Busy Philipps is a very smart, and very-well read woman, especially when it comes to children’s books. When I saw her tweet about Ellen Raskin’s Newbery Award winner, The Westing Game, I knew that I had to bring it up as it’s one of my favorite books. We discussed the brilliant, quirky mystery and then quickly spun into a giddy reminiscing about books that had huge impacts on our lives. Especially how we both wanted to run away and live in a museum, inspired by E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And she did her very best to convince me that I (as well as everyone) need to have my heart broken by Where the Red Fern Grows.
On-screen, her character of Laurie Keller on ABC’s Cougar Town is far less giddy about books but would be just as fun to hang out with. Philipps has a knack for playing memorable characters on beloved shows, shows that often suffer from a lack of spectacular ratings. Her first television role was Kim Kelly on Freaks and Geeks, (which any fan will almost respond with “Kim Kelly is My Friend”) which gave her an immediate in to the Top Ten High School Badasses list. On Cougar Town, Philipps more than holds her own with the comedy awesomeness of Courteney Cox and Christa Miller. She took home last year’s Critics’ Choice Television Award for Supporting Comedy Actress.
Philipps discusses her love of Cougar Town (and frustration with its ratings), why being on Twitter is important to her and coming to best friend Michelle Williams’ defense against the paparazzi.
Cougar Town is one of the rare shows that actually shows what friendship is like — it’s not all these like over the top dramas and big betrayals — and it’s such a fantastic portrayal of lady friendships. You see people screw up and make amends, and figure out how things work in different paths of a relationship.
I think what’s very interesting about television in general is that you’re given an opportunity to explore characters over a long period of time. [Each] season, you’re able to develop these characters into being really awesome three dimensional people — people that you recognize, people that you know, people that are running into other people that you know. For me, a character like Laurie Keller, who on the page in the pilot seemed very one-dimensional and a stereotype of a dumb perky blonde, [but] given the opportunity of three years on a TV show, you’re able to explore how many different baskets of her personality and make her like a real girl that you know and that you want to hang out with.
What I like about the development of the friendship of the three women on the show is that it feels very organic because they did it slowly — nothing was forced. In the pilot, you didn’t even understand how these people were in each other’s lives, and over the past several years we’ve been able to explore what is Ellie’s [Christa Miller] relationship with Laurie, and their kind of love/hate thing. They go through different things together, they end up having to support one another but they still are like very different people, sort of polar opposites.
I love the Laurie-Ellie relationship, particularly the recent bonding over Eli’s feet which gave us the hilarious line of “we bonded over your monster feet and justice for women.”
I love that moment too! When she comes in and I say “Ellie, I saw his feet. I’m so sorry.” (laughs) She says no one understands. It’s so funny. He does have horrible feet, poor Ian (Gomez, who plays Andy).
Wait! Was that written actually because Ian has bad feet?
Oh my god – well, I can’t be mean to him, but yes. A little bit. He does have terrible feet. We bonded over his horrible feet. I love that that’s a quotable line.
Sometimes you just need somebody to be there for you because no one else understands if a husband has the craziest feet at all.
(laughs) Oh, poor Ian.
Have any of the Laurie-isms sneak into your own personal dialogue?
Not particularly. I’m so far from Laurie Keller in my real life. I remember one time I went from like a 12-hour day shooting Cougar Town, and I met some friends out for dinner. Halfway through the dinner, my one friend [asked], “What is wrong with you? You’re acting crazy.” I realized that I hadn’t shaken the Laurie off of me for the day yet, and I was acting a little bitchy like Laurie. I’ve got to cool down before I come home.
What usually ends up on the Cougar Town blooper reel?
It’s a lot of Courteney Cox swearing when she messes up her lines. She swears more than any of us. I swear the least, which is a vast improvement from my early 20s when I did a show and the director put together all the times I either messed up or didn’t like the take and yelled the F word. It was like literally four minutes of reel of “fuck.”
But there’s also a lot of us making each other laugh or making fun of one another in a good-hearted way. And probably a lot of me like singing. Because a lot of times I like to make up songs while I’m working. I don’t even know how to describe it — [when] we’re waiting to roll; I would sing like “We’re waiting to roll, I don’t know what the problem is.” So the editors probably have to wade through a fair amount of me singing about how I’m ready to shoot and can we just please go. It’s kind of fun.
Have you ever tried to sneak your singing into the show?
I don’t know if I have. I do so much that’s unconscious, but certainly my shoulder-shaking and “what-what” thing is something that I jokingly took from real life.
I have a friend Josh, he’s a shoulder shaker guy. I should have given him credit for this a long time ago. He would do that as a bit, as a joke. He’d enter a room and shake his shoulders and say, “What’s going on now?”
It just seemed like – I don’t know the thing I’m most positive that that was never scripted. I’m pretty sure that I just made that up, improvising – it was Laurie just having fun. You’ve got to keep it fresh you know what I mean? I could be wrong – some writer who came up with it will send me an email (laughs). But the shoulder shaking was definitely ripped from my friend Josh. It’s such a funny idea like shaking your shoulders.
ABC has moved your show around a bit, haven’t they? First you were on Wednesdays behind Modern Family, and now it’s Tuesdays at 8:30p/7:30c.
We’ve been really moved around since the beginning. I thought we were doing really well behind Modern Family, and then we got preempted for Mr. Sunshine. Then we didn’t get put back on the air this year [until mid-season]. It’s such a bummer, too, because it felt like we really had momentum from the end of last year. We had a lot of positive press, and then I won the Critics Choice Television Award (for Best Supporting Comedy Actress), which was very exciting.
On the flipside, with the delayed premiere, Cougar Town had have such a fantastic outpouring of support from your fans. You had several fan screenings across the country.
It’s so nice to have people who support your show like in such a hardcore way, and certainly it’s made the cold dark night without an air date seem a little bit warmer.
From the outpouring [of support], we were a little tricked into feeling that the word had gotten out and everybody would be on board when we came back – like we’d be pulling CSI numbers (laughs). [But] we were trying to temper our expectations. There was a definite level of disappointment about the ratings.
The Nielsen ratings seem so antiquated. Everybody’s schedule is different. Nobody is really working 9a to 5p anymore.
It’s all so antiquated. I mean what are they doing? They’re five years behind right now. They have to figure out a better way to figure out the ratings because even though they take into consideration [episode] downloads, people are not watching television in the same capacity. I don’t even watch TV in real time.
And the other thing is, with online content, it’s almost more advantageous for advertisers because you cannot get through the 30-second commercial before you watch a show. I feel like that’s obviously the future and where the money is for advertisers, so I would be looking at what the most downloaded and watched shows on Hulu. That’s the most valuable, right?
But shows live and die on ratings and that’s where we’re at right now, you know? Possibly dying.
Yeah, networks used to give a series a whole full year run, let it get its bearings. They’re so quick to yank a show now. And if something’s not gelling or feel quite right to the audience in the first like two episodes, then unfortunately a lot of them end up bailing.
People are out. I’ve actually talked to people that have said to me, “I watched the first two episodes of Cougar Town and it wasn’t for me.” I say, “Did you read [any of our press]? The show changed, it’s really funny.” They [tell me that] it’s not funny, “it’s not for me.” What do you say to that? God bless you. God-speed.
I think Modern Family is a perfect example of a show that’s really great and it was really great from the beginning, and managed to break through and get that huge audience. I don’t know why that worked and other things didn’t or our show in particular. We all acknowledge that Cougar Town had dismal reviews when it first came on the air. It took a little bit of time for the show to find its footing, and I guess that’s part of the problem when people don’t have the patience or the time to wait for a show to develop into something really great.
I love our show. I wish more people would. I’m a huge Parks & Recreation fan, I’m a huge Community and 30 Rock fan, but really, Parks and Rec is my favorite show other than ours. When I hear people talk smack about Cougar Town, it saddens me because I feel like there’s so much that’s relatable and there’s so much if you give it a chance that they would love about it. Sadly, I’ve been on shows before that are too weird. And I probably will be again. Because that’s the sensibility I’m drawn to — that’s what I want to do as an actor.
As a woman, I think there are better opportunities in TV. If you’re not literally like one of three actresses who are able to be in leading roles, then you’re sort of relegated to these three-scene, stereotypical parts in films. It doesn’t interest me to play the same [character], I’ve been offered opportunities before to test for sitcoms that are still on the air and I could be a gazillionaire. But it’s not something that’s going to make me happy going forth every week.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of a show like Freaks and Geeks and to have been on ER for a year, which was such an intense and different experience. And to be on this show — I just feel really lucky. I hope I don’t have to have the conversation [about the "next show"], but if I do, I hope that the next show is equally interesting, weird, funny, and truthful.
You’ve said that co-stars Christa Miller and Courteney Cox have been like your mommy mentors. How do you find having mentors in your life? What is the influence of having a mentor?
It’s very valuable. You have to know people that you can call on for support. People get into trouble when they think that they’re alone in what they’re going through or what they’re experiencing.
That’s where people get depressed – especially when they become a parent. You feel like no one understands what you’re going through, and the truth is, it’s universal simply being a working mother. You know, it doesn’t matter what you do; you could be a full-time lawyer or a part-time worker at a fast food restaurant. We all are experiencing the same things as women trying to have jobs, trying to help support our families, and trying to be the best moms we can be.
Something that Courteney Cox is very big on is being open and communicating. I’ve just found it to be really invaluable to express what I’m going through, and to ask for advice and help. Whether or not you actually implement them doesn’t even matter. Sometimes it’s just about getting another perspective or hearing from someone that you trust that what you’re going through is normal or that they’ve been through the same thing.
You have quite the impressive Twitter presence. Was that something that you purposefully sought out?
I guess so. I was on Twitter early in — for over three years. For me, it came about at a really interesting time in my career and my life. So often as an actress, you’re at the mercy of the people that you give interviews to. I felt like my voice and my sense of humor were never quite represented in the interviews that I had done. It was a bummer for me, I felt that people didn’t know who I was or what I was about.
And then there’s that feeling of helplessness where any douchebag with a computer can write horrible things about you, and you have no response; you have no way of sticking up for yourself, and that feeling of helplessness as a somewhat-public figure. I had talked about it in therapy for many years.
People can be such shmucks online because they’ll hide behind a screen and say something about someone that they’d never say to their face.
So with my Twitter account, I really took to it and I felt so excited about how I was able to give people an insight into who I was and the things that I think are funny. And you know, people responded to it in a good way. I think I got more press from my Twitter account than I had gotten for any interview or magazine article that I had been a part of in my entire career. So it really worked out for me.
I’ve heard the “what is the point of Twitter?” argument so much, and quite honestly, what you just said is the most compelling reason I’ve heard for anybody to use Twitter. As a fairly private person, I don’t need to worry as much that my words can be twisted by others to create my public image, and that has to be incredibly difficult for anyone in the public eye. I think that you do use it beautifully in the way that kind of shares yourself and your sense of humor.
It’s so hard not to want to quit every time someone says something mean to you, you know? There is a thing that gets lost in translation when you are on television — people think that you’re somehow less of a human because you’re an actor on television, and that’s the other reason that I really have loved being on Twitter because obviously [it shows that] I am indeed a person. But, you know, I’m somebody’s mother, I’m somebody’s wife, I’m somebody’s sister and somebody’s daughter. And you can’t be so disrespectful.
I got into this crazy fight with a paparazzi guy from TMZ – they were trying to film Michelle [Williams] and her daughter Matilda. I had said not to film Matilda because she’s six years old.
After [Michelle and Matilda] left, I went up to him and looked at him right in the eye, and I said, “Can I just ask you a question? Do you have kids in your life? I don’t know if you’re a dad or not, but do you have nieces or nephews, or people that you love that have children? Do you have that?” He was like, “Fuck you, I don’t have to talk to you.” I said, “I get it, I get it. I really just want talk to you about this because I want to know what about [Matilda's] body language of being curled up on her mom’s shoulder that you think it was okay to keep yelling and talking to her? Because that was a little girl; she wasn’t a celebrity, she’s six years old.”
For that photographer, he couldn’t deal with me[me] coming straight to him and talking to him like a person. Then he went nuts, calling me crazy names. At one point, he was like crouched on the ground and he called me a piece of trash. I said, “I’m sorry, I just have to comment on the irony of this situation, sir. You’re on the ground in an alley, and I am going to get into my SUV and drive away.”
“I’m sorry, I just have to comment on the irony of the situation, sir.” That’s spectacular!
It was pretty insane. I think that’s the problem that celebrities or public figures feel like they’re being treated like caged animals, so in return, they don’t treat the paparazzi like people. But if you really just go up to them and say, “From person to person – I’m with a kid, blah blah blah blah blah,” it’s harder for them to be horrible. It’s very rare for them to be like horrible, mean people when you talk to them. That one guy like just could not handle it — kind of amusing.
That’s a really interesting parallel – obnoxious internet commenters and paparazzi that just don’t get it.
Right. Two paparazzi, by the way, stayed behind to back me up. There was like a guy that stayed behind, and he was like, “Don’t listen to him, Busy, he ruins it for the rest of us.” I said, “You’re darn right, he is ruining it for the rest of you. He’s the one that’s making you guys look bad. You should step up — you should get him to stop.”
Yeah, it was pretty interesting. And then I tweeted about it and Harvey Levin from TMZ called my publicist and he said he wanted to talk to me. And my publicist said that’s not necessary; I didn’t think it was necessary either. [But] he apparently fired the photographer.
It is very interesting because it is a cycle. If you’re going to be in the public eye, there is going to be interest in you. But there’s also a certain amount of respect that everybody needs to show all around.
Right. Like, I’m lucky enough to escape most of it, but I’m not Reese Witherspoon, I’m not Michelle; I don’t get hounded by paparazzi. And I’m very understanding the times when I’m like shopping and I see them and they want to talk to me — I’m fine with it. But generally I’ve had really okay experiences. That was a very unique situation — but I think I handled it very well.
I do, too. Very well and very impressive. I wish you all the best and all the best to everyone at Cougar Town.
Thank you, and thanks for the support! I hope that more people get on board in the next few weeks so that we can stay on the air.
Cougar Town airs Tuesdays at 8:30p/7:30c on ABC.