Interview: 'Parks and Recreation' star Amy Poehler previews season three
Amy Poehler couldn't be more excited to reintroduce America to Leslie Knope.
Leslie, the optimistic, super-competent civil servant heroine of NBC's "Parks and Recreation," has been in limbo since May, after NBC execs decided to hold the show for mid-season. (And this was after the cast and crew stayed in production after last season was finished so they would have episodes to air in the fall while Poehler was on maternity leave.) But the show is coming back on Thursday night at 9:30, in the best timeslot NBC has (after "The Office"), and Poehler is pumped for viewers to see these new episodes - not just because they're among the best stretches the show has had, but because so few people saw the show last season when (after a shaky first season) it established itself as TV's best comedy.
I'll post my review later today (UPDATE: here it is), but here's a transcript of my recent interview with Poehler, who spoke about her joy at having the show back on the air, about new co-stars Rob Lowe and Adam Scott (who appeared in the last two episodes of last season), about the joy of working alongside Nick Offerman as Ron Effing Swanson, and more.
How’s it feel, first of all, to be almost back on the air?
I’m so excited. I can’t wait. Even though I’ve seen the shows that are coming up many, many times, I kind of forget everything. So it’s like I’m just excited to watch what we actually did because I kind of forget it all. It’s all a blur.
These first 6 episodes were completed a long time ago.
Yeah. I was like 6 months pregnant when we shot these so there will be a few times that I’ll be standing behind the potted plant or in a case like the time capsule. When we were starting to do prep for this new season, people were saying, "So what’s it been like working with the new guys?" And I kept thinking, "Who are the new guys?" And it’s like, "Oh yeah, Rob and Adam. Yeah, we’ve been shooting for 9 months. I don’t think of them as new guys anymore." But they’re new guys to the rest of the viewing public and I’m psyched for people to see their stuff.
Well, how was that experience making those 6 when you extended the season? I know that the Will Forte one was shot last and then moved up because you were able to hide behind your desk or the time capsule.
Everyone was a little fried to be quite honest, but I think we had done like 36 episodes in 13 months. But honestly, the infusion of Rob and Adam was just an awesome boost of a lot of things - of energy and comedy and all that stuff, and it was really great. I don’t know. It’s just a delight to work on the show. So even the hard days are still super fun.
These episodes allow you to show off a lot of different colors. One of the things about the show is that there’s many different shades of Leslie. There’s the relatively tame Leslie and there’s the insane Leslie.
Based on the fact that you wrote the telethon episode, which is pretty much insane Leslie, is that your preference? Do you actually like one mode more than the other?
I don’t really have a preference. It’s super fun to be able to play crazy, due to sugar intake or sleep deprivation or cold medicine, to be able to go off the rails and play crazy town. But like I just wrote an episode for the end of the season and it’s a somewhat serious one where, without giving too much away, Leslie gets into a big fight with someone she works with and it’s pretty intense. So that was fun to write and work on and to try and keep it somewhat grounded and real. In the first half of the season what’s really great is that these guys, Ben and Chris, come into town and make us all have to kind of band together. And Leslie gets really excited when she has to rally the troops. So there’s a lot of that in the beginning of the season which is really, really fun. And then as we watch the season progresses, we see what it might be like if Leslie was to succeed, you know, at something and what would that be like?
There’s a real sort of generosity from you in the show. A lot of times when a show's built around someone, they're like "Me, me, me, me. I want everything." But Nick is allowed to shine, Chris (Pratt), Aziz (Ansari), Aubrey (Plaza), everybody has their moments, all the time. Adam and Rob have a lot of them. I assume that just comes from your background in the various troupes you’ve been in and on "SNL."
The cast is so good and like the talent is so deep that it would be crazy to have these people on our show and to then just have them hand me a piece of paper while I tap dance. Believe me, I’ve tried, Alan! Oh…the stories I’ve pitched! Every story I’m like, "What if everyone is asleep and Leslie has a big night on the town? No? What if everybody gets knocked out with carbon monoxide poisoning and then Leslie saves someone from a speeding train?" Yeah, everyone’s so funny that you want to service them. The writers do such a good job of it, but I do really very much enjoy ensemble work. I feel comfortable with it and I think it makes the show better, and so I like playing off and with other people. So it’s like a dream team.
And there are times even like the Ron and Tammy episodes where you’ll just step back and you’re just Nick’s straight woman for half an hour.
Oh, you know what? If I was to die tomorrow and the last image was for me to be watching Nick and Megan kiss each other in the most disgusting way... There’s a point where Ron Swanson stomps his foot like when a bull is about to charge? I don’t know if there’s a term for that. He kept putting his foot on the ground and like swiping it on the ground like a bull ready to charge. And I seriously was going to barf. There’s nothing grosser than married people making out. But that being said, I could watch it all day.
Well, you and Will (Arnett) have been put together on-screen a time or 12 in the last few years. From watching Nick and Megan, is there anything you’ve learned? Have you become competitive, like, "Now we really have to gross people out"?
Well, Nick and Megan are so awesome because they’re such genuine fans of each other. And I think the very first shot we ever shot with Megan when she came on the show was like 6:00 in the morning and they’d just run out of their cars and going into the motel room to have sex. And at 6:00 in the morning they just ran out of the car and Megan just immediately took her shirt off. It was so funny! And I would imagine it’s a little easier to do that if you’re doing it with someone that you’ve already slept with, but I don’t know. Yeah, we’re going to have to up the ante that’s for sure. Will and I are going to have to... to try to out-gross those two is pretty hard.
Rob Lowe has hosted "SNL" a few times. Was he there during your period?
No, he wasn’t there. He came right before me. We shot a couple of promos ourselves that we're releasing online. (NOTE: Here's one of them, and it is very NSFW.) And they were really fun to shoot. And in one of them Rob has like a total temper tantrum and he’s really funny in it. He just starts yelling at me about how many times he’s hosted "SNL." But I remember Rob hosting and being really funny, and the thing I remember most is his being the dude that does "Dateline."
Stone Phillips. Remember he did Stone Phillips on Dateline? That was really good. Yeah, so I remember him on it but no I had not really met him until the show.
But did you have any expectations?
Yes. I wanted Youngblood and I wanted Billy from "St. Elmo’s Fire" and I wanted Soda Pop, and I wanted it all in one package. And I wanted it constantly. Like, Rob has been famous my entire adult life, you know? He’s been so famous for so long, and he’s worked so much, he’s done so much stuff that I think the first day he worked, he worked on his birthday and we gave him a cake and I was like, "Have you ever been on-set before on your birthday?" And he’s like, "Yeah. Like 20 times." And I’m like, "Oh yeah, you celebrate your birthday on-set for like 45 years." And then Rashida had to make out with him the very first day for a scene. And we were like, "Oh my God, jackpot!"
Very nice. He’s terrific.
He is. He’s so funny and he’s such a great guy. It’s a really fun character to play against because what you’ll see start to happen is Chris doesn’t want to deliver any bad news, but he’s actually like the Bad News Bear. He’s the one that’s the stickler, and it’s fun to play up against him, because Leslie is such a stickler for rules, too. And so every time she starts to ignore them or she tries to go around them, it’s a big compromise for her. And that character is so unaware of how people think or feel about him.
And had you known Adam before this?
I had. I had known Adam a little bit. My husband Will had worked with him on the Academy Award winning "Monster-In-Law." And they probably spent a lot of time in their trailers talking to each other during that movie, I think. And I just knew Adam from other stuff that he had done. But I didn’t know him that well and I was a huge fan of his work and specifically on "Tell Me You Love Me," which I thought he was awesome on. And I loved that show. And so I was psyched to get to work with him.
It’s weird because "Tell Me You Love Me" was when he went through this period of doing very both dark things but also playing these real bastards, and he’s such a nice guy.
Such a nice guy, I know. Well, he’s a very measured guy. And he’s such a good actor that when he withholds that, it can play really nicely, like someone who’s a real asshole. And what’s so fun about having him play his character is you have to have this person who like takes his job pretty seriously. And who has had some kind of early public humiliation. And Adam is so good and funny at playing the quiet storm. He's played some of those kind of guys before, but what’s really fun about the character of Ben is he’s pretty much a dork. He can’t dance, there’s nothing that cool about him and I think that’s fun for him to play.
I’m curious: because he’s so low-key and he’s so good at that, when you play scenes with him do you find your energy level changing in some way to match him?
We'll do a scene and I’ll be like, "God, it was so good, like I really thought you were mad at me." And then I’m like, "Oh yeah, that’s right Amy, that’s called acting!" That’s how good acting is is that you really believe it! Frankly, he just makes me a better actor to be quite honest. But yes, there are some times when I would have to be kind of crazy around the character of Ben and a couple of times, I would just whisper in Adam’s ear, "You like this. I don’t know why. But you’re into this. It’s not my fault."
I’m not going to ask you to spoil this because frankly I don’t want to know myself, but I’m assuming at some point Leslie and Ben are going to be pushed together. But last season, there was a lot of time spent on the closeness of Leslie and Ron and it was not in any way romantic, but they do know each other really well. If one day Mike were to come to you and pitch you and say "Leslie/Ron romance," how would you react to that?
My first instinct would be that I would be so psyched because it would mean that I just get to do more scenes with Nick. And so whatever the storyline would be like even if it was "Leslie and Ron betray each other," the fact that I would get to work with him would be great. Because it is like a true delight when we get to do scenes together. But I don’t know. We’re always trying to avoid it being a thing where everybody in the show ends up hooking up with everybody else. But what I do like about the show is that they are adults and they’re having sex. People are actually having sex. And it’s not the kind of show where you take 5 seasons to have sex with someone. You do what you usually do in real life, which is you take like 5 dinners. But I don’t know. Leslie and Ron’s relationship is so interesting, to me, because it’s very mother/father. It’s very boss and employee. It’s very brother/sister. It’s very old married couple. And then at times Leslie is kind of like the one in charge, especially when Tammy’s around and Ron is the fool. But there’s some really good moments in the season coming up where Ron and Leslie have to make some tough choices about what’s happening in Leslie’s life. But I don’t know. I mean, I love it whenever (co-creator Mike) Schur pitches me a story idea. Actually, Nick and I love going upstairs to the writers room and hearing about what their thoughts, are even if they change. Because some of them are just bananas crazy and they’re really fun to hear.
One of the cool things that the writers let you do are these times every few episodes where Leslie goes on a run and clearly they just sort of stepped back and said, "Amy, improvise for awhile and give me a list of something."
Right, yeah. Our editor, Dean Holland, did a really cool thing in the beginning of the season where he did these talking head jump cuts. It just allowed us to have these time-dashes in the talking heads, and therefore, allowed you to just go crazy and get people to pick the stuff you wanted to get. And, oh my God, we’ve done so much of that and it’s so fun to be able to do. In fact, we just recently did an episode, without giving anything away, an episode that I wrote where everybody is really, really wasted at the Snakehole. It’s the drunkest everyone’s been. And we spent almost 2 full days doing talking heads in character with everybody wasted. And Alan, I can’t even tell you, it was the most fun I’ve ever had. It was like an acting exercise. Everyone was making their choice of what they would be like if they were wasted. People went on and on and on and we shot so much stuff and you can’t wait to see the unused footage of that, because it’s kind of probably going to end up being like a 45-second sequence.
It’ll be like a whole bonus DVD episode.
I hope so. I wish. I wish it could be.
Last one: you didn’t have a time slot for a long time. NBC had these other mid-season shows. It seemed unclear when or if you’d come back or where that would be. All of a sudden you’re not only coming back but you’re coming back in the best time slot that NBC has for a comedy. You get to air after "The Office," which you essentially have never done before. How did it feel when you got that news?
Well, Schur and I have been spending most of 2010 shooting episodes and not knowing what was going to happen. And in a very Leslie Knope kind of way, rallying the troops and keeping everybody’s spirits up. And then the 2 of us would tuck away and be like, "What the fuck is going on?"
And so to be able to end this season and the year with that kind of news was awesome because it was so exciting to be able to tell everybody that we had such a good show of faith from NBC and that the stuff that we were really proud of was actually going to be seen. Like, in the beginning of season 3, there’s a whole thing about "go big or go home," you know? And we were just trying to apply that in some ways to that time slot. "The Office" is such an amazing show and to be behind it is an honor. So I think we’re just really excited to be there. I think it’s a good fit. And as far as the rest of it, I don’t know. But I think we all felt really energized and excited to be there for sure.
We’ve never really known what was going on with the show more than 6 weeks in advance. So we maybe have a home to settle into, at a time when the momentum seems to be working in our favor and when people are really starting to notice the show and really just think that more people will be able to see the show than have ever seen it before, and for people to know that they can watch the show not having seen any of it before. That’s it’s just a funny character comedy and there’s no like catching up they have to do. I’m hoping that we’ll get more people to see the show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org