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Judy Greer has a career as a scene-stealer that stretches back to the late 90s, that has her working with icons like David O. Russell, Charlie Kaufman, Cameron Crowe and the enormous cast of Arrested Development. But talking to her a few weeks ago, she was as humble as if she was some nobody lucky enough to be picked by Alexander Payne to star in his new movie The Descendants, in which she plays the wife of the man George Clooney's character was having an affair with. As two spouses jilted by the same affair, Clooney and Greer share one of the film's most powerfully emotional scenes-- and as Greer told me, it helped that it was also a reunion for them, having worked together in 1999's Three Kings. Greer didn't get starstruck over working with Clooney again, but Alexander Payne? That was another story entirely.
Greer is one of the liveliest interview subjects I've ever talked to, sprinkling her speech with phrases like "holy buckets" and "snot rocket" and digressing for a while on her experience killing her first lobster while visiting Maine right before she got cast in The Descendants. There's no lobster talk in the interview below, but you can read about her super-fandom for Alexander Payne, why she doesn't often get cast in more dramatic roles like this, and which of her other co-stars she's been completely starstruck over. The Descendants, which is a wonderful movie, is in theaters now.
When it's an Alexander Payne movie in Hawaii, is there any hesitation before you jump on a role like this?
I did audition for it. I auditioned for it, and I was so excited to get it. It seemed like a real long shot.
Why did it feel like a long shot?
It was like I wanted it so bad that I wouldn't get it. It was before the holidays, and it felt like things were shutting down. I was getting ready to leave for the holiday vacation and, yeah, I just thought "I'm never going to get this part." Honest to God, I was so thrilled just to audition for Alexander, I was happy just to do that. That I got to be in the same room with him. I just wanted to make a good impression. So when I got back from my holiday there's this voicemail from Alexander Payne, which I still have saved. Yes, it was a no-brainer but I did have to audition for it.
Was it something in particular from his previous work that made you excited to work with him?
He makes great films, there is not a dud in the bunch. Citizen Ruth I saw when I was in college, and I really flipped out over it. I just knew I wanted to work with the person who made that movie. As time went on and I became more serious about my career, I thought definitely I want to work with Alexander Payne. And if I never work again, I think I'll be OK-- I got to work with Alexander Payne. What do you do after that?
Because you've been in so many straightforward comedies in the past, did you feel like you had to fight harder in a role for something like this, a more low-key Alexander Payne style comedy?
Yeah. I don't usually get cast in roles like this. I'm pretty sure Alexander was not totally familiar with a ll the work I had done. He hasn't seen a lot of the comedies I've been in. I think that worked to my favor. Sometimes I audition for things and i think I did a pretty good audition, and they say "yeah, I think she's more comedic than for the role."
Did you go to drama school?
So you know how to do all this wide range of stuff.
Yeah, and I think most people do. I think it's natural if you're doing a lot of comedy to do a lot of drama, because you have to figure out the real version of the joke. You're making jokes about something because the real story is hard to deal with, sometimes. Not in a broad comedy, but in a more subtle comedy about families, making fun of people-- I tend to fall in love with the characters I play, so I never want them to be straight goofy and stupid.
This is a movie about infidelity that shows it from an angle you don't usually see in movies, exploring how it affects all four people. Why do you think movies don't usually consider it from all sides?
I think because, right now we're in a phase in society where everything is really voyeuristic and dramatic. A lot of people can't tell the subtle stories about, for example, infidelity. It affects everyone. The easier story to tell is husband and wife. But what's so great about Alexander's version of the story of infidelity is the trickle down, and how it reaches out.
So when you see the entire movie and the entire story emerges, what is the feeling when you see the whole story laid out for you.
It's cool. First of all, just from a fanboy level it's cool to be one of the first people to see the new Alexander Payne movie. i just happen to be in it, which is awesome. I was excited to be on the ground of that, and then I loved seeing how he weaved the story together and what I read in the script and responded so much to come live. I had known George before, but I didn't know Shailene, I didn't know Amara, I didn't know Nick, so it was cool to see their performances. I didn't have that much time with them on set, so I could really lose myself in their performances. I was able to really suspend my disbelief.
What did you work with George Clooney on before?
Three Kings. It's not like we really kept in touch, but he's such an awesome guy, he doesn't forget that stuff. I ran into another great big giant star that I worked with early in my career, and that person was like "Hi, I'm so and so." I'm like "Really, really, you're introducing yourself to me?"
So George Clooney has this stellar reputation but he earns it.
He earns it. Famous people like Jennifer Garner, who's just fucking amazing, and all you ever hear is good things about her, and she is that awesome.
When you have a relationship like that with George Clooney and then you have the big emotional scene in the movie with him, does it help to have that level of comfort already?
Yeah it helped me a lot, because I was never trying to impress George Clooney, I was just acting with a fellow actor, someone I respected and who respected me. I was never starstruck or nervous around him, I was more so with Alexander. But it did help to have someone I was really comfortable with. It's not so much when Im crying that I need to have that support, it's when I can't cry that I need that support. That's when it's really helpful. When everything is coming, when you're feeling it, when you're in the moment its great. When you're not you need someone who's going to give something back.
Not someone who's going to storm off set.
Or chit chat, or make jokes, or fuck around with the crew. He's so super professional and respectful, so that's helpful.
Have you gotten starstruck around other co-stars? You've been working a long time.
I know. You'd think I wouldn't. I do get starstruck pretty much every time i meet someone. I tend to personally pedestalize people. I just did a movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I was just like "oh my god, oh my god."