Lauren Graham on ‘The Mighty Ducks,’ ‘Gilmore Girls,’ and Just Wanting People to Feel Nice
The “Gilmore Girls” star explains why she joined Disney+’s new “Mighty Ducks” sequel series, the pressure of appeasing fandoms, and why she’ll never be cast in a “Saw” film.
There are sports people, and there are sports movie people. Often, they are the same crowd. Then there are those for whom watching a ball move across a field is a form of cruel torture, yet who find crying while watching an inspirational movie about a random college football team among life’s greatest pleasures.
These are people who may have made the conscious decision never to watch an actual hockey game in their lifetimes, but for whom Disney’s Mighty Ducks film franchise ranks among the films they cherish most. It shouldn’t make sense, but it’s real. We exist.
Lauren Graham laughs at the question, now that she’s treated as someone who could be an authority on the matter: Why do people who hate sports still love sports movies? The actress, best known for playing Lorelei Gilmore in Gilmore Girls, stars in the Disney+ series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, which picks up nearly 30 years after the action of the 1992 original film about a ragtag peewee hockey team that, through the power of quacking and the Flying V, become an unlikely Cinderella story.
“Here’s my thing about watching sports, which, because of living with my boyfriend [actor Peter Krause], I do more now than I used to,” she says. “It’s not that I’m bored by it. It actually goes the other way. I get so invested that I'm devastated when somebody loses. And somebody loses every time! Like, I can't take it. It's so harrowing.”
For fans who have followed Graham’s career since Gilmore Girls first made a splash on the then-WB network in 2000, the actress's endearingly open-hearted and compassionate relationship to watching sports—it’s torture because she just feels too damn much—may not come as a surprise.
Gilmore Girls’ zippy, caffeinated dialogue was steeped in a deep brew of heart and rare soulfulness for a TV portrayal of mothers and daughters. Series Graham has worked on since, like NBC’s weekly catharsis-cry, Parenthood, and, more recently, the musical drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are projects that, as with Gilmore Girls, viewers tend to seek out and even return to, especially in this past year, because they’re comforting. They make you feel, just...nice.
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, which shot most of its first season during the pandemic, is a member of the same flock, so to speak. (The series premieres Friday on Disney+.)
Graham still remembers the first time she read the Gilmore Girls script and felt a fierce ownership over the role. “I just was like, ‘It’s me, it’s mine, this is the voice I’ve kind of been waiting for.’” She knows that, over the years, people who cherished that show and that character as much as she did have followed her and been interested in what she’ll do next.
“Responsibility is too obnoxious a word,” she says. “But I feel so pleased to have made some things that people might want to watch or return to, that are comforting or that are positive. That’s also what I want. It’s the kind of material I’m drawn to as a viewer and as an actor. Not that it has come up, but I wouldn't want to see me in, like, Saw 7.”
She signed on for The Mighty Ducks before the pandemic, but now she’s glad that a feel-good, nostalgic series like it could be another source of comfort for those who have weathered a really tough time.
“It sounds so sappy, but the longer I get to do this, I feel more and more grateful and in conversation, in a weird way, with the audience. And certainly with Gilmore Girls people,” she says. “It’s now a fact of my life that they’re giving me their gratitude or their loyalty, so I definitely think about that.”
She gets why fans would want to return to a franchise with a tone like The Mighty Ducks. One of the reasons that Gilmore Girls has endured, she estimates, is that there still aren’t a lot of shows that are like it. She starts laughing as she compares it to her boyfriend Krause’s own iconic series. “I mean, I live with Nate Fisher from Six Feet Under. That is an incredible show, but it's a hard one to return to for comfort.”
There is a certain demographic of a millennial who grew up in the ’90s for whom The Mighty Ducks franchise is a cultural touchpoint in the same formative way that Sesame Street is to a toddler or The OC to a teen. “Obsessed” is a strong word. And yet, these people were obsessed with The Mighty Ducks.
To these people, Emilio Estevez’s epically named Gordon Bombay, a cynical attorney and former hockey player who performs court-mandated community service by begrudgingly coaching a peewee hockey league’s worst team, is a cinematic hero among the ranks of Luke Skywalker or Atticus Finch. “Quack, quack, quack!” is an inspiring rally cry on par with a blue-faced Mel Gibson bellowing, “They’ll never take away our freedom!”
When Estevez and Graham first met, he warned her, “Hey, just so you know, these fans are really serious.” She laughed it off. This is the Gilmore Girls lady, after all. “I said, I feel I am a person who can handle that because I come from a world of very serious fans and I want to do everything we can to honor their devotion.”
While perhaps falling short of those fans’ intensity, she also had a relationship to those movies. In 1992, when the first film came out, she was working multiple jobs in New York, trying to break into acting. She remembers the movies and the time that was so conducive to their popularity. “It had a kind of authenticity,” she says. “It doesn't talk down to the kids. It's not overly sweet. It has a wackiness to it.”
In The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, Graham plays Alex Marrow, a single mom whose son is cut from the Mighty Ducks junior team for not being good enough. (On playing another single mom, Graham says, “That’s what the world hands me.”)
Enraged that the team could deny her son his passion and exhausted by parents’ toxic behavior from the stands, she decides to form her own team for her son to play with, along with any other kid who might feel ostracized from or rejected by the high-pressure attitude of the Ducks.
It’s when she’s trying to find ice for the new team to practice on that Alex encounters Gordon Bombay. He has once again fallen from grace and is now running a dilapidated rink—and is once again about to be coaxed into begrudgingly mentoring a team of terrible hockey players.
For those aforementioned fans of The Mighty Ducks movies, the debut of Estevez back in character as Gordon Bombay plays like a capital-E Event. “Plus, there is, like, dry ice coming out of the Zamboni when he comes on screen,” Graham laughs, just to make it all the more dramatic.
Estevez is now the second Breakfast Club alum she’s gotten to work with, following Molly Ringwald (they worked together on the ’90s sitcom Townies), so she understands the instinct to geek out at seeing Estevez back as one of his famous characters. Those were the actors she dreamed of being like when she saw their movies in the ’80s. “Then there’s the fact that, through the miracle of cryogenics, Emilio looks exactly the same,” she jokes. (He really does look great.)
The grand finale of The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers’ first episode finds Alex strapping her skates back on for the first time in decades in order to ingratiate herself with Gordon, recreating the figure skating routine she’d used to perform to Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All”—cracking herself up at every wobbly attempt to do a spin or get any height off a jump.
Graham nails it with all the joy of Tara Lipinski landing a triple-triple, if not necessarily the execution. She was comfortable enough on skates. The idea was to take time to train more during a break between filming the first and second episodes. But that break soon became unexpectedly long due to the pandemic and training became impossible.
But Graham was moving straight into the project from filming Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, on which she belted out Katy Perry’s “Roar” at an Apple launch-like event and, in another episode, danced on a bar to a Kesha song. “I had been accustomed to feeling the initial lack of confidence I might have had, and I already got rid of that noise by having to move my body [on Zoey’s],” she says.
Besides, acting out a figure skating routine set to a Whitney Houston ballad just sounded like damn fun.
“I really think a lot more than I used to, just out of experience, ‘What is my day like?’” she says. “Yes, it's the part and the project. But I'm more interested now in who are the people and what do I get to work on and how happy will I be and how happy can I make everyone else. Anything goofy and positive and heartfelt. Especially in reaction to whatever cynicism or darkness we've experienced lately, like all I want to do is sing and dance and skate.”
In some respects, she means that literally.
If you look at the years since Graham ended the original run of Gilmore Girls—a time when actors’ next steps are scrutinized and the spreading of one’s wings isn’t always encouraged or celebrated—she took a lot of what some might consider big risks.
She made her Broadway debut playing Miss Adelaide in the musical Guys and Dolls in 2009, thanks in part to Ray Liotta. (Really.) The two had never met, but were seated next to each other on a plane when Graham was weighing the Broadway offer. “I was like there’s a musical, but people think it might not be the time to do it. And he’s like, ‘What are you gonna do, another part in a movie?’ And I was like, ‘You’re right. No, I'm going to do the Broadway musical.’”
She became a published author, first with her debut novel Someday, Someday, Maybe in 2013, and then a collection of essays, Talking as Fast as I Can: from Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between), in 2016. She is currently working on a second essay collection and writing a movie for HBO Max.
There were big leaps of faith on TV, too. She stepped in for Maura Tierney in Parenthood after the actress left the project to seek treatment for cancer, and went on to play the role of Sarah Braverman for six seasons.
She joined the original cast and creators of Gilmore Girls for a four-part reunion series for Netflix, the kind of revival that is always risky when there are protective, passionate fans involved. Then there’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which doesn’t just ask for her to occasionally sing and dance, but also, for the first time, play the no-nonsense boss.
“When that part came up, my first reaction was that no one’s gonna hire me to play the boss,” she remembers. “Nope. Just no. But then I was like, wait, who is the person saying I can’t play the boss? It’s me right now.” She took the part.
“I’m lucky to get any of these opportunities, and I just keep trying to evolve.” She hopes for a Season 2 of The Mighty Ducks. She hopes to direct. She hopes to keep writing. She hopes to keep making people feel happy.