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: You’ve seen Mary Lynn Rajskub in TV comedies from Mr. Show to 2 Broke Girls to The Larry Sanders Show, as well as indie movies like Punch-Drunk Love and Little Miss Sunshine. She also has a comedy team with her friend Karen Kilgariff called The Girls’ Guitar Club. But despite her strong comic background, she’s now most famous for the dramatic role she’s been aligned with for over a decade: 24’s Chloe O’Brian, Jack Bauer’s right-hand man. Rajskub portrayed Chloe on 24 seasons three through eight, then came back last year for the 24: Live Another Day reboot. While she waits for the next season of 24 to start shooting, Rajskub is off on a tour that brings her back to her stand-up roots. The A.V. Club talked to her about the distance between comedy and Chloe.
24 (2003-10), 24: Live Another Day (2014): “Chloe O’Brian”
The A.V. Club: Stand-up is your home base, right?
Mary Lynn Rajskub: Yeah, I started doing comedy in the ’90s. Well I was actually doing performance art in art school, and then that somehow became funny, and then I started doing live shows in L.A. And I really only worked in comedy; 24 was the first drama that I did, but that’s what people recognize me from.
AVC: What kind of performance art did you do?
MLR: [Laughs.] I mean, what didn’t I do? There was so much weird stuff that everybody did. I think one piece, I worked at this ice cream shop in San Francisco, and I took ice cream on the bus all the way to class, and then that was part of the piece, like what happens. I remember building a lot of things out of cardboard… and there was one piece where my foot was tied to the ceiling and then there was a bowl of jellybeans just out of my reach, and [there was] a monologue that happened about that. Pretty good stuff.
AVC: So now you’re getting ready to do some live shows, getting back to stand-up?
MLR: I actually was in London filming 24 last year, from January to June. Right before they announced that show coming back again, I had been kind of full-time doing stand-up, and then I took a break from it to do 24. And then when 24 was over, I went on the road. So this is sort of like my tour that never really ended, because I was touring from July to November, and then I was like, “Let’s keep the party going!” So just kind of continuing to do places I haven’t been yet, you know?
AVC: A lot of times your screen persona is shy and introverted, and your stand-up is anything but: It’s really open and forward. Do you get comments from people about that?
MLR: [Laughs.] I think the biggest thing that I get is that people don’t know I’m doing comedy, or they don’t expect me to be funny because of 24. So that’s a big thing. And even other comedians have commented on, like, “Your audience is really interesting, like they didn’t really know where to laugh.” Because I think a lot of people are fans of 24 that maybe don’t even go to comedy clubs, so they don’t really know what to expect.
And then I have a bunch of other people who know me from comedy. There’s a huge fan base of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which I only did one episode for, so sometimes at shows it’ll be Always Sunny fans and 24 fans, and that’s a very different room, you know? A very different energy to have sitting next to each other.
AVC: Since we’re talking about 24, how did that come about for you? You were doing mostly comedies and then you got an audition for 24?
MLR: Yeah. I didn’t even really audition for dramas and I feel like the one time that I did, it was just really serious and really bad. Like, I don’t think my acting was ever bad; I always knew that I could do it. But when you go to audition for a drama, they’re very serious in the room, and I was used to being kind of goofy and having small talk. And I know they were just looking at me like, “Who is this weird girl? Why is she acting like this?” And so—that’s my perception of it. That they couldn’t even really see my audition because I was like, “Hey guys, what’s going on?!” And so when I got the call for 24, I didn’t even want to do it, because I thought, “I can’t take that today. It’s really hot outside and I can’t take the pressure of… this is probably not going to go very well.” And my agent said, “They really want to see you.” And I got there and it was an actor’s dream audition, because Peter [M. Lenkov] met me in the hallway and said “I’m going to write a part for you.” He had seen me in this movie called Punch-Drunk Love, which is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Adam Sandler, and I played his overbearing sister in that movie. And the creator of 24 loved that movie, and loved that quality in that character.
So I had kind of done a crash course in 24 as soon as I found out I had the appointment. I only had two days to watch a bunch of 24s, and he said, “Are you a fan of our show?” and I said “Yeah, yeah.” And he said, “You don’t watch it, do you?” Because he knew that people that are into it are really, really into it. So I just said “Yeah, I like it a lot,” but—I didn’t really watch dramas. And so he just kind of laughed and said that he was going to write a part for me, and I left and I thought, “Okay, that’ll never happen.” But that was really, really nice, as an actor, just to be validated, like, I can kind of continue doing this for a little bit longer. And then he wrote me a part that started really small, and I signed on for four, six episodes, and then it just kept on growing and growing. And then it became this thing that a lot of people identify with the show and recognize me from it.
AVC: It seems impossible that you weren’t on 24 from the very beginning.
MLR: Yeah, I get that a lot, which is a really nice compliment, too. It became a really big part of my life.
AVC: At some points in 24, Chloe offers the only moments of levity or lightness. In the midst of these really intense episodes, she would roll her eyes at Edgar or something, and as a viewer, you’re so grateful that there’s something funny in this show.
MLR: And that’s something that—I didn’t even realize it was happening. I think the way I was playing that character and the way they wrote it happened at the same time. They started writing toward the way that I was. Because that show is so heavy and so intense—those little moments really go a long way on a show like that. You know what, they did give me some pretty funny lines. I was going to say they weren’t trying to be funny, but they did kind of see what they could get away with, with me. Again, it’s hard to have those character moments on a show so intense, so that made it really fun and really special.
AVC: And Chloe’s the survivor. Look at all the people who have gone through that show, and now she’s Jack’s closest relationship.
MLR: It’s really bizarre and surprising. 24 has been kind of a gift that keeps on giving. Right up until, well these past, these last 12 episodes, I mean obviously the show was lucky to be brought back from the dead, and before that, I was the person that was in those very last scenes where they wrapped up the whole series. Then when they brought it back, it just was unbelievable that it was coming back. And of course I was always going to do it, because I couldn’t walk away from it, but I didn’t know what to expect. When my character this last time around had changed, there was a whole other aspect of her to play, so it was really exciting for me. I didn’t think that it would happen like that, and it made it really cool.
AVC: And Live Another Day was so good—
MLR: It was really good. And that was cool because again, I thought, “Oh, okay, of course I’m going to sign on,” but it was great how good it ended up being. I remember early on when we first started filming; we were all away from home in London, and we were just at this pub. And it was just a small group of us, I think it was mostly actors—and Kiefer [Sutherland] was saying, “We really have an opportunity.” He felt the pressure of it in a good way. In a challenging way. Like we can make this really, really special, and we have to make it good because people that are coming back to watch it; we cannot disappoint them. So I thought they did a really good job of making it old-school 24 but enough new stuff happening.
AVC: And Chloe got a little dark: There was a definite Dragon Tattoo comparison that came up, because it was a whole new side of her.
MLR: It was more people talking about the possibility of referencing that. We went through all these options, and there’s a general look—a goth look—and I thought that would be what I as that character would tend toward. Because they tried on dreadlocks, and they tried blonde, and you know all the different ways that somebody who… I haven’t talked about it in a while, I was going to say that she’s kind of like lost it, but that’s not quite the right language. But somebody who’s gone through this personal pain and has kind of flip-flopped on her decision making, someone who previously worked for the government and followed all these rules. How would you depict somebody who just kind of didn’t care and was in pain, and reflective of that, as something different than who she was. So yeah we went through all these different versions, and kind of settled in on it because it was extreme. It was just very fitting for that world and it was cool. It was really exciting. And it felt like it was the right vibe for her.
Mr. Show With Bob And David (1995-96): Various
AVC: Let’s go all the way back: The first thing on your IMDB page is that you were on Mr. Show. Speaking of comedy, those are the funniest guys in the world. Did you just know them from comedy circles?
MLR: Yeah, that was when I had moved from San Francisco Art School. I was meeting all these comedians in San Francisco that were doing open mic nights in bars and alternative shows, and this group of people I was hanging out with started doing shows in L.A. And they said, “Oh you should come do these shows with us.” And it was this whole group of people that was Bob and David and Jack Black and Will Ferrell. Just yesterday I auditioned for a sitcom with Ana Gasteyer, and she moved to New York pretty quickly, but in the ’90s it was her and Molly Shannon. It was just a really amazing time and I was hanging out and that’s really all I wanted to do, was perform and hang out. It was incredibly fertile creatively and really exciting, really fun.
AVC: So you weren’t actually in The Groundlings but you were hanging out with a lot of the Groundlings people?
MLR: Yeah, you know, I actually auditioned to do The Groundlings, and I got told that—I got suggested to take the class before the class, so to me it was just an affront of, “Oh yeah, I’m not good enough to be in your class”… The very first thing you said to me was shy versus stand-up: I think stand-up really was and still is this way that I can express myself that I really didn’t have the ability to do in life. At that time for me it was really a lifeline to give myself a voice. I mean it’s different now, because I’m more well rounded than I was. [At first] I think I was very neurotic and really needed that outlet. Because when I auditioned for The Groundlings I just—I had all these things going on in my head and they would say, “Okay, you’re in New York and you’re on the street,” and everybody around me was like, “Yo, what’s up!” Like completely went into character. And I just looked around and just crumbled, like, “Oh, this is so embarrassing. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what that is.” And you could say it was shyness, and I kind of just mumbled to myself and I didn’t really enjoy the improv games, just like, “This isn’t fun,” you know? And so, rightfully so, the guy suggested, why don’t you take the class before the class. And then that next night, I was onstage doing stand-up and he just happened to be in the audience, and he was the sweetest guy ever. And he came up to me and he’s like, ”You are really funny, I’m so sorry, I’m mortified.”
The Larry Sanders Show (1996-98): “Mary Lou”
Veronica’s Closet (1999-2000): “Chloe”
AVC: And then you went from Mr. Show to The Larry Sanders Show, which is another iconic comedy.
MLR: Yeah, it was really exciting, with Garry Shandling and John Riggi, who is executive producer and writer of The Comeback. So it was him and Garry Shandling in a room, and they called me in, and we just kind of made faces at each other, and they whispered to each other and ended up hiring me. The part wasn’t really written, but they hired me based off a quality that they liked and that they thought they could write for. And it was pretty fantastic. Pretty magical.
AVC: Yeah, across the board… look at all the accolades Jeffrey Tambor is getting now for Transparent, but he was underrated as Hank, and you also had Garry, and Rip Torn—
MLR: Yeah, I would say that I was in over my head, but the saving grace of that for me was that I was only ever in a couple scenes per episode. I probably would have lost my mind had I had to go toe-to-toe, but it was an amazing learning curve for me being thrown into it and it was so great. Such on-the-job training. And I would stress over my two lines, but by the end of my time on that show I had learned so much about acting and comedy and stuff. It was fantastic.
AVC: And then from that you went to a more traditional sitcom with Veronica’s Closet—
MLR: Yeah, I mean… yeah. There’s always traditional sitcoms, too. I did a bunch of them.
AVC: You and Wallace Langham both made the jump from Larry to Kirstie Alley.
MLR: Wally Langham brought me in on that to play his girlfriend and they ended up hiring me, which, again, was really kind of cool. I just sort of organically found my way to things or things found me, and that’s a great way to approach it. I don’t think I ever would have started working had I had a traditional approach to it.
The Anniversary Party (2001): “Mary-Lynn”
AVC: Similar to that, The Anniversary Party, wasn’t that pretty much all-improv, just Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming pulling their friends together? There was like an overall framework setting, but you guys just worked off each other for the dialogue?
MLR: Yeah. Talk about being out of your league. My friend Karen and I, she learned a couple of chords on the guitar, and she showed me: “I learned how to play guitar!” And there was this Lucinda Williams song and I think the whole song has three chords in it. And we played it over and over and over again for hours. And then the next day, of course being the comedians, we were like, “We should play.” Just wanting that immediate gratification, because a lot of times for stand-up I’ll have a notion of something and then immediately put it up onstage. Well, with music, it doesn’t really work that way. So we were like, “We play guitar now, we should go play at this open mic music show!” And we go and it’s so quiet, it’s singer-songwriters; I think there were church pews as the seating. And we go to play this song and, trying to play music live when you really don’t know how to play, and also just doing it live is… “Oh, we kind of messed up.”
So we started talking nervously and we had this banter, like, “This is a club,” “Yep, we’re learning how to play guitar, it’s pretty cool,” and we got all these laughs. So that became our act, and we were at Largo in Los Angeles and Jennifer Jason Leigh was in the audience. She was a friend of a friend and she was really cool and was around sometimes. And she invited us to come to the movie—because a lot of it’s about the couple, and it’s very improvised, a couple and their closest friends, and then as people come to the party, there’s a big group. So she thought, perfect, “We’ll throw you guys in,” because I think they had already started shooting. Because of the budget and the constraints of the one location and everything, we had one take, one shot, to play a song that we made up—she hadn’t even really heard it—in front of John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Kline, with a bunch of people acting like we were—and a lot of them were really friends.
So they’re like, “Oh, what’s your gift to the couple?” And we go up and play this song, and it was a blast, but we were so nervous it was one of those things where it was go time but we had no choice… I remember us both being like, “Um, do you want to hear this song, before…?” And she’s like, “No, no, it’ll be great.” And she’s co-directing the movie, but to us, we’re like, “Oh we can’t, you can’t just let us do this. Why are you letting us do this?” And then in that movie there’s a really cool moment where everyone’s doing toasts and it’s a montage, and they use our guitar and our singing to kind of overlay through some of the toasts. And I remember us both being like, “I can’t believe it!” because we just thought, “All right, well, we just did that, but we’re not making it in the movie,” you know what I mean? And they kind of used a little riff of ours to carry it to the next scene. It was really, really cool.
AVC: So that’s how The Girls’ Guitar Club got started?
Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000): “Cult member”
AVC: Around this same time period you were in Dude, Where’s My Car? So, compared to Anniversary Party, Dude, Where’s My Car? must have been like a big blockbuster?
MLR: Well, yeah. But again, another one of those situations—I’m realizing a theme—I just did not know what the hell was going on. We shot nights and we were in an arcade… it was one of those trailers that had like the accordion wall connected to someone else’s trailer, and it was all these guys, and me, and bubble wrap, and it was kind of gross. And Hal Sparks was there. He was cool, I just remember he had nunchucks and he was the head of the cult… It was the middle of the night, and it was long, and I really—it was kind of funny but I really didn’t have that much to do.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002): “Elizabeth”
AVC: Something that sounds like it was more positive that you mentioned was Punch-Drunk Love, which is such a great movie.
MLR: Oh, did you see that? Yeah, that was great—I remember thinking, “Adam Sandler is going to blow people’s minds.” I just thought he was so incredible in that movie. And then it turned out the world at large was just… It was an uncomfortable movie, and they just didn’t want to see him that way. But yeah, that was a really, really cool experience, to get to work with Paul Thomas Anderson.
AVC: Is he kind of an improv guy or is he really regimented? Because he’s one of those directors that really puts his imprint on a movie.
MLR: You know what? He completely improvised to the point of 20 or 30 takes, and then would end up back to where the dialogue was. You’d go through all different versions, and then you’d get bored, and then you’d get tired, and then you’d keep doing it, and then you’d kind of end up back where you started, is my recollection of that.
AVC: And then he would have to go through all those takes in the editing room and then cobble it all together?
MLR: I guess so. I did see a quote by him saying that he doesn’t understand how people edit on a time schedule or give themselves such a quick turnover. I think he takes like a year to edit, but now that you put it that way, I can’t imagine going through all those takes. Especially watching his movies lately… you know what I mean? Like the scenes I did were pretty normal and conversational. Lately, the Joaquin Phoenix stuff, where it’s just long, rambling monologues, how could you keep track from so many takes?
AVC: “I think the 37th one was good… Use that one.”
MLR: Yeah, exactly. How would you put that together? I mean it must be just taking a chunk of time and that’s going to be for that speech, you know? Like taking a week on just that speech. Crazy. It’s really admirable, that commitment to work like that.
MLR: Jeremy Davies [as Charles Manson] I thought was amazing. Squeaky Fromme… I would not do that now. That was before I was a mom, and I think that for me, at this point in my life, life is too short to play that. But at that time, I just thought, “Yeah, I’m into it. Let’s take it there. Let’s do the Manson story.” I thought he did an amazing job and at the time I thought Squeaky Fromme really deserved her own movie. And I would have loved to have done that. Because she’s a real interesting piece of work. So, again, that was a lot of waiting around on dirty sets in hippie clothes, with people, and then a line here or there. So it was a cool experience, but I would not sign up to play a part of the Manson Family today. I’m not interested in that.
AVC: And then Manson still shows up in the news, like how he almost recently got married.
MLR: Oh my gosh, did you read that? And then she—her and her boyfriend planned on touring his body.
AVC: That actually makes more sense.
MLR: Yeah. There’s a different ending to that story, that the girl who wanted to be his bride had this elaborate plan. They tried to get [Manson] to sign this piece of paper to the rights to the body when he died, so that they could tour it for money, which I actually thought was a pretty brilliant idea.
AVC: You are permanently in the lexicon in Kirk’s art movie in Gilmore Girls, which is fantastic.
MLR: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was super-fun. I also played a song by myself later, so that was cool. The creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, she was a comedy fan and live music fan so she was just kind of cool like that, and had me hop aboard. I got to be in Kirk’s art film, which was great for me. It felt very familiar. It was like art school in college. It felt like a legit art movie.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006): “Pageant Assistant Pam”
MLR: [Laughs.] First of all, I had a great pair of pants. A great pair of khakis with pleats in the front, highly unattractive. I saw myself walk down the hallway, if you want to make yourself look even wider than you are in real life… That was such an amazing, sweet movie, I wish that I got to do more in it, but I feel super-happy for what I was able to be around for. The directors [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris] were known before that for their music-video directing; at that time there was a really famous Smashing Pumpkins video that kind of put them on the map, and people looked to them for their creative, interesting videos. This is a husband and wife team, that used to go to comedy shows, so they were big comedy fans, and they recruited me to do this video—it was pretty much me and the band Weezer. It cuts from them playing to me delivering pizza; it’s a song called “The Good Life.”
So I knew them forever, and when they told me they were doing Little Miss Sunshine, and could I come and work for a couple days on it, it was like, awesome, you know? And the stuff I got to do was on the day when all the real pageant girls were there. So it was super fun, and weird, and interesting. That whole thing was a trip. But I remember being really excited for them, because you could tell it was such a special movie. That was one of those ones where you knew when it was being made that it was really a cool thing.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012): “Bridget”
AVC: Another cool movie like that, but one that didn’t really get the attention that it deserved, is Safety Not Guaranteed. You’re such a badass in that movie, the glam editor at the front of the room.
MLR: That’s so cool that you brought that up! Yeah, I love that movie. Really sweet, interesting movie. There was a lot of improv in that and again, I wasn’t around for a lot of their stuff, so it was a surprise to me when I was at the premiere and saw, “Oh, that’s how they filmed that, that’s how that came together.” But from the little bit I witnessed, Aubrey [Plaza] and Jake [Johnson] and a lot of their character action was improv’d… or ad libbed, I should say, but mine was so much fun. For me, just to be that character—I wanted to do that more, because it brought this anger out of me that was really fun, that I [didn’t] think I could’ve accessed earlier. I was in it so briefly, but I just remember, she was so angry—there was this scene where everybody’s around a conference table, and it was all these extras, and I just started yelling at them like I was the boss, and ad-libbing and improv-ing, and it was so much fun. They’re like, “Okay, yeah, you can—cut. We got it. We just needed you saying one or two things.” I just had way too much fun with that.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2009, 2013): “Gail The Snail”
AVC: You also mentioned that the people who come to your shows include the Always Sunny In Philadelphia fans.
MLR: I mean, I love the show, but they’ll come up to me and reference other episodes and… I let them down because they think I know all the references, and I don’t. I feel like I’m very familiar with the show, but I haven’t seen every episode. And I was only in two episodes, but one was sort of a reprise where they brought everybody back for the Thanksgiving episode. So the fact that they associate me with that show is pretty amazing, because I really was only on it one time. It’s super exciting but it has this quality where I don’t know how to respond, you know? Because they’re so into it.
I knew Kaitlin [Olson] for years, we did a failed sketch show years ago, and Rob [McElhenney]… and they’re very funny and kind of dirty and they have an edginess to them, but they also are so nice and grounded and normal. I was in a bar with them one time, and I just saw the brunt of people coming up to them, drunk people talking to them as if they’re in character. Which is an awesome testament to the humor on the show, but they’re like, “We’re not… we don’t really do that in real life. We’re parents, we have kids. It’s 8 o’clock on a Tuesday night. We’re not really drunk right now.”