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: If there were ever an actor perfectly made for this feature, it would be Andrea Savage. She started out on teen shows in the ’90s, then worked her way through L.A.’s Groundlings comedy theater and stand-up; has had roles on shows like Significant Others, the Hotwives series, Veep, Episodes, and iZombie; landed inspired parts in movie hits like Step Brothers and Sleeping With Other People, all the way up to producing her own sitcom, I’m Sorry, which premieres on truTV Wednesday, July 12. In it, she stars as a familiar character: a wife and mom, who’s also juggling a comedy career. At the Television Critics Association conference in January, Savage sat down with us in a hotel bar to talk about her life in comedy and all the parts she’s had along the way.
I’m Sorry (2017-)—“Andrea”
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with your new show—you are a mom, I’m guessing?
Andrea Savage: I am a mom, although it’s funny, because I feel like to describe the show, I have to say that, but the show is not about being a mom. It is not a bunch of episodes about mothering. It happens to be I am a person who is a mother and a wife, and I work, and I’m a person, and a friend, and a daughter. And I do have a child, but it does not define my life completely. But I’m a good parent. I’m involved, but I still get to be funny and dirty and flawed and good and funny.
AVC: You have a girl?
AS: I have one little girl in real life, and one little girl in the show. One husband in real life, one husband on the show. It keeps it all very easy.
AVC: Right now I’m here, and my kids are back in Chicago, and I’m not feeling guilty about that at all.
AS: Good. You miss them, though.
AVC: I do. My daughter lost a tooth.
AS: [Gasps.] Aren’t they supposed to know? “Don’t do anything important or big while I’m gone!”
AVC: It means she’s going to get, like, a rubber band for a tooth fairy present.
AS: But that’s the other thing. Even if you don’t have kids—actually, so many of the people who watch the show don’t have kids who really loved it, because everybody is juggling personalities. I have a thing where I’m a mom, and I’m serious, but I am definitely in those situations where I also do comedy and say stuff that I think is just whatever, not even a big deal, and I can tell it’s like, “Oh, whoa. That was bold.” And I’m like, “Oh, I forget their line is further back than my line.” And you feel sort of awkward, like you’re not in either one a little bit sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I’m straddling both, but not in either one.
But everybody, even if you’re not in comedy, everybody has to act different at work than they act somewhere else. Everybody is putting on hats, so that’s what is relatable. It’s about weird situations that you get in at the gym. It’s about dealing with your parents who are—you’re not taking care of them yet, they’re not taking care of you, but they’re doing weird shit, and you’re like, “Well, they’re not going to change, so let’s just go with it.” And friends who are getting divorced, friends who have never gotten married yet, don’t have kids, but want them, but are getting older and getting weird.
AVC: The 40s decade is a really interesting time of life, and it hasn’t really been explored on TV that much for whatever reason.
AS: I wanted it to be explored in a really grounded and realistic way. When I developed it, Better Things wasn’t out, and Odd Mom Out had just maybe come out. I am a fan of both of those shows. Pam Adlon is someone I think is like… I don’t know, Jill [Kargman]. I know Pam, and she’s great. But they’re different. One is broader, and one of them is a little bit darker.
I just wanted to do something funny but nuanced and real, and deal with things that everyone I know in their 30s and 40s are dealing with. So, it’s going to the fertility clinic to get your stuff checked. It was that and just sitting there, watching people go in and deposit [sperm]—it was just like a stream—and I’m not mature enough to handle it. So it’s stuff that I think everyone I know is dealing with. Keeping a marriage alive, but not the cliché, “Marriage isn’t fun! Keep it spicy!” But just nuanced on that in a little different take.
Sweet Valley High (1996-1997)—“Renata Vargas”
AS: Who doesn’t want to play Renata Vargas, the sassy Brazilian exchange student? My favorite part about that was, I remember being like, “Do you want me to actually research a Brazilian accent?” They were like, “Oh, no. Just do what you’re doing.” I was like, “Okay, because mine, I think, sounds like Russian?” Like, “I’m not remotely doing the right accent.” And they just put in every stereotype of every ethnicity into this one role. I was talking about sombreros and tamales, but I was from Brazil. And then I was talking about siestas and stuff in Spain, like Madrid, and then I would talk about the jungle and voodoo. And I had fruit on my head in some episodes?
AS: Yeah. But, by the way, I loved every moment of it, and it was my first big job, and I was super excited.
AVC: How did that happen?
AS: I auditioned for it.
AVC: You were a teen actress?
AS: No. Oh, I was not a teen in this time. I was 24, I believe. No, I was pre-law at Cornell. I wasn’t going to be an actress or anything like that.
AVC: But when Sweet Valley High comes calling.
AS: When Sweet Valley High comes calling, when people are demanding you play a Brazilian with fruit on your head with a Russian accent, you satisfy their wants.
Sabrina, The Teenage Witch (1997)—“Stacey Fink”
AVC: You could play much younger than your age, on shows like Sabrina.
AS: I looked really young, and honestly, it wasn’t until somebody posted my age on IMDB… And I know there’s a lot of stuff out in the press about it, and people are like, “It doesn’t matter!” And I’m like, “Actually, it really does.” It was like a line. When that got posted, suddenly it changed. And it sucks.
Everyone checks it. It’s the first thing you do. And by the way, even I’ve been known to do it in casting when I’m doing my show. You look it up, and you’re like, “Oh! I thought they were… ” And it does change your point of view, which is not fair, because you are acting, which you should be able to play different ranges and you shouldn’t have that limit put on you before you get a job.
And I will say, and it seems like when you hear [your age], you’re like, “What’s everyone bitching about?” But it actually does change your ability to get a job to support yourself. So, I did play a lot of younger roles for a while, and then I was outed.
AVC: That led you to—no offense to Sweet Valley High—but I loved Significant Others. I’m sorry that it was so short-lived.
AS: I love that show.
AVC: I would cry from laughing at that show.
AS: It was a really funny show before its time. If there had been more cable then—because it was originally for NBC, but it was too edgy, and they just launched Bravo, but Bravo was mostly Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and other reality shows, which were doing really well. They just didn’t know how to get eyes. People didn’t really watch cable. But I loved that show, and I loved my character. It was great. It was really fun.
AVC: I thought Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce was Bravo’s first scripted series?
AS: That’s because Significant Others was so long ago. They’re like a born-again virgin. They’re just like, “No, our hymen is totally intact.” No, it was on Bravo.
AVC: Was there a lot of improv?
AS: Tons of improv. Scenarios were given to you, but it was improvised. It was great. And Brian Palermo—who played my husband—great improvisor. Great guy. We had so much fun. It was a great cast. It was a different kind of show. It definitely was just ahead of its time. I think Dog Bites Man was like that, too.
Dog Bites Man (2006)—“Tillie Sullivan”
AS: That one is a little more bittersweet. I don’t think any of us as a cast loved the tricking aspect of it. So, I think we were all kind of okay with not doing it. But we had so much fun together, and it was just the funniest group of people. I mean, come on: Zach Galifianakis, Matt Walsh, A.D. Miles. It was the four of us. And people didn’t understand the show, because Borat hadn’t come out yet. It was by the same people, and so they didn’t understand it’s real, but these people are real and they’re not real, and it’s a fake news team, but half of it—they just didn’t understand what was happening.
AVC: This whole time you were doing the Groundlings.
AS: The Groundlings and then stand-up.
AVC: You hear all these stories about women in stand-up, the scene being oppressive.
AS: I thought it was great. I had a great time. I have four brothers. I’m used to being around a lot of men. I love women, though, too. I went to an all-girls school. I didn’t really suffer as a stand-up female. I actually felt like sometimes you would end up getting a spot earlier in your career than a man would because you were a woman, and they needed a woman on the show.
AVC: There weren’t as many.
AS: There weren’t as many. There’s more now, and there were other female comedians at the time that I really looked up to. I find that where it has been harder is in producing and shows and selling a show with a female protagonist. Stand-up, I did not find it to be weird. I like men. I get along with guys. It’s fun.
AVC: You’re doing improv and stand-up, and you’re acting as well. If you had to pick one thing…
AS: In terms of doing? I would say doing my own show is pretty fucking great.
AVC: Especially after all the shows you’ve been in.
AS: I’ve had seven or eight shows that haven’t gone. So, I’ve had opportunities, and they’ve all been good scripts, and it’s just like, “Well, we just have another thing.” It’s never been horrible. It just was like, “Oh, my god, it’s never happening. How do you actually get something made?” And I made a presentation with The Lonely Island guys. They had a deal with Jessica Elbaum from Gloria Sanchez [Productions], and we shot it. And it was great. And I got Judy Greer and June Squibb and Judith Light and Jason Mantzoukas to be in it. It was awesome, and that’s how we sold it. I was like, “You got to show it, as a woman or whatever, with a specific point of view,” because I don’t like big jokes. I like them to be performance jokes. It’s hard to get off the page. I love having my own show. It’s pretty great.
AVC: Even in something like Sleeping With Other People, you’re an awesome character, but you’re a secondary character.
AS: Yes, 100 percent. And that’s fine. Honestly, I do like going on to other shows and being secondary. You’re not going to be the lead in everything. I was on tons of pilots that didn’t go as the lead or whatever. As long as it’s a good part. Sleeping With Other People is interesting, because there wasn’t really a lot on the page, but they let Jason [Mantzoukas] and I improvise everything.
It turned out to be a super fun role. It’s nice to be able to get your vision that was in my head. And then you’re like, “Oh, my god. I’m actually getting to do it”—pretty much my exact vision—start to finish in this situation, which never happens when you develop a show. So, good or bad, if it’s terrible, it’s all me. I can’t really blame anybody. But it’s been great. I love the writers room. I’m also keeping the hours 9:30 to 4:30.
AVC: So they love you.
AS: So they love me. I get to actually drop my daughter off at school and see her when she gets home. It’s been good. It’s been really smooth so far. I’m sure the shit is going to hit the fan soon. As soon as we start shooting, it’s hell, but yeah, it’ll be exciting.
Sleeping With Other People (2015)—“Naomi”
AS: I only worked a couple of days on it, really. And the ending credits, they shot after. They added that. So, we went back to New York and literally, it was the kind of thing where we only had 15 minutes, and we were on a corner in New York City, and they just let the cameras roll and said, “You’re waiting for them to show up. Go ahead.”
Jason and I worked together a lot. We’re friends, very good friends. So, we have a good rapport, and that was really fun.
The Hotwives Of Orlando (2014)—“Veronica Von Vandervon”
The Hotwives Of Las Vegas (2015)—“Ivanka Silversan”
AVC: Speaking of interesting accents, on Hotwives Of Orlando…
AS: The Hotwives Of Orlando, I love. They purposely kept giving me accents because they know I’m terrible at them. So, they were like, “Second season, you’ve got another accent.” I was like, “What?!” It just makes them laugh. Dannah [Phirman] and Danielle [Schneider] actually, who created that, are writers on my show right now. Which is amazing.
I love doing that. I do not watch the shows. I know nothing about the actual Housewives. So, I watched a couple of clips of the people I was sort of based on. But I will say, the first shot just two days in Las Vegas, and everything else was here. I was in my blond wig from the second season walking through, spray-tanned within an inch of my life in heels and a midriff and a whole thing. Someone thought I was a hooker and propositioned me in the casino. I didn’t have time to actually go through with it, unfortunately, so I did not get to make that cool 75 bucks. No, they didn’t offer us an amount.
AVC: What was the proposition? What’s the line?
AS: I can’t remember what the line was, but I was standing with someone else, and it was very clear. It was like, “Hey, do you want to party in my room?” I was flattered. I still got it. That was such a fun shoot to do.
AVC: That’s another fun cast. Casey Wilson and Kristen Schaal…
AS: The cast. And you never get to work with all women. So, it was all friends and fun—we had such a good time. And they were crazy hours and crazy conditions, but we still all were just like, “This is awesome.”`
AVC: That’s a lot of improv, right?
AS: That was tons of improv. Dannah and Danielle wrote a great script with it, but we were moving so fast. I like to do a lot of improv.
AVC: Was there anything you did on that set that surprised you?
AS: Casey’s voice in the second season, I had not heard it until we started a scene, and she went into that low voice. She was like, “I’m gonna get in the fuck jacuzzi” or something, and I was like, “What?!” I was dying. When we shot the first reunion for that show, we had been having a very long day, and it got to the point where everyone was crying-laughing. Nobody could pull it together. Angela Kinsey, literally just makeup off her face, just crying-laughing over the stupidest shit. But to the point where people were like, it was crazy. It was really fun.
Veep (2016-)—“Laura Montez”
AS: Veep was a dream come true. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for, because they kept everything very secret. I didn’t know until the table read. I didn’t get a script before the table read, so we were doing a cold-reading in the table read that I was going to be the president of the United States. So, they had fake sides for the audition. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is everything to me, as she is to every comedy person. To work with her—I will tell you, she does not disappoint. She is obviously such an amazing performer, but as the producer, her eye of what this needs. She goes like, “You know what? No. I want to just tweak a little thing,” in her own performance, and does it, and you’re like, “Oh, my god. That was everything.” She’s so smart. She’s so on point. And the whole cast—dream come true.
And the fact that I got to be the fucking president. When I did my inauguration speech, I was like, “What is happening?” And my hair is four feet off my head. I have to say that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with a lot of great people in a lot of great things. I’ve done some other really crappy stuff that hasn’t been picked up luckily.
AVC: You were on Stacked with Pamela Anderson?
AS: I did a guest star on that. I can’t even tell you what I played. But I remember being on that show. God, that’s how old I am. She was lovely, by the way. And you know what else? You know what I remember? I was young—I didn’t have kids or anything—but I remember she had an out every day to go pick up her kids from soccer.
AVC: Their names are Dylan and Brandon. I don’t know why I remember that. They’re the 90210 kids.
AS: Oh, my god, that’s right. I did not know that. But anyway, I remember even back then being like, “That is very cool.” That was her thing. She was like, “I have to be out, and I have to go pick them up from soccer.” It was a thing.
AVC: And she was a librarian?
AS: I believe she was a librarian, hence the clever name of Stacked. Honestly, I don’t even recall being on the set.
AVC: Were there other one-offs that you remember?
AS: When I first started, I did a lot of industrials. So, I did something for Pfister faucets where it was a James Bond spoof, and I was Jane Bond. And it was all about faucets. They made this thing where they wanted to film a full, elaborate, small movie, and the director was British. He thought he was directing Hamlet. He would give everyone line readings, but not actually how to say that line, but just the inflection your voice should go. So, he’d be like, “And there’s my faucet! There’s my fau-cet.” I was like, “What is happening?” I was leaping through buildings. I did something for a DNA-repackaging kit where I had to look like this knowledgeable DNA scientist. I was on an actual assembly line packaging DNA things, but in a lab coat and protective glasses. I did a lot of commercials. I did a pad commercial where I had to talk about, “You know, the sides of my underwear are a lot better protected now.”
AVC: That was a line you had to say?
AS: Yeah. And then there’s just shows where you’re like, “This is terrible,” but I’m not going to out those people.
iZombie (2016-2017)—“Vivian Stoll”
AS: I loved working on iZombie, and honestly, that crew and cast were the nicest people I had ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some really nice people. I had so much fun on that show. The final scene, where I got to eat brains—because I never do that stuff—it was so fun.
It’s such a specific, unique show, and Rob Thomas I had worked with on Party Down, because I had done the pilot for it. And when the show got picked up, I was too pregnant to do it, so Lizzy Caplan did my role. And Lizzy is a good friend of mine. Because we did it two years before, and all of a sudden, they were like, “It got picked up!” And I was like, “I’m pregnant.” And when they were going to shoot, I was going to be literally eight months pregnant and was the love interest. They were like, “We can’t.” I was like, “I get it.” And then it turned into this amazing show, and I was like [sad groan.]
So I had worked with Rob before that, and then he called and told me about it. It was kind of dicey timing, because I was about to shoot my pilot. And I was starting Veep, but I was like, “Oh, I have to do this. I don’t get asked to be a zombie.” So, it was super fun. I think that’s a great show, and I wish more people knew about it.
You’re Not You (2014)—“Alyssa”
AS: I did a movie called You’re Not You with… oh, my god… I’m blanking on the name. Two-time Academy Award-winning, beautiful, great actress…
AVC: This is what IMDB is for. Hilary Swank?
AS: Hilary Swank. And it was a drama, and she has ALS. It was good, but I don’t know if people saw it. But it was a drama, and I don’t do a ton of drama. And it was a heavy drama, and there was a scene where I had a fake baby, because we couldn’t do this with a real baby, and she’s pretty far in at this point. She’s in a wheelchair and can’t really speak or move that much, and I hand her my baby, and she drops it. And I could not not laugh, and it was not an appropriate place to laugh. And so, I had to keep asking to step away from set for a minute. And then I’d walk away and be like, “[Guffaws.] This is crazy. I have a fake baby, and I’m handing it to this woman in a wheelchair who drops it.” Everything about it. And she’s such a good actress, and she was so deep in it. I was like, “Oh, these aren’t my people.” This baby looked like it was going to murder you. It was this crazy fake baby. It was disturbing looking. I just could not… and I had to act real cool and be like, “You know, I just really need a second.”
AS: That is something I wrote and directed for Funny Or Die. It has Kate Beckinsale, Judy Greer, and myself, and it is a fake PSA of Republican women for Barack Obama’s second term, when he was running. I can’t remember which politician [former Rep. Pete Nielsen of Idaho —Ed.]—this was before it’s been out a bunch—that it said women can’t get pregnant if they get raped because your body knows whatever. All this weird stuff was coming out, and nobody was really talking about it. I was like, “Where are the Republican women? Are they on board with this?” It was a spoof, and it premiered on Bill Maher’s show, and then to Funny Or Die. It was big. It was talked about a lot, and it was all about three women. They were like, “You know what? I want someone like my dad in my vagina.” It was just the reasons why, and it was like, “You know what? Women always want a choice. What if your choice was to not have a choice?” It was very tongue in cheek, but pretty pointed. A pretty barbed political thing.
Step Brothers (2008)—“Denise”
AVC: Were there any pranks on set or anything that those guys would do to trip anybody up?
AS: I don’t think there’s a lot of pranks, because everyone is just laughing.
AVC: It’s just fun on its own.
AS: It’s just fun on its own. In between, it’s just bits. Adam McKay is—as funny as everyone else is, I will say that Adam McKay might be the funniest person I know, and I know a lot of funny people. He is so fucking funny. And then we went on a tour after that for Funny Or Die, and I think Semi-Pro was coming out. It was Zach Galifianakis, Nick Swardson, Demetri Martin, me, on a tour bus with Will [Ferrell] and Adam, and we went from colleges to colleges. I was on a bus with them, living on a bus.
AVC: Were you the only woman?
AS: Yes. It was hilarious. We went through snow storms that we were like, “We’re all dead.”
AVC: What’s the grossest thing that happened?
AS: On that trip? Well, no one was allowed to poop on that bus. That was just a thing you weren’t allowed to do. I have to say, maybe because I was there, they all kind of—there was not a lot of farting. On Dog Bites Man, there was a lot of farting, which I’m not a huge fart joke person.
AVC: Is it bad that I’m suspecting Zach Galifianakis?
AS: Actually, it was not Galifianakis. Galifianakis prided himself on smelling very good. And now I’ve outed who it was—the other two. This is funny: Zach would always claim that he had no BO. He was like, “I naturally don’t have BO. I don’t have to wear deodorant.” I was like, “That’s not possible. Looking at you, you’d be the first person I would think would have BO.” And he would be like, “Smell my armpit.” And I would smell his armpit, and there would be some BO. And then he’d be like, “Well, it was because I had coffee. But if I don’t have coffee…” I’ve now sniffed his armpit—a bare armpit. I will say, surprisingly, not that smelly. There was a little bit, but he was kind of right, which is surprising. I feel like you’d think Zach would have BO. Now Zach is going to kill me. I haven’t talked to him in a couple of years. He’s going to be like, “I haven’t talked to you, and now you’re talking about my BO?”
AVC: But you’re saying that he doesn’t have it. He should be happy.
AS: He actually smelled pretty great.