Veteran actress Judy Greer has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, often stealing scenes from the above-the-title leading performers and making lasting impressions with a variety of versatile performances. She is possibly best known for her role in Arrested Development but has appeared in Elizabethtown, 27 Dresses, 13 Going on 30, Love and Other Drugs and TV’s Archer and Two and Half Men, to name only a few.
When I caught up with her at the Denver Film Festival, she was about to receive the John Cassavetes Award for her body of work and was promoting The Descendants, the Hawaii-set drama starring George Clooney and Jeff Who Lives at Home, an upcoming comedy starring Jason Segal and Ed Helms.
Both represent a dramatic departure from her usually comedic turns and her work in The Descendants has rightfully been called award-worthy. In person, Miss Greer is gorgeous, bubbly, warmly talkative and open.
She spoke exclusively to MauiTime about filming in Hawaii, the future of Arrested Development, her take on M. Night Shyamalen’s The Village, working with George Clooney and some of her most famous directors.
MAUITIME: Was there a film or performance that inspired you to become an actress?
JUDY GREER: No, but there are movies that made me want. I’m not just saying this but, I was already studying acting at the time but when I saw Citizen Ruth, it kind of put things in perspective for me. I really thought, I wanted to make movies like that. And now I get to, because I worked with Alexander Payne. That movie [The Descendants] was like a scene change for me, where I can make gritty, weird movies about people where you don’t know who’s right or wrong and you can’t really decide who you’re rooting for. That was interesting. I also loved the movie Moonstruck and I loved how happy it made me all the time, whenever I watched it, so I also wanted to make movies that made people really happy.
MT: What roles do you go for?
GREER: It depends on my bank account at the time. Sometimes it’s a paying job [laughs], anything will do, and sometimes its who’s involved in the movie, the chance to work with someone who can teach me something is what I’m most interested in lately.
MT: I don’t know if they told you beforehand but I’m a writer for MauiTime-
GREER: Well done!
MT: I think the local audience is gonna go nuts for this movie. I have some Hawaii questions for you.
GREER: Go for it.
MT: Prior to making The Descendants, had you ever been to Hawaii before?
GREER: Once. I was there for three days for a wedding and I stayed at the Turtle Bay Resort, where they shot Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I loved it…I didn’t see any turtles…I wanted to go back and wound up going back for The Descendants. I didn’t get to do much- I was there for a wedding and I didn’t get the chance to explore the island. I did get to have poke, which I’m a big fan of.
MT: What was it like filming on Oahu and Kauai?
GREER: The best part was when we were on Kauai because it was so beautiful and it felt really dreamy and I felt like my scenes were really dreamy, so it helped add to that aspect of my character and that plotline. The set and everyone was so mellow, everyone brought their surfboards and surfed during lunch. It didn’t feel like we were working 12-hour days. We worked hard but it was so beautiful. I was like, “why would I sit in my trailer when I can go sit on the beach. In Hawaii?” You know what I mean? So we just kind of hung out. A lot. On the beach. It was great.
MT: Your character’s name is Julie Speer. Did he write it with you in mind?
GREER: No. It’s a total coincidence.
MT: Instead of the role being the shrewish wife or a total fool, you made her very relatable and real. What was the process like finding this woman?
GREER: I don’t know. I don’t want to disappoint you but I kind of forget. It all happened–I mean, I got the script, my agent had this audition for me, I was thrilled to be able to audition for Alexander Payne. My main goal I have for directors I want to work with is to impress them. Not necessarily to get the part, I just want them to like me, so they’d use me at some point in their career. People have circled back, so that’s been great. In this situation, it was no different, I just wanted to act well for him. I prepared a scene for him the day before, he liked me and cast me. The day before the shoot, I asked him, how do you want me to prepare? He just said “just do what you did at the audition. It was perfect, that’s why I cast you.” My audition was all my scenes from the movie, so I had already done everything for him. It was pretty easy–I thought, well, that’s what he wants. I kind of just do myself, I just do what I do. It’s a version of me, and this time it worked.
MT: What was it like working with George Clooney for the second time?
GREER: Working with him is always awesome but thankfully, it was my second time because I was so nervous to work with Alexander that I felt like if I never worked with George before I would have been beside myself. I kind of needed him to be my friend and since we already worked together, he was. I felt very safe acting with him and having that kind of emotional roller coaster felt really natural to do with him. I felt really protective and he was really supportive and gave me whatever space I needed. He was really good at reading where I was emotionally.
MT: I gotta ask about Jeff Who Lives at Home. Great film, I only regret that audiences won’t see it until March. The directors, the Duplass brothers, are known for their highly improvised movies. How much freedom did you have in shaping your performance?
GREER: Oh, whatever I wanted to do. It was very different and I shot both movies at the same time. I flew back and forth from Hawaii to New Orleans doing them both at the same time. My manager and agents are like miracle workers with my schedule, because there were so many times when one of them almost kind of fell apart. It was strange to go from doing something like Descendants, where Alexander is so prepared and specific on what he wants; it’s a calm set, we took our time setting up shots, getting things perfectly… With the Duplass brothers, I would go back on a plane to New Orleans, two cameras are rolling all the time, we can do and say whatever we want, they talk to us during the scene, during takes they give us direction and feed us lines. Sometimes you’d say something improvisational they’d like and they’d riff on that. The set-ups go fast, they move fast and don’t take a long time, they don’t sit around a lot. It’s a very different working environment. Equally awesome, just totally different. They love improvising and they cast people they want to work with and feel comfortable with. We can just do whatever and they’re really confident in us. They were happy with who we were as people, so we could do whatever we wanted. It was really fun and totally different.
MT: The inevitable Arrested Development question-
GREER: I don’t know!! [laughs]
MT: No, that’s not what it is! I just wanted to ask, considering this is one of the great TV comedies of all time, is it a good idea, or is it something to leave alone. There’s lots of talk about a movie, a TV revival…
GREER: If it was anyone other than Mitch Hurwitz, I would say to leave it alone. But he’s so awesome and, selfishly, I hope I get to do the movie and get to work with him again. I think the reason they have waited so long was because they want to get it right. I have every confidence that is gonna be awesome.
MT: What did you think of The Village?
GREER: I loved it. I had a great time making that movie and the ending shocked me when I read the script. I thought it was a beautiful story and I was disappointed it wasn’t more successful or well received. I thought it was a really cool and weird and strange take on society. So I was expecting everyone to think it was the greatest movie ever, [laughs] like I did at the time. Also, working with Night is awesome, it’s an experience, because he takes such good care of everybody, his crew and actors… He’s so generous and specific on what he wants. He’s really controlling, in a good way. I liked it, I liked working with him.
MT: I wanted to ask you my self-indulgent question, if you’ll humor me?
GREER: Go for it.
MT:You’ve worked with some of my favorite directors and, if you’re willing, I wanted to throw some of these names at you and ask what your thoughts and the first thing that comes to mind. If you want to say Pass, feel free.
GREER: Okay, cool.
MT: We’ll start with-
MT: [laughs] It works.
GREER: I never get that opportunity!
MT: Spike Jonze.
GREER: I love Spike. He reminds me most of Alexander Payne in his temperament and intimacy with us while we’re working. They both stand next to the camera and really private about the moment they’re trying to create. I like that.
MT: David O’ Russell.
GREER: He’s a genius. He’s like a mad scientist. It was a long time ago that I worked with him but I loved how on Three Kings he sat us all down and had character conversations with each of us. He was like, “great, this is who you are. This is who you think you are.” We talked about it, figured it out, we were all on the same page. When we showed up for work, we could do whatever we want.
MT: Mike Nichols.
GREER: He’s like the father figure. He was so cool and confident. I remember him asking, “do you think we’re making a good movie?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I liked that…and he can interpret dreams. So there.
MT: Wes Craven.
GREER: I loved him. He’d Xerox the New York Times crossword puzzle and pass it out to everyone. Every day, for all the crew members, we’d all try to ward off Alzheimer’s by doing crossword puzzles [laughs].
MT: Nancy Meyers.
GREER: She’s very particular…
MT: [laughs] Moving on, Edward Zwick.
GREER: Oh, I loved him. He made me nervous because he so intensely watches the monitors and you. I really loved the kind of attention he paid to all of us. I loved making him laugh because, at the time, it didn’t seem to come easily for him.
MT: Last question. Your filmography is so versatile and extensive. Are there any underrated gems you’d like your fans to give another look?
GREER: I love this movie I did called Barry Munday. I’m obsessed with it. I’m obsessed with Patrick Wilson in that movie–it’s not even about myself, I just wish people would watch his performance in that movie, because he is SO FUNNY and I don’t think people see him as funny or know how funny he is. He’s hilarious in that movie. The second one I’ll say is The TV Set; it didn’t get to a lot of people and it’s super-underground, Hollywood stuff about making a television pilot. It’s absolutely accurate, unfortunately, I think it’s brilliantly acted and written and directed by Jake Kasdan. Those are two movies that I wish would have a second chance.
MT: Awesome. Thank you and have fun tonight.
GREER: Thank you for interviewing me!
MT: I was looking forward to this all day.
GREER: Awesome robots!