Skip to main content

The Story Behind Instant Family’s Surprise Cameo

Joan Cusack reading up on adoption law

*Warning: Spoilers for _Instant Family_ are in play. If you haven't seen the film yet, bookmark this page and come back once you're current. *

Towards the end of Instant Family, a heartfelt moment between Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, and Isabela Moner ensues. It starts out as your usual scene where foster parent and child, after a film's worth of conflict and sparring, break down and admit that they're a better family than they thought the whole time. But there's one big difference between this scene and similar examples that came before it in the course of film history, and it all comes down to a surprise cameo that co-writer / director Sean Anders took the opportunity to include.

In this big scene, a comedic undercurrent is injected, courtesy of a neighbor to Wahlberg and Byrne's Pete and Ellie. Played by Joan Cusack, she inserts herself into the moment in a sweet, but definitely weird way, as only a legendary talent like Cusack could ever do. When CinemaBlend spoke to Anders about this scene, and how it came to be, he started to describe it as follows:

One of the great thrills of my career was many years ago, I got the opportunity to spend about two hours on the phone with John Hughes, and he's my hero. And we were talking about a project that unfortunately never came to fruition. We had a conversation about the project, and then I was able to just have a general conversation with him about comedy and drama. And one of the lessons that he taught me on that call is, it's not the size of a laugh, but it's how it feels. What he meant by that was, you can grab the audience emotionally and then turn it into a laugh.

As the writer / director of such classics as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, the latter of which Sean Anders discussed in our conversation, John Hughes had a blockbuster-sized understanding of such a process. His ability to take something like Anthony Michael Hall's potential suicide plotline from The Breakfast Club and turn it into a laugh was something that Anders cited as a particularly powerful example.

With the gun in Brian's locker turning out to be one of the flare-shooting variety, that twist, in Sean Anders' words, "lets the audience off the hook." It's a technique that lets the emotion play, but with the right button at the end, deploys a satisfying resolution through a powerful laugh. Obviously, Anders wanted that to happen in Instant Family, so not only did he need the right moment, he needed the perfect co-star.

That fateful conversation with John Hughes would pay off big time, when Sean Anders would receive a rather serendipitous piece of advice as he was preparing the film for production. He continued explaining this story, as seen below:

In the ending, we had always had this idea for this neighbor character who winds up having this emotional outpouring, and this big sort of family confrontation that happened in her yard randomly and she doesn't even know these people. We always thought that that was just a really funny point of view for a character, and we couldn't think of who it should be. And our casting director, Sheila Jaffe said, 'What about Joan Cusack?' And that brought it right back to the inspiration, which is John Hughes. And I thought, 'Oh my God, that is the best idea ever.' And then we went to her, and I was very adamant about getting her. So we made sure that when we went to her, we went in hard and she said yeah. So we got her just for the one day and she came in and did that cameo, and people go bananas when they see her in the movie.

Anyone who's a Joan Cusack fan, especially someone who's seen her in films of the John Hughes era, knows that it doesn't take much for her to latch onto a moment and deliver some well paced comedic beats. So seeing her drop by in the middle of Instant Family's emotional climax does reel things a bit, so as to not allow the film's resolution to fall into the totally heartwarming side of the pool.

Instant Family Sean Anders directing a scene, while cracking Octavia Spencer up

While you can still take the moment seriously, the laughs her appearance generates punctuate the scene with the sort of comic energy and honesty that the rest of the film takes advantage of. If your kids were crying in a neighbor's yard, surely they'd pop outside to see what was going on themselves. It's an honest moment, in a film where the talent behind its making have heralded honesty as one of their biggest assets.

All it takes is a slight comic exaggeration of the moment, with Joan Cusack delivering a slightly weird, but definitely honest energy to it, and the scene becomes a crucial part to the machinery that makes Instant Family so unique. As far as how audiences reacted to the film, Sean Anders had something to say about that as well:

That's always one of the biggest laughs in the movie. I love it because it's also at the place in the movie where as an audience member, I think you just need that release of a huge laugh right there. It feels great.

Comedy and drama are two sides to the same coin, and it's not always easy to flip between them. But with the heartfelt approach to both genres in Instant Family, the film takes its audience on a journey that'll make them laugh, as well as cry.

Audiences gave Instant Family a chance this past weekend, even though it was stacked up against a heavy-hitter franchise sequel in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and the animated remake of The Grinch. In its debut weekend, Instant Family climbed to a respectable $14.7 million opening, good for a fourth-place spot on the weekend Top 10. But we expect the movie to continue to perform as the holiday weekend rolls along, and families are looking for a diversion at the local movie theater. Positive word of mouth on the comedy, which has a 79% Fresh grade, should continue to power interest.

Instant Family is in theaters now, just in time for your Thanksgiving viewing needs.

Mike Reyes

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.