Cheryl Hines is a fast talker. She’s no-nonsense. She’s funny, which in her case can’t be overstated. And she is sharp. Mostly, however, Cheryl Hines is a huge relief. In nearly all of her roles thus far—whether as Larry David’s wife on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, or opposite Robin Williams in the movie RV, audiences hold their breath while her male counterparts teeter precariously between being funny and painful. In these often claustrophobic scenes, Hines is always the oxygen, allowing the audience small intakes of air to get us through until the end. Yet it would be unfair to strictly assign Hines to the role of comedic caretaker. Beneath her benevolent veneer is a devious side, which is what makes her humor all the more dangerous—we trust her and will follow her anywhere. Her improvised reactions on Curb Your Enthusiasm are nuanced to the point where she has invented an entire language consisting of various head-shakes, grimaces, smiles, and only one word—Larry. The fact that Larry means something new nearly each time it’s uttered by Hines is testament not only to her generosity as an improvisational performer—she gives her fellow actors a wide berth—but also to the fact that her comedy is efficient, expansive, and perfectly timed.
Cheryl Hines will appear in two upcoming films, Waitress and The Grand. And she will return for a sixth and final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I had the pleasure of speaking with Cheryl by phone while she was on the set of Campus Ladies, a show she produces for the Oxygen Network.
I. CAMPUS LADIES
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: You’re going into the second season of Campus Ladies right now. Are you directing the entire season, or just the first couple of episodes?
CHERYL HINES: I’m just directing one of the episodes and I’m an executive producer on the show, so I directed an episode last year and now I’m doing one this year, depending on if we get to shoot more episodes this season. Then perhaps I’ll get to do another one. [Pauses] Well, I don’t know, it’ll be tricky because I’m shooting Curb Your Enthusiasm; it’s all in the scheduling of things.
CB: And was that your directorial debut, in terms of directing other people, when you did last year’s episode?
CH: It was, yes. I directed a sketch comedy show. [Laughs] It’s like the same thing.
CB: How was it working with a script? Did you just learn by watching other people direct you?
CH: Well, you know, Campus Ladies is shot the same way that Curb Your Enthusiasm is, which is why I felt like I was qualified to shoot it. I’ve really been observing our directors on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and watching how they cover it and cover the improvised dialogue and things of that nature. So you have great cameramen and a great director of photography and then you concentrate on the material, on what’s funny.
CB: And do you write for it as well?
CH: I don’t, I don’t. Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley do most of the writing. We have a small writing staff, and once in a while I’ll give notes or say, “Why don’t we try this?” but for the most part I don’t write anything.
CB: Did you meet them through the Groundlings? I know that Carrie was on at least one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
CH:Yeah, yeah, Christen and Carrie and I used to perform together at the Groundlings Theatre for a long time, so that’s how we all know each other.
CB: That episode that Carrie is in is one of my favorites, I mean, that scene is so aggravating, with—
CH: —I know, it’s so hilarious. That’s what’s funny about Larry. It’s like he observes what’s going on in life, and then he mocks it. I think the average person experiences those moments, but they’ll take a mental picture of them and use them again creatively, but Larry has a way of doing it that’s hilarious.
CB: In your own writing, do you find that you’re an observant person? When you’re sitting around somewhere, are you taking in the strange activities of the people around you?
CH: Yeah, I do enjoy watching people interact with each other. I find relationships to be fascinating, so I do like to watch that.
CB: Did growing up in Florida inform your characters? Are there certain Floridian traits or things that when you were young you thought, I have to write about this kind of person?
CH: Growing up in Florida, and small towns, you don’t really realize how strange it is or how weird the people are until you leave. And then you’re exposed to a lot of different people and you see what society sees as normal and you realize, Oh my gosh, I wasn’t normal at all! [Laughter] So, it definitely informed my point of view about life and characters.
CB:Is Tallahassee the kind of place that kids want to leave?
CH: Oh, yeah. I mean, Tallahassee is fun for a while, because Florida State is there, and FAMU is there. We’ve got some good colleges, so there’s a lot of exciting college events happening, but then you realize at some point, Oh, it’d be nice to have more than two theaters to choose from, and, Oh, maybe we need a museum. You start to realize that there are other things out there than just going to a Florida State game and trying to sneak a beer on a Saturday night. When you start to realize that, you start to want to leave.
CB: I’m assuming that the museum is the History of Florida museum, or that kind of thing.
CH: Of course. There’s lots of Indian history, and a lot about Ponce de León. So you’ve gotten an earful of that by the time you’re a teenager.
CB: Does your family still live there?
CH: My mom still lives there. The rest of my family has moved to central Florida. So my brothers and my sister and my dad, they’re all in central Florida, right around Orlando.
CB: Is there someone in your family whose humor you emulate? Was there comedy and performance and that element when you were growing up? Or were you the funny kid?
CH: No, I wasn’t necessarily the funny kid. I have two brothers and a sister, and you would either laugh or cry at something that they might say. It’s a fine line, so you have to decide if you want to be thick-skinned and laugh about it—you know, like when you put on your prom dress and you walk out and there’s laughter. That’s not really what you were going for, but you take a second and go, I guess it is kind of funny, because I spent an hour on my hair and it looks crazy. Otherwise I would have spent a lot of time crying.
CB: But you were homecoming queen, right? So you must have looked semi-good, at least that night.
CH: The only reason I got homecoming queen is because I was kind of queen of the dorks. I played on the softball team and I was in chorus and I was in drama, and that year the student body got to vote on the homecoming queen. So I got the dork vote.It wasn’t like I was the head cheerleader, and people were like, she’s great. It was like, I’ve played second base with that girl.
CB: When you finished high school, did you know that you eventually wanted to move to Los Angeles? What was the moment that you decided, OK, now I’m ready to move to Los Angeles, versus right out of high school?
CH: It was a pretty intimidating idea to move across the country, where you don’t know anybody, although that was the plan. Right after college, I started working at Universal Studios, and I got an agent and then there was really only one television show that was shooting in Orlando, and it was Swamp Thing.
CB: I didn’t see that one.
CH: Not a lot of people did. But I finally got a guest-starring role on that show, and my character was killed. At that point, I felt like, my God, there’s nothing left for me here! I have to move! I just felt like, OK, I feel like I know what I’m doing, I’m going to be OK if I move away. I just had to be mentally prepared for it.
CB: Did you know anyone out in Los Angeles by that point?
CH: What’s really great is one of my friends from high school who dated my sister [laughs]—so he’s my sister’s age, two years older than me, but we were friends in high school—he lives out here in L.A., and when I moved out here he really took me under his wing.We’re best friends. He’s one of my best friends to this day. So we’re like family.
CB:That is quintessentially small-town, that story.
CH: I know, I know! It’s pretty amazing. You know what, what’s amazing, too, is my assistant now—she’s from Tallahassee.
CB: I can imagine that you wouldn’t necessarily want to have just a Los Angeles sensibility when you’re trying to work with people who you trust.
CH: Exactly, exactly.
CB: How soon after moving to L.A. did you start your Groundlings training?
CH: Probably about a year and a half or so after I moved out.I was bartending at a hotel downtown,and I met one of Phil Hartman’s sisters,and she told me that that’s where Phil got his start, at the Groundlings, so I went to a show there as soon as I had a night off. I was blown away by what I saw onstage. I just thought that everyone was so talented and funny and silly, and I knew that that’s where I wanted to study, but I didn’t have any money—I didn’t even have a refrigerator at that point, because I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t realize that apartments don’t come with refrigerators in L.A. It’s a rude eye-opener. So all I talked about with everybody I was working with was the Groundlings, and for my birthday all the regulars and all the other bartenders and waitresses pitched in and bought me my first class at the Groundlings.
CB: But you went to school for acting, radio, and television. Was the Groundlings experience dramatically different?
CH: It was, because, you know, as a theater major, my experience had been with drama; it seemed like everything that they taught was dramatic and any attempt at comedy would be a scene from…
CB: Like Oscar Wilde or something?
CH: [Laughs] Yeah, Oscar Wilde. But so it was very limited as far as comedies were concerned, although I found the classes to be pretty comical.It was hard for me to keep a straight face when people are concentrating on acting like a bird,and they’re getting themselves really worked up over it and things like that, and for me it was funny.
CB: Like finding a spirit animal is not something that should be taken very seriously.
CH: Right, but there was no alternative. That’s why when I saw the Groundlings, you know, it was a lot like Saturday Night Live, and I had never seen anything like that in real life. So here I was in a ninety-nine-seat theater and people were doing outrageous, hilarious things, and I was just like, Oh my God: this is what it’s about.
CB:Was it something about the element of risk or the audacity that attracted you to it?
CH:There was that. It is pretty amazing to watch somebody improvise in front of a live audience.But that wasn’t really what I was aspiring to do, because it’s pretty petrifying. I think it was the idea of these talented actors finding and exploring what’s funny about them and about the world. So it was more like, Oh, this is what funny people do.[Laughs] I appreciate actors and I appreciate drama but I also think that life is really, really funny and silly. So when I went to this show at the Groundlings and tears were streaming down my face because of something so ridiculously silly, that’s when I felt like I wanted to do that. I want to be doing something so ridiculous and funny that someone will laugh at it.
CB: When you landed the role as Cheryl David, how did you go about developing a character that shared your name? On the one hand, sharing your name with a character is arbitrary, but it seems like the show purposely blurs the line between reality and fiction. Does that make exploring the character easier? Or does keeping fact and fiction separate become more difficult?
CH: I didn’t really think about it when it happened, but on the first day of shooting, Larry said, “We need to come up with a name.” I guess there was a big situation on Seinfeld where there was a real George Costanza that I think tried to sue Larry or the production for using his name and his character, although the character’s based on Larry.There was lot of time wasted fighting this guy named George Costanza. So basically Larry just said, “Can we just use real names?” [Laughs] Just out of convenience. At the time, too, I didn’t think it through, whether it was a good or bad idea; I still don’t know if it was a good idea or a bad idea. It was funny, though, because when I started becoming a little recognizable people in the streets would come up and say,“Hi,Cheryl!”and I just thought they knew me, I must have met them at a party or maybe went to college with them.So it was very confusing for me,because I didn’t know how I knew them until they would say something about Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then it dawned on me, Oh my God [laughs], people are always going to call me Cheryl whether they know me or not.That’s kinda weird. At least if I had a character name I would know instantly if they’re just recognizing me off the street.
CB:Yeah, you could weed out the weirdos a little easier.
CH: And it did blur the line when the show started because so many people thought I might really be married to Larry, since they knew that my name was Cheryl.
CB: But his wife’s name is Laurie, right?
CH:Yeah, his wife’s name is Laurie.
CB: But probably very few people know that.
CH: It took some time to convince people that I was actually acting, that I was actually an actress. I even went to an audition once, and when I walked in, the casting director said,“I didn’t know you were an actress, too.”
CB: Oh my God. [Incredulously] A casting director?
CH:Yeah! And I said,“Uh, what do you mean?”
CB: He just thought, Larry David’s wife is trying out for a role, how novel.
CH:That’s exactly what he thought. It was bizarre.
CB:That person should be fired, really.
CH: It made me realize there’s a whole situation that I didn’t even realize was going on. Some people thought it was a reality show. It was a little confusing, but at the same time that’s what’s great about the show.
IV. SIXTH SEASON
CB: So you guys are going to do a sixth season—how do you ensure that Cheryl’s reactions to Larry are unpredictable or that you catch him or the audience off guard, or is the idea of a sitcom and a successful character to meet people’s expectations by being consistent?
CH: Well, you know our show is improvised, so my reactions just have to stay true to the character, which has its advantages and disadvantages, because a lot of times I can’t believe what Larry is doing or saying. I do spend a lot of time in disbelief and there’s no way around it. I can’t really come up with a different…
CB: … response other than shock and horror?
CH:Yeah. And so it is what it is, and it makes for consistency with the character, but I would imagine if you were married to someone like that, that is how you would live your life.
CB: In a constant state of disbelief.
CH: [Laughs] Exactly.
CB:As the seasons have gone on, Larry’s upped the ante a little bit—to horrify Cheryl, or just the audience. For example, last season, the word vagina was used like every three episodes. What are you anticipating for the sixth season?
CH: I’m so afraid to see what’s going to happen this season, because it’s going to be the last season.After we finish shooting each season Larry feels the pressure to outdo himself. [Laughs] So, I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, and I have a feeling it’ll probably be the most secretive season yet.We start shooting in a few weeks and I could not tell you what the show’s about or what I’m doing or what Larry’s doing. When the first two seasons were shot, I never got to see a story outline. I would literally show up and go to hair and makeup and walk on the set and just ask somebody what I was supposed to be doing every day.
CB: How much do you rehearse a scene? It seems like with improv, the idea is to capture something spontaneous or to get a raw reaction, like you were saying.
CH:We don’t rehearse at all.
CB: But you have the outline of the scene?
CH: We have the outline and right before we start shooting we’ll say, “OK—what information has to get across? Oh, my parents are coming for two weeks and I just wrecked the car.”And the cameras start rolling and you take it from there.
CB: So it’d be problematic if you had to redo a scene, because you’d lose the momentum or the spontaneity. But that happens, right?
CH: Oh, yeah. We do several takes. It actually doesn’t really lose the spontaneity for me, because the people that I work with are so good at improvising that it’s just like [dreamy sigh] life! If you walk into the room, and you walk out,and you walk back into the room,it’s not going to be the same experience. I remember we were shooting one season and there was this scene where Larry and I were about to renew our vows, and my mother and father were there and my mother said, “Does anybody have a mint?”And Larry says,“Yeah, I’ve got some loose mints in my pocket”—because he does. He carries loose mints in his pocket.And my mom was like,“Well I don’t want you to grab the mint.”And he was like,“Well, you can reach in there.” [Laughing] And then it’s just this odd thing. But that only happened in one take. It didn’t happen every take and that’s what’s funny about the show. Sometimes something will happen, and every time you do it, it’s going to be slightly different.
CB: Comedy relies on this sense of timing, and it seems like if you have a script you can rehearse with the lines and the other actors, but improv seems more like a dance where everyone is constantly negotiating.Do you achieve the right timing eventually, with practice? Or does it just happen as a result of everyone’s natural talents?
CH: I think that’s the key to doing an improvised show: casting is so important because it is about timing. Comedy is always about timing, anyway, whether it’s a sitcom or not. Because there are no premises, setups, or punchlines, you do rely on the actors’ comedic sensibilities. So casting is very important. Larry and Jeff [Garlin] and I are in every casting session. When actors come in, they improvise with us, which is unusual. Most shows don’t work like that— there might be a producer or a director, but the cast isn’t in there.
CB: Because there are always guest actors on every show, I was wondering how you would work with the timing, but that makes sense. Cheryl David seems like more than a character at this point. She’s this symbol of giving hope to misanthropes everywhere. I’ve even heard people talk about finding their own Cheryl.
CH: [Laughs hard]
CB: How realistic is Cheryl David? What’s a situation where another person would have drawn the line? Or do you think there really are people who—I mean obviously there are some people in these relationships— but what’s an instance where you think,There’s no way. This would be the end here.
CH: It’s really hard to say, because I adore Larry so much in real life. I can imagine being married to someone like him.
CB: But you’re not.
CH: I’m not, no. I’m not married to someone like him. There was a question, I don’t know if it was last season or the year before, where it was our ten-year anniversary and Larry was like, “I don’t know, will people believe that you said I could sleep with someone for our tenyear anniversary?” And I said,“Uh, yeah.” I said,“I think we could make that work.” Because I felt like, You’re not going to sleep with somebody. Like, I know you’re not. He’s too neurotic. So, just knowing that going into it, you already know that he’s more harmless than he seems. I guess that’s how someone could tolerate him.
CB: I think the best thing about that whole part of that season was the idea that he thought he could get somebody at that point.
CH: Exactly.When you know Larry and you know how crazy he is and the small things that set him off and that make him [long pause] disinterested in people.You realize that’s like a needle in a haystack—him trying to find someone that he would sleep with and somebody that would be willing to sleep with him too. I don’t know if there was one thing that would bother me—maybe the lying. I think if I was married to someone who lied to me all the time—that would get really old.
CB: Of course. If that was a daily part of your relationship with someone, that they constantly were exposing you to—very dangerous.
CH: Constantly lying and always having to sift through the conversation to figure out what’s true and what’s not, that might be a deal breaker at some point to me.
CB:Yeah, I think that’s realistic. Do you think there are any subjects that are off-limits in comedy?
CH: I did, before I started working on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry called me before the season started, when he was writing, and he said,“What do you think about this? My mother dies and my dad doesn’t invite me to the funeral. And I miss my mom’s funeral.” And I said, “That’s not funny. That’s sad.” And he was like, “No, I think its funny.”And I said,“I think most people would find it sad.” He goes,“You watch.” The next day we’re doing an episode and it was very funny. If you’re bold enough to do it and have just the right take on it,I think anything goes.
CB: Curb Your Enthusiasm deals with an internalized anti-Semitism all the time. It’s interesting, in a good way, to approach that. Larry’s character is so self-hating.
CH: That’s what’s great about HBO—they let you try things and explore that without saying,“Oh, the general public isn’t going to like it.” They’re not worried about the general public.
CB:The general public can’t be trusted for quality decisions anyway.
V. FEMALE COMEDIANS
CB: Do you find the same freedom with the Oxygen Network?
CH:Actually, Oxygen has been so receptive to pushing the boundaries on a lot of issues, especially sex. We’ve been surprised. We’ve had a lesbian episode, interracial relationships, and all kinds of things that are fun and funny to explore, and they’ve been very cool about it.
CB: Why do you think the more successful female comedic actors aren’t eighteen years old or even really twenty-five, as opposed to other genres or parts of the industry, where youth is golden?
CH: I think for a few reasons. I think people in general are more interested in seeing women as pretty and younger. And, whether consciously or subconsciously, women are brought up to be concerned about looks and how people perceive them and wanting to be liked and taking care of people.That doesn’t really describe a comedian at all.
When someone stops worrying about what people think about them and just does their own thing, does what they think is funny, that’s when other people notice that they’re funny. But the problem is that if you look at a lot of shows and movies, roles aren’t really written to be funny for women. So, it’s a bit of a catch22. Its like, well, then women should really be writing more stuff for women—although that’s too bad because then it’s like,“Oh! A big women’s movement!”
CB:Then it becomes kind of ghettoized.
CH: I know. It’s tricky. I do think that women are judged more on what they look like, as opposed to what they have to offer. And I don’t know how to change that. It is what it is.You know what I mean?
CB: It also seems true with male comedians. Comedians in some ways have become the truth-tellers in our society. You have Jon Stewart:“The most trusted name in news.”You aren’t going to trust a young comedian who hasn’t lived through enough to tell you how it is.
CH: Although you would believe that more from a twenty-five-year-old not-so-good-looking guy. I’m sure guys—really attractive guys—have a harder time in comedy too.
CB: No one believes that they have had any problems.
CH: Yeah. Like, “How hard can your life be? Women want to sleep with you. Ha, ha.” But its like that for women too. People see a good-looking young guy as a good-looking young guy first, before they’d say he might be funny. Its like, “Oh, I bet he’s not.” [Laughter] Then you have to try to convince people that you’re funny, and that’s always a joyful task.
CB: I’ll bet. It also seems like daytime television has really become a repository for female comedians. Like Ellen, Rosie, and now Megan Mullally, I noticed, just has a daytime talk show. I thought that was strange.
CH: Its not that strange, when you think about it. Women are more receptive to women during the day. If you look at an average household that might have kids, honestly, by eleven thirty at night, the mother who has done all the dinner and the bathing of all the kids and putting them to bed is probably not just ready to start her night at eleven thirty.
CB: So, you have some movies coming out [Waitress and The Grand]. Do you like the pace of making a film and creating a one-time character versus ongoing characters?
CH: It’s really fun. It’s a different experience because you meet all these new people and you hang out for three months together. It feels like summer camp: you get to know everybody and then you never see them again.