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This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
So, what is comedy these days?
A half-hour, single-cam cable show about a drug-addicted nurse? A one-hour women’s-prison dramedy streaming on the Internet? A ratings smash with an old-school laugh track? A single-cam spin on the travails of a working woman and her messy dating life? An “adorkable” network series centered on a girl and her best guy friends? Or a grim hourlong series about a poor Chicago family whose toddler almost ODs on his sister’s cocaine? For the six Emmy contenders who gathered on May 10 in Los Angeles to chat — The Big Bang Theory‘s Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, 28; New Girl‘s Zooey Deschanel, 34; Nurse Jackie‘s Edie Falco, 50; The Mindy Project‘s Mindy Kaling, 34; Shameless‘ Emmy Rossum, 27; and Orange Is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling, 29 — the genre is all those things and then some. Between fake-peeing, showering with co-stars and the “torture” of watching their performances, there’s little these women won’t do for the sake of their craft.
What’s the oddest thing you have been asked to do on your current series?
Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting My character was in an awful movie called Serial Apist, so I had full monkey makeup head to toe.
Taylor Schilling They put hair on you?
Cuoco-Sweeting Yes, they did.
Schilling Like, patchy hair?
Cuoco-Sweeting Yes. I Instagrammed it because I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Zooey Deschanel I had to be Woody Allen as a zombie. I pasted sideburns and fake beard stuff to my eyebrows. That was the gift that I gave my show. They also made me be Elvis once.
Emmy Rossum My character had to pee on camera for a drug test this past season. I had to pull my pants down and use this squeezy contraption that made it look like I was really doing it. But it wasn’t me peeing, just for the record!
Edie Falco For one scene on Nurse Jackie, I was lying on a bed of pills in this little miniature elevator thing, and it dropped like 10 feet quickly to show that I’d been overtaken by these pills. It felt like I was on the Cyclone at Coney Island.
Rossum They were like, “You don’t need a stunt double. You’re fine.”
Falco They also wanted me to keep my eyes open.
Schilling That’s terrible!
Falco My kids were visiting that day, too.
Deschanel They’re like, “Why is Mommy falling?”
Cuoco-Sweeting They probably thought you were such a badass.
Mindy, what’s the strangest thing you’ve written for yourself to do on your show?
Mindy Kaling My character is constantly getting very upset and running into the street to scream at somebody, so there are always cars about to hit me. Even though it’s a stunt, you can’t fake that a car is almost going to hit you.
Deschanel You can’t, actually.
Kaling The flip side is getting to make out a lot on TV, which I do. Sometimes we have to do a shower sex scene. And the first few times, it’s kind of fun. Then after take eight, your makeup is streaming …
Schilling You’re cold.
Cuoco-Sweeting It’s not cute anymore.
Deschanel Fake nudity is not cute wet.
Kaling I’d rather show my breasts!
Schilling We’re in jail on Orange, so there’s real nudity.
Kaling Pasties are disgusting.
Deschanel I’d rather be naked!
Taylor, when have you felt pushed to the limits on Orange?
Deschanel “What scene did you feel just terrible about and wanted to die?”
Rossum “And felt extremely vulnerable in front of a bunch of people?” (Laughter.)
Schilling There are a lot of clothes off and a lot of knives. Everyone has to do a lot of [unpleasant] stuff.
Falco It’s equal opportunity.
Schilling Boobs for all and everybody’s being shanked! I love naked bodies.
Deschanel Who doesn’t?
Is there an audition in your history that was particularly mortifying?
Cuoco-Sweeting I don’t think of those things.
Deschanel I used to have a tape of embarrassing moments that played in my head constantly, but I have shut it off.
Schilling I auditioned for commercials when I started out, which are awful. They make you do the weirdest stuff. There was one where there was a mannequin set up, and they’re like, “Skip across this bench and plant a big wet one on the mannequin.”
What was it for?
Schilling Probably shoes? I look back on that like, “What was I doing?”
Deschanel I had a TV screen test early on, and the creator of the show was in the back mouthing the words. I’m looking at the person who’s reading with me there, and right behind that person was this guy saying the dialogue with me.
Cuoco-Sweeting My God.
Falco That’s awful.
Rossum I’ve had people do that, but where the person you’re reading with is doing the same facial expressions as you. They’re being empathetic or something?
Schilling I always say [to the reader], “Stop, don’t act!”
Kaling Have you guys ever completely lied about your abilities? When I was still in New York, I auditioned for this Bollywood musical. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to clean up. How many Indian girls are there?” I said I could sing and I could dance — neither of which I can do — and I sang, “Somewhere Out There,” which anybody sounds good singing, and then I had to go to the dance part of it. And of course, it then ended up a huge embarrassment. There were Puerto Rican and Asian girls who tried to look Indian and they crushed it.
Falco I once auditioned for a musical, and I don’t sing. I gave it my all but it was just awful. I couldn’t look [the casting people in the eye].
Deschanel They’re looking down at their page.
Rossum Or their phones!
What about odd moments while onstage?
Falco At the beginning of [the play] Frankie and Johnny, our characters are naked and have sex. But it’s total darkness in the apartment. Stanley Tucci and I are getting ready for the curtain to open, but something goes wrong with the computer and all the house lights and stage lights come on, and the curtains go up. And there we were — Stanley and I — laying there completely naked. That was the performance my father and uncle came to. (Laughter.)
Kaling “Is it like this every night?”
Falco It got an audible gasp. Then the curtains went down and we started again like it didn’t happen.
Rossum Take two!
Falco There are so many crazy, cuckoo theater stories.
You all deal with the media on a regular basis.
Deschanel No, we don’t.
Kaling What are you talking about?
And Mindy, you’ve been very open about calling out journalists who make ridiculous comments. What’s the worst one?
Kaling “You’re ugly and fat, and that is so refreshing to us.” I’m like, “What are you saying to me, sir?” “Well, we’re used to skinny people, and you’re so ugly and refreshing.” That’s not a question, sir. (Laughter.)
Deschanel They’re just trying to get a reaction.
Kaling And people who actually identify as feminists will say stuff like, “Are women funny?” Sorry, you can’t ask that question again. It’s so insulting and outdated. They like getting us riled up, as I am getting now!
What do you do and say in those situations?
Kaling I think everyone is a good person trying to do a good job. If you can nicely be like, “I think what you mean to ask is maybe something like this …” Other times, I lose it.
Rossum I’m sorry, but you’re gorgeous. I don’t know what the f– anyone’s talking about.
Edie, what’s the most consistent Sopranos comment or question you get?
Falco “How did they make you look so fat and old on that show?” Funny, I hadn’t thought of that again until now.
Kaling You’re like, “I thought I looked very beautiful.” Do they really say that?
Falco Oh, absolutely. I had another woman say, “Whatever you’ve done to your face, it looks great.”
Rossum Some people say that I’m so much prettier on TV, and people come up to me in the airport, and they’re like, “You kind of look like Emmy Rossum, but she’s really pretty.”
Deschanel Someone said, “You’re so thin! You look so fat on TV.”
Cuoco-Sweeting I get that, too.
Deschanel And “Tell your agents to dress you in different clothes.” And I go, “First of all, agents don’t dress actors!” (Laughter.)
Rossum You’re a public commodity so they think they can be just totally, completely honest with you. I bet they’re not that honest with their friends.
Cuoco-Sweeting Syndication is so crazy; they’re with you all the time.
Kaling And we’re on comedies, where characters are constantly dissing us.
Rossum Someone told me once to work on my upper pectoral muscles — I’m not kidding. Maybe I lost weight between the second and third seasons, and in my topless scenes in my third season, my breasts looked schlumpy. You’re clearly pausing and rewinding way too many times.
Cuoco-Sweeting I think they get nervous and don’t know what to say.
Falco I saw Dave Matthews walk by the outside of my building. I’m a huge fan!
Cuoco-Sweeting Did you tell him he looked fat?
Falco Was that bad? (Laughs.)
Rossum People just don’t separate you from your character.
And now Taylor is on everyone’s computer.
Rossum While they’re at work, in the bathroom! They’re watching you in prison.
Schilling It’s interesting. There was a 24-hour period where everyone had watched all 13 hours of season one. All of a sudden, there was over-familiarity [with me].
Deschanel So fast, too, to have all the episodes go up at once.
Schilling It’s very weird and deeply uncomfortable. People say some pretty mean things about my character. “You’re such a narcissist and so whiny. But I love everybody else on the show.” But it’s so exciting to feel like people are actually seeing what you’re doing.
Cuoco-Sweeting It’s also amazing when people come up to you, and you’ve actually touched them in some sort of way because of your show. It makes me want to cry every time, I mean, literally you are so overwhelmed.
Deschanel I started crying the other day when someone said, “I love your show so much.” It’s nice when somebody’s genuine.
Rossum You never think they watch.
Deschanel It’s the thing you live for!
Is there a life lesson you’ve learned from someone on your show?
Rossum Well, [William H.] Macy is not afraid to ask our crewmembers, “Did you think that was funny?” And that’s kind of the best lesson: It doesn’t matter where a good idea comes from.
Deschanel I’ll take direction from anyone.
Rossum The most moving thing is when a crewmember who maybe hasn’t said two words to me ever comes up to me after a scene, and goes, “You know what? That was really good.” That will make me feel like 100 million bucks because they see it all day, every day for 30 years.
Kaling Life lessons from Chris Messina? He’s such a good f—ing actor. It’s like The Office, where I was for eight years. With Steve Carell, you couldn’t not become funnier by watching him. With Chris, he’s a quintessential New York theater actor. He also loves silences, which is also something you don’t see in network TV, and he lives for them. So I’ve learned in writing to make scripts shorter because of Chris!
Schilling You create that space for him to do [his thing].
Kaling It’s lucky to be the showrunner and the lead actor, because I get to see what’s working, make changes on the fly. He’s also hot as hell. That’s nice, too. Nice to shower with a handsome actor.
Deschanel I’m not against it!
Do any of you have any bizarre rituals on set?
Rossum I talk to myself before every scene, so I’m always in some mantra telling myself something. Actory shit in order to get into the right place for a character. I make sure my mic is turned off right before the scene because I’ll probably be dredging up something awful. I don’t want people at video village hearing all of that. “You’re a worthless piece of shit. You should be in jail!”
Deschanel I jump up and down a lot.
Cuoco-Sweeting We film in front of a live audience, and about five years ago, [co-star] Johnny [Galecki] and I started going into the audience and talking to everybody halfway through each show. It has helped me tremendously. We shake hands and thank everybody. I want to cry every time! It’s a big energy jolt.
Who or what first made you want to act?
Falco I thought, “I want to do that” when I saw Sweeney Todd. We took a little trip on our school bus, and it was life-changing. It starred Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. The music is incredible. I was a different person leaving that theater. “If this is where this kind of thing goes on, I have to be a part of it.”
How old were you?
Falco This was last year. (Laughter.) I guess I was in junior high or something. 13 or 14? I didn’t think I’d ever do it for a living, but I thought I would always do it. I was very shy, and the idea of being an actress was beyond my comprehension, but I knew I would do it.
Deschanel When I was 2, I saw The Wizard of Oz, and I was obsessed with it. My dad filmed everything I did, because he’s a cinematographer, and we have it on tape, me up at the screen. I learned all the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” before I could really form sentences. I told my mom that I was going to jump in the TV. She was like, “Oh, really, you are?” I told her I would. And I did it!
Kaling For me, it was watching Much Ado About Nothing, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, seeing that Shakespeare could be done like that. They had amazing chemistry, and it was truly funny.
Deschanel And so sexy because they hate each other, but they love each other.
When you watch your performances, what’s your biggest criticism?
Cuoco-Sweeting Oh, I can’t watch.
Schilling I don’t watch. I hate it. I can’t watch. At all.
You’ve never watched Orange Is the New Black?
Schilling No. I see it at premieres and we have to see stuff at ADR [automated dialogue replacement], but not really. It’s not that I’m completely opposed to it, but I was already there and did it. I’ve never felt the need to go back and watch. We are always sort of living it in the next round, do you know what I mean?
Deschanel I don’t like watching myself, but I started to watch the show so I could adjust my performance if needed. On network TV, we have the luxury of being on while we’re shooting. “That’s not good,” or “That was good.” So, it’s fun but also torturous.
Cuoco-Sweeting I hate the sound of my voice. I can hear it from a mile away — it’s nasally. Why do I talk like that? It freaks me out!
Deschanel No one likes their own voice.
Cuoco-Sweeting OK, because I feel like I have the most annoying one. It’s hard for me to watch Big Bang. I TiVo it at home to support the show, but there are 37 episodes on there [I haven’t seen].
Kaling I just watched five in a row. Whenever I travel!
Cuoco-Sweeting I watched five of yours on a plane, too, and I’m not just saying that.
Deschanel They’re so comforting.
Kaling It is very comforting. (To Cuoco-Sweeting) And you do not have an annoying voice, by the way.
Deschanel My voice has changed. When I started acting, it was really, really high.
Kaling Mine, too.
Cuoco-Sweeting We could torture ourselves all day long!
Rossum I definitely watched season one of Shameless before we did the second. I felt like the work I did in the first season was so much better than anything I’d ever done and was concerned the second season was going to suck. So I needed to study what I did. But I feel like I get better from watching myself. I can detach because the character is so different from me.
Cuoco-Sweeting I play a blonde who lives next door to people, and I’m a blonde who lives next door to people.
Kaling Sometimes the way that you think you’re presenting is not at all how it’s coming across. I’m an A student, and I want to nail it, and we have on TV the luxury of trying to nail it. And so you get this great benefit if you’re watching, and you’re like, “Oh, I thought when I was giving Messina shit in that scene that it was adorable, but really it comes off a little harsher because of the way that my hair was pinned straight.” Also, our wardrobe. Does it connote something different to wear a suit when I’m trying to be flirty?
What’s the most personal thing you’ve infused into a character?
Falco I have tried very hard to go in the entirely other direction. I never want to do anything that feels like me! After Sopranos, I was offered lots of Italian women, and I ran from that. That’s why my early Nurse Jackie [look] was short hair and very low maintenance. Now, 700 years into that show, I want my hair back and some makeup!
Deschanel I also want to keep it really separate. When I started acting, every part I did was completely different [from one another]. And it worked against me because people wouldn’t recognize me from one role to the next. Though being on TV now, playing the same character, I do get antsy to play different things.
Cuoco-Sweeting Do you think it happens naturally? I’ve been doing the same character for so many years, so I’ll find myself reacting a certain way when I’m like, “That was actually me.”
Cuoco-Sweeting The writers start to know who you are and write toward that.
Rossum I feel like my writers manipulate me. We’ll be at a table read, and a female writer will come up to me in what I think is a friendly gesture, and ask, “What’s the wackiest thing you can do with your body?” “I can put my legs over my head and sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ ” and then it’s in the next script.
Deschanel “Hey, can you do a Neil Diamond impression?” Wait five minutes, and it’s in the next table read.
Mindy, where do you draw the line between yourself and the Mindy on the show?
Kaling When I originally wrote the character, she was not named Mindy. But [former Fox entertainment chairman] Kevin Reilly said — before he picked up the show — “I think her name should just be Mindy,” and I was like, “OK, yeah.” But the character has also lost several handguns and says stuff like, “I think recycling makes America look poor.” Then pieces get written about me that say, “Mindy Kaling is a Republican,” because they can’t separate the two. But no one ever thought [why] Alec Baldwin‘s character on 30 Rock said things like that. I think it’s sexist, that there’s no way that I could write a character who’s so different from me. Why would I want to do my own show and be a cool, liberal Westside person who lives in Brentwood? Let me live that life and let the character be wild.
What’s the best joke you’ve had to lose?
Kaling In one episode, Tim Daly, who is so funny, was on the show. And he’s very angry at me for prescribing his daughter birth control, and I’m like, “How dare you come in here with your outdated views on birth control? Who do you think you are? Rick Santorum? Obviously not, because you’re not hot.” We have to keep Mindy’s political stuff to a minimum.
Deschanel And it’s dated. You know exactly when that episode aired.
Rossum There’s more [stuff that didn’t air] with Bill Macy’s character, like a scene where he has sex with a corpse.
Falco I can’t believe you didn’t show it.
Rossum I don’t think he wanted to mount a dead woman.
Whose career makes you jealous?
Rossum You expect us to answer that? (Laughter.)
Deschanel I don’t like expressing those feelings! “No, I’m excited for them. That’s happy. That’s great!”
Rossum Jealousy is the kiss of death for any actor.
Kaling I’m jealous of men. I’m jealous of Sam Rockwell.
Rossum He’s probably jealous of you.
Kaling He does whatever he wants. And he’s always so good. Comedy, drama, dancing.
Deschanel He’s a really good dancer.
Falco Old-school indie dude.
Kaling He wouldn’t care that some sitcom actress is so into him. He’s amazing.
Deschanel He would love this! I’ve done three movies with him. It’s funny, about men, [New Girl co-star] Jake Johnson told me about auditioning and how guys high-five each other [before they go in]. “Good luck, man!”
Rossum Dudes have less of an expiration date than women. It’s always older men with younger women.
Deschanel How about older women with younger men?
Kaling That’s disgusting! (Laughter.)
Do your representatives encourage you to do whatever interests you?
Deschanel They send me a huge variety of things.
Falco They work for us, not the other way around. But I never know what the heck I’m going to do next, what’s going to interest me a year from now.
Schilling I don’t know if you can always have a plan. You have to have your own feelers out to the world.
Deschanel I’ve gotten many jobs from just meeting people. If Mindy says, “I have this great script,” I’d be like, “Send it to me.” It’s not necessary that your agents be the only gateway. They are only one avenue. We need each other, too.