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: Kristen Schaal is one of the TV all-stars of the past 10 years. She’s starred on the acclaimed likes of Flight Of The Conchords and Last Man On Earth; possessing a voice made for cartoons, she’s also voiced characters on the cult hits Bob’s Burgers, BoJack Horseman, and Gravity Falls. Schaal spoke to The A.V. Club about all of the above, in addition to her villainous turn on 30 Rock and the time she made her onscreen debut in shoes that were 1-and-a-half sizes too small.
The A.V. Club: I want to start with BoJack Horseman because I didn’t think I could feel so stunned about animation and about voice acting. What was that like for you on BoJack Horseman? How was that different from other animated shows that you’ve done?
Kristen Schaal: It was really great. I knew Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, the creator] was fun because I knew him back in the scene in New York when he was doing sketch comedy. So it was fun to see him.
Oh, and Lisa Hanawalt. I knew her back in the day too, because she’s the artistic creator, visually. Designer. I’m actually not sure what her title is [production designer—ed.], but she comes up with the look of the show. And she is awesome. My husband and I wrote a sex book, and Michael Kupperman did all the illustrations. But we also wanted to include a two-page orgy-type spread. And [illustrator] Michael Kupperman didn’t have time to do it, so Lisa Hanawalt stepped up to the plate and ripped one out for us. And it was awesome. She’s awesome. So it was really cool to get to work on that show with those two.
AVC: BoJack Horseman got so emotional recently. Do you record with Will Arnett in the same room? Or do you come in and do your lines separately?
KS: For BoJack we do our lines separately. I’ve never done it with Will Arnett. So I sort of had to come up with the emotion on my own, reading with Raphael. Yeah, it was sad. I’m glad it came off as sad. That was my intention. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you base Sarah Lynn on kid actresses you’ve known or that you’ve seen out in L.A.? Or was that just kind of a more organic thing for you?
KS: Yeah, I based it on the character they wrote, which was clearly based on probably an amalgamation of all of the people we’ve seen and known. So that was pretty easy. She’s a tragic character. That’s probably why it touched people so much, because at the end of the day everybody—even if they’re acting out in aggressive ways—it’s usually the more aggressive, the more desperate they are for some sort of love.
Gravity Falls (2012-16)—“Mabel Pines”
KS: That one I’m especially proud of. With Gravity Falls definitely, the fans came out really hard and fast. Everybody was immediately on board with Gravity Falls, and the work that [creator] Alex Hirsch put into it was massive and creative and gorgeous with all the clues and the riddles. And Mabel was so much fun to play. I was always in a really good mood as soon as I stepped into the booth and said my first Mabel line, no matter what kind of day or week I was having or what I was going through. The minute I opened my mouth and just got goofy with her, I always left the booth feeling better. It was like really good therapy for me. So I’m definitely going to miss her a lot.
I’m actually driving past Alex’s apartment right now. That’s so fun. I remember the first time I knew how special the show was was when we had a little panel at Comic-Con and the people who attend Comic-Con always get a chance to ask a question. And just the fans that came out wearing all the Mabel sweaters and hats they made themselves. And the questions they were asking were so sincere and so sweet and so smart. And it really hit home just how special this show was.
AVC: Were those were adult fans? Or kids watching the shows?
KS: It was a mix. It was really cool because it was moms and dads and their 6-year-olds. Also siblings love the show together. And then there was a lot of adults on their own that really loved it. Which is cool. That’s how you know you have a really cool show, is when it’s just like defies demographics.
Flight Of The Conchords (2007-09)—“Mel”
AVC: Flight Of The Conchords was your first regular role, right?
KS: Yeah, that was sort of a breakout spot for me, for sure.
AVC: How did you meet up with those guys? Or was it an audition?
KS: No, I was doing lots of stand-up comedy in New York City, and it was around that time. And I got picked to do the [US Comedy Arts Festival] in Aspen, Colorado. And they, at the same time, the year before, also did the Aspen festival. And that was how they got their development deal to write Flight Of The Conchords for HBO. So while they were doing that, they had written this part and when I came up and did the festival, HBO showed them a tape of my stand-up and they thought I was perfect to play the part of Mel. That’s how I got it.
AVC: Those two, Bret and Jemaine, they seem like such a unit. Were they like that on set?
KS: Oh yeah. They were new to the United States and I was new to being on a TV show. It was a very sweet, innocent experience. Even though I didn’t know any different, I knew that I was on a very special show. The first time I met with them was at a dinner. Because I didn’t audition, I never met them. We got dinner in New York in the East Village and I remember Bret got lost. Just like the pilot. But he was wandering around looking for us. And it was me and Jemaine and Bret and Rhys [Darby] and the creative co-director, James Bobin. And he’s from London. And I was just sitting there not understanding anything. I just wasn’t used to their accents yet.
It was a very special time. It’s hard for me to pop in a Flight Of The Conchords album without feeling such intense nostalgia. I just recently have been able to get back into their songs and be okay with the fact that it’s been about 10 years.
Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)—“Louise Belcher”
AVC: You’re so prevalent now in animation. My kids recently popped in a Shrek cartoon, and there you are again, as the gingerman’s girlfriend. Are you getting offers for that type of work all the time?
KS: Yeah, I’ve been pretty busy with voice-over. I try not to do too many things just because, I don’t know. I’m busy. [Laughs.] But I have had a really nice run of doing it. And I’m having a lot of fun doing it. That Shrek Halloween short was one of my first voice-overs. It might have even been before Bob’s Burgers. So cartoons just don’t go away. But even if they do, a day on a cartoon like eight or so years ago, you know, you’ll still be popping in that DVD. Because a lot of animation is evergreen. Which is great.
AVC: On Bob’s Burgers, you’re the only female voice of the five regulars. Do you ever do voice-over where you guys see each other and play off each other?
KS: Oh yeah. That is the only animated project that I’ve done where we record together as a group. That’s what I was doing today. It does just take more time, because we’re all improvising. But Wednesdays is when Bob’s records and it’s really fun. And I got to work with Gary Cole—who came in today to play Sergeant Bosco—which was cool. And it’s just so fun to riff on each other. Or even just hear the lines and react in real time is fun.
AVC: That must be so different compared to all the other stuff that you do. And it probably explains so much why you guys seem like such a family on the show.
KS: Well, we also knew each other for years and years and years before Bob’s got put together. Because all of us did stand-up, pretty much. And the New York comedy scene. Except for Dan Mintz [who voices Tina], who started in L.A., I think. He was the only one. But he also does stand-up. I knew Eugene [Mirman, who voices Gene] and Jon Benjamin [who voices Bob] and John Roberts [who voices Linda]. And Larry Murphy [who voices Teddy], way back.
AVC: Do you still do stand-up?
KS: Yeah, I’ve done comedy festivals and I host a weekly show Monday nights called the Hot Tub Show, which I’ve been doing for 11 years with my co-host Kurt Braunohler. It’s a great chance to hang out with Kurt. Because the busier you get, the harder it is to see friends. But I know that I’ll always see Kurt Monday night, and that makes me so happy. And then, we have really great producers who book some of the best up-and-coming and already there stand-up comedy around. So I just get to watch great stand-up every week.
The Last Man On Earth (2015-present)—“Carol”
AVC: Will Forte wrote this role specifically for you, and you were already on Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls when The Last Man On Earth premiered. How do you balance that schedule? You’re filming Last Man, you’re hosting Hot Tub on Mondays, you’re recording Bob’s Burgers on Wednesdays. It seems like a lot.
KS: Yeah, I guess it is a lot. I still could handle a little bit more. [Laughs.] It works out great. I don’t know. It’s not that bad. Last Man days are very long because every episode—it’s almost like a 20 to 30 minute mini-film. The hours are long and it’s pretty intense. So the weeks that we’re shooting Last Man, I’m usually able to record Bob’s Burgers and sometimes I can’t make it to Hot Tub either, but that’s okay. There’s always a week hiatus from Last Man before we get back into it. So I can record Bob’s Burgers or talk to you.
That being said, I guess I feel like my schedule is pretty easy-breezy because, unlike Will Forte, I’m not running the show. Because I get to watch him run the show. He’ll write a show, act in a show, edit a show… and that’s a schedule that is so grueling, that I feel like I’m on vacation with the amount of work I’m doing. There’s always somebody that’s working longer hours and getting less sleep than me.
AVC: What about that part appealed to you, with Carol? Especially at the beginning, she’s so regimented, keeping everything in order, and basically pulls Will’s character Phil back from the brink of total mania. It seems like she’s the only ray of sense, really, in that new reality that they’re in.
KS: Yeah, it’s a great part. It’s one of those things that is being a character after I played so many parts where I come in for the day, and I say a few lines, and go. And this is the first time I’ve really done the exercise on camera… besides like—similar to Sarah Lynn—I get to have some stuff and explore different types of scenarios and emotions and all the while saying a joke, you know? Like, bookending it with some sort of joke, which is kind of a fun—not a hurdle, but a fun dance to do—that I would never get to be challenged with unless I was in this show. So I’m just really grateful for my jobs.
AVC: Every time a new cast member shows up on that show, the whole tenor of the program changes, right? Because first it was you two. And then January Jones. And now it’s like this troupe driving around. It’s really interesting how that show progresses.
KS: It’s been bending shape for sure. But I would say every time you tune into the show, you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s kept the same unique feel throughout. It’s a very offbeat show. For me, it’s one of those shows that I’m really proud to be a part of because years and years from now when I describe the show, people are going to be like, “Woah! They made that?!” Yeah, dude. They made that. [Laughs.] It’s a super weird, cool show with very distinctive flavors that I’m happy about.
30 Rock (2012-13)—“Hazel Wassername”
AVC: Probably the most unlikable character you’ve ever played is on 30 Rock. Was that fun for you to play this different kind of character?
KS: Yeah, Hazel was one of the only villains I’ve ever played. She was sort of instrumental to unraveling plots… or a plot tool to unraveling people’s lives on 30 Rock. So it was a challenge. It was hard to not play a character that I thought confidently I could make people fall in love with, because everybody wants their fictional characters to be loved. But I also had a job to do. But it was such a thrill. I would say my bucket list was to meet Tina Fey, and then to get to work on 30 Rock, which was my favorite show at the time, was an absolute dream come true. I just couldn’t even believe it when I was there. The first table read was simply incredible.
Kate & Leopold (2001)—“Miss Tree”
AVC: You made your screen debut in the Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman movie Kate & Leopold. Just walking onto that big set, can you describe that first day a little bit?
KS: Oh shit. That day was like—I remember the first time I did a take, the first time I said my lines to Hugh Jackman, and it was the first take and they said, “Cut. Going back to one.” And I just looked at everyone and I was like, “We do it again?” Like I didn’t know that you would do it more than once. And everybody in video village just cracked up.
I also remember being so shy and overwhelmed that they gave me shoes that were too small and they were killing my feet. So I would hide them around the set so maybe they wouldn’t notice under the petticoats. But they always did. By the third day of shooting, I was walking back to the trailer and I finally realized that they gave me a size 6 and I wear an 8-and-a-half. I don’t know why I didn’t tell somebody. But I didn’t know yet. I didn’t know. Also, Hugh Jackman was so nice.
But the thing I took mostly from that is I remember getting out at the end of the day and I was walking back home, and I was so tired. And then I got really excited because I was like, “You’re so tired from being in a movie! Oh my God, I’m tired from working on something I’ve dreamed about doing!” It was so exciting and thrilling. Yeah. It was a really cool experience for sure.