Natalie Zea Takes a ‘Detour’
Jason Jones and Samantha Bee’s new comedy series The Detour premiered earlier this month on TBS to great reviews. The show, which airs Monday nights at 9, is a nightmarishly funny take on the classic family road trip saga. For co-star Natalie Zea, it’s been the perfect opportunity to showcase her skills as a comedic actor. Zea’s career has traditionally been more on the dramatic side, with roles in shows like Dirty Sexy Money, Californication, and the bizarre supernatural soap opera Passions. I talked to Zea about her foray into comedy, how The Detour handles some of society’s most loaded social issues, and how if you want something, sometimes all you have to do is ask.
Most people know you from more dramatic supporting roles. How did you get involved in this project as the co-star of a comedy series?
I have no idea. I had a project that was supposed to be a sure thing, but ended up not going forward. Once I got released from that I sent out a very tongue-in-cheek tweet saying, “To all comedy writers out there, I’m free.” Apparently Jason saw it and offered me the role like a day later. I was very confused as to how they would be so confident in my abilities to be able to pull this off. But I realized that these opportunities don’t come along very often, so I jumped at the chance.
I was trying to think of instances where I’ve seen you perform a straight-up funny role and your character Christinith in The Other Guys came to mind.
Yeah, my reel is comprised of only comedy. I don’t have any drama on it. That’s the first scene on my reel. I guess Jason and Samantha saw it and were like, “Yep, she can do it.”
Have you worked with either of them before?
No. Never met them, didn’t know them.
That really speaks to the power of Twitter then.
No shit, right?
How would you describe your character Robin on The Detour?
I feel like Robin is one of the more fully realized women that I’ve had the chance to play. She happens to be a mom, but that’s not her primary title in life. She’s a woman, she’s smart, she has flaws, she has ideas, she has dependencies. There are so many facets to her outside of the archetype of being the sitcom mom. And yet, her role as a parent is a very vital and important role. It’s just not the only role.
It’s a really well-balanced character inside of a very insane storyline. The show is full of crazy scenarios that the family gets involved in, but is anchored with these moments of clarity for all of the characters. I’m thinking of the episode where the issue of a DUI comes up. You have to admit to your family that in the past you had done something stupid that led to you getting a DUI. You have to have that conversation with your kids and still work to maintain their respect. The way those kind of moments are handled in the show is very interesting.
I think so too, especially considering the fact that we are only given 22 minutes per episode. I think Jason, Samantha, and the writing team are walking a really beautiful tightrope, being able to make their situation seem complex while carrying out this broad comedy. But honestly, a lot of it just has to do with the fact that Jason and I talk really fast. That kind of helps move everything along. I have specifically heard Jason talk a lot about how important honesty is as a parent, his point being that your kids are going to hear about this stuff, either from you or on the playground, and wouldn’t you rather them get a more accurate idea of what life is and have to endure some really uncomfortable conversations than have them thinking that babies come from a cut in the forehead or a tummy scar.
The kids are amazing in the show.
You just became a mom. Your daughter is 6 months old now, right?
Has becoming a mother influenced the way you approach a role or the way that you look at the future of your career?
Time will tell. I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been able to take all of this time off and not really have to worry about any of that. I have already turned down a project that I may have taken otherwise if my daughter wasn’t in the picture. I’m like, “Okay, this shit’s real. It’s happening.” In terms of how it’s going to affect my abilities as an actor, I’m really looking forward to just seeing how it colors my performance, if it does at all.
A lot of the conversations that you have with the children in the show deal with some kind of tricky issues. Your daughter gets her first period. The family accidentally stumbles into a strip club leading to a conversation about stigmatizing sex workers. Cultural appropriation, racism, and substance abuse are all addressed. A lot of these are very heavy subjects, but the show does not treat them with kid gloves. The show treats these things in a somewhat serious way by using very smart humor.
I’m thrilled that people like you are getting it. The people who love the show are absolutely getting everything you just said. It’s really thrilling for us with all the complexities — again, that fine tightrope to walk — that it’s paying off and shining through.
Another thing that I feel holds the show together very well is that there’s an umbrella over it where there’s something going on that is a bit of a mystery and the audience is piecing it together show-by-show. There’s a suspense to it that keeps you locked in.
Serialized comedy can be really tricky sell, but that’s why people binge watch. There’s a reason that you want to keep going and it requires a serialized aspect. You don’t have all of the answers. That’s usually more associated with drama, but why not do it with comedy?
The show just premiered, but you already got renewed for a second season, which means that people believe in the power of this series.
TBS has been so supportive of us since day one. They really are just letting us do what they hired us to do, which is such a novelty. They really get it. It could have fallen into the hands of people who just weren’t quite tuned in to what we’re trying to do. We were lucky that it didn’t. They completely understood from the get-go that this is a chance that they’re going to have to take and that if they did and really got behind it, it was going to pay off. I think it already has.
Do you see yourself in more comedic roles in the future?
Oh God, I hope so. I’ve been working my ass off for the past decade to try to get into this position so I can have my pick of the litter between dramatic and comedic roles. My true passion lies in the middle.
Your background was in theater, right?
I went to theater school, but I ended up not being able to break into that world as easily as I had hoped to. Ironically, I ended up being more successful in television, which was never the plan.
Would you consider Passions to be your first big break?
Yeah, I think so because I was able to kind of take it easy for a couple of years and not worry about if my rent was going to get paid.
Passions was not a comedic series, however it did attract a bit of a cult following for some of the weird storylines and characters. There was a humor to it that I don’t feel was intentional.
It was not.
It’s interesting that you started out as a part of something so unintentionally funny and now you’re breaking out in a comedy role.
It’s the difference between being laughed at and laughed with. Although, we were all in on the joke, but we just couldn’t do anything about it. We had to take it very seriously, which was a really frustrating aspect of the job.
What else do you have coming up that we can look out for?
I shot a movie a couple of years ago called Too Late that is in select theaters right now. It’s on 35mm film. It was shot in five takes and every take is a 20-minute take, no cuts, one reel of film per act. The film — the actual tangible film — is doing a tour of the US.
That kind of reminds me of what Alejandro G. Iñárritu did with Birdman and those really long takes.
The difference is there are no hidden cuts, no tomfoolery. What you see is exactly one reel of film. Actually, in one of the acts we barely make it. You can tell because there’s a very abrupt ending. You see it and go, “That was real. They barely got to the end of that reel.”