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 about.
The actor: Since making her screen debut more than two decades ago, Busy Philipps has established an impressive roster of work on TV and in film. Her standout turn as Kim Kelly on Freaks And Geeks led to recurring roles on Dawson’s Creek, ER, Cougar Town, How I Met Your Mother, and New Girl. Following her more recent stint as a late-night talk show host on E!’s Busy Tonight, Philipps joined the cast of the delightfully absurd Peacock comedy Girls5eva. Through it all, she’s proven herself just as capable of heightened comedy as grounded, subtly emotional performances.
Along with doling out laughs through her work, Philipps also connects with audiences through her social media platforms and her podcast, Busy Philipps Is Doing Her Best, wherein she discusses political issues and champions LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. The A.V. Club spoke to the actor about how she brings her personality and traits from real life onto the characters she portrays, her surprising role in ER (and why she didn’t return for more episodes), and the lessons learned from her late-night show.
AVC: What drew you to the role of Summer?
BP: I wasn’t really interested in taking up acting roles in the last few years because of lots of reasons, but Tina Fey is someone who I have worked with a few times. I didn’t know she and Meredith Scardino were making this show. But my family and I had come to New York City for a few weeks because of the fires in Los Angeles and my older kid has asthma. Tina called me out of the blue and gave me the one-liner of what the show was about and that there is a part she and Meredith thought I’d be perfect for and it’s mine if I wanted to do it. It felt like an out-of-body experience because truly the show itself is a dream. It’s the exact thing I would want to do. I knew Meredith a bit from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and she is a genius. I’m a huge fan of the Mean Girls musical, and Jeff Richmond wrote the theme song for Busy Tonight, so I knew the music would be amazing. I didn’t even look much at the script or character or anything, my answer was just “Yes, I want to do this.”
AVC: Summer is super distinctive, whether it’s her fashion, the way she talks, even her mannerisms. How did you figure out those aspects with the team to bring them to life and elevate the material?
BP: There are many parts to this. If you look at the description for her just on paper, you can definitely let Summer exist in a one-dimensional place. I am fascinated by the idea of what happens when people get stunted in a period of time in their life, whether it’s because of fame or it was when they felt their best and they try to hold onto that, whatever it is that’s the signifier for them. For me, why people choose to do the things they do is interesting. The sadness behind Summer was the driving emotional energy behind almost every scene. I do feel like I was able to just do this job a little bit in a vacuum without thinking about what the response would be, which gave me the freedom to make some wild choices. So that’s part of it.
Culturally, we’re at an interesting time for women aesthetically, as they age on screen in terms of what some women feel they have to do in order to exist. My makeup artist Kelly Budd and I did a lot of Instagram research and we watched tutorials on how to overdraw your lips to make it look like you’ve had lip injections. Tina Nigro, who did the Girls5eva wardrobe design, is such a genius. During that first pilot episode and going into the series, we had conversations about what Summer would wear, or rather, what she thinks people would want her to wear. I feel really lucky to work with people that are so talented, it’s easy to do my job. I love the collaboration. Meredith and the directors we had were always really great at finding the balance of how far we could push a thing without making it totally insane. I relied on the experts around me.
AVC: What was your favorite song to record and perform?
BP: Paula Pell and I are very lucky to work with Sara Bareilles and Renée Elise Goldsberry, two of the greatest voices around. I loved the finale song, “4 Stars.” It was a magical moment. When Sara sent us the demo, all of us independently listened to it and cried. It felt perfect for the show, for all of us, in light of the year we’ve been through. In terms of the flashback songs, I personally have a very soft spot for “Dream Girlfriends.” Lyrically, it’s over the top, but maybe not so much that you couldn’t believe it would be recorded.
AVC: Did you have any qualms about stepping into the role of a host, where you’re mostly just being yourself? Is hosting a talk show something you’ve always wanted to do?
BP: It wasn’t something I always wanted to do, nor was it something I ever thought I would do. It was largely due to the success of my Instagram stories. I had been struggling in my career and I wasn’t too happy with the business of Hollywood and what I wanted to do or what I would’ve liked to have done versus what was being offered to me. I write and have sold my own things in the past, so I know that just the process of getting things made is exhausting and getting things on-air longer than a few episodes feels impossible sometimes. The business is a constant heartbreak. As my Instagram stories became successful, I guess I was wondering, what do I do with that? That’s when I had this late-night talk show idea. I realized I like talking to people and hearing their stories. Part of it was also my feminist worldview and looking at the landscape and being constantly annoyed that there wasn’t more representation available five nights a week for anyone who’s not a white dude in their late 40s.
AVC: What was the experience like?
BP: I went to Tina Fey and said I want to do this talk show. She basically had a convo with E! and that was that. I was adamant that I was allowed to do multiple nights a week just from an equality standpoint. Just FYI, and this is my experience, but everyone tries to talk you out of doing multiple nights a week. I heard, “Oh it’s so hard, you’ll never see your kids, it’s impossible, all of the men go crazy, it’s too difficult, blah blah blah.” It’s also true, of course. We had a shoestring budget, three writers, and a lot of fun and heart that went into our show, but I saw my kids. It wasn’t the most taxing job in the world. It certainly didn’t feel impossible to do. I’ve birthed two children naturally, so I know I can confidently make a show. What I couldn’t control was all the stuff surrounding making the show, which exists whether you’re doing a TV show or an unscripted talk show, I guess. We did think we would continue it in some way and we were working toward that and building a different way to do the show or a different platform to put the show out on, and then COVID happened and everything disappeared.
Freaks And Geeks (1999-2000)—“Kim Kelly”
AVC: The show has a cult status, even with only 18 episodes. What does it mean to you that it’s got this standing in pop culture now, as opposed to when it was actually airing?
BP: It was ahead of its time, obviously. That’s become clear. I think the enduring nature of that show and how much it has resonated with people for so long speaks to the thought and care that Paul Feig and Judd Apatow and everyone working on that show put into it. I’m proud to have been part of that show. Mike White is such a genius screenwriter. I remember when we were doing the show, Mike was obsessed with Kim and felt like he got her. Whenever you’re on a TV show, if there’s a writer who takes your character on and is advocating for them and pitching for them, it’s a great position to be in. It’s what you want. I felt so lucky that it was Mike White who loved Kim and was looking out for her in the writer’s room as the story was being written. I didn’t know that as a 19-year-old, but as a writer myself now and as someone who’s been lucky enough to work as much as I have, that makes a huge difference. I’m grateful that Freaks And Geeks was the first set I ever was on and it was my introduction to working with anyone in Hollywood as an impressionable young person.
AVC: You recently told The A.V. Club while talking about Summer and Girls5eva that you believe in defying expectations with your characters. That goes all the way back to Kim Kelly, who does surprise viewers with her journey. How do you feel her arc holds up?
BP: Again, I am lucky that the Freaks And Geeks writers are some of the best people. But I will say that, yes, for me, I have always felt that I’ve defied people’s expectations. I’m usually very aware of what people’s first impression of me is when I meet someone. The trick of my life has been to defy what they’re expecting me to be, do, or say. In a very instinctual way as a teenager with no training, as just a kid who likes to act, I pulled that aspect out in the girl I played here. That was important to me, that there’s an ability to show a multidimensional person who is written in one way but is many other things. The men get it written for them. They get their deepness written, so a lot of times when you’re playing more of a supporting character, you have to be able to find a moment you can turn into something more.
AVC: Was it daunting for you to think about any of this at the time? You were only 19 when the show began.
BP: Not at the time, no. I was a child. If you don’t know anything, you don’t even know to be intimidated or nervous. I was just like, “Oh my God, I’m living in a dream, I’m on a NBC show.” I wish I could harness some of that power today. It comes and it goes.
ER (2006-2007)—“Dr. Hope Bobeck”
AVC: ER was a big departure for you, genre-wise. What was it like jumping from comedy then teen dramas to doing a medical show and playing a born-again Christian doctor?
BP: I had done two fantastic auditions for [ER executive producer] John Wells over the years but had never landed the part. The last time I had auditioned for him, he had said to my agent, “We are going to find something for Busy, it’s going to happen.” A lot of times people say that and it never goes anywhere, you know? A couple years later, I was in a pilates class because my friend was being certified and had to do a certain number of hours, and I got a call from my agent and I said to my friend, “Hold on, this is weird because there’s nothing going on, I’m not up for anything.” I picked up and it was the assistant saying your agent and manager are getting on the call. Any time more than one person is on, you’re either getting a job or you’re getting fired. They said ER called and they’ve got a part in the next season for you. They have this character of Dr. Hope coming in and John Stamos has joined the cast, and they want you to start next week. I was excited about it and I also thought, “Great, I love John Stamos!”
AVC: This was a medical drama, so obviously there was a lot of technical jargon involved. What was that like for you?
BP: One of my superpowers as an actor is memorization, and the other one is my ability to recite it back very quickly. That’s why I used to have such good auditions. I remember one of them was for The West Wing and I was too young for it but I got very far in the process because I was able to memorize the whole thing and spout it out. So going into ER, I was very excited for the chance to do something that was, like you said, a big departure from anything I had been doing before, and then I very much panicked my first day. I had watched ER from its first episode with my mom. But being in that emergency room in the hospital set, looking at Laura Innes, it was very overwhelming. I felt grateful Linda Cardellini was there as my guide because she had done that for me on Freaks And Geeks as the more experienced TV actor of the two of us. It was fun, I liked it, I liked Hope. It was hard for me to go back though, because they weren’t making me a series regular, it was a guest-starring role. I’ve always had a thing about pay equality and I was like, it’s just not fair.
AVC: IMDb lists this unaired WB pilot from I. Marlene King as your first TV role. What do you remember from that time?
BP: Saving Graces and Freaks And Geeks were both in the same pilot season. I was actually cast in Freaks first and I couldn’t audition for other series regular roles in first position—even though I was only upped to regular on Freaks after episode one— so I auditioned for this pilot in a guest star role. But it was great. Saving Graces starred Chyler Leigh and Lauren Ambrose, who introduced me to one of my best friends to this day, Abdi Nazemian, who is a screenwriter and YA novelist. Mindy was this bitchy high school popular girl, which is funny to me because that was the antithesis of what I actually was like in high school. It was a fun pilot. Chyler Leigh and Nathan West met on it and got married at some point and now have kids. I became friends with Lauren all those years ago. I do remember there was a party scene and the TLC song “No Scrubs” was playing the entire time we were filming for people to dance to, and it was stuck in my head for the next four months or so.
Vice Principals (2016-2017)—“Gale Liptrapp”
AVC: This was a dark HBO comedy, so not a traditional comedy series. Your character Gale reflected aspects of that, too. What drew you to this role and show?
BP: I’m a huge fan of Danny McBride; he’s one of the best we’ve got working today. I was coming off of Cougar Town and a lot of people thought and told me “You shouldn’t have to audition, you should take offers and maybe do another network comedy.” All of those things didn’t feel quite right. My agent called me to tell me about Danny’s new HBO show. They said they wanted me to audition and I just felt like I should go do it. I just wanted to work with Danny and Jody Hill and the rest of the team, be around them and see how they did their thing. I went in and auditioned, and they offered me the part. I didn’t even know what the part was or what I was saying yes to at the time. There was no script. But working with those dudes was phenomenal, I would do it again anytime. They were also so collaborative. I had been doing a lot of Soul Cycle at the time, so I was one who pitched the spin instructor arc and the dyed hair, anything I felt strongly about.
Search Party (2021)—“Donna”
AVC: How did this come about? Were you familiar with the show or did you binge it to play the fictional version of Portia?
BP: No, no, no, I was early on the Search Party train. It’s so funny you ask that, I insisted to Danny McBride that he watch the show. I’ve been friends with Alia Shawkat since forever now and I was just blown away by the show when I first saw it. I had downloaded all the episodes on my computer when I was flying and when I finished the first season, I screamed on the airplane during that last episode. Literally, I yelled. I loved it and because of that I had told co-creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss, “I don’t ever do this but if there’s ever anything on your show, I’ll do it, keep me in mind.” I was a huge fan, I still am. They reached out and said they have a fun part and hoped I could do it. Obviously, when I read it I thought it was the greatest. The most exciting part is that my 12-year-old is a huge Search Party fan. They’re not super interested in any of my other work but they were very impressed.
Dawson’s Creek (2001-2003)— “Audrey Liddell”
BP: Audrey was a very needed job for me at the time. I had just tested and not gotten like eight or nine TV pilots that previous season. I had to take a couple of bad acting jobs for money and I was horrified by it. Jonathan Kasdan, who was a writer on Freaks And Geeks, went to write on Dawson’s Creek. He helped in getting me hired as Joey’s roommate. I auditioned and tested for it, and I can’t tell you how incredibly grateful I was to have that role.
AVC: There’s a common thread in some of your roles. Whether it’s Audrey Liddell or Kim Kelly, these characters are meant to be snobby or unlikable, but there’s something grounded and they’re also not being catty throughout with their girlfriends, like Joey or Lindsay. How do you feel about that?
BP: It’s interesting that you say that about Audrey and Kim. I haven’t thought about it before and I actually don’t know how I would be able to even do it or if I’d want to do it. Yeah, it would be difficult for me to do something that pitted me in a horrible way against another woman. Even on Cougar Town, my character Laurie and Ellie [Christa Miller] were snarky with each other but it was a fun dynamic. I remember at some point, there was some dialogue written that really upset me because I felt they were going overboard and being too mean. I didn’t want the characters to get ruined for us or for the viewers. So I think this is something that is right for my personality and has always come through in the characters I play.
AVC: You’ve been part of some iconic pop culture mainstays. What does that feel like and what role do you usually get recognized for?
BP: In a lot of ways, it feels surreal to now have the perspective of being 41 years old and looking back at my 23-plus year career and seeing all of the incredible people I have worked with and the shows that have really withstood the test of time and continue to resonate with audiences and find new audiences. The characters themselves, the girls and women I was picked to bring to life, obviously I have a soft spot in my heart for all of them. In terms of what I get recognized most for, it really varies now that streaming has become the way people consume things. It depends on which show is available for free and on what platform; that’s also why Dawson’s Creek in the last year has gotten so many more new viewers and everyone wants to chat about it. Freaks And Geeks has always held a place in many people’s hearts and has always had a cult following. There’s also huge Cougar Town fans. The most consistent thing that people want to talk to me about, though, is White Chicks.