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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.”
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
THR: Mayim, you started acting very young and were a public figure even when you were still a kid. Then you left the business to get an education. What was the biggest adjustment in making a multicam sitcom again?
Bialik: The cameras are smaller now! Chuck Lorre works differently, you know, than anyone I’ve ever worked with. But there was no Internet when I was on Blossom, there was no publicity. I could look 14 when I was 14, and I could look 16 when I was 16. Now when I see what girls are supposed to wear — even to publicity things when they’re 15 –it’s astonishing to me. Not necessarily even just sexualization stuff but what is expected in terms of your presence. No one cared what I looked like when I went out. The standards were so different.
White: Hang in there until you’re 91. It gets much easier. (Laughter.)
Bialik: One thing I remember from sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s was when the producers and the director would be in a booth and you’d get your notes announced over a loudspeaker in front of the live audience, like the voice of God. “That wasn’t funny, Mayim. Try it again.” Now, directors whisper notes to you. But, you know, Jim Parsons can’t imagine that you had your notes shouted over a loudspeaker during a taping in front of 300 people.
White: “Button the top button on your blouse!”?
Bialik: “We can see your underwear!”
Walter: What bugs me about the business is a lack of respect for actors doing their work. Giving someone five pages of dialogue five minutes before they’re supposed to shoot the scene? It never was like this! In the old days, you’d get a script two weeks ahead. You just have to adjust.
Bialik: Our stuff changes in front of a live audience.
Walter: Yeah, I think on a multicam, having done several, it’s that way. But to me, on a single-camera when they do that, and it’s five pages — no audience, you know, but five pages, here you go. I’m not happy with it. Can you tell?
White: I love multicams because you can just go ahead and do it, they’re going to catch you, and the audience goes along with you. On a single-cam, you’re there and then you have to go back and do it for the close-up. … We’re doing comedy! By that time, you’ve beaten the poor joke to death.
Walter: That’s why I love theater. When all is said and done, the curtain goes up, and from beginning to end, it’s yours.
THR: What do you do when you’re given a script and your lines aren’t funny?
Bialik: Make it funny.
Olson: On my show? Change it. Most of the time it’s about, “How can I just tweak it a little bit?” We have the luxury of doing that on my show. So, if I’m not funny, it’s my fault.
White: Don’t play it for comedy. Play it as honestly as you can. The audience makes up their minds. It’s the honesty they respond to rather than the reading.
Olson: That brings me to my answer to the thing that bothers me the most about this business, which is auditions. It’s a bummer because I have the nerves that you’re talking about. They don’t make me funny. I get self-conscious.
Walter: Also, there are people who are great auditioners, and then they come up to the set and — nothing. And people who are really uncomfortable auditioning are really brilliant when they get comfy on the set. It’s crazy.
White: And don’t you always kind of get a little crush on your leading man?
Olson: You’re supposed to. I married mine [It’s Always Sunny showrunner Rob McElhenney].
Walter: I married mine, too. But I’ve had other leading men who were to die for. I’ve had James Garner …
White: Not too shabby!
Walter: … Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston.
Olson: Affairs with all of them?
Walter: No affairs! Just big crushes.
White: You know something else that ticks me off is when young, newer actors complain. And a couple of times I’ve lost it and said, “Do you have any idea how many people on this planet would give their lives to be doing what we’re doing? Get into another line of work. Don’t sit here on this set and take someone else’s job!”
Bell: If I walk into that hair and makeup trailer or walk onto that set and there are a bunch of Debbie Downers — you really think we have it that bad? Because we don’t! It’s very troubling to be around, and it sets my vibe off, and I’m just …
Mamet: We’re in the most voluntary profession. For the most part, people actually 100 percent choose to do this job, and it beats working!
Walter: Also, there are actors who come in for five lines, and they don’t know them. They mess it up, and some of your stuff is dependent on those five lines. That’s really frustrating.
White: That’s unforgivable!
THR: A few of you have mentioned stage fright. How do you cope with it?
Bialik: I don’t know. I need it! It’s like brushing my teeth in the morning. It’s what my body does when I get ready to go on.
Walter: It energizes me actually. I don’t know what it would be like without it, honestly.
White: That’s why flirting with your leading man works. It keeps your attention. (Laughter.)
Bell: Sometimes it can run away with you. And no matter how prepared I am, that lump in the back of my throat will not go away. I’ve actually started meditating, and it honestly sets my brain at a place — it’s just 20 minutes that I’ll meditate before I have a scary day on set or something that I’m anxiety-ridden about. And it takes my brain to a completely calm and creatively cracked open space. And it lasts for like 10 hours. I feel like it’s like taking a really, really good … nap.
Bialik: I thought she was going to say drug.
Olson: I do that, too. Meditate, deep breathing, a great song that you love turned up really loudly. Just reminding myself of — I mean, I can’t speak for everyone — but I would guess that most actors are pretty insecure people, as you can tell. Everyone kind of came to this place from, like, some, whatever. I’ve got to remember that, you know what, it’s not that important. So that wasn’t the best British accent you’ve ever done? No one is talking about it.
Bialik: But they will.
Olson: Who cares?
Bialik: They’ll tweet about it.
Olson: Your Irish accent will be perfect, you know? We’re supposed to be funny, not perfect.
Mamet: Yeah, and someone might think a joke that you tell is the funniest f—ing thing they have ever heard, and someone else could be like, “Who is this bitch?” And it’s the great thing of, like, remembering that no one is dying. We’re not heart surgeons!
THR: Who are your comedy idols?
Walter: Hello … Betty!
Olson: Me too.
Walter: You! [To White.]
Walter: I’m bowing down to you.
White: Oh, please!
Walter: By the way, do you remember in about 1962, at the Northland Playhouse in Detroit, we were in Who Was That Lady together?
White: Yes, of course we were!
Walter: I was saving sharing that for this moment.
White: That was fun.
Mamet: And we’re here to witness it!
Walter: It was this huge rubber dome of a theater, and everybody said it looked like the world’s biggest diaphragm.
Bialik: Betty excluded, I loved Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. But also male actors like John Ritter. Carol really, really appealed to me because I was a character-y kind of kid, and she played different parts. Tracey Ullman, too, had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager.
Mamet: She’s an exceptional human.
Olson: Both of those and Gilda Radner. And not because Betty’s here, but my husband and I still watch The Golden Girls when we want comfort.
Walter: Yeah, my God.
White: Oh, I tell you … I started out with Mary Tyler Moore, and it was such a privilege to work with those people. Then The Golden Girls, and my lord, it was just unbelievable, and we all adored each other. And now I’ve got Hot in Cleveland with yet another group of wonderful women. How lucky can you get? Once, maybe, twice maybe, but three times in a career? And now I’m sitting here with all of you. That ain’t bad.
Bell: Other than Betty, I still am very obsessed with Catherine O’Hara. The Christopher Guest movies had such an effect on me when I was growing up. I saw This Is Spinal Tap, and my mind was blown. And Waiting for Guffman is still, like, my favorite movie of all time.
THR: What current shows would you love to guest star on?
Olson: Arrested Development.
Walter: Aw, I knew I liked you. For me, House of Cards. I’m so hooked on that show. I said, “You know, let’s see what Netflix is doing because Arrested is going to be on it …” then I became a binge-watcher. And I’d love Homeland, too.
Bell: I’m currently doing that with Game of Thrones. I want to wear one of those cloaks, have the dragon baby. You can even go online and see where Winterfell is in relation to Westeros.
Olson: OK, it’s gone too far.
Mamet: I wasn’t allowed to watch TV growing up, but I recently started watching Nashville and became unhealthily obsessed.
Olson: Connie Britton is amazing!
Mamet: She’s the most amazing female human specimen. I want to work with her, and now I want to be a country singer!
Bialik: My adult life is like your childhood. I actually don’t watch television. I don’t want to say I have shame about it, but it’s very awkward to be so much a part of the industry and be so out of touch.
White: By the time I get around to sitting down after catching up with mail and turning the set on, it’s news time. So I watch the news, and then I’ll maybe watch Jay Leno or, you know, one of the late shows. But I don’t watch the television that I should. And it’s a sin!
Bell: It’s because you work like a firecracker, Betty.
Walter: You’ve got to stop.
White: Well, thank you very much. But you’re trying to get rid of me, and you can’t. I ain’t going.
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