Interview: 'Archer' co-star Judy Greer
On getting an origin story for her character and the power of 'The Descendants'
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In addition to the new FX animated comedy "Unsupervised" (which I reviewed earlier), tonight marks the return of "Archer," with the third season premiere (10 p.m.) guest-starring Archer's boyhood idol Burt Reynolds as himself in a wonderful, hilarious celebration of every cheesey movie Reynolds ever made and every car chase he ever got into. I've also seen the next two episodes, and they're also predictably strong. (Episode three, with Archer battling "radical Nova Scotian separatists" on a passenger train, is fantastic.)
"Archer" was one of many shows FX paneled at press tour on Sunday, and I was particularly interested in talking to Judy Greer, not only because Cheryl (recently revealed to be heiress to the Tunt fortune) may be my favorite character on the show, but because I've enjoyed her work for so long and am glad she's been getting so many kudos for her small but memorable supporting role in "The Descendants."
I asked her a couple of Cheryl-related questions in the panel, then interviewed her afterwards about "Archer," "The Descendants" (spoilers ho if you haven't seen the movie yet) and what's next for her in live-action TV comedy.
How did you respond to learning that Cheryl was loaded and how do you feel that’s changed the character since then?
I was excited to find out that was her background because when I first started to do "Archer," I thought she was going to be like really pathetic and lame and cry all the time. Because that’s kind of how she was in the pilot, right? And I’m a little like that, so it was fun. It was fun to find out that she had this whole backstory. And I liked the idea that she didn’t really have to be there, so then that made it, I don’t know, more interesting. But I don’t know that it really changed my character because she’s still, like, totally bitchy and crazy and… (Aisha Tyler interjects "Don't forget slutty") and slutty.
To your mind, why does she still work there given the fortune of the Tunts?
I think she likes it. I think she’s lonely, and it’s a crazy environment. And it’s fun and these people are nuts, and maybe no one’s as nuts as her. I mean, it’s become her family because her family is dead.
I want to expand on what you said earlier about Cheryl and how she started out. There was a period in your career, and it's diversified now, where you were always playing the pathetic one who cried. When you see those parts and scripts in recent years, do you ever get reticent about it? Or work is work?
No, I don't, because they're always depressed and crying for different reasons. So it doesn't bother me that much. So far, anyway. It's still fun to do, and it always depends, too: is it a comedy or a drama? Who am I working with? I look at a lot of factors, not just what my character is doing.
So what was it that drew you to "Archer"?
Honestly, when it came up, I was shooting something on location and my agent called. I'd been trying to get into voiceovers, so they called and said it was a pilot they were doing for FX, and I could record the part on my day off in 10 minutes. So I was, like, "fine." I can't even say that it was, "Oh, I want to be on that show!" I just said I would do it, I read the script and thought there was no way it would ever be picked up because it's so naughty that it could only be on pay cable. I thought it was so funny but not really realistic. So when I found out it was picked up, I was like, "Oh! Wait, I don't know what you're talking about." They said, "Remember that thing?" And I went, "Really?" So then I recorded a bunch of them, and the scripts were the funniest scripts that I've ever read, and so crazy. So I kept recording them, and talking to ("Archer" creator) Adam (Reed) on the phone when I do my sessions. And then they brought us to Comic-Con, and I was like, "Ohmigod." That first year at Comic-Con, we had 500 people, and last year we had 1600 people.
I was in the room for that. People went nuts.
It had tripled in size, so it's been really cool.
How is that, though: just recording into a vacuum?
It's been so awesome. I live so much in my head anyway — which I don't recommend — and it just feels really freeing. I'm in this tiny dark room, I just have the sound engineer peering at me through a window, Adam's on the phone. It feels incredibly freeing and like you really can do whatever you want in that environment.
Has there been a particular story you've enjoyed on the show?
I loved my origin story a lot. That was cool. Any time you learn something new about your character, that's really exciting. That's what's fun about doing television as opposed to movies: in a movie, you read a script and you know everything that's happening and who you are. In a television show, it's constantly evolving and you're constantly learning more things and adding so many more layers to your character. If you're not getting better with every episode, I don't know how that's possible.
"The Descendants" is getting all this awards attention, and you were talked about for various awards. What has that been like for you?
It's been really amazing. It's just such an incredibly positive experience, starting from when my agent called to tell me to audition. Robert Forster said — I'm paraphrasing — that doing a movie like that, that regardless of what it ends up winning or getting nominated for, will be one of the great films, it's something you leave behind, that your grandchildren will watch. You know what I mean? I think of a movie like "Chinatown" or, I don't know, "Tootsie." The people in "Tootsie" all have kids who get to know that they were in that amazing movie. I'll watch "Tootsie" for my whole life, and I'll always love it. For "Descendants," it's kind of turning into that movie for some people. The response has been incredible, and I get to be a part of it. I get to be part of a story that's so visceral for some audience members. So that's really cool.
What was it like on the set the day you filmed the scene where your character goes to the hospital room to talk to Clooney's wife?
Quiet. (laughs) Everyone was really lovely and respectful to me. I was the one who had to have the breakdown. George was getting ready to do the scene where he says goodbye to his wife, because that happens right after. So both of us were ships passing in the night on set — not engaging too much, not getting out of our emotional space. It was great. I couldn't have done it without someone like George or Alexander (Payne), but I can't ever forget Patty Hastie, who played the comatose wife. What she didn't do is what we needed. Anyone who would have been chatty between takes, or coughing or sneezing — we couldn't have done what we did, any of those scenes. She was so still and scary and frightening and vulnerable.
It's only been a few months since the movie's been out, but has the nature of the offers you've been getting since then changed?
(Laughs) I'm going to blame it on the holidays, but not so much yet. Truthfully, it's always been very slow for me in December and January. I do a lot of television, so it picks up for me in February when pilot season starts. I wouldn't say I've noticed a huge difference yet, and maybe I won't. But it's my hope that I do. It's my hope that I'll just get to audition for parts that they wouldn't even see me for.
What kind of parts?
I don't know. But sometimes there's roles I want to go in for and they won't even consider me for, and if that changes, it would be great. I'm not opposed to auditioning. I love auditioning. It's one of my favorite things. If it's less offers and more varied auditions…
Would it be your preference to do another pilot this year?
I'm developing another television show for ABC. I usually do a pilot every year. I love television, I've always wanted to be on television. I watch television. But I've stopped thinking in terms of TV or movies and just thinking in terms of projects and people. No one can argue that what they're putting out on television now is every bit as good as the movies that we're watching in the theaters. I feel like the line is totally erased.
Yeah, "Arrested Development" is funnier than almost any movie I've seen in forever.
Yeah, and "Louie." And "Breaking Bad" is more dramatic and suspenseful, and "Mad Men" is more eerie and provocative. And I love "30 Rock" and "Modern Family"… and "Archer."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com