Meet Mary Holland, the Eccentric Breakout Star of 2020’s Purest Rom-Com
The scene-stealer talks to “The Last Laugh” podcast about her breakthrough performance in the holiday rom-com “Happiest Season,” which she co-wrote with her “Veep” co-star.
The first time I saw Mary Holland in action was at the taping for the 500th episode of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast in a cramped recording studio in Hollywood. She played an 8-year-old boy named Tommy Scuzz who walked all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles to be on the show and killed in a room that also included Nick Kroll, Jason Mantzoukas, Paul F. Tompkins and Lauren Lapkus.
“I mean, you really witnessed some madness,” Holland says when I bring up that session during this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast.
Madness has kind of become Holland’s specialty in a series of scene-stealing roles in TV comedies like Veep, in which she played Jonah Ryan’s fiancée Shawnee Tanz and movies like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates where she stood out as the high-strung maid of honor.
Now she’s about to break through in a much bigger way thanks to her transcendent performance as the eccentric Jane in Happiest Season, the new romantic comedy she co-wrote with her Veep co-star Clea DuVall.
Much of the attention the film has received to date surrounds the lesbian relationship between the characters played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis at its center. But what really stands out from watching the film is how much it falls in line with classic holiday rom-coms like Love Actually or The Family Stone.
“It shouldn’t be radical,” Holland says of the love story between two women. ‘And hopefully there’ll be so many more, that this will be the first of so many.”
Happiest Season was among the many film releases this year that were destined for theaters but have landed on streaming services instead. Holland was looking forward to “getting to see it on this big screen with a big audience,” adding, “when it became clear that that could not and should not happen, it was disappointing.”
But when she found out that Hulu would be picking it up—with a premiere the day before Thanksgiving—she says she was excited all over again. “Because so many people are going to be able to see it and they’re going to be able to watch it at home,” Holland adds. “And this is a movie about family and about love and what your home means. So I think it’s really fitting that people will be able to watch it in their most safe space, in their homes.”
Below is an excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
How did you end up not only having this really amazing breakout performance in the movie, but also co-writing the screenplay?
So Clea DuVall and I met on Veep. I had a role in Season 6 and our characters never had any scenes together, but I would go to the table reads. And so I would see her there and we just very quickly connected and had this chemistry with each other. And she’s been writing things on her own for a long time. She had this idea for a Christmas movie that was inspired by her experiences and she wanted to write it with somebody because comedies are always more fun to write with somebody. I really am just so floored that she picked me to do it. Because we didn’t know each other at the time really. We just had this great rapport and one day she just asked me if I wanted to write it with her. And I was like, yes, yes I do!
I mean, you’ve done improv and sketch and all this stuff, but you hadn’t really written a screenplay like that before, right?
No, this was my first experience doing that.
So having not done it before, what was that like for you to all of a sudden be collaborating in that new way?
I mean, I really was so lucky that I was able to partner with Clea on it because Clea is such a phenomenal writer and storyteller and she knows what she’s doing. And also she wanted to direct this movie, so she had this vision for it going into the writing process. So for me, just stepping in and joining her was so easy and organic. Even though it was my first time experiencing this writing process, it for sure never felt overwhelming or daunting or like something that I was out of my depth with. I really felt taken care of by her as a writing partner.
Was it always the plan from the beginning for you to play the character of Jane?
It was. When we were first brainstorming the characters in the family, we knew that we wanted [Mackenzie Davis’ character Harper] to have two sisters and for one of them to be a bit more eccentric.
To say the least.
And as soon as we decided that I was like, ‘Oh, I want to play her.’ And so we really, from the very beginning, we wrote Jane for me. And there’s so many details that are true of me, that we imbued in Jane.
Oh really? Like what?
Well, I’m a huge fan of fantasy fiction. So there’s that. I feel like just her general demeanor, Jane is kind of an amped-up version of me. She's very playful, goofy, very joyful and excited to be in the world. And it’s so much fun also to see the contrast between Jane and this very buttoned-up family that she’s in and watch them try to deal with her and her try to deal with them. There's just inherent comedy in that. But yeah, Jane is very close to my heart.
How much of the writing occurred on set in terms of improvising or coming up with new jokes in the moment? Was that something that you were involved in while playing it?
I will say a lot of making a scene feel alive, where it’s not like you say a line, you say a line, you say a line, where it feels like everybody is living in this scene, a lot of those moments were improvised. For example, with the family in the kitchen when we’re trying to make cookies and I’m trying to help [Alison Brie’s character] Sloan out and she does not want my help. All of that was very much finding those beats in the moment and Clea was helping us craft that. But especially with Jane, because she is so free spirited and so uninhibited, the improvising as Jane just felt very natural. She’s not going to just say her line and then not react anymore in the scene. She’s just so tuned in. So in the moment improvising as her felt very natural.
You have an improv background and have done so much work on TV and movies. I imagine that people often are encouraging you to improv in projects.
Yeah, and even if you don’t end up using whatever takes that have the improv in them, allowing an actor and especially one with an improv background to improvise really helps. It helps me at least relax into a scene and really feel like I have ownership over what I’m doing. I feel like I'm able to settle more into my character’s point of view or the situation that’s happening.
You have an incredible cast in this movie, starting with Kristen Stewart as probably the biggest star in the movie, but also Alison Brie and Dan Levy and so many others. Were you involved in that process at all and how do you feel about how that all came together?
I am floored and over the moon, simultaneously.
Which seems like it might be contradictory, but in this case—
But it’s not, it makes sense, just don’t think about it too much. This cast is so stellar and every single one of them, what they brought to the roles that we had written, it just exceeded every expectation. And they breathe life into these characters and they became these three-dimensional people in a way that was so cool and satisfying to see. Everybody individually is so strong, but then also, the dynamics that were created are so specific and relatable and fun.
It’s really fun to see Kristen in a comedy like this because it’s really not what she's known for.
Yeah, she's so funny in it.
I saw in an interview she joked that she was just trying to keep up with all of the comedy people in the movie. I’m not sure if she was being self-deprecating or if that was accurate, but whenever someone comes in from another world, whether it's hosting Saturday Night Live or in a movie like this, getting thrown in with those heavy-hitting comedy minds can’t be easy.
Yeah, I can imagine that that feels very overwhelming. But she was so up to the task and she was so great. But yeah, I think Clea populating the cast with so many comedy people was smart on many levels and not just because we’re making a comedy. But it’s the kind of playfulness that comedians can bring. It keeps everybody loose and it has this collaborative spirit about it.
Reading some of the early reviews and articles about it, there’s this way that people are describing the movie as radical, which I find so strange because in the way the movie feels and what it is, it really is not that. But because it's a rom-com with two women at the center, that’s how it’s sort of being described. So I’m wondering what you think when you hear people talking about that way.
Yeah, I mean, I agree with you. I feel like this kind of story should be in the rom-com genre. It shouldn’t be radical. And hopefully there’ll be so many more, that this will be the first of so many. But it is a universal story and it’s told through a very specific lens, but the holiday spirit of it, the love story, all of it is so relatable. And holiday movies are so important to us. They really mean a lot to a lot of people. And so I feel like this movie is so special and heartwarming and moving, and I can understand why some people would be like, ‘Oh, it’s radical, it’s flipped, it’s doing all this crazy stuff with the genre.’ But then at the same time, it’s like, well, no, it’s such a pure example of the genre.
Look out for a special bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast later this week featuring ‘How To With John Wilson’ creator and host John Wilson.