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: When starting out, Clea DuVall played a lot of what she describes as “angsty teenagers with too much eye makeup.” As she grew up, DuVall went from being that girl in ’90s high school movies to popping up in the work of directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and David Fincher. Her TV acting is equally notable: She’s been in a gone-too-soon HBO series thanks to Carnivàle and had a turn on American Horror Story. Recently, she unleashed a fantastically funny deadpan on Veep. This week her directorial debut The Intervention, which premiered at Sundance, will hit theaters and VOD. DuVall also wrote and stars in the film, about a group of friends gathering to tell a struggling couple to get a divorce. (Read the A.V. Club’s review of The Intervention here.) For DuVall, The Intervention’s Jessie is one of the most down-to-Earth characters she’s ever played.
The A.V. Club: You wrote this screenplay. Why was this role a part you wanted to play as well?
Clea DuVall: I wanted to play this role, because I feel like I never get to play any version of myself or get to be a normal person. There’s always something wrong with me or I’m traumatized by something, and the idea that I could just be a regular person seemed fun. But playing a version of myself was so much harder than I thought it would be.
AVC: Why did it end up being so hard?
CD: I’m playing myself in a movie with my two real-life best friends, and there was something about it that felt like I was pretending with them, and I think because with Melanie [Lynskey] and Natasha [Lyonne], there’s so much transparency and honesty in our friendship. That I was then having to readjust our dynamic was—I don’t know—I found it hard.
AVC: Did that have to do with the fact that you were also taking on this role as director and this is a screenplay you wrote?
CD: I was putting myself out there on a lot of levels. Melanie and Natasha are so brilliant and talented. The idea that they would be doing something and I would be the person to tell them to make an adjustment—I didn’t anticipate how challenging that would be for me just to feel comfortable to be in the role of having to be in charge of—this not going to sound like a very eloquent way of putting it—but just being in charge of them. It takes years to readjust dynamics and relationships, and to overnight create this new dynamic with them—I was surprised by how challenging that was for me personally. They were amazing.
AVC: You’re friends with Melanie and Natasha. Were they playing characters that were at all close to themselves? Or was the dynamic you were playing someone closer to yourself and they were playing characters that were totally different from themselves?
CD: They were playing very different characters from who they are as people. Which was exciting to me, to have them playing roles that they don’t normally play. I kind of did that with everybody. I think that everybody was playing against type, and I thought that I was playing on type. I watched the movie and I’m so happy that I’m in it, and I think it all works and all those dynamics work. It’s just my own internal struggle at feeling, as an actress, that authenticity is so important to me. And then I think having the director hat on of having to watch everybody else and make sure we were getting the shots and make sure I was giving what I needed for the scene made it harder to be fully present in the scene with the cast. That’s probably what ultimately was the core of it, not being able to be completely present in the scene.
AVC: Was Jessie something of a dream role because you were able to construct it and shape it?
CD: I don’t know about “dream role.” I do so many dramatic roles or period films or [play] traumatized people or stressed-out people or very intense things, high stakes happening all the time. It sounded nice to be in a movie that was modern day and part of an ensemble about real life, about things that I could relate to. The situations are more simple, character-driven. It was more the movie as a whole that I wanted to be in, because I don’t normally get to be in those movies or haven’t been in those movies that much so far, and that sounded fun to me.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)—Marcie
CD: It was pretty early in my career. I’m almost positive we shot it before it had aired. Or maybe I just didn’t know they were doing that show, and when my agent told me I had an audition for it, I was like, “They’re making a TV show of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? That’s insane.” Then I went on to also become obsessed with the show, because it’s so good. But I was pretty new, and I was really young. I think I was maybe 18 or 19 when we shot it. I was nervous and very shy, but really related to that character so much because I am a shy person. I am an introvert. I was so taken with the sensitivity and the emotion in that role. When I first heard the idea they were making a show about Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I thought it was insane and then read that script and was impressed, and it’s something I’m happy I was a part of.
AVC: The character’s invisible a lot of the time. Do you have any memories of being on set and filming it? Was it weird at all with the special effects?
CD: It was. A lot of the times, I would just be off set where nobody could see me, nobody would know where I was, and I had a microphone. So you would hear my voice. And there was one, in one of the invisible scenes, someone asking what their eye line to me was. That was a funny moment.
AVC: I’ve always found that episode very sad. There’s this element of Marcie that’s villainous in a way, but the ending is tragic.
CD: It is! And I think that it connects with the way a lot of us feel as kids and probably still in our lives now. It’s very simple but it’s very honest and authentic, and I relate to it. The fact that it’s one episode of a television show that was on for so long, and people come up to me and talk to me about it all the time. And they relate to it and they understood. We all feel that way. Probably the most visible people also feel invisible.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)—Jana
She’s All That (1999)—Misty
CD: Well, Can’t Hardly Wait, I think I had auditioned for a bigger part and was very green and didn’t get that part. But the director—was it one director? Or were there two directors on that movie?
AVC: There were two directors.
CD: We shot it in Santa Clarita and I was, again, very, very new. I grew up in the ’80s [with] all the John Hughes movies and getting to be in one of those teen-movie party scenes was really fun. I don’t think anyone had any idea that it would become this iconic high school movie. I think I was asked to do a bigger part [in She’s All That], and I couldn’t do it. I was doing something else. But I was able to do the part that I played. I was more experienced by then and working with people that I had worked with before. It was a fun environment where it’s something that doesn’t feel like it happens anymore, where in the ’90s, the casts [of those teen movies], we were all—not interchangeable in a bad way—but all working together on different projects all the time. It felt like there was a community. I don’t know if people still feel like that. Maybe I’m too old to know this and I’m just not seeing those movies, but I would work with the same people over and over again, and it did have that John Hughes feel of the cast members repeating and working on a lot of movies with the same actors all the time. It was really fun. I’m really happy that I got to be a part of that.
AVC: Did you make good friends on these movies?
CD: I’m trying to think of those movies. Melanie and Natasha worked with me on But I’m A Cheerleader, and then I think the next time we worked together was on The Intervention.
But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)—Graham
AVC: That’s a good segue, because I did want to ask you about But I’m A Cheerleader. It was so ahead of its time in many, many ways.
CD: I had been in a short film that that director Jamie Babbit made. She told me that she wanted to make this movie and I was a part of it from the very beginning, before there was even a script. I worked very closely in shaping my character. I wanted her to be a gay female character that you don’t really see very much and not just a stereotype and a three-dimensional human being. It meant a lot to me that I got to create so much of it, and then I brought Natasha on because we were actually friends before. She saw the script in my car, and we went back to the place that I was staying at, and we read through the script out loud together, and then I called Jamie and I told her that Natasha wanted to be in the movie. Natasha had just had Slums Of Beverly Hills come out and Jamie loved her, so she got involved that way.
I hoped that it would be that big of a deal, but when the movie came out, we got terrible reviews. It was an indie film. We didn’t know it was going to turn into what it has turned into now. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, not only because it’s socially had such an impact but also because Natasha and Melanie and Jamie are people who are still very close to me. It feels like we were in college together, one of those bonds that doesn’t ever go away. And that it also was able to change people’s lives or save people’s lives. People have come up to me and said, “I wanted to kill myself, and I watched that movie and watched it a bunch of times whenever I felt lonely, and it helped me get through that time and accept myself.” How many times can you say a movie has done that for someone? Not a lot. Both of my cats are really curious about what’s going on right now.
AVC: Your cats?
CD: My one cat wants to play fetch. The other one is standing on me, staring in my face as I’m trying to have this very serious conversation about this movie. [To cats.] This very impactful movie, guys.
AVC: Where did you know Natasha from?
CD: She and I had the same agent who thought we would get along. I remember being in his office once when she called, and we talked on the phone and really got along and she was coming out to L.A., and we made tentative plans to see each other. The day that I met her, I was on the Sony lot auditioning for Girl, Interrupted. I was walking down this very long walkway, and I saw, at the very, very end of it, this tiny person with this huge mane of hair and sunglasses smoking a cigarette from so far away, and I had never met her before, but I somehow knew that it was her. We got closer and closer to each other, and just as we reached each other, we started talking to each other as though we had known each other forever. And then she was like, “Are you going in there? Let’s meet after you’re done. I’ll be at the Coffee Bean.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll meet you at the Coffee Bean when I’m done.” And I went and I auditioned for Girl, Interrupted, and I came back out and met her at this Coffee Bean, and we sat and we talked for a while, and then we kept hanging out and were friends.
CD: It was so exciting and so fun. I was such a huge fan of that book, and wanted to be in the movie so bad. The casting process took so long. I think it was six months or something from the time I auditioned to the time I found out I got the part. There were articles in magazines about how everybody was trying to get in the movie, and I was like, there’s no way. There’s no way! It would list all the people auditioning. I was just, like, there’s no way I would get to do this. And then, getting to be there, I felt so excited every day, and so grateful to be there. I was such a huge Winona Ryder fan. I wasn’t familiar with Angelina Jolie at that time, because I hadn’t seen Gia, which was kind of her breakout thing. I was blown away by her and all the other girls. Elisabeth Moss was a tiny, little teenager. Brittany Murphy was a great friend of mine already, and being able to do that with her was so much fun. And then the crew was great. James Mangold, the director, I really, really love. It was a very, very special experience.
AVC: Were there a lot of bonding experiences on the movie? It was such an intense film.
CD: Jillian Armenante, who was in the movie, and Angelina and I all really got along. I hung out with them a lot. Storywise, my stuff felt like the group of the girls who were in there the longest time. We naturally connected. Winona was so kind to me. We shot for four months, and Brittany was only there for one month. But it was great. It was such an intense subject matter. Everybody worked hard and took their jobs really seriously. There were days that were really fun and days where there was not a lot of laughter, because it didn’t feel appropriate for the story.
21 Grams (2003)—Claudia
AVC: That’s a good transition into the next film I wanted to ask you about, speaking of not a lot of laughter.
CD: I know what you’re going to say.
AVC: 21 Grams?
CD: Yep, that’s it. I was like, hmm, what’s the most intense film I’ve ever made?
AVC: That jumps ahead a couple of years. Alejandro González Iñárritu was still up-and-coming.
CD: He is a true artist. He’s doing it in a way that not a lot of people are. The set was a very intense environment, and you got pushed to do more. I really appreciated that and enjoyed that. Naomi Watts, I loved so much, and every so often I’ll run into her, and she’s still so kind and so sweet. I respect and admire her so much. Being on a set with Sean Penn, who was also so kind to me, and Benicio Del Toro, Melissa Leo—just such heavy hitters that you step up to the plate, in a way, to earn your place there, and to continue to earn it is such a challenge as an actor that I appreciate very much.
AVC: What do you mean by pushing you to do more? Do you have any specific instances of that?
CD: I think just letting your guard down. The scene in the hospital, when Naomi Watts finds out about her family, that scene was shorter, that scene was supposed to end, and he keeps you in that moment and keeps that very alive. I haven’t seen the movie in such a long time, but at the end of that scene when he leaves the camera on me and I’m trying not to cry—that was not scripted. It was leaving me in that moment and not cutting and letting that discomfort and sadness sink in and the authenticity of that moment come out. When the scene is over, a lot of people cut. The actors are acting. I’ve seen it happen a million times where the scene is over and people are like, “Okay, it’s over, let’s stop.” And they just stop acting. But I think that leaving people in that moment and seeing where else it can go and pushing them to take it further, a lot of special things can happen.
AVC: You’d been on TV shows before, but was this your first regular, permanent TV gig?
CD: I had never auditioned to do that, to be a regular on a TV show before. I so admired what HBO was doing. I heard this show was coming up and wanted to audition for it. Luckily, it went my way and I got to be a part of that show, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
AVC: Can you tell me about that process of auditioning? What were your first impressions of the show?
CD: When I first read the script, I loved it. It was so weird and dark and fascinating. I wanted to know more. I liked that role. It was a little bit different for me. I wanted to give it a try. I went in to audition, this is too much information, and I’m sorry, but it’s part of the story.
AVC: Tell me!
CD: I had an appointment to go in, and when I was younger, I used to get really bad cramps around my lady time, and it was debilitating. That happened to me on that day, and I called my manager and said I can’t go, and she yelled at me, “You have to go!” I was like, “Fine!” I was younger then and a little more angsty. I went in and I said that in the room and Rodrigo García, who directed the pilot, and a lot of the episodes, thought it was funny that I said that. That was something that made him interested in me—that I would say that in the room. I did not do a very good audition. And then he had me come back and audition again. I did better, and I felt better. And then I tested and I went into HBO. I never had that crazy experience before, which I was grateful for, because it’s so bizarre, and because I had been doing only movies. TV then was in its very new stages of being what it is now, so I didn’t have that much of an attachment to it. I didn’t feel nervous, and I just had fun. But then it went on for two days, and it took a long time, and then by the time that I got it, I was very relieved and excited. I was so surprised that it’s such an intense process.
AVC: So you told the director in the room that you had cramps?
CD: I was like, “I don’t feel well. I have cramps today. So it’s not going to be that good.” I was younger, and I didn’t know that you were supposed to just suck it up and not say anything. It’s not everybody else’s problem. But he found it amusing. So the honesty worked in my favor. We’re still very close friends. I’ve worked with him a lot of times, and he’s one of my favorite directors and human beings and artists in the world.
AVC: What was your reaction to the show’s ending? What was the process of making it?
CD: I’m still upset that it ended. I feel like it was a show that was ahead of its time. If it were on right now, people would be obsessed with it. The fan base grew so much after we got canceled. It was so special: all the people, the writers, the directors, the location, the world. It was a unique experience. I’m still bummed out, because that doesn’t happen very often. Making it was fun. It was challenging because of the environment; the conditions were really hard. It was hard on the crew, hard on the equipment, being in the middle of nowhere, the extreme heat or the extreme cold, and all the dust. It was tough on the crew. But we all got along. We were all passionate about it. There wasn’t anyone who took it for granted. We were all proud of it and supportive of each other. That doesn’t happen very often where you get to work on something of that quality, with people, that great of a group, especially that many people. I miss it.
Zodiac (2007)—Linda Del Buono
CD: I wasn’t originally in it. I heard they were making it, and I was so mad that I wasn’t in it, because I love David Fincher, and I’m very fascinated by the Zodiac Killer, and I had read that book and was curious. I love all of his movies. He’s so brilliant. And then when this was a part of the reshoot—they were reshooting this scene—I got to be in it. I was excited but also terrified. I think everybody had heard stories about his sets. He knows what he wants, and he’s not going to stop until he gets it. You do a lot of takes, and everything you hear is true. Being on a set for one day is hard enough no matter what it is. You’re the new guy, and you go in, and as you get comfortable it’s over. I was just happy to be there. I’m happy that I get to be in that movie, because I think it turned out incredibly well. I hope that one day I’ll be able to work with him for more than one day, maybe get over the nerves of being in the same room with David Fincher.
AVC: Were your fears justified?
CD: No. He was totally nice to me, and he’s very professional. He knows what he wants. I think there’s something comforting about that. It’s good news/bad news, because you keep doing it until he gets what he wants, but you know that when he stops that he’s happy. If you’re not shooting the scene anymore, he’s happy with the scene. That feels good, even though sometimes, it’s like, “Is this good, or am I screwing it up? Am I ruining the movie? What’s going on? Does he hate me? Does he like me? What’s going on?” But the second you’re wrapped and you’re done shooting the scene, you’re like, “Oh, I guess he’s happy, okay great.”
Argo (2012)—Cora Lijek
American Horror Story (2012-2013)—Wendy Peyser
AVC: I want to ask you about Argo. A lot of people pegged this as a big moment for you, especially since it coincided with American Horror Story.
CD: It was a big moment for me. I definitely experienced a lull in working. You start as a kid, and then you become an adult, and people don’t know what to do with you, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. I think Argo and American Horror Story were me finding my place as an adult. In acting, making that transition can sometimes be a little bit bumpy—more adult roles, not angsty teenagers with too much eye makeup. I think that Ben [Affleck] is such a talented actor and director. It inspired me and reignited my love for acting and filmmaking. It was a big part of getting me to a place where I felt inspired to make my own movie. I’m so grateful that I was a part of that movie, for a lot of reasons.
The Faculty (1998)—Stokely “Stokes” Mitchell
AVC: The eye makeup reminded me that I didn’t ask you about The Faculty.
CD: The Faculty was the most time I ever spent on one set. Robert Rodriguez was so much fun to work with, and he’s such an exciting filmmaker. I think that was my first experience as being on the other side, this DIY filmmaking. But also, on that large of a scale. He is still so unique as a filmmaker, and as a kid, he’s playing around on skateboard cameras and office chair cameras. He let me operate the camera on a crazy crane. It was so much fun. It was mostly night shoots, so it was like we were in this alternate universe. Working all night long and making this fun sci-fi horror movie. I loved it.
Veep (2016)—Marjorie Palmiotti
CD: Oh God, Veep is like a dream job. I’m so excited.
AVC: Are you going to be back next season?
CD: We’ll see.