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: Given that Minnie Driver seemingly spent her entire childhood honing her creative instincts, it’s hardly surprising that she’s built a substantial career as an actress and, when time permits, continues to move forward with a music career as well. After earning her big breakthrough with Circle Of Friends, Driver steadily racked up film credits as well as small-screen roles, including a highly acclaimed (if all too short-lived) stint alongside Eddie Izzard as one of the leads of FX’s The Riches. Currently, Driver can found playing the part of Fiona on NBC’s About A Boy, now in its second season.
Minnie Driver: The only luxury of having been in the business for 140 years is that people sort of know if you’re right for something or not. [Laughs.] Working Title, they’re lovely. They’re old friends of mine, the producers of the show, who also produced the movie, so they just rang me up and asked me, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Yes.” We really do have such a good time doing About A Boy. We really love it. It’s great.
A.V. Club: What was your familiarity with About A Boy going into the series? Had you both read the book and seen the movie?
MD: Yeah, I’ve read the book a lot. And I’ve seen the movie a lot as well. It’s one of my favorite films. And it’s one of my favorite books! I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby in general.
AVC: So could you readily imagine yourself as Fiona, then?
MD: Well, it was a real no-brainer for me to be part of it, because it was just so—it’s just so good, you know? It’s a great character, and it’s a great world that he created.
AVC: For someone who’s going into the series without those other frames of reference, how would you describe Fiona?
MD: She’s a fairly neurotic vegan and a single parent who subscribes to—kind of alternative lifestyles, I suppose. Alternative ways of living, in terms of it being super-holistic and—well, the veganism is a big priority. She’s not very cool. [Laughs.] But she’s very kind and well-meaning, and she lives for her son. So that makes her a bit overprotective, but there’s a lot of comedy to be had out of that.
AVC: How would you say she’s evolved in this second season? Are new sides of her being revealed?
MD: Yeah, you see her fall in love, which is really interesting and awkward and funny. Which is just as it should be, really. It’s not easy for her. At all. But it’s great to see her sort of blossoming in that way, and it’s a lot of fun. They cast a really great actor opposite me, and we’ve been having a great time kind of unfolding that story.
AVC: How much have you been able to bring to the character yourself, and how much do you just let the writers define Fiona?
MD: Well, they know me really well, and they know what they can write for me and what I can do, but she… She’s the writers’ creation, but then at some point you have to breathe life into her. I understand her quite well. She’s an amalgam of a lot of people I’ve known in my life who are very sweet and well intentioned but take themselves way too seriously.
AVC: How many times have you blown a scene because Benjamin Stockham said something you weren’t expecting?
MD: It’s usually David [Walton] who I blow the scene with. [Laughs.] David will say terrible things that will make everyone laugh, and he himself can remain completely poker-faced. It’s a devilish talent. So it’s always David who cracks me up. Or Al Madrigal. Or Annie Mumolo, actually! Ben is so measured and great and wonderful, and… he’s such a great actor! He really is. He’s a great, great actor. But he’s far more predictable than David Walton is.
AVC: Are you enjoying the opportunity to settle back into the routine of a weekly series?
MD: I absolutely love it. Having lived such a gypsy life—my entire life has been lived out of a suitcase in amazing places, and I’ve slept on more couches, happily, and more rented apartments and hotels—to be in my own bed, to get up in the morning, even if it’s at five o’clock in the morning, and to be able to make coffee in my own French press, makes me very happy. It’s really cool. It’s also really weird. I feel like I’m living someone else’s life, because I kind of go to work every day, I drive in rush hour, I listen to the radio… [Laughs.] I feel more normal than I’ve ever felt in my life!
AVC: Ironically, the last time you weren’t living the gypsy lifestyle, you were playing a gypsy.
MD: [Laughs.] That’s exactly right! And that’s definitely my favorite role that I’ve ever gotten to play. She was my love. She was the one I’ve had the hardest time putting down, and I still dream about Dahlia Malloy. It’s the funniest thing. She never really left me. And I really don’t feel that way about any of the other characters that I’ve played.
AVC: And that was your first full-time gig on American television, too. Having an experience like that seems like it could permanently spoil you.
MD: Yeah, it made it very difficult to find anything else that I wanted to do. It was really tricky. I think I made… two other pilots before I found About A Boy. And I liked them, but I didn’t love them, and I think that’s probably why they didn’t work out. Fiona is the first time I really felt like I could get back in the saddle. And she’s the opposite of Dahlia Malloy. She’s as weird and wonderful and kind of unpredictable as Dahlia, but she’s at the other end of the spectrum in terms of comedy.
AVC: So what was the experience of doing The Riches like? FX has certainly proven to be a creator-friendly network.
MD: Well, they are. And if we’d come on the air later, if we’d come on in all these years since—even, like, three or four years ago—I know we’d still be on the air. But the network hadn’t really found out who it was yet. Now it really knows. But John Landgraf, who’s the president of that network, he’s a magic person, creatively. He has incredibly good taste. He’s a great defender of the creator and of the shows. And it’s stunningly bad luck that we were on in the timeframe that we were on. The writer’s strike really killed us. There was time to save us. They were just culling all over the place people who I think had been difficult during the writer’s strike. And we took the hit.
AVC: When you look back at the show, how would you describe it to someone who’s never seen it before? It’s a family drama, but it’s an eccentric family, to say the least.
MD: I’d say it’s about identity. I’d say it’s about how you can put on a disguise, but the reality is that everybody is actually in disguise. Even the people who are not pretending to be someone else, mostly they are, too. And it’s about the dichotomy of human being, of what it is to be living in a society, but also what it is to be a heartfelt person. I haven’t ever come across an idea that was as great as that one. I think Dmitry Lipkin is an absolute genius. To this day, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
AVC: Back when the show originally left the air, Eddie Izzard had been talking up a film script that would continue the series. Is that still being talked about?
MD: You know what? I think you never say never. It’s just about money, really, and getting that together. I think they really tried. In fact, I know they did. And really, really hard. I think it was difficult. But you never know. The topography changes daily in our business. So it may well come around. I’d love it if it did.
AVC: If IMDB can be trusted, it looks as though your first on-camera appearance was as a character named Lydia in a TV production called God On The Rocks.
MD: [Long pause.] You know, it wasn’t that, actually. The very, very, very first thing I did on film was in a show called The House Of Elliot, which was this long-running BBC costume drama. I played a photographer’s model, and I think I had one line. And it was set in the 1920s, so they crimped my hair—and they did it so completely that it all fell out! But I didn’t mind. [Laughs.] It just felt good to be on TV!
AVC: So how did you find your way into a career in acting in the first place?
MD: Well, you know, I’d always done it. I’d always done it at school. I went to an amazing school that really encouraged that. It was a super-liberal arts school. And I’d been writing plays and performing them since I was about 6 years old, so it was very natural. I’d played music and been acting my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t do both.
MD: Yeah! She was a lot of fun. That was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much on a set. And I realized that Jimmy Burrows has been laughing solidly for about 45 years, professionally. It was the happiest set you’d ever walk onto. All they wanted to do was make you funny. And they did. And they’re still my good friends. Sean Hayes is still a really good friend of mine—I love him to pieces—and Megan [Mullally] and Debra [Messing]. They were a beautiful family to be a part of for a minute.
AVC: How did you react when you found out that John Cleese was going to be playing your father?
MD: Well, it’s the greatest news ever, isn’t it? [Laughs.] That’s the greatest person you could ever have playing your dad. Plus, he would tell me all the Fawlty Towers stories. I would just go, “But what about this?” And then he would tell me the story. That man is an icon. I mean, that’s like working with De Niro or Robert Redford. For me, it doesn’t get any bigger than that guy in terms of influence and how many people he influenced and what his writing did, what Monty Python did, what Fawlty Towers did. I mean, for every comedian I’ve ever worked with, he’s the master. So it was fantastic.
AVC: Was there any intrinsic difference for you in doing an American sitcom, as far as the comedic beats?
MD: Well, I’d never done a multi-cam before that, so I didn’t know the difference between a British one and an American one. [Laughs.]
MD: That was a fantastically fun movie as well. God, I—yeah, my son was very young when we shot that in Montreal, and… well, again, you get to work with some really amazing people. Like Paul Giamatti. I hung out with Paul and Scott Speedman a lot on that movie, and they are just diametrically different people, but so fun. Intelligent, great actors. And Dustin Hoffman, who—every day was like a master class just watching and being around him. I mean, that film taught me that you’re always learning. Even still, you’re always a student. You can always keep learning and expanding. And I learned an enormous amount from Paul and from Dustin and from Scott.
MD: Oh, how funny! Well, so this whole troupe of people who are now super famous, but at the time, Patrick Marber, Steve Coogan, Chris Morris, Dave Schneider and everyone else were in this amazing show called The Day Today, which was a fake news program. And Steve Coogan played the sports commentator, and then the character was so popular that they then gave him his own series, so he was in character as this sports presenter who’d been given his own talk show. So I went on as his guest on the talk show, and because he’s an idiot, he hasn’t read my book, and he doesn’t realize… [Starts to laugh.] He’s chatting me up, thinking I’m this hot woman, but my whole book is about how I’m transgender and I was actually a man.
It was incredibly funny, and I was so young. I was probably 19, maybe 20, when I did that. Again, you’re learning your comedic chops off the greats right there, you know? I just remembered laughing. I’ve laughed a lot. I pretty much laugh all the time. I’ve had great teachers, not just at school, but in the work that I’ve done, even if I didn’t know at the time. But Steve Coogan is a master, and Patrick Marber went on to… Didn’t he win the Academy Award for Closer? If not, he’s a master playwright either way.
[Although Marber wasn’t Oscar-nominated for Closer, his screenplay was recognized with BAFTA, Online Film Critics Society, and Satellite Awards nominations for Best Screenplay–Adapted, and it also got a Best Screenplay–Motion Picture nod from the Golden Globes. – ed.]
Princess Mononoke (1997)—“Lady Eboshi”
South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999)—“Brooke Shields”
The Simpsons Movie (2007)—“Grief Counselor” (scene deleted)
AVC: At the risk of pouring salt in a still-raw wound, it had to hurt when you found out that the scene you’d recorded for The Simpsons Movie ended up being cut.
MD: Yeah, it was awful! It was really, really—I was devastated. It was so fun, and it was such a funny scene. It was absolutely hilarious. When everyone was going to die in Springfield, I was kind of helicoptered in to be, like, a grief counselor for the town. But she doesn’t really offer any solace at all. Homer’s going, “Is it going to hurt? Is it going to hurt?” And she goes, “Yes, it will hurt. It will hurt a lot.” [Laughs.] It was really funny. I had the greatest time working with Jim Brooks. It was amazing. But, you know, you can’t win ’em all. That’s how it goes.
AVC: But at least you’ve got your moment in the South Park movie to fall back on.
MD: I do! They’re my friends. Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] have long been my friends and defenders, and they’re magnificent. Magnificent men! I love them. I love them to pieces. I’d do anything for them.
AVC: Your voice work credits are somewhat bipolar: You actually did Bigger, Longer & Uncut on the heels of being part of the English cast for Princess Mononoke.
MD: [Laughs.] Yeah! God, and that was an incredible experience. [Hayao Miyazaki] is like the anime Kurosawa, isn’t he? He’s amazing. It was really cool doing that. I loved it. I loved that film. I haven’t seen that in a very long time, now that you mention it, but I loved doing that film. It’s a great, dark, beautiful story.
AVC: So you enjoy delving into voice work on occasion, then?
MD: I really do, yeah. I’m doing a new film for Disney-Pixar right now, actually, which I’m loving doing. I love it, I really do. It’s so expressive. And I’ve had great vocal training, so it’s very nice to be able to put things that you’re trained in to use. You feel like, “Oh, there was a reason that I did all that training for so long. It was so I could figure out how to do this!” So, yeah, I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy the discipline of it.
AVC: Speaking of your vocal training, it seems as though the first film in which you had a chance to sing was Phantom Of The Opera.
MD: Yeah, that was… intense. It was a big score. It was fun, though. I loved making that film. We had so much fun. But I kind of feel like Carlotta was in a different film to everyone else, like she’s in some random surreal Fellini movie. But I’m really looking forward to getting to properly sing. Like, to really sing in a musical, in a score. I really want to do something modern, and I’m really stoked for when that happens.
AVC: Does Stage Fright not qualify?
MD: [Hesitates.] No.
MD: Well, I don’t think it does, because I’m barely in that film! [Laughs.] And I’ll never see that film, either, because I can’t do violence. I can’t even believe I made that film! But it was such an interesting idea, and the music was so good, and it was only, like, a day’s work, or two days work or something. I kind of wanted to check it out. But I’ll never see it, because I can’t watch horror.
AVC: On the other hand, Hunky Dory is a very sweet film.
MD: Yeah, I loved that movie. I really loved it. It’s a very uniquely British movie, and I think anyone who had an impassioned teacher, who had that experience, could relate to it.
AVC: Was it intimidating to sink your teeth into a Brian Wilson composition?
MD: You know what? It was so beautifully arranged that it wasn’t. It was so lovely. I mean, you can’t sing better music. And it’s such a beautiful song as well. But all the kids in that film just had the most amazing voices, so we sat around all day long and just played music on the set. Someone would have a guitar or a ukulele, and we’d just be playing all day long.
AVC: Do you find it difficult to balance your music career with your acting career? For instance, you just put out a new album. How do you decide when you’re going to focus on which artistic endeavor?
MD: It’s hard. It’s really hard to do. I’m exhausted right now promoting both the show and the record. But it’s good, you know? It’s amazing. I’m so grateful that I get to do it, and that my label is so amazingly supportive. And the record’s really good. It really is. I love it.
AVC: Is there an “emphasis track,” as it were, for people to use as a gateway drug into the album?
MD: You know what? If someone was going to check it out, I would say listen to “Waltz #2,” which is an Elliott Smith cover.
MD: Well, that was amazing. I got that job quite by accident. Mary-Louise Parker was meant to play it, and she dropped out about two days before they started filming. And I happened to be in the casting director’s office while Stanley [Tucci] and Campbell [Scott] were freaking out that they didn’t have anybody to play that role, and… I got the part! I was in New York for a weekend, I had $50 in my pocket—my mom had bought my plane ticket. It was complete and utter chance that brought me to that role.
AVC: You hadn’t done much in the way of comedy at that point, at least not in films. Was it stressful to learn the ropes up against that cast?
MD: Well, I had done the Alan Partridge by that point, and I’d done quite a bit of improv. And most of Big Night was improvised, so it was actually—I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d fallen into something that I understood, that was both dramatic and funny. Because it was quite a dramatic role, Phyllis. There are great comedic moments, but it’s ultimately sort of a sad story for her. But, God, it was great. It was amazing. It was just so easy and terrific with them. It was super long hours, sure, but Campbell and Stanley were just fantastic. They’re fantastic directors.
MD: Um, Ella Enchanted was… Well, you know, uh… [Begins to laugh nervously.] It was kind of fun, I guess. I mean, that was… a job. Yeah, that was a job. And I don’t do too many of those, but that was a job. We had fun, though. That was with Joanna Lumley, and I got to do AbFab because I met Jo on that movie and she asked me to do it, which was the greatest thing in the world. So I think that was probably in retrospect why that was so fantastic. But I got to be in Dublin. Some jobs aren’t about the part or the movie. They’re about going to work. But I got to meet some great people. And meeting Jo was definitely the great thing about that film.
AVC: So what was the great thing about the AbFab experience?
MD: Oh, my God, all of it. All we did was laugh. We just screamed with laughter all day long. But, you know, because I was playing a terrible version of myself, they just kept going, “Are you sure it’s alright that you look so bad? That we’re saying you’re a klepto and you’re awful and you take pictures of yourself in stores?” And I was, like, “Yeah, no, it’s fine.” [Laughs.] It was great!
MD: Great again. [Laughs.] Grosse Pointe Blank was another amazing moment. Super fun. Just the time of my life, really. I was in my 20s, and I was just killing it with John Cusack. Cusack’s a master, he really is. And D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, who co-wrote that movie, are masters, too. It really was one of the great experiences. In fact, it’s probably my favorite movie I’ve made.
AVC: In regards to the “airplane” scene, how many takes did you and Cusack need to get it down just right?
MD: I don’t remember, but probably not that many. We moved pretty fast. And that was all improvised, that whole scene.
AVC: Really? So the airplane bit wasn’t even in the script?
MD: No, not at all. No, we just wanted to have—That was something I used to do with my dad, and we just needed something to show that these two had a history, that they’d known each other so long, and that was a good way of showing that.
AVC: Even though you’re not in GoldenEye for long, you certainly make an impression, but how did you end up in the film in the first place?
MD: I’d made Circle Of Friends, but it hadn’t come out, and I was totally broke. I was living in Uruguay on a beach, and I had 10 dollars to my name, and I got a call at the post office from my agent. I hadn’t worked in a year and I was utterly broke, and she said, “Do you want to come and be in this Bond movie? They’re paying, like, five grand.” And I was, like, “Fuck, yeah! Sure!” [Laughs.] So I came back and did that. But that’s why I’m so suntanned in that, because I’d been living on a beach for a year.
AVC: Well, they certainly provided you with a lovely wardrobe to accent it.
MD: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was good. And it was fun. I mean, being in a Bond movie? It was great!
MD: Return To Me was a beautiful moment. I loved David [Duchovny] and Bonnie [Hunt]. It was a big, romantic studio movie, and that’s pretty much the only one I’ve ever done like that, but it was fantastic living in Chicago. She was a sweet, lovely girl. I loved that girl. She was very gentle.
AVC: How did the cameo in The X-Files come about? Was it just a case of Duchovny asking if you’d pop by?
MD: Yeah, pretty much. [Laughs.] That’s just Hollywood, being, like, “Hey, come do this!”
AVC: Same deal with Goats?
MD: Yeah, but… I was in that movie. That was the fuck of that film: I was properly in that film, and they cut every single scene. That was one of those ones where you go, “What the fuck did I do that for? Why did I show up and do good work for you?” It was cut completely, and… that pissed me off, actually, I’ve got to say. That was the only one that I’ve ever done where I was, like, “That was not cool.” But I’d do anything for Dave. And that wasn’t even him. I mean, I wanted to do it because of him, and I would do anything with him, but… yeah, they kind of screwed me on that movie. So I don’t care about that movie. I’m glad it tanked! [Laughs.]
MD: Well, that’s the part that gave me everything, really. That’s the part that opened the doors to every other part I ever got, and it’s one of the greatest, most beautiful, beloved characters of Maeve Binchy’s. That was totally career-defining for me. It was just—It was great. And it wasn’t a million miles from me. I mean, I was very, very young when I did that film, and it was kind of easy to channel that girl with big dreams and who was insecure about her body. It was a beautiful place to begin.
[Driver’s phone battery died before we got to Good Will Hunting; when reached by email she said, “It’s pretty rare to be in a classic movie and I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. It was a role of a lifetime.” —ed.]