Debra Messing, Yara Shahidi, Gina Rodriguez and 9 Comedy Actresses Reveal Strengths of Their Comedic Partnerships

11:50 AM 6/7/2019

by Scott Huver

Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Rachel Brosnahan are also among the stars who discuss navigating friendship, career ambitions and motherhood in their characters.

Debra Messing, Yara Shahidi, Gina Rodriguez
Debra Messing, Yara Shahidi, Gina Rodriguez
Chris Haston/NBC; Kelsey McNeal/Freeform; Lisa Rose/The CW

  • Debra Messing

    'Will & Grace' (NBC)

    Courtesy of NBC

    "I bring a joy of physical comedy and trying to find opportunities for that and for finding the emotional undercurrent and turning the gas up on it so that the stakes are really, really high. Eric [McCormack] is a master at the dry wit and such a smart comic actor, and that in a way makes Grace look less intelligent, which I think is funny. There is some kind of intangible chemical alchemy that happens with us, and it happened from the very first moment that we met and we read together. And there's something really beautiful coming back together after 12 years and realizing that it's just still there, that the years really didn't change us creatively in that way. Both of us had gone off and had done dramatic TV shows and plays and other things — we're obviously more mature adults in the world, but as a creative team that still is on solid ground, there's something very precious about that to me."

  • Anna Konkle

    'PEN15' (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    "Just really trying to be honest, whether it's traumatic or funny, is my main thing, and writing-wise it's really important to me to look at the minutiae to tell a story instead of going big and broad … paying attention to the micro-moments because that's what I experience as a human being. That's what I'm hyper-attuned to every day, the small moments, and that's what I want to watch and perform. There's a huge relief in working with Maya [Erskine, pictured left] because she feels like a muse for me, where we work together and the pressure is a little alleviated on me because I feel comforted that I get to be in a scene with her. In many ways, creatively in this case, there is a connection there that's like a yin and yang, or a creative soul mate feeling where we're on set."

  • Sharon Horgan

    'Catastrophe' (Amazon)

    Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

    "My strengths are seeing a bigger picture: I'm able to compartmentalize stories, and I think I'm quite good at working out the narrative of all the different strands. What we're both good at is pushing it further, not just going, 'Yes, that's it,' and being happy with that. We're always questioning our choices, and we're always trying to make it the best it can be, so we're both hard taskmasters. Rob [Delaney] is a bit of a genius: Sometimes what comes directly straight from his brain and out of his mouth ends up on the page without any editing. He has just a crazy ability to formulate dialogue that I don't think anyone else would come up with. I always feel incredibly lucky to have him as my writing partner, because I don't know that I could construct those one-liners that come so effortlessly from him. He's the extra spice."

  • Abbi Jacobson

    'Broad City' (Comedy Central)

    Comedy Central

    "Abbi started as the straight man, and if you're known as the straight man, you kind of are allowed to break that, and that's where a lot of the comedy can come from — when the straight man becomes not the straight man. We amplified ourselves, and Ilana [Glazer, pictured right] was just this more energetic, more flamboyant character, and my character amplified my insecurities, allowing myself to show and sometimes say out loud how I'm feeling way more than I would in real life. Abbi's strengths lie in that you really know what she's feeling, and I think it's a very relatable, more grounded approach to the storytelling. Ilana's character, on the other hand, you wish you could be so joyous and open, but I think most people are Abbi. We lean on those strengths, and it was freeing for me as an actor to really jump into, 'How can I express more than one emotion on my face at the same time, comedically?' "

  • Rachel Brosnahan

    'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' (Amazon)

    Courtesy of Amazon

    "Midge and I have gone on a funny parallel journey. This job is something that I never expected in a thousand years. I considered myself to be someone who still worked in, almost exclusively, the more dramatic realm, and the idea of doing a comedy, let alone playing a stand-up, felt so far away and largely out of reach. And while Midge is much more naturally funny, this was never a path that Midge saw for herself either, and she's thrown herself in headfirst — as I have done as well — and learned a great deal. Similarly, we've both loved every minute of it, and I've grown enormously over these past two years, both as an artist and as a person."

  • Alison Brie

    'GLOW' (Netflix)

    Beth Dubber/Netflix

    "I am also an actor, and one's journey as an actor is constantly changing and evolving. I hope there will always be things that I still want to do that I haven't gotten a chance to do. There will still always be ways that I'm trying to prove myself — and even probably prove my own worth and value to myself outside of the job in which I work. And I think that [my character] Ruth is on that same journey. She puts so much of herself into her work, and I do as well, and then she also has to sort of backpedal and try to protect herself and her own emotions and value within that setting. And that is sort of a journey that I'm on all the time as well."

  • Yara Shahidi

    'Grown-ish' (Freeform)

    Tyler Golden/Freeform

    "Hollywood continues to evolve, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon, and that has been extremely freeing because a lot of times we were given misinformation about this industry. There are plenty of times in which there have been fake assumptions: that whoever you're in the room with, you're competing with; that your time here is always fleeting; that you have to do whatever to get a role. Everyone in my family is in this industry and they know what it consists of, so I feel like I've really been allowed to stay in my youth rather than having to grow up too quickly. And a lot of the changes I've made for the industry are changes that would have happened whether or not I was on the show."

  • Issa Rae

    'Insecure' (HBO)

    Merie W. Wallace/HBO

    "So many of the decisions that she makes are decisions that I did not make. She's still trying to figure it out, where I knew what I wanted to do. It's just tapping into those moments of doubt, of 'Will this work? Will this not work?' She's younger than I am and she has a slower path to figuring out what she wants in her journey. That feels like a really vulnerable place to me, and it's a place that I never want to be again. Even in my field, nothing is certain, so there is a sense of, 'Am I going to be OK?' and 'Where do I go from here?' I strive for those moments of just, what does that feeling of rejection and hope and despair — feeling like, 'Oh, I was almost there' — look like? Those moments that we all have experienced at one time."

  • Pamela Adlon

    'Better Things' (FX)

    Pamela Littky/FX

    "I like showing her frustration and her hot-tempered-ness when it comes to outside elements, and then watching her basically swallow shit when it comes to her family, because at the end of the day, you want your family to be around you and you want to feel good about that. You've seen Sam throw a tantrum in front of her kids and her friends, and then you've seen her turn around and create something out of love and do things that are enormously compassionate. Ultimately, above everything, she's a mom. My friend's got a newborn and I said to her, 'Can you believe it? All of a sudden you're a mom.' She said, 'It is so wild and I don't remember my life before.' But my show, it's kind of moving into the direction of you're not only kind of remembering that you were a person before you were a mom and a family — you're going to be that person again, but with all of this new history."

  • Tracee Ellis Ross

    'Black-ish' (ABC)

    Courtesy of ABC

    "She is a real lean-back parent. Dre [Anthony Anderson] is the panicker; Bow is a little bit like, 'It's all right! It's going to be fine.' She lets everybody freak out, and she's a bit the voice of reason. She trusts the process of maturing for her children and serves whichever direction they go with. My most favorite thing about Bow is that she's not one thing: When she's being a doctor, she's being a doctor; when she's being a wife, she's being a wife; when she's being a mom, she's being a mom; when she's being a person, she's being a person that has all these different aspects to her. That's my favorite part of what Black-ish is sharing on television, in terms of Bow and in terms of a black woman on TV: This is a woman who's thriving, who's multifaceted and has all these different aspects to her. She's just not one thing."

  • Catherine O'Hara

    'Schitt's Creek' (POP TV)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "Moira was not concerned with being a mother and never learned anything about what children need. I put them in someone else's hands when they were young and then just let them go. To play a parent who's been awful up to this point, parents that are actually learning to be parents without any agenda because we know nothing about it, to be given the chance to become parents with our sweet, lovely grown children who are learning to find themselves in the world, just to be a family for this long in comedy is different from all the other characters that I've gotten to play. Six years of playing this dear little family who started out possibly obnoxious and to grow together as a real family, that's been a joyful thing. We are being given a second chance, and I just love the innocence of it."

  • Gina Rodriguez

    'Jane the Virgin' (CW)

    Scott Everett White/The CW

    "I loved being able to play a mother as a reflection of my two sisters who are mothers, through all the different little Mateos that I got to work with — from having an infant, to a toddler, to the terrible twos, to then ending with a 7-year-old son. Because [creator] Jennie [Snyder Urman] herself is a mother, she's always been able to reflect a genuine, authentic story. But I love that there are moments where Jane gets to just be herself, without an attachment to another human being. You also get to see her in that space, how different she is than her own mother — she tends to be more toward her grandmother and a little more strict, which is very characteristic of the Jane that you first meet."

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