Playing the young, carefree foil of the cast of ABC’s Cougar Town is an effortless undertaking for comedic actress, Busy Philipps. Known for rubber faced mugging and bubble headed quips, Philipps’s Cougar Town character, Laurie Keller, offers the punch lines to Jules Cobb’s (played by Courteney Cox) serious musings about life as a single career mom and divorcee.
Thirty minutes into my interview with Busy Philipps, our professional roles of journalist and actress were swiftly evaporated and we simply became two working moms when Philipps’s 3 year old daughter, Birdie, entered the room. Philipps’s daughter was excitedly talking to her mother about an upcoming play date scheduled for that evening. My conversation with Busy drifted from television sitcoms and Hollywood wrangling to swapping stories about our toddlers’ pre-school curriculums, and balancing career and parenting before getting back to the task at hand: discussing the third season of her sitcom, Cougar Town.
I find it delicious when something unexpected happens that forces people to temporarily fall “out of character.” Those are always life’s best moments as far as I’m concerned, and Busy Philipps seems brilliant at creating spontaneous moments, both onscreen and off. It’s what sets her apart as an actress; it’s her own unique brand of talent. Busy’s willingness to abandon vanity and fully embody each of her characters’ physicality onscreen is what grabbed the attention of everyone from Judd Apatow to the Wayans brothers, and eventually Cougar Town co-creator, Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Spin City).
My conversation with Busy Philipps covered the business of starring in and promoting a network sitcom, the benefits of social media, mommyhood and helping her best friend, actress Michelle Williams, through this year’s awards season.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): Are you still in production on the third season of Cougar Town?
Busy Philipps: We’re actually filming the finale this week. We’ve been in production since August; when everybody else went back to work, so did we. We were just in a holding pattern waiting for an airdate, and it just never came. We were waiting and waiting, and shooting our episodes. Finally we got the word that February 14th was going to be the date.
PR.com: What was going on between Cougar Town and ABC? They were telling you to stay in production, but they didn’t know what they wanted to do with your show?
Busy Philipps: Initially, we were picked up for twenty-two episodes and we were told they really believe in the show and they really love the episodes that are coming in. It was just, literally, a question of where would they find room in their schedule for us. I think [Cougar Town creator] Bill Lawrence felt we should have our own night and not be behind Modern Family anymore. Because the story was always, not how many viewers did we have, but how many of Modern Family viewers we would lose. So I think in that respect he’s totally right. We have tons of fans who have proven to be incredibly loyal, and who have been very vocal about bringing the show back sooner rather than later.
PR.com: One of Cougar Town’s creators, Bill Lawrence (Spin City, Scrubs), made some interesting comments not too long ago. Bill stated that he decided to take a grassroots approach to promoting Cougar Town rather than leaving it in the hands of the network. The production actually financed those efforts independently, apart from ABC.
Busy Philipps: It wasn’t the show, it was Bill Lawrence; he and Christa Miller (who plays Ellie Tores in “Cougar Town”), who are married. They have paid for this whole thing themselves. I’ve been in television for fifteen years and I’ve been on shows that have been successful commercially, but maybe not critically. I’ve also been on shows that have been critically successful, but maybe not commercially, and therefore cancelled. There’s a real sense of helplessness on the creative side when you’re on a show that you know in your heart is good, and you feel like if only you could get the word out there, but you don’t feel a ton of support coming from the network side. In the months leading up to before Cougar Town started I saw one [ad] on the side of a bus in Los Angeles. You literally could not step three feet this past year without bumping into Whitney Cummings’s face. Networks make these decisions where they want to put their money. Bill Lawrence changed the game a little bit this time.
PR.com: Has Twitter been instrumental in bringing people out to these Cougar Town screening events?
Busy Philipps: Oh, for sure. I have ninety-nine thousand followers on Twitter now, which is crazy to me. Courteney [Cox] just joined, and I’m sure she’ll have a million followers by Tuesday.
PR.com: I went to your Twitter page today and saw that Courteney Cox just started tweeting. You and David Arquette were saying that you were happy Courteney “finally” joined Twitter. I feel like there is a generational divide when it comes to celebrities embracing Twitter and other social media. Celebrities in their teens, twenties and early thirties seem to embrace it. The older stars who became famous fifteen or twenty years ago, they are much more reluctant to remove that veil of mystique or privacy.
Busy Philipps: There definitely is a generational gap. I look at actors and musicians who are in their early twenties who have blogs where they put every minute detail going on in their thoughts and in their hearts for everyone in the world to see. It’s surprising even to me. For me, the appeal of Twitter is that I was sick of feeling like the portrayal of me in the media, in interviews, and all sorts of press I had done was never quite accurate to my voice, and who I am as a person and an actor. I found Twitter to be incredibly revelatory in that I can express who I am, and the thoughts that I have, directly to my fans. Look, I’ve gotten into fights with people on Twitter (laughs)…
PR.com: Ok, that I don’t get…
Busy Philipps: I totally understand. And Courteney had said, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand what you guys are doing.”
PR.com: Who convinced Courteney Cox to join Twitter?
Busy Philipps: We did, and Bill Lawrence (“Cougar Town” co-creator) too. Our Twitter followers and Facebook fans have been so instrumental in really making our voices heard to ABC, and also spreading the word about these viewing parties which has garnered a lot of press. Not a day went by on Twitter over the last two and a half years since the show has been on the air that I don’t get a tweet asking, “Can you please tell Courteney to join Twitter?” I think celebrities who manage to use it to their advantage can really use it to their advantage. I think if you don’t understand it or you don’t feel like it’s really your thing it’s neither here nor there for you. I don’t think it’s going to make or break you. But I have seen it make celebrities.
PR.com: It’s interesting what you said before. You said you were not satisfied with the way you were portrayed in the media so you decided to take matters into your own hands with social media. What was it that you felt was getting lost in translation?
Busy Philipps: My personality and who I am. You get what you get with me. I felt like people were not understanding my humor when I would give print interviews, and I would come off sounding like an idiot. Or I had a real sense of helplessness when I would read comments on my IMDB page, eight or nine years ago, where people would say these awful, mean things about me and my work. I had no way to respond. Now I feel so much more empowered because if I do read something ridiculous, I can [respond].
PR.com: There’s been some confusion regarding the title of your show, Cougar Town. The show began with one concept, about an older divorcee dating younger men, but the show has changed to be more about a group of friends living in South Florida.
Busy Philipps: I don’t remember a television series starting as low as we started. We were on everyone’s “worst of” list. I honestly don’t believe that any other show made the critical turnaround that we were able to make in just six or seven episodes. The show was sold with one concept and named properly for that concept. But [our creator] Bill realized very early on in the filming of the series where the strengths of the show were, and it was not in bringing in twenty-six year old guest stars every week. The strength of the show was in seven of the main characters and our interactions with each other.
PR.com: So the show took on a life of its own and organically moved away from the whole “cougar” shtick. But the story does still center around a forty-something hot divorcee.
Busy Philipps: Who has a boyfriend who is also a hot forty-something divorcee (laughs).
PR.com: (Laughs). True.
Busy Philipps: And my character is twenty-nine or thirty years old, but I could be considered a cougar; I do have a slightly inappropriate relationship with her son, who’s twenty. I guess we do have that going for Cougar Town.
PR.com: Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on the term “cougar?”
Busy Philipps: The feminist in me hates it, but the girl from Scottsdale (Philipps’s hometown) secretly loves it. Men have been dating younger women for many years without attracting some sort of derogatory nickname. It’s the double standard that will probably always stick with women.
PR.com: There’s a double standard that hangs over women with everything that we do.
Busy Philipps: With literally everything that we do. I can’t even go into it without going into what I feel like I’m subjected to as an actress. But it was that concept, and Courteney Cox, that got the show on the air. If it was a little subversive to [use that] to be able to make the show they wanted to make about a group of adults in their forties who are friends, and their one strange younger friend played by me, then why not? Maybe you’ve got to be a little subversive.
PR.com: It was Judd Apatow who gave you your start when he cast you in his television series, Freaks and Geeks. So many talented actors got their start on that show. What do you think Judd Apatow saw in you when he decided to cast you in Freaks and Geeks?
Busy Philipps: I actually remember exactly what he said. He said, “Busy Philipps came in and she auditioned for Lindsay, which she wasn’t right for, but she had such a weird, unique energy that we thought ‘we’ve got to figure out a place for this kid.’” They had this part for the pilot that was going to be a guest starring role only for the pilot, but they decided they would make it a regular part after the show got picked up.
PR.com: That’s a great compliment from one of our generation’s funniest filmmakers.
Busy Philipps: At the time I was a little perplexed by it, but I think I do have a really unique and weird energy (laughs). As a comedic actor I think that’s what sets you apart. Anna Faris is not like every other girl in the world. She’s Anna Faris and she does a very specific thing, and it’s really fun to watch. I hope I have a little bit of that in me, and if it’s because I see things differently, or my energy is weird, I’m glad I’ve been able to maintain that for all these years. I’m still the same spastic teen on the inside as I was twelve years ago.
PR.com: Is that your comfort zone, playing quirky characters that don’t have it together?
Busy Philipps: To me and to a lot of actors there is the dream of being some sort of movie star, but when you watch a film those are always the most boring parts. The best parts are always the flawed character, the villain, or the best friend. Those are the characters that get the best lines. For me, especially with a character like Laurie on Cougar Town, it’s taking a female character you can look at very clearly and say that she’s the bitch or that she’s the airhead-slut, but bringing something more to it. It’s about changing it and making it more three dimensional and bringing heart to it, and finding the way to make it as real and grounded as possible. That’s what I’m trying to do. If I don’t succeed then that sucks for me, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
PR.com: (Laughs). Right. You don’t want to play a caricature because that means you’re not doing your job.
Busy Philipps: And I don’t want to play into the typical five female stereotypes that are represented in most movies and TV shows. I’d like to do something a little more complicated. Sometimes that means taking [material] that’s a little bit less complicated and making it more complicated by the way you play it, and the choices you make.
PR.com: At the end of the last season of Cougar Town, Jules (played by Courteney Cox) takes everyone to Hawaii to track down her twenty-year-old son who has decided to move to Hawaii and wax surfboards for a living. Let’s say your daughter Birdie, who’s now three, if she should make a choice like that in seventeen years how would you react?
Busy Philipps: Well… I would for sure go to Hawaii, because I really like it there (laughs). I was incredibly fortunate to have two parents who worked regular jobs, but who were incredibly supportive of my dream of being an actor. They never once said, “No, you can’t do that,” or “Maybe you need to think of a backup plan.” I feel really strongly that if I had had a backup plan, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today...
(As we’re talking about kids, Busy’s precocious 3 year old daughter, Birdie, wanders over and injects herself into our conversation exclaiming, “Mommy, I found you!”)
Busy Philipps: My daughter is waiting for her friend to come over for a dinner date and her dad is cooking them chicken. Do you have a kid?
PR.com: I have a two-and-a-half your old boy.
Busy Philipps: Is he in pre-school yet?
PR.com: I have him in school from 9 AM to 3 PM and it’s pretty advanced stuff.
Busy Philipps: Birdie does that too. She goes to a Montessori school. They’re doing their school pictures this weekend and they’re doing them based on the paintings by Vermeer, so I think Birdie is “The Girl With A Pearl Earring” (one of Vermeer’s famous paintings) because today she got the part and she said, “Mom, we’re practicing for our school pictures today and I get to wear a turban.” It was hilarious! I actually have this little clip on pearl earring that I think I’m going to bring to the school for her to wear.
PR.com: That’s pretty sophisticated stuff for a three year old! I’m impressed, and very cute. My son goes to a Jewish school and he’s already learning some Hebrew at the age of two. When I was two years old I was licking paint off of my fingers (laughs).
Busy Philipps: (Laughs). Birdie’s best friend, Phoebe, goes to a temple school here in LA and she literally knows all the prayers, she knows all the stories. It’s so cute.
PR.com: My son has walked in on me while I’m doing interviews, just like Birdie did with you.
Busy Philipps: But you know what, people will like you more for it. If that happened while I was talking to you, I’d be like, “Oh, awesome!” You’re a mom and you’re working and trying to make it work, and your kids interrupt you. Anyway, what were we saying?
PR.com: What to do when your kids don’t become who we hope and fantasize they will become, professionally…
Busy Philipps: My mom did want me to go to at least two years of college. I made it through a year-and-a-half and then I got the pilot for Freaks And Geeks. I had parents who were encouraging, and I would hope to do the same for my daughter. I would hope that if she told me she wanted to be a professional surfer, a writer, an actor, a director, or whatever it is, that I would be able to find it in my heart to feel like she is her own person and she deserves to find her own happiness. I always cringe when I hear interviews with actors, and when they’re asked if their child is going to be an actor they say, “Never!” Well, that’s not fair. Somebody let you do it.
PR.com: I know you can’t give away too much, but any spoilers you can share from the new season of Cougar Town?
Busy Philipps: I know that I’m allowed to say this now, because Courteney blew it in an interview yesterday (laughs). The beginning of the season starts with a proposal, which is really fantastic and so exciting for where the show is going to be heading. It’s also a perfect tie-in with Valentine’s Day. It’s a sweet, romantic episode, so my recommendation to people is to stay in on Valentine’s Day, drink wine, order pizza and watch season three of Cougar Town.
PR.com: You were right by Michelle Williams’s side at the Golden Globes in January as she won her award for My Week With Marilyn, and you were photographed quite a bit with her at all of the Golden Globes parties. As her close friend, how are you helping her celebrate this awards season? And how are you helping to calm her nerves throughout all of these award nominations?
Busy Philipps: I made a joke the other day that I keep the Xanax in my purse. When I saw [the person] writing it down, I was like, “I’m not serious, I’m kidding!” I enjoy making [Michelle] laugh, so sometimes when you are in high-stress situations the best release is to give a laugh, or to get a little laugh. Since Brokeback Mountain I’ve been her date to all of these awards shows. It’s just that this year I’m more visible because of Cougar Town. This is the third awards season that she’s been nominated for something, and I’ve been her date through all of them. [Her] winning, which is so deserved, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my best friend, but the whole process from start to finish is so overwhelmingly humbling, and also nerve-wracking. Even if you convince yourself that it doesn’t matter, there is still that moment where they’re about to call somebody’s name and there’s that little kid inside of you that’s like, “Please call my name? Ple-e-ease!” (Laughs). I would love it if she won the Academy Award. That would be the most exciting thing ever.
PR.com: Will you be with Michelle the day of the Oscars, helping her get ready?
Busy Philipps: Yeah, we always get ready together. You have to eat a little something because it’s a long day; you have to have a toast of champagne because that’s just what you have to do; you have to make sure your makeup is flawless and your dress fits perfectly; then you get in the car and you go.
The season premiere of “Cougar Town” airs Tuesday, February 14th @ 8:30/9:30c on ABC.