Susie Essman talks to Capone about BOLT, the coming season of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, and the stand-up life!!!
Published at: Nov. 17, 2008, 12:01 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Comedian Susie Essman is as much a reason to watch HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as anyone else on that show. Her enraged, expletive-laced rants against her husband (Jeff Garlin) or Larry David are the stuff of legend, and her first-season declaration that Jeff is a "fat fuck," well, it made me weep with joy. Now I realize that the only reason Essman and I got put in a room together for a half hour was to talk about the decidedly PG-rated Disney animated work BOLT, but I begged her not to feel like she had to hold back when talking about other aspects of her life, her 20-plus years as a stand-up comic, or her work on "Curb."
Essman is the unexpected heart and soul of BOLT, in which she plays a stray New York cat named Mittens, who is as tough as nails even though she's declawed. She's a great grounding counterpoint to Bolt, who believes he is somehow a more special animal than any other. Essman is an absolute sweetheart, and I had a blast spending time with her, especially in my attempts to pry little nuggets of information about the upcoming "Curb" season. But I began my interview by relaying a quick story to her about a time when our paths crossed nearly 20 years ago in New York City, a story I wasn't even aware I'd be relaying to her until the evening prior to our conversation as I was doing research for the interview. Enjoy the in-fucking-credible Susie Essman…
Capone: I just need to say before we begin that I had a revelation about you last night when I was trying to dig up old clips of your stand-up performances…
Susie Essman: Was it sexual?
Capone: Yes, but not regarding you and me. I lived in New York from 1990 to 1992, and my best friend lived there too, and he got married right after I moved there, sometime in the summer of 1990. Part of his bachelor party included a trip to a comedy club, I think it was Catch a Rising Star…
SE: Oh God! I can only imagine. Yeah, yeah.
Capone: And there was a woman emcee, who came out and knew there was a guy who was going to get married the next day and zeroed in on him right off the bat. Years later, I saw Joy Behar do stand up somewhere on TV, and in my mind I always thought, "Oh, that's the woman I saw emcee that night. She was pretty raunchy in her day. So last night, I was reading a profile of you in some magazine, and they mentioned the first thing you said when you came out one night to do your routine, and it was the exact same thing that this woman said to my friend.
SE: I said, "You look really familiar. Did I fuck you?"
Capone: Yes, and that's when I realized, Holy crap, that was you.
SE: You know I'm here to talk about a children's movie, right? [laughs]
Capone: Of course. And based on what you've been doing lately, did you find it strange that Disney wanted you for this role?
SE: No, not at all. I'm an actress. Yes I'm known for my salty language on "Curb" and in stand up, but I've acted in a million different parts and the character of Mittens, she's got an edge. She's a tough New York City stray. She's an edgy cat, so I thought I was perfect casting.
Capone: Was there a key to playing this homeless cat?
SE: In my mind, she's this tough New York City chick, and Bolt is this idiot Hollywood guy, so that was easy for me to play with because that's how I feel anyway. I know all these L.A. people who are delusional. And I have a dog, a rescue dog, and I know his whole story. And he was abandoned by his original family. They just gave him up once they had kids. And I kind a lot about him and how he must have felt to have these parents that he had that were the only family he ever knew just dumped him. I just thought a lot about him because I know him so well, and he sleeps with me every night. [laughs]
Capone: I'm just going to go ahead and say that I think the film's emotional peak has nothing to do with Bolt and his owner. It's that scene…
SE: …where I tell my story, yeah.
Capone: That's really going to get to people. It sure got to me.
SE: I cried. But, that's nice to hear. When you play a character who…I mean, obviously she's a tough cookie and there's a reason. She's a survivor; she's living in Times Square on the streets of New York City, terrorizing the pigeons with her fake claws. Anytime you play a character that has something negative about them, everybody comes by it honestly. So if you're an actor and you're playing Hitler, you don't think of him as this evil character. You try to find the humanity of why someone became that way. Mittens' backstory was very important to me, why she was so tough and why she had this take-no-prisoners personality. A lot of it was a front because she was hurt and abandoned. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it when I read the script. I thought, this is a complicated character. She's not just a cartoon character; she's three dimensional, so it was interesting to me.
Capone: Speaking of three dimensional, have you seen the film in 3-D yet?
SE: No, I haven't I saw it in 2-D, and I'll see it again at the premiere, but I don't think that will be in 3-D either. Actually, next weekend after it comes out, I'm going to go with my little nephews to a 3-D theater. They're seven and ten, so that should be kind of fun.
Capone: Mittens is dangerously thin, for obvious reasons. But are you afraid that other cats watching the film will have body image issues as a result of seeing this film?
SE: [laughs] It never crossed my mind, but I happen to have teenage daughters, so that body image thing is an issue, and it's real. So now that I'm thinking about it, I have to put the word out there that's Mittens is malnourished.
Capone: Speaking of eating, one of the interviews I read with you spent the entire article focusing on your dietary restrictions.
SE: I know, that was in the New York Times. I have eating things. I'm a vegetarian; I haven't eaten meat in something like 25 years. And I'm also gluten intolerant. So that makes my eating extremely limited. As you know, it's not easy. Last night, ordering room service, I had to go through the whole litany. And I could tell the woman had no idea what I was talking about. They'll say, "Well, it just has a little flour in the soup." "I can't have a little bit of flour!" They don't understand. They think I'm doing some low-carb thing. But Mittens will eat anything.
One of the things I really care about with this movie and I want to bring it out in all the interview I do--this is actually my first for this movie. Well, I did "Martha" yesterday, but that wasn't really an interview; we were doing crafts. [laughs] I wanted to emphasize rescue. Mittens is a stray. Bolt was a rescue. I have a rescue guy. People need to go to shelters and get rescue dogs. There are a million rescue organizations. I got my dog from a very tiny little rescue play in upstate New York. There are the Humane Society and ASPCA and those guys, but there are other rescue organizations, small people that take dogs and cats.
Capone: There's a place just a few blocks from here in downtown Chicago that does exactly that.
SE: Yeah, these puppy mills have to be stopped. They are really bad. Go rescue a dog. My guy is the greatest guy in the whole world, and I found him through petfinder.com, which is a great resource. You type in what you want. For example, I needed a hypoallergenic dog just like Malia [Obama], and I found one. I didn't have to go to a breeder, so I really doubt the Obama's have to go to a breeder. They'll probably have every rescue organization emailing them. I put in Shi Tzu and I put in my zip code, and it tells you in a 100-mile radius every rescue place that has the dog you want.
Capone: I realized when I figured out that our paths had crossed before that…
SE: That I'm been doing this a long time.
Capone: Not just that. But you came in to comedy right at the tail end of the last big golden age of stand-up, that era when every comic was getting a TV show.
SE: When I come up, I come up with Chris Rock, John Stewart, Louis CK, Joy, Ray Romano, Dave Attell, we all came up together. We had a good group, obviously. We were behind the Seinfelds and Paul Reiser. But it's true that everyone who had five minutes of material was getting a development deal, remember that? But the shows that were successful were from people that had been doing it a long time, like Jerry and Paul and Roseanne. Those were people who had really defined personas and acts at that point. All those little five-minute people that I resented, I don't know where they are now.
Capone: Did Larry David know you from those days?
SE: Yeah. I met Larry at Catch a Rising Star in the late '80s. Larry was the comedian's comedian, where we would all stand in the back of the room and watch him and just think he was the most brilliant. And the audience would stare at him like he had five heads.
Capone: That's what I've heard about the crowd's reaction to him, but it's good to know somebody was appreciating the work.
SE: Oh, his stand up was brilliant, conceptually it was brilliant. He had that brain. But Larry never really go how to connect to an audience as a performer. But the material, we would just listen to the material. Sometimes he would look at an audience member and they weren't laughing and he would storm off the stage. He was famous for that kind of thing. One time, I remember, I was hosting and I brought him up, and he looked at the whole audience and he just goes, "Never mind," and he just turns and walks off. So I knew Larry from those days. We weren't best friends, but we hung out at the bar. He was always very friendly.
Actually, what I remember about Larry in the those days was hanging at the bar with Larry, Joy, and I, and all he did was complain about women and his love life and how women always broke up with him. He just had really bad luck with women. He was not the ladies' man that he has since become. And then I didn't see him for a number of years because he moved to L.A. to do "Seinfeld." And then he saw me on Comedy Central on the Friar's roast of Jerry Stiller, and that's when he had the part of Susie--well, her name wasn't Susie then, Jeff's wife. I knew Jeff from New York as well, from stand up. And he saw me on that and said, "Of course, Susie is the perfect person for that part, and he called up Jeff and Jeff said the same thing. And he just called me and gave me the job. I didn't have to audition.
Capone: What did he tell you about the character initially?
SE: Well, the character wasn't really defined then. He had this scene in the first season; I don't know if you remember the episode, I believe it was called "The Wire," where Jeff has a Fresh Air Fund kid stay at our house, and the kid robs us blind.
Capone: Of course.
SE: So in the first season, I was in three episodes. And the other two episodes were kind of innocuous, me just being Jeff's wife--"Beloved Aunt" was one of them, one of my favorites. But there was nothing really going on; I was just Jeff's wife. And then he had that scene in mind where he wanted Jeff's wife to just rip him a new one and curse and scream and yell. But the character wasn't really defined, like that crazy way I dress. So when he saw me on that roast, he said, "Oh Susie can handle that." And Jeff's a big guy, so you have to have a certain presence to stand up to him, even though he's a sweetheart. But Larry wanted somebody who could be that, I guess, shrewish/Jewish and curse Jeff out in a believable way.
So when he called me and said, "I have a part for you," I said, "What is it?" And he said, "Don't worry, you can do it." "What does that mean?" "It's you, a character you can play easily." "Well can I see a script?" "There is no script. There's no money, there's no budget." We had no budget in the beginning--none. It was like this slapdash operation. But I figured, if Larry created it and I'm playing Jeff's wife, why not? It was a leap of faith. Plus Larry knew from my stand up that I was a good improviser.
Capone: Was that the episode where you cursed out Jeff…
SE: That was first time "fat fuck" was used. What happened with that was, I'm doing the scene where I'm cursing Jeff out, and Larry keeps calling me aside and says, "Go further." I say Okay and keep going. Then he calls me aside and says, "Make fun of Jeff's fat." And I was like, "Larry, you know what? Jeff's my friend; I don't want to hurt his feelings." I never like to make fun of someone's physical appearance, something they can't really do anything about, which is always really hard when I'm on stage and someone has a rug on right in front. You don't want to say anything, and it really takes a lot of self-control not to mention it. But if they looked in the mirror and they went out looking like that, there's something wrong. So I said, "I don't want to do that. It's really not nice." Larry said, "Just do it. He knows you're acting." And I did, and the rest is history.
Capone: Was that liberating in a way?
SE: No, I still feel bad when I do it. [laughs]
Capone: But for the character, I mean, liberating for her and you to know you could say anything?
SE: Yes, that's true. But that was at Larry's instigation. I didn't want to be mean. And generally if you watch Susie Greene, she's not mean. She's angry and she has a short fuse and she's pointed, but she doesn't say mean things really. You know what I mean?
Capone: I think you've actually redefined 'mean' and turned it into an art form.
SE: But you know what I mean? She's very protective of [her character's daughter] Sammy; she's even protective of Jeff, and Larry at different point. But she's not mean; she's angry. I think there's a difference.
Capone: People must come up to you on the street and want you to scream something at them or yell at someone on the phone. I'd love it if you called me a 'fat fuck' right now.
SE: Non-stop. "Will you please call my son and curse him out?" No, I won't. If it's to them, sometimes I will. If someone comes up to me after a show and says, "Call me a fat fuck," I'll say, "Okay, you're a fat fuck." But once they start with the cell phones and calling other people and leaving them messages, that's a no. I do that for charity. I've auctioned off me calling whoever you want and personalizing the call. You tell me something about that person, and I'll personalize the curses for them. But for free, no.
Capone: Well, you're not a dancing monkey.
Capone: You and Jeff Garlin have been the power couple for animated films this year. [Garlin had one of the few human voices in WALL*E.] I spoke to Jeff about a year ago for his film I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH, but we talked a bit about WALL*E.
SE: I think comedians do really well in animation. One interesting thing is that the character of Rhino [in BOLT], the guy who does the voice for Rhino the hamster [Mark Walton] was a story artist at Disney and they brought him in to do some scratch stuff, and he was great, so they kept him on as the character. I thought that was interesting. That being said, it's not that easy to do. It's kind of hard actually.
Capone: Did they ever actually put you in a room with John Travolta?
RE: No, never met him. I'll meet him on Sunday when I go to L.A. to do press. And every kid in my life asks me if I met Miley Cyrus. I did not, and I don't even know if I'll know who she is when I see her. [laughs] It's an odd way to act. I requested that, so record us together, but it's a logistical thing. It didn't work out. They said they don't like to do it because you overlap, but so what. You make sure not to overlap. I don't know why they do it that way. All of my recording sessions were by myself with the director. So I really enjoyed doing it, and I'd like to do more, but it was exhausting. After three hours, you can't do anymore, because it's just you the whole time. The way I did it was, I'd read each scene with the director, Chris Williams, who was wonderful. He gave me a lot back because he knew how he wanted it to sound. And I'd redo takes, maybe three takes reading the scene with him. And then I was retake each line three and read each line by myself maybe seven or eight times and try to give them every possible variations of a read so it would fit in with what they needed visually and with the other character. That's how I did it.
Capone: Was this done a couple years ago?
SE: No, I did it over the past year and a half. They actually fast tracked, about 18 months and it usually takes five years [laughs]. These guys worked their asses off. There were more than 60 animators on this movie. They were working every weekend. It's so labor intensive. One time when I was in L.A. to record, they took me through the whole process. I don't remember anything, but it took them six months to get my fur right. They draw it strand by strand.
Capone: Fur is a big deal these days.
SE: It was mind blowing to me.
Capone: I believe Larry David has confirmed that another "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season is on the horizon.
SE: We start in December.
Capone: When I interviewed Jeff, the last season had just started. Larry had announced he was getting separated from his wife, but they hadn't actually reached the point in the season where Larry and Cheryl separate, which of course Jeff knew was coming but couldn't reveal. What a weird thing it must have been for those involved in the show to know that was coming.
SE: We didn't really know that. After Larry and his wife separated, we had already finished shooting, and I remember calling him and saying, "Look, when I do press, everybody is going to ask me this question. So give me the answer." He claims he did not know that they were going to split up when he wrote the split up with Cheryl. However, there's this little thing called the unconscious. Marriages don't just end out of nowhere, so it must have been somewhere in his unconscious that his marriage was in trouble, although he says No. Not that I think he's lying to me; he actually tells me a lot. But I think he probably wasn't aware of it. Larry as an artist works from a very unconscious place that he's really not aware of, which I think is incredible and great, how he gets to where he gets to. So, yeah, he wrote the split up before they actually split up. So life is imitating art in this case.
Capone: So will this coming season be "the divorce" season?
SE: I can't say [laughs] You're going to have to wait, probably until next September. We start shooting in December, we'll finish in April. I'd assume September, but who knows; HBO lives in its own little world. I don't know.
Capone: And with a long-running show like "Curb," they'll put it on when Larry's ready.
SE: And he takes a really long time to edit. Because it's all improvised, so much of it is in the editing. It takes a really long time to edit. I would think September or October, something like that. I hope so, because I'd like it to get out there. I'll say this though. We do 10 shows and we have outlines--we don't have scripts. I've read the first five outlines, and it's going to be hilarious. I think maybe the divorce has put freedom creatively into Larry. But this season, from what I'm looking at, is going to be hilarious.
Capone: Every season, seem to have a running theme or an arc. I figure the divorce has to play into that somehow with this upcoming season.
SE: There are usually two arcs on this season. One is…predictable. And one is a complete surprise. My character is more of the same. I'm kicking Larry out of the house and whatever; I can't say. [laughs]
Capone: You mentioned Susie Greene's outrageous clothing choices. How much does putting on those clothes get you into that character?
SE: A lot. That was kind of my idea, the way she looked. That's not how I dress. As an actress, I put on those outfits and I become her. It's so character specific that I just put on those outfits and get into Susie Greene's head.
Capone: I particularly love when you wear a headscarf. Those seem like a particularly bad choice.
SE: [laughs] The scarves…And you know, Christina Mongini, who's our wardrobe designer, I'm her favorite character to dress because you always want to do something outrageous.
Capone: I can't imagine there's much competition for favorite the dress considering Larry wears the same three outfits every season.
SE: Oh please, his corduroy and suede jackets.
Capone: You mentioned Miley Cyrus earlier, I remember your profile in the "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" issue of Vanity Fair that you were pretty outspoken about certain young singers and actresses, and how they achieve their fame. What is the thrust of your problem with these young women?
SE: First off, I have nothing against Miley. But I have teenage girls, so the interesting thing is when you have teenagers, they think you're the most uncool person in the whole world. And I see what they're into, and to me, that just seems completely uncool. I know there's a lot of talent out there, but the ones who get all the press are not necessarily the ones who are the really talented ones. But sometimes my kids are listening to the stuff that is great sounding and I love it, but now we're coming full circle, getting back to the eating thing and body image. These girls are not the role models I want for my children. The Britneys and the Lindseys and the Parises. I don't think Miley Cyrus is like that; she's seems like a good kid. But these other bad girls, those aren't the role models I want for my teenagers. So that's my issue. Lindsey Lohan, I think, is a good actress. I've seen her do good work. But who are these other people? Who is Nicole Ritchie besides being skinny? Who are they? What do they bring to the table? They're just daughters of someone rich. And when you have teenage girls, everything is so delicate with them. They are so vulnerable and self-conscious. And I see my girls, and they're gorgeous, and they think they're fat and they think they're ugly. And they are drop-dead gorgeous and smart and funny and wonderful. But in this precarious age group…I wish they were still little and watching BOLD instead of "Gossip Girl."
Capone: Do you still do stand up?
SE: Yeah, I'm working tomorrow night. That's one of the reasons I'm here. And I'll be at Zanies in January.
Capone: I know you do the occasional roast as well, but does sticking with the stand up keep your instrument tuned, as it were?
SE: Yes. I love doing stand up. I was Caroline's all weekend in New York. The thing I love about it is…I love doing "Curb" because it's improvised and it's still very much mine, and they let me play around a lot with the script on BOLT. You can tell when you watch it that a lot of it really sounds like me. But the stand up is my own, totally my own creatively in every aspect, so that's my favorite thing.
Capone: Do you have a go-to comeback for hecklers?
SE: I don't get heckled that much. Most hecklers are men. Women only heckle when they're really shit-faced. When I'm on stage, I'm in control and I don't think men want to be humiliated by a woman. Where with other guys, it's a mano y mano thing, with me I don't think they want to go there.
Capone: Maybe your opening line that you gave my friend shuts them down early.
SE: It might be.
Capone: Maybe they think you're coming on to them in some way.
SE: It could be [laughs].
Capone: Well thank you so much for hanging with us for so long.
SE: Oh, this was really fun. Thanks.