THR's Comedy Actress Roundtable: Auditions for 'Homely' Parts, 'Girls' Paparazzi Problem

This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Betty White has the power to take a supporting role and steal every scene she's in. And she's not alone. The six funny ladies invited to chat on a warm afternoon -- Kristen Bell, 32 (Showtime's House of Lies); Mayim Bialik, 37 (CBS' The Big Bang Theory); Zosia Mamet, 25 (HBO's Girls); Kaitlin Olson, 37 (FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia); Jessica Walter, 72 (Netflix's Arrested Development); and White, 91 (TV Land's Hot in Cleveland) -- represent the best of TV's co-stars. They chatted about their strangest auditions, biggest onscreen crushes and the industry idols who have inspired them along the way. Says Olson, "I've learned to not care what other people think and just make myself laugh."

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The Hollywood Reporter: When did you first know that you were funny?

Kaitlin Olson: I started doing plays in summer camp when I was 12. In Alice in Wonderland, there was a crying scene. My parents were in the front row laughing, and I was like, "Oh, you like this?" so I started hamming it up. That was the first time where I was like, "OK, I like everyone looking at me and laughing."

Kristen Bell: I never knew if I was funny at all. I'm not sure I am!

Betty White: When you look like that, you're not expected to be funny. (Laughter.)

Bell: I went to theater school and wanted to be a serious actress. When I came to L.A., the first thing I booked was an episode of The Shield where I was raped and tattooed on the face.

Olson: Hilarious!

White: What a fun show.

Bell: Then I booked Veronica Mars. I didn't realize that what I was doing on the show -- which was snarky -- was considered funny. People told me, "You're kind of a comedic actress." I was like, "I am?"

Zosia Mamet: I had the same experience. When I was younger, I kept getting these [drama] auditions, and people would laugh. I thought, "What's going on here?" Then I started booking comedies and playing silly, witty people. People wanted me to do more of that.

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Bell: It's awkward when you think you're doing something sincere and everyone is laughing.

Jessica Walter: I couldn't get a sitcom until I was 40! I had done only dramatic roles in films, TV and plays. And Ellen Travolta, who was on Joanie Loves Chachi, got me on that show. From then on, I got comedies. Now I'm having trouble getting a drama!

White: The tough part about comedy is that you get an instant review. In drama, you can act all over the place. "Wow, look at her acting, isn't it wonderful?" But with comedy, if you don't get the laugh, you bomb.

Mayim Bialik: When I was 10, I went to public school in L.A., and I did shtick for kids at the bus stop. One of my favorites was this spot-on mimicry of this girl in our class. I was not cruel at all, and I was actually very friendly with her. It was then that I realized the subtle line between mimicking someone to the delight of other people because it's so spot-on but without being nasty.

White: Can you still do it?

Bialik: Yeah, but now it might be mean!

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THR: What is the best advice you've ever received about comedy?

Walter: I've learned more about acting and life and love from my husband [actor Ron Leibman] than anybody. And we've always looked at comedy from the character's viewpoint. What is the goal? What are the relationships? With Arrested Development, they write in such a character-specific way that it's never "joked." And that's how we approach it.

White: And sex helps. (Laughter.)

Olson: I learned a lot of technical stuff at the Groundlings. But really, what I've learned is to not care what other people think and just make myself laugh.

Bell: My husband [actor-comedian Dax Shepard] has always said the same thing. You have to accept that it's subjective.

Olson: It just turns into a different thing, which is trying too hard, and that isn't funny.

White: But isn't it human nature to feel that the person who doesn't laugh -- the one dozing in the first row -- is the one you most worry about?

Olson: Oh, yeah, I'll take that personally.

White: It's all you can think about!

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THR: Zosia mentioned getting strange feedback in auditions. Have others experienced this as well?

Olson: In one pilot season, I auditioned for this comedy series. The woman was like, "No, you need to be really, really sad. Please do it again." And I did it sadder with crying, but thought it didn't make any sense because it's for a comedy. After, she called my manager and said, "She needs to take an acting class. She was not following the direction. I wanted her to just be funnier and bigger." I was like, "What the?"

White: Oh, give me a break!

Mamet: It was backwards day.

Olson: You should never audition on backwards day.

Mamet: Never. It always f---s you.

White: I'm going into my 66th year in this business, and it's been a while since I've auditioned. But the stage fright -- I can still feel it here. [Touches her chest.] Even if I'm just on a game show, I have that same thing. It's almost sadistic. You don't want to not feel it.

Mamet: It keeps you human.

Walter: I had a voice audition -- I do a lot of voiceovers, including Archer -- for Borden milk. I got past the first set and then went upstairs to the ad agency -- this was in the days when they did that -- and they said, "We want the moo of a cow that has been happily married for 10 years." I said, "So not 11, not nine, you want 10? OK." And I mooed. I didn't get the part.

Bialik: As a character actress, which is what it's called when you look like me, you often get auditions where the description of the character is "homely" or "fat." For this one part, they used the word "zaftig," which is Yiddish for plump -- or "healthy," as my parents used to say. I go in wearing this drawstringy dress -- she's supposed to be a frumpy secretary -- and they had me model for the camera before I read my lines; say my height and weight, turn to the side and film me up and down like I was auditioning for a porn film. So I did my five lines and called my manager after and was like, "They asked for my measurements, and I didn't think it would matter." She said, "Oh, you didn't see the rewrites? The character is no longer zaftig."

Walter: Oh my God.

Bialik: And there I was in my frumpy dress!

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THR: What bugs you the most about the business today?

Bell: It's the sub-business that has been created around it. I just had a baby, and [it's] the amount of decisions that I have to make on a daily basis when leaving the house. My baby is not a public figure, and I don't know if she wants to be a public figure. I'm certainly not going to make that decision for her. There's just so much maintenance that goes into the privacy.

White: For me, I don't think the business has changed. The audience has changed. When I started, television was in New York, and everything was new and fresh. Today, the audience has heard every joke, knows every storyline and knows where you're going before you even start. So that's a hard audience to surprise.

Mamet: The first scene that we ever shot for Girls was in Tompkins Square Park on a Friday in the middle of the day. People walking by, nobody knew who we were. And then our second season, we shot about a block away from there, on a Friday afternoon, and we were surrounded by paparazzi. It's so incredibly distracting, and there's nothing you can do about it. You know, they shoot through an entire scene and try to figure out what our plotlines would be. And suddenly, you're having to fight this whole other beast on top of everything else.

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