Cora Bora‘s Meg Stalter talks finding the reality in crazy

Speaking with The A.V. Club, the Hacks star breaks down what she thinks is funny

Cora Bora‘s Meg Stalter talks finding the reality in crazy
Graphic: Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock, Brainstorm Media

Meg Stalter is having another good year in a string of good years. It wasn’t too long ago that the comedian was posting front-facing videos to Instagram and Twitter that would regularly go viral. Less than five years later, she’s wrapped the critically acclaimed third season of the Max hit Hacks, and landed her first leading film role in the quite funny, occasionally heartbreaking Cora Bora.

Stalter portrays Caroline, or Cora, the kind of aimless, vaguely artistic 20-something that so often wanders the independent films starring rising comedians. But Cora Bora is set apart by Stalter’s singular grasp on character and tone, embodying a character who is by turns frustrating, pathetic, empathetic, and hysterical. Cora is a musician in a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend Justine in Portland. Cora seems to expect everyone to operate according to her convenience—when she returns to Portland for Justine’s graduation, she’s in for a rude awakening.

But where Cora can be a bit of a menace, Stalter is not. Speaking with The A.V. Club, the film’s star breaks down improvising on a film set, making a dramatic leap, and finding commonality with crazy people.

The A.V. Club: This is one of the first times we’ve seen your dramatic acting skills. Cora Bora is still a comedy, but you have some heavier material in this. Were you looking for something like that, or did this come to you?

Meg Stalter: The movie is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to do something like that, but that’s the first time it’s ever been offered to me. I felt so lucky when I got the request to do that and saw the deck, and the director wrote me a letter about doing it. It’s definitely something that’s like a dream role, and I just—I mean it’s better than I even imagined. My team was definitely aware that I wanted to do something like that. The funniest stuff to me is when something has a lot of heart in it, too, so I definitely gravitate towards stuff like that.

AVC: In a lot of your comedy work, it feels like you have this intentional distance between you and the character. I was curious how that might play in something more dramatic, but you more naturalistic here. How did your approach differ? I know you have a lot of improv in your background—was that part of it?

MS: It’s interesting, because Hannah [Pearl Utt, the director] and the producers and everyone was really open to me improvising in the movie. So I was able to use the skills that I have to do an Instagram video where I’m like, calling myself “Big Bitch Realty Agent” or I’m being like a slutty Christian mom yelling at her husband about God. Those are the same skills that I use to improvise as Cora. That improv background, it’s prepared me to improvise as such a crazy character, or real people, and there are moments where Cora acts wild, but I loved playing a person that felt really grounded and cool, with different layers to her. I feel like comedians make good actors because they’re observers of human interaction and people, so it’s kind of the same skill set, but at different levels, because I never got the opportunity to do something like this. So when it came, I was like “Oh, I have the skills, I can do this.” But still, it definitely was a learning experience to play someone that’s more grounded. But it’s always something I wanted to do.

AVC: I’m surprised to hear that there was a lot of improv. A lot of the comedians and actors I talk to generally say, “Everyone thinks there’s a lot of improv, but we actually follow the script pretty closely.” What kind of stuff in Cora Bora was improvised?

MS: Well, we definitely got all of the script. [Laughs] It’s just like little moments that felt like you’re free to improvise. Like, a lot of the dialogue was from the script, but when there’s an energy where you’re allowed to improvise… I feel like some of the airplane stuff was improvised, and when I’m coming into the apartment to say, “Honey, I’m home from war”—that’s one we were happy got in, that was like a weird line that was improvised.

Any time I wanted to add something, Hannah was never like, “Why would you do that?” [Laughs] It was more like the energy that I was allowed to. I always have long talks with whoever I’m working with, asking them what they feel about it because I would never want to not honor… I know some directors really want you to stick right to the script, and every second is really planned out like that. And then there’s some where you find it in rehearsal.

AVC: Were there any real things you took going into Cora as a character? Did you have a type in mind that you wanted to play her as?

MS: I try to, when I’m thinking of a character, I’m thinking about me and this character and what’s different and kind of lean into that. And then I was really thinking about her look a lot and I was like, “I wanna have cool rock girl hair, but like trying to be rock girl and not fully nailing it.” [Laughs] I don’t think I was basing it… I think it’s a version of me, if I was really mad at the world and gone through something that I didn’t fully heal from yet. And also kinda knew the guitar.

AVC: What’s different between her and you?

MS: She’s different because she’s not fully healed and in love with herself, and I think that she is wanting connection and doesn’t have that. And also would let herself be in a poly relationship, and I never would do that. [Laughs] She’s someone who is really grasping at her life and not happy, but really wants to be. And the things that are the same about us are that we both love to perform, we both have really big hearts, and we just wanna love the people that we love, and that connection to people is what really is important to both of us.

AVC: What was the first thing in the script that made you laugh? Or that made you go, “I think I know this person”?

MS: The music pick was so funny to me. One of the really funny things that I first noticed was like how she’s kind of bad, but trying to pretend that she’s a really amazing musician, calling her girlfriend like, “Oh yeah, the gig went amazing,” but there’s like three people at the show. And we both are a little delusional about our art, me and Cora. I don’t think now I’m delusional, I’m really proud of everything that I do, but in the beginning of my career, I was a little delusional. I wasn’t amazing at standup and improv and I thought I was really good at it. And Cora is acting like she’s a really good musician, but she’s not. I thought that was really funny to play. Even my shows now, I always like to play someone who’s pretending to be really talented on stage, saying like, “Here’s my next song!” But the song’s bad. I think that’s funny to play.

AVC: Do you think it’s delusion or do you think it’s confidence?

MS: I think now I’m confident, but when I first started comedy, I was delusional about how good I was, and that is why I became good. [Laughs] I thought I was really good when I wasn’t, and now I’m confident and really secure, but when I first started comedy I thought I was really good and I was not good. But that got me really far into learning the skills. I think I’ve always been funny, but I don’t think I was always funny on stage until I learned how to be myself on stage or do what I thought was funny on stage. Cora acts like she’s a good musician in front of her agent and her girlfriend, but she knows that she needs a band and, no spoilers, she knows she’s missing something when she’s on stage by herself.

AVC: How do you thread the needle between real person and caricature when playing this role, or any role? Do you ever lean into caricature deliberately, or do you try to make it different?

MS: Some of my videos online are supposed to be a caricature of people—actually, most of them feel like they’re supposed to be caricatures. But usually when I take on a role, I try my best to add some reality, even if the character is crazy like Kayla on Hacks. I still want her to feel real, because I think that’s what’s funny. I guess even when I’m doing a video online, even if it’s a character of a person, I still want it to feel real, because that’s what’s funny to me—real people. So even if Kayla’s really crazy or like a Christian mom character complaining about Starbucks or something, is really character-y, funny, crazy, outlandish, I still want it to feel real and I think: “What makes this person feel real? Because that’s what’s really funny.” What’s funny to me is, like, woah, this is a crazy person but they feel like my neighbor or my aunt. Playing someone as crazy as you can, and then being like, let’s reel it in and think about the reality of this person living in the world.

AVC: I literally quote your “Writer in New York” video all the time, because it gagged me so much as a writer in New York.

MS: That’s such a good example—I’m so glad you like that one. That is a crazy character, but also the reason that people think it’s funny is because people actually act like that.

Join the discussion...