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: Although some of Rachael Harris’ earliest television appearances were actually in science-fiction series (SeaQuest DSV and Star Trek: Voyager), she’s decidedly better known for her comedic work, thanks to memorable work in The Hangover, a trifecta of Christopher Guest films (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration), and numerous sitcoms, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family, and, most recently, New Girl. Harris can currently be seen flexing her dramatic chops in the film Natural Selection.
Natural Selection (2011)—“Linda”
The A.V. Club: This is a different type of role than most people are used to seeing you play. How did you wind up in the mix for a part like this?
Rachael Harris: Well, my agent sent me the script, and it’s strange, because it’s one of the few times I’ve actually—I had to get out of my house, because there were people working in my house at the time, so I went to this coffee shop and thought, “Well, I’ll just take this and read it.” You get a lot of scripts, and things don’t necessarily always pull you that much. But I started to read it, I read it from beginning to end in about an hour and a half, and immediately thought, “This is amazing.”
What drew me to it was that it was so—I thought it was a comedy, and it is, but I thought it was more obviously a comedy when my agent sent it to me. But I’d been saying that I wanted to do something more dramatic for a long time, and I’ve always said my favorite actresses can do both. Just to give you an example, I love Frances McDormand, and if I could have that kind of career— she’s always been very inspiring to me. So when they sent me that script and I read it, when I realized that it was so funny and also so dramatic, I was, like, “Well, I’ll never get to do this.” Because it was so good that, in my opinion, I just thought everyone was going to be clamoring to do the film. I thought, “Oh, they’re definitely going to get one of the Lauras…” Laura Linney, Laura Dern, one of those. Gratefully, though, the budget was so low that the people who, if you’d had a huge budget, would’ve said, “Absolutely I will do this” weren’t available. [Laughs.] Granted, I was also very lucky that Robbie [Pickering] was a first-time feature director. We were all kind of taking a risk: They were taking a risk on me, I was taking a risk on them, none of us had worked together before.
Robbie initially didn’t want to see me for the role at all. He didn’t even want to take a meeting. [Laughs.] And with good reason! He was, like, “I’ve seen her in The Hangover, I’ve seen her in Christopher Guest movies, there’s no way that she’s right for this.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, he begrudgingly took the meeting, because it was, like, “If your first, second, and third choices fall out, you have no budget, and somebody has to play the role.” So luckily, we had the meeting, and then in our meeting, he realized, “Oh, she actually has some depth to her.” [Laughs.] Robbie has said this a lot before, but he says that a lot of casting is hyperbole, and he was, like, “Just hearing you talk, I realized that you were an actor, because you’re really not like these bitchy characters you play.” He still wasn’t convinced after the meeting, though. He was like, “I have to have her read, ’cause I just don’t think she can handle the dramatic aspects of the film.” And then I read, and he was like, “Okay,” but then when we got to shoot it, the first day that we had to do something dramatic, he said, “This is going to take me all day to get her to the right place.” And then they ended up using the first take. [Laughs.] So it was really so great to go, “No, I can do this, but I just haven’t been given the opportunity before.”
I was completely onboard. I was like, “I get it!” It was so completely out of my wheelhouse, but I was up for all of it. I was just really lucky, really grateful, and so, so happy.
AVC: Given that it was, like you said, out of your wheelhouse, what did you do to prepare for the role?
RH: Well, I studied theater. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater and music. And I had done a lot of dramatic work when I was in school, and when I went to New York, I went there solely to be a stage actress. I wasn’t thinking I was going to do comedies. In my early 20s, I didn’t even know what the Groundlings was. I had no idea. But I know how to break down a script and work on the character. For me, the approach is no different than comedy, actually. I feel like I work on scripts for comedy as well as dramatic stuff the same. And I also work with a coach that is amazing. So my approach to it was that we just went through it scene by scene and figured out where she’s at emotionally and what the truth is of the scene. I just tried to play the truth. Not necessarily comedic or dramatic, just the truth. That’s what I tried to do when I did, for lack of a better example, The Hangover. I wasn’t necessarily trying to be funny. I was playing the truth of Melissa when I was berating poor Ed Helms. She thinks she’s right. She’s like, “This is for your own good.” So that’s where I come from: a very actor-y, so-boring-I’m-boring-myself level. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you ever feel like you have to fight an instinct to play something comedically just from force of habit?
RH: Hmmm. That’s a good question. I think it’s more that I just do what I feel is going to be the best choice. I mean, I don’t have this weird natural funny bone that constantly comes out. [Laughs.] It’s not like my every instinct is to be funny, and I’m always having to dampen that down. When you’re shooting, though, and when it’s getting really serious, I do kind of need to break the ice for a little bit sometimes. Like, make some kind of joke just to kill the tension. But at the same time, you have to be careful when you do that, because sometimes you need that tension.
SeaQuest DSV (1993)—“Rose”
RH: That’s the perfect role for you to ask me about, because it means everything. It’s kind of how a lot of it got started for me. I was a nanny for Roy Scheider and his wife, Brenda. Roy knew that I wanted to be an actress, and he made me an extra on SeaQuest DSV and gave me a line. They made a line just so I could get my Screen Actors Guild card. It was huge. They were just ridiculously kind to me. I couldn’t believe that Roy Scheider was helping me get my SAG card. It blew my mind then, and it still does today. Like, it’s one of the most generous things ever. He wasn’t even on set. They just stopped production and said, “Hey, we need a line here,” then acted like they didn’t know who they were going to give it to, and finally said, “Hey, you!” When Roy had totally orchestrated the whole thing. It was genius. [Hesitates.] I wonder if they’ll take away my SAG card, if they know the whole thing was a sham. Probably not after all this time, right?
AVC: “Dear Ms. Harris, due to events which have recently come to light…”
RH: No! [Starts laughing.] “You owe us…”
AVC: What are your memories of the experience, given that it was your first TV work?
RH: Well, I had done extra work before. This was not my first extra gig, I will have you know. [Laughs.] In fact, I don’t even think it’s noted anywhere, because they don’t generally list extras in the credits, but I did extra work on fucking Beverly Hills 90210. With Shannen Doherty, Tori Spelling, and all those guys. I was roaming the halls of West Beverly High School. Having come from all this theater training and having a Bachelor of Fine Arts, it was the definition of starting out in the mailroom. So I did that, and because of my experience in doing that show, I felt like I’d won an Oscar when they gave me a line on SeaQuest—even though they cut it. [Laughs.] I got the line, and I was, like, “Oh my gosh!” And then my family watched it on the East Coast while I was on the West Coast, and they said, “We see you, but… oh. All right.” “What? Didn’t I say anything?” “No.” “They cut my line!?” But then later I was, like, “Of course they cut your line. You weren’t even supposed to be on the show! He only did it so you could get your SAG card!” [Laughs.]
The Hangover (2009)—“Melissa”
RH: Oh, I loved The Hangover. That was super-fun. I had worked with Todd Phillips on—I had a really small part in Starsky & Hutch, playing Molly Sims’ friend, which is fun, because I’m still friends with Molly Sims to this day.
AVC: I believe your character’s official name is “Mrs. Feldman’s Other Friend.”
RH: [Laughs.] That is just the saddest name to have. “Mrs. Feldman’s Other Friend.” Clearly, there was someone else who was Mrs. Feldman’s Friend, because Mrs. Feldman has numerous friends. I was the other one. But yeah, anyway, I’d worked with Todd on Starsky & Hutch, and then I had done something else with him, and I went in to audition for this part having no idea what was going to happen with that film. I just love working with Todd, though. He is so collaborative and funny, and he loves making movies, the whole process. So that was great. And then getting to work with Ed, who I’ve been friends with since, like, 2001, when we did The Daily Show together, that just made it that much more fun. And the whole wedding scene with Zach and Bradley and Justin was ridiculous. It was just really, really fun.
AVC: This is one of those obligatory questions for any comedy film, but how much of The Hangover was improv vs. scripted?
RH: We did what was scripted first, we did everything clean, then we would go in and do improvised things. I think Ed and I did one take of that argument scene that went on for probably five minutes. And I think they did surgery out of some things from it. And then Todd would say, “Say this! Say this!” I just want you to know for the record—and this is good that I have this forum—that I did not come up with “suck my dick.” [Laughs.] That was scripted, and I did not come up with it. That is the genius that is Todd Phillips. My parents will be happy that that has finally been reported. Because they had a stroke when they saw the film. Literally. They had a stroke. My dad, to this day, has never fully recovered.
Reno 911! (2004–2009)—“Debbie Dangle”
RH: I met with Tom [Lennon] and Ben [Garant] and Kerri [Kenney], I pitched them my idea, and I said, “I’d love to be Jim Dangle’s wife who doesn’t realize he’s gay,” even though he’s super-gay. [Laughs.] And I said, “I think what needs to happen is that I’ve had bypass surgery, and that I come to see him because I want to get married to someone else, and the guy is even gayer than Dangle.” And they’re, like, “Yes! We’re doing it!”
That was one of the most fun jobs. I had to go to get special-effects makeup done. They put a prosthetic on my face, this big thing, because we did flashbacks. The best thing about it was doing the flashback sequences with Kerri and Tom. It explains why Kerri’s character is such a nut on the show: She had actual brain damage. [Laughs.] That’s why she’s so crazy. Oh my God, the flashbacks were so great. And the fat suit. Fun factoid: The legs that I wore for the fat suit were the same legs John Travolta wore in Hairspray.
AVC: You had actually appeared on the show once before you created the character of Debbie Dangle, playing Claire the Madam.
RH: Yes! And I was in a wheelchair! I ran a brothel from a wheelchair.
AVC: Given your résumé, you must be in the Rolodex of every improv-friendly producer in film and television.
RH: Well, maybe. [Laughs.] Yeah, improv’s really fun. But I really love doing straight scripted stuff, too. Like, with Natural Selection, I really didn’t improvise very much in that film at all. Because I didn’t need to. The script was so good. See, that’s the thing: I’m not one of those actors who thinks, “God, I’ve got to improvise and make it my own.” No, my first job as an actor is to take what’s written and make it work. And then if they want me to improvise, I’ll do that. But I feel like I come from an acting background first, and then I’m an improviser… and I sense that was a quote you may have been looking for, so you’re welcome. [Laughs.] But I do love improvising, and I was very lucky to have worked with the Groundlings and have all that training and meet so many people who’ve become my friends for life.
AVC: So before you started with the Groundlings, where did you stand as far as improvisation goes? Did you already have a feel for it?
RH: No. I had no idea what it was, really. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t study improv when I was in college or anything like that. I was doing theater here in L.A., and a friend of mine and I went to a Groundlings show, and it was Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Chris Parnell… I thought, “Oh my God.” And this is before they were on SNL or anything, but it was so good that I just wanted to be a part of it as soon as I saw my first show. I was like, “I need to sign up for classes tomorrow. This is the funnest thing in the world. These people are having a blast!” And the sketches were so funny, the improv was so good. That was pivotal.
The Soloist (2009)—“Leslie Bloom”
RH: Oh yeah! That was really great. The film was so dark that they wanted somebody funny to work with Stephen Root and Catherine Keener at the L.A. Times office, so I went in and prepared this scene that I don’t even remember doing. [Laughs.] I went in and met with Joe Wright, who had just done Atonement, and I was so excited, because I’d been wanting to do something dramatic, or to be part of something dramatic. So we just sat down and had a conversation, and he looked at me and said, “I’d like to offer you the part of this reporter.” And I was like, “Uh, what?” [Laughs.] He said, “Yeah, I’d love you to do it.” And I just said something like, “Oh my, that would be lovely.” Because he’s British, you know, and oftentimes when people are British, I just become Madonna and start speaking in a British accent. [Adopts the accent.] “Oh, that would be lovely. Why, yes, thank you, I would simply love that!”
I had the best time working on that. I made really good friends with Stephen Root, and I’m very close to him and his wife to this day. And Robert Downey, Jr. was so fun and so nice. And it was a DreamWorks film, so the crew—I think it was Steven Spielberg’s crew, so it was really exciting. I got to improvise a lot in that film, because Joe just loved it. “Yeah, be funny! Do your funny stuff!” [Laughs.] A lot of it ended up not being in the film, but there’s one scene with Stephen Root that was improvised. I’m particularly proud of that one.
AVC: When watching that film, it seems like there’s a larger subplot about the decline of the newspaper industry that’s been trimmed down, presumably due to time constraints.
RH: Oh, yes. You are correct, and it was wildly cut down. Stephen Root ends up getting let go, but because of time, they had to cut a lot of that. But yeah, it was all about Steve Lopez, the paper, and how the whole industry is being completely laid to waste, and so many people are losing their jobs. It was a really great subplot.
Best In Show (2000)—“Winky’s Party Guest”
A Mighty Wind (2003)—“Steinbloom’s Assistant”
For Your Consideration (2006)—“Mary Pat Hooligan”
RH: Christopher Guest came to the Groundlings with Eugene Levy and Karen Murphy, his executive producer, unbeknownst to us, when I was in the Sunday company, and they asked to have a meeting. I met with them, having no idea what was going to happen, and then they asked me to be in what was then called Dog Show. I got to improvise with Catherine O'Hara, Larry Miller, Eugene, and Deb Theaker, and it was… too much. [Laughs.] I was so nervous, and I thought sure he would never want to work with me again, but then I got to do A Mighty Wind and played Bob Balaban’s assistant, which was just fantastic, and in between, I shot a few commercials with Chris as well.
Then I did For Your Consideration. I think Catherine O'Hara deserves an Oscar for that, honestly. That was particularly fun, because I got to play two parts in one film. I got to play the love interest to Parker Posey. That was heaven to work on, because there were no big trailers. We were all in honey wagons, and we all hung out in the green room. Literally, in a room in Culver City. And we would just make each other laugh all day. And everyone would stay on set, because we all wanted to watch each other improvise. Like, when Jennifer Coolidge was on set with Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, they’d have to tell us to shut up because we’d be laughing so hard. It definitely wasn’t one of those films where you’d go back to your trailer and make phone calls between scenes. It was like, “Holy shit, I get to watch Fred Willard and Jane Lynch go nuts at the same time?” It was like going to camp. Super-fun comedy camp. It was amazing.
After The Sunset (2004)—“June”
RH: Oh, that’s a crazy story, too. Jeff Garlin was working with Brett Ratner on After The Sunset, they were shooting, and I’m not kidding, I got a call at 11:30 at night, saying, “Can you be here in an hour and a half?” So at 1 in the morning, I’m at Café des Artistes, because they said, “We want someone to improvise with Jeff Garlin, Pierce Brosnan, Salma Hayek…” Again, it was a “What?” moment, but they were like, “Brett Ratner wants you to come down and do this,” so I’m like, “Okay!” I literally was already in my pajamas, face washed, but I was like, “Well, I’m just gonna go down there.” And then the wardrobe people called and said, “Can you bring a dress that’s kind of tropical?” So I went down there, did this big scene with them. I think I said maybe one thing that actually ended up in the movie, which was fine. But then the next day, I got from Brett Ratner the biggest bouquet of flowers that I have ever seen. I mean, when I say it was crazy-huge, I’m talking about something that looked like it should be in the lobby of a Four Seasons. It was like, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high, and he was just thanking me for jumping in like that. I ended up working with him again on a pilot for Fox called Cop House, which was also crazy-fun.
Treehouse Trolls: Forest Of Fun And Wonder (1992)—“Big Mama”
AVC: This credit sounds way too good to be true.
RH: And yet that is, in fact, accurate. [Laughs.] I did that when I was living in New York City, trying to get stage work. You know those characters that walk around Disneyland with the big heads? Yep, that’s what I wore. It was a live-action thing like Barney, and that’s how big the costume was. The head was huge. I wish I could find a copy of it. I have never seen it. But that was one of my first jobs. Actually, I did an episode of Hard Copy. That was my first job ever in New York, when I was living there. It was a reenactment. I would pay big money to find that. [Laughs.] But Treehouse Trolls, that just came out of an audition in this shitty theater. Like, it wasn’t even a theater. It was a room. Near Times Square. And I was like, “I hope this is a legitimate audition. I could be going in for a porn. I don’t know.” It was like, Backstage East. [Audibly shudders.] Ugh. I mean, good God. I could’ve died so many times.
AVC: So what do you think you brought to the character of Big Mama?
RH: [Laughs.] I have no idea. I don’t remember a single line. I think I’ve tried to block that out.
AVC: Surely you at least remember what the inside of the huge head smelled like.
RH: I don’t! I don’t remember what the head smelled like! I just remember—okay, this is what I remember thinking: “Oh, my God, I hope it gets better than this.” [Laughs.] But also, at the time, I was like, “This is awesome! I have a job! I’m getting paid!” Because I’m from Ohio, I grew up in the Midwest, and honestly, I think at that time—you know, I take that back. I don’t think it was, “Oh my God, I hope it gets better than this.” I think I was like, “Okay, here we go. I’m getting paid. I’m getting paid to act. Yes, I’m in an outfit like a Disneyland walking character, but I’m getting paid to pretend I’m somebody else… and she happens to have the name Big Mama.” [Laughs.]
[Note: Although the following clip provides a general idea of Harris’ work for the Treehouse Trolls franchise, she can neither nor confirm nor deny that it’s her under the Mama head. Or, to more precisely quote her Tweeted reply, “Just watched the video. Scared the shit balls out of me. If it’s me, I blocked it out.”]
AVC: Jumping back for a second, do you happen to remember the specifics on that Hard Copy reenactment? Maybe one of the readers might have a line on it.
RH: I do! It was for Huntington Hartford, who was this billionaire playboy who, in his late 70s or early 80s, was homeless, and they were going back and reenacting how, at the height of his money and power, he loved these Brigitte Bardot-type women. So I had to go in and hang out with—well, it looked like I got to go hang out in a club, and then I got into a girl fight. And then I sniffed cocaine. Oh, I’m sorry: snorted cocaine. God, people have said to me, “Rachel, you’re so pathetic. Don’t you even know the terminology? You don’t sniff cocaine, you snort it.” But I did snort fake cocaine. [Laughs.] And it’s all in black and white, so it was very tasteful for Hard Copy. I’m pretty sure it was a very special edition of Hard Copy.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004)—“Joanne”
RH: That was amazing. Cheryl Hines is one of my dearest, best friends, so I was nervous, ’cause I didn’t want to let her down. I also met her from the Groundlings. I auditioned for that, and that was really fun, but working with Larry David, I was sure the first day I was going to get fired. But Cheryl said, “Everybody thinks that. You’re not going to get fired.” Working with Larry was horrifying, because I wanted to make him laugh so bad and be good, and at the same time, it was wildly rewarding, because I got to work on my friend’s show. That’s what I love doing the most: working with friends. So that was crazy-fun. And Mel Brooks was also on the episode, and he was so nice. I was just in heaven working with him. When we finished working, we were all at lunch, and he takes off his shirt, he’s bare-chested and in shorts, walking around. I said, “I’m done working now, thank you so much, it’s been amazing to work with you,” and he gives me a kiss on the cheek and says, “I’ll call you tonight!” And he walks away. [Laughs.] He was never gonna call me tonight…
New Girl (2012)—“Tanya LaMontagne”
RH: Oh, yeah! That’s been really fun, playing Jess’ “boss.” That’s a super-fun show. Everybody on that show is so nice. I love that my character is just really—she’s not mean, but she’s just… [Hesitates.] I don’t know how she got that job. I don’t know how she became vice-principal, because in a recent episode, she’s like, “Oh, you hate the kids? Thank you!” [Laughs.] There’s a great episode coming up, the one where they introduce Dermot Mulroney, where I have a great scene with Zooey.
That came up simply because Liz Meriwether called and said, “We have this part where we want you to be a little obsessed with Jess,” and it just sort of happened. I had worked with Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, who were on the show at the time, and that was a happy, happy offer that came in. I said, “I would love to work with Zooey [Deschanel],” because, I don’t know if you know this, but Zooey’s pretty talented.
AVC: And adorkable.
RH: [Laughs.] She is! She is adorkable! But you know, I think we all become adorkable when we work on that show.
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid (2010)—“Susan Heffley”
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)—“Susan Heffley”
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012)—“Susan Heffley”
RH: That series has been so much fun to do. The third one’s coming out in August. The second one was more about my relationship with the boys, but the third one is more about Steve Zahn and his relationship with the boys. I’ve seen selected scenes from it from doing ADR and whatnot, and it is so great to see Steve dealing with these kids. It’s really funny. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll just say this: Civil War reenactments happen. Which makes me real, real happy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are there any one-off sitcom appearances you’ve made that really stand out for you? Because you’ve certainly done plenty in recent years.
RH: I have. It was a thrill to work with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on The New Adventures Of Old Christine. I know that’s not all that recent, but I just love her. And then I got to do a short film with her, “Picture Paris,” that was just at the Santa Barbara film festival. You should see that, for sure. It’s wonderful. Brad Hall directed it. Modern Family and Party Down were great. Party Down was fun just because I’m friends with David Wain, and he directed that episode. That was just crazy. And working with Ken Marino. I don’t know if you’ve seen Wanderlust yet, but it’s just so good! I just saw it last night, and, you know, they’re all amazing, but Ken Marino, it’s so different from anything he’s done. He was sort of pathetic in Party Down, but this takes him to a new level. He’s really amazing.
Star Trek: Voyager (1997)—“Martis”
RH: Oh, you are really good. [Laughs.] That was really exciting. I was an Ocampa, and I got to put on prosthetic ears, which also made me really happy. And I got to give birth to a baby out of my back. They gave me a birthing bar and I was pushing the baby out, and let’s just say that it was not a flattering situation. It literally looked like I was pooping the baby out of my back.
AVC: What a visual image.
RH: Isn’t it? And better yet, you can see it on YouTube if you go looking for it. The episode is called “Before And After,” and you can see me screaming and then pushing the baby out of my back. It’s great television, lemme tell ya.