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If you see her face, it looks familiar. If you hear her voice, it rings a bell. But if you read her name, chances are it draws a blank.
Such is the reality of life for the great character actress Judy Greer, who, since making her big-screen debut in 1998, has appeared in dozens of critical and/or commerical hits — among them Three Kings (1999), What Women Want (2000), The Wedding Planner (2001), Adaptation (2002), 13 Going on 30 (2004), The Village (2004), 27 Dresses (2008), Love and Other Drugs (2010) and, most recently, The Descendants — consistenly stealing scenes from her A-list co-stars, but always ceding the spotlight back to them before the end credits.
I recently spoke with Greer over the telephone — just days after meeting her at the first Q&A with the full cast of The Descendants, which I moderated — for a wide-ranging and laughter-filled interview about her life and career. As you can hear for yourself by clicking on the audio file below, the 36-year-old and I talked about what initially drew her to acting; how she discovered and honed her unusual flair for comedy; and why she has come, of late, to embrace the “Judy-sized roles” upon which she has built her film career, while still maintaining hope that she will be offered more substantial opportunities at some point in the future.
Much of our discussion, of course, focused on The Descendants, the best picture-contending dramedy directed by Alexander Payne (long one of Greer’s cinematic heroes — she saved the voicemail in which he asked her to come in for the part) and starring George Clooney (whom Greer first met — and shared an awkward sex scene with — 12 years ago during the making of Three Kings).
In the film, Greer plays Julie Speer, a stay-at-home wife and mother whose husband Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) was — unbeknownst to her — having an affair with Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) — the wife of attorney Matt King (Clooney) and mother of Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie King (Amara Miller) — in the months before Elizabeth suffered a trauamatic injury that left her in a coma and on life-support. Greer has only a few minutes of screen time in the film, but she makes them all count: a scene on a beach in which Matt fishes for information from Julie about Brian; a scene at the Speers’ rented beach house in which Matt and Alexandra confront Brian about his behavior but elect not to reveal it to Julie; and, most memorably, a show-stopping scene near the end of the film in which Julie, having independently figured out what the others had been keeping from her, visits the Kings in Elizabeth’s hospital room, runs through the gamut of emotions, and is alternately hilarious and heart-breaking.
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Could Greer, who has grown so accustomed to going about her work without getting much attention for it, possibly garner recognition from the Academy, no less, her critically acclaimed performance? I think it’s possible. Woodley, who had considerably more screen time and a much showier part, is already being pushed by Fox Searchlight in the best supporting actress race, and rightly so, but that shouldn’t necessarily preclude Greer from joining the field as well; in fact, a film has received a double nod in that particularly category in each of the past three years: Amy Adams and Viola Davis for Doubt (2008); Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air (2009); and Amy Adams and Melissa Leo for The Fighter (2010). Moreover, if Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench could win that category for incredibly brief performances — five minutes and forty seconds in Network (1976) and eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love (1998), respectively — surely Greer could, at the very least, be nominated.
As I see it, Greer has the talent, looks and likability to be a full-fledged star, but until the rest of the Hollywood community begins to realize that, the least they can do is celebrate her for excelling, to an extent that few others ever have, in the box in which they’ve put her: indeed, you’ll be hardpressed to find a better supporting actress — in the truest sense of the word — than Judy Greer.