Mary Lynn Rajskub is an actor whose characters evoke worry. It’s an ache like the one brought on when you see a person who takes her cat with her wherever she goes.
She always plays the weird girl on the verge of tears or trouble or joining a cult. She’s never sexy-weird, or secretly foxy beneath the tight bun and glasses, she is simply bizarre: the person you might not watch if it were real life. Onscreen, however, it’s hard to avert your eyes. In Punch Drunk Love she was Adam Sandler’s stentorian sister, the loudest element in a movie rife with jarring sonic fluctuations. On the hit show 24 she plays Chloe, the runt in an otherwise highly capable litter of government agents. The other characters heave an exasperated sigh whenever she walks into the room, while fans on the show’s message board call Chloe “inept.”
Yet it is portraying ineptitude and its dark underpinnings that Rajskub has mastered. She is a brilliant physical comedian, eschewing grand gestures for a series of nuanced tics, twitches, and stutters. Her communication style is Morse code rather than megaphone.
It was her skill at dismantling the audience’s ability to distinguish performance art from real life that earned her early roles on both Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Upcoming projects include the Fox series Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show and the Gregg Araki Film Mysterious Skin.
If you can, get your hands on the bootleg “Girls Guitar Club,” a short video where Rajskub and writer Karen Kilgariff portray a pair of surly vintage-store sales girls who spend their days honing their song craft behind the counter and singing about the process. The melodies are interspersed with saccharine, hilarious personal affirmations. Rajskub and Kilgariff really can play and sing, and it’s a blurry line between earnest endeavor and comedic fodder.
This conversation took place in Los Angeles, in a coffeeshop. Mary Lynn rode her bike to the interview.
I. “I’M NOT GOING TO BE LIKE, ‘WHY CAN’T I WHIP OFF MY GLASSES AND BE ATTRACTIVE?’ BECAUSE THAT’S NOT MY ROLE IN HOLLYWOOD.”
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: In the roles I’ve seen you in, you’re often cast as the odd character. Like in Legally Blonde 2, for instance, you’re the voice of reason, more of the nerd or the quirkier one. MARY LYNN RAJSKUB: Yeah. I’m always nerdy and quirky.
CB: I feel like there’s a genre of film wherein the nerd girl is really just the sexy girl underneath, once you remove the glasses and hook her up with a hot guy. It’s her redemption yet it’s also a cliché.
MLR: Which is kind of awesome. That’s kind of a great position to be in. Like, hmm, I don’t really have to be that beautiful, but appreciate me anyway.
CB: But it seems like that doesn’t happen to your characters. In your roles, the glasses aren’t pulled off in the end. Do you feel you’re being typecast, or do you just feel truer to yourself?
MLR:I think I’m definitely typecast .I don’t even know if I care—I’m sure when I was younger I would have wanted to play a romantic lead—but I’m having a great time and it’s interesting. I feel lucky to be acting in anything. To sit back and think, hmm, what script do I think is good? I don’t think for me, personally, it works that way. It’s kind of more through relationships and—hopefully—things that I’m interested in, and I’ve been very lucky. Things find you and you find things, and I’ve been busy, and it’s fun to be the odd character on the side. I’m not going to wonder, “Why can’t I whip off my glasses and be attractive?” because that’s not my role in Hollywood.
CB: Many people probably relate to your characters a lot more than they relate to the lead character.
MLR: I relate to my characters a lot more. It is exaggerated and maybe unfortunate that I have to be ugly onscreen but in real life I’m pretty white-hot. It just is what it is. I don’t really relate to—maybe someday I will—those people who are like, “I’m looking for a script that…” I’m just not that kind of actor, even though I love performing and I love acting. It’s just not my thrust.
CB: I feel like eventually—and maybe this has already happened—people will write roles for you. You occupy a unique space, there’s a slight subversion to it, and an integrity.
MLR: That’s the positive way to answer the question, rather than being like, “I’m not attractive.” It’s great. I feel great to occupy the space I’m occupying.
CB: Are you able to be picky with the roles that come your way?
MLR: No, not really. I like the stuff that I’ve done and it either works or it doesn’t. I did this pilot one time, this television sitcom pilot, because that’s what you do when that time of year comes around. It is kind of like winning the lottery, where you’re like, “Why wouldn’t I go and read these lines and get a big check?” It gets a little weird sometimes. I have a bad attitude. But things that you think are bad might turn out OK. You gotta see what happens. I went on this really bad TV sitcom, and I remember Paul Thomas Anderson—I did a part in Magnolia that got cut out—I think he reads Variety every morning, because they wrote, “Mary Lynn Rajskub, cast in…,”and he was like,“Ohh! Nice one.” And that’s where I clued in. I knew what I was doing, and I was like ,“This is bad, but who cares.” Every day on the set, the jokes became more and more sexist. There were three guys and I was the one girl roommate. The guys were looking at this girl having sex across the way and everything was based on young guys who want to have sex. Which, actually, I thought was kind of funny, because I’d be the roommate who’d say, “Yeah, nice one guys, I’m not into you.” So that’s how I was playing it. I was sort of representing. But the more it went on—and it actually got picked up—they just fired me and replaced me with a roommate who would come out in her underwear with a robe on.
CB: Who was a temptress more than a naysayer.
MLR: But I felt great because I obviously stuck out like a sore thumb. So I feel like as long as I’m being myself it will ultimately all come out in the wash anyway. I knew when I was going into it that that’s what it was.
CB: Going back to Magnolia—though your scenes were cut from the film, you are credited as being the voice of Janet. What kind of character was she?
MLR: Janet was Frank’s assistant and we saw her as the woman behind the man. He abused her but she loved him anyway and put up with him. There was no room for this character to be developed. You can see the deleted scenes before the color bar on the DVD.
II: “I WAS LIKE, ‘FUCK THESE PEOPLE. I’M FROM THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS.’”
CB: Growing up in Detroit, do you think that when you moved out west to San Francisco you carried anything with you from your hometown? Do you feel like there’s a certain essential quality that defines Detroit?
MLR: Yeah. It permeates my every move. Every step.
CB: Are you being facetious?
MLR: No, I think that’s a really good question. First of all, I grew up in the working-, middle-class suburbs. My parents both grew up in Detroit and left when the riots started happening, which is called white flight. I’m very much a part of that. I went to a party out here, a fancy party, where it’s like “people from Detroit!” and I went, and there were people that were from north of Detroit—
CB: And had a lot of money?
MLR: Yeah, I’m from south of Detroit. I’m an adult, I don’t think about how attached I am to that place or how tied I am to my past—but I went to that party and I was like, “Fuck these people, I’m from the wrong side of the tracks.” It feels kinda cool sometimes, to be from there. Or there’s aggression or you have to fight the fight to make yourself heard or do what you want to do. And the cars are also a big thing. I mean, I could care less about cars, but it’s very much a part of my upbringing.
CB: People make art that’s site-specific, or draw on things from their childhoods and where that childhood took place, but when you come out here to Los Angeles, is it still OK to have a past? Or, like what you were saying, when you go to a party, does it become a classless L.A. industry thing?
MLR: I don’t know, I’ve found that a lot of the best people I’ve met out here, the people that I like hanging out with and have similarities with artistically, that we build this new banter and language and we’re all so excited. And I looked around and pretty much all my friends were middle-class like I was, hardworking. Coming out here was doing what you’re not supposed to do. It’s funny how that informs everything. I also noticed a difference— I think sometimes people who come from money or come from a certain amount of privilege, in terms of getting stuff done here, there’s a mindset, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, of “I can do this.” Which can work for you. But where I come from, it’s always that, “Well, I got to do this, I gotta have this job.” So that was kind of exciting, to be here, because it does become the place where you make your dreams come true.
III: “I KIND OF HAD A CHARACTER, I GUESS, BUT I ALSO HAD… A THING MADE OUT OF MATTRESSES.”
CB: When you went to San Francisco you did performance art, right?
MLR: Well, I was a painter. And then when I got to San Francisco, [the art school] was just really small. They just had lockers and you had to be on a waiting list to store your paintings. And everybody in the painting class was painting something different. That’s when I started doing performance art. I did do some in Detroit, as well.
CB: And what did your performance art deal with? Was it really different from your comedy?
MLR: I was all performer/audience-oriented. When I got ready to do my piece, I noticed after a while that people would be like, “Oh, Mary Lynn’s doing a piece,” and they’d line up their chairs and sit back because they were watching me, whereas other people would become more of a live sculpture, or you’d have to follow them somewhere. So I did gear more towards standing there talking, and there’d be mixed-up texts. I kind of had a character, I guess, but I also had many cardboard structures and a thing made out of mattresses where I was throwing heads in trash bags over the side.
CB: Were people laughing? Or were they taking it seriously?
MLR: People did start to laugh. My first solo performance art show, this woman wrote it up in San Francisco, and she was like, “One of the strangest, funniest performances,” and I was like, “Oh. I’m funny.” That’s when I realized I wasn’t setting out to make jokes.
CB: One of the things I find interesting about performance art is that it makes people feel uncomfortable.
MLR: I was earnestly doing performance art, but I was also making fun of performance art. I would go to poetry readings and I was just fascinated with what people wrote and how they read it and what they looked like and how they thought they were coming across. There are so many elements that are mixed-up: you don’t look like what you think you look like, and you’re not writing what you think you’re writing, and these people aren’t the people who should be watching it. So it wasn’t like I was watching it and was going, “Fuck these people, I’m going to make fun of you.” I just thought it was so interesting to be around, so I would read things that didn’t make sense or that were jumbled-up.
CB: Because you wanted to mess with people’s expectations.
MLR: Yeah, and that ended up being funny.
CB: Was there a moment when you thought, “I’m just doing stand-up comedy at this point”?
MLR: I still don’t even think I’m actually doing standup comedy because my brain doesn’t think of jokes, and I don’t really write jokes, but I am funny onstage. I’ve just kind of figured out how to make it work in some comedy clubs. In San Francisco, the comedy clubs were closing, and we’d get comics, really great people who are out here now that I met there, to come into these poetry readings. And I noticed right away—they’re so much more polished, and they’re so much more aware of their personae and what they’re perceived as, which I think is just a basic thing of comedy: that people use themselves. They had clearer ideas and the writing was stronger, and that was really exciting to me. And also the comedians were doing weirder pieces. They didn’t feel like they had to tell jokes. So it was some of the best stuff that people would do at these weird open mics. And I saw how working on different parts of your performance can make you a stronger performer, rather than someone who’s like, “I just scribbled this in my notebook and I’m going to go read this.” Take into account where you’re at, who these people are, what it sounds like.
CB: It’s interesting. Especially with poetry, it’s people’s faith in words as entities that can move people on their own. But a reading is an aural experience. The words are mediated through the speaker, the performance is the translation. The words don’t come directly to the listener, there is a vessel bringing them. I’ve seen a lot of readers or performers rely strictly on the words.
MLR: That’s exactly it.
CB: It’s almost kind of hubristic, when people do their poetry or their performance art and just think that the words speak for themselves. Maybe on paper, but not live. It’s interesting to me that they don’t think about the idea of performing or the notion of intent at all.
MLR: Well, I guess the people who do poetry slams do, but that’s way too much competition for me. Oh, they hated me at the poetry slams. They do the slam before the slam and I would go, and I’d just get like zeros and ones.
CB: People rate you?
MLR: Well, yeah, you have to get rated to make it into the real slam.
CB: Why did you leave San Francisco?
MLR: In San Francisco, people are either poor coffeeshop people, or they’re rich and live in a different part of town. I didn’t consciously think about it, but I was realizing, What am I going to do here? I’m not going to get any kind of job that people do here where they make a lot of money. I guess I was trying to make performing a career without really admitting it to myself. I could do this in my friend’s storefront for the next three years, and I guess I would make progress, but some part of me knew that I wanted to be pushed into making more sense. It’s like trying to be direct, and some people, for them, they would call that selling out or being too mainstream. I feel like poets and writers have an ambition and it’s OK to go for it, but in performance art and other genres, there’s supposed to be this kind of anti-ambition, where that’s not why you’re doing it. I think sometimes you have to remove yourself from that context.
IV: “I’M REPRESENTING THE GIRL ONSTAGE WHO MAYBE SHOULDN’T BE PUBLIC SPEAKING.”
CB: What does it feel like when people don’t get it? How do you deal with that? Do you try to then engage the audience specifically and address it head-on?
MLR: I usually do. It doesn’t always work. I’m not very good with the general comedy crowd. I did a benefit recently at the Comedy Store, and it was just bad. People are uncomfortable for me and they feel bad, and that’s the opposite of what I would want. It’s kind of fun. It reminds me of when I first moved here, of performance art, where people are like, “Oh, no, is she really upset?”
CB: Right. I love that, though, when you don’t know.
MLR: I do, too. When I did the benefit, each person was more high-energy than the next, it was a good show, and everybody was doing good. I was the only one who really ate it. The show was getting long, and I thought it would be hilarious—there was this girl backstage, and I was like ,“I don’t want to go on. I don’t want to go on,” and she was like, “I should push you out on stage.” They gave us this tote bag, and I had the tote bag on, and she’s pushing me. There’s this see-through curtain, and then he introduces me, and there’s this huge pause. She’s like,“Go. You have to go,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to,” and then she pushes me onstage. There’s just people feeling really bad for me, which I think is hilarious. I don’t know why that’s funny to me. Then I thought, well, this will get them: I took the microphone’s fuzzy black thing off, ’cause I found these things at the music store that are rainbow-colored, and I’m like, “I’m a professional,” and put an orange megaphone thing on it. ’Cause that’s goofy. To me, that’s obviously goofy. It’s not good, when people are used to hearing somebody go, “Here’s my thought on this, and I’m going to explain it, and I’m going to break it down like this,” and I’m sort of leaving it open a little bit, like, “What do you think about the orange microphone thing?” and they’re all just like, “Don’t. Don’t do this to us.”
CB: It’s interesting how in comedy people don’t want it deconstructed that much.
MLR: No, they really don’t.
CB: I think it’s good to have it on a metalevel, to make people think about what they’re doing.
MLR: I’ve been doing this for six years, or seven years, and I’ve gotten to the point where I know how to make people laugh, and I was doing all my, “Well, whuddabout if I do this?” And they were just like, uh-uh. But once I’ve gone to that, I’ll be uncomfortable on stage, and I can’t get around it.
CB: How do you end it?
MLR: I’m usually like, “Well, before I start my set…” and that gets a laugh because I’ve been talking the whole time, and acting like I didn’t start yet. And then I say, I think I should tell you that I’m not retarded. And then I just tell a story about how I was waiting tables and got asked if I was retarded.
CB: That’s a true story, right?
MLR: Yeah.That’s been a staple of my act for a while, and I’m sick of it, but it’s the story of how John Corbett, the actor, asked me if I had Down Syndrome. And then I make the face that I made when I asked him if he wanted his drink order taken, and people laugh because when I make the face I kind of look retarded.
CB: What’s the face?
MLR: Like frowning. I’m representing onstage the girl who maybe shouldn’t be public speaking, but is. I have a voice, too, even if I’m retarded. But yeah, I’m getting sick of that whole “I’m retarded” thing.
CB: Does that mean you’ll write something new, or will you improvise something new? Is there a lot of improvisation?
MLR: Yeah, and that works really well, especially in smaller rooms, that’s really fun. There’s a room I like a lot right now where the people are so nice and so open, and it’s a younger crowd, and also a comedy crowd. That’s really fun, because I feel like I can improvise and expand on different stuff, and they’ll go with me. There are clubs that are like that, it’s just a matter of finding the right place.
CB: What I think is interesting about when you go up there and you have a sort of awkwardness is that you’re representing the kind of person, the kind of woman, that people hope won’t talk to them. They’re like, “Oh, god, please don’t embarrass me.”
MLR: I think that’s exactly right.
CB: You know, when you see that kind of person on the street, you walk faster, or if that person is your checker at the grocery store or your waiter, you’re just like, “Uhh, yeah, my drink,” and you try not to make eye contact.
MLR: ’Cause you’re afraid they’re going to freak out, and here you are, being forced to watch them.
CB: Maybe it’s that you might be complicit in their ineptitude. I think it’s brilliant that you get onstage and make people interact with somebody that way for half an hour.
MLR: It can be really fun, and it’s also good because I feel like I’m representing myself fairly and squarely. You know, I’m not alone. It’s not all about swift-talkers. CB I personally find that more uncomfortable as an audience member.
MLR: I do, too.
CB: Because it seems like such posturing. Nobody talks like that in real life—well, I guess some people do. I don’t feel like a participant when I see really polished comedic rhetoric. I feel like I’m watching a door-todoor salesperson.
MLR: I guess that’s what it is, that’s what I crave and need, the feeling of participating or listening. When I was talking about, “I gotta get rid of talking about being retarded,” it’s because now it’s maybe to the point for me where I’m used to being uncomfortable and getting laughs, so I’m not that uncomfortable onstage anymore. What’s the next thing, the next mode of communicating for me.
V: “WHERE’S IT GONNA GO NOW THAT YOU GUYS CAN ACTUALLY PLAY SONGS?”
CB: I wanted to talk about Girls Guitar Club. When did you start playing guitar?
MLR: Karen Kilgariff is totally responsible for making me play guitar and sing with her.
CB: How’d you guys meet?
MLR: We were both stand-ups. She’s actually from San Francisco, but we missed each other there.
CB: Was Karen playing guitar with the intent of being a singer-songwriter? Or was she thinking, “This would be great as part of my comedy set”?
MLR: No, she was doing it earnestly. I remember one showcase that she did—she was doing stand-up—and she did her own original songs at the end of it. It was awesome. Really ballsy. She loves music and singing and she showed me this song, “Concrete and Barbed Wire” by Lucinda Williams, and it’s three chords. It’s D, G, and C. And the key, which I never knew, was learning how to sing and play guitar, which she was showing me the beauty of, because it’s really weird to be able to do that.
CB: How did the music change from solely an earnest music performance to a comedy act?
MLR:. We were like, we’re going to an open-mic night and singing a song. But we ended up being so nervous that we were like, [valley-girl voice] “So, anyway!” It turned into an act pretty much because we couldn’t get through an entire song. So we’d go, “Nice G chord!” And just could not stop talking.
CB: Were you only playing covers or did you have originals at that point?
MLR: Our first song was a song called “Jason,” about a boy who looks like he’s wearing makeup.
CB: I like that one.
MLR: It was pretty good for our first song. We wrote that in the green room at Largo, so we started doing some shows at Largo. The owner was putting us up, and it was awesome, because that’s such a serious music room, for the most part, and the sound in there is really nice and pristine. We couldn’t stand the sound of our own voices. We were probably starting to write originals at the same time that we were doing covers.
CB: When did you dub it Girls Guitar Club?
MLR: I think it just came out of us talking about how “we’re really going to learn chords.” It just progressed, which was the real dialogue.
CB: One thing that’s interesting about Girls Guitar Club is that you can’t really tell if you guys want to be playing real songs or not, or if you really want to be musicians or not, because you’re exposing the process of it. Despite the hilarity of being unpolished, you will often betray a true musicianship, and you guys can really sing.
MLR: It’s funny, because we’ve gotten better. I always joke that I better not learn how to play the guitar any better. Karen’s really good, and I can’t really strum, and I’m like, Thank God, or else we wouldn’t have an act. It’s that place where it is very much about the process. And there’s that question of: Where’s it gonna go now that you guys can actually play songs?
CB: Was there ever part of you that would just want to be playing music?
MLR: Sure. I think that part of us would love to just be Girls Guitar Club. But you know, it’s hard, even the little that we’ve done, writing songs together, it’s like, Whoa, this is to commit to each other’s personalities and be that band and go on the road. I always wanted to be doing that part of the year, half the year. It was always on the precipice of that.
CB: I feel like what you guys do is expose the discomfort that people often feel when they watch singer/songwriters, but you let them laugh at it.
MLR: Oh yeah, you’re not supposed to because you’re taking it seriously. It’s kind of back to that poetry thing again, because it’s like, Oh, they’re playing their real songs. You can’t acknowledge the fact that they just so obviously fucked up.
CB: I’m sure people in your audience have been to coffeeshops or open mics where they’ve seen two singer/songwriters who don’t totally have their chops, who are just like, “Oh, I wrote this song about my boyfriend or girlfriend who dumped me last year.” And they start playing, and it’s the worst lyrics you’ve ever heard, and you want to laugh, but you can’t.
MLR: It’s that there’s a time in an artist’s life where you make this decision to say, I’m taking myself seriously and now you have to listen to me. We’re like that moment beforehand, because you kind of have to get over that as an artist and be like, OK, that is my shit, get a load of me.