Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Lizzy Caplan on the show that changed her career and her guest spot on The Simpsons

The Emmy-nominated actor also talks about the part she wanted in Mean Girls, and the "pure fear" of her first job
From left: Fleishman Is In Trouble (FX on Hulu), Lizzie Caplan on May 9, 2023 (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images), Cobweb (Lionsgate)
From left: Fleishman Is In Trouble (FX on Hulu), Lizzie Caplan on May 9, 2023 (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images), Cobweb (Lionsgate)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

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: One Random Roles is barely enough when it comes to Lizzy Caplan. She’s been acting for 25 years and, still just 41 years old, plans on continuing for decades to come. Born and raised in California, Caplan knew from a young age that she wanted to act. She started in high school and never looked back, skipping college to pursue the craft. She was 15 when she played Sara in four episodes of Freaks And Geeks. That paved the way for everything since: comedies and dramas, indie films and studio features, voiceover gigs, guest shots, recurring roles, and leads on TV; plus the opportunity to produce. On a dime, Caplan can leverage her expressive eyes, distinctive voice, and impressive range to play everyday women, powerful and smart people, pained souls, and the occasional unhinged character. It’s why she works pretty much nonstop and has amassed nearly 60 credits to date. The A.V. Club spoke to Caplan—before SAG-AFTRA went on strike—and she took great pleasure in looking back at the early days of her career and revisiting roles both popular and obscure.

The A.V. Club: When you were first starting out, who were the performers whose work you admired most?

Lizzy Caplan: Debra Winger was probably my number one. I was also obsessed with Bette Davis back in the day. But, honestly, the list is kind of endless. I always think I should have, like, six names on hand and I always choke when asked this question. I’m just gonna go with Debra Winger. I’m gonna go full Debra on this one.

AVC: What’s it like to be at that stage of your own career where people admire not just this performance or that performance but your whole body of work?

LC: It feels wonderful. I think that anybody who is in a position to even be asked the question you just asked should feel very fortunate. I definitely feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living in this line of work for as long as I have, and in things that I truly have believed in and have, on occasion, really resonated with the culture. So I have absolutely no complaints. And I would like to do it for 40 more years.

AVC: Do you prefer to dive into characters that are nothing like you or do you chase whatever appeals to you?

LC: It’s more whatever appeals to me. In recent years, I’ve definitely done more characters that have zero shades of myself in them. I think there was a bit of me in most of my early stuff. But then, I felt a huge affinity with Libby, the character in Fleischmann Is In Trouble. There was something really lovely about getting to bring so many parts of myself to a character, because I’d been doing things that were more full departures.

Freaks And Geeks (1999)—“Sara”

FREAKS AND GEEKS | Now On Digital | Paramount Movies

AVC: Sara on Freaks And Geeks was your first role on your first show. Were you excited? Ready? Terrified?

LC: That was my very first job. I was 15. I had one line in the pilot. I played Girl Number One. And I was completely terrified, completely out of my depth. I had zero familiarity. Even though I was raised in Los Angeles with movie sets, and with how movies or TV shows were made, I didn’t know the first thing about any of it. And it was a very steep learning curve, as it is for anybody who walks onto a set for the first time. You learn a lot in just one full day of work, even if you’re mostly spending that day observing other people. I remember being in my tiny honey wagon trailer and reciting that line thousands of times into my trailer mirror. And there was nothing about it that felt comfortable, easy, or, dare I say, enjoyable. It was pure fear.

Smallville (2001-2003)—“Tina Greer”

Tina Greer’s Dangerous Obsession with Lana Lang — (Smallville - S1-2; E11)

AVC: We’ve got to ask you about Tina, the shapeshifting metahuman you played twice on Smallville (early in season one and again halfway through season two). She was pretty unhinged. You’ve got to smile just thinking about that one…

LC: (Laughs) Definitely. That was my first job I ever did that was not in Los Angeles. So it was the first time I flew business class, the first time I stayed in a hotel suite, the first time I ordered room service, and it just felt like a really huge moment of arrival. Now my actor friends all have stories about the times we spent at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver, which is where that was. But I remember everybody being very lovely. It wasn’t as terrifying as Freaks And Geeks, but it’s a similar feeling, feeling intimidated and like I was the only one who didn’t know how this stuff worked. But it was fun to get to play that unhinged character.

Mean Girls (2004)—“Janis Ian”

Mean Girls (6/10) Movie CLIP - You’re Plastic (2004) HD

AVC: In Mean Girls, Janis was the Goth girl who falls out with Regina (Rachel McAdams) and befriends Cady (Lindsay Lohan). How did that film change the game for you?

LC: In so many ways. I remember reading that script, thinking it was the funniest thing I had ever read, and wanting to be in it more than anything. I think all of us, all of the girls, originally read for the Lindsay Lohan role. Then they started to bring us back in for different characters. I don’t remember ever wanting to be any other character than Janis, but I also remember a lot of convincing that had to be done. I remember, the head of the hair department was in L.A., and we went to a wig shop to try on these black, Goth wigs, to take photos, to try to plead my case. I remember feeling like it probably was never gonna go my way. It’s one of the few phone calls that I remember very vividly getting when I got that job. I think the more you do this, the longer you do this, the fewer moments you have like that, like those phone calls that just stop you in your tracks. That was fully that for me.

American Dad! (2006-2009)—“Debbie”

American Dad! Etan Hits on Debbie

AVC: You’ve done a good deal of voiceover work. What compelled you to lend your voice to animated shows?

LC: I was always very interested in trying my hand at animation. The first few things that I did—a few episodes of American Dad! and one Family Guy—I realized that I was not a natural in any way. I was noted to death for every line read, and it was a strange feeling because my ego wasn’t bruised by the avalanche of notes in the same way it would be in front of the camera. I don’t think this is necessarily unique to me, but there’s so much that goes into a performance in front of the camera and so many tools you can use, your expressions, your body language. And when that’s stripped away and it’s just your voice, you really have to be an excellent voiceover actress. I most certainly was not. There was a group of people that worked all the time. They were the stalwarts, the go-to voiceover actors, and they were exceptional. Only after doing this Netflix animated show called Inside Job—which I loved and which amounted to hundreds of hours of voiceover work—did I feel like, “maybe I have more of a handle on this now.”

Masters Of Sex (2013-2016), The Simpsons (2017) – “Virginia Johnson”

AVC: You played Virginia Johnson for several seasons on Masters Of Sex then voiced her for The Simpsons. Take me through the importance of that dramatic role to you and the decision to transfer it to something funny like The Simpsons.

The Simpsons - Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan)

LC: Well, the decision to do it on The Simpsons was a no-brainer. That’s like a bucket list thing, I think probably a pretty universal bucket list thing. It was one line on The Simpsons. It was an experience. You get to look at all the offices and there’s Simpsons memorabilia everywhere. You get a goodie bag with all the Simpsons stuff. It’s really a fun thing. I’m so glad that we were asked to do that.

Virginia Johnson is probably the role that changed my career the most. It opened up a lot of doors for me because it was a prestige drama. Before that, I had primarily done comedy. When I dreamed of being an actress when I was very, very young, I thought I would be a very serious Shakespearean theater actress, which is kind of hilarious to me now. Then I did so much comedy that I thought, “this is going to be my lane, comedy.” And it was wonderful. I love the comedy community. I’m so grateful that that’s how my career took shape. I have so many comedic actress friends who I know would smash a dramatic role. I would hold up any comedic actress to any purely dramatic actress, and I think the comedy actresses really can do it all.

[That’s why] I feel like Fleishman Is In Trouble was so much luck. I didn’t know where the faith in me was coming from, from the producers. Sarah Timberman, who produced Fleishman Is In Trouble and Michelle Ashford, I don’t know why they believed I could do [a drama]. I was used to feeling like, “I know I can do something else, but nobody else seems to know that.” It was one of the very rare occurrences where [someone] took a shot on me. I think the main ingredient for a career that is, quote-unquote, successful is that somebody is willing to go to bat for you.

Truth Be Told (2019-2020) – “Josie and Lanie Burnham”

Truth Be Told — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

AVC: You played the identical twins in Truth Be Told. What was it like acting opposite yourself?

LC: Playing twins is a real pain in the ass, let me tell you …

AVC: Go ahead and tell us, Lizzy!

LC: (Laughs). I had done it once before in an independent film that never came out called Queens Of Country, a very off-the-wall, bonkers movie. So, I knew a little bit of how it would work, how the technical aspects would work best. What I figured out on that film, and then used in Truth Be Told, was I had a stand-in. We would go over everything and I would show them what I was going to do. Then they would try their best to emulate what I wanted to do when they were being shot from behind, when I was talking to them.

On Queens Of Country I did a lot with an earwig. I would record all those lines [for character one], and then, when I was shooting the coverage for character two, I would hear it in my earwig. The stand-in would be doing the mannerisms, but I would hear my own voice. That wasn’t really possible on Truth Be Told. For whatever reason, it just slowed everything down. So it was mostly just relying very heavily on both of the doubles, who were both really great and really, really game. But technically it’s not fun for anybody. There’s a lot of, “OK, now you’re switching over to the other character,” and hair and makeup and wardrobe are scrambling and doing everything as quickly as possible. I think we got the switchover down to 20 minutes, but everybody’s waiting for you, so the days are extremely long. Also, you’re playing opposite yourself, so you’re not even getting to hang out with other actors in your downtime.

Castle Rock (2019)—“Annie Wilkes” and Fatal Attraction (2023)—“Alex Forrest”

CASTLE ROCK Season 2 Official Trailer (HD) Lizzy Caplan

AVC: Since we’re running out of time, I’m going to bundle Annie Wilkes and Alex Forrest. These are iconic movie characters made famous thanks to unforgettable performances by other actors. What made you say yes? And how big a factor was the challenge of making Annie and Alex your own?

LC: They were different challenges. Annie Wilkes, I knew that I wanted it to feel like a character that could become the Kathy Bates character in Misery. I wanted it to feel like that was a natural progression. That was totally terrifying because what Kathy Bates does in that movie is so genius. I wanted to try to do it as much justice as I possibly could. That was really a scary one. I like to take on scary challenges. I think, “You know, why not? Why are we doing this otherwise?” I didn’t even really discuss it with Dustin (Thomason), the showrunner, or anybody beforehand, what I was planning to do. So, I remember the first table read doing an Annie Wilkes voice and then being positive that I was going to be fired. Somehow, I wasn’t.

I think if I hadn’t done Castle Rock, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to try to take on Alex Forest in Fatal Attraction. Yes, you’re right, they were two very iconic, scary, powerful performances. But I didn’t want my Alex Forrest to feel like Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest. The story, the setting, the time period, everything was so different and unique to the story that we were trying to tell. While I wanted to maybe put in a few shades of her Alex Forrest, it just felt like its own animal. So it was definitely challenging, but not in the same way as Castle Rock, where I wanted it to feel like the film version—and the show version—of Annie Wilkes were the same person.

Cobweb (2023) – “Carol”

Cobweb (2023) Official Trailer – Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Antony Starr

AVC: Cobweb is your newest film, opening July 21. Your character is a mom to a little boy, but we’re not quite sure if she’s good or evil, crazy or sane, a loving mom or a terrible parent. Why did you want that part?

LC: Well, I like working with the Point Grey guys (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who produced the movie). It was COVID, the height of the pandemic. It was exciting to be able to work at all. And I was a huge fan of the Netflix show Marianne, that our director, Samuel Bodin, did, and I really wanted to work with him. I think he’s a real horror visionary.

AVC: What’s a project of yours that you love, but not many people saw?

LC: I’ve been pretty lucky that even though many things that I’ve done are overlooked when they’re on, they tend to find audiences well after they’re canceled. So, I guess I’d put Castle Rock in that basket. I really loved Castle Rock and I don’t feel like enough people really, really knew about it. So, that was kind of sad, but it was still a very, very fun and rewarding job.

AVC: Since we’re talking Random Roles for The A.V. Club, when you walk down the street and people recognize you, what are the roles they mention or want to discuss with you?

LC: It’s mostly Mean Girls, still, which is endlessly surprising to me, but pretty lovely. And then it just depends on the person. It depends on the age of the person. If it’s like a baby boomer woman, it’s going to be Masters Of Sex. Lately, if it’s somebody my age, it’s Fleishman Is In Trouble or Party Down. It just really depends.