When Happy Endings creator David Caspe asked Eliza Coupe to play borderline neurotic perfectionist Jane Kerkovich-Williams—the role that would change her career—she thought he was insane.
“I just laughed,” she remembers. “I thought they were kidding. I was like, ‘In what world do I look like I would play the WASP-y wife?”
As it turns out, Coupe had shown up for the meeting wearing cut-off jean shorts, dark eyeliner, her hair teased to the heavens, and her tattoos proudly on display. Having just played Lily Tomlin’s jezebel of a daughter in an unaired HBO comedy, she assumed that she was going to be auditioning to play Alex on Happy Endings, Jane’s happy-go-lucky, life’s-a-mess-so-why-bother-cleaning-it-up younger sister.
“It’s so funny to me that I’m playing these kinds of characters,” she says. “It’s hilarious to people who knew me when I was growing up. I was all over the place. I was a mess of a person. I was so not this.”
“This” would be another put-together perfectionist, this time in USA’s new comedy Benched, which premieres Tuesday night. This perfectionist, however, has become unhinged—just how Coupe likes it.
She plays Nina Whitley, a corporate lawyer who is passed over for a promotion she thought she was guaranteed after years of selling her soul to her firm on the same day that her ex-boyfriend, who had dumped her because of the aforementioned soul-selling, calls to tell her that he is now engaged to a woman he just met.
When we meet Nina, her cheeks are streaked with tear-stained mascara and her tightly-wound personality is exploding in violent fashion: she begins throwing dishware at her bosses and shattering the firm’s expensive decorations, including a vase gifted from Elton John (which becomes a killer running joke throughout the series’ first few episodes). When the dust settles and shards of broken vase-glass are picked up, the only job Nina can get is a poorly paying one as a public defender.
Because she so brilliantly nailed the part of Jane on Happy Endings, managing to make an obsessive compulsive endearing and escaping all the clichés that tempt such a character, Coupe was flat-out offered Nina in Benched, no audition necessary.
“My manager and I were like, ‘Wait. Why isn’t every female actress on the planet vying for this job?’ They just want to give this to me?’” she says. She remembers, of course, being tantalized by the tantalizing opening breakdown scene. “But then I kept reading and it was like [creator Michaela Watkins] was just taking thoughts and the words I would speak just right out of my head.”
It was more than just dialogue that made the Benched pilot a bit of an art-imitating-life situation for Coupe, though. Just two months after ABC canceled Happy Endings in 2013, the actress was hit with divorce papers by her husband, Randall Whittinghill, after six years of marriage and 13 years together.
“When I had done that [opening breakdown] scene I had been divorced for a year,” she says. “My lawyers were still calling me about the divorce and I was shooting this scene. It was so surreal. I was like, ‘Why is this happening right now?’”
But with a new boyfriend and a brand new show to headline, we chatted with Coupe about her special knack for playing Type A so well, why it’s so different from how she is in her first life, and how weathering a divorce and a sitcom cancellation is leading to a new Happy Ending.
This opening breakdown scene is a great opening scene.
I’m so glad it came out as well as it did. I wasn’t worry about it, because for some reason I just jumped into this character so easily. It felt like Michaela wrote it for me. Maybe it’s because she’s from New England, like I am, and there’s that weird, sardonic sense of humor. That was the first scene we shot. It was like, “Hey, everybody, nice to meet you. I’m going to have a freak out now.” We shot that all day. By the end, I remember going home and just walked into the door and collapsed in my boyfriend’s arms. I was like, “I’m so overwhelmed, oh my god.”
There’s so much physical comedy, too, which I feel like it must be hard for a female actor to find a role with such great physical comedy in it.
I love it. And except for the bigger stuff, I did most of my own things. And the whole time I had broken ankle, when we filmed the whole series.
Oh my god, really?
It was awful. I did it seriously like days before we started shooting.
How did you do it?
I did just a quick tumble down the stairs. It was awful. The stairs to my office are marble, so they’re not very forgiving. And just the sound of that crunch. My god. If you pay attention in some of the first episodes of the season my ankle is the size of a softball and they have to try not to show my feet. In every shot that’s not below my knees I’m like in a cast or some ice is wrapped around my foot or just my Uggs or something. It’s funny. I’m in this nice lawyer clothing and then I’m wearing booties underneath. I couldn’t walk.
In episode two you’re at a charity dinner in a gorgeous gown and high heels. That must have been so painful!
Oh my god it was the most painful thing. My ankle—I never got to fix it, because I still had to walk on it in heels. It still bothers me. There’s only a few full-body shots of me in that episode. The rest is me in Uggs with the dress wrapped around my knees. I look like a weird homeless homecoming queen.
I know that you were recently divorced before you started shooting it. I would gather that in real life you weren’t throwing glasses at your co-workers and shattering a vase given to your boss by Elton John when the divorce came to pass. But how much of your own life could you channel for Nina’s breakdown in that opening scene?
Oh god. I used all of it. Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t say that I’m method by any stretch of the imagination. But I do go full-on with everything that I’m doing and whatever it takes to get there I use. It’s not necessarily like, “Oh my god. I’m going into this really dark place.” It’s like, “OK. What do I have to relate to this?” It’s hard for me to watch actors when they’re just putting it on. When you see something’s really real, then you can see all the layers. I didn’t realize that until this part. It’s opened me as an actor so much.
So shooting it hit close to home?
When I had done that scene I had been divorced for a year. My lawyers were still calling me about the divorce and I was shooting this scene. It was so surreal. I was like, “Why is this happening right now?” But I was like I’ll take it. It’s great. I’ll use it. So definitely in that breakdown I used every bit of my personal life. Like, “Wow. I remember how this felt. This, too. I know that feeling.” I really did just pour it all into that. And I’m on great terms with my ex-husband, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a divorce.
I was reading a profile of you that was written a few years ago and was surprised to learn that you were a pretty intense ice hockey player when you were growing up.
Yeah. That is still, to this day, my favorite sport. It’s funny. I went back to play last winter, because I’m from New Hampshire. So we might as well be Canadian, with our hockey influence. But that’s what we did, we went down to the rink to play. I was like, “Wow! I’ve gotten better!” As you get older, all your motor skills are sharper. Everything is sharper. When you’re younger, you’re trying to figure out what this body is, with puberty and everything. I mean I was good, but I wasn’t very precise. I was just kind of a brute on the ice. I was much bigger. I was heavier then. Then when I went back this past winter, I was like, “Oh my god. Now is when I should’ve been playing. Forget acting I’m going to see what I can do about this!”
An unexpected second act.
But yeah, growing I played, mostly on a men’s team. It was men and women, but there was only one other girl on my team.
That must shape you in an interesting way…
You do have to be tough. I grew up with two brothers and then all my brothers’ friends, who are basically like brothers. And then my dad, who’s like another brother, because he’s just awesome. And then my mother, who’s not a real girlie girl. She can hang with the guys, too. It just makes you a real interesting person. And then I would change in the locker room with the boys.
Stop. You didn’t.
Until at one point my dad was like, “OK, we’re going to change you to a girls’ team now…” So then I went on to a girls’ team. It was so exhausting. There’s no checking! And people were literally, like, after the game, “I’m so serious that I was a little rough out there.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? I wanted to punch you in the face. Why are you apologizing to me right now?” And then I tried to play field hockey and was constantly getting the whistle blown because you I kept using the other side of the stick, which you can’t do in field hockey and is really annoying.
Not to psychoanalyze, but it’s probably not an accident, then, that after that you play all these tough women on TV.
Absolutely. I think that growing up the way that I did and being around so many guys, I would just be going up the stairs and my brothers would just be on each side of me ready to body-check me. It was just survival. You were made fun of if you acted a certain way. It was that whole mentality of, “OK, you might be a girl, but we’re not going to treat you like one.” But as I’ve gotten older, like now, in my life, I want to embrace being a girl. I like playing these characters, but I’ve been a tomboy all my life.
But that’s the great thing. These characters are tough, but they’re also feminine. And though they’re put together, they’re not uptight robots. They have emotional problems, and real emotions.
Again, not to keep bringing up New England, but a lot of that is where I grew up, and seeming like you’re put together on the outside when you are crumbling on the inside. The one thing that I like about my characters is that, yes, they seem to be really put together on the outside and, yes, they may be crumbling on the inside, but they’re still really good people. They’re still always trying to better themselves.
You can see that with Nina, definitely, in the first few episodes.
That was the other thing that attracted me to this role. With most TV characters, especially in sitcoms, most of the defects of the character are reset by the end of the episode, so that we have something to watch every week. That happens with Benched, but at the same time I feel like there’s actually some progress being made and some change happening and lessons being learned. Even though it seems like a lot of the same situations coming up in each episode, it’s not going unnoticed with this character, and I think she’s taking it all in. I think there’s some progress each week. When you watch the whole season, there is some serious growth.
A label that people so often use to describe the characters you’ve played on Scrubs and Happy Endings and Benched as “Type A,” which makes them seem like awful people who you wouldn’t want to be around. But you find something in them to make them likable and people you do want to spend more than five minutes with.
Thank you. That means a lot to me. And as you say that, I’m kind of like, “Oh yeah. I guess I kind of do do that.” It’s so funny to me that I’m playing these kinds of characters. It’s hilarious to people who knew me when I was growing up. I was all over the place. I was a mess of a person. I was so not this. It just makes me laugh every time I see myself in these corporate suit things. Underneath I have tattoos everywhere. I just laugh. Especially playing Jane. When I walked in to meet David Caspe and those guys, I was wearing cut-off jean shorts and eyeliner and had my hair teased up and all these tattoos. And they were like, “We want you to play Jane,” and I just laughed. I thought they were kidding. I was like, “In what world do I look like I would play the WASP-y wife?”
Were you surprised that you were so good at it then?
I was! It was weird because I think I am all of those things. But I think that as I’ve gotten older I’ve ignored the fact that maybe I am somebody who is organized and in control. It was a really surprising thing. I will say that my ex-husband really helped me find that character. He coached me for Jane. He was like, “You’ve got this.” It was a hard character to find. Those characters weren’t as well defined.
Damon [Wayans Jr., who played Jane’s husband, Brad] and I wanted to make them more interesting and unique, so we would go through the script and text each other, “Let’s do this. Let’s make them the most sexual couple ever.” We would just do it, and they would be like, “Great. Now can you do a take where you don’t do that?” And we were like nope. Because we knew if we did that take that they wanted they would use it. We wanted these characters to be crazy. And with no disrespect, we were like, “We promise you this will make these characters more interesting.” But that character was really hard to find. They ended up putting Jane in long sleeves after a while because I ended up getting all these tattoos. I was like, sorry guys, I’m not this character in real life.
I was just reading a nice USA Today piece about how the cast of Happy Endings has all landed on different projects that are coming out now. I hope you don’t take this wrong way, but I was sort of expecting this moment to happen sooner. I thought everyone would be on something else immediately, because everyone was so great.
I am surprised, too. I can only speak for myself, but I really wanted to wait for something special. After being on such a special show, you don’t want to take just anything after that. That’s why I turned down some things. I could’ve been on something right away, but it wouldn’t have been something honoring where I want to go in my career. I’ve never worked with a group of more talented people in my life than I did on that show. I’m so happy for everyone. I’m just so proud of them, and so excited for them. I am surprised that it didn’t happen sooner. But I also know that we are all very picky.