An Interview with Bad Teacher’s Ari Graynor

Bad Teacher debuted a couple of weeks back, and in the lead up to this evening’s third episode of the series, we had the chance to chat with star Ari Graynor. In the interview below, we discuss her foray into TV comedy, her character, Meredith, and balancing laughs with the more human moments on the show.

I was really excited to see you taking on this role. After watching the first episode, I noticed that while it’s funny, it still has a lot of heart. I was wondering if you could chat a little bit about balancing the overt laughs with the more endearing aspects of the show.

For me, that is the sweet spot of comedy, when it balances the humor and a sense of soul. I think often the funniest moments in life and in the comedy that I respond to comes from a place of pathos and certainly from a place in reality. I think that’s one of the things I’ve been really conscious of in my work even though I didn’t set out ever to be a comedian or focus on comedy. I think that what I look for in all the comedy that I do — Nick and Norah or For a Good Time, Call… or Bad Teacher — is the balance between the funny moments and the heart, and a lot of time it’s the comedy coming out of those moments. I think one-liners are a dime a dozen. There are a lot of people who can write jokes, but to create a world and to create characters that are funny because of who they are and how they’re interacting, I think that’s a much harder thing to do. That’s what just struck me so much when I first read this script. Hilary [Winston], who is our creator and showrunner, just hit that note in such a perfect way.

I think a lot of it too comes from the characters. I love Meredith. So even when she’s doing outrageous, ridiculous things, I completely understand where it’s coming from within her and not, at least trying not to comment on it, but just be fully in it and invested in her behavior. No one thinks they’re a bad person. Even those that are doing the worst things have a reason for doing it, or think they’re in the right. I think that’s a big part of selling Meredith’s actions. She’s an underdog herself and that helps to balance some of that stuff.

I like that it was firmly established very quickly that Meredith is a champion for the underdog, and becomes a mentor to these young girls. Do you think Meredith sees herself as a big sister, or even a mother figure to these girls?

I think she probably doesn’t define it in those terms. If anything, like in last week’s episode when she’s trying to date her friend Bronwen’s dad, referring to them as being “best friends,” I think for her the world of motherhood probably feels very far away. What’s so funny about her being a mentor or friends with these girls is she’s sort of a child herself in many ways. I think the dynamic is so funny in that these kids in many ways are more mature than she is. Part of her not caring about what other people think is just being open to people that are around her, because she’s not trying to be anything except for what she is. She’s open to these girls and who they are and how they understand her, and I think probably she was a lot like them as a kid. It was always really clear to me and Hilary, and maybe it was because I was like that as a kid too, so I automatically bring my own sense of the world in playing Meredith. She was probably a nerdy kid and maybe she was made fun of and she’s had to struggle her whole life so she really gets that in other people. The relationship between her and the young girls is one of my favorite parts of the show.

Can you share a bit more with us about working with these amazing young girls on the show?

I started acting when I was 7. I wasn’t doing film and TV then, it was all theater, and I was always the youngest amongst adults, and basically everything that I’ve learned as an actor came from watching the adults that I was surrounded by. I think in that way it’s really exciting for me to be on the other side of it with them and to not infantilize them. Those kids are so great and so smart, and they’re also real kids. Our three safety patrol girls — Sara, Grace and Maddie — they’re real kids. In between takes, they’re being hilarious with each other. When we’re setting up a scene, we find that we’re having conversations similar to what Meredith is having with [their characters]. It’s really lovely for me to be able to engage with them in the way that so many adults engaged with me when I was young.

I really enjoy the kind of unlikely friendship that has started to develop between Meredith and Irene (Sara Gilbert), and I suspect that they will be getting into some hijinks together. What can you tease about what’s in store for this duo?

This week’s episode actually has to do with the friendship between Meredith and Irene. I think that Irene is so anxious to be friends with Meredith, and Meredith can take that for granted. This episode actually has a really fun story about the young girls pointing out to Irene that Meredith is taking advantage of her, and they’re trying to get Irene to stand up for herself. It’s really funny how that plays out, and it’s also really true in friendship dynamics sometimes, maybe not as extreme as Meredith and Irene, but there are subtle power shifts and sometimes you don’t realize if you are being taken advantage of or accidentally taking advantage of someone else’s good nature.

This isn’t the first series that revolves around a character who is essentially living a lie. Would you say that the appeal of Bad Teacher is based in the day-to-day challenges as your character tries to keep that secret, or more in the stories that arise because Meredith has put herself in that situation?

I think it’s definitely much more the latter, the what happens now that she’s in this world. It’s refreshing to me because, for instance in a lot of romantic comedy movies, the big conflict comes from finding out that someone’s been lying and that’s the thing that has to be resolved, which is an easy out. I think that all of the other things that happen in life, and especially on this show that happen with Meredith as she’s becoming a part of this world whether she wants to or not. She always kind of has one foot out the door, but at the same time she can’t help but become engaged with where she is, and that to me is much more satisfying to watch. Another thing that comes up in this week’s episode is where they’re being evaluated as teachers. Of course she’s not a real teacher, but I think she ends up feeling like she has more invested in that than she ever would have thought. I think that’s really true in life that sometimes we end up in places that we have no intention of being and we don’t really want to be there, but it becomes our life and we really start to care about it.

Catch Ari Graynor in Bad Teacher, Thursdays at 9:30/8:30c on CBS, and at 9:30pm ET/PT on Global TV in Canada.

Photo Courtesy of CBS

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