After years of being on the cusp of “The Next Big Thing,” Gretchen Mol shot to prominence in 2005 playing the title role in The Notorious Bettie Page. To follow up that dark, sexy role, Mol has done a complete 180 for The Ten, playing a virginal librarian who has a sexual awakening in Mexico with none other than Jesus Christ (played by Justin Theroux). With a baby due in September, Mol had plenty to say not only about her experience seeing Knocked Up (she cried), but just where her career will go next.
This is completely different from Bettie Page, from something so dark to something so light. Is this the reason you did it, to get away from that dark place?
Mol:I wish I could say I planned it that way. It came along and it struck me as funny and it was people that I knew, I knew their work, so it seemed like, why not? It was a genre that I don’t get to do that often, muscles that I don’t get to stretch or play with that much. Usually I have to convince people that I could be in a comedy. With Paul [Rudd] and David [Wain], they knew me and they knew my history a little bit, and I knew them. I got the script and I was shocked they thought of me.
Do you have people that you want to work with now that you do comedy?
Mol:Woody Allen--I’d love to work with him again, in a larger capacity [Mol was in 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown]. Judd Apatow is certainly amazing. I feel like the comedy thing is opening up for me. There’s another film I did called Trainwreck that’s coming out, it’s with Seann William Scott. It’s got an element of drama to it but it’s essentially comedic. I’ve always loved comedy, but you start doing one thing and everyone thinks you do that. Then and opportunity like this comes along and you do that.
A lot of your scenes are really silly, like with Justin Theroux walking on water and the naked dance party at the end. Was it hard to play it straight in your scenes?
Mol:Trying to keep a straight face through some of it was hard. David and Ken [Marino:] were always pretty straightforward about wanting people to play it straight, because the situations are so funny, you don’t really need to work it in any way. Also, I’m not so experienced with comedy, but I know if you try to be funny, that’s a recipe for disaster. As soon as you start thinking you’re being funny, you’re not. It’s very similar to doing something dramatic-- if you’re overfeeling something, you leave no room for the audience to come to you and feel anything.
How did you play it straight?
Mol:Well, it’s funny, when we were in the boat trying to do the Spanish...
Was that improv?
Mol:God no. It was all scripted. Every role has its challenges, and that was one of them, just to try to get that right. We were in Mexico so you really felt the pressure with the accent and sounding completely ridiculous. It was funny seeing Justin sort of struggle through it, and then it was my turn. Neither one of us is really fluent.
What’s the vibe like on a comedy like this that’s so raucous? I’m sure there’s also the day to day grind too. Is it upbeat all the time, or more serious and down to business?
Mol:It’s both. We shot in Mexico for five days, and that was really fun because we were all staying in the same villa. At the end of the day you’d come home and everybody would have margaritas, and it was fun. They had also shot the rest of the film, so this was the last hurrah. But the structure and work that they did-- I don’t know exactly how much went into it-- but from reading the script and seeing what they did with it, there was definitely always a real backbone and structure. The cinematographer did such a great job--each vignette has its own flavor, mine being the very torrid high romance. They’re different worlds that they’ve created. I was even unaware that that was going on.
Was it much of a challenge to keep it straight when you’re going into a room full of naked, or at least theoretically, naked men?
Mol:That was another challenge. Sometimes when you’re watching ‘SNL’ and they kind of lose it, it’s fun because it’s live. You can’t get away with that if you’re making a film and it’s only 2 hours. It’s like, come on , get it together and do your job. You just have to get behind what the character feels.
Would you want to do ‘SNL’ if they asked you?
Mol:I would love to. I’d be terrified, but I would love to do it.
When you saw it all assembled, were you on the floor? Running out of the room?
Mol:Well, I felt that way with Wet Hot American Summer too. There’s so many moments, and it gets funnier every time you see it. It’s that kind of comedy that opens up in a way—there’s so many little details and expressions and moments. It’s so subjective, what’s funny and why people find some people funny. You can’t really identify why it’s so funny, and you just hope that other people get it too.
Was there anything that pushed the envelope, or you thought ‘How are they going to get away with this?’
Mol:I wondered initially, ‘Is this going to push buttons?’ But I think their brand of comedy has got this element of sweetness, almost, behind it. Even the idea of using the Ten Commandments, I’ve had the question, ‘Do you think this is going to be controversial?’ I don’t even see that as possible. It’s not trying to be anything that has to do with the Ten Commandments. I guess you could have a problem with them using that as a structure, but y’know, have a sense of humor.
The musical part at the end reminds me of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Mol:That’s so true! I remember when I went to do my little piece, everything was so glittery. It was very much like Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, that end-of-summer, everyone gets together and does the big musical number.
How many of you were all together for that scene? Because it seemed like some of you were together, but a lot of you were in different shots.
Mol:Yeah, it’s definitely disjointed. I think the day I was there the rhino was there, but I didn’t know the rhino was there, and Liev was there. The shame is that I didn’t get to meet everyone that’s in the cast.
Can you tell us more about trying to break into comedy when that’s not what you’re known for? Have there been parts that you’ve been out for that you haven’t gotten because of that?
Mol:I’ve definitely auditioned for lots of comedies. I think I auditoned for Talladega Nights. I’ve gone in on many things and haven’t gotten them. That’s just the way of the business. I don’t know that it’s a comedy vs. drama thing. The great thing for me is when a project like this comes along and I don’t have to fight for it or convince anyone I can do it. They trusted me with it, and I can show another color or something that’s there.
You’re in really important parts of the film, too, parts that tie it all together. It’s a good way to get attention. I can really see you in a Judd Apatow film.
Mol:Oh, I would love to. I cried at Knocked Up.[General laughter due to the fact that she is quite pregnant] I didn’t know anything about it when I went in. Of course, the title is Knocked Up, but it somehow didn’t occur to me that it had anything to do with that, so I was really taken for the ride.
What are your favorite comedies out there right now, along with Knocked Up? Or how about all-time?
Mol:Well, Fast Times [At Ridgemont High] is one of the best. Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation-- I really miss Chevy Chase. I loved the first Vacation, and I knew every word of it.
It sounds like you’re not planning to give up work after you give birth-- you’re going to have a child, but you’re not going to give up working.
Mol:I think the good thing is that the pursuit of the work will take on a different feeling for me. I welcome that feeling. It’s one of those unknowns, really. I don’t know if I’ll see him and say “I’m never working!” or “I’m so into motherhood, i don’t want to work for 2 years.” I don’t feel that I have that luxury anyway. I’ve always liked work, whether it was coat-checking or whatever it was. I like to be active and involved in something, and I’m sure I’ll be involved in motherhood, and that certainly may be enough. It’s a part of myself that makes me who I am, so I don’t want to totally let go of that.
Do you think motherhood will change the kinds of roles that you want to do or don’t want to do?
Mol:I can’t say. I think there’s this idea that people choose their parts, and I know some actors do. You can say no to things, but basically it’s what comes in your direction. I would never have expected Bettie Page to come my way, but it ended up being the perfect thing for me.
Would you ever consider writing or directing your own film?
Mol:The directing thing is not really my thing. My husband is a director [Tod Williams, who made The Door in the Floor and The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, and I see how he does it, and of course people do it all different ways. but you really have to have the desire to direct a lot of people and have answers for people and operating on an immediate instinct. I like to take the question home with me and really hash it through and think it out and come back with an answer I feel really good about. It’s hard to do that with film. Film is about making your day sometimes. But everyone’s different--maybe down the line.
How did you know that acting was your calling?
Mol:When I look back on it I see signs from a very early age that I loved performing. I didn’t know what it meant or what it entailed until I got here to New York and started studying. When people started saying ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I threw that out there, not knowing what it meant really, and no one around me really knew how to go from there. Any time anyone said ‘What’s your Plan B?’ I would say ‘I think if you have a Plan B then Plan A isn’t going to happen.’ Easy when you’re 22 but... [laughs].
One thing you do get from motherhood is time to sit down and consider scripts. Do you think about the idea that now is my chance, I can go out for things, solicit things. Is this the chance?
Mol:I’ve always felt there’s a good amount of time in this profession. The downtime has always been the struggle time in a way, to try to stay sane and not get frustrated. My thought about having an addition, it will maybe focus me in a certain way to at least be specific about things that I want. I have also learned this lesson in this business that trying to wait around for the perfect thing doesn’t always happen. The power you have is to say no to things. Maybe that means putting more of yourself into it, like writing. I like writing, I really do, but I think if I wrote I would want to do short stories or essays, I don’t think I would want to do screenwriting.
Do you have a wish list for parts, ideas for types of role that you want to do in the future? And can you tell us about any directors you want to work with?
Mol:I’d love to work with the Coen Brothers. I love their films so much. Every time one of these musical movies come out, I think “I really want to do that.” I have a musical theater background, I did Roxie on Broadway for a little while. It’s there and sort of dormant in me, and I’d love to find something like that. I don’t love tons of musicals, but I think they’re really fun to do. I had so much fun doing Chicago.
You’ve had a varied bunch of roles in your career. What do people ask you about yoru old characters?
Mol:The thing that people can talk me about most is probably Bettie Page, just as an experience. The thing that people have seen the most is probably Rounders.
It’s getting quite the cult following.
Mol:It really is, and poker thing has sort of exploded. In some ways that was so long ago, and it was such an icky role in a way. It’s such a guyish film, and the role was such a nagging person. And I look back and I think I would have done things differently. I was still learning. But then again, there was only so much you could do with that kind of a role.
As your career has progressed, do you feel like you have more ownership of characters in this stage of your career?
Mol:When I first started I was very serious, and I approached it in a different way. I didn’t understand film as much. I feel like I understood acting and character. As time has gone on you have to be able to see objectively how you fit into a film. You’re not always going to be Bettie Page in The Notorious Bettie Page. If you’re not that then you need to adjust and say ‘This is who this person is, how can I shed light here? I only have five scenes to show you this person and show you different facets of this person.’ I learned that over time.
One good thing about doing Bettie Page, is you got a chance to really get into a character and dig in deep.
Mol:I got confidence. If an actor gets one or two of those roles in a career, you’re really lucky.