Lauren Graham (‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’) on finding the ‘humanity’ in Joan [Complete Interview Transcript]

Lauren Graham plays Joan, the boss of Jane Levy‘s titular character on NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” She previously earned nominations from the SAG Awards and the Golden Globes for her iconic performance as Lorelai Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”

Graham recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about what attracted her to “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” performing musical numbers and her memories of “Gilmore Girls.” Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Lauren, “Zoey’s” is unlike anything else on TV these days. It proves how vital ladies it is these days to empathize with each other and to have a good laugh and a good cry. How much do you love that the show wears its heart on its sleeve? 

Lauren Graham: It’s what I am always looking for in something, in a project. The way I came into the show was sort of odd. But I knew about it because I’m friends with Jane and even when she was trying to decide whether she was going to do it or not, it just really felt special to me and hopeful. And I mean, there’s nothing more transformative than a musical to sort of lift a story to another level and give all the characters another way to express themselves, another color, and I just loved it. And it continued to surprise me. It was a little bit of… not a gamble, but I was in development on a couple of things. So it was very appealing to me to be, I guess technically I’m a guest star. Although, I was in too many episodes so I have to be a supporting person, which is fine. But I wasn’t bound to the show and it was just really fun to be there supporting my friends, feeling really collaborative and we had this phone call yesterday because the show got picked up and Austin [Winsberg], the creator of the show, told us all at the same time. And I just realized what an incredible group they are and I just felt lucky to be there.

GD: “Zoey’s” has been picked up. Congratulations. Will you return? 

LG: I think so. Everything’s so up in the air. I’m doing a series, “The Mighty Ducks,” for Disney+ and that’s 10 episodes and a half hour. We had just done the first episode. So “Zoey’s” is 13 episodes and an hour. Those schedules will not completely overlap. There’ll be some room and it’s just a matter of how many. But yeah. Now it feels like my home so I wouldn’t want to lose it. Also, because I had replaced someone, it took a minute to kind of get that character going. I just think there’s so many places for her to go and it is something that I never get to do. I’m usually playing fun-loving buddy or whatever (laughs). Whatever you wanna call it. And this was such a different, whatever all the cliches actors use, such a different muscle and such a different headspace to be in. It was really fun.

GD: Well, let’s talk about Joan, because initially to me, she came across as a little prickly and she’s demanding and I figured she’d be a bitchy boss. But that’s not her at all. We end up figuring out that she’s really quite vulnerable. She’s supportive. She’s actually a really good leader and a boss to Zoey. Was it fun exploring that other side of her as the season progressed? 

LG: For sure. I mean, the conversation I had with Austin, and one thing I want to say about him, too, you have all different relationships with your boss, the person who creates the show and to his better or perhaps detriment, is so inclusive, so wants to hear from everyone. We had such fun conversations and I don’t know, it was a different process. And in those conversations, I said to him, “Let’s find a way to turn the bitchy boss into something more complex and more interesting and grounded, really, in this woman probably hasn’t had too many female friends on her way up the ladder in Silicon Valley and she’s had to fight really hard. But I just definitely didn’t want it to be that she’s threatened by Zoey or doesn’t want to help her. We’ve seen that and it never feels real to me anyway but I did enjoy the idea that she’s so obsessed with work and smart that she just really walks around frustrated all the time, like, “Why isn’t everyone doing their job? Why isn’t everyone as obsessed with work as I am?” And it gave her a kind of loopy place to go that was really, really fun. And then some of the musical numbers where I’m breaking a baguette over my knee, you get to really explore what is the furthest expression of this person’s frustration in song. You can do crazier things. That was really fun.

GD: Yeah. It’s actually quite accurate in the corporate world. She’s really highly strung, clenched. So I could see a lot of your performance was her being like that and then slowly loosening up. Let’s talk about the musical numbers because you’ve raised them. “Wrecking Ball” is one where you really got to belt out a tune because you’ve got a background in singing. You can actually carry a tune. Maybe some people didn’t realize this, but we should be talking about “Tik Tok” because that was, if you don’t mind me saying, sassy, sexy Lauren Graham and I like sassy, sexy Lauren Graham. I think that was actually really fun to see you in that light. We don’t see that very often. Was that fun to do? 

LG: It was fantastic. I mean, at this point, I am interested in “What else.” And I’m interested in just trying to continue to grow creatively but when Mandy Moore came to me, first of all, I didn’t really know the song.

GD: You’re not a big Kesha fan, then?

LG: My musical knowledge stopped at, like, REM, maybe, U2. But it was such an important song for her because she’s breaking out and celebrating freedom and when Mandy Moore, the choreographer, does previs, where she will block her idea for the dance with one of her dancers and then she’ll come discuss it with you and show it to you and get your feedback, she’s just fantastic. She was like, “And then you get up on the bar.” And I was like, “I’m sorry. Excuse me?” She was like, “Yeah, and then you’re gonna fall into his arms and he’ll catch you.” And I was like, “No, no, Mandy, no, no, no.” And then on the day, you just have to commit. So I had to flip a switch, like, “Maybe I don’t identify as sassy, sexy, but I do today!” And then I became obnoxiously unstoppable. I was just slithering down poles and stuff and gosh, just the opportunities, because I had sort of had a few years of more writing and really feeling frustrated at the material I would get sent and maybe losing some of the things I liked to somebody else. It was just a funny transitional time and I felt so thankful and inspired again. I was sort of getting to a place where I was like, “Maybe I should do a medical drama,” which I could never. I just couldn’t find something that really sparked joy. And this did.

GD: I’m so glad you found that. I was watching this cast reunion thing online that guys all did the other day and you talk about your first job as being a lawyer and you were being chewed out by the judge or something. I can’t imagine you going back to roles like that after all this time. In fact, if you don’t mind, I’m going to put this to you to see if you agree because I’ve always had this theory about you, in particular, like I do with many performers. You’ve been fortunate to play relatable and nuanced characters over your career, right? And this one’s another one of those. But the reason why we’re attracted to your characters is because you’ve got this interesting vulnerability underneath the competent exterior when you’re playing them and I’m just wondering if that’s something that occurs to you. Like, Lorelai was like that. Sarah Braverman was like that. Joan is like that. Is that something that is just you or is it something that you’re thinking about giving these characters? 

LG: First of all, thank you, that’s a nice thing to hear. I guess it’s a case by case basis. But I’m always thinking about the difference between what people say and how they’re really feeling and I don’t think I’ve played any character except maybe Shakespeare back in drama school who’s saying what they mean in a very linear way. So I’m always trying to think of what’s the other dimension, especially in these, because all those shows to some degree are comedies and even that show that you’re referencing where I’m a lawyer, that was a half-hour sitcom where I was a jokey lawyer. I’m just always thinking about the humanity and especially in the case of Joan, I just really don’t believe in stereotypes. I don’t think it’s interesting to watch or play. So I was thinking a lot, in the case of Joan, about how hard she’s had to work to get there. I mean, you’re not consciously thinking of it in a scene, but I’m visceral. And so when I put something in my body — you know what I mean — it’s finding where something lives. And Joan lived in a lot of speed, it’s finding what her tempo is and then what’s the counter to that. And the counter in her case is marriage crumbling, money doesn’t mean anything. It didn’t buy her happiness. Her company is potentially in jeopardy. She doesn’t understand why she doesn’t have more friends. That was a thing I thought about and we got to improvise in this one scene where it originally was something else where I go get her something fancy. and I said to Austin, “I don’t think she would know what to get a friend as a present.” I said she’d get her something that is totally wrong. And that’s where the Manolo Blahnik shoes came from. It’s way too expensive to give an employee. Nobody gets somebody’s shoes as a gift. It was just wrong. And then in the scene, I didn’t know how to kind of give it to her. I kind of shove it. Things like that I live for as an actress, those little pieces of behavior, because it tells us everything about who this person is. And it’s both. It’s like, yes, she’s the boss. But also she feels vulnerable and doesn’t know how to have friends. So that’s the dynamic that was fun to find. And yes, I hope I think about that with all the characters. Also, who walks around feeling confident? I don’t really know that many people. I don’t personally necessarily know what that feels like. So maybe that’s what I’m bringing to it. I’m always thinking, like, “What are they worried about?”

GD: Yeah. And I think to go back to the beginning of this interview, this show does that because it’s obviously about what people are thinking and feeling that they’re not saying. That’s the bottom line. So that leads me to this. The fans of this show have really taken to it because it’s made them feel something. Those shows out there that do that, like, for example, “Parenthood” was like that, “This Is Us” is like that, and so is this show, have really become a sensation on social media. And when the finale happened and Zoey’s dad, Mitch, died and then the cast sang “American Pie,” the outpouring on social media, the real grief was really astounding. What were your thoughts on the feedback that you were getting on the finale? 

LG: Oh, it was just such a special thing to be part of and it’s very real to Austin, who lost his dad to this disease, and that’s where a kernel of the idea came from. To know that was very moving, and it was a lot of emotional time on that show. You can’t feel it unless we are feeling it, at least to some degree. As actors, we do it differently. But it has so much heart, the show, and that day, it was a oner. It’s a very long song. We were doing a time-lapse thing. So there was just this dance that had to exist among all these people who we’d spent all this time with and we’re all kind of there for each other and we’re there to honor hopefully, Austin’s memory of his dad. That’s when you feel gratified, I guess, is a word, but it’s what you want to do. You don’t always get there as a performer, is give something away, is give a piece of yourself away in order to give someone else an experience. I mean, that’s the job. That’s the hope and so often we feel we fall short. I tried to give you this story or this character, this moment, and it didn’t work out or the lighting was bad. So, that we had that space, it just made people feel really good.  I don’t know if this has been out there, but there is a video that’s almost as riveting of everyone around the monitors watching, holding their breath, hoping that this is going to be the take that nobody drops anything and it’s just that collective kind of we’re all truly in this together to try to bring you some entertainment. I find it really moving and I found that experience moving and then, yes, to hear from people. I’ve been doing this a while and I don’t necessarily hear from my high school friends anymore. They’re like, “Oh yeah, you were on ‘The Tonight Show.’ Anyway.” They don’t care, which is good. But I’ve heard from people more than usual that it really was touching for them. And that means a lot.

GD: That’s so cool. And I hope I hope it gets a nomination for directing because I think the direction of that episode was just A+. But that’s a whole other conversation. Speaking of making an impact on people, I mean, you know this. You know that people love Lorelai Gilmore, right? It’s a character that millions of people have taken to their hearts. A couple of years ago, we spoke to you and you said that your time on the show went by in a blur, but you only took stock in what it meant to you and how rare a part it was much later. So now we’re even further away from Lorelai and even the Netflix sequel series. What does she mean to you, given that she means so much to so many other people? 

LG: I think being able to do the Netflix revival put her back in my… first of all, anything I ever got to do in show business came from that. So I’m never not thinking about it. I’m never not thankful. These are friendships with Amy Palladino, as I have said to Jane many times regarding “Zoey’s,” you hope you get one of these. I’ve seen Jane perform, act, sing, dance, be emotional, be an athlete. You couldn’t picture another person in that part and if you get one of those, and Amy used to say this too. Amy now has two of those, ‘cause she has “Mrs. Maisel,” which is a much bigger commercial success. But I treasure the experience of being able to come back around and have those words in my mouth again and bring her back. It means the world to me and I almost have to never hold anything up to that level, in a way. It’s like, maybe I’ll get to something else that’s different and interesting. Maybe I’ll get to produce, which I am on the Disney+ show. And then be part of the creative conversation. But I’ll never get that marriage of material and youth and what I love to do and that it hits a nerve that continues to find new people is… I’m incredibly thankful and if ever I’m feeling frustrated or whatever, I just think, “Look at what you have. Look at this thing you have,” and I do feel a real responsibility to it, too, because as a result, I mentor young girls, some of whom have never seen it and don’t care, but that age group and their moms who are the core of our audience, even though I know you were a reluctant viewer as well, but I think I would have had a connection to that anyway, because I just remember my adolescence so well. But that it gives, especially young girls, something to look up to or be inspired by is a really big deal, so not that I would do this anyway but if I get sent a horror movie or something, “I don’t want Lorelai…” ‘cause I carry that with me no matter where I go.

GD: You can’t do that to Lorelai. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time, but I have two very quick ones. You received a SAG and Golden Globe nomination for Lorelai but the Emmys had a blindspot for that show. And I’m sure it’s been brought up with you before. But were you aware of the outrage amongst fans and critics that you were never nominated at the Emmys? Because it’s still something that I will never ever get over.

LG: Well, I was aware of it only because I’d get interviewed about it every year. You may know, but as a sensitive person, I try to stay out of anything that isn’t just my day of work, but it comes to you in certain events and in certain instances. I do remember one year there was something in the trades where they had literally changed the voting and they called it the Lorelai rule. And I forget what the shift was, One thing was, as a voter, because I am now a voter, you try to watch everything, but you vote for what you like and you already know. And I think so many people perhaps would not have thought that was a show for them. So it didn’t have the popularity in the zeitgeist. It had its core people and it was on the network it was on where perhaps you think, “That’s for young people, that’s not worthy of that kind of attention.” And so ultimately, over time, I just wanted to bring in a win for my bosses and because there sometimes was an expectation of like, “Maybe it’s this year. We change the category or we tried this, we did a campaign,” or whatever, ultimately, I think you have to just be gracious and not go into any job or any pursuit for the outcome.

GD: Well, we have run out of time. You are a two-time “New York Times” bestseller. You’re writing again, which is fantastic because everyone has read “Talking as Fast as I Can.” If you haven’t read it go and get it and read it. Lauren, thank you so much for your time today. It’s nine years in the making. I finally got to speak to you and good luck for your “Mighty Ducks” project coming up. 

LG: Let’s not have it be another nine!

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