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: Amy Landecker took awhile to get to Hollywood. She spent most of the early part of her career as a stage actor in Chicago, carving out a name for herself in the city’s theater scene. But after beginning to do stage shows on the West Coast, she began earning a strong reputation in small but memorable roles in shows like Mad Men, until a couple of larger and career-altering roles in ensemble projects like A Serious Man led to her breakthrough performance as Sarah Pfefferman on Amazon’s critically acclaimed series Transparent, currently in its third season on the streaming site. In conversation with The A.V. Club, the actor spent some time discussing life in the Midwest, including the realization that she had been around to read the very first print issues of The Onion, before remembering we were on a ticking clock schedule and launching into a discussion of her hit show, her canceled NBC series with Paul Reiser, and why she’s so frustrated about having to wait to reveal what happened on the set of Doctor Strange.
The A.V. Club: This is the longest experience you’ve had working on any one project?
Amy Landecker: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve had one series regular before, and it was Paul Reiser’s wife on an NBC sitcom that got taken off the air after two weeks. So this is definitely a more successful run. And only my second time.
AVC: Are there are early moments in the show that stand out for you?
AL: Probably the table read is the first thing that comes to my mind. I’ve been at table reads several times, which are sort of the first time that the network gets together and listens to the cast, and the crew is there, and there’s usually 50 to a hundred people in the room, and the network executives’ titles are put on cards, and it’s very intimidating. You go and you feel like you’re being judged. And it’s a little bit like a coming out—people can get fired after table reads, and it usually feels a little bit like your final audition, in a weird way, and then the show, whether it’s going to be a hit or not, feels palpable in the room in some way—whether the executives are concerned or whether they’re excited.
This was such a totally bizarre, different experience. There was all this joy and crying and laughing, and I think Jill [Soloway] started the table read with talking about being in gratitude that we get to do this, and I think we might have even had a rabbi lead us in a moment of reflection and gratitude. Jill’s quote was, “There’s enough light, there’s enough time, and there’s enough money,” which is the opposite of what you always hear on set: “We’re running out of light, we’re running out of money, we’re running out of time.” And then, at the end of the pilot, we sing—there’s this song “Operator” by Jim Croce—and the entire room joined in a cappella, including the executives from Amazon, and we were all crying. And I was like, okay, this is a very different experience. And it’s kind of continued on that way, as this special, bizarrely emotional and rewarding—I don’t know—blessed project, in a lot of ways. That’s the thing that comes to my mind when you ask that.
AVC: That’s definitely not a normal table read.
AL: We also worked with this woman named Joan Scheckel who does these exercises with directors and writers to get to the emotional truth of their project. She’s very successful in the independent film world. You go to her studio—we all did this weird physical exercise. I mean, it wasn’t weird, but this tribal, intuitive dance piece that was like improv with all of our major cast members and major players on the crew, our DPs and our ADs were there, which is so unheard of, that you would bring them into the process and have this huge acid-trip emotional exploration of the script, of the season, of what we’re about to do. There’s these moments of raw emotional exploration that are very organic and not pretentious and everybody’s on board. But it feels, when you walk out of there, like you were on acid for several hours. That’s been really cool. And we improvised a lot, which is also different. There’s a lot of freedom.
We also had these moments—we’d get together in the morning and have this—it’s so funny to talk about, because I’m sure, in print, it just sounds like we’re in a cult, but it’s got a lot more irony and cynicism than that, trust me. I think because we’re such ironic and cynical people, we try to touch base with the other side of things before we start, which is, like, we get on this thing called “the box” and have a moment of the crew and the cast collectively coming together and different people on each day get up on the box and talk a little bit and share a story about where they’re at in life or if they want us to send good thoughts if someone might not be doing well, if they’ve had an emotional breakthrough, and then we start the workday. Pretty trippy. And the best job in the world.
AL: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] Lisa Kotin wrote that, and I believe our co-director was Johnny White. It was in Chicago. I was actually doing a play at Next Theatre Company at the same time called El Paso Blue, and I was singing country—I think I was a country singer in that play or something—so I would go shoot all night as this mean, horrible… Hardwood was, like, this terrible boss in this kind of broad, comedic piece. And then I would go try to sing—which, I can’t sing at all—on stage in Evanston. I was incredibly tired. That’s what I remember. I had blond hair. They wanted me blond in the play. So I ended up having blond hair in the film. It was my first bigger part in a movie, I think, and one thing I remember about that is we had this special effects thing where they had my face blow up in a microwave. She has a fantasy sequence, Lisa’s character, of blowing up my face because I’m such a bitch of a boss. I went to the Metropolitan Opera House—oh, no, that’s in New York, but whatever the one in Chicago is—and I had a plaster cast made out of my face for special effects, and the guy ripped my eyelashes out with the plaster.
AVC: That sounds unpleasant.
AL: I didn’t realize it. I was so stupid that I did not know that eyelashes grew back. I guess they fall off all the time, right? And you make a wish. But I really thought he had permanently ripped my eyelashes out. I just was freaked out. And, I will tell you, it’s one weird look. Like, take off your eyelashes. It’s very odd. That’s the memory I have of that film. [Laughs.]
AL: Woo! That was a big deal for me. I got that part because there was a casting director in Chicago named Rachel Tenner. She was part of this casting place called Tenner Paskal, and I would go in there for commercial auditions, primarily, and they sent me to some films in Chicago. But they were a big Chicago office, and Rachel moved out to L.A. and became the Coen brothers’ West Coast casting director. I happened to be in L.A. at the time doing a play by Tracy Letts called Bug. I didn’t live in L.A., but I was here doing the play, and my old boyfriend, who was in the play with me—another Chicago actor, Andrew Hawk—sent me the breakdown, which, every day, there’s this thing you can get called the breakdown service, and it sends out casting notices. And it’s every actor’s dream to get the breakdowns and submit yourself and get cast, and it never, ever, ever happens, but actors spend thousands of dollars doing mailings and submitting. I mean, I’m sure occasionally it does happen, but as in this case, he had sent me this breakdown and said, “Amy, I saw this breakdown, and you would be perfect for this, and Rachel Tenner is casting it, so tell your agent.” And I looked at the breakdown and, first of all, I was really flattered, because I had very low self-esteem, and it was like this hot Jewish seductress, full-frontal nudity. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I emailed him back, and I was like, “Are you out of your mind?” He goes, “You can do it.” And then I was like—I’ll never get it anyway, so I’ll just tell my agent, and then maybe I can reconnect with Rachel and say hi.
I go in and I read for Rachel and I had this weird moment of channeling this bizarre character that—I have no idea where she came from, but she was awesome. I think she was a little inspired by my dad’s second wife, Paula, but she also was like—she was written in a very specific way, and I really seemed to tune into what they were describing and, for whatever reason, something cool happened in the room and she was like, “I want you to meet them and come in and read for them,” and I went, “Holy shit! Okay, now I’m going to meet the Coen brothers. That’s cool.”
AVC: That’d be good enough by itself.
AL: I thought, “I’ll never get this part,” so I’m not really worried about it. I do it, and they were really cool, and they reminded me of everyone I grew up with in Chicago. They’re these Midwestern Jews. I was really comfortable, and they seemed to really dig what I was doing. And then I get this call that I got the part, and the first thought that I had was, “I don’t have the body to be naked.” That’s all I could think about. “I can’t do this.” I was so scared. I had asked my husband at the time, “How do I look?” He goes, “You look like you had a baby but, you know,” and I was like, “Oh, god! I can’t do it!” And then they reminded me that this was the Coen brothers and not, you know, Girls Gone Wild, that I was supposed to just be a human being. She was also lying down, which pretty much anyone in the right circumstances can look decent, and I proceeded to starve myself like a dumb actress.
AVC: That’s an understandable response.
AL: Which I no longer do. Now I eat before nude scenes in protest. But at the time, I was like, “I’m going to look amazing!” And I probably looked the best I’ll ever look in my whole life. It’s a lot of work just for one moment of lying down in the sun. But it changed my whole life, for sure, because it opened up this comedy world that I had never even known about or was introduced to. I was always doing really serious theater, and I wasn’t an improviser, and none of those people were in my sphere, and because all these funny, amazing people love the Coen brothers and I was playing this sort of hot character, I got introduced to a lot of the funny guys in Hollywood. Louie [CK] cast me after that, Larry David, and Paul Reiser, and it became this thing that created a whole new life for me. Thank god. Now I get to do funny stuff, which I really like.
AL: Louie! So, that’s a good story. Here’s what happened with Louie: When you go in for Louie, you don’t get to see the script before. You go to the casting office, they hand you the script, and you go in. The first thing I auditioned for was his mom. It was that scene about how God, Jesus doesn’t really exist, and from what I heard from Louie later, most people read it really serious and kind of sad or somber, and I guess I read it more sort of like, “Come on. Of course he didn’t exist.” I did it very sort of detached. And then, at the very end, I said, “You want to go get a doughnut?” Just threw that in as a button. It wasn’t in the script. So, okay, don’t hear anything, fine. Nice to meet everybody and whatever.
Then, a month later, I get called in for this episode called “Bully,” where this woman’s on a date with Louie. I do the scene, I get the part, I go do the episode—it was an incredible experience, I will say. I think, because of the Coen brothers, I had a sense of what greatness feels like, and I knew I was amongst it. I knew I was in a very clear, brilliant vision, even though the show had not aired yet. I was like, “This is unbelievable.” I just could feel it. He was really encouraging to me about my abilities and to improvise and to be funny, and that I should really pursue this new part of myself, and I was like, “Cool. Thanks. Great. See you later.”
So then, like a month later, I get a call that they want me to play the mom, and I was like, “Wait a second.” And it turns out, he had not seen the auditions for the mom episode because they had changed the order of the season, and after I had already done “Bully,” he saw the mom auditions and he liked mine the best, and he also felt like it was a sign when I said, “Let’s go get doughnuts,” because in the “Bully” episode, we were eating in a doughnut shop. And he was like, “I can do whatever I want on my show.” He wasn’t living by any rules at the time. He was like, “No one’s going to see it anyway. So I’m just going to have the same person play my mom.” And everyone read this kind of Freudian—I think there was some talk online like, “What does it mean?” And really, according to him, it meant nothing other than he saw me audition after and was like, “I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want, and I want her playing my mom.” So that’s how I got to play his mother and his date.
AL: Woo, that’s a really good story, too! So I’m in L.A. doing that play Bug, right? And I’m here for a couple months, and I can’t get an audition to save my life, because I’m, like, 37 and no one knows who I am and all my theater credits mean nothing in L.A., right? I mean, nothing here. So I do this thing where you pay to take a class from a casting director, which is a thing that’s very common in L.A. You take a class, and if the casting director likes you, you might get the chance of going into their office. I went to this place in the valley—I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a reputable, cool place. Act Now, maybe it was. I paid to meet this casting director, Carrie Audino, who was the casting director of Mad Men, because I was a huge Mad Men fan. Huge. And I would die to be on that show.
Again, it’s sort of like that breakdown story where actors do this stuff, but I’m telling you, it hardly ever turns into anything. I’ve just been super lucky. And this woman called me in for Petra Colson, and it was my first on-camera job in L.A. I got to work two days. I didn’t know what the scene was going to be. They don’t let you see the scripts. I read for Matt Weiner, and he’s super involved. Also Lesli Linka Glatter, who is the showrunner of Homeland now and is one of the best female directors in the business, she was directing the episode. So to go to work and find out that I was in a scene at Don Draper’s house, a dinner party, with everybody there—I was a pig in shit. I was so happy. My character gets drunk, and I walk into a wall.
To this day, Matt Weiner remembers my name on the show, remembers what I did. Jon [Hamm]—they were so kind on set, and Matt Weiner was like, “Can I do anything to help you? Because I know you’re new in L.A.” And I was like, “I just auditioned for this Coen brothers movie,” which I had just auditioned for a couple weeks before, and he goes, “I don’t know them, but good luck.” A year later, I’m at the American Film Institute brunch-lunch-whatever awards thing, getting an award as part of the ensemble of A Serious Man, and Mad Men is there, and Matt and Jon totally remembered me and gave me this huge hug and were like, “Congratulations!” and I was like, “I can’t believe what happened in a year! That’s insane.” And they were like, “Do you want to go and have drinks? You’re at the Four Seasons,” but I had an audition that afternoon in the valley for a recurring role on… oh, god, I’m forgetting. This is terrible. Adam Carolla was producing a sitcom for NBC and I was recurring—I wasn’t even a series regular or anything. Here I was, in a cocktail dress on a red carpet, getting an award and we had been nominated for best picture, and still no one knew who I was. I still had to go to a pre-read—which is when they won’t even let in the producers and the casting director—for a pilot, in the valley on a Friday at, like, 3, which means I’ll be in traffic for two hours. Literally, I was like, do I have a drink with Jon Hamm and Matt Weiner at the Four Seasons? Or do I get in my car to go to a fucking pre-read for an Adam Carolla pilot?
Luckily, I was very Chicago-Midwest, “You need a job more than you need a drink”—way more than you need a drink—and so I went to the valley and I booked that job. And when I was shooting that, that’s when the Paul Reiser show happened out here. So that’s my Mad Men story. I feel like Mad Men kind of opened up some energetic field for me that certainly was a great blessing, that that was the first job I booked out here.
AVC: I think I would’ve gotten the drink with Jon Hamm.
AL: You like that? Oh, my god, I have so many stories like that.
AVC: The opposite is much worse, if you were like, “I have no stories. I don’t care.”
AL: [Laughs.] No, I love telling these fucking stories. I love that one because it really was a fork in the road. If I had made a different decision, my whole life would be different. I talk about it all the time. Humility really worked in my favor at that moment. You know what I mean? Just suck it up and go to the valley. Forget your ego. You need to get a job. Thank god.
AVC: Can we talk about this yet? Or do Marvel’s nondisclosure agreements extend into everything?
AL: It’s weird because I literally don’t think—I feel like… Okay, when does this come out? I want to talk so badly about what happens, but I can’t! Because this is my best story of all my stories and because I’m bound by an NDA, I can’t even tell you. I will tell you that Benedict Cumberbatch is lovely and sexy and everything that I wanted him to be. But the rest of it, which is way funnier and way more complicated and insane and ridiculous, I will talk to you after the movie releases and I’m allowed to talk about it, because it’s a fucking hysterical, crazy story.
AL: And I just want to say that no one should get too excited about seeing me in this film. Let’s just leave it at that.
AVC: [Laughs.] Okay, then we definitely have to—
AL: We will circle back, and I will tell you in detail what happened.
AVC: Okay, I’m emailing your publicist and making sure we get the scoop on this first.
AL: You will get the exclusive. I swear. I would love no place more than your outlet for that story. It’s really funny. I will give you one little bit of trivia, though: Michael Stuhlbarg was there. Michael Stuhlbarg, I didn’t know until I got to London, he was also in the film with me, and we didn’t know why we had been summoned, but it was because the director was a huge A Serious Man fan. So one little bit of trivia about it.
AVC: Again, those random early things paying off in spades later on down the road.
AL: Yeah. Now, whether you see me in a scene with Michael Stuhlbarg—that I cannot guarantee.
AVC: This looks like your first Hollywood film credit.
AL: First of all, it was a huge deal for me. It was my first big film. And I had to audition for it, for the director. I made a sort-of living in the beginning of my acting career as a reporter. I think my very first job was Early Edition as reporter no. 1, and for Light It Up I was reporter no. 2. For Chicago actors, you really only had these opportunities for little parts because they cast all the big parts out of town 90 percent of the time, so for us to grab those was kind of a big deal, because it was our only time to get that kind of exposure. It was a huge deal for me and my family. I remember going to the wrap party all excited. I think I had two lines, you know, but it was my first big wrap party. The one thing I remember, too, was the makeup artist on that job—I was 16 years younger than I am now—was doing my eyes, and she said, “It’s such a shame when the eyes start to go.” I was in tears in my trailer afterwards.
AL: That’s what I remember, too. I was like, “Oh, my god.” And I was a baby. My dad was a disc jockey in Chicago, and he was a film critic at the time, and he went to the screening of Light It Up, but he forgot that that was the name of the movie that I was in, and so he had fallen asleep during the screening, and he saw my name in the credits and freaked out. So he watched the entire film again, but he couldn’t really find me because that’s how much I’m in the movie. I think you see the back of my head.
AVC: That’s how big of a role reporter no. 2 played in the story.
AL: Yeah, exactly. He was like, “I think I saw the back of your head.” So my poor dad sat through two screenings. But what are you going to do? He’s so sweet. He’s like, “But you’re in the credits!”
AVC: That’s such a dad thing to say.
AL: I know! He’s a great dad. Very supportive.
AL: That was really cool because I also loved House, and I’d had this weird experience in L.A. a couple years prior. I’d gone to a casting call for a guest star on House. I left, and I was on the phone with my dad, and my phone was, like, exploding, and I was ignoring it because I was driving and I was talking about something and I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I didn’t want to be rude. When I got home to Santa Monica, I checked my phone, and it was my agents calling because they had wanted me to come back and read for this other role because they liked me and I couldn’t, because of traffic in L.A. I could not get back there quick enough. They were only going to wait for me for another half hour. They were casting the role that day. So I missed out on this opportunity on House. I thought I had ruined my whole life when that happened. I should just kill myself now. I think I was crying. I think I yelled at my dad, like [indecipherable sobs]. I was just out of my mind.
Two years later or something, this guest star role comes up, so I at least felt like I had healed this horrible trauma that occurred when I couldn’t get back to the audition. I booked it before—I think it was almost the last season of House. I really had only this one last opportunity to get on there, and all I remember is I spent most of the show in Olivia Wilde’s lap, which I just recommend to everybody. If you get an opportunity to spend a week in her lap, that is a soft, lovely place to be, her glorious face looking down on me. And she was super nice, and I had a great time. I got to bash in a car window. I had all this blood and dirt and stab wounds. I had so much fun being all fucked up and dying. It’s like, you know, drama porn for actors. Everything that we want to do. I’m stabbed! I’m bashing in car windows with crowbars! I’m a crack addict! I was in prison! It was really fun.
AVC: As you said, it was on the air for two weeks. What do you remember from that bizarre experience?
AL: [Laughs.] It was so intense! Here I am, I think I’ve booked this—you know, there’s Helen Hunt and Amy Landecker. This is historic. I’m the second wife of Paul Reiser on TV. This is going to be, like, the biggest deal in the world. We had a sense early on that the network wasn’t 100 percent into it. We got a kind of minor pickup very late for just seven episodes, and I moved out temporarily with my husband and my daughter to shoot that instead of transplanting to L.A. just to see what would happen. And what happened was—sorry, it’s not funny—but literally, my husband moved out and we filed for divorce the same week that the show got canceled on NBC. It was one of the worst—it was March, I remember—just one of the worst times of my entire life. But one of the things that I learned—well, first of all, sometimes the worst times lead to the best times, which is nice—but also, being on a failed show was part of being let into the club of Hollywood. Everyone was like, “That happens to everybody!” I didn’t know that everybody had been doing pilots for years that failed and shows that got canceled, because I was so new to it and, to me, I didn’t realize I’d have other opportunities. I thought that was it. But really it meant that I was at the beginning of opportunities, because at least the network had approved me as a series regular, and it did not mean, just because the show failed, that I was a failure. The project didn’t work out, but you were still viable. It opened up—I will say, I’ve had a blast.
The other thing I realized is just because you have fun on something doesn’t necessarily translate to success in the same way where I’ve done projects where I didn’t maybe have so much fun and they were very well-received, so it’s interesting to go, “It didn’t necessarily mean, because we were laughing all the time, that everybody else thought it was so hysterical.” But it’s cool. I don’t think I could have handled everything with Transparent if I hadn’t had that experience first. I learned a lot. The first press photo shoot we had, I was like, “I don’t deserve to be here!” I was super insecure and weird. And then I got through all that craziness and was like, “This isn’t brain surgery. You’re good enough to be able to do this. Just relax.” When Transparent happened, I was more in my body and my expectations weren’t as high. It’s been a much smoother ride. That’s my life story!
AVC: That’s a very zen, peaceful moment to end on.
AL: [Laughs.] It’s so funny to go through your past like that.