Zoe Lister-Jones on 'Life in Pieces,' Writing Her Own Roles and the Series That Changed Her Life

The actress looks back at her comedic arcs, “crying for cash” and her directorial debut with THR. “It’s pretty instrumental to write those roles for myself,” she says.
Sonja Flemming/CBS

When Zoe Lister-Jones was first breaking into the TV circuit, she followed one specific rule of thumb: she wasn’t moving to Hollywood unless he had a solid job. And so the New York native spent her early acting years performing theater, taking random guest-starring roles (she’s appeared on all four versions of Law & Order), and auditioning from afar. Until 2011, when she was cast in Whitney Cummings’ comedy Whitney with NBC and finally made the big move to L.A. The supporting role put her signature sarcastic comedic chops on full display and she slowly became one of the comedy circuit’s most familiar faces.

Now as one of the stars of the returning CBS comedy Life in Pieces and with a breakout performance in the HBO film Confirmation under her belt, the actress speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about coming to L.A., working with Colin Hanks, the projects that led her to her current CBS series and writing her own roles.

What does Jen look like in the second season of Life in Pieces compared to the first?

More than anything this season we focus really on what it is to have a toddler. Lark’s first steps, taking Lark to her first classes, and all of the things that we weren’t able to do last year with Lark because she was just a little baby. Now she’s turning into a human and the thing that’s really nice about the show and how the writers portray Jen specifically is that she’s not defined solely as a mother. We aren’t really chained to those storylines in a way that we might be on another show. Jen is such a fully fledged character and a career woman and a lawyer, and just dealing with so many issues in life that includes motherhood, but isn’t bound to it.

What has it been like working with your onscreen husband, Colin Hanks?

He’s a total dream to work with. We are very close friends and our connection — although we had never worked together before — was immediate. It is a testament to the casting that it just felt really comfortable so quickly between us. We were forced to be very comfortable because he was on his knees between my legs in episode one: the horses were out of the gate and running very quickly on that one. It’s really fun because of the structure and nature of the show. Colin and I spend a tremendous amount of time together whereas on another show you sit around for a few hours and wait to go shoot your next scene. Because this show is told in four short stories every week, for the most part Colin and I are back-to-back-to-back scenes when we’re shooting our stories. It’s really fun to be able to play; it’s almost like theater because we’re constantly getting to improvise and explore just the two of us. And of course there are family days where we get to have fun with the whole cast, but it is a special kind of environment that’s specific to this show.

You’ve done a lot of comedies in the past, so what do you think it is about this one that stuck?

A number of things: The writing is really stellar and our writers very quickly learned how to write for each of us as actors. The cast is obviously incredible and we have so many legends among us. Dianne Wiest and James Brolin and everyone. It’s really an incredible group of people and everyone brings so much to their character with specificity, which I think audiences respond to. And then the chemistry between all of us is really palpable because we all genuinely do enjoy each other’s company. I can’t speak for what audiences like specifically, but that to me immediately felt really special and unique, like there was a little fairy dust sprinkled on this show.

Was guest-starring on all four Law & Order series a goal of yours?

I love that that’s, like, the key to my own legend. I was looking to be a title-holder in the world of New York actors … No, Law & Order is such a rite of passage when you’re coming up in New York as an actor. I started doing a lot of theater and so Law & Order was how I could make some money while I was doing that. It just happened, I don’t know why I got all four of them; I was surprised myself. Trial by Jury was taken off the air after one season, so that’s what really gave me an edge. Not that many actors had an opportunity to be on that one. I used to call it crying for cash because I guess I was just good at digging deep into those tragic, one-off characters. So yeah, I cried for cash for a couple of years and made it onto all four. Listen, I’m open — this is like an open call for a challenger. There might be someone else who holds this title but I have yet to meet that person.

How did your role on Whitney change your career trajectory?

That was my first show to go to series, so it was a pretty big moment for me in my career. I was also living in New York up until that point and I was given advice by Kristen Johnston when I was in college at Tisch. She said, “Don’t go to L.A. unless you have a job.” It stuck with me for my entire young adulthood, but it was like, “OK, I can’t go to L.A. until I have a job.” So I never came for pilot season or anything. I came to L.A. when I got Whitney — I tested from New York and so that was also a huge life change for me. Now I’ve never left and I’m, like, a total L.A. evangelist.

Whitney obviously opened a lot of doors for me in the world of television beyond that show because it was on the air for two seasons and it did get a lot of attention, especially that first season. NBC really promoted the heck out of it. But it was a great experience. Whitney [Cummings] continues to be one of my dear friends and I think it was really exciting to see someone my age and a woman my age running and creating a show and wearing so many hats. That had a huge impact and was inspiring to see, especially as a woman in this industry. I made lasting friends. I had been in New York testing for so many years, but from that point on it became less of a challenge to work in television. It was a really incredible kind of transition.

Did that role lead to your role on Friends With Better Lives?

Yeah. Whitney was still on the bubble and I was like, “I guess I should be going out for other roles,” even though I was obviously dedicated to Whitney. I tested for Friends With Better Lives and they agreed, thanks to the persistence of Aaron Kaplan, who was an EP on that and now on Life in Pieces, to do the pilot with me in second-position, which was a huge risk. It all really worked out in the end because Whitney was then soon canceled and I was able to do the series when it got picked up.

Was Aaron an advocate for you on Life in Pieces?

Aaron has always been such an incredible champion of mine; I owe a lot to him. The first film that my husband [Daryl Wein] and I made, Breaking Upwards — Aaron optioned as a television show and we went out with it. I’ve known Aaron for a really long time. And then the first show that I ever did that got picked up to a pilot, Aaron was an executive producer on. It didn’t go to series, but he’s actually been this guardian angel in my television life. So he is now on Life in Pieces and he’s an incredible executive producer. Obviously he’s constantly selling shows and has become quite the TV mogul in his own right. But he’s super hands-on and so supportive.

Is there a chance of seeing Fawn Moscato on New Girl again?

That show was such a dream. Fawn Moscato is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played and I have always been such a huge fan of New Girl and Liz Meriwether, I really worship at her alter. To have an arc on a show that you’re already such a fan girl of is such a wild experience. When I walked into the loft I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m in the loft!” Every day I was such a nerd. I was just welcomed with such open arms on that set by that cast and all the writers. I hope I get to return and I think that I could just for a few episodes. I was hoping to officiate Cece [Hannah Simone] and Schmidt’s [Max Greenfield] wedding, but that didn’t pan out. But yeah, no I hope Fawn Moscato can live on.

How did your dramatic turn on HBO’s Confirmation come to be?

That was a conventional audition process, I went in and Michael London, who produced that film, produced a film that I co-wrote and produced and starred in called Lola Versus. So we did have that connection, but it was an amazing opportunity that I haven’t had. Although I used to cry for cash so often and I actually started out in this industry with much more in dramatic roles, now I’m known much more for my comedic roles. So it was really exciting to be given the opportunity to flex that muscle again. I auditioned for it and got the part and then wasn’t able to do the part because of my Life in Pieces schedule. I was devastated because that story is such an important one to tell and I was so excited to be a part of the retelling of it and also to work with HBO. So they hired Cobie Smulders and I was so heartbroken. And then she broke her leg and I got a call a week before shooting, asking if I could do it. It was another one of those kismet moments where it was somehow meant to be. Grace Gummer, who also in the film, is one of my dear friends in real life. It was super fun on that level that I got to go and hang out with one of my best friends in Atlanta for a month. We had a bunch of scenes together and we had never acted together.

You recently made your directorial debut with the film Band Aid, which you also wrote and star in. Why was this a good fit for you?

It is my directorial debut. We shot it this summer and basically it’s the story of a couple — myself and Adam Pally — that has a miscarriage and can’t stop fighting. So they decide to turn all their fights into songs and start a band in an attempt to save their marriage. Fred Armisen is their neighbor and becomes a drummer in the band. It’s a relationship dramedy I would say. It was an incredible experience on so many levels. It was a very personal story that I wrote and then produced and got off the ground quite quickly. To direct it was obviously so exciting. So many of my friends came out. Colin Hanks and Brooklyn Decker and Angelique Cabral and Jesse Williams … they all showed up for me and it was so awesome. Every day it was like hanging out with your friends and getting to play.

I wrote all the lyrics to the songs and composed them with a longtime collaborator, and we played all the songs live. Basically I wrote the script kind of thinking what is the thing that I would have the most fun doing on my hiatus, and I thought it would be the most fun to play music. It was such a creatively gratifying experience in a way that I’ve never had before even though I have written and produced in the past. This took on a whole new level of creative fulfillment.

Did you write these roles with some of your friends in mind?

No, I wrote the script with no one in mind. That’s kind of always how I write, and then once I had the script I figured out who I could place, in what roles, of all my friends. It just kind of worked out that they were all perfect for those roles. I have such supportive and incredible friends who are all people that I’ve worked with, which is a testament to the community in this town that doesn’t get talked about enough. You do make lasting friendships on these projects. It’s really special, to have all of these incredible actors who are a part of the fabric of my history in this industry come out and show up for such a monumental moment for me. 

Is it important for you to write roles for yourself in order to create your own career in a way?

For me personally it is important that I write. In TV, I’ve been given tremendous opportunities and given great roles and I’ve been really lucky in that way. In films, it’s been more of a challenge and so it’s been pretty instrumental to write those roles for myself. It’s an incredible tool to have as a woman in this industry to create your own material. And for me as a director too, I then chose to hire an all-female crew on Band Aid.

When you create your own material and are able to make those choices in the world of production, you get to really flip a lot of paradigms on their head. We need that in this industry right now. It takes choosing to subvert a system in order to accept change and it was so exciting to have a crew entirely made up of women. Everyone who came on set would be like, “Wow, the energy is so different on this set.” Obviously I love working with men; it was more that I wanted to see what the energy would feel like on a set where women were able to call every shot and to see how that empowered women in a different way. And it did. It was incredibly empowering. It also created opportunities for women in departments that generally don’t get opportunities, especially in camera and grip and electric. It’s so rare to find women, or at least a number of women, in those departments that they’re often not given opportunities, so for me to be able to give talented women who might not get that opportunity otherwise a place on set was really exciting.

Life in Pieces airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling