“…Well I think it has affected all of us in a deep way, and I think also being a sometimes overly sensitive person, you can really feel the weight of the collective unconscious. There are days recently like the inauguration where there was a collective anxiety around our beings which I found to be inescapable, regardless of sitting in my own apartment you could just feel a sort of weight…“
By Moonah Ellison
Photography by Nathan Johnson
So tell me about Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here. How did this all happen for you?
It’s kind of a wild story. We’ve been working on it for a year and a half now. Before it came to me, I was in a period of transition and really questioning and looking at it to reset my career. The irony is that I’ve been doing pretty broad comedies for the years preceding it, and I never really set out to do comedy. It was sort of an accident that I fell into comedic work. When I was little and dreaming of being an actress, I always thought of a dramatic actress in my heart. And then I fell into comedy. It was wonderful for many years, and then I just felt like I was getting down a road that I didn’t mean to get down. And even though I loved all of the projects I was a part of–I loved the characters so much—there was a moment when I started to feel disconnected to the types of characters I was playing and they were becoming…it felt like a mask that I was putting on rather than a revealing of myself, which I think as an actor—depending on what kind of actor you are—I felt that I was needing and just wanting to act as a form of expression. I just started to feel sort of lost and unsure of what I wanted to do as an actor and why and asking myself all these questions. I really took a step back for a few years and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to work, I wanted to work very much, but I just felt I couldn’t play the characters anymore. I didn’t have it in me anymore. It’s very hard to redo your career, especially when people have an idea of who you are. It’s a real challenge to get people to see you in a different way. And that is a real thing. And so I went a long time without working. And I had these moments of real hopelessness and despair, not just about career but just sort of my dreams aren’t going to happen, not everybody gets what they want, and maybe I took this as far as I could take it, and maybe I won’t get a chance to do what I wanted to do. And so I started writing and there was very little on the horizon and there was this real time of unknown. And I wrote this script and made all of these moves. And then one day out of the blue, I got an email from Jonathan Levine who was the director of our pilot and it was this incredible gift of an email talking about the pilot and the character and the show and saying why he and the producer felt like this might be the perfect character for me. Though it’s a show based in the world of stand-up, he was talking about the context of the show which is so much of the pain behind what makes people laugh and the ideas of who you are as an artist and what you’re saying and went on explaining what he saw in me and what he saw in this character. And after a few years of feeling like there was never a place for me and maybe I just didn’t anywhere, suddenly there was this beautiful email sitting here explaining the place that they thought that I fit, that held all of the things—I think sometimes what’s hard about comedy and about characters in general and as a person and especially a woman, is that you can show this one thing, you can chip off a tip of the iceberg for the character. And when he was describing this show and casting and in some ways me, was a whole picture, was that this character was being a whole person.
That was definitely captured. Obviously I knew I was doing this interview and so I watched some of the things you were involved with and it’s true: you were very typecast. It seemed you were much more self-conscious of what you were doing and why you were doing it, just in interviews and snippets of things I was watching. But talking to you now it’s much more apparent. But in the show, it’s very apparent that you do come off as somebody who just won’t take any bullshit: “I am who I am, and deal with it.”
And that’s what’s interesting about the script. They said there was a lot of interest in the show, but just read the script and see how you feel about it. And I was so taken of this gift from the universe. What Cassie is going through in the pilot seemed so similar to stuff that I had just been going through, that she had been asking herself a lot of the same questions I was. And she takes no bullshit, as you say, but she was very confident in what she wants to do and this sense that she has something to say and feel this inner drive and this belief in what she has; she also doesn’t quite know what it is that she’s saying or what’s she doing. And her stand-up she does in the beginning of the show, is sort of put on. She’s doing this schtick. She’s from Texas, she making jokes, she has charms—there’s something there—but people repeatedly say to her “I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. Yes there’s something there but it doesn’t quite feel real.” Which felt very similar from where I was coming from my own work where you know there’s something else in there but she hasn’t had the opportunity to say. She just needs your main stage to prove it, which in a metaphorical way was sort of what I was feeling. And then she goes through a personal loss and shit really hits the fan and it’s when she ends up sort of taking the layers away and the schtick away and really settling into her own truth, that’s when her creative expression really gets to blossom. And that journey of the show felt like a very meta experience for me and for her. And so as soon as I read it, I felt like there was so much that I deeply, deeply related to and kind of felt like the show matched my own experience.
Are you invited to improv or contribute to the finished product because you’re going through the evolution of what works? Is that something that actually happens and do you feel that happened for yourself?
It did, in ways that were really natural. First of all, I should say our writer David Flembotte, and consequently when we went to series, are absolutely brilliant. [Flembotte] is a craftsman of the highest order, and so deep in thought. I think their writing is truly brilliant. In the stand-up there was a sort of freedom. You’re on standing on a stage with 100 people standing there and watching you. The way we shot it, there were three cameras but they were far away so you really felt like you were standing there in a club all alone.
When you talk about it like that, it paints a visual when talking about actresses. Like when they’re doing a sex scene: they think that nobody is watching but everyone is.
It’s funny because before I did the standup, and of course there’s a difference between playing a stand-up and being a stand-up, is that there is a separation between you and the material. And that’s the whole thing about being a stand-up: the material, who you are and what you’re saying, is the whole thing. And so there was a safety barrier in a sense because I am playing a character who is doing her material but when you’re up on stage, you’re on stage telling jokes and it feels like a performance. And so I would play around with some of the jokes in there and the writers and the producers were super open about trying stuff. And sometimes in shooting you do the takes that are word-perfect on the page, and you do some that are a little bit more open. And then you just see where the pieces fall. But it was nice to see the pilot and some of my jokes made it in there. Like, “I can tell a joke. Even if all those extras are paid and paid to laugh.” It’s sort of like stand-up for dummies.
It really felt the show was showcasing in taking the period of Woodstock and a period in people’s lives where you’re saying “you can do what you want. You can make it happen.” Do you feel the wave of that? I take it there because the Bernie wave is all about that, the millennial audience being independent that want to have their voice, that want to be heard. Did you feel that in the show? Was it deliberate? And how do you think the audience will react to that when it’s out there?
It’s funny that you say that. I’ve been feeling a frustration culturally. I grew up in the eighties and so many of the stories that I watched, like the trifecta of films I love so much were Working Girl, Baby Boom, and Big Business. And part of why I love those stories was the sense of dreams within them. These were all stories of people who really wanted something, and these happened to be about women who really wanted something. But there was a real sense of ambition about them, of drive and hope about wanting something and wanting to make something of yourself. And I think culturally I think we got into a pattern that a lot of the stories got very small: they were procedural or sci-fi or apocalyptic or vampires or superheroes, but then the human stories felt very insular, sort of small stories about what people are feeling internally, feeling sort of lost in adolescence. And I think there is something culturally that happens. Our culture is a mirror of what is happening in society, and our world was sort of chugging along in an easy way—people weren’t having to fight for things a lot, things were going pretty well. And now that we’re in a time—maybe, this is just sort of my own hypothesis—when we’re moving into a time where things are harder and you have to fight and pull yourself up by the bootstraps and think about what you want, what you want to say, what your dreams are. I think and hope that stories we tell will start bringing some of that back, and I do think that it’s a very timely thing with this show. Even though it’s not related directly to anything political or the Bernie movement or anything like that, I think that it’s important to—even in a fun way about being a performer—to talk about dreams again, and making something of yourself.
And there is some of what you’re saying to take it to another level. The youth today are very much about what you’re saying that these big companies are not going to drive these dreams and “I’m going to create my own dreams.” There is a rise of the young demographic wanting to start their own businesses and own their own destinies. The show says you can say what you want to say and you can come from the right direction, which the show does really well.
And that there’s no short-cuts, that you see all of these characters put in the work. And in the course of the season, I think examines in a really beautiful way too, in some ways there are these tangible goalposts: wanting to get on Carson and wanting to get on the main stage and wanting to have a certain amount of success. And yet when you get that, you’re still you and it’s still work. And you realize it’s not about getting there, but it’s about the journey. I actually was just watching a documentary, Dying Laughing, about stand-up and Gary Shandling was interviewed and some kid came up to him and said “I want to be a stand-up, what’s the easy way?” And Shandling just said quite simply and perfectly: “No, there’s no easy way, no short-cut.” And I think that’s true for stand-up but also very true for life. And I think culturally it’s a time where people just want to be famous and that’s the end goal and there’s so many ways now with social media, and there’s all these wonderful things that can be used to find a voice in the best case, but in the worst case for most people it’s just noise. It’s noise without true expression or integrity behind it. And also what I love about this show is that these are people with a true, deep passion to do something and it requires a lot of work and heartache and disappointment and success and camaraderie and competition and loss and showing what it takes to move forward. And that’s absolutely true in life and anything that’s worth doing.
You mentioned there that you lived on the West Coast. I’m sensing that you’re an East Coast chick, is that right?
Haha, yes. I grew up outside of Boston and now I’m basically back and forth between New York. I lived in downtown LA for a few years in a series of apartments. I think there just a sort of East Coast sensibility that I’ve just always had. And even though I had a wonderful life in LA—friends, love affairs—there is just a part of me that feels more alive and connected here.
Well destiny and fate is a funny thing, right? If you make a positive move, you make a position reaction which is how the cycle of our world. But in New York, with the political sense, how has that affected you?
Well, I think it has affected all of us in a deep way, and I think also being a sometimes overly sensitive person, you can really feel the weight of the collective unconscious. There are days recently like the inauguration where there was a collective anxiety around our beings which I found to be inescapable, regardless of sitting in my own apartment you could just feel a sort of weight. I don’t want to sugarcoat things that are happening or not acknowledge how scary things are, but I think on the positive side there is an investment in the importance of telling stories and art. Sometimes when things are so heavy in the world, sometimes it’s easy to say “what am I doing, what’s the point of this.” I think, especially right now, anything that asks you to empathize and understand humans—any type of human being that understands the human struggle and why people are the way that they are and makes you ask questions about who you are and who you want to be in the world—that’s an important thing to have. I felt that a lot of people in the theatre community, and acting friends and writer friends and director friends, there is a sense of wanting to double-down on art and on stories.
This issue, our spring issue, has a millennial focus. If there was one piece of advice to give to youth today, what would that be?
So many. This would sound like an odd choice, but I would say to not forget and to really invest in the importance of living. I think there is a lot of pressure right now to be a success, to do, lead, build, work, make money, start a company, be a brand, have your social media, be connected—do all these things which I think can take away from the juice of being alive which is adventure, being alone with yourself, taking a trip, being spontaneous, which is living. I think that’s where all of humanity, creativity, love, joy, the real rooted kind of all those things comes from. It’s not found on Instagram, it’s not found on how many things you can report that you’re doing. It comes from the actual living and doing of it.
What about yourself? What is on your bucket list or wish list? What is it that you’re searching for?
In career terms, it’s making the film that I wrote that I plan to direct. I’ve been working on it for about three years now, and I’m in the process of meeting with producers and starting to put it together and put it into reality. And that sort of metaphorical thing of what that film is to me and what I want to continue to do as strongly as possible is owning my own voice and not being afraid to say what I have to say. Which can be scary.
photography by Nathan Johnson
stylist Britt McCamey
hair Tommy Buckett
makeup Gianpaolo Ceciliato
location Out NYC Hotel new york city
clothing and jewelry provided for this shoot include Xx,
Proenza Schouler,Wolford, Sandro, Marni, Jacquemus, Loewe