Rachael Harris was set to return to SXSW a year after her film Natural Selection won the Best Narrative Grand Jury and Audience Awards in 2011. Harris also won a Breakthrough Performance award for the role of Linda, a woman who has spent 25 years married to a Christian man who insists on abstinence since she cannot conceive. Harris didn’t make it back to Austin this year so we connected with her by phone from the set of a new pilot she’s shooting. Natural Selection opened last week so everyone can see a new side of Harris. She usually plays the sarcastic best friend or bitchy significant other, but Linda has a sensitive dramatic arc. She connects with Raymond (Matt O’Leary), a criminal who may be her husband’s son from sperm donation. During a break from shooting, Harris was lovely and personal about her breakthrough role.
Rachael Harris: Hi, thank you so much for adjusting a little bit. I really appreciate it.
Crave Online: You’re welcome. I’m happy to finally talk to you.
I’m happy to talk to you too at Craaaave.
Is it weird to talk about Natural Selection as this groundbreaking performance for you? Because you’re an actor, of course you can do other things.
Thank you. That’s what I’ve been saying. I’ve been saying, “I’m an actor.” But you know, people pigeonhole you. They just know what they see so I do kind of like that it’s the first time I’ve ever been given the opportunity to do something to carry the whole movie. It could’ve gone badly. They could’ve said, “Wow, she can’t handle that. She shouldn’t quit her day job.” So it is kind of nice.
How did it stretch you to play Linda?
It was this nice combination of where I was in my life personally as well as professionally. I wanted to do something different just because I was coming off of The Hangover. I felt like I wanted to do something completely different because I knew I would start being offered more roles where I was the shrew and the caustic woman. So it stretched me professionally, like it was great to do something else but also personally, it felt so good to deal with what I was dealing with in my personal life while I was working on this film. I had just gone through a very painful divorce that I knew was really hard for both my ex-husband and I. The loss that I felt from that and the loneliness that I was dealing with really helped, I could really access that easily with Linda in the film. So it just stretched me to a place of really allowing myself to be vulnerable in that kind of unpretty way, which I then think is beautiful when you can really just go there.
Did you know the performance was going to get that personal going in?
I wanted it. I was craving that. I wanted to have something really real of myself be on film.
Were you already divorced when Natural Selection came along?
Yeah, I had been divorced. I’d already gone through the divorce and it was about a year after that I read it, about two years after when I read it. I don't know if you’ve been married or divorced but grief kind of hits you when it’s going to hit you. I think the newness of it when you first get divorced, for me at any rate [two years later]’s when I could really relate. It was just really setting in that our lives were no longer together and what that was really feeling like two years later. It just really affected me in that way, just really taking what I had gone through personally and putting it on screen, in front of the camera and being vulnerable.
Did you also try exploring those feelings in comedic performances?
Oh sure. I mean, Melissa in The Hangover really tapped into my frustration. That was nice. I had kind of a nice shorthand. I can bring that out.
Should we see The Hangover and Natural Selection in a double feature?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s a really good [idea], yeah. You’ll see all sides of Rachael Harris.
Does the performance require a light touch to keep it from being a total downer?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it had to do a lot with Robbie Pickering’s directing, just tonally. There’s such a nice balance in the writing. It was a nice balance of the despair of losing her husband and what he’s done to her, and then you balance it out with these very funny situations that she gets into with Raymond that are in and of themselves very dark. He’s gotten the sh*t kicked out of him and she’s trying to take care of him. She’s putting all of her maternal self into doing that and it’s really funny to see him just be like, even as an audience member you know he wants nothing to do with this woman. He just wants to use her and yet she’s completely hoodwinked and thinking “He wants to come back with me.” And the way that that plays out is very funny. So I feel like playing the truth of the moment, trying to be as honest as possible keeps it from being over the top.
Was it nice to also get to show a bit of your sexual side and have some passion and a love interest in a movie?
Yeah, that was nice. It really didn’t bother me to be quite honest with you. It didn’t bother me at all because I felt like it was exactly what she needed in her life and I think that’s an important part of everyone’s life.
No, I wouldn’t imagine it bothers you. I thought what a great opportunity because I don’t remember that you’ve been allowed to show that before.
Mm-mm, no. I haven’t done that before. And also again it just goes with the aspect of her, of being real and showing this very honest side of the character and being willing to go there with her. So it was like well, if this is what’s happening with her, it’s completely right on story. It is the story. She’s been wanting this kind of connection for forever, for 25 years.
Could you imagine the headspace of someone who would stay in a marriage and convince herself that it’s right that her husband is asking her to abstain?
I can imagine. I can imagine a woman doing that. I can because I know women that have done probably worse and stayed for 25 years in a relationship. Maybe it’s been a domestic abuse case. When that’s your whole world, she was 15 when she met Abe, if that’s your whole world, you don’t really think to question it too much. And if everyone around you is supporting that relationship and telling you, “Don’t you think your husband wants to have sex with you? He does but he’s just doing what’s right for his faith.” You would believe it. You would believe it and I could see someone not knowing anybody. That’s what’s so great about her meeting Raymond and having everything turned upside down.
Now that you’ve gotten to play Linda and people are seeing Natural Selection, what opportunities has it opened for you?
I think that remains to be seen. Right now there’s nothing I know of that’s been a direct result, because what I’ve been doing right now is more comedy stuff, which I love. It’s just an awareness right now and I don't know how it’s going to reveal itself. I don't know what kinds of parts will come from it but I’m really hopeful. I feel like it’s good. I have a good feeling.
Were you surprised by any of the reactions to the film or yourself on the festival circuit?
Yeah, I was surprised by the reaction of all of these people. We didn’t know how people would respond to the film. You just don’t know and so it was great to have people love the film. It was great to have my peers, like Tom Lennon and Tig Notaro, Sarah Silverman, David Wain, Kevin Nealon and those guys love it. Friends of mine that are such comedy experts I guess, they’re so revered in the comedy world. To have them come out of it and say, “Wow, we loved that.” I was really touched by.
What is the pilot you’re shooting right now?
The pilot I’m shooting is with Ben Falcone and Larry Dorf wrote it. It’s produced by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone loses everything in the 2006 real estate boom. He goes into it and he buys all these homes and then loses everything and has to move back in with his parents who are played by Judd Hirsch and Andrea Martin. I’m his sister, Lisa. It’s so fun because Ben, Melissa and I and Larry Dorf all were in The Groundlings together, way back in ’98, like in the main company. I worked with Melissa recently on a show for The Groundlings so it’s really great to work with all those guys.
Does the show have a name yet?
It doesn’t have a name yet. It’s The Untitled Dorf/Falcone Pilot.
Does this role of Lisa give you a chance to further the new you?
Well, let’s just say Linda will be lurking in every role that I play from now on. We definitely thought about that before I went and did the pilot but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to work with my friends. I dreamt of doing that. I’ve dreamt of doing a show with close friends as long as I can remember, ever since I started acting, with a great script and great friends. I’m hoping that I can do that for TV and then go off and do some fun dramatic features. If I could really have it my way, that’s what I would do.
Is this a sarcastic sister?
Do you still find ways to keep that fresh and fun for you?
It’s always fun for me. I wish I could say that oh no, it gets really old. It’s always fun. I don't think I’ll ever get tired of playing the bitch, ever. It’s just so fun. And with this one, Lisa is just so overwrought with her kids, she just doesn’t have time so she just can’t be bothered. She’s just busy. She can’t. It’s a great sibling relationship that I have with Ben Falcone.
Was it fun to be sarcastic on the “I Love the ‘80s” and “’90s” shows?
Yes, of course it was. [Laughs] I loved it. That’s where everything kind of started. That was ridiculously fun.
That was already 10 years ago. Are they going to do nostalgic looks at those nostalgic look shows?
Oh my God, I wonder if they will. That’s a good idea.
“I Love ‘I Love the ‘80s’”
I know. “I Love the ‘80s 3D,” didn’t they already do that?
I guess it’s time to do “I Love the 2000s.”
[Laughs] I know, I know. It’s time.