Rachael Harris is not a bitch.
That's important to clarify right off the bat, because you just might have the wrong impression of the Surviving Jack star. Before landing the role as the warm, but mischievous, mother in the '90s-set ABC sitcom, Harris has made a career out of playing the kind of sharp-tongued, caustic characters that you relish watching on TV and in movies but wouldn't be able to handle spending two minutes in the same room with in real life. You know, for the sake of your self-esteem.
With a knack for a piercing side-eye and shattering deadpan, Harris has played versions of the fast-talking spewer of verbal daggers (to hilarious effect, we might add) in TV series including The Daily Show, Reno 911!, Fat Actress, Notes From the Underbelly, New Girl, and, most recently, Suits. And, of course, she's best known for her ball-busting tour de force as Ed Helms's wife in The Hangover.
Given our sneaking suspicion that someone which such sharpened comedy chops is capable of so much more, Surviving Jack is a refreshing and welcome change of pace--and for more reasons that one.
In the new series, Harris plays Joanne, the matriarch of a suburban family who shakes up the order of things when she decides to go to law school, leaving her husband Jack, played by Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU), as the dad-out-of-water in charge. At its heart, the show is a coming-of-age comedy in the vein of The Wonder Years, a nostalgia-driven comedy set in the '90s about a teenage boy coming of age in the age before Google--and with a mortifying dad, no less.
For a generation now spending their work days procrastinating with Buzzfeed quizzes about their pop-culture past and passing endless time with friends fawning over the Trapper Keepers and Koosh balls and classic sitcoms from their '90s childhoods, Surviving Jack is a comedy-filled trip down memory lane. (Tonally, it's like Modern Family bathed in nostalgia.) And not only does the show finally give Harris a chance to prove (at least to those who didn't see her brilliant work in the indie Natural Selection) that she can still be wily and hilarious while tempering down the 'tude, but it also upends the tired sitcom trope of “harpy wife + oafish husband = comedy laughs.”
Ahead of Surviving Jack's premiere, we had a fun, frank chat with Harris about outgrowing the “bitch” typecasting, the novelty of playing half a sitcom couple that actually likes each other, and just how tragic she was herself in the '90s.
As someone named Kevin, I have a soft spot for anything with that warm, nostalgic vibe that made The Wonder Years so great, and that's totally what I get watching Surviving Jack.
Me too! That makes me so happy to hear you say that.
So you also get that throwback vibe from the show?
Mhmm. Yea, I didn't want it to be a typical sitcom. You know, just like, I won't reference any, but you know what I'm talking about. Like those family sitcoms that are just kind of…But this is more nostalgic just in the fact that it takes place in 1991, that's when we start. I liked that it's very real and that the kids are real. Everyone's not very stereotypical. Everybody's flawed in some way. And I like that Jack and Joanne really like each other. I think that they represent a really real couple. You can tell that they actually have sex, that they actually like each other, they fight.
We're so used to seeing in sitcoms the same relationship: the naggy, shrill wife who's constantly bickering with her husband. It's really refreshing that this is nothing like that.
Exactly, it's usually that the guy is kind of an idiot and his wife's a bitch. Where they don't really like each other and a lot of times you're thinking, how would this guy end up with this woman? Like why is he wildly unattractive and she's super hot?
Yes! It's the most frustrating sitcom-y trope ever.
Like I kind of like that Chris is super hot, like so hot on Oz and Law & Order, and in this he's a bit frumpier. And don't get me wrong, I'm obviously super hot… but I think that we're a really believable couple. And I like that it's not just like Chris Meloni with a 24-year-old wife, which is what we see a lot of.
What's it like working with him? I mean I've never met a Law & Order: SVU marathon I didn't get sucked into. Are you a big SVU fan?
Well I had to be completely honest with Chris and tell him I can't watch those shows. It's scary and too depressing for me. And I said that I know and then I said, "I have to be honest with you, our show's going to be a lot more fun." And he laughed and agreed. But I knew Chris, the first time I saw him was when he was so insane in Wet Hot American Summer and he was humping refrigerators. So I knew what he's capable of doing and that he has a really fun side to him. And you know the best thing about working with Chris is that he is relentless in trying to make things funny.
A lot of people who might know Chris from either Law & Order or True Blood are surprised to see this lighter side for him. But I feel like it's also sort of a change of pace for people who are used to you. For example, I first became aware of you from watching Notes From the Underbellly and then The Hangover. This seems like a much warmer character for you to be playing than people are used to.
Yeah. And that was one of the things that I love about Joanne because, again, it's usually the woman that's like, the really hardcore bitch. I loved that Chris's character is kind of the--I'm looking for a different word--but he's the dick in our relationship. He's the one who's laying down the law and I do have a much warmer approach. And you know, she's a fully fleshed out character and I did love that she is much warmer and compassionate and also very funny. Because usually the relationships that I had in Notes From the Underbelly and in The Hangover and everything I'm really caustic to the man who I'm involved with. So this was a great opportunity for me to show that I can still be funny and be warm and compassionate.
Why do you think that until know you have been cast as the caustic wife in other pieces?
You know I think it's just because that was--The Hangover was a really huge success, and when people see you in something it's just the natural order of things that they go, "Oh she does this." Where if you see a film that I did called Natural Selection it's completely not at all like any of those other characters. It's very funny and very heartwarming. I'm just interested in doing more things that are different than playing those characters and I think you just get pigeonholed into doing those roles until you say I'm not going to do that anymore.
Did you say that, that you're not going to do those characters anymore?
It's scary because people are asking you to do things. And as an actor you want to work. But in order to change the tide you have to be willing to do things that aren't what you've always done in the past. And there's many different reasons for why you do certain things. Sometimes you need a roof on your house. Or you want to work with somebody in particular. Like I'm doing Bad Words with Jason Bateman and Jason asked if I would do that and I didn't care what role it was, I was like, "Whatever you want me to do, I'll do.” And that role kind of went along the lines of what I've done in the past, but there was no way I was going to say no to him. I'm like how high do you want me to jump, you know? So there's many different reasons why you do things, but I'm actively pursuing the warmer, nicer people.
So does it bother you when people, say, come up to you and quote The Hangover?
Oh no. Are you kidding me? I love it.
Does it happen often?
Lately, it's been a lot of recognition for Suits. But yeah, people usually go, “Oh my gosh!” People don't always know why they recognize me and it takes a minute, and then they go, "Ohhhh." First it's like, "Oh," and then, "Ohhhhh." And then they're like, "You're not really mean at all!" Which I always find funny because it's like, I'm an actor. I'd be horrible person if I was like these characters in real life.
One of the fun things about Surviving Jack is that the '90s is now like a period piece. There's so much fun '90s fashion and kitschy cultural references. So I'm curious what were you like in the '90s? Do you remember what weird trends and fads you were into?
Well here's the thing about the fashion on our show: I look better in '90s fashion than I do in current fashion. I don't know what that's about, but like the dresses, the way they're cut, maybe. I don't know if you know what a shelf-belt is, but it's a belt…Like you have a dress on, and the belt is made in the exact same fabric as the dress. And it's called a shelf-belt. And it tends to make everything look like one long line. So I have shoulder pads, and everything's all one color, or all one pattern, it makes me look really tall.
But getting to your question about what I was like in the '90s, Kate Moss was so prevalent in the '90s. And I was living in New York, like '91 and '92, and I was wearing Doc Martens, black tights, and big baby doll dresses. With lots of eyeliner, black eyeliner, and like Blondie hair.
Did you pull it off?
Yeah I did! I mean it was kind of, I was really short, and those women are models. I mean I guess I only wore the jeans that were high waisted and acid-washed. And I had the blonde, bobbed hair with like really high bangs that went super high. Like I don't even know if I can describe it to you, because it went super high, with big earrings. Like big plastic earrings. There were a lot of crop tops, and a lot of high waisted jeans. The jeans look wasn't so great for me but like the mom's dresses with the shoulder pads and the big sweaters… but we were all wearing crazy things.
I had one random last question. On your Wikipedia page, it said that in college you majored in theater and "blazing it." Any idea what that's about?
Whaaat? What is blazing it?
I can't imagine. Is that, like, a smoking weed thing? Or just being really hip and cool? No idea.
Oh my god, that is fantastic. We have to look into that. I haven't been to my Wikipedia page in at least an hour. No I'm kidding, I haven't been in a long time! That's so funny. I'm terrified of weed! I did it in college once or twice and I was so paranoid I was like I'm never going to do this again. So "blazing it" is not…I think somebody just got on there and added something crazy. If "blazing it" means "obsessed with Blazing Saddles," then I was definitely blazing it. I'll look that up right now. Good thing you informed me of this. Wouldn't that be so great if I was like a big stoner. Like yea, I was blazing it. So weird.
**Rachael Harris's Wikipedia page has, since this interview, been updated to reflect that she did not, indeed, major in "blazing it." Her answers to our questions about it, however, remain just as charming.