Ari Graynor on Lucky, Her Dramatic Plans, and Being a Funny Lady in Hollywood
Chances are you first laid eyes on former Verge designee Ari Graynor as a gum-snapping party girl in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the breakout role that put the 28-year-old actress on Hollywood's radar back in 2008. Since then, she's continued to steal scenes in films like Youth in Revolt, Whip It, and Holy Rollers, but as she prepares for another big comedic year ahead of her (plus a run on Broadway), Graynor's ready to take her next big leap -- right into leading lady territory for the first time -- in the indie black comedy Lucky.
For Graynor, the plum role in Gil Cates Jr.'s delightfully twisted quasi-romantic comedy was a godsend, the rare leading role that also offered copious amounts of madcap comedic potential. As Lucy, the opportunistic dream girl who marries Colin Hanks's lottery winner for money (only to find out he's a serial killer -- some girls have terrible luck), Graynor shows off not only her trademark comic chops, but deftly blends the funny with surprisingly moving pathos.
Movieline spoke with Graynor via phone about her turn in Lucky, borne of a concerted effort to move from supporting to leading roles, her dramatic and theater-heavy past (fun fact: Graynor's already performed on Broadway twice, and will return to the stage for Woody Allen's next play), her full slate of upcoming comedies, and why she agrees with What's Your Number co-star Anna Faris's lament of the dearth of good female roles in Hollywood -- but remains optimistic nonetheless.
Lucky is a fun film to watch you in, partly because it's fun to see you in a leading role at long last!
Aw, thank you. It definitely was an incredible opportunity for me, primarily creatively, because Lucy is such a unique creation, and also career-wise it was a lovely gift and challenge to be able to step it up and take on a leading role. After seven years of making movies, it finally felt like I knew enough and felt confident enough in front of the camera to do that. And working with Colin [Hanks] was so fantastic, the two of us hit it off like gangbusters and became such close friends when we shot. To be able to play with each other as we did with these really crazy, outlandish people but to also create a reality there was really exciting.
It is a tricky tone, but it works -- it's a black comedy with heightened moments but you feel grounded in these characters as people, despite the fact that one's a gold-digger and the other is a murderer. And deep down inside, it really is a relationship comedy.
It's funny, because it's obviously the most heightened version of this relationship issue, but it's what we so often all do -- "Well, maybe they're not perfect, and they do this which I'm not that big a fan of, but there's good stuff there!"
What kind of project or role were you looking for when Lucky came along?
I think that had started to become a goal for me, of trying to step into more of a lead persona in some films. I've been so incredibly lucky -- no pun intended! -- with the films I've worked on and the people I've worked with, and I think for me I'm always drawn to exciting, weird, interesting characters, which I've been able to do so much of in a supporting manner. Ironically, a lot of the time for women, the lead roles are a lot less interesting than the supporting roles -- they're either more of the straight man, or they're the romantic arm candy, somebody's girlfriend -- and to find a role like Lucy, which is much more of a supporting character that you would see in other films, to get to tell her story and her point of view... I've never seen anything like it. And I've read a lot of scripts. I've never seen a lead character with so much personality. I'm just lucky that Gil Cates Jr. and Caitlin Murney gave me the opportunity to do that, because it can be very challenging in this business to sort of step up unless you've had, like, a massive hit. To be a lead in a film you have to have somebody really believe in you and take a chance, and they did. I'm really appreciative of that.
You've been acting for many years, and I have my guess, but which of your film roles do you consider your breakout role?
I think Nick and Norah was a huge deal for me. It was my first foray into the studio world, and that character was such a gift. I had not met anyone like her on other pages before. Pete Sollett, who directed it, gave me such free reign and trusted me so much, and did the incredible thing that the best directors can do, which is to have a strong voice and vision of a film they want to make but trust their actors to create a whole life. He really did that for me. Again, I've done a lot of movies but very few of them have been done in a major way. So Nick and Norah was sort of the first time I was in something that was really seen. And of course it didn't change it in any outrageous way, but in terms of getting more opportunities it started to make things a little bit easier. Ironically, I think Holy Rollers was a big film for me -- I was able to do something that a lot of people, especially after films like Nick and Norah and Youth in Revolt, in which I make some broader choices, to see me do something more serious and unexpected and a little darker.
Of course, it showed film audiences that you could do more than the big goofy hilarious comedy. And in the same year, you also had a role in Conviction, which was a nice surprise.
You know, the irony of the work stuff was that before Nick and Norah most of the work I had done was much more dramatic. I had never really done a broad comedy. Films like An American Crime, Game 6 -- movies that were looking at life in a very different way than these broader comedies. It's an interesting challenge now where I'm so excited that people are responding to my comedic work, and that jobs are coming my way -- that's sort of all you can hope for as an actor. And, at the same time, I have so much that I want to explore as an artist, without sounding overly pretentious, of wanting to go into some of that darker and deeper stuff. Sometimes it can be hard for people to remember that as actors, we can do both. People remember the last thing you did. So that was an exciting year, with Holy Rollers and Conviction; even though they were smaller films and my role in Conviction was small, I was really proud to be a part of those films and also excited to show some of my other colors that I was worried people might start to forget about. I think that this next year, I have a lot of comedies out and I'm so excited about all of the movies coming out, but I'll be doing a play in the fall. And I think the goal when the play closes is to get back to some of the more dramatic work. It's about trying to find the balance.
This is all true, especially considering you started out on television on The Sopranos and have a background in theater, which are aspects of your professional career that most folks probably don't realize.
Yeah, I mean I started doing theater when I was seven and have done two Broadway plays and two major off-Broadway plays. I'm going to be doing Woody Allen's new Broadway play [Honeymoon Motel, one of three mini-plays comprising the production Relatively Speaking], in the fall, which is exciting -- John Turturro's directing, which is pretty much a dream come true. I think coming from a theater background as an actor, not only is it like going to the gym and working out your muscles, it's such a different challenge and you have to be present in a very different way than on film. One isn't better, or harder, or more important, you just have to tell a story from start to finish, and the importance is in the storytelling as a group, being where you are throughout the night in front of maybe a thousand people and finding the truth in every moment of every night, over and over and over again. No matter where you are and what's happened to you during the day. As an actor, there's no faking it. Sometimes you can fall into bad habits on film or rest on your laurels, and you can't do that in theater. I think it's such a useful tool as a person and as an actor to go back and forth between those two mediums.
I'll be honest; theater work sounds so much harder than film acting.
Yeah! [Laughs] It can be really scary. It was a very funny switch for me, because for so many years theater and being onstage felt like my safe space. It was the place where I felt the most confident, I felt the most in control, I felt the most creative and alive. When you're onstage and you are, as an actor, fully living in a moment with the other actors onstage with you, sharing it with all the people watching -- it's an incredible, incredible high. And it took me a little bit to feel that comfort in front of the camera, because it's a very different experience and every director and actor works differently. It took me a while to find that comfort, and then I found that sense of play and trust in front of the camera, and then I got anxious about being onstage again! That's why I think going back and forth is really good, because you're constantly shocking your system as to how you do things, but the bottom line in either medium is to try to be as truthful and present as possible.
Growing up, did you always have the funny in you?
Did I? I don't know, I should ask my mom who's sitting with me. [Pause] She's shaking her head yes! [Laughs] I was also an only child, so I spent a lot of time with my garbage bag full of dress up clothes in my room creating multiple characters and scenes by myself and with my stuffed animals. You know, I think that a sense of humor is always in play. I was precocious and outgoing, and also I was made fun of for being fat when I was younger, in middle school, and you'll hear that a lot -- if you have that going for you, you start getting a sense of humor to help deflect some of the deep-seated pain. [Laughs] So I think it all sort of came together. But just like life, there are moments of humor and even when you're doing something really funny the funny often comes from moments of pain.
Looking at your upcoming run of comedies, how different are the characters from one another, and how important is it to find variation in your comic roles?
Yeah, starting with What's Your Number it's essentially the first time I'm playing the straight man. I'm not drunk, I'm not on drugs, I'm not running around the city, I'm not lost... I'm a bride! I'm trying to take care of things and love my sister. So in a way, that was a challenge. It took me a week or so to let go of the need to push the boundaries and do something outrageous and outside the box. The best thing that I could do for this film and with Anna [Faris] was to play it straight. Set up some jokes, set up the conflict of the movie. Be true to the relationship without pushing too much with the humor. That was a really important lesson to me, to let things be what they are and to be true to the character and the movie you're in, rather than trying to be the funniest I can be.
Did that feel strange, playing the straight woman for once and resisting your natural impulses to play big during scenes?
It was more about when we were rehearsing and looking at the script, just realizing that it's okay to not do something outrageous in every scene. To trust myself, and trust who I am, and my own essence, and my own truth and the character, and that's enough for the story without having to come up with a million improv-ed lines. That was a huge lesson I learned on Youth in Revolt. There was a scene with me and Michael Cera and Justin Long and Steven Buscemi and Fred Willard, and we're all on mushrooms. I remember this great moment when Miguel Arteta gave us a take where he said, "Anyone want to change anything or improve something?" And nobody did. That was exciting for me to watch: That just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
What other characters and projects do you have coming up?
I did this movie Ten Year with basically every young actor. It's an ensemble of 18 of us, the most ridiculous cast. That's a very different role for me; Chris Pratt and I play husband and wife, it's a ten-year-reunion movie and we have two kids. That was a very different role for me. The Sitter, I just came back from New York, and she's very different from Caroline in Nick and Norah but there are hints of those colors. And with Celeste and Jesse, that's a little but more adult. I also sort of have my shit together and Rashida [Jones] and I play best friends. It's a beautiful, very truthful look at relationships.
Anna has spoken out about the challenges of being an actress in Hollywood. Do you find you agree with her? How do you describe the challenges you face?
I feel incredibly grateful for the roles that I've had, but I do agree. It's very hard to find well-written women out there, and I think what's exciting now is I know so many talented, hilarious, smart female writers that are really coming into their own, taking a stand, and making their own stuff right now. It's really exciting and inspiring; there's a greater movement than certainly I've felt in the past. And there's this great support amongst women in Hollywood, and especially amongst women that are funny. Kirsten Smith, who wrote Legally Blonde and The House Bunny, she should be like the leader of the pack, she's so inspiring for young, funny, writers and actresses and the idea that we all need to be creating our own stuff. I think that movement is really exciting, and that's come out of the frustration that there's just not enough good stuff out there. Especially in the studio system, there are fewer movies being made, and most of the movies being made are major franchises or revolve around men. I just think we have to stay at it and group together and keep making stuff. And as a woman, of course, the look thing is always in play. You try to find value in your talent and humor and personality over your looks, but that's just a part of the business that's been present since the first silent picture and will always happen. For me, there are going to be a million girls prettier than me so I can't focus on that. I have to focus on what I know I have to offer as an actor and as a creative person, and as a person-person.
Lucky is in limited release today.