Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Megan Mullally, probably still best known for her two-Emmy-winning role as high-pitched rich bitch Karen Walker on the long-running Will & Grace. But her appearances on some of the most critically/cultishly beloved comedies of the last five years—not to mention the two decades plus she’s spent as a television journeyman—have earned her a reputation for being, as Grantland recently put it, one of television’s hardest-working comic actors. From regular roles on Party Down and Childrens Hospital to memorable guest turns on 30 Rock, Happy Endings, and perhaps most notably Parks And Recreation, where she plays the crazy ex-wife of her real-life husband Nick Offerman, Mullally has carved out a memorable place for herself in some of TV’s funniest ensembles. The creators of Breaking In are apparently banking on those skills: They brought her in as part of a major retooling for the cancelled-then-uncancelled Fox comedy, which returns March 6.
Breaking In (2012)—“Veronica”
Megan Mullally: I play this character named Veronica who is working for this giant conglomerate that’s taking over the entire high-tech security firm that the series is predicated upon. So it’s a corporate takeover, which is not ideal for them, but the other bad news is, it’s me, and my character’s very annoying. She’s just a weird woman. Crazy as a fox is a better way to describe it. So she comes in and has a very unusual personality and an unusual way of wielding authority. She basically pawns everything off on her poor assistant, who’s this great, young English actress, Erin Richards. But it’s kind of like she’s the mother and I’m the child and she’s constantly having to run damage control on me, but I also at the same time do know what’s what. It’s a little deceptive, my personality. But there’s a character on the show named Creepy Carol, played by Jennifer Irwin, who’s this very, very weird, freaky girl/woman, and it’s turning out that Veronica and Creepy Carol are becoming besties, because I don’t think she’s weird, I think she’s awesome.
The A.V. Club: This isn’t the first time where you’ve joined an in-progress show as a regular.
MM: Well, it’s pretty different now. When I was in Party Down, that show just kept going in exactly the same fashion that it was before, whereas this show is being almost completely revamped. They’ve brought in these two new characters, me and my assistant, whose character’s name is Molly, and the other characters now are just Christian Slater, Bret Harrison, and Alphonso McAuley, and then Odette Annable is going to recur because she’s on House now too, so she can’t really do every episode. So it’s very different, because they’re trying to rebuild the show in many ways. It’s taking on a very different tone, it has a little bit more in-your-face comedic tone than it had before, and they’ve cut back considerably on the security-firm aspect, so they’re not doing as many capers and heists and techno-geek things. It’s more about the people and the relationships between the characters.
The Children Nobody Wanted (1981)—“Sharon”
AVC: To jump all the way to the other end of your IMDB page, this is the first role listed. Do you remember doing it?
MM: Yes, I remember that, definitely. I think I was 20 and it was the first TV thing I ever auditioned for in Chicago. And I had two lines, and I remember in my audition, they were like, “Oh my God, she’s a star.” I mean, they went insane over my audition, and it was two lines, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s all happening.” And then I got there on the day and was so nervous that I could barely function, and I could barely bring the magic. Not that I ever brought any magic, I think that was all in their imaginations, but I was so petrified to do my two lines. And then we were shooting in some small town in Missouri, and there was a tornado—and I’m from Oklahoma, so I’m familiar with those. We were staying in a Holiday Inn and we were all downstairs in the restaurant, and I was having dinner with Michelle Pfeiffer, and the waitress came running in and screamed out that a tornado was coming, that she had just heard on the radio. And so everybody is getting all freaked out, and we all had to go down to the lowest level and get under card tables. So Michelle Pfeiffer and I and two other people were under a card table together. I really haven’t seen her since we were hiding under a card table from a tornado. And the tornado took out the Walmart-ish super-store that was across the street from the hotel. It was gone. That’s how close it came.
AVC: Between that and how intimidated you were on set, it’s surprising you continued on in the business and didn’t consider it a bad omen.
MM: [Laughs.] I know, exactly. It didn’t seem like the signs were in my favor, but I was clueless to that.
Party Down (2010)—“Lydia Dunfree”
MM: Like I said, I came into that show and they didn’t skip a beat. They were right on, and I had to be in step with them. So the very first morning, my first scene up, I was like, “Okay, let’s pull a character out of my ass. I’ve got the wig and I’ve got the glasses. Now what goes with this wig and these glasses?” You really had to hit the ground running. And I did, and I liked that character quite a bit. I thought her positivity was very sweet, and she was just wanting things to be happy. I think those are nice qualities. But I also knew that—my first scene that I shot was a scene with Lizzy [Caplan] in the kitchen area of this venue where we were supposed to be working, and I knew that Lizzy’s character was the last character who would want somebody coming up in their face and being over-familiar with them, so that’s exactly what I did. And I loved any scene with Lizzy, because I loved the dynamic between those two characters. There couldn’t be any two more opposite women on the planet, and I thought that was great for the show. I thought it was fun to play. I loved all the actors and characters on that show, and working with everybody. That’s an extraordinarily close-knit group of people, and they took me under their wing right away, and everybody was very welcoming and gracious. It was great.
AVC: It sounds like you kind of developed the character on the fly. How much of Lydia was presented to you before you actually got on set?
MM: Well, I had three scripts, which was a luxury, because I didn’t have any scripts when I signed on to do Breaking In. Which I said I would never do again. Whatever. So I had three scripts, so I had a pretty good idea, and I had the great advantage of having seen the first season. I knew all the characters and who I was going to be interacting with, and sort of how I could play differently off each person and each character. I had an advantage there. So I’m saying I pulled it out of my ass there, but I had three scripts and kind of knew what I wanted to bring to the table in general. It’s just that you can’t plan it out too much, because when you’re there on the day, you have to go with the flow. If I had something in mind and it didn’t feel right, once I was there on the set, I would scrap it and come up with something else.
Will & Grace (1998-2006)—“Karen Walker”
AVC: Karen was the big breakout character on Will & Grace, which seems like it would invite typecasting. Were you resistant to that? Do you think it’s helped you?
MM: You know, I didn’t pay any attention to that, because that character of Karen is so far away from me in real life, I never gave it a second thought. I can understand everybody associates me with Karen, but beyond that, I think after time passes and a few years go by, that sort of becomes a non-issue. That character is far—I mean really, all the characters I’ve played are pretty far away from what I’m really like. Which makes it so much easier for me, and it’s so much more enjoyable. I love creating new characters that are whatever they are.
When I first auditioned for [Will & Grace], I auditioned for Grace, and they stared blankly at me, and I slumped out of the room. And a couple weeks later, my agent called and said they wanted me to audition for this pilot called Will & Grace, and I was like, “I did audition for it,” and he said it was for a new part. I asked what other part, so they sent me the script and I read it, and I said, “Oh God, I don’t want to play that part, it’s exactly like what I’ve done before.” So then I looked at it again and thought I could put sort of a new twist on it, where it would be quirky and different. So I went back in and I got the part. And you know, if you’ve ever seen the pilot of Will & Grace, the character is very different than what it became. It’s much more by-the-numbers.
AVC: She wasn’t as weird as she became.
MM: She wasn’t weird, although I made her weirder than it had been originally. But it wasn’t weird enough, so I kept trying to bring in the quirks and colors to the character, and they wrote to that, so we just kept building. I wanted to do things like the high voice earlier on, but I was positive that they would fire me. So I worked it in gradually. I was sure the voice would work for that style of comedy and that particular show and that particular character, because my regular speaking voice is very laconic, and that voice has a lot more energy. But also, I just thought it was funny that this über-rich woman who is so critical of other people would have this—literally, her speaking voice makes you want to murder her.
AVC: Was that show taped in front of a live studio audience?
MM: Yes, it was. People always think that there was a fake laugh track and stuff, but there actually wasn’t. There were many, many episodes where there was no laugh track whatsoever, because as a matter of fact, if anything, we had too many laughs. You know, you have 21 and a half minutes of actual show, and sometimes we had as much as five minutes of just laughing. That leaves you with very little dialogue.
AVC: Multi-camera sitcoms with live studio audiences are almost unheard-of now. What do you think about that transition? Do you miss the rhythm of that, and the energy of having a live audience?
MM: I like both. Multi-camera’s fun, because you have the immediacy of the audience, and just being able to tell the story more or less straight through. The thing I like about single-camera is that you have the luxury of shooting a lot of different options. You can really shoot things you think might work on camera one way, then you can try it that way, and then if you think it could also work another way. You have that luxury of shooting a bunch of different steps, and then they can decide in editing what works the best.
Parks And Recreation (2009-2011)—“Tammy Swanson”
AVC: Had you been looking for something to do with your husband, or did the writers approach you?
MM: That came from them, and I was thrilled. I didn’t think that they would ever have me on that show, because on The Office, they never had any recognizable people on until way down the road. They all had newer, fresher faces that weren’t so known to the general public, so I didn’t think they would ever have me on. Then they wanted to know if I’d be interested in playing Nick’s ex-wife, and of course I was like, “Yes!” That first script that they wrote, “Ron And Tammy”—oh my God, what a brilliant episode. And then “Ron And Tammy: Part Two” was another amazing piece of writing. So good.
Nick and I had so much fun shooting those. When we were shooting the first scene on the first day, at 6 o’clock in the morning, and the scene was that Nick and I were supposed to screech into the parking lot of a motel in Burbank, and run into this motel room to have, like, crazy jackrabbit sex. So I decided, at 6 in the morning—and I hadn’t really even met any of the cast—I said, “Nick, I’m gonna take my shirt off,” and he was like, “All right.” So I took my bra off in advance and as we screeched into the parking lot, I threw it out the window of the car, and then after running into the hotel room, I just pulled my whole sweater off. And they said, “Cut!” and the director came over and said “Hi, I’m Troy.” Like, I hadn’t even met the director yet.
AVC: That must be why they invited you back.
MM: [Laughs.] Probably. “Bring her back, she’ll take her clothes off.” It was really fun. The next scene we shot was the sequence in the diner, where we ended up actually sort of trashing the diner. Nick literally ripped the table out of the wall. The customers were obviously background people hired to be there, but there were a lot of outtakes from that. I mean, they could probably do a 10-minute reel of outtakes from that sequence. We were abusing the other patrons of the restaurant, we were abusing the manager of the restaurant, we were throwing food, we were throwing full glasses of water at each other’s faces, stuff that didn’t make the actual cut, but was really fun to do. So that was a blast. That show was still kind of new at that time, and I knew it was a great show, but people hadn’t quite gotten on the bandwagon yet, you know? Party Down is an excellent show with excellent show-runners and an excellent cast. Same with Parks And Rec, it’s unbelievable. The entire cast—and they have 10 regulars—are all unbelievable. They have this incredible producer, Morgan Sackett, who just makes that show run so smoothly. They shoot 12 hours or more, and almost always have at least one or two days a week off, each character. It’s just a great show: great writing, great cast.
AVC: The various residents of Pawnee have become such a huge part of the show that you’ll probably get to go back whenever you want.
MM: Yeah, Nick said in an interview that they have some big episodes planned for Ron and Tammy at the beginning of next season, and I don’t know what it is yet. It’s just a rumor at this point, but that would be fun.
Murder, She Wrote (1988)—“Molly Connors”
AVC: I’ve never seen this episode you guest-starred in, but I have to ask you about it because it’s called “Coal Miner’s Slaughter.”
MM: [Laughs.] Okay, first of all, please watch it. You will not believe how amazing it is. I was 27 or 28; I had moved to L.A. when I was 26. I did really well the first year here, but then didn’t work for two years or something. This was, I think, the job that came at the end of those two years. I got a call, and I’d never been hired from anything just from my reel. I mean, I was destitute. I had no money, I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent, and I got this call that I’d booked an episode of Murder, She Wrote off of my reel, and it paid $5,000. I think I literally dropped to my knees and started crying. I was ecstatic.
The first morning, my alarm didn’t go off and I was really late, and everybody was really mad. But then I did the first scene and they were like, “Oh, she’s good,” and Angela Lansbury took sort of a miniature shine to me. Nothing crazy, but she was really nice to me. She was a lovely person, very gracious, as you can imagine. She took a shine to me, and was very nice to me, and thought I was a really good actress. Well meanwhile, this episode—you know, the show had a lot of guest stars—had Barbara Bain and Hoyt Axton and [Chuck Connors and Denver Pyle], and they’ve all passed away except for Barbara Bain—and me. At the first act break, I get framed for murder, and Axton is the sheriff, and he says to me, “Molly, I’m puttin’ you under arrest for the murder of so-and-so,” and then it was literally one of the scenes where there’s music like [imitates dramatic music cue] and they cut to each person: Barbara Bain, Angela Lansbury, me, Axton, and some other celebrity. And they cut to each of our faces, separately, our reactions. Like, “What?! No! It couldn’t be! What’s happening?!”
AVC: It’s like a sketch or a spoof of a mystery show.
MM: It’s like SNL. Literally, like a sketch. And it was heaven on earth. I knew at the time we were shooting it that I was going to fucking love it because it was so queer. And it was.
AVC: So you went into it with a “This is silly” attitude?
MM: Well, no. I was just absolutely out-of-my-mind grateful that they offered me this job, because I could pay my rent for three months. It was like a miracle when I got that job, so I was really excited about it. But I also knew that it wasn’t, like, a cool, young, “Hollywood” thing to be doing. It was an episode of Murder, She Wrote, which was a very popular show, but not necessarily a “cool” show. But I’ve never cared if it was cool or not. Maybe my way of being elitist is to not be elitist? I don’t know. I’ll try anything, basically. I’ll say “yes” to pretty much anything, as long as the people involved are nice people. And I want the material to be relatively good, obviously, but I don’t care if it’s cool.
Childrens Hospital (2008-2012)—“Chief”
MM: I wanted to do Childrens Hospital because that show is a hotbed of comedic creativity. I mean, those guys—David Wain, Rob Corddry, Jon Stern—everyone involved in that show, including the entire cast, it’s on a separate plane, I think. I’ve learned so much just from Childrens Hospital alone.
AVC: It’s definitely a more absurd type of comedy. Was there any kind of adjustment for you to get into the swing of what they were doing?
MM: Many of the people I’ve worked with over the years came from a sketch-comedy background or an improv background, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Even 10 years ago, or certainly 15 years ago, if you’d gone into a show and improvised—it was unheard of. And now, it’s like if you don’t improvise, you might be in trouble. It’s totally changed. Everybody wants you to improvise now.
AVC: But Childrens is pretty tightly scripted, right?
MM: They’re all tightly scripted. It’s not so much that we’re crazy about actually improvising; it’s more about just being really loose, and if something else happens that wasn’t scripted, and that’s funny too, then you go with that. So it’s just a different mindset, and everybody on Childrens is so good that it’s somewhat expected. When I first started doing that show, I only did the web series, and I didn’t know anybody. I’d met Rob Corddry once, but I really didn’t know any of the other people except Ken Marino, who I’d worked with a couple of times on other things. I thought, “Come on, who are these people, I’ve never heard of them?” And then they’re all just so brilliant, and I learned so much from everybody.
That show has a special tone, you know? It’s almost like it’s done on the fly, but it’s not; it’s very carefully thought-out. All the department heads have a really low budget to work with, but all of them are so good at their jobs. There’s something really fun about it, like “It’s not a real show, we’re just doing something naughty in somebody’s basement.” But it is a real show, and it’s brilliantly conceived, and I think conceptually and stylistically, the show is groundbreaking in many ways. I think in 10 years, it’ll creep onto networks, if there still are networks. Network just isn’t ready for it right now. It’s sort of an “anything goes” type of atmosphere. There’s not really any season arc, and characters don’t really have arcs. It’s just kind of jokes, but it’s so well done. Those guys are geniuses, and they’re such nice guys. When you’re that brilliant, you can afford to be really cool and nice.
Happy Endings (2011-2012)—“Dana Hartz”
MM: Yeah! I loved doing Happy Endings. That was another one that, the first episode I did… My God, that part they wrote for me was so incredible!
AVC: It’s amazing how perfectly you and Casey Wilson fit as mother and daughter.
MM: We didn’t know! Nick and I had gone to a party downtown that was all comedy people. And we went in the club, and we went downstairs—I’d been watching Happy Endings, and I thought it was really funny, but nobody had really gotten on the bandwagon yet. And I see her, and I’m like, “Oh my God! Hey!” We introduce ourselves, and I’m like, “I love your show, I think it’s so good and you’re great on it. I think it’s going to do really well,” and she’s like “Oh my God, thanks!” I had my phone out, and we were just chatting, and I said, “Let me get your information.” And then she was flipping through the address book in my phone, and she was like, “Oh my God!” She thought I had a lot of good names in my phone. Which is odd, because I don’t really have that many good names. But anyways, so then I guess she went and pitched me to them and said, “Megan Mullally, I met her at a party, she loves the show, blah blah blah.” So they wrote this episode, and it was such a great, generous role that they wrote for me.
And we got on the set and it turned out that Casey Wilson and I have a rapport, like, we literally have a psychic connection. We could make up song lyrics simultaneously together. We didn’t know that going in, but we do, and it’s really, really fun to work with her. I love her, she’s a doll. And that whole cast, oh my God. It’s a wonderful show run by wonderful people, and the cast is charming, delightful. They’re all young actors that are all so good. … I can’t believe how many great, young actors in their 20s and 30s are now comedic actors. It’s so great. Comedy’s so different now; it’s more high-stakes, it’s fresher, you can do a lot more. And also, women are allowed to be on-par with men now, comedically, which wasn’t really the case years ago. Certainly, women did it, like Carol Burnett and Imogene Coca, but for the most part, it was the funny guy and then the hot babe.