Until recently, Artemis Pebdani was one of the best kept secrets on television.
Since 2004, Artemis has appeared on a diverse array of network and cable television in supporting roles including Ugly Betty, Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother. However, it was in her recurring role as Artemis Dubois on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that the actress has been able to flex her comedic and dramatic muscles. With just one line, whether about her bleached asshole or conspiratorial fervor over who pooped the bed, Artemis has proven herself time and again, lending an air of eccentricity to an already eclectic cast.
Heartbreakingly absent from It’s Always Sunny’s 10th season, Artemis may return in the future. As the most frequent guest star (who isn’t either an executive producer on the show or married to a member of the main cast), her contributions to the series have been an indelible part of its brilliance.
Artemis grew up in Texas as one of the few Iranian families in her neighborhood. As a result, she was always excited whenever she met someone else of Iranian descent, unleashing her unique brand of high energy overfamiliarity (“You’re Iranian?! ME, TOO!! Let’s speak Farsi and do you actually know all of your cousins’ names and have you tried bacon?”).
But in 2014, the first year without a Sunny since the show premiered, the actress was almost inescapable. Over the summer, she appeared in IFC’s Garfunkel and Oates, had a role alongside Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape, fleetingly appeared on Scandal as a campaign manager for a candidate in need of some Olivia Pope style fixing, danced with the New Kids on the Block, and joined the cast of Showtime’s Masters of Sex as Flo Packer.
In the role of Flo, Artemis brought a screwball energy to the 1960s period drama that rivaled even the great Rosalind Russell and Claudette Colbert (had the two been unrestricted by the Hays Code). Her pairing with Edward Sear’s Dr. Austin Langham was an iconoclastic subversion of televisual sex and gender roles almost unmatched on cable television.
The Daily Beast spoke with Artemis about acting, television, and growing up in Texas.
How did you get involved with It’s Always Sunny?
When the Sunny boys were filming their infamous $200 pilot, I was living with Mary Elizabeth Ellis [The Waitress] who was dating Charlie Day. The show was called It’s Always Sunny on Television at the time, and the guys were playing similar assholes to the ones they currently play, but they were actors instead of bar owners.
What was the show like in those early stages?
In that particular incarnation of the pilot, they sent out a “casting call” for a movie or something, but really they were just looking for hot girls. I was one of the auditioners who responded, but instead of showing up in a bikini, super serious actor, Artemis Dubois, performed the crap out of a dramatic monologue—cancer and wigs and bald caps and a surprise suicide twist all in about 2 minutes. Acting to win, anyone?
So you were an actor auditioning for the part of an actor playing an actor?
Of all the recurring character types in my career so far—madams, drunks, psychics, your boss—not one lies more snuggly buggly in my heart than that of an actor. Mother effer, I love playing an actor almost more than I love being one—if it were possible to separate the two.
What was your reaction to the initial announcement that Sunny would be ending? And what were your feelings when it was extended for another two seasons?
Gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever had to sit with the thought that Sunny would end. I mean, yes, for a while it looked like there would only be ten seasons, but the announcement that it was extended for two more came before season ten even started shooting.
On a purely selfish level, I was elated to find out that Sunny would continue, because that means the possibility of future work for me, making it less likely that I would have to tie up my patchwork bindle and head back to H-town anytime soon. (“Bindle”—that’s the word for a hobo’s luggage, right?) On a differently selfish level, I’m happy that there will be more episodes of Sunny in the ethers, lying in wait to comfort me when I just want to watch good, funny TV.
If the show were to end, what do you think would be the appropriate finale for Artemis?
I think the best possible ending for Artemis would be to become a secret agent or spy of some sort. That would combine her loves of play-acting and dangerful living in a most satisfying way. If hallucinogens could find their way into the equation, that would be ideal.
Are there any spoilers you can give us for Season 3 of Masters of Sex?
Girl, I don’t know shit about what’s happening in Season 3. I’m just an actor, and that translates to “I’m the last to know about anything.” But if Michelle Ashford and the funky bunch stick to the series of events in the book, everyone gets older and eventually dies.
What is it like working in more dramatic scenes?
Usually, the characters that I’ve played are who they are before the camera starts rolling. They come on screen, they flash and trash and duck out. Playing Flo on Masters was the first opportunity I’ve had to live a character throughout a season who, whether she likes it or not, worked on and was affected by a relationship, however hard to define. But that’s the brilliance of EVERY damn relationship in Masters of Sex, right? Every single one shuns the comforts of a black and white dynamic and sits bare-assed in the middle of a muddy grey.
In the first season of Masters of Sex, viewers saw Allison Janney play against Edward Sears where they were both venturing into new territory (her first extramarital affair, his first attempt at a serious relationship). In the second season, it seems like the reverse is true where your character is teaching him both the literal business (in the form of the diet pill operation) and how to be the lover you want.
First off, though you didn’t ask me, and though it’s not like Allison Janney needs another person to say it, how GD amazing was her performance as Margaret Scully on Masters? I mean—it’s just beyond words. Trust me, I tried, and then I deleted them all.
God bless Teddy Sears. He’s a thoughtful and smart actor and the best scene partner I could ask for in this situation. Austin’s a funny character to begin with, and it would be easy for his and Flo’s relationship to get stuck in a cartoonish corner of “aggressor and victim,” but playing with Teddy helped keep me out of the very easy trap of leaning into comic relief.
And how does that compare to the comedic scenes you play with someone like Danny DeVito?
Danny DeVito, similar to Teddy, is a hugely generous partner, but the scenes we play together are hard to compare. Frank and Artemis are alike in that they are grotesque and hedonistic characters that are not much in the way of thoughtful discussion, but more about reveling in the experience at hand. The word “tactile” comes to mind. Acting opposite Danny as Frank feels kind of like a dare. “Oh, are we open-mouth-full-of-food-making-out now? Yeah, we are.” “Oh, and we’re humming while we do it? YES.” This is also an elevation, just a way different kind.
You were one of the five women named in Complex.com’s Top 25 Most Underrated Sitcom Characters. If you could populate a series with your favorite guest characters, who would you include in the main cast? And what would you call the show?
I didn’t realize there were only five ladies on that list. Also, it’s pretty badass to be listed among Carla from Cheers and any character from Three’s Company.
If I had to do a series with my favorite guest characters—just from Sunny, right? My mind freezes up if I try to think of my favorite characters in everything, ever—let’s see, there’s Liam and Ryan McPoyle (Jimmi Simpson and Nate Mooney), for sure. Definitely Maureen and Bill Ponderosa (Catherine Reitman and Lance Barber). Gail the Snail (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Charlie’s and Mac’s moms (Lynne Marie Stewart and Sandy Martin), hell yes. Z (Chad L. Coleman) is scary and necessary. The Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis)—you always need a straight person who trips over to the dark side now and then. Uncle Jack (Andrew Friedman) and his tiny hands, of course. Cricket (David Hornsby), duh. The dude who played the rapper/retarded person that Dee dated (Kyle Davis as Lil’ Kev)—he was awesome. Frank’s whoore-friend (Alanna Ubach) who described a jacket as “tighter than dick skin”—she’s in. Man, I’m sure there are more, and when I think of them, they’re all going in my show. And I will call that show, “Cyborg-Shark Disco-Fight.” Or maybe, “Double Cyborg-Shark Disco-Fight.” Time will tell.
Who are some of the people in your business that you view as role models/inspirations? In particular, what are some of the lessons they taught you?
Maybe I’m just in a Sunny frame of mind, but let’s talk Rob, Glenn, and Charlie for a second. They were actors who weren’t getting the kind of work they wanted, so they made it for themselves. The story’s been told a bajillion times, but when you really think on it—Double U. Tee. Eff, y’all. They had did it. Way to go, dudes. I know they didn’t invent the idea of the actor/writer/producer, but they sure reminded a whole generation of TV that it’s a viable game.
What were some of your first acting jobs?
My first acting job came at 17, where I performed in a theme park. Oh, it counts. Then I also did a lot of little gigs as various characters at parties: psychics, 1920s shoeshine boys, rich eccentrics, stuff like that. This just happened to be a job that kept coming up. Even when I moved to Los Angeles after Physical Theatre School (or as everyone but clowns calls it, “Clown School"), my first gig was playing a Commedia character at a shmancy fundraiser in Beverly Hills. I don’t remember which character though, and that’s what makes me a bad actor.
What is the first role you remember?
The summer after my senior year of high school, I got my first big acting gig playing Belle Star in Miss Lillie’s Red Garter Revue at Six Flags Astroworld (RIP) in Houston, TX. 5 shows a day, 6 on the weekends. We played in the “Crystal Palace,” which in the off-season was called the “Cow Palace” and hosted a show of gun-slinging animatronic farm animals with whom we shared our backstage and dressing-rooms.
I admit that as we sang suggestive songs and can-canned in our bustiers and fishnets, it did not once occur to me that we were in a brothel. Perhaps I wasn’t as diligent in analyzing scripts that early on in my career. It wasn’t until my older sister’s friend brought her 6-year-old nephew to the show and then called my sister to chew her out about how inappropriate it was for children that I even thought twice about the “through-line” of the show.
It’s amazing how many “family themed” entertainments are sanitized versions that barely conceal risqué places. And how the non-stop flow of visitors at amusement parks can be great training for artists. What was your characters role in the show?
Mainly, I, Belle Star, proprietor of the saloon, would sing a song or two and do crowd-work for a half an hour with a long-john-and-overalled piano player as we waited for Miss Lillie (lead whore, good hair) to arrive on the train (or buggy?) with the other girls and Guy Masterson to commence the more tightly scripted part of the revue. Most of the rest of my memories of the actual show are a blur of bloomers and feathers and worn-out character shoes.
Fun fact: this role set a career precedent for me as it was the first of many drunks and/or madams that I have played and, God willing, will play in the future.
In an interview with Heeb Magazine you mentioned that your parents are conservative but that you keep it respectable around them (not cursing around them, etc.). Are your performances a reaction to that conservatism? How did that character develop?
Huh. Maybe? Maybe my “performance” or sense of humor or general career path is a reaction to that conservatism? Honestly, I’ve never really thought of it in those terms. In the end, I really like acting, I kind of like writing, and the things I think are funny are just the things I think are funny. I’ve always had a little darkness in my being. Maybe a blue tinge. When I was ten, my mother caught me sitting alone and drawing a cartoon that was a parody of those Hairclub for Men/ “Not just the president…” commercials. It was for pubic hair transplants. I have no idea why I thought that was so funny that I had to risk putting it on paper in physical form, but I do remember that I told my mom that Jalynne McDonald paid me $5 to do it. She didn’t.
And what drew you to acting?
Are you kidding me? With a face like this, how could I not pursue a career on camera?
Also, when I was in sixth grade, I wanted to take Art, but the school I moved to smushed that elective with “Music” and “Speech” as well. “Music” meant choir, and “Speech” meant standing up and talking in front of people. Not to brag, but I was pretty good at standing up and talking in front of people—at the same time, no less. Sooooo… after that occurred a natural progression of events, the result of which is the woman before you.
How do you navigate what can be an antagonistic attitude toward Iranians in the U.S.?
Being an Iranian kid in the 1980s, well, that wasn’t the easiest. I’m fair complexioned, so it would have been easier if I had just kept my mouth shut about being Iranian, but I didn’t, so I received my share of “antagonism” at an early age. Now I am older, and I mostly get to choose who I am surrounded by, and I choose not-bigots.
Has that changed since you moved from Texas to California?
Nowadays, living as an actor in Los Angeles, I feel my racial issues (so many, many racial issues) lay very much in the realm of not being brown enough. I am a character actor, so I’ve done a lot of swimming around in the “best friend” pool where casting directors would often be looking for “all ethnicities,” which means “people of color,” which means I’d show up to those auditions and there’d be a whole lot of “what’s this white girl doing here?” Luckily, I think that’s changing, not just for me (I’m considering tanning to a soft Puerto Rican bronze), but also in that actors “of color” get to play more than just “best friends,” and that’s cool, because I’ve heard this rumor that it’s 2015.