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.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.