Judy Greer is one of the few women who's been able to establish herself as one of Hollywood's most versatile comedic presences—so much so that IMDb declares her trademark as "playing the best friend." She's affable, she has timing and she can do pretty much anything, making her the perfect character actor for any situation.
Thankfully, the big players in Hollywood respond to Greer's talent. Branching her out of the obvious typecasting, Alexander Payne cast Greer in his new dramedy The Descendants, where the actresses pops up in pivotal dramatic moments opposite George Clooney. It's easily some of the best work she's ever done.
I had a chance to sit down with Greer to talk about her experience working on Descendants, her return to Two and a Half Men and the handful of other projects she has in the works. But upon entering the room, an spirited Greer beat me to the punch on my own interview...
Judy Greer: I love Alexander! I auditioned for the part!
Oh no, you’re stealing all my questions! Why are you doing that?
JG: It’s fun to talk about a movie that people love.
People do love it.
JG: I know. Did you see it?
Yeah, I saw it. Are you saying that you don’t get to talk about movies that people love very often?
JG: Well, you know. This is different for me.
How did you end up becoming part of the movie?
JG: Good old fashioned audition. He is a director I’ve wanted to work with forever. So, when this came up, I went in for it, and obviously got the part. I’ve had a couple auditions, and sometimes at my agency, they’ll organize table reads of scripts for directors and actors. One time I did a table read with Al Pacino.
JG: A movie that they never made. He wanted to hear it out loud. A lot of those guys like to do a table read of a script to decide if they want to do it. In that situation, I thought to myself, 'I got to act with Al Pacino. That’s kind of awesome.' And in this situation, I’m like, 'I got to act with Alexander Payne.' You know? Even just the audition was enough for me.
You got to kiss George Clooney.
JG: I mean, that came much later. But that was awesome.
Do you find it difficult to track down parts that are our of the norm like this? Are they roles you're actively looking for?
JG: Thankfully, knock on wood, my career has never felt like a struggle. I’ve always been really blessed. I work all the time, and I get to move within the—I’m like undercover. Oh, I’m on this giant television show! And I’m doing this little indie movie! And I’m in an Alexander Payne film! Oh, I’m doing a voice on a cartoon! It’s been so awesome that way. In the bigger studio projects, it has been hard to get outside of my quirky sidekick persona. I don’t mind playing those roles at all.
We like you when you do that.
JG: I like it. It’s fun! It’s a fun day at work. Trust me. But this has been something so different and awesome.
What I like about this movie is that there are a lot of characters and they each get their shining moments. They may not get a ton of screen time, but they all feel like real people. Did it feel that way in the script? How did you develop this character?
JG: It’s definitely in the script. I want to say it’s in the book. I read the book after I got the part, but I haven’t read it since. I focused more on the script. But it’s very rare to get the size of roles that I always play…be so well-rounded on the page. A lot of times I get a script and they’re like, 'We know you’re going to do something awesome with this.' And I’m like, 'I’d rather you did something awesome with it!' But in this situation, it was a character with a complete journey in three scenes. So, yeah. I didn’t have to do much.
And what’s the dynamic between you and Alexander? You and George?
JG: The dynamic between George and me…I’ve known him for a while now. I worked with him on Three Kings a hundred years ago.
We don’t talk about that movie enough. A great film.
JG: Well, it’s been a while. It’s so good. It felt very comforting to have George there, because I knew him. And because these scenes were tough and hard. To just feel really comfortable with someone was helpful to me as an actor. And I was so incredibly nervous around Alexander. I don’t think I could have handled it [if I had] not met George before either. To be in the room with both of them? I don’t know, I probably would have exploded. I was so nervous and star-struck by A.P., as his friends call him. I was like, 'Thank God for George! Thank God I’m not at all nervous around George Clooney, for some reason!'
I wish we could all be that way. Being one of these big stars, it's hard to get a grasp of what working with him must be like. I’m sure some people would paint him as the guy who comes to work, does his scenes and keeps away from everyone.
JG: No. He likes to hang out. He’s the first person on set. He’s fun, he’s sweet, he learns everyone’s name. Everything you hear about him is exactly true. We did this table read in Santa Monica before they started production. Everyone was there. All the heads of Fox Searchlight, all the producers, all the actors. It was really scary. Alexander made this awesome speech, this amazing speech, about how he cast us because of who we were. 'Do what you’ve done, be yourself.'
And then George said, 'I’m really excited to do this movie, and I think Judy had something that she wanted to say to everybody.' [And I’m like,] “I did?!” And everyone laughed at it totally broke the ice in a way that only George really can do.
What was it like working in Hawaii? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that puts Hawaii out there—as a real place, rather than a tourist destination.
JG: That was one of the things that Alexander said was the reason he was drawn to the project. He said, 'I wanted to show Honolulu and Hawaii as not a vacation destination.' As a place where people live and struggle and make ends meet and fuck up their lives. And for me, I was shooting another movie at the same time in New Orleans. And that movie took place over the course of one day. So, when I would leave to go to Hawaii to shoot this movie, they’d be like, 'Don’t fucking get tan.' And I’m like, 'Are you kidding me? You’re sending me off to Kauai and I can’t get tan?' So then I would go and splatter myself with sunscreen and put on a hat and sit and stare at the ocean. Making a movie in Hawaii is amazing, and it’d be way more amazing if when I went to hair and makeup every day, they didn’t have to cover my whole body in makeup. I’d be so paranoid. 'I think I got a freckle! Oh God!'
Did you learn anything about Hawaii that is not evident, just by existing there for a few days?
JG: I did learn that sometimes, one of the local girls told me, if the surf is really awesome, they don’t even bother to have the first class of the day at school, because none of the kids show up anyway. I went to this Hawaiian bar that I wanted to check out after work one day. It said it opened at four. I sat there, and it didn’t open, didn’t open…it was about five o’clock, and the waitress showed up. She was like, 'Yeah, the surf was really good.' Right on!
Going back to working with Alexander. He’s a prolific guy, with the few films that he’s made. They all have this wonderful tone. A wonderful balance between comedy and drama. I imagine that’s a really difficult thing to find, or at least to be explained to you. Can you talk a little about working with him and the dialogue there? Finding that tone?
JG: Like I said, he seems to cast people for who they are. He casts your tone when he puts you in the movie. So you don’t have to struggle to please him, to help him find his vision. Because he wouldn’t—he doesn’t have to put people in the movie…
I’ve also been watching Two and a Half Men this season,
JG: Oh, yeah! I know!
You and Ashton have a great dynamic, but then I saw the movie and I was like, 'These couldn’t be more different.'
JG: I know. So weird.
What is it like coming back to the show [Greer had previously appeared in two episodes of Men as a different character]?
JG: It’s been fun to be a part of that. My sweetheart was like, 'Do you realize that this is like…'—it doesn’t feel like it, because I’m in it, and I have to shut down that part of my brain that can make me totally freaked out—but he’s like, 'You know that this is one of the hugest moments in television history.' He’s like, 'When this show airs,' and I wasn’t in the first episode, I was in the second, 'everyone’s going to be watching. People are going to be talking about this forever.' And I’m like, 'Well, shut up! You’ll make me crazy!' And the night before my first episode aired, my manager was like, 'More people are going to watch you tomorrow night than have ever seen you before, ever.' I’m like, 'Fuck! I should have gone to manicure school.'
But it’s been fun to be a part of that. It’s a part of history in a way. It’s a part of our culture. It’s kind of weird and depressing, but it’s true. And you can’t deny that it’s a big deal. To be a part of it has been special. To be working with Ashton again…he produced a television show I did a hundred years ago. And so now I get to act with him. I respect him a lot. He’s cool.
What’s the environment like? I imagine it’s a fun show to shoot.
JG: It’s really fun! The energy is great. He’s great. Jon Cryer is so awesome. He’s so lovely. And it’s cool to be in front of an audience again. I really like that. I love being in front of an audience. That’s how I started—in the theater. That energy that you get from them, and the excitement that they have. And, you know, the food is great. Craft services is awesome.
Yes! Such a good spread. Do you think you’d ever go back to the theater?
JG: I do want, so badly, to do a play. I’d love to do a play on Broadway. I’ve never done that before. Every time I say to my manager and agent, 'I want to do a play,' they’re like, 'Oh, we just got a movie for you.”' But I did something off-Broadway a few years ago and the experience was so incredible.
Nothing beats live.
JG: It’s fun, you know? It’s the best acting class you’ll ever do. The feeling that you have when you’re driving home from work shooting something, and you’re like, 'Ugh, why didn’t I do that?' You can do 'that' the next day! You absolutely get a second chance. So, that’s fun.
My TV cohorts would be very sad if I didn’t ask a little about Archer.
JG: I know. It’s insane.
What's your experience like working on this deranged, wonderful animated show?
JG: The pilot episode…I was in Arizona working on something else at the time, and they were like, “'You have a day off. We got you this thing. It’s a voiceover thing.' And I was like, 'Okay, cool, whatever.' You know, it’s no money, and I wanted to break into doing voices and stuff. That’s a really tight-knit group. A very exclusive club. And it’s hard to get into it.
Yeah. Jon Benjamin’s pretty much dominating.
JG: Yeah, I know! So, I was like, 'I want to do that.' And I’m shooting on set all day, and I’m so tired, and my next day is my day off, and I’m like, 'Ugh, I don’t want to fucking record something. It’s my day off. I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep and go for a run.' And then I read the script. I’m like falling asleep in bed, and then I’m like, 'Wait, what?! What is this for? This is for FX? You can’t say—this is never going to get picked up! We can’t do that on television!' Even though I think they did all that on Rescue Me.
But it’s just been such a fun ride. Every week I get excited. I should say, probably more like every two or three weeks now. I get super excited to get the script. It’s always something better than the last. I’m constantly in awe and amazed by [creator] Adam Reed. He does all of it all by himself. He has no writer’s room. It’s insane. I love him so much. I asked him to write a live-action television show for me this year.
Is that going to happen?
JG: He said that he would…
JG: …and then his manager said he couldn’t, because he was too busy doing Archer. [Laughs] So hopefully, I’ll get him—maybe he could just write a movie or something. I think he’s such a talent.
We would all enjoy that.
JG: An Archer movie! How awesome would that be? Start that rumor!
What’s next for you?
JG: I have a couple of movies coming out. And I’m developing a television show that Adam couldn’t write. But I have other awesome writers that are working on it.
Is it your idea?
What is the show?
JG: It’s a pilot. I’m going to keep it a secret for now, because I don’t want to jinx it. Not that I don’t want you to know! But I have superstitions about this stuff. At this point, I just sold an idea with Deb Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who are feature film writers—they’re writing it. We’re hopefully going to actually shoot the pilot. I don’t know yet. I also obviously do Archer, and I have some more Two and a Half Mens coming up. Yay! Pay the bills! And I have two movies coming out in the spring. One is called Jeff Who Lives at Home which is really good. I saw a screening of it a few weeks ago. I’m super proud of it. Tiny, sweet, compassionate lovely little film.
And a great, big, giant, huge studio romantic comedy called Playing the Field with Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel and Catherine Zeta Jones and Uma Thurman and Dennis Quaid and me. And that was awesome. And I was in Shreveport. Gabriele Muccino directed that. He was also on my list of directors I always wanted to work with. He’s awesome.
JG: Yeah. He’s very loud and very Italian. It was really fun.