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: Missi Pyle has made indelible appearances in numerous film and television projects over the past 20 years. An inveterate character actor with a penchant for big but quietly assured performances, Pyle smartly embodies characters with large personalities or outsized comedic personas, but without the frantic need to call attention to herself that mars so much broad humor. That combination of restraint and vividness is likely why she’s become a go-to staple of so many comedies on both the small and big screen, from guest turns in shows like Friends, Two And A Half Men, and Inside Amy Schumer, to stand-out appearances in movies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, she’s demonstrated strong dramatic work in films like Gone Girl, as well as her new viral contagion thriller, Pandemic. When The A.V. Club caught up with her, she was just as charismatic and funny as any of her roles, delaying the start of the interview by chatting about the best time to have a baby—understandable, as she just adopted one herself. But soon, she was chatting about unexpected craft services tables, pretending to be an alien, and dealing with the madness that is Mickey Rourke.
Pandemic (2016) – “Denise”
The A.V. Club: Was this your first experience with a first-person, found-footage shooting style, à la Hardcore Henry?
Missi Pyle: Yeah. In fact, I thought it was a brand-new thing, and then someone was like, “No, no. People have been doing it for a while.” But yes, it was my first experience. It was a lot, because we’re also in a [hazmat] suit the whole time. You know, with the plastic like a helmet… they have a plastic screen in front of it. So, it’s a lot of acting inside what feels like a spacesuit, which is something I’ve never done, either. You get a lot of condensation. I also thought it would be cool to wear the gloves, and then wrap them in duct tape. But, you know, you’re doing take after take. You keep your gloves on for a while, and then you can’t access your phone, which is kind of great.
MP: It’s just one of those things where you don’t realize how often between takes you’re looking at your phone or playing a game on your phone. It’s sort of like, “Jeez.” You can be in a room, and everyone is looking at their phone. Seven people standing around, they’re all just looking at their phone. You’re like, “This is—what have we come to?”
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The Cottonwood (1996)—unnamed
AVC: IMDB lists your first credit as a film called The Cottonwood. Does that sound right to you?
MP: [Laughs.] Mm-hmm, yeah. Wow. Do you know anything about that film?
AVC: It’s hard to find much information about it besides the plot.
MP: So, this is a movie… I mean, this is when I first got out of drama school. It was about a guy trying to make a movie. The guy who starred in it was one of the guys who—this is way back in the day, when The Brothers McMullen had just won Sundance, and the guy [Jack Mulcahy] who played Ed Burns’ brother in that was starring in this movie, so he was a big get. I had auditioned for it and didn’t get the part. At the last second, I guess, the person they wanted for the part, for whatever reason, fell through. So, they offered me the part. It was my first movie, and I remember being literally—I was a runner at the time—just running in Central Park and imagining my name on the screen, and just being like, “Ahh!” Birds were chirping.
I had gone to drama school, you know, and I had done a lot of theater—classical, Shakespeare. I went to North Carolina School Of The Arts, but not very much film. I read Michael Caine’s book on acting in film. So, I was like, “Okay. I guess I’ll do that. Okay.” And then Gia Carides was in the movie, and Cynthia Nixon was in the movie, and some other people. It was just the most terrible… it’s a terrible movie. Almost unwatchable. Because the guy who wrote it, about a guy who was trying to make a movie—there were scenes from a bunch of his favorite movies all put together. I don’t even know how it was… as unwatchable as you can get. So, that was that.
AVC: [Laughs.] Okay.
MP: It was a great experience for me. It was in New York. I think I remember seeing it with one of my agents in a screening, and him just sort of looking at me like, “What is this?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I think that might be why you haven’t seen it. I remember Cynthia Nixon telling me a story about how—this was before Sex And The City, I think—I remember her telling me a story about how she had done Broadway, and she was doing two plays at once. She’d go do one act at one theater, and then they’d have a car waiting for her to take her to the next show. She’d do the second act and then the curtain call, and then come back and do the third act of the other show.
AVC: Wow. That’s commitment.
MP: I thought that was really cool. We’re not here to talk about Cynthia Nixon.
AVC: [Laughs.] It’s fine, we can. You’re more than welcome to.
As Good As It Gets (1997)—“Café 24 Waitress”
AVC: It look like your next proper credit was As Good As It Gets, where you’re listed as “Café 24 Waitress.”
MP: Yeah, I was one of the waitresses. I auditioned for James Brooks in New York. It was just very surreal. I got this part, and there were five of us that were going to be Helen Hunt’s—she waited tables with us. So, I had a couple little, little scenes. It was so surreal. I think I was hired as a local, but I was living in New York, so I came to L.A. and stayed on my friend’s couch in her guest room. I remember driving downtown to the set and just being like, “I’m going to my first big Hollywood movie set!” It was a really tiny part. I remember Helen Hunt—I think she was still doing her TV show with Paul Reiser…
AVC: Oh, Mad About You?
MP: Mad About You. I remember that she had to leave early for her turnaround. You know—you have to have 12-hour turnaround—or she had to do something. And so, they asked me to stay and do her offscreen dialogue with Jack Nicholson. I had just gotten out of drama school a year before. I was so nervous and excited just to be able to act with him. It was a pretty intense scene, too, and I did all the off-camera dialogue for his close-up. After it was over, I walked outside and went behind some dumpster and just cried. I was like [Sobbing.] “I can’t believe I just acted with Jack Nicholson!”
I remember him blowing up one day, and walking off the set. “You motherfuckers! Fuck this, you fucking…” I mean, I remember being like, “Oh my God!” And then he leaves, and we’re in that cafe, and it’s quiet for 30 seconds. And then Jim Brooks walks out after him, kind of sighing, and then comes back and everything is fine, 45 minutes later or whatever. One day, I was wearing this—we all were very stylishly dressed waitresses—there was this one scene where I had a skirt on. Jack was sitting at a booth. We were not in any kind of conversation. We were maybe 8 feet away from each other. I bent down to pick something up, and my skirt, like the inner lining, ripped. [Makes ripping sound.] I was like, [Gasps.]. I stood up, and then Jack was like, “You know, Missi, that skirt is not going to last the rest of the day.” It was just one of those things where you’re like…
AVC: Where the universe almost stops for a second, because you’re like, “Oh my God. My skirt just ripped in front of Jack Nicholson”?
MP: Right, and hopefully nobody noticed. And then he, in fact, did notice. I had one little scene where I tell him off, which I don’t think made it into the movie. I remember he was going to come in and stand on this mark. I didn’t know what a mark—I knew what a mark was, I guess. I hadn’t really done anything like this up until this point. I remember I came in, and I’m going, [Angrily.] “You da-da-da!” and I’m acting with him, and I remember he just grabs me and was like, “You’re not on this mark.” Just kind of pushes me a little bit to my mark. I didn’t really have anything to say to him because I was so terrified.
Friends, “The One With Ross’ Teeth” (1999)—“Hillary”
Mad About You, “The Final Frontier, Part 1” and “Part 2” (1999)—“Beautiful Woman”
AVC: You were on Friends right in the middle of its run. I assume it must have been operating like a well-oiled machine at that point.
MP: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what it was. I remember going to the table read wherever we were. They were all just draped with their arms around each other like the best of friends. It was just living the dreamiest of the dream life. I remember my manager going, “So, you got a guest star offer for Friends, where you will be treated neither like a guest nor a star.” I was so excited to go. I did a couple of things with David Schwimmer. He couldn’t have been nicer. Very generous. I had done an episode of The Drew Carey Show, which Matt LeBlanc remembered: “Oh, you were in The Drew Carey Show!” The rest of them… they were just on another planet of awesomeness where everything was magic and there was champagne flowing and unicorns flying. It was ridiculous. The girls never really talked to me. I think at one point Jennifer Aniston came by me and just squeezed my shoulder and was like, “Hi.” No one ever said, “Hi, welcome to the show.” But it was great fun to be a part of it.
AVC: Was that one of the roles that first started people wanting to bring you in as a comedy guest star? You’ve become a go-to person for comedic turns in shows like that.
MP: I don’t know. I guess? Yeah, probably. The thing is, you audition for years before—well, I did. Not everybody, though. I auditioned for three, four years before I booked a pilot, or booked anything. In New York, constantly auditioning for Party Of Five and… I was so tall. I was just too tall to play the romantics, so I kind of went into comedy because of that. But I would venture to say that’s true. I did one episode of Mad About You, like the final episode. I remember Helen being in the room, and you know, there’s a little bit of nepotism to me getting that part with just a couple lines, but still funny and cute.
Galaxy Quest (1999)—“Laliari”
AVC: As long as we’re in 1999, let’s talk Galaxy Quest. Talk about a beloved movie.
MP: Yeah, ’99 was a great, great year. That was the year I moved to L.A. from New York. I was like, “I really want to give this film and TV thing a shot,” and this is back in the day when you’d audition, and it would have to go FedEx, so they couldn’t see it until the next day or 5 p.m. or whatever. I just felt like I was missing out on real shots by being in New York. Things were going really well. People were bringing me back in a lot, but nothing was really happening. So, I went to do a play that I had done in New York called 900 Oneonta I was doing at the Odyssey Theatre Company, and I remember getting a page about this sci-fi movie. I got the sides, and I was like, “I don’t really know what to do with this,” but I went. And the casting director, Debra Zane, was like, “I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to show you another audition, because you’re playing the Thermians. I would like for you all to come and watch this other actor’s audition.” It was this actor, Jed Rees. He was auditioning for a character that was initially Mathesar, which Enrico Colantoni ended up playing. Jed’s audition, he started with his face to the side, and then he faced the camera and was like, “Hello!” I went, “Oh, okay. I know what you’re looking for now.”
I guess they’d had trouble casting it. But it just made perfect sense to me. The casting director took a copy of her CSA card, or casting association card, and she was like, “If you don’t hire this person, I will attach it to my picture and resume. I’m quitting.” I guess she really thought I was the one, which was great. I ended up getting the part. I found out that one of the people up for the part was Jennifer Coolidge, and they really liked her. The Thermians were watching our television from space as a historical document. She played the character… the folklore of how she auditioned was that she played different actresses. She kind of did, I don’t know if she had gotten other actors and just played it like, you know, impersonations of things that she had seen—like the alien character had probably seen—I don’t know how to make that make any sense. It makes more sense in my brain.
AVC: No, no, that makes sense.
MP: For me, that was the first one I was scheduled for the run of the picture. The part wasn’t very big, but they ended up realizing that they didn’t have another woman other than Sigourney Weaver. The didn’t have a whole lot of extra time to write anything. Literally, the relationship that I have with Tony Shalhoub’s character takes like 40 seconds of screen time. It’s like a kiss, a hand-hold, a couple of smiles. You know? It’s really very simple, but it meant I got to be there for the whole rest of the movie, which was just incredible. I remember coming to work, and Bill Corso, who was my makeup artist—he does a lot of Jim Carrey prosthetics and things—he was like, “Oh, your part is bigger, I’ve heard that Steven Spielberg came to the set and said ‘I really like what you’re doing, so I made your part bigger.’” I was just like, “Wow.” That normally doesn’t happen.
That was a really cool experience. It was really fun to be with those people, because we were all together all the time all day. Tim Allen is so… he doesn’t really… he just would crack fart jokes. They’d be like, “Rolling, scene,” and he’d be like, [Fart noise.]. You know? It was constant fart jokes. I think Alan Rickman was like, “You have to be fucking kidding me.” Tim Allen and Sam Rockwell and Daryl Mitchell. I mean, the three of them were just constantly cracking fart jokes. It was very fun, ultimately. Alan Rickman would eat lunch with us everyday, which is just so rare. He’s such a great man.
AVC: Since it was all of you guys there for the whole thing, was there anyone in particular you bonded with on that set?
MP: Almost a little bit of everybody. I remember Sigourney inviting me to a dinner party that she threw, and it was just the eight or nine of us and our significant others. I brought my husband at the time. It was the first big Hollywood dinner I had ever gone to. She put me next to her husband. There was, like, a seating chart. She sat next to my husband, I think. She had a real old-Hollywood feel to her. She was a bit of a mentor, but not really. Alan Rickman was just wildly cool. I would say Jed Rees and I and the other aliens—Patrick Breen, Rainn Wilson, Justin Long—we played cards and kind of hung out.
We were wearing these spacesuits that were made out of a carseat material. It didn’t really breathe. Our makeup was spray-painted on, and our hair was spray-painted on. And then we would wear little T-shirts that had the top cut out for whatever the line of the thing… we spent half of our days with just half of a spacesuit on, with white makeup and those wigs, just playing cards. At craft services, I remember one of the makeup people being like, “Jed Rees has gained like 15 pounds.” [Laughs.] It was the most crazy catering everyday. I’d been a starving actor for forever. It was ridiculous, the food. “Would you like the filet mignon?” It was just like, “What?!” It was my first experience with set food.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)—“Fran”
AVC: Fran almost feels like a weird, spiritual sister to Laliari in some ways.
MP: Yeah, I think that’s probably why I got hired for the part, you know? Initially, in the first script I read, she was a robot, like a sexy-bodied robot. When I read that script, it was where [the camera slowly pans up] from the bottom… it’s kind of a “na-na-na.” I wore a fake butt in that and fake boobs, and you get up to her face, and it’s an, “Ahh, oh man!” kind of thing. But yeah. I had actually gone into the audition for that, and I remember thinking—I had been a small part of the movie 50 First Dates, and there’s a character in that that’s like a Russian with braids on top of her head. I can’t remember the character’s name, but I remember the actress, and she was really funny. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m going to kind of do a take on that. I’ll put braids on my head.” I drew on eyebrows and didn’t wear any makeup, just bright red lipstick. I think I drew a mole on. I was driving to this audition just praying it wasn’t in a building where I had to sign in, and there was the elevator or a valet. I looked so ridiculous. Fortunately, it was a strip mall where you just park and walk up some stairs. I didn’t run into anybody, but I walked through the door, and the casting assistant was like, “Oh my God.”
Vince Vaughn is like no one I’ve ever met. I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed him…
AVC: I haven’t.
MP: He’s extremely opinionated. I feel like his character in… what’s that first movie he did that put him on the map?
MP: Swingers. It’s pretty similar to who he is. He’s abrasive and doesn’t give a shit. I mean, I remember us having full-on arguments. We talked about like “men and women can’t be friends.” It was very When Harry Met Sally… He was like, “So what are we going to do? Are we going to be friends after this? We going to go meet for fuckin’ brunch?” I just remember being like, “Oh my God, you’re such an asshole.” But then he’d be like, “Let’s all go to a strip club!” I’d go with him because I thought that would be fun. When we were in Vegas—we shot in Vegas for a little bit—I remember, you know, Vince Vaughn bought me a lap dance. It’s a lot of fun, but I was also so unattractive in that movie. I had the fake teeth. It was hard because all those dodgeball tournament scenes—you know, getting extras for a scene like that—a lot of extras were from halfway houses or work-release programs where you have to put in hours. Every time I’d come out, people would be like, “Ugh!” You know what I mean? So, every time it was a new group of people going “Ugh!” I remember I was dating a new guy. I wouldn’t let him come to the set because I was too…
AVC: You were self-conscious about the getup?
MP: Mm-hmm. But it was really a ton of fun. I was kind of blown away by how Ben Stiller was—he was really nice, but I didn’t have much to compare it too. Tim Allen was like [In a silly voice.] “Bleh!” And Ben Stiller was just so business focused. So much more focused and driven. Wasn’t really like a super funny guy, you know?
AVC: That’s an interesting counterpoint to the absurdism of the movie itself, having a very professional attitude of, “Let’s get this done” when you’re there on set.
MP: Right, exactly. It’s, again, another movie where you’re with everybody all the time. I remember the very first day we had dodgeball practice. That was the first day we met anybody, and knew a couple of the guys. I knew Alan Tudyk and Chris Williams, from acting class. I had done a movie with Alan before—oh, and obviously Justin [Long]. So that was nice.
But we had dodgeball practice, and that was our very first day. I remember being like, “I’m supposed to be the best, the deadliest one in the world with a dodgeball.” And of course, I walk in, and there’s Vince Vaughn. Everybody’s just throwing balls at the wall, and then a couple of the stunt guys came on my team. I just pick up a ball and start throwing it as hard as I can. And the third time I threw the ball, I just went—[Cracking sound.] I just threw out my neck.
AVC: Oh, God, no.
MP: I remember being like, “Okay, I didn’t warm up.” I was trying to be really cool. Then I had to do the whole practice, and my neck was just thrown out.
AVC: That sucks.
MP: And then getting pounded in the face with a dodgeball. It was just very humiliating. It was like, “Well, how are we going to make this woman look like she’s really good at dodgeball?” I think it was the beginning of me realizing… I’ve always considered myself an athletic person, but I think I’m just somebody who likes to try athletics. Because I’m tall, so you’d think I’d be better than I am, but I’m not necessarily that great.
Josie And The Pussycats (2001)—“Alexandra Cabot”
MP: That was my first time moving to and working in Canada. Oh my God, that was a funny movie, too, because we were all staying at this place which is the only place… it’s a hotel where everyone who works in Canada stays. And then there’s a bar there. I’m convinced it’s the only bar in the entire world where every single actor inside is a working actor because everyone is there to work, whereas here, you know, there’s so much time out of work. Oh my God. It was Rosario Dawson, and it was like the peak of—oh, what is her name—the blonde who is in it…
AVC: Oh, Tara Reid?
MP: Tara Reid. And then Rachael Leigh Cook as the lead, who just couldn’t be lovelier. She’s really cool. Actually, she and I are better friends now than I think we were then, which isn’t to say we’re great friends, but she’s a very cool person. But I think a lot of that fame that she got was not easy for her to handle, but she was really, really hot at the time. But Tara Reid, I mean, she was like the original Kardashian, I feel like. Her and Carson Daly were engaged, and just everything about her life was super… she lived a very different life than I did. The only time I think Tara talked to me was when we were in the makeup chairs, and the producers weren’t doing something she wanted, and she started to cry, and then she talked to me. And there was Rosario Dawson. It was all—I remember feeling incredibly lonely. I brought my dog.
I also got to work with Parker Posey and Alan Cumming who just were two of the coolest, most interesting people I had ever met. They were very inclusive, but they weren’t there for very much of the time. It was really fun to spend some time with them. I remember Alan Cumming giving me a piece of advice that I have used and put in the back of my head since that moment, which is, “You can be as big as you want as long as it’s truthful.” I think that’s absolutely true. You see people who are larger than life and insane characters, and they’re real. And then I remember Parker Posey being super into Little House On The Prairie.
MP: She was always playing these old episodes of Little House On The Prairie. She was super into this—this was back in the day. This was 15 years ago, I would say. Maybe more. Watching a video online was kind of novel.
AVC: Yeah, it was like a big deal at the time.
MP: Yeah, and I remember there being this video she found called “The Eyes Have It.” It was like [Sings theme song.] this crazy video that she found online that was a makeup instructional from the ’80s. Just magical and crazy. And then Jeff Goldblum was there too, filming at one point. I guess she invited people, we all went and hung out with Jeff Goldblum. I don’t remember where we were. We were just sitting on the steps. He was on the top step, and we were sitting below him like it was The Sound Of Music, like we were the children listening to Maria. Everybody would just pontificate, him being the most—I do think he’s quite brilliant, but it was just one of those things. It was like we were all having a master class or an actor’s studio with him.
AVC: I suppose it would be hard not to take advantage of that when you’ve got Jeff Goldblum sitting right in front of you.
MP: Yeah, I mean, you know. For me, any experience—it’s a little less for the most part because I’ve been doing it for 20 years—but these things, meeting these people is fucking crazy. Like, “That’s the dude from The Fly!” I grew up in this suburb of Houston, Texas. I never even saw a play until I was in high school, and then I wanted to be in a play. But these were random people I’d seen on TV, or in a movie, and I always find it kind of awkward. Especially that early on, because that was pretty early. And that movie was all advertising. I don’t know if you—
AVC: I’m actually a big fan of Josie And The Pussycats.
MP: Yeah, it’s got like a super cult following, but the idea was that they would put all this advertising in the movie, and that was the idea. The movie was subliminal advertising within the subliminal advertising. I originally auditioned for Parker’s character, and I really wanted to play that one and ended up getting the other one. I remember what was so crazy was that it didn’t work. It backfired on them. I think people thought, “Oh my God, they’re trying to do too much advertising.” But I thought it was a really good movie.
Gone Girl (2014)—Ellen Abbot
AVC: Everybody seems to have a similar working-with-David Fincher story.
MP: Well, it was interesting because that character kind of lives in a bubble, you know, so much of it was in a studio—so I did the studio stuff pretty quickly, but I came to Missouri for a week early on. It’s just me coming to the house in the beginning, literally walking up the lawn and saying, “Hello, Nick,” and him letting me in the door. I was just so excited to do a David Fincher movie, obviously. But me walking to the door—just walking to the door—I think we did 35 times. You get a point where you just don’t have any idea what you’re doing. And then we turn around on the door opening, like, “Hello, Nick. Nick. Nick.” Then [Tired voice.] “Hello, Nick.” It’s like, “No eyebrows! No eyebrow acting! What are you doing? Don’t ad lib!” Terrifying.
I was sure I had been fired. I’m not even sure we used any of 90 percent of what we did. It was funny because Ben [Affleck] had just won an Oscar for the movie he directed. Or rather Argo had just won Best Picture. So, for him to make Ben do something 100 times was really funny to watch. At one point, Ben just looked at me and was like, “You know, he’s just getting started. You’re going to do this another 50 times.”
And then I ended up not getting fired, and I actually worked for like four months on the movie because I worked that first week, and again two months later, and again, you know? But Fincher was such a… we all stayed at the Drury Suites, everyone. It wasn’t like Ben was up in a mansion on a hill with Fincher. It was like, “Hey, what are you guys doing? Come on, let’s all have dinner,” and we all went to a local Mexican place and went for ice cream. It was really quite lovely to see how that clan operates. “We’re all going to be watching football in this room on Sunday!” It was football season. That was pretty cool. But he just—you know that thing? I think he breaks you down. First, he gets it a bunch of ways one way, then a bunch of ways another way. I also think he’s trying to get you out of your own way and to stop doing… “You do this thing. Don’t do that thing that you do where you lean.” And you’re like, “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.”
Big Fish (2003)—“Mildred”
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005)—“Mrs. Beauregarde”
AVC: Big Fish—that was where you got to be married to Loudon Wainwright III.
MP: That’s right. Yeah, so that one—they were shooting in Montgomery, Alabama, and I had an audition for that part just to go on tape. I got the part and was on a plane the next day, because I guess the woman they had cast was a theater actor out of Atlanta. They kept trying to shoot this scene, and it kept raining in that town of… what was the town, Splendid? [Spectre—ed.] I can’t even remember. But they kept trying to shoot there, and it was like a torrential El Niño year and just a ton of rain. It would be flooded. By the time they finally were going to shoot it, she was doing a play or something. I was like, “I can’t believe that you would not do this movie,” but anyway.
Montgomery is just one of the coolest towns ever. There’s so much history there. There’s obviously civil rights history, but there’s also incredible folk art and great music and a really funky scene—at least there was 12 years ago. I don’t know. I act like this was yesterday. It was a long time ago. I got to work with Loudon Wainwright and Steve Buscemi and… what was the name of the giant? I can’t remember the giant’s name who was in it. [Matthew McGrory—ed.] I remember it was around the time The Piano came out, and I remember me and Loudon and Buscemi going to see The Piano together. It was a funny group of people because so much of your time is downtime, and we’re, again, staying in an off-freeway suite hotel, so you’re in the middle of nowhere.
I remember Mr. Rogers died, and Loudon wrote a song about it called “The Day Fred Rogers Died.” I remember him being like, “Look, I wrote this song. Here’s a copy.” Just being a part of this…you know, and then like, “What are you guys doing? Let’s all go to a bar.” Again, it rained, and rained, and rained again, so we had all these days. So, it was me, the giant, Buscemi, and Wainwright just became this sort of weird motley crew. This weird group of people, we were just hanging out together. Loudon became a good friend of mine. We still kind of hang out every once and a while. I covered one of his songs. I’ll never forget how small a cocktail glass looked in the guy who played the giant’s hands. But yeah, it was so surreal, just working with—it’s just beautiful. Tim Burton. A bizarre little group.
AVC: I assume that must have led directly to you then doing Mrs. Beauregarde in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?
MP: Yeah, again, a lot of the jobs that I’ve gotten have been because somebody else fell out at the last minute. That was kind of a theme for a while. My manager had been like, “What about Missi for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?” The response from the casting director was, “Tim loves Missi, but doesn’t think the part is right for her.” And then I remember, “Is Missi still available?” They wanted me to get on a plane for a table read, to just be there immediately. I was so excited to work on that movie.
AVC: How was the experience different for your second film with him?
MP: I often felt like Tim had an idea of the movie in his head. I’m curious as to what his brain looks like from the inside. He’s such a generous, funny man. He had the costume designer make him 10 versions of the same shirt just so he doesn’t have to think about it. Just wears the same thing everyday. I remember getting there, and it was such a giant movie to be a part of, and it was really fun to be part of such a big—probably the biggest budget movie that I had ever done at that point, like a $200 million budget. It took 16 sound stages at Pinewood Studios. The chocolate river set was the 007 soundstage. We just took over Pinewood Studios, except I think they were shooting a little bit of a Harry Potter movie on one stage or backlot or something.
Just being a part of it was so fucking crazy. They made that giant chocolate river, and I remember the first time going in there, turning on the fountain, and it would go, “Grr!” And then the river would “Shrrrrr!” We shot there for six weeks. In the beginning, everything was nice, and then the water kind of got rancid after a while. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t chocolate.
The real star of that movie is the chocolate factory—and Deep Roy, who played every Oompa Loompa. So, so much of what we did was just walking in a line as a group of people on a tour. Tim would point to an area of the sound stage and say, “That’s number one, that’s number two, that’s number three, four, and five. I’m just going to tell you where to look. Everybody look at one! Now, I’m going to go to three, two, five.” A lot of it was really spent doing that. It was fantastic. I remember Tim being like, “You and your daughter are the most ambitious people here. So, you should be as close to Johnny [Depp] as you can at all times.” I was like, “Yay!”
AVC: You were like, “If you insist.”
MP: I know, but also just a little bit… I just spent an unnerving amount of time three inches from Johnny, which was great. He’s very funny. He and Tim are quite funny. I remember Dick Zanuck telling me—he was a producer of the movie—just like, “This is kind of the last time that this will happen because everything else is just going to be CGI from here on out.” Just the fact that they had squirrels—if you took a tour of the studio, it was really incredible, all the different rooms. And then they had a room where they had like, I don’t know… 100 squirrels? And they were all trained from birth. All these squirrels in these cages, all of them running around on wheels, and literally walking in the room going squirrelly. And there’s two trainers that would just teach them to run and hit someone on the butt and come back, like, “Meep meep!” The craziest thing I’ve ever seen.
AVC: Especially in a movie like that, where there’s so many crazy things happening that they’re filming, your life must become sort of like, “Okay, I’m going to just stand here and take this in as much as possible.”
MP: Yeah, and I became very good friends with the guy that plays Mr. Teavee. He’s one of my best friends—Adam Godley—who is a phenomenal actor. A lot of times, because the kids can only work until a certain time, we would come to work, get made up, and then sit in our rooms, and they’d be like, “Okay, now it’s time for you to go home.” And we’d, you know… Pinewood is 40 minutes out of London. He’s staying in London. And then you’re always done every day at the same time, which is so unusual for a film because usually it just goes on until your head explodes. You got to go home early.
When you shoot over there at Pinewood—remember how I was just telling you about how great the craft service was on Galaxy Quest—on this one, there really is no such thing. It’s just like a giant vat of tea and some tiny biscuits and crackers. Once in a while, they’d have a truck that would come up. You also had to pay for lunch, like four pounds. You’d go and have lunch in the cafeteria, and it was cafeteria food. Not very good. But then they had this restaurant, and it had a bar. Some days, Adam and I… a lot of our makeup and hair took forever. We’d be dressed up with nothing to do. Sometimes, if we weren’t getting used, we would go have what we called our “business class lunch” and we’d go have dinner at the fancy dining room, then like drinks or a beer or a glass of wine. Everyone. The crew would just go have a beer at work. It was such a different environment than working in LA. Do you remember that show Max Headroom?
AVC: Oh yeah, it’s pretty memorable.
MP: When you go to Pinewood, I never… I was like, who is Max Headroom? I had always assumed that he was just a guy. As you’re going in the main gate, it says “Max Headroom” like eight meters or whatever. It was like, “Oh, that’s just maximum head room.” I was like, “That must be how they came up with Max Headroom.”
AVC: That’s better than “mind the gap” as far as British culture clash goes.
Two And A Half Men (2004-2015)—“Delores Pasternak”
Boeing-Boeing (Broadway, 2008)—“Gretchen”
AVC: You did four episodes of Two And A Half Men over the course of those years. You’re probably one of the few people besides Jon Cryer to be there from back in season two and again in the finale.
MP: Well, you know, there were a lot of us that came back and did the finale. I did one episode, and I played Ms. Pasternak, and it was a really fun, fun character. I went on a date with Charlie’s character. I was an ex-stripper, and I was really mean to what’s-his-name’s character… the little kid…
AVC: Angus T. Jones?
MP: Angus’ character. I was really mean to him, but then I pretended to be nice. Anyway, I was reformed, like a Christian. It was just a fun little character to play, and then four years later, they ask me to come back to do an arc, but I got offered a Broadway show. I just felt like I had to do the Broadway show, so I ended up not being able to do that arc. I remember Chuck [Lorre, executive producer] being like, “No, you have to do it.” And I go, “Sorry,” so they cast me with—Alicia Witt, I think, ended up playing that part. And then, at the end, the last couple seasons when Charlie—before his character died, he had a nightmare. Chuck brought me back as Ms. Pasternak. A bunch of women that he dated came back for that episode. I was really excited because I didn’t think Chuck liked me anymore, and he’s of course sort of godfather now of the four-camera sitcom. I ended up coming back and playing her again, and then we all just kind of had a couple little lines for the last couple episodes.
AVC: You said you had to go and do a Broadway play. Was that Boeing-Boeing?
AVC: Okay, I saw you in that.
MP: You did?
AVC: Yeah, you were in that with Greg Germann and Mark Rylance and Gina Gershon. That was a really funny show.
MP: I felt like I had to do it. It was such a great character, and to work with Mark Rylance. Oh my God, he’s so fucking fantastic. To be able to play with him was just a ton of fun. Yeah. I missed two episodes of Ms. Pasternak, which I really was bummed to miss—or maybe it was three—because I loved my character.
AVC: But now you can say you missed it to do a Broadway show with Oscar winner Mark Rylance.
MP: Tony and Oscar winner. I know, right?
The Artist (2011)—“Constance”
AVC: Knowing it would be silent, did it feel any different from a normal production?
MP: Well, there were a couple of things that were unique. At first, I remember when I went to the audition and I was auditioning for the wife character that was played by Penelope Ann Miller. I went to the audition, and I remember I started mouthing words but not saying anything. And she was like, “Even though it’s a silent movie, you’ll still be talking. They’re just not going to record the sound.” I found it really freeing because you don’t have to remember dialogue. You just have to have a base idea of what’s going on, and then it’s a lot of improv. In a sense, that was a lot more fun.
Although one day, the director, Michel Hazanavicius was like, [In a French accent.] “Listen, today, we are going to shoot you doing the Shakespeare monologue. Romeo And Juliet. The Juliet monologue.” This is right after lunch. I was like, “So now I’m in a silent film, but I have to do Shakespeare word-for-word.” Of course, I have never done that monologue, so I had to learn a Shakespeare monologue for a silent movie. That was amazing to me. Also, the very first day that we shot, I was in the first scene up, which was when Jean Dujardin rescued me in the movie-within-the-movie from the big, scary scientist lab, and then we go away on the plane. We’re running to the little Bugatti, and getting in the car. And so they had music playing, which they weren’t recording. That was really a cool thing. There was actually music playing, and it elevates everything a little bit. They were playing silent movie kind of music, and that was really cool.
Everyone spoke French but me. The crew, everyone. Everyone would be—[Approximates French]. And then, “Hey Missi. Now you just look this way, then you get out of the car.” Very funny. Everything felt a little more civilized. When I came to set, I actually thought I was going to be playing the wife. So, when I was in the chair, the makeup artist was like, “How exciting for you. You’re going to be playing the actress.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. “I’m an actress. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then I started reading the sides, which were just descriptions of the scenes. I was like, “Wait a minute. So I’m not this? I thought I was the wife.”
AVC: That’s pretty rare, right? To get to set and find out that you’re playing somebody different than you thought you were?
MP: I’m sure somewhere someone had told me that I was playing this character, but I don’t think anybody said, “You’re not getting the role you auditioned for. You’re doing another role.” I think they were like, “We offer you the role of Constance.” In my brain, I was like, “Oh, okay. Whatever. That must be the…” you know. I don’t think anybody had any idea that it was going to be an Oscar contender. The director was like, “You know, I thought maybe I would be sending you all a DVD at some point.”
Soul Plane (2004)—“Barbara”
AVC: I’m so curious as to what making Soul Plane was like.
MP: Extreme personalities on that movie. I think, you know, it ended up—I thought the opening sequence of that movie is one of the funniest, dumb stereotypes—like the Texas airlines where everyone locks their window when they pass N.W.A. Airlines. I don’t know. It was—most of my stuff was with Tom Arnold and the two kids. Tom Arnold is Tom Arnold. He’s a giant personality. One of the stories that I heard was Snoop was always late, and would come out of his dressing room with a puff of smoke. I remember the producers were like, “We’ll give you one thousand dollars,” or I don’t know what it was, “if you get to set on time.” They were trying to incentive him to actually come. It just took forever. Everything took forever because Snoop. It was like Snoop time. It was like 4:20 all the time. So, he spent the night in his trailer and then wouldn’t come out until they had the thousand dollars for him, or whatever it was. I thought that was kind of amazing.
I didn’t actually have any scenes with him, which I wished that I had, but I did go meet him at the premiere party. I remember being like, “I just want to go say hi to Snoop.” He was in the center of six of the biggest, most giant men I’ve ever… like 350 pound men. They were all encircled around him facing outward, so it was a shield, and Snoop was in the middle talking to people. So, if you wanted to talk to Snoop, you’d have to be like, “Excuse me,” to one of the bodyguards. They were just gigantic, scary looking men. [In Snoop’s voice]. “Yeah, come on in! Come on in! You are fine.” I just remember him being like, “You are a fine, fine, tall girl.” Which, I was oddly very flattered. It wasn’t setting feminism forward, but I was like, “Oh, thank you, Snoop!”
AVC: Some people are such characters unto themselves that they kind of transcend the rules of normal social conventions.
MP: Yeah. Just being on that plane, too. Just the plane was amazing. Like that plane with lockers in the back, “Low class, no class.” And the movie got pirated so heavily, so it didn’t make any money at the box office. I thought it was pretty funny, at least the first… and then my character is gone in the middle of the movie. We were going to shoot this thing at the end, but I think they just ran out of money and were like, “Let’s be done.”
AVC: Well, yeah. They ran out once they gave Snoop a thousand dollars a day to show up on time.
MP: Right, yeah.
Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (2006)—“Nadia Vole”
MP: I did a movie with Mickey Rourke called Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. That was filmed on the Isle Of Man and in London. Working with Mickey Rourke, I mean… it’s like cancer. He’s in remission at the beginning of the movie, and I remember him being like, “I’m doing this as a favor for Harvey Weinstein.” In the beginning, he was super nice. We all went to dinner. And then the next day, he just doesn’t remember. He doesn’t have it. He’s in some box in which he has no short-term memory left. Couldn’t learn his lines. He would just wear sunglasses and point to things. Other people would read the lines off-camera and have cue cards. The stories you’d hear about him locking himself up at the The Dorchester Hotel with his little tiny chihuahua he never took out—there’s just dog poop everywhere.
AVC: How long were you in London filming that?
MP: I was on the Isle Of Man and then London also, but the Isle Of Man initially for about three weeks, which used to be where everyone went in the Victorian era to vacation. The seashore, but then of course, in the last four years, everyone goes to Spain, Italy. No one really goes to the Isle Of Man anymore, so it’s this dead ghost town famous for a cat with no tail and being potentially the cradle of civilization.
AVC: It’s amazing that the Isle Of Man is now forever paired with crazy Mickey Rourke in your mind.
MP: Oh my god. I remember Mickey Rourke just… you know… getting in this huge fight with the guy who played Gollum, Andy Serkis. Serkis finally being like, “We will not deal with your bullshit.” And he goes, [In a Rourke voice.] “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” The most ridiculous—horrible. And you’ve got to figure, they’re half shot; they shot half a movie with him, so nobody can be—he’s so volatile. He’s like a cancer that spreads because no one can contain him, nor will they contain him because they’re so scared that he’ll just not show up.