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: Alanna Ubach has a filmography filled with a level of diversity any actor would envy, including kids’ TV (Beakman’s World), sitcoms ranging from family fare (See Dad Run) to raunchy (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia), big-screen comedies both indie (Denise Dials Up, Clockwatchers) and mainstream (Legally Blonde, Meet The Fockers). Currently, Ubach can be seen in the ensemble of Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce, which wraps up its first season this week.
Alanna Ubach: It was quite daunting, the process of getting the role, because last year I’d just finished a show that I was on for about two and a half years [See Dad Run], so I felt spoiled, and I thought, “Oh, my God, it’s back to audition land!” So I was auditioning for about two months and, you know, when you’re on a job for more than a year, you almost forget the audition process and the art of rejection. I was going out for these pilots mid-season, and it was tough, but my goal was to book another show.
And I get a call one day from my manager, asking me to read this script called Girlfriends’ Guide, and I would be coming in mid-season as her long-lost best friend. And I read the script, and I read the dialogue, and I thought, “Ah! I can make this work!” And the next day I was put on tape, and a week later I was trying to find a place to relocate in Vancouver! [Laughs.] So I was excited. It was pretty quick. I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be auditioning forever.” You always think the gig you’re on is going to be the last gig you’re ever going to be working on. That’s always the actor’s worst nightmare: that what they’re working on is going to be the last thing they’ll ever work on. No lie. So I was very excited to land Girlfriends’ Guide immediately.
A.V. Club: So who is Jo?
AU: Jo is a brassy New Yorker who has known Lisa Edelstein’s character, Abby, since NYU. They were party buddies at NYU, and then life happened and they grew apart. And now Jo is the owner of a vegan Bakery that’s very successful in New York, and she’s decided to open up a bakery in Los Angeles. So she relocates to L.A. and moves in with Abby, and, you know, the stuff hits the fan.
Words are exchanged and I finally confront her and let her know how I really feel about her new Los Angeles lifestyle when, in fact, it’s really intimidating to meet her new friends and see her huge house and her amazing success. After a huge confrontation, they finally, ultimately grow closer because of it, but I hit her below the belt by telling her that her career is nothing compared to the talented Abby that I know, and these Mommy books that she writes are B.S. It really does hit home with Abby, but it does kind of open up a new strength in our friendship, and that’s what’s exciting about it. I move in with her, ultimately.
AVC: It must be a relief to secure another series gig after See Dad Run. Not that you haven’t done your share of movies, but having a regular schedule must be comforting.
AU: Well, yes, plus I always think to myself, “Technically you’re doing a 13-hour movie.” [Laughs.] If it’s a 13-episode season, then it’s a 13-hour movie! Because, you know, it’s fun to be able to explore a character for more than two hours and to be able to look at them in various different scenarios.
AVC: Was there anyone on the cast who just blew you away when you first worked with them?
AU: Well, Paul Adelstein I’ve known along the years, and I’ve always admired his work, so when I met him, he was so cool. He’s that buddy of yours in theater school who’s always funny but has that sardonic wit that’s so intimidating. He’s so clever, and… he’s the New York intellectual. And so is Lisa. It’s theater school all over again, being around these cats. They’re uber-smart in person. It’s amazing.
AVC: If IMDb can be trusted, your first time appearing in front of the camera was in a short film entitled The Blue Men, where you played a character named Edith.
AU: Yes! It was an AFI film that I booked when I was 13. I was attending the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute at the time, and it was a program that was cool enough to basically pass out lists of children’s agents that would be interested in representing kids. And I was a little kid, so I asked my mom and dad, “Listen, would you mind if I took interviews with these agents?” And I booked an agent, and before you knew it, she was sending me out on a lot of student films and such. But it was a lot of fun. I had to relocate to Catalina for about a month and shoot a student film, but it was amazing. I had a Mohawk and a lot of kooky outfits, and… it was telling, because it was my first role, and it was a character role. And lo and behold, here I am, 10 years later at the age of 23. [Coughs.] And still doing character roles!
AVC: Nice math.
AU: [Laughs.] Thank you.
AU: That was a lot of fun. I had the opportunity of meeting Jessica Cauffiel, my dynamic partner, my second in the film. She was already cast, so we were screen-tested together, and I went up to her and said, “Listen, I don’t know how the last girl did before I walked in to audition, but I really need to pay the bills. I need this role. I really do. I need this job.” So she looked at me, and she said, “Mirror my movements, and we’ll pretend like we didn’t even plan it.” And I said, “That’s a great idea.” So I began to mirror her movements during the scene, and it cracked everybody up, (casting director) Joseph Middleton really responded, and—lo and behold—I think I was also probably the smallest actor, so I could actually make Reese Witherspoon look tall. [Laughs.]
AU: What’s funny is that Reese and I had done Freeway together, and I played this chola gangbanger who shares a cell with Brittany Murphy and Reese Witherspoon. I thought, “My God, this is so funny: we’re the tiniest, most dangerous people in Watts right now. Everyone watch out!” [Laughs.] But I’m convinced that I kept getting cast as Reese Witherspoon’s friend because… well, aside from the fact that we get along famously, I’m close to her height!
AVC: Speaking of Freeway, we recently talked to Conchata Ferrell, who was tied up by Reese in the film.
AU: [Laughs.] Yeah, Reese did a lot of nasty things in that movie. She was a little woman on a mission.
AVC: Who else did you get to work with on the film?
AU: Guillermo Diaz, who played my boyfriend in it. We had one scene together. And then years go by, and I had written a short film called A Mi Amor Mi Dulce and I needed somebody to play a transgender character who would be playing the role of my brother, and I called up Guillermo Diaz, and I’m, like, “Hey, man, it’s your girlfriend from Freeway. You wanna act again? You wanna play my brother?” He goes, “Oh, my God, absolutely!” And four weeks later, we’re on another set again, playing siblings. It was hilarious. And he gave an amazing performance. Probably one of my favorite performances of his career.
AU: I was so excited that I was doing that film, and my role got cut out! But I remember it was a funny little casting process. I went in, I was put on tape, and… I think the director’s wife had watched it and said that she really responded to it. She was, like, “She looks like a trustworthy babysitter. Let’s hire her!” [Laughs.] And I was so excited, and my family was excited, and we all went to see Virtuosity, and… back then, you were never given that call saying, “You were cut out of the movie.” I guess my character obviously wasn’t important enough! So we went to go see the movie, and I’m, like, “Where am I? I don’t see myself anywhere!” Oh, well! But thanks to residuals, I’m constantly reminded that I was cut out of that film. It’s very funny.
AU: [Writer/director] Rob McKittrick knocked on the trailer door of every actress. I was the last one he came to. He asked Anna Faris if she would show her bush, he asked Kaitlin Doubleday if she would show her bush. He asked everyone. And they all said, “No, absolutely not, I will not lift up my skirt and show anything.” And he was, like, “Come on, it’s all in the name of comedy!” And they all said no.
And he finally knocked on my trailer door, and I said, “You want me to show my bush? Absolutely! But it better be the ugliest looking vagina you’ve ever seen this side of China. I want paperclips hanging from it…” [Laughs.] “I want cottage cheese… the whole bit. It’s got to make the fourth-grade boys laugh. I want the little boys to laugh at this. They have to howl with laughter. And the only way we’re gonna do it is if we show a double.”
So they decided to go across the street and find this stripper who was working at this bar across the street. But they managed to use her as a double, with a giant merkin taped to her crotch. It was very funny. And I sat and gave her direction while she was being filmed.
AVC: And you’ve still probably had to spend the last decade having people ask, “So was that really you?”
AU: Oh, sure. And it’s very funny, in fact, that if you look down at the message board on IMDB, a lot of people are saying, “You know what? She really needs to do some grooming. It’s just not the style these days. What’s up? Hasn’t she ever heard of a Brazilian wax?” It’s a lot of fun. You just kind of sit back and enjoy, and you know what you know. Ah, the magic of moviemaking…
AU: Oh, Sports Night was tough, because Sports Night was… Well, you know, it’s like Mamet. It’s Sorkin. And I didn’t realize that you had to immediately be off of the other actors’ last line in their dialogue. You had to immediately come in. It’s boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So that took some getting used to. But after about seven cups of coffee, I was in. [Laughs.] I was a team player. But it was very scary working with Sorkin. I also had the opportunity of working with him on The West Wing, and… It’s tough. It’s like playing the fiddle.
AU: That was the first gig I booked where I was just surrounded by all of these indie names, as well as Lisa Kudrow, and I was so excited because I’d seen Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding and I was a huge fan, and of Parker Posey’s, of course. Dazed And Confused? I mean, who are we kidding? I was so intimidated by her. And Lisa Kudrow of Friends. It was at the time when they were all asking for a million dollars an episode, and they were still waiting to hear back from the network to see if the show was going to go any further.
I remember that, and how much pressure Lisa Kudrow was under, because she basically teamed up with the rest of her castmates, and they were all asking for that kind of money. I remember we were all at lunch, and Lisa had mentioned that to us, and I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to book a sitcom one of these days.” [Laughs.] Because I looked at the paycheck I was getting for Clockwatchers compared to what she was about to get in a couple of months, and I couldn’t believe that actors were able to get that much money working on a sitcom.
AVC: You had done sitcoms by the time you did Clockwatchers, though, right? Just not as a series regular.
AU: Yeah, just one-offs or maybe a recurring role if I was lucky. But usually just as a guest star. So I really didn’t get a chance to work on a weekly basis until I finally booked See Dad Run, at which point I thought, “This is the best job in the world!” I mean, the hours, the food… [Laughs.] It’s amazing!
AVC: We did this feature with your TV husband, too.
AU: Oh, really? With Mr. Baio?
AVC: Does he make you call him “Mr. Baio”?
AU: [Laughs.] No, no. He’s a funny cat. We really grew close together during the run of that. It was a lot of fun. You know, he’s like your brother with a wild past who’s suddenly become conservative. It’s hilarious to me.
AVC: Were you well aware of who Scott Baio was before the show?
AU: Oh, sure. Although I knew him as Bugsy Malone and the skateboarder in Foxes. [Laughs.] So when he was suddenly playing my husband, it cracked all of my older siblings up, because of course they knew him as Charles In Charge and Chachi [Happy Days].
AVC: How was it doing that particular series, since it fell somewhere between the Nickelodeon sensibility and the Nick At Nite sensibility?
AU: Well, sure, there was a fine line between winking at the parents watching it with the children and, of course, making sure that the kids were thoroughly amused for a half-hour. The one thing that was really wild while filming it was watching these kids, these child actors playing my children, grow seven inches in a matter of, like, three weeks. It was so strange! I mean, by the time the series finished, Ryan Newman, who played my daughter, was taller than I was. They had to put me on stilts by the last season. [Laughs.]
These kids grow up so quickly, and then they hit puberty, and they start dating, and they’re learning how to drive. In fact, the little girl we hired to play my daughter, Bailey Brown, she was five when she started, and at one of the table reads, she was finally looking down at the script and actually reading it herself, so we had a huge party for her afterward. We were celebrating, because she was finally reading it! It’s amazing to see things like that happen. I’m not a mom, so to be able to see things like that up close and personal, I really became very close to those kids. And when a series ends, it’s so depressing, because you really have… I know it’s so clichéd, but you really have bonded with these people, and you really have formed a family.
AU: I was in acting class at the time, and my acting coach said, “Alanna, you have to get in touch with your sensuality. Enough of these quirky roles. Get in touch with your sensuality! You’re growing up now, you’re a woman… What’s wrong with you?” [Laughs.] So after a couple of Method classes and some sensory exercises, I suddenly became in touch with my sensuality! And that audition fell in my lap, and I walked in really trying to be the sexy, funny girl. And when I booked that, I was so excited to actually give that kind of character a shot.
Ray Romano and I got along famously. He’s such a sweetheart, and I thought, “You know, the only way we’re going to feel completely and totally comfortable with each other is if I really go for this.” So we had a kissing scene, and I was finally able to put my sensuality to the test. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s interesting to hear you say that you were in an acting class at that point in your career.
AU: Oh, I like to take classes every chance that I get. If I’m not working after about four or five months, I’ll jump back into a class. Being an actor is lot like being a dancer: you always have to go back to the bar and either work or take classes. Otherwise you’ll get rusty. That’s what happens to me, anyway. A lot of times people hate acting classes. But Gary Oldman never attended one, and look at him, so what do I know? [Laughs.]
AU: Noreen was one of my favorite parts I’ve ever played. And that was so funny, because Ben Stiller’s wife, there she is, playing Marcia Brady, and I was supposed to be in love with her… and cut to 10 years later, and I’m supposed to be in love with her husband, Ben Stiller, in Meet The Fockers. So that was a lot of fun. My nickname was “Bunky” on the set, and I think that was created by Betty Thomas. “Okay, now, when Bunky stands here, I want us to pan out… ” And I thought, “Bunky? What a great nickname!” [Laughs.]
AVC: So was the Meet The Fockers gig the direct result of the Christine Taylor/Ben Stiller connection?
AU: Well, actually, what’s funny is that they had no idea who they wanted for the role of Isabella, because they didn’t know if they wanted her to be younger, Colombian, black, overweight, underweight… They had no idea! So when I walked in to play the role, I just thought, “I’m just going to play it like my tia Flora, who I remember as a little girl being very vivacious and sexy and wore her cultura—her culture—on her shoulders like a badge of honor. And I thought, “She’s all about the love. The love of family. That’s what she represents to me.” So I carried that to the audition, and I think my enthusiasm for the cultura of Isabella is possibly what won me that role.
AU: That was a tough shoot. I was called in at three in the afternoon, and they finally used me at nine the following morning. That was indie-making boot camp for me, because I thought, “Wow, when you say ‘yes’ to these things, you have to be prepared to sit in a tiny trailer for 15 hours and not be used.“ [Laughs.] But Jim Mercurio, the producer, he was very sweet and showed up with a Denny’s to-go breakfast the following morning. Anything to keep us from walking off, going home, and getting into our own beds.
AVC: How did you find the experience of working with Kurtwood Smith?
AU: Oh, he’s unbelievable. He’s the real deal, and completely immersed in the character the entire time. So I was talking to the character, but I don’t know if I was talking to him. [Laughs.] I honestly can’t tell you! It’s not until the premiere, when you run into them and they’re with their wives and they’re dressed up in a nice suit, when you think, “Oh, my God, these people are normal civilians!”
Teamo Supremo (2002-03)—“Brenda (Rope Girl) / Hector (Skate Lad)”
El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera (2007)—“Manny Rivera / El Tigre”
AVC: You’ve done quite a bit of voice work over the years. Do you recall what your very first gig in that field was?
AU: Well, the first role that I did where I thought, “Oh, wow! I don’t want to do anything else besides these little-boy character voices!” was playing Manny Rivera in El Tigre. And now the husband and wife team that created it [Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua], they’re the duo behind The Book Of Life! I’m so proud of them. It’s really exciting that I was part of their first cartoon that they did for Nickelodeon, and I was basically their first son before they literally gave birth to a son. [Laughs.] But it was a lot of fun. Every Friday, we would walk into the Nickelodeon studios, and for three or four hours we’d sit and be a part of these cartoons that were so original and so colorful and amazing. And as Latin American, or of Spanish descent, I was very proud to be playing a little boy who was Hispanic. After that, I just started booking a lot of little-kid roles. So that was a lot of fun. It was the first role where I went, “Oh, my God, here I am in my 30s, playing a 9-year-old little boy growing up in the barrio. Wow, the possibilities here are endless. This is cool!”
AVC: The first substantial series role, voice-wise, seems to have been Teamo Supremo.
AU: That’s right! Yeah, Skate Lad was the beginning of me trying to master that voice, the gruff, tough little boy in grade school. And as a matter of fact, one of the producers was a producer on Beakman’s World, so that was our second time working together. I was originally cast as the character of Brenda, and he said, “Alanna, can you do a little boy? We’re looking for a Hispanic actor to play this.” And I said, “Well, as you know, I’m Hispanic! And of course I can do a little boy!” [Laughs.] So I immediately broke out into my little-boy imitation, and I was hired!
AU: Yes! That was a lot of fun. Filmed over at the Sunset Gower Studios, with Paul Zaloom, and we had an amazing time. I’ll never forget that. I wasn’t doing well in calculus at school, and they hired a specialist—a calculus specialist—named Rhoda Fine who would show up on the set every single day and ride me like Seabiscuit until I finally understood my calculus. [Laughs.] And because of her, I was accepted into NYU and USC. She helped me write my entrance essay, and I’ll never forget that. Beakman’s World is the reason why I was accepted into these really cool colleges!
AVC: How did you find your way into that series in the first place? Was it just a standard audition?
AU: Just a standard audition. All of them are. It’s one of those things where you don’t even think about getting the part. It’s all about just auditioning, and if you get the part, that’s a bonus. But for me, it was a party, because I walked in, and Paul Zaloom was there, and they just wanted us to play. And that was a time when Pee-Wee Herman had just finished his show, and it reminded me of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and I was a huge Pee-Wee Herman fan, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, to get to act like a freak, to be silly, and get paid? That’s a dream come true!” I was 15, but lo and behold, here I was trying to bring that art that I grew up with, with Pee-Wee Herman, back to life again. So that was fun.
AVC: I know that Jean Stapleton appeared on the show as Beakman’s mother later in the run. Were there any guest stars during your season of the show?
AU: There weren’t, actually. It was just the three of us: me, Paul, and Mark (Ritts). But I was very excited and starstruck because Married With Children was filming in the studio next door. So I’d go over and stalk David Faustino every chance I got. [Laughs.]
AU: I met my boyfriend, Seth Green, on that movie. We would be boyfriend and girlfriend for four years after that.
AVC: You also had Jack Black in the cast of that one.
AU: Jack Black was in the cast, yes. He was an avid reader. He always had a book in his hand. He knew he was going places.
AVC: You’re technically uncredited, but are you actually in Herbie Fully Loaded?
AU: Yes! That was a day’s work, and Lindsay Lohan, uh, may have been about four hours late that day, so they decided to use me early… But Herbie: Fully Loaded, that was a lot of fun. And it’s funny, because the director of that movie [Angela Robinson] ended up becoming one of the producers on Hung.
AU: I played Ray’s neighbor on the show. That really was one of my favorite roles that I’ve ever played. That’s a case where, had I done a film, that role may have lasted for 20 minutes, but it was exciting to play her for hours and hours. But again, like Girlfriends’ Guide, that’s the benefit of doing a series: you have the benefit of being able to do that.
AVC: Given that, as Ray’s neighbor, you were only in certain plotlines of the series, was it interesting for you to tune in and see how the whole thing played out onscreen?
AU: Oh, sure. And that’s what interesting about the puzzle of being a recurring regular: you never know when you’re going to be asked back. You’re at the mercy of the writers, so you’ll find out maybe a week before you have to fly out to Detroit to play the role, and you read a couple of pages and find out, “Oh, I’m having a sex scene with Thomas Jane this week! Who would’ve thought? Guess I’d better start doing my sit-ups… ”
AVC: It was only a one-off appearance, but you certainly made an impression when you turned up on It’s Always Sunny.
AU: Oh, my gosh. Again, that was a dream come true. There I was, playing the prostitute wife-to-be of Danny DeVito, who originally played my father in Renaissance Man. Fifteen years later, and here I am playing his hooker.
AVC: As your father, was he disappointed in how you turned out?
AU: Oh, my God. [Laughs.] What a lovebug. That’s the one word I can come up with when I think of Danny DeVito. He was so excited to be acting with me again.
AVC: Renaissance Man was a pretty high-profile gig for you at the time, wasn’t it?
AU: Oh, sure. And Danny was just one of the sweetest, nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. There’s just a sparkle in his eyes.
AVC: It’s funny to look back at It’s Always Sunny and realize that he wasn’t even on the show when it first started. He’s such an integral part of that series.
AU: Oh, sure. I mean, you had these geniuses who came up with the series, but thank goodness for Danny DeVito discovering it and saying, “Look, I’m going to put my stamp of approval on this, because even though these kids are unknowns, their talent is beyond words, and they have to have their own show.” And lo and behold, years go by, and they’re some of the greatest comedians around right now. I think, anyway. They’re a modern-day Three Stooges!
AU: Denise Calls Up was, like, the first true indie that I booked when I was living in New York, doing a play called Kindertransport, and right when the show ended, I was called up for this audition. And it helps to do a play when you’re trying out for something like that, because your tools are sharpened. I walked in, and I booked it right after auditioning. I was on cloud nine, getting my first indie, because I thought, “Here I am, in my favorite city in New York, playing the lead in a film!” That was so exciting. And nerve-wracking.
AVC: When you did Californication, you had the good fortune to work with Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols.
AU: Oh, yeah. Who was one of the coolest, coolest cats. I mean, a man of very few words, but when he did say something, it was so memorable that you wanted to put it on a bumper sticker and make thousands and thousands of dollars off of it. [Laughs.] But he’s a road dog, man. I’m sure he’s just filled with story after story after story. God, he’s a legend, a walking legend, and I was excited to work with him. But he’s a man of few words, and I had to respect that.
Sebastian Bach, on the other hand, really had the gift of gab. He was a sweetheart. He picked us up from our trailer and we caravanned over the set at the Hollywood Cemetery in order for him to get to his role, playing a dead guy all day long. But he would constantly be singing the famous Sex Pistols song [“Bodies”]: “Eff this and eff that / I don’t want a baby who looks like that!” [Laughs.]
AVC: In closing, is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AU: Oh, gosh. That’s a really great question. I’m sure there are, but, you know, it’s funny: There are so many things that I’ve gone up for that I didn’t book, and that’s really when you have to bounce back from rejection. But I remember I was up against Brittany Murphy for Clueless, and I thought, “Oh, my God, this is gonna be my big break!” And I was so devastated when I didn’t book that. But then Legally Blonde fell in my lap, and I thought, “Oh, well, here I am: It’s a similar kind of film, and I’m still playing against the lead!”
Just when you think that the world is over after not booking something that you think is the role of your dreams, something else comes along, and you really have to keep that in mind. I remember… [Starts to laugh.] All right, I can tell you this: I tested for Six in Blossom when I was a little girl. And when I didn’t get that role, I was devastated for weeks. That was my first big rejection where I thought, “Oh, my gosh, is it always going to be like this?” And lo and behold, it was. And still is. But Jenna Von Oÿ beat me out for the role of Six.
AVC: Do you still hold a grudge?
AU: Oh, boy, yes. If I were to see Jenna now, I’d give her such a piece of my mind. [Laughs.]