Rachael Harris is the type of actress every show and movie brings on to up the funny. Whether it's for a brief-but-hysterical role (Ed Helms' wife in The Hangover), a beefed up lead (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie that's a thousand times funnier than anyone could have expected), a talking head correspondent (The Daily Show), or a regular on a network show (she's appeared in over 20), Harris always delivers, sliding her position as one of the funniest ladies in the biz.
That sprawling body of comedic work helps make Harris' performance in her latest, Natural Selection (out now in limited release), even more startling and sizzling than it would have been. Harris plays Linda, a Christian housewife whose marriage is on the rocks after she discovers she can't get pregnant. Her conservative husband, Abe, soon falls ill, and Linda's entire world is flipped upside down when he reveals the existence of an illegitimate son. Linda heads out on journey to find the grown-up kid, Raymond, now a junkie well-versed in criminal activity. The wild ride is complicated by their evolving relationship, and Harris performance is brave, twisted and stunning.
I talked to Harris, who is currently in the middle of filming a TV pilot executive produced by her longtime friend Melissa McCarthy, about what it took to bring this dark performance to life, convincing director Robbie Pickering she was right for the film and what her future in TV and movies holds. We also started a campaign to bring her back to the Hangover franchise…for revenge.
I was so surprised, happily surprised, when I caught Natural Selection at last year’s South by Southwest Festival. It won! Were you down at the festival last year for the screenings?
I was. I was at SXSW. I wasn’t there for the award ceremony, because I had to fly back to shoot another pilot for Fox. But I was there for our first two screenings, which was really exciting.
What was the response when you showed up for the first time?
Rachael Harris: We had a really warm reception. People were laughing. The thing that we were most obsessed with at the first screening, we were obsessed with Roger Ebert, and Logan Hill, and the jurors at SXSW. Honestly, I didn’t know who Logan was at the time, but we knew Roger was in the building. [Laughs] That was the thing. It was like, ‘Roger Ebert is going to see our movie!’ And it just blew our minds. I just went and sat—I couldn’t watch Roger watch the move.But then afterwards, he was the juror, so he couldn’t indicate anything to us. But he did give me a big hug, and give me a thumbs up. So, that was everything to me.
How did you become involved with the film and director Robbie [Pickering]? Natural Selection is very different than some of the other work you’ve done.
RH: I had been saying to my agents and managers for a long time that I wanted to branch out. There are different women, I’ve loved their careers. Frances McDormand being one of them. That’s the best example that I can give, because she does comedy and drama and theater. She transitions seamlessly between auditions in my mind. When the two women were talking about that, it was like, ‘Yes, I love doing comedy, I love doing sitcoms, and comedic TV shows. But I would also love the opportunity to do something more dramatic.’
So, they sent me the script and I read it. It was like a really good book that I couldn’t put down. The second I started reading it, I fell in love with Linda, and then I fell in love with Raymond, and Peter…I just love the character that Jon Gries plays in the film, too. I thought it was a really beautiful, complex story. I hadn’t read anything like it, ever. And I thought, ‘For sure, I’m not going to get to do this.’ So then I called my agents. We set up a meeting. Unbeknownst to me, Robbie didn’t want to meet me for the meeting. He just said, based on everything I had done in the past, ‘She’s completely not right for this.’
RH: Yeah. And it wasn’t that he was being arrogant, or mean…
He didn’t know.
RH: He didn’t know. Nobody knew. Nobody knows. I blissfully did not know he didn’t want to take a meeting with me. But then when we had the meeting, I think that I just got really personal with him about my connection to the character, and told him a little bit about my own personal life. He said in that meeting, ‘Oh my God, I think you might be right.’ But he still had reservations. So he had me come in and read for it, which I was happy to do.
Was it difficult for you to get into this headspace? Going dark, dramatic?
RH: Well, when I moved to New York out of college, that was my goal. To be a stage actress. And to do dramatic works. Like Madea, and ‘night, Mother, and Sam Shepard, and all that kind of stuff. That’s what I really wanted to do.
RH: And then, no one was hiring me, because I looked like I was sixteen when I was in my early twenties. So it was really difficult to find a niche. And then I had an agent that said, ‘I’m opening an agency in Los Angeles. I think you’d work a lot in television and film. What do you think?’ And I was just dying in New York, so I said yes. So, I came out here, and then started booking commercials. And that’s when I got my first Groundlings show. I became obsessed with that. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I love this!’ It’s funny, because when I was in college, all my professors said, ‘You should do comedy.’ And I was like, ‘No! No!’ But I was able to get my foot in the door through comedy. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do it.
You mentioned talking to Robbie in that first meeting about some person things you were bringing to the table. Was that personal experiences you could relate to Natural Selection?
RH: Mmhmm. Well, we shot it in 2010—I was out of a marriage for two years. I had been divorced. And it was still really…I don’t know if you’ve ever been through that, but for me, it was a huge transition. It was really painful. I had conflicting feelings about it. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I still loved my husband tremendously. When I went back to my house, and the house was completely empty—I had moved out when my husband figured out what he was going to do, and then I moved back into the house, and everything of his was gone—there’s a moment in the film when Linda goes back to the house and she’s brushing her teeth. And that moment when—she has a double-sink—she has to turn the other sink on to feel okay, I completely related to that. That floored me. There’s this quiet emptiness that is awful. And then, when she’s making a decision at the end, she loves Raymond, but she knows it’s not the right thing to do. Those scenes where she’s kind of coming to a realization that neither one of these people is going to save her. She’s got to do it on her own.
There's a tricky balance the movie finds, between comedy and drama. Was that difficult? Deciding when a moment needed to be funny? Or funnier? Or less funny?
RH: Well, we definitely didn’t want to get too jokey with it. But for me, it was always playing the reality of the scene. I didn’t really feel like I was in a comedy or a drama. Whatever the situation at hand, that’s what I’m dealing with and trying to be true to it in that moment. Linda is never in on the joke. You know what I mean? I never felt like I was winking. I just felt like, even though it’s hysterically funny when she’s bathing him, in the bathtub, and he’s like, ‘Woman, please. I can wash my own ass,’ she’s not thinking…I wasn’t trying to be funny. The reality is, I was really concerned about how he’s going to get out of this tub. And that, just playing the truth of Raymond being like, ‘I can’t function with this crazy weird woman in my face,’ and me, because it’s Abe’s son, wanting to take care of him, you don’t have to do anything but play the scene. It has to do with Robbie’s writing.
The writing is really strong. The world that it takes place in is also really strong. It’s a very specific slice of American life. Did you feel connected or familiar with that world the movie takes place in?
RH: Yeah, I did. All my parents…my two dads—my stepdad and my biological father—and my mom grew up in very small towns. My dad lived in the south, and I’d go to visit him. It’s a very simple—and I don’t mean that in a condescending way—and a very pure, simple, uncomplicated place. They did not care about television. If they go out to the movies, it’s a treat. Every now and then. So I can completely relate to these people, to live in a very small—and I don’t mean small like sad—it’s just a kind of cloistered town.
Is the liberty to play dramatic roles in the indie world appealing to you? Do you want to go back to that?
RH: Yes, for sure. I would love to do another indie. That was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life, doing this film with Robbie. It was so unfettered. Robbie wrote it. The thing, too, that I think is important to remember, is that Robbie was with this film for six years. It was a personal story for him. And when you have that kind of passion and will in the filmmaker, it just kind of…he exuded all this passion and energy into the project. So we all got the trickle-down of that, and were also really passionate about it, too. And he cared so deeply about it. I would love to work on more projects like that, with people that are interested and have a great story to tell. And it’s a great character. For me, that was the character. Who knows if I’ll ever get another character that amazing?
I hope so!
RH: Aww, you’re so sweet! I hope so, too! I really hope so, too.
We’re big New Girl fans here, and I know you did a couple of those. I know you're currently working on a new TV pilot, but is there any chance of you coming back for more?
RH: I did three, I’m not sure if the third one aired yet. I’d always go back. I love them. Liz Meriwether, and everybody.
RH: It’s open-ended, yes. They’re doing pretty good with their main cast. [Laughs] I’m obsessed with Max Greenfield and Jake Johnson. They’re all good. They’re all great. I think that they’re a really great ensemble cast. It’s great to go in there and just get to be so obsessed and silly and do this crazy principal. It’s really fun. So we’ll see if that happens. But I hope that this pilot goes, and shoots, and I can never go back there. [Laughs]
Excellent. I hope we see you in lots of things in the near future, regardless of what they are.
RH: Aww. That’s so sweet.
Actually, I was really mad that you didn’t get your revenge in Hangover II. Maybe in The Hangover Part III?
RH: I know! You know, we should start a petition that she gets back in the third one in some way. I think she and Alan should get together. Let’s start it! I think Alan and Melissa need to hook up.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In the late '50s a group of elementary students put futuristic drawings in a time capsule that is then buried on school grounds. One overly obsessed kid Lucinda goes her own way by writing hundreds of mysterious seemingly non-sensical numbers on her entry. Fifty years later it’s dug up and comes into the possession of Caleb the young son of John Koestler a recent widower and astro-physics professor who becomes obsessed with the papers Caleb has brought home from class. He soon discovers the random digits are actually not-so-thinly disguised dates (including 91101 of course) for “future” disasters and there are clearly three of those dates yet to come. Although nobody believes his ramblings about this code for impending doom a nearby plane crash proves he is on to something so ominous the fate of the world could be in jeopardy. With all hell about to break loose the prof takes matters into his own hands.
WHO’S IN IT?
Just a couple of years ago Nicolas Cage starred in Next as a magician who could see into the future and had to prevent a nuclear attack. Now he’s at it again as an MIT professor who also has clues to future catastrophes and also is out to prevent the inevitable. And of course in the National Treasure films he latched on to maps that had contained similarly dark deeply held secrets. Nic clearly likes “knowing” stuff before the rest of us and he’s quite believable even if some of the circumstances in his latest sci-fi adventure are really out there -- literally. Cage somehow makes you buy into this stuff which is key to the ultimate success of the flick. As the key kids Chandler Canterbury as Caleb and Lara Robinson as Lucinda (and later Abby Lucinda’s granddaughter) are properly eerie and haunted-looking. Rose Byrne is also along for the ride as Lucinda’s grown daughter who is able to provide goosebump-inducing information that the numbers alone can’t. There’s also some dead-on creepy emoting from D.G. Maloney as a quietly foreboding stranger who seems to be following Caleb.
Unlike some recent movies of this type with nothing on the agenda but pure mayhem “Knowing” delves into the bigger issues of why we are all here providing something other than just big explosions to talk about on the way home from the multiplex. Director Alex Proyas (I Robot Dark City The Crow) certainly knows how to pull off complex action set-pieces but he and his screenwriters also seem to be genuinely interested in exploring the meaning behind the madness.
Some of the more pedantic dialogue Cage is given can be groan-inducing but since he plays John as a total believer we can forgive it. Also the film falls victim to a final act that veers into typical disaster movie territory and isn’t as compelling as the first two thirds which try to keep the premise at least marginally credible. At two hours it probably could have been tightened anyway.
The rain-soaked plane crash sequence with its gritty hand-held photography is riveting to watch and one of the most frightening depictions of a jetliner disaster put on film yet.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
If you are really squeamish it might be worth "knowing" that you should take breaks in the big disaster sequences as the CGI effects can get pretty violent and graphic particularly for a PG-13 movie.