"I Love Finding the Humanity in Comedy": 11 Actresses on Their Most Challenging Scenes

7:30 AM 6/7/2018

by Craig Tomashoff

Pamela Adlon, Jane Fonda, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel Bloom, Anna Faris, Logan Browning, Ellie Kemper and more break down their silly dance numbers and awkward sex talks.

Actresses on Their Most Challenging Scenes comedy-Split-Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy Photos

  • Pamela Adlon

    Sam (Adlon) seems to be in relative control of her chaotic life as season two begins, but that changes quickly when she discovers her teen daughter Max (Mikey Madison) has a 35-year-old boyfriend (Arturo Del Puerto).

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    “It had to be doing the dance in the season finale. That was six months in the planning. And from preproduction to the day we did it, it was a secret we kept from Mikey Madison, whom we performed it for. This was a massive kind of thing and everyone was in on it except her. I wanted to get a genuine reaction from her when she saw it for the first time. It was hard to learn the choreography. We had to build the set in secret in the back of the house we were shooting at. Celia [Imrie, who plays Phil], Hannah [Alligood, who plays Frankie] and Olivia [Edward, who plays Duke] would practice the choreography during the week and I’d practice on the weekend because I was shooting during the week. It wasn’t terrifying to do it because our show is about imperfections. It wasn’t a matter of doing it correctly. It’s just a matter of knowing the dance well enough so it looked like we all worked hard on it. On the day, we were all freaking out because we couldn’t wait to do it for Mikey. She says it was the best surprise of her life. Watch how stiffly I move, by the way. I had thrown my back out after we’d done it a couple times.”

  • Rachel Bloom

    After being left at the altar by her obsession, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), at the end of season two, Rebecca (Bloom) begins season three in a full-on depression that leads to picking up a Fatal Attraction DVD and plotting her revenge.

    What was your most challenging scene this season? 

    "I was wildly excited to do episode 304, 'Josh's Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy.' In many ways, that episode was the show's 'promise of the premise,' where Rebecca finally goes into full 'villain' mode and stalks Josh. It's the episode that Aline [Brosh McKenna, the showrunner] and I had been chomping at the bit to do for four years. I was so excited to play all of the different emotional turns in that episode, which ran the gamut from Rebecca imagining herself as a femme fatale-esque 'woman scorned' in a horror movie sequence to choking back tears on a very real walk of shame as Josh Groban scolds her in song. A particularly cathartic yet difficult scene was when Rebecca turns on all of her friends. That scene had to show Rebecca transforming herself into a 'villain' and saying horrible things while also feeling immediate regret for the things she was saying."

  • Logan Browning

    Season two picks up two weeks after the campus protest that ended season one, with racial tensions running high and Sam (Browning) dealing with personal insults about her biracial identity from a racist online troll.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "I loved episode eight because that was our first 'bottle episode.' I was honored to be trusted to do it with John Patrick [Amedori, who plays Gabe]. He and I spent a lot of time together before we shot it, discussing the scenes. He has this really great backyard, with this pool house in the back, and we'd take advantage of the whole space. Sometimes we'd go inside, crank up the music and dance around. We also went in to rehearse on our day off, and that's when we found some of the most interesting moments. I found this cool moment where my character leaves the room. Gabe says her white guilt is the only reason she does her Dear White People show, so I just get up and leave, which wasn't scripted. I just felt like it was a needed moment for that character. She had to have a second to think about what she was going to say. I 100 percent think that if we hadn't had that rehearsal time, we wouldn't have had the freedom to play with the dialogue like that."

  • Aya Cash

    After Jimmy (Chris Geere) proposed to Gretchen (Cash) and then bailed on her at the end of season three, season four picks up three months later with her smoking crack, crashing with Lindsay (Kether Donohue) and sleeping with an even more horrible ex-boyfriend.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "Eva Anderson wrote this insane episode last season with horror film references in the stage directions. It was this total revenge fantasy. Gretchen is punishing Jimmy for leaving her, but it goes beyond just messing with him. I levitate at one point. It was such a departure and yet completely in the spirit of the show, and I was incredibly excited to play in that way — breaking realism and seeing how far we could push against the traditional form. Plus, who doesn't want to crawl The Ring-style and try to scare Desmin Borges?"

  • Anna Faris

    Things are looking up for Christy (Faris) as the fifth season begins, with her passing her LSATs and finally moving closer to her dream of getting into law school while helping her mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), cope with the fear of getting married again.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "The season-five finale. I was really nervous about doing the gambling scene because I'm a terrible gambler, but Christy is supposed to be a good one. I'm also so happy Christy is getting into law school and achieving a dream she never even realized. I like that by the end of the episode, Christy feels like a complete failure and goes through this incredible turn where she is elated because she is realizing she has a dream she never thought she would have. It was a reward to turn a really depressed state into complete joy, and getting to share that with Allison Janney felt incredible."

  • Jane Fonda

    As season four begins, Grace (Fonda) has acquired a younger boyfriend (Peter Gallagher) and a new roommate (Lisa Kudrow) after Frankie (Lily Tomlin) has gone off to Santa Fe with her own new love.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "When I took off my makeup and my boyfriend Nick loved me anyway. I was scared to do it and excited at the same time because it's important to not be afraid to show ourselves as we really are. On my social media, I sometimes post pictures of myself looking pretty horrific, like the time my tooth came out in Lisbon. It was scary to show myself, and I felt very exposed. But I still slept well the night before! It didn't keep me up. I also enjoy all the times when Lily cracks me up. I laugh more at Lily's work than mine. And we crack each other up a lot. In fact, sometimes we can't stop laughing to the point that they have to stop shooting for a while."

  • Ellie Kemper

    After discovering at the end of season two that she and Reverend Wayne (Jon Hamm) were married, Kimmy (Kemper) begins season three looking to get a divorce settlement and use the money to pay for college.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "It was probably when Kimmy drops her pants while firing an employee. She does this with only the most considerate intentions in mind, trying to make the employee feel better about getting fired by embarrassing herself in front of him. But her plan completely backfires, and she is charged with sexual misconduct instead. I thought it was such a funny and over-the-top scene, and I couldn't wait to shoot it. But I think the reason I couldn't sleep the night before was not so much due to excitement as it was fearful anxiety about dropping my pants in front of the grips. It's a true piece of physical comedy that felt both honest and ridiculous at the same time."

  • Sarah Jessica Parker

    After going through the trauma of divorce and separation in season one, Frances (Parker) starts season two by signing the final divorce papers, trying to redefine her relationship with her kids and finding a potential new love interest (Steven Pasquale).

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "There was the scene where I'm running down the street in heels talking to my son about sex. You'd assume she'd be dressed in sweats and sneakers to do that, but I thought it was going to be funny if she was in heels and a work dress. I loved the opportunity to have the sex conversation with my son like that. As a parent, you have a fantasy of how that conversation is going to go, but the reality is, you often fumble it. I did throw in that thing about 'if somebody wants to touch your penis' because it was one more attempt to do it right. I also loved that moment because sometimes getting physical is a good way to convey what words can't convey. We spent a few hours having me run in heels, and I have no idea how many calories I burned, but considering I spend 16 hours a day working and not at a gym, that scene was also helpful personally."

  • Emmy Rossum

    Season eight begins with a whole new Fiona (Rossum) declaring that she's giving up casual sex with partners she barely knows and instead will focus on two things: finding true love and her new job as a landlord.

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    "It's the one where Fiona finally gets the upper hand with her siblings about the meth. Prior to this episode, Monica Gallagher dies, and Fiona, with the other children, inherits a pound of meth. The rest of the kids sell theirs and profit from it. Fiona warns them this is a terrible idea, but no one listens. Unbeknown to her siblings, she hides her pound of meth in her mother's coffin to get rid of it. Later, the kids discover the meth actually belonged to a dealer who shows up and wants it back. So Fiona's siblings are coming to ask if she still has her pound of meth. It's a wonderfully delicious scene where she gets way up on her high horse for an 'I told you so' moment and really milks the beauty of that triumph. The stakes and situations are always so absurd in our show, but I love finding the humanity that exists in that comedy. The most challenging thing is finding that sweet spot, that mix of the absurd, the comedy, the drama and leaning into the heightened situation and fully committing to it but starting from a grounded character."

  • Yara Shahidi

    In the debut season, Zoey (Shahidi) heads off to her first year of college hoping to ease away from her family while adjusting to challenges like finding new friends and a class that meets at midnight. 

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    “The heart-to-heart conversation Zoey has with her mom, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). Zoey has very publicly begun dating and falling in love with the basketball phenom, Cash (Abraham D. Juste). In the height of her uncertainty, Rainbow and Zoey had a beautiful, shared, vulnerable moment: new love, in college, living away from home and her love for her family made my eyes well with tears. Then there was the ‘blackout’ episode! We utilized natural light and candlelight while shooting long takes of close to 11 pages of dialogue. It shows such beautiful moments where you see Zoey’s deepening friendships with her core group of friends. I also loved to laugh at just how awkwardly cool Zoey is in lots of moments. When she’s excitedly breaking the fourth wall or just trying to play it cool around her crushes, those moments catch me, as an actor, off-guard. That’s when Zoey and I are the most alike.”

  • Constance Wu

    The Huang family opted to move out of their new McMansion and back to their old home at the end of season three, but as season four starts, they return to find someone living there, and their only option is to move into neighbor Honey’s (Chelsey Crisp) house. 

    What was your most challenging scene this season?

    “I forgot what happened in which season because they all kind of blend together, so I don’t remember when we did the episode where Ian Chen, who plays Evan, and I spoke almost entirely in Mandarin. That will always be the most challenging and groundbreaking experience for me. I’m also not used to doing comedy — this is the first one I’ve ever done — so I really enjoyed the episode we did for Christmas with Paula Abdul. I had to sing Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ Jessica takes things so seriously, so I had to do all this cheesy stuff, do some freestyling. There was this Chinese-American mother pounding her chest and singing on a stage with all these guest stars watching. Sometimes when you’re doing things like that, you realize how ridiculous it is and you break character. But the scene doesn’t work if you do that, so I had to stay in character as someone who thinks she’s truly extraordinary.”

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.