There’s a game that Judy Greer plays every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Though at times it’s less of a game, really, then it is a chore: helping strangers on the street figure out who the hell she is.
Because everyone recognizes her. Don’t you?
Maybe you recognize her from her time playing Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development, or as Jennifer Lopez’s assistant in The Wedding Planner. It could be that you remember her as Jennifer Garner’s frenemy in 13 Going on 30, or as the actress who broke your heart in The Descendants. Truth be told, though, you probably have no idea why you recognize her, and not because you’ve never seen before, but because—with more than 40 movies and countless TV series on her resume—you’ve kind of seen her in everything.
And so each day, passerbys stop her on the street. Waiters grill her at restaurants. The customs officer at the airport, Bill, won’t give her back her passport until she helps him figure out why he recognizes her. (That really happened earlier this week.)
“I’m like, ‘Bill, tell me. Do you watch television? Maybe from Two and a Half Men?’” Greer tells me, reliving the most trying of three “how do I know you?” run-ins in just the past 12 hours. “He’s like, ‘I don’t watch TV.’ So I ask, ‘Movies?’ He says, ‘I don’t go to the movies.’ So I’m like, ‘Ok, Bill, then we’re going to have a hard with me telling you what you know me from.’ He’s like, ‘Just tell me one thing.’ I’m like, ‘The Descendants.’ And he’s like, ‘I heard of that. I’m going to go see that when it comes out.’ I’m like, Bill, it came out two years ago and it was nominated for an Academy Award.’”
I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star, then, as you can no doubt understand, is kind of Greer’s catharsis. A memoir about her transition from gawky Detroit theater girl to the most prolific actor working today (whose face people just can’t place), the book travels the ups and downs of a career in Hollywood as a co-star, sidekick, and leading lady’s best friend—but never the leading lady.
Intimate and frank, Greer talks about the mixed blessing it is to be working often enough to be recognizable, but never cast in the substantial, star-making roles that definitively answers: this is what you know her from. And for fans of hers who do know why they know her, and who have been clamoring for the gifted character actress to get the starring role they’ve long felt she’s deserved, I Don’t Know What You Know Me From proves what they’ve always suspected: Judy Greer shines in the starring role.
Mitch Hurwitz, who created Arrested Development, which Greer guested on for 11 episodes, says reading I Don’t Know What You Know Me From is “like talking to Judy Greer herself, impossible to do without a smile on your face.” And actress and friend Rashida Jones says, “Whether or not you know what you know her from, chances are you have seen Judy Greer in a movie, at least once in your life, and wanted to be best friends with her.”
And you know what? Both of them are right.
“I feel like people think they know me,” Greer accurately says, roughly 20 minutes after walking into an East Village restaurant as I wave excitedly (and embarrassingly) at her, as if I didn’t just know her, but we were old pals meeting for our weekly gab session. And as for reading her book? It really is just like gossiping—and, occasionally, kvetching—with a friend over a glass of wine.
There’s a chapter, for example, titled “Celebrities I’ve Peed Next To.” “I’d say I was most nervous peeing next to J. Lo,” she wrote. “Heidi Klum didn’t make me nervous, because I didn’t realize it was her until we came out of our stalls at the same time. Debra Messing made me a little nervous, but mostly because the bathroom was really quiet and I was feeling a little gassy that day.”
If you were best friends with Judy Greer, as we all think we are, would you not demand to hear, the second she returned from shooting The Wedding Planner, what Jennifer Lopez sounds like peeing?
For her part, Greer isn’t too concerned about what Jenny From the Block might think about her urination inspiring a chapter in a new book. (Though a book was sent to Ms. Lo through her publicist.) Everything in I Don’t Know What You Know Me From passes what could be referred to as The Kelly Ripa Test. “Every time I was like, “Should I put this in?’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’d tell that story on a talk show, so why not!’” Greer says.
Greer’s book also adheres strictly to one of comedy’s golden rules, that if you’re going to laugh at other people you first have to be able to laugh at yourself. So while there’s a chapter called “Celebrities I’ve Peed Next To” that some people (read: me) might flip to and read first, there’s also an even more frank one called “My First Pube.”
Yes, Judy Greer recalls, in detail, the discovery of her first pubic hair. Reading I Don’t Know What You Know Me From really is like chatting with your best friend.
“Debra Messing made me a little nervous, but mostly because the bathroom was really quiet and I was feeling a little gassy that day.”
(OK. So I may never have terrified my best friend with the story of my own pubic region’s foray into manhood, but I totally appreciated the unabashed spirit behind Greer’s own confessional! And, wouldn’t you know it, “My First Pube” actually ends up being an incredibly touching and even sort-of existential chapter.)
But “My First Pube”—a more insightful look into Greer’s psyche than anyone might expect—is indicative of what makes I Don’t Know What You Know Me From such an interesting read. The Hollywood stuff is easy to consume, sure, but it quickly becomes the stories about Greer’s own life—her childhood as a frizzy-haired beanpole in Detroit, why she admires her mother, the blind date she met her husband on, her first pubic hair, and the dog fart that changed everything—that prove the most fascinating.
Then there is the remarkable self-awareness with which Greer talks about her status in Hollywood. About what it’s like to be stopped on the street because she’s only sort-of recognized on a daily basis. About what it’s like to be told incessantly “you’re so much prettier in person” (the chapter “Your Compliments Are Hurting My Feelings” should be required reading) and asked “why haven’t you had any leading roles?” as if it’s her own choice.
In discussing all of that, she strikes a relatable, admirable tone: she’s grateful and humble to have had a successful career, work on such great projects, and make a living as an actor. But of course she wants to do more than play the perennial best friend, and she’s going to keep trying.
“I was careful when I was writing about that,” she says. “Because the tone changed a lot depending on the day I was writing it, you know? Some days I was feeling really great and some days I was like, ‘Ugh. Fuck her for getting that part.’ But I do feel incredibly fortunate, incredibly satisfied, and yes, I would love to still star in my own romantic comedy.”
It’s a mature state of mind to have, especially for someone so entrenched in the fame-hungry, ruthless, and never-satisfied entertainment industry. And, like all mature things, it took time for Greer to develop such inner peace.
“I don’t think I could’ve written this book several years ago,” she says. “Because I didn’t understand why I was getting the roles. Mostly, I didn’t understand because so many people would come up to me and ask me that. It wasn’t even me! They were asking me why I don’t star in movies. So then I thought, ‘Why don’t I star in movies? Did I fuck something up somewhere along the line? Did I do something wrong?”
The unequivocal answer is no. How could someone who is so wildly funny on Archer, who was so devastating in The Descendants, and so good at playing the best friend that we all kind of feel like she’s our own possibly have done something wrong with her career? It may have taken her a few years and a few hundred rounds of “What do I know you from…?” to realize it, but Greer’s there now.
“When I saw George Clooney after all these years,” says Greer, who worked with Clooney on Three Kings in 1999 before reuniting with him for The Descendants in 2011, “I was like, ‘Look, I’m still around, man! I stuck around! And I still work!’ And he was like, ‘Man, look at you, that’s so great! I’m so glad!”
We are, too.