Janeane Garofalo spent the usual years in the stand-up comedy trenches, moving across the country, working day jobs, and "doing shit gigs" as she tried to make it big as a comedian. As she tells the story, Garofalo never sought out a TV and film career; it just happened, as friends Ben Stiller and Garry Shandling invited her to appear on their television shows (The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show, respectively). Both series won Emmys, and gave her a forum for the aggressive, straightforward humor that remains her trademark. Garofalo's ill-fated, incomplete year as a performer on Saturday Night Live's 1994 season made national news, but her appearance the same year as Winona Ryder's funnier, smarter, more decisive friend in Reality Bites cemented her image as a Gen-X "it girl" and spokeswoman for the alternative fringe—labels she's endured for nearly a decade, though she dislikes and disagrees with both. Since then, she's continued her stand-up appearances and appeared in more than two dozen films, including Mystery Men, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, and The Matchmaker. Most recently, she starred in the summer-camp-movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer. Garofalo recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about her reputation, her image, her films, and her perceived irrelevance.
The Onion: I was just reading your 1998 interview with Eddie Vedder for CMJ New Music Report, if you remember that.
Janeane Garofalo: Of course I remember it. God, yes.
O: How did that come about?
JG: You know, I honestly don't know. A friend of mine named Kim Riley, who has since gone on to own his own record label, is very well connected in the CMJ circles, whatever they may be. And somehow, he contacted me and said, "I have a friend who wants to know if you want to do an interview with Eddie Vedder. They're starting to do interviews again." Because I guess Pearl Jam had had a press blackout for a while. And I was the hugest Pearl Jam fan in the world, so I was like, "Absolutely I do," but I don't know why that phone call came in, and I don't know why I had the privilege of interviewing Eddie Vedder. Just one of those lucky things.
O: You made a lot of interesting points in that interview, about interviews and the press. You have a reputation for being very outspoken and forthright in your interviews, for not pulling any punches.
JG: I guess. You know what's strange about that? If you aren't overly effusive or really nicey-nice with the press, you get a reputation for being outspoken or difficult. Which is really strange, because I think so many people are used to hearing real non-answers to questions, kind of flowery answers to questions with the press. So it seems like if you answer in kind of a pragmatic or straight-ahead manner, it stands out in some strange way.
O: You specifically said in that interview that you can't imagine not answering a question that someone asks you in a straightforward way. That seems unusual. Do you think that attitude causes interviewers to try and get away with more personal questions?
JG: No, I think the press will try and get away with whatever they can. I have yet to meet very many people in the press who are really, truly interested in writing a good story or getting at the truth. Most press people, when they come into an article, have an angle that they want already, so they need points to support that angle, whatever the angle may be.
O: It just seems like a lot of your interviews focus on your sex life, your weight, your dating habits, personal things like that. Do you think it has anything to do with your reputation for answering those questions, or does your situational comedy open up personal topics?
JG: I think it's the fact that my stand-up, and the movie that I unfortunately seem to be most associated with, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, has to do with body image and women's issues, that kind of thing. And in my stand-up, just one segment of my stand-up has to do with some of those things. It's certainly not the whole of my stand-up, but that tends to get focused on. And because I am considered, quote-unquote, less attractive than the average actress… I am considered, in Hollywood terms, overweight and not particularly attractive. I'm not saying that in my real life, that's how I feel about myself. I'm saying, that's how it is. And for some reason, reporters can't get their minds around people who are anything less than Charlize Theron-looking, and they must discuss it. They've gotta know about it. They must ask you, "How do you do it? How do you… You're kind of a rebel! You're outside the matrix!" So somehow, in our culture, it is actually subversive that I'm a size 10/12. That's subversive in Hollywood, because the average actress—who works a lot, anyway—is between a zero and a five. So that seems to be something that the interviewer must! Know! The answer to! [Laughs.] It's like, "How are you getting out of bed in the morning?" That kind of thing. And people think I bring it up, but I don't. Other people always bring it up.
O: Do you think your work has opened up any doors for people who don't look like Uma Thurman or Charlize Theron?
JG: Oh, good lord, no. There's always been your sidekick-friend character actor. There's always been the person who's never going to play the wife of Tom Cruise, ever, like, "Don't make me laugh." I'm the friend. I'm the part who's never the romantic lead, unless it's a modern Cyrano, i.e. Cats & Dogs. There's always been that, since the dawn of moviemaking. It never opens the door. There can only be a handful. If there's any door—maybe, maybe, maybe, and I don't claim to have opened it—in the early '90s, like between '90 and '94, I'd say maybe in the stand-up comedy world, there was more of a likelihood that the kind of alt-rock girl, or goth girl, or punk-rock girl might make it onto TV. A little bit more during the Kurt Cobain years, and I think Kurt Cobain had a lot more to do with it than I did. It just seemed like, on—they used to have tons of those half-hour comedy shows, like Evening At The Improv and Caroline's Comedy Hour, and blah blah blah blah blah. You would see more women with the dyed-black hair and Doc Marten boots on than maybe you would have if I hadn't had luck with Larry Sanders and Ben Stiller and Reality Bites and stuff like that. Maybe, I don't know.
O: Why do you think The Truth About Cats & Dogs has stuck with you for so long? What is it about that film that fascinates people?
JG: I have no idea why that film appeals to anyone. I can't stand that film. Maybe it appeals to some women because they are comfortable seeing a female lead that they don't have to feel bad about themselves to look at. Of course, there's Uma Thurman, where they can feel like, "Oh, God, I could never measure up to that." But if you look at me, you can go, "Hey! She's actually fatter than me!" You never get to see that on TV or movies. You never see somebody [who makes you think], "Hey, that looks like my roommate," or "If she can do it, I can do it! If Janeane Garofalo is moderately successful as an actor, I can be."
O: Why do you hate the film?
JG: I think it's soft and corny, and the soundtrack makes you want to puke, and everybody's dressed in Banana Republic clothing. The original script and the original intent was very different than what it wound up being when it became a studio commercial film. It was originally supposed to be a small-budget independent film where there would be much more complexity to all the characters, and Abby and the guy don't wind up together at the end.
O: Were the changes made in production, or earlier in the process?
JG: The changes were made when Uma Thurman signed on, which made it a studio film, because she can get a movie made, and the budget upped. When she signed on, it became a very appealing project to a studio, as opposed to an indie, and everything changed.
O: Reality Bites is the other film that's stuck with you and colored your career. Did something similar happen there? It has some of the flavor of a big-budgeted indie.
JG: Yeah, that's same thing again. It starts out with good intentions, and then—too many cooks. There are always too many producers, and too many studio people, trying to make it appeal to the mainstream. You can't have cinema by committee if you're trying to do it well. It's just one of those things that… I think it's got its good points, definitely, but also its bad points. But, you know, nobody ever starts out to make a mediocre, commercial film. You always think it's going to be something. And then, once you're done with your shooting, you have no control. You're just done, as an actor. You're expected to just walk away and keep your mouth shut about it. And the thing is, it's heartbreaking, sometimes, when you see the product. I'm not talking about Reality Bites or Cats & Dogs. I mean, there's way worse films than that. And I feel bad talking about this, because there are many people involved with the film who love it. And there are a lot of people who like both those films very much. It's just my opinion. And that's going back to what you said earlier: The way I'm talking now, people would say, "God, she's a pain in the ass. She's so difficult." Like, a studio person would say that. Because I'm not saying to you, "I love both those movies. I think they're fantastic, and they'll appeal to kids from 8 to 80. Go see them." Movies are too expensive, I think. I can't go and lie to somebody and say, "Go spend $10 to see this movie," if I don't love it. 'Cause then how can anybody trust you the next time you do a press junket for a movie? Are you going to say that again? "This was the best movie I ever did, you're going to love it, go pay $10 again"?
O: Do the studios try to keep you off junkets?
JG: I never see the film before the junket, so I don't have to lie. What I say is, "I haven't seen it." If I give interviews after I've seen it, there's nothing anyone can do about that. But every actor is scrutinized on the press junket. They have people, when you do your press junket… Say you go to L.A. for two days to do press for the movie, which means every kind of conceivable outlet to promote the film. They have people from the studio watching each actor, just to make sure. It's not just me. They watch everybody.
O: Do those people try to shut you up, or just take notes and tattle on you?
JG: They might tell on you, or the publicity person might come up to you and say, "You know, you might not want to say that anymore."
O: And how do you respond to that?
JG: It's never been that blatant with me. It's been kind of after the fact. It'll get back to me where someone says, "You know, you're not a team player." Or "People are starting to think you're kind of difficult." Or "You don't want to promote this film." It's like talking to the principal. So then sometimes what I'll do, if I know I have another day of it with the same people, I'll be very diplomatic and say, "I haven't seen it. I don't know. I can't answer that question." I'll just say that over and over.
O: Have you come out of screenings saying, "That is not the film I thought I was appearing in"?
JG: Oh, God, yeah. Most actors will say that's true, though. There's so many times that you'll see a movie you were in, and just leave going, "That is absolutely not what I signed on for." That's really a common occurrence.
O: Which of your films have you been happiest with, once you've seen the final product?
JG: I loved The Minus Man, I loved Wet Hot American Summer, I loved The Matchmaker, I loved Romy And Michele's High School Reunion, believe it or not. A lot of people don't like that. I liked that. I liked everybody in that. So there have been a number that I've thought, "Yes, this is exactly what I wanted, exactly what I thought…" and then there are times when I've thought, "Oh, no. This was supposed to be so great."
O: Wet Hot American Summer was an odd project. Have you watched a lot of '80s summer-camp movies?
JG: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm 36, so I've, of course, seen every movie from the '80s in the world. I loved Wet Hot. There's been mixed reviews about that, but I think it looks like an '80s summer film, and for the most part is like it. There's a couple of darker humorous moments in it, but the thing is, there's no Shannon Elizabeth-looking teenagers, really, in it, and no exploitative things or gross-out, fuck-a-pie humor. For me, it was a movie that, when I saw it, I was delighted by it, in the way that when I was younger and saw Meatballs, I was delighted by it.
O: How did you come to be in the film?
JG: David Wain and Michael Showalter, who wrote and co-directed it, have been friends of mine for years. They, about four years ago, asked me to do it, so I said yes then, and then they finally got the money for it last year.
O: How did they come up with the concept? Why did they decide that the world needed a parody of a small subgenre of film from 20 years ago?
JG: I have no idea. I never thought to ask that question.
O: You often say in interviews that people misperceive you as a cynical hard-ass. Do you think that's because of your movie roles, your comedy, or something you personally project?
JG: I have no idea. I'm assuming it's because of some of the roles I've been given. There have been other movies I've been in that no one's ever seen where I don't play a part like that. Also, I think people think you're caustic because you're a comic. But, see, that's the thing again. They only call females "caustic," whereas Chris Rock and Dennis Miller are "edgy." But me and Sandra Bernhard are "ball-busters," or "castrating." That type of thing. It's just sexist. But I think it's also the way I look, maybe—because I don't look soft and pretty, and I have a deep voice, and I don't dress up for interviews or TV appearances. So I think people make an opinion which is not true. I'm not like the sweetest person in the world, but I'm by no means a mean or caustic or bitchy person to people. [Laughs.] Unless somehow, somebody would incur that kind of response from me.
O: Are you interested in changing those perceptions, or would addressing them be taking them too seriously?
JG: Well, it's not like I've set out to change it, but obviously the personal is political. Obviously, I am making a statement by not being physically fit, by not dressing up when I go on Letterman, by not lying about my age. I don't wear makeup unless I'm working. I don't wear makeup on interviews, or on TV if I'm just, like, on a show. That is a statement, obviously. I'm just being myself, but clearly that projects something. On the rare occasions when I pose in magazines, I really would rather just wear my own clothes. And the only makeup you need is for lighting. And it's a statement, because my feeling is, every other fucking actor and actress is willing to trot out their abs and ask you to enjoy the wonder of them in all their vanity poses, and shit like that. So let everyone else do it, you know what I mean?
O: How do publicists react to that?
JG: They hate it. Stylists and magazine people hate it, hate it, hate it. In fact, there have been times where they've called off the photo shoot, because I want to wear my own clothes and not have makeup. They're like, "We just won't do it," and I'm like, "Good, fine, I don't care. You guys asked me to do this. I don't want to spend my day in this studio anyway." But the thing is, nobody notices me anyway. I am so irrelevant to the average Britney Spears fan. So it's not like what I do has an impact, really, on anyone. I think for a brief window in time, maybe, like I said, in the early to mid-'90s, maybe there was a little, minor impact I might have had on some younger women. But now, Grandma 36-year-old… I don't think the average MTV viewer knows who I am, nor would they care. I think I am incredibly irrelevant to the average young person.
O: Maybe to the 14-year-old girls who love Britney Spears, but there are other 36-year-olds out there. The crowd that Reality Bites was made for is still alive. Personality pieces on you constantly type you as "the representative of the alternative," and "the spokeswoman for Generation X." Do you think there's any validity to those labels?
JG: I'm not even Generation X, because I'm so much older. I think the person who's interviewing might say that, but the average 36-year-old woman is now in her career, perhaps married with children. I don't think that I'm even on the radar screen for her, either. And I'm not saying that in a poor-me way. I'm being what I consider to be pragmatic. I just don't think I have… If I ever had an impact, I don't think I have one now.
O: Is that something you want to change, or are you happy with your level of fame?
JG: Oh, there's nothing you can do about it. I'm definitely not one of those people who's like, "I've got to reinvent myself!" See, I think that's somewhat of an odd sickness. I don't mean to slag Madonna, because I kind of like her in interviews. I don't like her music. But I think there's some kind of psychological issue with somebody who must stay number one no matter what. "I will reinvent, I will work out four more hours if I have to, I will have more pyrotechnics at my show, I will do whatever it takes to be number one with you, the public." I think there's something strange about that. Here's a woman with two children, now. So she's definitely not spending all those hours with her kids; she's spending all those hours trying to be number one, still. And my feeling on it is, "I don't give a fuck. You like me or you don't like me. I'm not a politician. You don't have to like me, and you don't have to see a movie I'm in. I don't care."
O: Given that, where would you like to see your career go? If you don't want to be number one, what do you want to be?
JG: I would like to move into directing and stop acting, actually.
O: What sort of project do you have in mind?
JG: Well, I just directed a short film this summer. I would actually like to, believe it or not, get into directing episodic television, half-hour sitcoms. I believe there's a way to make them funny, dammit. Honestly. I mean, I like television as much as the next guy. I mean, there's a lot about it that I hate. I think I would like to direct television, and I would like to direct sitcoms.
O: Have you taken any steps in that direction?
JG: I have a deal with HBO to develop a TV series with David Wain and Michael Showalter, of Wet Hot American Summer fame. So we're working on the pilot right now. And if that goes with HBO, I'd like to direct some and, obviously, be in them.
O: What's your direction style like?
JG: I don't know a lot about directing. All I know is from being on a lot of movie and TV sets over the last 12 years. You do understand some things about directing just by being on the set, because you're being directed constantly. You see it and see it and see it. The problem is, most people don't have a natural ability to do it well. And I'm not saying I do, either. That's the reason so many movies and TV shows are bad: Many, many directors don't have a vision, per se; they just are technically pretty good. They know how to move a camera around, and they know how to have something lit so it looks cool. But they don't know how to talk to the actors, or they don't know how to get interesting performances out of them. Like, when you watch a Scorsese film, or a Woody Allen film, or a Soderbergh film, and you're like, "Hey, that's the best that so-and-so's ever been! That's amazing! That person sucks, but when they're in this…" And it's because Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, in particular, have a way of getting… well, not only are the scripts good, but Soderbergh, I think, is amazing. He can get things out of people who are pretty mediocre as actors, and they look fantastic in his films.
O: Who's the best director you've ever worked with?
JG: Hmm. I really liked James Mangold, who directed me in Cop Land. I love Bruce McCulloch, who directed me in Dog Park. Oh, oh, Hampton Fancher, from The Minus Man. They have an amazing ability to make you feel like, "Hey, you're number one. Whatever you need…" Even though it's not true, they make you feel like, "Whatever it takes. You do whatever you need to do."
O: Do the directors you prefer working with tend to be fairly open to actor collaboration, or do you prefer people with a strong vision?
JG: Collaborative directors are the best, absolutely, the best, the best, the best. There are some that just refuse, refuse, to let you have any input, which makes you wonder why you're there, why you were chosen to play the part. It makes you feel untrusted, and makes you feel like, "Oh, wow, the director must think I suck." It makes you feel insecure.
O: You often say in interviews that you prefer stand-up to movies.
JG: It's just so much more simple. You don't have to go through rehearsals, hair, makeup, wardrobe, camera tests, take after take, repetitiveness, driving to the location. You just go there. It's you and your microphone for an hour, hour and 10 minutes, and that's it.
O: If you started directing, would that take you away from stand-up?
JG: If I started directing episodic television, I could do a few episodes here and there and do stand-up whenever I wanted to, or do stand-up on Saturday and Sunday nights. So it wouldn't take me away from it any more than acting on location does.
O: And you're interested in getting out of acting?
JG: I'm interested in acting in a general sense. I'm more interested in acting, maybe, like doing plays, or just doing friends' projects. Digital film I enjoy, because there's a lot more working, and a lot less fidgeting and lighting and technical stuff. I did a digital film this summer, which was incredibly fulfilling creatively, because we spent most of the time working. Whereas, with most studio films, you spend most of the day sitting in your trailer with your thumb up your ass, waiting for the two minutes a day when you get to act.
O: I hear that complaint a lot, but it seems like half of America would love to have that kind of free time.
JG: Well, yeah, you say that, and it is wonderful to have the luxury of reading. You know, you have that, "Oh, I want to read that book. All I want to do is sit here and read." I say that a lot, because my favorite thing is just to read, read, read, read. And I don't mean that like, "Aren't I smart." I just love it. And, yes, when I'm on a movie set, I get the opportunity to read anything and everything, and I love that. But the point is, you're stuck in this tin trailer, from like 5:30 in the morning until 8 or 9 at night. And you can't really leave, and you can't really do anything. You can say people would be envious of that, but why? You're not fulfilled, you're not doing anything, so you feel worthless. I think one of the reasons directing appeals to me is because you are busy every fucking moment, from when you get there 'til you leave. You are absolutely overwhelmed with busyness. And I'd personally like that.
O: What do you read when you're stuck in your trailer for 14 hours a day?
JG: Anything and everything. I used to really be into historical texts, or the type of books that weave historical fact with fiction. I used to be really into that. Then, for a while, I was on any biography I could read. Now it's whatever strikes my fancy. I love going to bookstores, and I'm always backed up 20 books deep, of like, "Oh, I didn't even read that one yet, and I just bought a new one." But, whatever, I just love to read anything.
O: Would you be interested in using your position as a director to get better roles for women, or break the Hollywood-starlet appearance mold?
JG: Well, I don't know. I mean, obviously, in the series that me and Michael and David are working on, we will cast the best men and women for each part, and there are equal parts in it for men and women. And we will obviously not be casting whoever is hot right now, but putting in whoever is the best person in any of the parts, regardless of looks or age or career heat.
O: Do you watch films and think, "I wish I had that role," or "I could have done that role much better, that should have been me"?
JG: Oh, God, yes.
O: What was the last film that made you think that?
JG: Most recently, something I saw on HBO, and on the Independent Film Channel. One was I Shot Andy Warhol, and the other was Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle. I'm not saying I would have done a better job, no way, because Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lili Taylor are awesome. I just was like, "Ahhhh, that would have been great to have been in that."
O: Do you think your attitude toward film would change if you were getting roles like that?
JG: Probably. There have been a few projects I've been on where I'm so fulfilled, I can't wait to go to work: The Minus Man, The Matchmaker, Wet Hot, and Steal This Movie. I was excited to get out of bed in the morning. If I got roles like that, or got to work with Steven Soderbergh, I'd be psyched, of course. But that's not my path. That's not what's happened.
O: I liked The Matchmaker, but it just didn't seem to click with audiences.
JG: Oh, it just didn't work at all. It bombed horribly. A lot of people hated it. I just liked it, maybe, because I loved making it. But it got terrible reviews, and it tanked horribly.
O: Why do you think that is?
JG: Maybe a lot of people just didn't think it was that good. Also, I'm not a box-office draw. Why would people go see it? Unless you like the scenery of Ireland, there's really no reason to go. It's not like, "Oh my god, a Janeane Garofalo movie just opened."