“I hope that all my deep thoughts won’t make me sound like a horrible pretentious asshole.”
It’s likely that you fell in love with Ari Graynor in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist when you saw her picking her half-chewed gum out of the vomit in a toilet at a Port Authority bathroom and putting it back into her mouth. Maybe it was when she was funding her rent through phone sex work for 1-877-MMM-HMM in For a Good Time, Call.
The truth is Ari Graynor is not a brash hypersexual drunkard, like she’s played in her most attention-grabbing film roles, nor is she a horrible pretentious asshole.
“I’m still trying to figure out all of this,” she says, adjusting the straps on the denim overalls she wore to lunch at Café Cluny in Manhattan’s West Village, where she lives. “I feel like the point of doing these interviews is sharing experiences that might be useful or helpful to people, or make them feel acknowledged or less alone. But you also feel like, oh god, maybe I just sound like a total fucking idiot.”
We’re meeting to talk about her role in Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, in which Graynor plays Cassie, the lone girl in a group of struggling stand-up comedians hustling for their big break at a Los Angeles comedy club in the 1970s. For a show about stand-up comedy, I’m Dying Up Here is remarkably soulful, honing in beyond just the struggle to win laughs, to the comedians’ struggles to develop a sense of self.
When Jim Carrey, who executive produces the series, attended the show’s kickoff dinner, he told the cast it was their responsibility to “alchemize the pain into something beautiful”—something that really struck a chord with Graynor.
“So much of my own journey of deepening and peeling back of layers and getting to something more truthful, that’s his jam,” she says. “You think of this wacky, wild Jim Carrey that we grew up with and loved. That’s still there. He’s hilarious. But he’s also a very wise, deep soul. He’s such a beautiful embodiment of how those things live in a person and need their space.”
It’s only recently that Graynor has been able to do that herself.
Graynor has been one of Hollywood’s “next big things” long enough to have had an entire career while we’ve been hyping her. Her first job was in 2001, on The Sopranos, before barging onto the scene with an uproarious turn as the hard-partying best friend in 2008’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
She’s had roles in films like Whip It, The Guilt Trip, and the rom-com What’s Your Number? and starred in ten episodes of Fringe and the TV version of Bad Teacher. On stage she’s starred in the Tony-winning play The Little Dog Laughed and Woody Allen’s Relatively Speaking, and most recently played an alcoholic absentee mother in the well-reviewed Yen.
She parlayed her bulldozing comedic chops to graduate from scene-stealing BFF to leading lady in 2012’s For a Good Time, Call, which she executive produced. But, ironically, I’m Dying Up Here marks her biggest move yet to break the mold of the funny girl, even though she’s literally playing a stand-up comedian.
When she read the script for the pilot, she cried. “I felt like it understood so much of this big journey I had just been on,” she says.
She didn’t always think she was going to be the funny girl, or even want to be. She developed a self-deprecating sense of humor at a young age when an awkward puberty set fire to her insecurities.
As she wrote in an essay for InStyle, “Just below my Elaine Stritch exterior were the longing looks at ‘the pretty girls’—the ones who didn’t have to work so hard to get through the day, who didn’t have to make a joke to be acknowledged.”
Her screen career began with a string of dramatic roles, before “playing a drunk mess who had a practically Shakespearean love affair with her gum” in Nick and Norah repositioned her in the eyes of Hollywood. She was suddenly the go-to scene-stealer, playing brash, bawdy BFFs so artfully she spurred pop-culture blogosphere fretting that she’d been pigeon-holed—which she was.
And then something happened. She forgot how to be funny. Or, at least, she couldn’t be.
Maybe it was turning 30. Maybe it was starting therapy. Maybe it was a series of professional let downs. Or maybe it was just that she had concentrated on living up to the hype of “the funny girl” for so long that she lost touch with who she really was.
“It was as if all the parts of myself I had neglected staged a coup and wouldn’t let me have a sense of humor until I paid attention,” she wrote.
When we start talking about that time, Graynor laughs. “Clearly I have been to a lot of therapy in the last couple of years.”
For a Good Time, Call, which was supposed to be an indie hit, floundered at the box office. She starred in the Broadway comedy The Performers, a rom-com set against the backdrop of the adult film world, but Hurricane Sandy hit New York during previews. The play opened on a Wednesday and closed that Sunday.
She had also been cast as the lead in CBS’s TV version of the Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher, on paper as perfect a fit as can be imagined for Graynor. The show was canceled after only three episodes.
“They were three things that were back-to-back heartaches,” she says. “I was heartbroken. I think that’s what led to all of this big thinking.”
That big thinking involved taking a step back from the industry. (Network TV money affords the luxury to do that.) She traveled alone around Europe. She watched Werner Herzog documentaries. And she thought.
“It’s hard and it feels lonely and sometimes it’s sad and uncomfortable,” she says. “But I’m a big believer in facing yourself and sitting with yourself, as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes, is where all the beautiful transformation takes place.”
Her character Cassie in I’m Dying Up Here arrived like a breath of fresh air when Graynor needed it most.
When Cassie lobbies for more stage time from the owner of the comedy club where she performs, she’s told she’s not ready because she hasn’t developed her voice. She didn’t know who she was yet.
She needed to let go of her shtick, and learn to embrace the darker, more honest parts of herself. She needed to let go of the fear that she would never fit in anywhere if she was completely herself—the very fear that Graynor had been afraid to confront all along.
“As a human, Cassie is all of the things,” Graynor says. “She is vulnerable, and loving, and soft, and warm, and strong-willed, and ambitious, and fierce, and all those things that I also feel. Sometimes it’s hard as an actor, as a person, as a woman, to be able to embrace all of those parts equally. I felt like this project became this beautiful space for me to embrace all that as an actor as I was embracing it in myself.”
To prepare for I’m Dying Up Here, Graynor performed at a handful of open mic nights. She would sign up as “Cassie” and perform material the character performs in the show. There was one time, though, that she worked in her own bit, about how all of us are essentially 13 on the inside, and no matter who you become as an adult there’s a part of you that’s reacting to the world as if you were at the most awkward stage of your life.
Thirteen-year-old Graynor—insecure, overcompensating, afraid—is very much still around. And that, it turns out, is a good thing.
“I have more access now to my pit of wisdom, but I also have that little girl in me that is scared, that wants attention, that feels less than, that wants to be liked,” she says. “Doing a lot of press and having a show come out, she can really flail in my head.”
Graynor actually writes letters to that girl: hey, I see you; I love you; it’s going to be alright. It’s comforting, she says, to acknowledge that part of herself and not shun it completely.
She sounds wise. Enlightened. Happy. But, as always, full of self-doubt. Getting up to leave for a fitting and reflecting on the conversation, she can’t resist one last self-deprecating joke: “I’m terrified of looking back on this interview in five years thinking that I knew something that I knew nothing about.”