It’s easy for us to talk about the absence of awesome female characters in film, to highlight the actresses who stand out from the pack and to celebrate the filmmakers who are getting their shit made. And it’s easy to talk about because we only receive the end product; we don’t have to live through the process of actually trying to make a difference and create something that subverts audience’s expectations of women in cinema, in comedy, in the world. June Diane Raphael is not like us; she is a writer and actress who really gets it and has experienced, first-hand, what it can take to get women’s stories on the screen.
I admire June and her work so much, and there was so much I didn’t get to talk about during this interview, like how we both got super tall (her at 5’9”, me at 5’10”) at super early ages (her at 10, me at 11); or how her first acting job was on Ed, the late-90s sitcom about the bowling alley lawyer that forms the basis of 60% of my pop culture references; or whether or not she’ll reprise her role of Danielle Lugozshe in the rumoured Party Down movie. She is so prolific and so relevant to the conversation about women working against the traditional studio system to get shit done, especially considering the hellish sad-face festival she and her co-writer, co-star and BFF Casey Wilson (SNL, Happy Endings) endured in the journey to getting their film Ass Backwards to cinemas.
“There were years when we didn’t know if we were gonna finish it,” she told me, of the broad, raucous comedy about two deluded best friends, Kate and Chloe, who embark on a road trip to their hometown in a quest to claim the childhood beauty pageant crowns they feel are owed to them. After finding success in the studio system with Bride Wars – which they wrote together and had featured roles in – June and Casey undertook rewrites on their passion project to accommodate the small budget that would allow them the freedom to make the film they wanted to make. After a total of five years writing the film and three weeks shooting it, their promised funding was nowhere to be seen and the two friends found themselves in a listless, heartbroken daze, attempting to reassemble the pieces and finish their film. “We ended up raising $50,000 on Kickstarter and through other sources – cobbling the money together – but it was very difficult…it was a total nightmare that took us, truly, two years to get out of.”
They’re now able to bask in the light at the end of the tunnel – Ass Backwards was released on iTunes on demand last month, a few weeks after it was announced that ABC bought a new sitcom by the pair. June was also recently revealed to be part of the parallel universe Parks Department team in Eagleton that we’ll be meeting this season on Parks and Recreation. With her husband Paul Scheer appearing on the show in previous seasons alongside her fellow UCB alumni Amy Poehler, Ben Schwartz, Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari, it was only a matter of time before we saw June visit Pawnee.
It was a pleasure to get such a hefty chunk of June’s time to do this interview, and while I didn’t get to wax lyrical with her on the other comedy lady duos I adore (Fey/Poehler, Parham/St Clair, Glazer/Jacobson, Wiig/Mumolo), I did get to discuss the state of TV right now (she doesn’t know what to expect on season 3 of Homeland; she’s worried Orange is the New Black has passed her by; she wrapped on Parks and Rec the previous day and compared the set to that of New Girl; she loves Breaking Bad and never got into Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – “And it’s not that I’m above it; believe me, I’m below it.”), as well as everything you can read below.
BL: Hi! Thank you so much for talking to me!
Oh my gosh, I’m so glad this worked out!
Me too! It’s like 7:30 on Saturday morning in Australia.
So I heard just this week that you and Casey have a show that’s been picked up by ABC, which was kind of fortuitous timing for this interview. Can you tell me a little about your working relationship with Casey? What’s it like working with her as opposed to just being her friend?
It’s funny, because I feel like those two things kind of overlap. I think a lot of times we’re just sort of hanging out when we’re supposed to be working. There’s a real core at our working relationship that’s just that we make each other laugh. It’s as simple as that. I wish it were more complicated. But it’s sort of wonderfully simple; we think the same things are funny and if I write something that makes her laugh or she writes something that makes me laugh, that’s a good sign. So we have that testing ground for anything we do. We started off our relationship in acting class and performing together, and then we started writing our own material and performing together and improvising together. So it’s kind of funny because our friendship has always been a creative collaboration. It’s kind of hard to separate those two things.
Obviously we both have separate careers as well, but when we get to work together, it’s all the more special. I wish it was more complicated than this, but it’s sort of just fun. But I’ll say this: even in the bad moments of writing – because writing is such a solitary thing to do – even in those gut-wrenching moments of having to figure out the way a story works, it’s better to go through that with someone that you like. It’s always been both [work and friendship] for us, in a good way.
So you guys started out together at UCB —
We actually met each other at a clown class at NYU. We were in a class of, like, 20 people and got to know each other really well. And we were in a clowning class together that was like classical clowning, where you have red noses on and it’s purely physical work. And I think we both just really enjoyed watching the other perform. That’s how we became friends! We were both really performers first, and we wanted more ways to do that. The hard thing about being an actor is that you have to create the vessel in which to do it; I can act all I want in my own apartment, but you kinda need people to be there. So we wanted to put on a showcase for ourselves as actors – which is how we started writing together.
The only goal of it was to invite people to see us perform and get an acting agent. And the funny thing was, while we did get attention as actresses, we got even more attention as writers. And people were asking us “Who wrote the show?” and we were like, “Oh, I guess we did, but who cares?” Like, we weren’t interested in that at all! Which is so funny to think about! I remember saying to Casey, “Oh my god they don’t think we’re attractive enough to be actresses!” But it ended up being such a wonderful thing, such a wonderful way to get into this crazy industry.
So that’s how we met and that material we wrote for ourselves, we ended up bringing to UCB. And the artistic director there really helped us to create a show. And then of course we went through all the UCB training afterwards…but we didn’t really startstart there. We really did start at NYU and then found UCB after that.
Had you done anything comedic before the clown class? Or was that your first exposure to comedy and performing?
You know, I think I’ve always had instincts that were — even when I was in the 6th grade my girlfriends would come over and wanna call boys and I was like, “How about, actually, we get my dad’s video camera and we write sketches?” You know what I mean? Like, I would write commercial parodies.
Like the Mindy Kaling story that she talks about in her book where she transcribes sketches from SNL for fun.
That’s it! That’s what I was into doing! And I would write these – I didn’t know that’s what they were, but they were sketches. So I did always have that kind of desire to do funny things, and I certainly came from a family that was nerds for comedy. Like if you were around the dinner table and you did something to make people laugh - that was really supported. I definitely had that in me and that was always a part of my life. I admired that ability to make people laugh, so that was always there. But clown class was the first formal training in it that I received.
So I want to talk about Ass Backwards – you and Casey wrote the film for yourselves, which reminded me of Brit Marling who – even though she’s doing these super serious, dark, sci-fi films - began writing as a response to the lack of roles available to her as a young, pretty, blonde woman. Have those stereotypes and tropes been something that you’ve had to work to overcome?
I think it’s very interesting how the female roles are written in big, studio comedies. I think a lot of what’s available for me to audition for are either the really crazy best friend roles, or the girlfriend-slash-wife who’s like —and Casey and I always talk about this — underwritten and like, “You guys are crazy! Don’t do that! Don’t misbehave!” You know, the woman who is the fun-squasher, who is there as a moral compass to keep the men reigned in so they can be wild and crazy. And I think I always felt that there’s this idea about women behaving badly that, on a gut level, men don’t like to see or don’t think is funny. And our characters in Ass Backwards behave badly! It’s funny, because I love them so much that I don’t even really think that, but I get that they’re not traditional in that way; they’re rule-breakers and they live in their own world. They do things that are seen as “bad” by the rest of the world. You know, they’re definitely heightened, and they’re bigger characters, but I do think that basic idea is just very hard to swallow for most studio heads who are greenlighting movies; there’s a gut reaction of not wanting to see their women that way. And the joke at the end of it all is that every woman I know – myself included – is incredibly complicated, and has so many feelings and they’re incredibly complicated feelings. We do bad things, we do good things and there’s so many different shades. And yet for the most part we really don’t get to see that.
There are a lot of exceptions happening now though and I think it’s changing and I’m very, very hopeful – and I hope our movie’s part of that change. I remember seeing Bridesmaids and being so blown away by Kristen Wiig’s performance and seeing this girl who wasn’t the sort of Type A, Reese Witherspoon archetype who’s, like, got it all together but doesn’t have time for the man and ultimately needs to learn how to relax. It was more – this woman who has failed and was a loser and didn’t have it together at all to begin with. And that journey always irks me a little bit – the woman who is so tightly wound and needs to be unwound to succeed at the end and get a guy. That, in a general sense, I find is a very dangerous lesson to be putting out there. But I was so inspired by that movie.
We wrote Ass Backwards before that, but we wrote it and were in the middle of finishing it when Bridesmaids came out. I remember thinking, ‘Finally, there’s a woman who I really do understand!’ You know? Because she doesn’t know what she’s doing and she’s lost and there’s comedy in that, and I just loved it. And I also see Melissa McCarthy in The Heat and I’m like, ‘Ugh! This woman is so amazing! I love this character so much!’ so I really do think that’s something that’s changing and it’s so exciting.
Those two characters, specifically, are so great because as much as they’re not Type A, they’re also not Type B or C or Type Anything because they’re human characters.
Absolutely. They totally resist classification. You know, Melissa McCarthy in The Heat is this crazy character. But guess what: she also has a ton of dignity and self respect. And it’s not what you think it is. We’re all gonna laugh at her, but she loves this character so much and there’s so much humanity in this character that it’s like, on another level and she’s not just a clown running around.
That said, I do wanna prepare you: in Ass Backwards the characters are big and the comedy is big and that’s exactly what we were going for. And I think that type of comedy isn’t totally done by women anymore. That’s why I’m really excited to get it out there and for people to see it.
I think sometimes doing that kind of comedy is only reserved for the Ben Stillers and the Jack Blacks, and only the guys get to do that and play the bigger, broader characters – the Zoolanders and Anchormans – but we don’t let our women do that. And that’s what we really wanted to do! So I’m really proud of the movie in that way – whether you like it or you don’t, we absolutely did what we wanted to do.
And there’s also that independent movie assumption about people being quiet in one location—
Toooooooootally! “Indie movies are about walking to my door to get the mail” — you know what I mean? So this is a really big swing. Sundance [Film Festival, where Ass Backwards premiered] was a really weird experience for us, because people were like, ‘What? This isn’t a quirky comedy!’
A lot of Sundance comedies, in my mind, are just dramedies that have some funny moments. But we were going for this. This is a different model and it’s what we were going for.
I remember reading that you’re really into reality TV – which I can relate to. What shows do you think your characters from Ass Backwards would be into?
Oh my god that’s such a good question. Such a good question…There’s a show called Princesses: Long Island. Have you seen it?
It’s so insane. It’s like these girls on Long Island and they all live with their parents. They’re so delusional and so protected from any world that you or I might recognize. I feel like our characters, Kate and Chloe, would really relate to that, because they’re blissfully unaware of the real world. In the movie, their bubble is burst along the way and we see the chinks in the armor as we go along. But I think Princesses: Long Island are these weird sort of woman-girls – I don’t even know how to describe them – that our characters would really relate to. If you haven’t seen it yet, I really recommend it.
I will be looking for it as soon as I hang up this call.
[Editor’s note: I found it, and watched it, and it’s better than you or I could ever imagine.]
For my last question, I wanted to know: what are some of your favourite films and, specifically, female characters or actresses?
Annie Hall is my favourite movie, and I know a lot of women have a lot of feelings about Woody Allen, but I remember seeing that movie and being so blown away by Diane Keaton, and every choice she made. I felt like I had never seen that kind of acting before – she was so present and her rhythm was different. I couldn’t take my eyes off her! I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that – I want to exist like that, as a character’. Cos you can see she’s not acting - she’s doing something else!
For comedy influences, I think of Lucille Ball. I grew up watching her and was obsessed with that clown work and all that physical stuff.
One of the biiig influences to me growing up was Anne of Green Gables, which was a Canadian book that was turned into a movie. I was so obsessed with the book and when I got the movie for Christmas one year – there’s video footage of me doing this – I watched it over and over, every single night. I could not stop watching this movie. But I think about it now and I know why I was obsessed with it: Anne was this female protagonist who was different; she was a redhead and she was smart and she was told that she was ugly. She had this spunk and this will and this kind of life-force that made her so special and I so identified with this character on a crazy level. I would act out scenes in my room and follow along with the dialogue. I was so obsessed with it. That was a big one for me.
I also love Ghostbusters so much! I remember thinking Sigourney Weaver was awesome. It’s not even a great female role, but I remember thinking, ‘She’s a badass!’ I loved her.
Thank you so much! This was lovely!
I’m so excited you’re doing this, what an awesome endeavour!