Talking to Rachael Harris About ‘Bad Words’, the Space Between Comedy and Drama, and Working with Jason Bateman
Rachael Harris’s most recent appearance in Jason Bateman’s first foray into directing, Bad Words, was brief. Nevertheless, her time on screen occupied some of the funniest moments of the movie. She is largely known for her acerbic, caustic roles in comedy (like as Ed Helms’s mean girlfriend in The Hangover) , yet she has also proven herself to be a talented actress in a wide range of roles (like earning awards attention and acclaim as the lead in 2011’s Natural Selection, where she played a soon-to-be widowed, sheltered, Christian housewife, whose life is rocked by the news that her dying husband had an illegitimate son living in Florida).
Harris has been especially busy lately. She’s starring opposite Christopher Meloni in Fox’s midseason comedy Surviving Jack, which just started airing last week, playing a supporting role in USA’s Suits, and last year, she co-created and starred in the Yahoo! series We Need Help with comedy partner Cheryl Hines. I recently had the chance to chat with Harris about her characters, her intentions of branching out, and working with Jason Bateman.
In Bad Words we get to see you play another character that seems pretty caustic and bombastic. Do you purposely go out for that sort of role are, or are you trying to branch out?
I’m definitely trying to branch out. I think my character on Surviving Jack is very compassionate. It’s sort of like Christopher Meloni, he’s more the one that is the disciplinarian in the family, and I’m more the voice of reason and very nurturing to our kids. So it’s kind of great to be on the other side of that for Surviving Jack. In Night at the Museum 3, I’m still a bit “caustic.” [Laughs] But it’s really great to be caustic at Ricky Gervais and Ben Stiller. That was just amazing.
I’m sure. But you do play that kind of character particularly well. I feel like you manage to be both crazy and over-the-top but, at the same time, three-dimensional and sympathetic.
I think I like those characters because they’re so interesting. A lot of the time, I think it works that they are sympathetic because I’m not playing them in a way where I’m trying to be mean. I’m right. The character feels that she has been, in most of these scenarios, coming from a positive place. Because [in Bad Words] she’s like, “I just want to take care of my child and all of these other children that are having their feelings hurt.” But they don’t go about it in the right way. They don’t realize, “Oh, I have to appeal to someone from the heart.” In The Hangover, [Melissa] thinks she’s right. She really thinks [Stu] is being an asshole and it’s her job to tell him that, and it’s the same thing with Bad Words.
So for me, I like playing characters that are flawed in some way, that they don’t have the best coping skills. I have a lot of empathy for people that were never really taught a better way of correcting someone else. You know, like parents – often times I empathize with parents that never really had good parents and weren’t taught an effective way to scold someone or to go up to theim and say, “It really hurts that you’re taking part in the spelling bee.” She doesn’t have that. So I think I empathize with these characters. And in that same regard, I think I play more characters that are still flawed but maybe flawed in different ways. They have different resorts to anger. I loved doing Natural Selection for that reason, and I’m actively seeking scripts and more dramatic things that are not necessarily angry but call upon me to bring a different side of myself.
My agents and representatives are working very hard to find those kinds of projects that don’t call on me to do the same thing. Even with Night at the Museum 3, I’m coming to the point where I have to say, “I’m not going to do that for a while.” That’s what you have to do, and you have to be bold enough and brave enough to do that. And I feel like I have that in me, but at the same time, when people like Shawn Levy, whom I’ve worked with before, and Ricky Gervais whom I absolutely idolize, it’s hard to say “no” to having the opportunity to work with them. I had so much fun with Ricky Gervais, not even just on set and or while we were on camera, just totally dicking around off-camera and cracking ourselves up. I kind of knew that was going to be the experience, also because Shawn Levy is such an amazing director and so cooperative. In this film I was like, “This is fine. I don’t care. I just want to get to meet these people and work with them.” So the thing is, it’s hard because comedies are so much fun. When you get to work with these amazing people, it’s really hard to say no.
What other kinds of roles do you have planned?
I’ve been given an opportunity by Aaron Korsh on Suits and that’s been a really dramatic spin for me. Suits is kind of that nice transition from just doing strictly comedy to doing more dramatic stuff.
So yeah, that is a real concern for me. I don’t want to be tied down forever. You know, most of us as actors, we want to do all of it. And that’s definitely something I want to do. I’ve been focused so much on television and film that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of my theater career. There’s so much I want to do in New York. I have friends, like Neil Patrick Harris — he did Rent and other things.
You have a past with improv. Are you planning to build on that in the future?
Well, you know, I feel like I’m an actor and an improv actor, and that’s so valuable. Being able to be an improviser is invaluable for me even socially. That feeling that I can walk into a situation and not know what I’m going to say, and it’s like, ‘Iit’s ok, you’ll think of something, you’ll be all right.’ But my first love is theater. I love doing plays and I would never change a word that Pinter said, or Mamet or Arthur Miller, you know? I respect the process of the writer; I am not a writer. I’ve written sketch for years, but I feel more at home bringing life to an established, written character. I’m putting my own spin on it. I love doing that.
Do you ever see yourself directing something?
Sure I do. Especially directing TV. I just feel like my brain is in that medium. When I think of a story, it’s always single camera, never multi-camera or a play. But I would love to do that.
It’s a part of being super analytical, I imagine.
Yeah, oh yeah. Such an over-thinker. My goodness. Which is great when it’s used properly, but terrible when you just over-think your greatest fears. That’s when it’s not so useful.
I loved how you and Jason Bateman interacted in Bad Words, the way his comedy works is really well-suited to the way you’re able to plumb up three-dimensional characters; do you plan on working with him again in the future?
I would work with Jason Bateman, yes. If they said to me, “You’re only going to work once a year, on a film with Jason Bateman,” I would say, “Great, done, that’s amazing.” Our scenes were scripted, but then we would improvise that whole ending. When he made that hilarious elephant simile, he completely improvised that. That’s the great thing about Jason: he really is a great improviser. And I felt so comfortable with him that if something was going down the wrong track or whatever, I was totally fine with him saying, “Okay, that didn’t really work.” He’s very collaborative and in a great way. He doesn’t make you feel like you’re doing it wrong, but that there are just other options. He’s so positive and so just loves the process so much that you love it with him.
I had such a tiny role in this film but he made me feel like I was the lead with him. That’s a real gift that he can still manage his time, and there were hundred of extras and kids. Kids! It’s not easy to direct all that, and he did it with such grace and was so lovely, and I just can’t say enough about him. I adore him as a person, and he is directing another film, The Family Fang, and I want to be in that movie so bad. And I think he’s been through so much, starting out as a child actor, and then having to prove himself again, and have no ego. I just really think he’s a good egg, and I would work with him every year, eight times a year.
Rachael Harris can be seen on Suits, Thursdays at 9pm on USA, and on Surviving Jack, Thursdays at 9:30pm on Fox.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.