Lizzy Caplan lives next door to Audrina Patridge.
It’s a perfect juxtaposition—both actresses present such opposite poles of young Hollywood. Caplan being a sardonic, 26-year-old tomboy with strong features, a biting wit, and an eagle-eye for picking interesting and talent-stretching projects, and Patridge being the bikini-clad sidekick on MTV’s faux-reality drama The Hills. While Patridge floats around the velvet ropes with cameras in tow, Caplan, who stars in the new Starz sitcom Party Down, admittedly “flies under the radar” as one of Hollywood’s funniest, sharpest, and most laid-back young talents. Not that she doesn’t wish she could make the occasional cameo on The Hills: “My roommates and I sometimes lie out on our balcony in bikinis when they are filming,” she jokes. “Who knows? Could be my big break.”
“I don’t pay much attention to the beautiful people, which is why I probably get calls from my agent telling me I can’t wear my pajamas to auditions”
Of course, Caplan’s real big break has already occurred—she played the memorable Janis Ian (goth chick, possible lesbian, outcast) in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls opposite Lindsay Lohan in 2005, and had a minor role in Judd Apatow’s first TV effort, Freaks and Geeks. “It’s lucky for me that Judd’s back,” she says of the Frat Pack auteur. “I still have cred from doing that part, and it was ten years ago.”
And yet, despite all of that cred, Caplan is constantly auditioning and always working, about as A-list as indie comic actresses go. “A lot of people want to be way famous, and there is a certain amount of integrity in admitting that. Everyone secretly wants that,” she says. “But I don’t, not right now. Sure, I would love to be in contention for the roles that the upper echelon girls are. On the real, I don’t think anyone considers me to be hugely famous at this point.”
In part because Caplan isn’t out every night at Les Deux, baring her tan lines, or actively courting the media—“I’m not a huge clubber” she says, easily italicizing the word over the phone. “I grew up here, and so it feels like my hometown and not this playground. I really have a totally normal life. I’m lying on my bed right now, looking at my ceiling in my bedroom, and the water heater just exploded and it's disgusting. That’s pretty much what I’m working with here.”
What’s not totally normal about Caplan is her body of work, which is long and full for an actress in her early career. She’s been working back-to-back jobs for ten years, including starring roles in the short-lived television shows Related and The Class (“Being on canceled shows is sort of my thing”). She was attacked by a mutant alien in a subway station in one of J.J. Abrams more horrific Cloverfield scenes, and played a convincing junkie in a multiple-episode arc of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood in 2008. Caplan even popped up as singer Jason Mraz’ love interest in his music video for “You and I Both”, and lent her voice to Seth McFarlane’s American Dad as Debbie, an overweight goth girl who skips out on gym class. In other words, girl has worked, and consistently, and with some of the best creative minds in the business. She has made quirky choices, but it may work in her favor in an industry that ultimately rewards longevity and versatility over the sugar rush of new fame.
Party Down is another outlaw career move. “A lot of people don’t have [Starz],” she says, “But you should get it, if for no other reason, than to watch this show!” The series follows six actors/writers/dancers in Los Angeles who work day jobs as cater waiters, and films their misadventures in a cinema verite style (like The Office). “Each episode is a new party,” Caplan explains. “And it’s very R-rated. Because Starz is a fledgling network, we were given a huge amount of freedom. We could say fuck and show naked people, and we’re not pandering to any audience. We don’t have to be rushing to see ratings every week which is just brutal and terrible.”
And up next, she will play an outlaw—literally—in the Western The Last Rights of Ransom Pride opposite country legends Dwight Yoakam and Kris Kristofferson. “It’s a violent, rock ’n’ roll Western, and you know it’s rock ‘n’ roll because Jason Priestley’s in it,” she jokes. “But I always wanted to ride a horse and carry a gun, you know? And I always want to do things I haven’t done before. If it fails, it fails. But at least I’m doing something new.”
“I don’t know if I have the right to be as selective as I am about roles,” she goes on. “But I find any time I’ve taken a job for any other reason than I loved the character, I have really regretted it. This is such a specific thing to choose to do with your life, and I think you should believe in it, which is maybe a little cheesy. But then, if I haven’t worked in a month, you can be sure I’ll lose my mind and walk around in my housedress talking to the cats.”
Caplan keeps talking as she walks out to her car, and notices the Audrina crews and “the throngs of hot men” that populate her neighborhood. “I live among too many beautiful people,” she sighs. “But I don’t pay much attention to it, which is why I probably get calls from my agent telling me I can’t wear my pajamas to auditions.”
And if she ever starts to act like her next-door neighbor? “My family is nearby, so they have a low tolerance for bullshit on my end," Caplan says. “People are here to make sure my head never gets too large. They are always waiting in the wings, ready to burst my bubble.”
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.