Since her film debut in 1998 in the David Schwimmer comedy Kissing a Fool, Judy Greer has been working steadily, appearing in more than 20 movies in the past six years. Most recently she shared the screen with Jennifer Garner in the romantic fantasy 13 Going On 30, and she had a hilarious recurring role on Fox Television's absurdist sitcom Arrested Development. Yet it's her brief but memorable appearance as the waitress Nicolas Cage awkwardly hits on in Adaptation. for which most people seem to recognize her. And while she may not be a household name yet, a number of high-profile projects are in the works that are likely to elevate her from "Hey, it's that girl" status to bona fide star.
The day after she spoke with Back Stage West, Greer was heading to Kentucky to star in Cameron Crowe's new dramedy, Elizabethtown, in which she will play daughter to Susan Sarandon and sister to Orlando Bloom. And opening this week is The Village, the latest twisty thriller from horror maestro M. Night Shyamalan, about a community in the 1800s threatened by strange creatures living in the surrounding woods. So let's ask the question everyone wants to know. "The ending is…," Greer whispers conspiratorially before breaking out into laughter. "No, the truth is that I have no idea how it ends. Hopefully, Night won't kill me for saying this, but they recently re-shot the ending, and I honestly have no idea how it ends." Shyamalan is notoriously protective of his films, there have been virtually no screenings of the movie, and Greer received a script with her name printed on every page so it couldn't be copied. "I was so afraid my car would be robbed, and someone would steal it, and I'd be blamed for leaking the script," she says.
To prepare for the role of Kitty Walker, the eldest daughter of characters played by William Hurt and Jayne Atkinson, Greer spent two weeks of intensive rehearsal learning about life in the 1800s. She and the rest of the cast spent the first week on farms that were maintained as though in the 19th century. "We wore long skirts and corsets and hats and boots that took a long time to get on and off," recalls the actor. "We sheared sheep, baled hay, and milked goats. The second week, he actually moved us to a vacant Girl Scout camp, and we all lived together, waking up at 6 in the morning to start the fire and attend classes." While some actors would balk at such stringent preparation, Greer claims she welcomed the opportunity and found it helped her performance. "You really get to know your cast mates, and relationships are created," she observes. "And you see how people sort themselves out and become intertwined in a weird way. The relationships did come together the way I think they would have in the village."
Greer also became close to her on-screen sister, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of Hollywood mogul Ron Howard—who also happens to be an executive producer of Arrested Development. "Her parents came to visit, and we were eating lunch one day, and I realized, 'This is my boss, this is my friend's dad, and this is a director I desperately want to work with. How do I relate to this man?'" she recalls. "I chose 'friend's dad,' because that's what he was that weekend." Greer also had nothing but raves for Hurt, her on-screen father, although she admits to being initially intimidated by him. "There's something about working with someone whose talent is bigger than all the stars combined; I was so scared," she recalls. "But he completely blew me away. I think a lot of younger actors, myself included, tend to get caught up in the fun and games and summer camp feeling of moviemaking, and it's easy to lose sight of what you're really doing. And he doesn't for a second."
Head of the Class
Greer grew up in the Detroit area and describes her background as "kind of boring." It wasn't until she attended college at DePaul University that she began to pursue performing as a career. And while she values her time at the university, she also believes in holding on to her individuality. "I know I learned a lot about acting and how to act, but I'm not always sure it's so important for actors to learn how to act, because I think you start to get in your own way then," she explains. "I've known people who apply to medical school, and they say that when you apply, schools are looking for creative, dynamic individuals. Then, once you get there, they strip it all away, and you become medical school robots. And that's what I think theatre school does, in a way. I don't think they nurture you as much as programs could. They strip away your accent, the way you talk, your vocal tones, the way you approach a character. I was talking to Susan Sarandon at rehearsal, and she had a great take on it. She was saying she felt the best thing an actor can do is to figure out who they are as a person and then act through that."
The day after her college graduation, Greer landed her part in Kissing a Fool, followed shortly by a lead role opposite Rose McGowan in the dark comedy Jawbreaker. Greer seems almost embarrassed by how quickly she began landing parts. "I'm probably the worst person in the world to ask for advice because, knock on wood, I've had a pretty good time of it," she admits. "But I do see friends struggle, struggle, struggle, and I see how unhappy they can get. I think you just have to find ways to act all the time. You have to audition for every single thing; you can't stick your nose up at it. When I first moved here, I auditioned for everything. Any audition I could get, I went on it."
Greer still studies acting; her teacher in L.A. is none other than Jeffrey Tambor, also a cast member of Arrested Development. "I was in his class and then got cast as his mistress," she says with a laugh. "That was a little weird."
While some actors with prospering film careers would balk at doing television, Greer loved her time on Arrested Development, which she refers to as a "perfect" sitcom. There is a chance her character may return, but Greer also recently shot a sitcom pilot for NBC titled Nevermind Nirvana, in which she plays a woman living with an Indian man and his entire family. The project is produced and directed by Schwimmer—a friend of Greer's since Kissing a Fool—and created by Ajay Saghal. Their involvement, along with the strong material, convinced Greer to pursue a television career despite her busy film schedule. "I always figure that if something is well-written, that's the most important thing," she says. "I've been shooting movies for six years now, and I'm doing a lot of great parts, but I'm seeing the roles kind of start to become the same thing. So my question was: Would I be able to move up to that next level in my career? And if I can't get there in film, maybe I can do it in television. I feel like the line has really been erased between TV and film actors, so it doesn't make me nervous."
While Greer has been stealing scenes in films such as What Women Want and The Wedding Planner, she's open to taking on the leading-lady role. "What I truly feel is that if this is the way things stay for me, you'll never meet a happier girl," she says. "But if there is a window and a chance for me to try to move into that category, I'd like to try it. I can't think of an actress who doesn't want her Annie Hall, you know what I mean? It's so much easier for men in any age, size, or look to have a leading role than it is for a woman. I'd love to star in a romantic comedy; I can't imagine what would be more fun."
In the meantime, Greer doesn't mind continuing to audition for roles—she prefers it. "When I audition I feel safer, because sometimes it's an awkward role and I'm so nervous, because I feel like I'm not giving the director what he wants. So it makes me feel safer, because he knows what I've got, and if they give me the part after that, we're all on the same page," she says. "And sometimes when I'm auditioning for something, I know I'm so wrong for it because the words don't feel right coming out of my mouth." And in her rare free time, the actor believes in keeping herself busy. "The people I see who are struggling but happy are the people who are continuing their education all the time," she observes. "When I have downtime, I always take classes—in anything. Sometimes it's better not to take acting or theatre classes, to take a mythology class or learn a language. Because the more well-rounded you are as a person, the more you have to offer when you walk in the room." BSW