Emily Pendergast is a member of the prestigious Groundlings Main Company. She was most recently seen in the final season of the Emmy Award winning HBO series Veep as Jonah’s wife, Beth Ryan. She will next be seen as the lead of the EKO interactive series Damage Control, which had its premiere at Sundance this year. You may have seen her in Indebted, Love, Unreal, You Can Do Better, Mike Tyson Mysteries, Search Bar, and Funny or Die.
Listen to Episode #93 here
Developing A Character With Emily Pendergast
Our guest is Emily Pendergast. She is a member of The Groundlings Main Company. She’s mostly seen in the final season of the Emmy Award-winning series Veep as Jonah’s wife, Beth Ryan. She will next be seen as the lead of the Eko interactive series, Damage Control, which had its premiere at Sundance. You may have seen her in Indebted, Love, Unreal, You Can Do Better, Mike Tyson Mysteries, Search Bar and of course, Funny or Die. Welcome, Emily.
Thanks for having me.
Emily, it’s great to have you here. First of all, you are such an improviser at heart. You ended this entire process, which involved me accosting you in front of the UCB Theater on Franklin one Saturday afternoon.
I was waiting for a tech. I was doing a show with a friend’s group and we just got to talk to you.
I said, “You look familiar,” and then I put it together that I had seen you on at the Groundlings Theater on Melrose for the Cookin’ with GAS, the Thursday night show. I told you how much I loved it and I also told you how suspicious I was about that show because it’s $20.
It’s worth it. You think it’s a lot but it’s great. It’s 2x so it’s a longer show, too.
It was totally worth it.
It makes me happy. That was always my favorite show to see when I was going through as a student. I would idolize just watching that show.
I was on a date and my date is a big comedy person, but a stand-up person.
I’m envious. I could never do it.
I’m an improv audience person primarily so she was suspicious because it’s improv. I was suspicious because it was $40.
What a way to start a comedy show and a first date.
It ended up being totally worth it. It’s a meaty show and tons of laughs. I didn’t get off to a great start because I was laughing hard. She thought that the amount of laughing and the volume in which I was doing is peculiar.
[bctt tweet=”In comedy, there are a lot of character studies.” via=”no”]
Is she a big laugher as well?
No one is as big a laugher as me. I was enjoying myself.
That makes me happy. I have a distinct laugh when I go to French shows, afterward, they’ll say, “We were backstage and we knew you were there.” Is it a good thing?
I think it is a good thing. When I was in college, I had friends who had a secret nickname for me. It was T-Rex. It was because of the way I would throw my head back and laugh loudly in Tyrannosaurus rex like fashion.
I love picturing a T-Rex.
I was not offended by that.
That’s a great way to get a nickname. It’s not bad quality.
You don’t want your nickname for your laughing to be like the sloth.
I was thinking of the exact same thing. Did the date go well?
It did. We figured this out and then I immediately said, “I’d love to have you on the show,” and you’re like, “Sure.” I got your contact info and you showed up early.
I have a fear of being late. It’s not great.
How very un-LA.
I love that you asked me to do this. I’m excited.
Emily, if you weren’t working as a comedian or actor, what would you be doing?
I went to college and I ended up graduating with a degree in criminal psychology with a focus on criminology, the direct path to comedy. There is a lot of character studies but nothing was making me happy in college. That’s where I ended up being like, “What can I graduate with it?” I looked into getting my Master’s out here in California and then I was like, “I’m going to try The Groundlings,” because I went to see a show and I was blown away. I always wanted to do this. I’d say criminal psychology is an intense character study.
I did a criminology certificate as an undergrad. This is how the world is weird. This will date me but I remember watching Silence of the Lambs, I’m thinking about the FBI and federal law enforcement. This is far from what my world turned out. I did the certificate so I took these criminology courses, and they were fascinating.
The psychological pathways of criminals and all of that are interesting.
Where was this?
It’s in Ohio University.
A bobcat. I know this because I’ve spent five years in Columbus. That’s why you’re not late.
My mom would be furious.
Were you doing any comedy stuff in college? Were you the funny person in the group?
There are videos of me with my sisters. All of my sisters dance with costumes on and my cats because they were much older. They’re 6 and 8 years older than me. I would just do talk shows and do all the characters, so I always love them. I idolized SNL growing up. I feel like a lot of people on this path do. When I got to college, I was like, “Maybe I’ll try psychology,” and I worked on a study in Cleveland with kids of behavioral disorders like ADHD. It was a double-blind study with a camp and that was interesting. I remember it’s like, “This and it would be hard.”
Like working in that world?
I’ve never thought about this before, but this idea of the kid who puts on the performances alone with their dolls, animals, siblings and friends. How much of that is a predictor that someday you’ll be Beth Ryan on Veep?
I feel like it’s probably a common denominator in people that are in this field. Are you great at giving friends advice and all that? Does that tap into you?
Yes, a little bit. My saying is, “I like to give advice and I like to take advice.” I’m always asking for advice so then I feel comfortable giving it, but then I realized that not everyone wants it.
They’re probably quick to tell you.
I definitely had a situation where I’ve said that to a friend, I’m like, “I need to stop giving advice,” and they go, “You should never hesitate to give me advice.” Those were your close friends.
You obviously give good advice if they want that.
You did the criminology, you came out here and then you do The Groundlings. Are you saying that you would be in that field? What else would you be doing?
That’s the easiest answer because that’s what my degree is in. I remember being like, “I could try to be a hostage negotiator.” That was my idea if I were to go and get my Master’s and specialize in that. Also, I’m not a cocky person and I feel like you have to be a cocky person to be a great hostage negotiator.
Certainly, you need to be a good improviser. Everything I know about hostage negotiations is I know from Inside Man the Spike Lee joints and from reading a book called Never Split the Difference, which is negotiation tips from a hostage negotiator. Denzel is confident in that movie.
I would say that, and I also had dreams of being a marine biologist.
Who doesn’t? I’ve had a marine biologist on.
A lot of time alone, I’m on emotion though.
Her name is Steph Green so she was in an episode called the Calendar Of Fun with her partner, Mark Ferne, who’s a good friend of mine. I did a show with them. Talk about a tough job. You’re in a tough profession so there are few slots and lots of people vying for it. Marine biology is the acting of academia.
It’s a big ocean and finding a small part of it.
It’s hard to get a tenure track job. You clearly have landed in the right place, especially because you don’t have a plan B.
That scares me because I feel like I’d have one foot out of the door. It’s like, “I can relax a little bit.”
That’s an idea I’ve kicked around for my book and I never did anything about the idea of, “Should you have a plan B or should you not have a plan B?” Tell me which is it?
Rules are hard because I feel like if you start breaking them, then you start worrying like, “I broke this rule. I’m not on the right track.” There’s somebody who’s like, “I didn’t have a plan B. You shouldn’t have a plan B because you’re not invested if you do.” I’m like, “I’m invested in this. I love this. This is what I want to do.” It scares me. Anything worth doing is scary, but whatever works for you. I also teach that at Groundlings and I love to be in that creative element. It’s fun and it’s made me a better improviser. I’ve been able to see it and it has helped me be more present.
Does that pay the bills?
Yes, it helps. It gives me food.
That’s why it’s not in the book because I couldn’t land on an answer. I don’t think it’s a rule that you can be successful. There’s a book called The 10% Entrepreneur. Imagine you have a regular, steady job. It doesn’t thrill you but it also doesn’t chew you up. You spend 10% of your time pursuing some idea. That idea might blossom into 50%, 100% or 1,000% of your time, or it just might be a hobby. At some point, the IRS says, “You can’t keep writing this off.” You never lose your house, your car never gets repossessed, so that can work. There are probably 50 podcasts that have the title, Burn the Boats. You have no other choice but to persevere.
With anything that goalpost is always shifting where ten years ago, you were to say, “By this time, you’re going to be doing this.” It’s like, “I couldn’t believe that. That’s crazy.” You’re there and it’s like, “What else?” Your ideas are always shifting around and you want to be in this profession, but then you write an amazing book and then you go for that, too. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good plan B. It’s all fueled from that one dream and aspiration.
It feels like you’re in that place where you’re blossoming as an actor. I want to talk about Groundlings a little bit. You’re my first Groundlings guest. The Groundlings is a little bit more of a black box to me, then the Second City or UCB? I know UCB well. One thing that’s striking to me about Groundlings is it’s a smaller shop. It feels like a family business.
Utmost, there are 30 main company members. We act as the artistic directors of that theater. It is that family thing.
It’s harder to get in and then it’s harder to move up the ranks. They’re different models. UCB is a mass model. They get lots of people on TV because they have this huge feeder. You have lots of people on TV but you have a much tighter feeder.
Groundlings focuses on that character aspect. Everything is fueled through your character.
Tell me more about that.
I love improv so much like I love all the schools and what they teach. I connected with what Groundlings does because I am a human of insecurity like, “Are they looking at me?” I feel like I could hide behind the characters and be able to tap into their point of view and how this person speaks. They’re like, “This Midwest mom vernacular is different than this browie chick.” Speaking through different people’s filters is what we latch on to. That behavior, character relationship, and emotion is what we say we fuel the comedy with.
The UCB thing is the who, what, where, when thing and then looking for the game and the funny thing.
It’s heightening that game. I don’t know that well enough to speak it.
That’s a model.
The writing is great with that, too. You are heightening those three beats constantly, which is awesome.
I’m assuming you take a one-on-one Groundings course and they teach you how to make a scene but the message or backbone is you become this person.
You audition for the school and you get into basic, which is the first level like a one-on-one. That’s the fundamentals of improv and then intermediate is that first level and it’s all about character. You do a cool exercise where you bring in five characters that you honed in on. They all go to the same store and buy something. It’s like, “How do these people buy them?”
This is someone that you have in your back pocket that you can go out Hildie & Jo or whoever it is based upon a situation.
Also, a suggestion. Improv is helpful. Trusting your first instinct and your gut for me because if not, then I’m going to work so much more from my brain than my instincts and my body. If you get a suggestion, it’s like, “What are these two doing?” “Painting wooden birds.” It’s like, “Who would be doing that?” Let your information flow through that person.
This is fascinating to me. I had no idea.
That’s what you see on the walls. All those awesome wigs, expressions, makeup, and all those things.
For the readers, Emily is describing while you’re waiting to go on a Thursday night to go into Cookin’ with GAS, everybody is milling around and eating Reese’s Pieces or whatever they buy at the Snack Bar. The walls are filled with pictures of current and former members. They’re not regular Hollywood headshots. They’re cheeky fun pictures.
It’s like Melissa McCarthy with her big giant Ranch bottle. It’s pictures of sketches that were in a show at one point.
Cookin’ with GAS is a short-form improv show and you’re bringing the characters into those short-forms?
Once you have all those hours of practicing and learning all those, you can easily access those characters a little bit more so you get a suggestion. You go through that Rolodex fast like, “Who would be at Evons?” Disgruntled Mom, whoever you want to play and then you connect. It’s about that relationship, too. That’s why whenever I’m teaching, I tell my classes, “Make sure you’re present because the scene will never be recreated again.” It’s all about that connection. As humans, we laugh when we recognize the connection. It lights up. When there’s a fun connection between two characters, then I’m already on board and I’m like, “I want to know why they’re doing that.”
I have a lot of questions. There was some desert island scene in the show that I saw and you played a character who was a little sexy and confident. Who is she? Is that someone you made for that moment?
Maybe I probably put her at that moment. It was probably both. For so long, I never played feminine women and that sultry and confident, I was like, “That’s not in my wheelhouse. I’d rather play one of the guys’ chicks. Especially when you are going through the program and you’re writing sketches and writing ten sketches a week to pitch for your show on a Wednesday that’s going to be on a Sunday. You have to come up with new characters. My teachers and directors were helpful in guiding me to find my funny bone within those characters. It seems like you have to have one of those.
The reason I remember it was because you lose this confidence and there was a sense of intimacy with the person you were on the island with. Much so that I wondered if the two of you were dating.
We’re making you believe it.
That’s how good it was. I was like, “I wonder if those two are going to go home and bang?”
No, because my husband doesn’t do shows at Groundlings.
I did 101 and 201 for UCB. I’m going to do 301 at some point once life settles down here. I will tell you this. I’m bad at a lot of things in improv and I am worst at characters. Here’s why. Do you need a professor? Do you need a businessman, lawyer, judge or something like that? I will nail that. What I started to do was I started being, “I’m going to put myself. I’m going to become a pregnant woman. I’m going to become a toddler. I’m going to become a lizard.” It’s hard.
It’s because you’re aware of it. The hardest thing for me going through improv was getting emotional. I feel like I’m turning into my dad. I’m even-keeled and takes a ton to make me flip out and a lot to make me super angry. I’m passionate but I was aware of myself getting emotional and that would be gesturing with my forearms. I’m like, “I’m angry.” They’re like, “You’re psychotic. That’s what you are.” That’s when I was like, “I could tap into characters.” How would this woman get mad? That was fun for me to do.
[bctt tweet=”Improv is very helpful in allowing yourself to trust your first instinct.” via=”no”]
Did they push you to be more emotional?
Yes, in those characters.
Can we be visited by one of your characters? Am I putting you on the spot?
It is on the spot.
What character would show up? Suppose you’re on a scene.
In the last show I did, she was born out of a backstage bit with my friends and she’s a jerk. Her name is Barbara. She was on talks and she doesn’t give a crap. She would probably make fun of this like, “Who cares? JSWC. Just saying.” That’s what she does. She messes up people’s names on purpose for a weird power play.
How deep do you go on the backstory of Barbara? Do you know whether she’s been married before? Do you know if she has siblings?
No one’s married that woman.
Do you have a Bible for some of these characters?
Maybe for some of them, yes because some of it comes up within while you’re writing those sketches. Their backstory will come up but maybe this will help in characters for you. I like to work in adjectives of like, “She’s a jerk. She’s insecure, but she’s not like it. She overcompensates.” Especially when I’m writing sketches for myself at the top of them, I’ll write three adjectives about that character to remind myself of like, “That’s easier for me to tap into that.” Sometimes, we teach point of view. How does this person see the world? They think everyone’s out to get them or they see it with rose-colored glasses on. If you’ve ever had friends that are like, “I hope my roommates are terrible.” Every single roommate is terrible. It’s like, “You’re probably the one, but they don’t see it like that.”
You develop these characters and they have this crossover benefit. You can use them in an improv scene and then you can write sketches. Either make them for the sketch and then transfer them over or they exist and you say, “Barbara would be great for this idea,” and then you pull her out of the closet.
You can play with her and it’s fun when you are riding with people. They’re like, “I want you to play so and so.” You’re like, “They know this character that I do.” That’s fun.
How many do you have? They’re tiered, I assume, which is more developed and less developed ones.
Some can bleed into each other as well. I’ve got a lot of my mom. She’ll cover the shows and she’s like, “Emily, was that me?” I’m like, “No.” They are usually the sweetest women in the world. They cry a lot. Have you enjoyed doing the shows when you do the UCB shows that you like?
Do you mean like a graduation show? I do. It’s interesting to take these improv classes because they’re often filled with theater geeks. I’m usually the old guy in the room, but I’m enough into the attention and I’m comfortable enough failing. I’ll put myself out there during the show and I might have one good moment that I can sink my teeth into.
There are also cool levels that we teach like one day at Groundlings. I’ve had engineers, biologists and all these people that want to get better at being present and all those things, too. I like being in those classes because as fearful as they say, they are fearless when it comes up to and they do and go for it, so that’s cool to see.
I think it’s a friendly environment. You invite your friends and family, and it’s encouraging. One of my previous guests and good friends, Darwyn Metzger, gets credit for this. When he was taking his improv classes, there’s always one person in the class who they walk out for a scene and everybody is like, “I don’t want to go out there.” They’re non-standard and they’re awkward.
They don’t listen to you and they’re bulldozing. You’re like, “This is hard.”
Everybody knows the person. That person would walk out and he would immediately go out and suddenly like, “You’re everybody’s hero.” Including the instructor who’s like, “Thank goodness.” He told me about that once and he’s like, “I’m going to start doing that.” I would never do that on a show though. I’ll do it in practice. With a show, there are always three people in the class that you have a little connection and click with. Jen walks out and I’m like, “I want to beat anybody out there because I want to do a scene with Jen and we have chemistry. I haven’t fully embraced this principle.
For 301, I’ll come to the show and I’ll make sure you run out there.
I would love for you to be my instructor.
Thanks. I love teaching a lot.
Do you have a favorite thing to teach? I’m a professor and there are some classes that I’m like, “This is fine,” but then there are some classes like, “Let’s go.” Do you have certain things that light you up when it comes to teaching?
I do intermediate, especially I love teaching because it is that character aspect of it. I also have a huge nostalgia for that level because that’s the level I met a ton of my friends that have become my LA family out here. I’ll sit there in class and they’ll be like, “I remember when Adam did that exercise.” Those kinds of things, which are special in their own way. Like the fundamentals of basic, I would say a gray area of not knowing what you’re going to do.
Is that something you teach?
Yes, trusting that gray area and like, “Don’t worry where the scene is going to go.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next because if you’re worried about that, you’re not listening to your scene partner and that teaches a lot of being present, which was a struggle of mine.
It’s because you’re two steps ahead.
In life, I’m like, “Later I have to do this. Listen to what’s happening right now.” If you can let go, it is freeing and it’s awesome to watch students do that. Let go, trust it, listen and be like, “I had no idea that scene was going to go like that,” but it did only because you were listening. It’s hard for that person but you responded.
That’s a perfect segue into your insomnia. It often happens. You made a crack about your insomnia. I have not been sleeping well, so it’s on the top of my mind. Do you think that your insomnia has something to do with your inability to live with the gray?
Yes, 100%. I needed to take that class over and over again to sleep. I’ve always hated sleep to begin with because I was like, “I don’t want to go to bed because I want to keep hanging out with everybody.”
You’re a high FOMO person.
I’ve always had that of not liking sleep. I lay in bed and that’s where I create all the world’s problems.
Let’s swap stories. I know what a good night’s sleep looks like and I can imagine what a horrible night sleep looks like but your average bad night, how does it go down?
I stay up late, too. I started acupuncture which has been great. I love it so much and she’s saving my life.
This is why I came up because you want to pour yourself your one tea. Emily ordered some warm tea and she told me, “I needed to do it because my acupuncturist told me to drink warm liquids and oatmeal in the morning.” You need warm things.
I always drink iced coffee and iced everything. She said, “No, you need to drink hot things.” She gave me some stinky herbs to drink, too, and she asked me if I would. I told her, “If you told me to scream in your receptionist’s face, I would if you told me I would sleep through the night.” In the last three months of 2019, my nights broke me. Let’s say I fall asleep between 11:00 and 1:00, I would wake up and I would be fully awake from 3:00 to 7:00 every night. I would just lay there and I wouldn’t look at my phone and then I was like, “I got this. I’m not going back to sleep,” and then I would go back to sleep between 6:00 and 7:00 but wake up by 9:00. There are nights that I’d get an hour of sleep or three hours of sleep and it was like, “God bless my husband for living with me.”
What is he doing? Does he sleep well?
He sleeps so well that it’s infuriating. I’ll be like, “You think you’re so cool dreaming.”
First of all, thank you for making me feel better about my sleep.
What is yours? Do you have a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?
It’s staying. I fall asleep great. My sleep is a mix of mild exhaustion and mild anxiety. I fall asleep fine on a typical night and then I wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. It’s too early to get up and get going and I do need some more sleep, but my mind starts working on problems usually business-related. Occasionally personally but it’s been more juggling projects, deadlines and stuff like that. Once your mind gets going, then your body gets going because you’re not thinking pleasant thoughts. You’re wondering about X, Y and Z and being vigilant. It’s a mild worry. I can soothe myself and typically fall back asleep. Occasionally, it’s late enough that I’m like, “I’m up. Let’s go,” but I go to bed and I’m rising much earlier.
When I was filming back in 2019, our call time would be 4:00 and I was like, “This is perfect,” because I’m up. That’s when I wake up. After we wrapped, my body was used to that, that I couldn’t get back to sleep for the night. I haven’t taken anything to sleep in a couple of months, so that’s great.
Certainly, it is a successful person’s problem in some ways. My anxieties are minor and mild. It’s important not to catastrophize those and to recognize that 9 out of 10 times, my tendency to be vigilant and a planner helps me juggle a lot of things and accomplish a lot of cool things in my life. It gets in the way at 4:30 in the morning.
I don’t know why it chooses that time to creep into your brain but I’ve also struggled with insomnia since middle school, so I’ve had it on and off. It was consistent in the last part of 2019. For several years when I can’t sleep, I have done a lot of work on knowing that like, “I’m just not able to sleep right now.” There’s not anything wrong. I don’t have to create a problem because it’s like, “Why can’t I sleep? What’s this?” It’s that Italian guilt that’s seeping through my blood.
Mine was an adult phenomenon. I feel like mine was the mid-30s where I felt like the stakes went up, even though they hadn’t. In many ways, the stakes have gone down in my life. There were times where I was close to not being able to pay bills. I sense that you have much poorer sleep hygiene than I do.
That’s not a competition I want to win.
I’m never tempted to look at my phone because my phone is off. It is a little bit weird, especially that I sleep alone most of the time. If I have a partner, someone in my bed, sometimes it has to be how cold you’re going to wear this eye mask, so I’m careful of trying to create the best context so I stay asleep.
You need those ritual things. I was away one time and I didn’t have my weighted blanket and what a problem to have.
Is a weighted blanket a real deal?
Yes, I love it because I also like to sleep in the cold but I like to be covered up.
Tell the world what a weighted blanket is and what it does.
You can get them within pounds. I left my fifteen pounds one because it’s not working, so I got a twenty pound one. Why am I sleeping with a 100-pound blanket on me? It feels heavy and it feels comfy on you. It’s to market if you have anxieties and stuff, but I don’t know why it works. It might be mind over matter, but I’ll take it.
A bunch of years ago, they started swaddling babies again. It said that same principle, that feeling of security.
You feel safe. It’s like a thunder vest for dogs.
I don’t even know that.
It’s for dogs that don’t get scared of storms or loud noises, they have a swaddle. It’s like a vest that’s tight to their body and it is supposed to calm them down.
Do you have a dog?
Does your dog have a thunder vest?
No, but she’s 65 pounds and terrified of everything.
I wish you luck. Sleep is so important. Sleep is critical to be our best selves personally and professionally. My former postdoc advisor who’s done a bunch of work on well-being says that you can ask someone how happy they are or you can ask them how well they slept. You get the same answer and that’s how important sleep is.
With going to this acupuncturist, I’ve been sleeping for the night. My husband said he’s not scared of me in the morning anymore.
Let’s talk a little bit about how you’ve turned your ability to create characters into a career. Your Veep character is similar to someone you already had? Did you have to cultivate and create her? What does she like? Can we bring her out?
The writers of that show gave me many gifts to do and that whole cast.
I’ve had Matt Walsh on. It’s an all-star comedic cast.
It is mind-blowing and sometimes I would forget, I would look around the room and be like, “I cannot believe that this is happening.” The icons and legends for every department, I can’t speak highly enough about that. She loved her husband so much and he’s such a jerk, but they love each other.
That’s the making for comedy like the appealing characters.
I have to credit Patton Oswalt. He said that Beth is ignorantly enthusiastic and that is a great way to explain who she was. She was just happy to be there and she didn’t see anything wrong with the world. She’s like, “This is great.” I truly would forget where I was. I’m like, “This is the coolest thing that I’ve ever done.” She was ignorant and happy. Being able to continue to do her and play with her, these gifts that these writers and directors were giving me to do, they made her clear to me. I wanted to serve them and hopefully, I did.
Where’d you struggle?
In that or in life?
On that set with that role.
With a lot of people, especially I suffer from that imposter syndrome of like, “Eventually, they’re all going to realize that I’m faking it and they’ve made a huge mistake.” Getting out of my own way and being able to trust myself, play and be with that all-star greats. Being able to make myself proud of being like, “I’m doing this with them.” I’m getting to be in the scene with them and getting out of my way and trusting myself.
How did you excel in that?
I like to add little nuggets of information. Luckily, she did speak in darts of information. She didn’t have a ton of monologues, which was great and insanely impressive to watch the actors that did. She has little thoughts and because I could tap into who she was, it’s a cripplingly accommodating woman that’s already in my Emily bones. She listens so much to be able to be present as her and react, which was fun for me.
On Veep, you do some improvisational stuff. There are the written lines, but then the director has you improv sometimes.
Occasionally for us, they do one for fun, but they would come out with lines scribbled on the back of a piece of paper for us to say these outlines and they were geniuses. I can confidently say that I would never have said anything better than they would have written. They were awesome.
[bctt tweet=”The hardest part of going through improv is emotion.” via=”no”]
They have a great advantage, which is they get to sit and puzzle over these things back and forth and so on. How many writers are in the room?
I don’t want to misquote myself. I’m not sure exactly how many but there were several writers.
The average person doesn’t recognize it. Some of these shows have a dozen people counting on.
That sense of play was fun, like, “I get to play in the sandbox with these people. It’s nuts.” I remember that chemistry test with Tim Simon’s who plays Jonah. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in the room and I got to improvise with her. I remember leaving and I was like, “If all that happens, awesome.” I couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t even know you were doing this when I asked you to be on the podcast. I want to ask about Damage Control. Tell me because I know nothing about it.
It’s an interactive choice-driven comedy. There are moments where I felt like my ears were going to bleed because it was so much to figure out. The script was insane to follow along. We were filming every single choice.
I watch, there’s a choice point and I can decide.
It’s an office comedy and I work for these two terrible bosses. They started off great and they wanted to do good things then got swept up with the money. They’re doing just the poor business models for more money and I want to do something good. They go out of town and it’s like, “Do I kill their deal and go with mine?” You get to choose those things. We’re having an interview with them and there’s a potential of 3,000 different combinations you could do or something. It was a lot of that. You choose that and she doesn’t disappoint her friends although she has backstabber friends.
You get to develop a character as the viewer.
Do you want to keep her to be this upstanding worker or do you want her to start being a jerk? It was cool. I’ve never filmed anything like that. We were filming twenty-plus pages a day when normally you can do seven. Everyone was down and professional. They all were after the same goal of making it as great as they could. I’m glad we got to see a couple of episodes when we went to Sundance, and it’s so fast. I can’t imagine how they edited it because there were many choices.
I’m familiar with this technology. A friend worked for a company that was one of the companies that we’re developing years ago. Let’s say I’m a viewer. I’m watching on my computer or my phone. I assume there’s a prompt but how do I make the choice?
If it’s on your phone, you touch the screen and then the computer is moving the mouse. You just click the choices.
I assume there’s a default if you miss.
It’s an eight-second window. If you don’t choose within that time, you immediately choose one of them.
When is this expected to come out?
Where will people find it?
On Eko. It’s an app.
There are many channels. I was wondering when one was going to happen?
There was the Bandersnatch on Netflix, Black Mirror episode. It definitely makes people view it because they’re invested. You were saying that one of the directors was explaining as opposed to leaning back and watching it, you’re leaning forward because you’re trying to figure out what you want them to do next.
The neat thing is you can rewatch, but that’s part of the play. Not only is it that you get people who are leaning in, but then they can revisit like, “What would have happened if she had backstabbed?” This sounds comedic.
There are definitely some moments of a lot of heart and there’s more drama towards the end depending on if you make certain choices. I specifically remember one day where the three of us were sitting on set. It was a bar. I’m with Brendan Scannell and Rekha Shankar were the two other employees with me. We were sitting at a bar and it was one of the last episodes. We had to film every possible type of ending. I was bawling my eyes out in one of the scenes and they’re like, “Now you guys are best friends.” I’m like, “Great.” They’re like, “Now you’re mad at each other.” They were so good at reminding us of what happened before because we were block shooting it. We weren’t shooting it in order to be like, “What happened next?” Jamie Loftus was one of the writers and she was there on set every day. She wrote this one episode that is like an Easter egg. If you make all these certain choices, you get to see Billy Zane and I had a bar. I told her and I was like, “This is the best day of my life.”
I can imagine if people get into the show, there’s going to be a side conversation that happens, which is, “Do this. You should check this out. This is the path to the Easter egg.”
It was an experience and I was like, “I’m capable of doing blank,” so that felt cool.
That’s me. A long time ago, I was talking to some guy who used to do special effects and stuff, but he spent a lot of time on movie sets. I met him in Australia. I remember asking him, I was like, “Is it hard to be an actor?” Knowing how much looks matter and my thing was about as an actor, especially in movies. It’s hard to exceed your director’s ability, a director’s ceiling that an actor bumps up against because of decisions. He’s like, “It’s hard to be an actor.” I was like, “Tell me why.” He essentially said, “You’re in this set with all these people. There’s a camera nine inches away from your face and you have to cry.” The average person has no control over their ability to make any emotion besides the emotion they’re feeling at that moment. As you describe, joy, mild angst, and being furious with someone all within an hour.
Making sure until they get the shot. You’re like, “Again? I’m dehydrated.” Once you tap into that, at least for that day, I was like, “Cool.” The other actors were awesome, like, “Take your time,” because I knew I had to cry and then like, “Do you want me to scream at you?” I’m like, “Yes.” I feel bad.
I was puzzled over it because it’s hard to know. The argument is there’s a special sauce and the casting, people, directors, and the producers can identify the people who have it. The other one is lots of people have it and it’s a little bit of random chance. The people like to say, only Al Pacino could have played X in The Godfather or in Scarface. Of course, the other one is like, “No, there are five people who could have done it.” It’s a smaller pool. That went a long way to say, “There’s a certain skill that’s not easily replicable.”
I love it when you’re watching something and you forget you’re watching something. It’s like the masters are doing it and you’re like, “That’s crazy.” That thing blows my mind.
Of course, the flip side of it is when you see someone doing it poorly and you go, “That person is acting badly.”
What were you doing in Australia? Did you live there?
At that point in time, I had this research scholar position for about several weeks in Sydney. I have some colleagues who are in Australia. I went and worked on papers. It’s nice because it’s the opposite season so I can escape the Boulder winter to go and do a Sydney or Melbourne summer. The other thing is I’ll make a case. One of the great things about Australia and my last trip to Australia was 2017 or 2018 and I did seven weeks there, and I slept great. Let me tell you why. When you’re in Australia, you are far from everything. Everything feels far away. It’s easy for people to forget you exist. You’re psychologically distant. There’s something about getting away from life that’s different than going to Mexico.
I studied abroad in Newcastle, which is two hours south of Sydney. I can’t remember if I slept great or not, but in this case, I’ll say I did.
I did tell you that I was going to give you a chance to ask any questions. Tell me what you wanted to talk about. Is there something that you have?
I have something that I would like to ask. What is something that you try to achieve every day?
I have a system for my day. Every day I wake up, I have a cappuccino. That signals my creative time is beginning. I always try to have a creative morning. It’s typically writing, but it’s been doing some other types of work. It’s all creative problem-solving type of work. It’s part of my life and I am compelled to do it. Because I’m sitting so much and I frankly like it, I try to get some form of exercise. I did a cool boxing class, which I love. It’s hard, fun, communal and different. When you’re punching a bag, you have to be present. You’re not ruminating about your problem. Ideally, I get a little nap in even if it’s for fifteen minutes. I do some more creative work.
Within my day, I want to do at least 1 to 3 sessions of creative work. I want to have some release that’s physical. I want to have some release that’s relaxing. Ideally, I have some social time, even if it’s just getting on the phone with a friend. I’m old school. I talk on the phone and make lots of calls. In that way, what that allows me to do is to be productive, healthy, and I never burn myself out. I can do that every single day for a year. The Hollywood model is different from my academic model. The Hollywood model is, “Work like a dog for four months and then take a two-month vacation.” The biggest people live in that way.
You work for this time, you’re off and then you’re terrified that you’re going to work again.
I have this steady rhythm. It’s more of the artists’ rhythm, like the old school painters and sculptors. It’s not Hemingway because I’m not getting drunk. In my forthcoming book, Shtick to Business, the model that I put forth is to protect, grind and release. Protect your creative time, you work on it every day and within every day, you release yourself from your work fully. It’s not like, “I’m at my desk scrolling through Instagram and taking a break.” It’s like, “Work is done. There’s no more work that’s happening during this period of time. I will resume it tomorrow morning.”
I can’t wait for your book.
Emily, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good? Not just like normal good, but really good.
I made a promise that I was going to read every day in 2020. I’ve kept it and I’ve been loving it. I read Where the Crawdads Sing.
Is it fiction?
It is. My mom came out to visit from Ohio and she had finished the book. I read it that quickly so she could take it back home.
What made it good?
It’s about a girl that lives in Marsh and everyone is mean to her. She never went to school and then there’s a murder. Everyone is blaming this Marsh girl. I remember talking to my sister because she read it as well and we both are like, “Part of me wishes it was true.” It’s an aspirational, wonderful woman that taught herself these amazing things, listened to what she loved and made her happy, and used her surroundings to blossom. It’s a wonderful book.
Anything else that comes to mind?
A friend of mine just sent me her novel that she wrote and it’s amazing that she wrote a novel. It’s a mystery thriller, which is my favorite to read. It’s called The Prized Girl by Amy Green.
Amy, congratulations. There are at least twelve people who have learned about your book.
I try to read it and I’m like, “This one was fictional and a little bit more emotional heart-wrenching. This one is terrifying. I need a palate cleanser every once in a while.” Those are what I’ve been trying to read every day and I’ve been doing it.
Emily, you’re great.
Thanks for having me.
This was a lot of fun. Cheers.
- The Groundlings
- Damage Control
- Never Split the Difference
- Calendar Of Fun – Previous Episode
- The 10% Entrepreneur
- Darwyn Metzger – Previous Episode
- Matt Walsh – Previous Episode
- Where the Crawdads Sing
- The Prized Girl
About Emily Pendergast
Emily Pendergast is a member of the prestigious Groundlings Main Company. She was most recently seen in the final season of the Emmy Award-winning HBO series Veep as Jonah’s wife, Beth Ryan.
She will next be seen as the lead of the EKO interactive series Damage Control, which had its premiere at Sundance this year.
You may have seen her in Indebted, Love, Unreal, You Can Do Better, Mike Tyson Mysteries, Search Bar, and Funny or Die.
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