the point of view of the quirky best friend. Did that shift appeal to you?
JG: I didn’t really think of it in those terms when I read the script and when I came to the project. I was interested more in the medium and the cast and [creator] Matt Tarses, and I thought the jokes were really funny. I don’t think there’s a ton of new new stuff about doing a sitcom or doing a multi-camera show, but they work. They’re fun, and they’re energetic, and they’re short. And when you fall in love with one—like, I will watch Seinfeld, I’ll watch Will & Grace, all those reruns. I just can never get enough. I watch the same ones over and over and over. I watch the same movies that make me laugh over and over and over. I was hoping to be part of something like that. I want to be on that thing that people watch while they’re eating a quick dinner before they go out, or to cheer them up, you know what I mean? I want to make people laugh every day, if I can.
AVC: Do you guys do this in front of an audience?
JG: We don’t, but we have an awesome, awesome crew and production staff, and they’re so warm, and they laugh out loud all the time. So we don’t have an actual studio audience in there, which can be really beneficial not to, because we get to constantly change it and constantly work on the scene and try out jokes, and we have so much more time. We do have great laugh-out-louders shooting us doing it.
AVC: Did you know anyone in the cast before this?
JG: Chalkie [Sarah Chalke, who plays Greer’s best friend] and I worked together a couple of years ago on a project, and we wanted to try and work together again. It was kind of too good to be true. She got cast in this first, and then it was just like, “I have to get on this, I have to get on this,” because she’s such a good friend. And being able to go to work every day with such a good friend—especially in this business where your jobs are short, the turnover’s fast, and you’re working all the time with so many different people, and there’s so many different projects going on that the odds are that you could actually book something that hopefully, knock on wood, is a long-term job with one of your best friends—is too good to be true.
AVC: You came into this project late—
JG: Yeah, I was like, the last one!
AVC: And the network picked up the pilot contingent on the producers finding someone for your role. What was that experience like?
JG: I guess I didn’t hear that until way after the fact, so I’m glad, because I think it would have made me more nervous. But I didn’t have to audition for the show, which I was thankful for, because sometimes I’m nervous if I audition, I’m not going to get the part. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would have. But I was really hoping they would pick me. I know that they auditioned like, every available girl, and so that was kind of nerve-wracking, knowing that this role was out there and waiting to see how things would turn out.
AVC: The pilot seems a little small, just these four people. In future episodes, does the world expand?
JG: Oh yeah, the world expands a lot. I’ve done a lot of pilots now, and they’re all so expositional. And I’ve seen our pilot, and I love it, but I think if you can get past just figuring out our names and what we do for a living and why we like each other, you’re in for a much bigger world. We really expand. We have such amazing guest stars. In an episode we’re shooting right now, we have Chris Parnell. He’s doing two episodes playing my boyfriend. We have Martin Starr, who’s amazing. We’ve had Joe Lo Truglio. I mean, we’ve had so many good guest stars already, and I think that the world is growing. In the beginning, I think that it is important to make sure that the audience is invested in us. Hopefully, we don’t bore them too much in the first few episodes. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were there any of those other pilots that you were really disappointed didn’t go to series, ones you thought could have been great?
JG: I kind of feel that way every time. I always say I’m not going to care this time, but I always do. Like, I did one this season called Tax Man with Martin Short, which was like, “Are you kidding me? Doing a pilot with Martin Short? Like, career high.” And I just assumed, because it’s Martin Short, like, “How are they not going to pick that up?” But they didn’t. Then there was another one I did for HBO that I just thought was so amazing and weird and cool. I really liked this HBO show. It was a super-dark comedy, and I was hoping that that would get picked up, and it was at a time when there was a changeover in who was running HBO, and I thought we had a pretty good shot, and then that didn’t get picked up. I always get disappointed, but then you get over it. Ever forward.
AVC: What’s that experience like, when you’re in a pilot that nobody sees? Even when you’re in a really independent film, it’s usually released on DVD at some point, so someone can see it.
JG: Especially now. It’s so cheap to just release a movie. You can do it by yourself if you have to. Put in on the Internet, if you have to. It’s… I don’t care anymore. It’s what I do. I feel like, until now, I just do pilots. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just about the experience. I get to learn. Like I said, working with Martin Short was such a huge deal that that was enough. And sometimes you’re glad that no one can see it. [Laughs.]
AVC: What are some things you prefer about working in television, and what have you found enjoyable about this multi-camera format?
JG: Well, I like working in television because it’s an evolving story that you tell. That’s also one of the things I don’t like about it, too. Because sometimes it’s hard, and just when I think I’ve nailed something, it changes or we have to change it or change the joke or the character is evolving in a way that I don’t have control over. And it’s really exciting and also it makes me nervous, because I’m like, “Well, I figured out how to perform this episode, but what if I’m not as good at what they write for next episode?” But that’s part of the challenge, and that’s what, I hope, ultimately makes me a better actor.
I like this medium because it feels like we’re doing a play, and I learned how to act in theater school, so that comes very naturally to me, this format. I like that people can laugh out loud when we’re working. I like that we can make mistakes, unlike being onstage, where you can’t. [Laughs.] And I like the idea of doing a little movie every week. When you do a movie, you don’t know when it’s going to come out. In a year, you forget about it. I forget stories that happened on set. I forget who I worked with. I forget my lines, my characters’ names. This is so fresh. We make it, and it’s on TV. It feels more like a living, breathing thing.
AVC: The will-they/won’t-they scenario is so hard to get just right. In these first few that you’ve done, how far have they been pushing that?
JG: It’s coming pretty naturally, but we’re shooting episode nine right now, and in this episode, we feel my character has a little mini breakthrough about Larry. She learns something about how she feels about him that she doesn’t like, because, you know, she doesn’t want to like him. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you return to the stage often?
JG: Not as often as I’d like to, but I did a few years ago. I did one play in New York called Show People at the Second Stage, and that was just a crazy-huge high. I loved every second of it. That’s where I met Ty Burrell (now of Modern Family) who has since become… so thrilled, so thrilled for him. And Deb Monk was in it, and Larry Pressman, and the four of us just did this. Paul Weitz wrote it, and it was just such an amazing experience and a really cool, like, offbeat play. Just a really good acting lesson. There’s this feeling when you finish shooting a scene, the drive home, you just always think, “Wait, now I wish I could do it again this way, because that’s what I meant to do. Or here’s the timing of that joke. Or here’s what the character was thinking.” But in a play, when I walk home from the theater that night, I can think all that stuff and then try it again the next day. It’s really fun. It’s kind of like an acting class for six weeks. I would love to do it again. It’s just sometimes hard. And it doesn’t ever pay anything to people like me. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re not often known for something as traditional as a multi-camera sitcom. What do you think stands out about this one?
JG: Well, I think it’s funny, and I think that the rest of the cast is so amazing. I knew Sarah, obviously, before, so I knew what she was capable of, but Tyler and Jason Biggs are amazing. They’re so funny, and their timing is so good, and I just hope people—like, I love my fans who like more edgy things, but I hope people don’t get turned off by the fact that it’s a multi-camera sitcom, because I think it’s still edgy and still evolving, and I think it’s going to be really good.
AVC: You and Tyler Labine are known for edgier stuff. How do you bring that edge to a very traditional format?
JG: I think that comes with a collaboration with the writers. With our personalities, I think that we get cast in edgier roles because we are a little more offbeat, so people—as we get to know the writers, and as the writers get to know us, they start to write around us more, and that’s why I think the pilot is not always the best way to get to experience a new television show, because we’re fitting ourselves into these characters. Whereas as the show evolves, they’re writing the characters for us and for our strengths and weaknesses. So as long as people can stick with it… which I think they should, because it’s awesome.
AVC: It usually takes a while for comedy, at least on television, to gel. What’s that process feel like? Especially when it’s working well?
JG: It feels like… it feels like a real collaboration. It feels like we’re working on a new play. I say what I think, and then they say what they think, and then we all wonder what the network is going to think, and then we try to find a happy medium that makes all three people happy. It can be frustrating, like, when I have an idea for something, and they explain to me why it can’t be that way. And it totally makes sense, and I agree with them, but I still want to do it my way. Or I still don’t want my character to say that, or whatever.
But there is an element of, like, television glitz that you have to adhere to. Like, my character has to wear makeup and she has to have pretty hair, but I don’t know that in the real world, Connie would, you know what I mean? But it’s still television. I don’t know if we were shooting this as a movie if we would look the way we look in this. There’s elements of it that you can’t ignore. We’re doing a sitcom for CBS, so it’s not totally, like, realistic, but I think the characters are realistic and the dialogue is realistic and… can I stop talking about that now? You know what I mean. [Laughs.]
AVC: You had a very small part in Arrested Development, one of the great TV comedies of all time. What is it like being a part of something that’s gotten that huge?
JG: Well, it’s awesome, first of all, because I get a lot of credit for doing very little work. [Laughs.] And I get a lot of people screaming at me on the street and flashing me, and that’s always fun. I like that a lot. [Laughs.] Especially like, specifically to Arrested Development, those are my favorite fans, because the people who love Arrested started out loving it and they watched it forever, and they… I dunno, I just thought they were really cool, because when the show was on television, nobody watched it. So the people who did and the people who TiVoed it, I was like, “Right on. You’re totally getting it. It’s awesome and funny.”
And it’s really caught on in the time since it’s been taken off the air, but in the beginning, I was like, “Yes!” Sometimes I get really shy when people recognize me, but when it was from Arrested, I’d be like, “So what do you like about it? You watch it? Will you try to watch it when it’s on, and not just TiVo it? Because if you don’t want it to be taken off the air….” It was really sad when it got taken off the air. But it’s really cool. It was nice to have a small part in something with a big life.