If you’re a straight man and you’re not in love with Judy Greer, I find you highly suspect. Not only is she incredibly beautiful, but she’s hilarious – just look at her performance as Kitty on Arrested Development for the definitive proof on that. Hardcore Chewers have been on the Greer bandwagon for a long time, since she starred as the goth superheroine Deadly Girl in the fantastic The Specials, and we’ve loved her in films like Three Kings, Jawbreaker and Adaptation.
With The Great New Wonderful she’s flexing some dramatic muscles. Greer plays a woman who deferred her hopes for an acting career and suddenly finds herself saddled with a violent, bizarre child and a husband who is drifting away. These problems play out against the backdrop of New York City in the first year after the World Trade Center fell. The film barely references the events of that day, but the tensions and trauma that all New Yorkers felt are plainly evident.
Greer was in New York doing press for the film when I had a chance to sit down with her one on one at the Hotel Chandler. It turns out that I might be seeing her again in a few weeks, on a set visit to Zak Penn’s new film, The Grand. Sometimes when you talk to celebrities too many times in too short a period you find you have nothing else to ask – I can’t imagine that being the case here, since Greer is so energetic, friendly and funny in real life.
Of course, being a serious journalist, I opened with the hard-hitting questions.
Q: Compare and contrast George Clooney and Garry Shandling as screen lovers.
Greer: That’s a funny question because I have a funny story about that. I did Three Kings and as I was doing Three Kings, I was auditioning for What Planet Are You From?. When I got that part they asked me ‘Are you OK taking your clothes off? You have a love scene with Garry Shandling.’ I was like, that’s fine, and by the time I got to set I didn’t care so much, I had already done it once, and it was what I had to do. Mike Nichols is such a dream; he makes you so comfortable and everyone was safe and professional… except for Garry Shandling. He was obviously extremely nervous and had never done it before and was exactly as neurotic as you would have expected. I was trying so hard to be cool and relaxed, ‘Hey, it’s not a big deal, it’s totally easy, it’s just fun, it’s a game.’ He was like, ‘You’ve done this before. Who with?’ I said, ‘George Clooney. I just did it with George Clooney.’ He yelled, ‘Fuck this!’ and he got up and was walking off set. He was kidding, but it was really funny, I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have said that!’
I think that they both had their positive points, doing sex scenes with them. It was really funny to do it with Garry, and it was fun to do it with George!
Q: How did you end up getting involved with this film? Did you know Danny?
Greer: Danny and I were at the time represented by the same management company. A lot of times when you’re an actor you get approached by managers and agents and one of the pitches they give you is, ‘We represent writers, we represent directors, we’re going to hook you up, you’re going to develop stuff, you’re going to have an in.’ In this case that was it – they represented Danny and they said, ‘We have this client Danny Leiner, he’s doing this independent film and there’s a role you’d be right for, would you meet with him?’ And I did and he offered me the role, and that was the first time I ever got offered a role just from a meeting. And the first time someone came through on their promise in Hollywood. A double whammy for me!
Q: When you’re taking a role in a very small film like this, which supposedly has a budget around 500k –
Greer: I don’t know. I didn’t see any of it!
Q: Is there a point where you’re thinking, ‘This role is nice, but I need to be focusing my career on getting to the next step, to getting something bigger’?
Greer: At the time I did this I didn’t have any of that. And actually if this would happen again right this very second I would feel like this would get me to the next step. There are a lot of reasons I wanted to work on the movie, and number one was the character was dramatic and I usually do comedies, and it was a great opportunity for me to try something different and be seen in a different way, if I pulled it off. I hope I did. I immediately loved Danny when I sat down with him; I thought he was fun and mellow and easygoing.
Also I don’t understand – if you’re sitting on your ass in your living room, wouldn’t you rather take a week to do a cool indie?
Q: You would think so, but plenty of people don’t.
Greer: Thank god. I’ll do them! But yeah, I can see making career choices and being strategic and all that stuff and there does come a point where you have to make a living and you have to not be doing the same roles over and over, but for me as an actor this film was a good step.
Q: Your Cinderella story is that you moved to LA in 98 after the premiere of your first movie. How has that been for you?
Greer: Really good – knock on wood. I started working right away and never had to have another job besides acting since I moved to Los Angeles, and I feel really fortunate to be “making it.” The five percent that works in our union – it’s so weird. But I had a great time in LA, and I recently spent the last seven months in New York and now I don’t want to go back to LA ever!
Q: What were you doing in New York?
Greer: The TV show Love Monkey. And when that wrapped up I did a play called Show People, which Paul Weitz wrote, and it was my first play in New York City.
Q: That’s cool.
Greer: It was awesome. Awesome! So cool!
Q: You’re theater trained?
Greer: Yeah. “Classically” trained! Whatever that means. Go DePaul University!
But yeah, I was trained on stage, four years, and when I did my play my agents all came out from LA and they’re so cute at this theater premiere and they’re like, ‘You’re good up there, you look like you know what you’re doing!’ Four years of acting school!
Q: What do you get recognized for the most? Is it Kitty from Arrested Development?
Greer: A lot of Kitty. But a lot of Jawbreaker. Jawbreaker, Arrested Development, The Wedding Planner.
Q: You don’t get Deadly Girl?
Greer: [laughs] Nice! No, I don’t. I do not… ever, in fact!
Q: Really? That’s where I first really realized who you were.
Greer: I have a really amazing picture that I had framed professionally, of me and Sean Gunn, who is Alien Orphan, and who is my best friend, in our costumes. It’s the coolest picture. It’s black and white and huge and I have it hanging in the hallway of my house.
Q: You worked on his brother’s wife’s movie, Lollilove.
Greer: I did. I haven’t seen it yet. I have the DVD. It was such a fantastic experience. The Gunn family; we’re all friends. Sean is one of my closest friends of all time, but the family is so ridiculously talented.
Q: What ended up happening to Arrested Development? Do you have an insider’s view on why the show didn’t make it?
Greer: I probably couldn’t say. The last season I only did one episode, and then I came here to do Love Monkey. I wasn’t around, so I don’t really know.
Q: What was the experience of doing that show like?
Greer: It was so fun. So fun. I couldn’t even do my job because I was laughing so hard. I felt like such an amateur because I could never stop laughing at Will Arnett ever. And Jason Bateman was so dry and deadpan – it was really hard to go there and not laugh all the time.
Q: This film is so different from that. You’re not the funny part of this movie. Without spoiling the end of the film, you and your husband make a very interesting choice – do you agree with what your character did?
Greer: No, but one of the things I wanted to do so badly with the character was tell a story about a woman where you can see her side of it. I mean, I don’t, but I had to when we were making it, and I just felt so much compassion for her and what she was going through. How the tornado of her life spiraled out of control until she found herself older, no acting career, in a shit job she fucking hated, with a crazy fucking kid and a husband she doesn’t even know anymore and can’t connect with. I think that sucks, and how do you deal with that? I just don’t know.
Q: I’m always interested in actors who plays characters they disagree with. How do you find something to grasp on to in there?
Greer: I just try to see it from a whole different point of view. I have to find compassion for the person. For me it helped to watch people on the street and listen to my iPod a lot. I use music a lot. Actually, the last song in the movie I picked. In a roundabout kind of way.
Q: What was the roundabout fashion?
Greer: It’s a song by Neil Finn. I found three songs that got me into the mindset of the character and helped me cultivate some compassion for her and feel that trapped feeling. I listened to them over and over and I was talking to this guy who was doing post-production on the film and we talked about music all the time; he made me all these mix CDs. I said, ‘You put on this Neil Finn song I listened to every day we were shooting.’ He told Danny, Danny listened to the song, and Danny ended the movie with it. When I saw it at Tribeca I didn’t know, and the ending song played and I was like, ‘That’s my character’s song!’ I was so excited.
Q: When you saw it at Tribeca there were probably a lot of things you didn’t know about, because your character almost never interacts with the other stories.
Greer: No, we didn’t. We shot our little movies like short films. It was cool.
Q: Was there ever any overlap at all?
Greer: Not at all.
Q: How is that – you know what your story is, but when you see it fitting into this bigger mosaic, how was that for you?
Greer: It was cool. It was nice to be able to watch and have a break from me. I loved watching how everything was broken apart, and I loved how just when I was excited about what was happening to one character, you would go to another character. I just really liked the idea that all these things are happening in the same city, and in the same vicinity. It feels like life.
Q: What’s next?
Greer: An improvisational movie about poker.
Q: The Grand! I’m coming to visit the set.
Greer: Cool! Are you going to play?
Q: I’ve never played poker.
Greer: You have to learn.
Q: I’m a blackjack man.
Greer: You’ll never beat the house in blackjack.
Q: I had thought my odds were good. Zak [Penn, the director] mentioned to me that people had to learn poker for the movie – did you?
Greer: I don’t think I’m going to be playing poker in the movie, but I know how to play poker. The statistics are that – maybe not in one sitting at a blackjack table – but over the course of your blackjack life you will never break even. You will only lose money, because you’re playing against the house. And the reason you’ll always win playing poker –
Q: Is because you’re playing against other players.
Greer: It’s more about the cards. And more about your betting. And yeah, you’re going to make money off of people consistently. People make a living playing poker, and because poker is so cool now – one of the reasons that casinos stopped having poker is that they couldn’t make any money off of it. There was no profit for the casino. There were a few casinos that had poker rooms, and the Palms was one of them, and now that poker is so popular and hip the casinos are putting them back in.
Q: You’re a real poker expert.
Greer: No, I just read Poker Nation by Andy Bellin! Sean Gunn taught me how to play poker, and he was like, ‘You’ve gotta read this book before you play poker!’ I was like, ‘Yes dad.’