The Character Actor Who Deserves a Lead Role: An Interview with Elizabeth Marvel

An interview with Elizabeth Marvel about The Meyerowitz Stories, sexual assault and being a cocktail waitress for David Bowie.
By  · Published on November 8th, 2017

An interview with Elizabeth Marvel about The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), sexual assault and being a cocktail waitress for David Bowie.

If you’ve turned on your TV once in the past 10 years, or been to see a Broadway show, chances are you’ve seen Elizabeth Marvel. She’s a character actor in the league of Allison Janney, Edie Falco, and Viola Davis. Actors that are not defined by their public persona, but by the characters they play. Recently she’s most known for playing two very Presidential figures: Heather Dunbar in House of Cards and President-Elect Keane in Homeland. But the role that’s been getting her attention lately does not involve a single pantsuit! She plays Jean Meyerowitz, a perfectly content daughter of a bitter sculptor, in Noah Baumbach’s brilliant The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

I was so excited to see you collaborating with Noah Baumbach. I hope you keep working together!

Me too! Noah is great that way. Noah uses actors sort of like a rep company. Once you’re in, you’re kind of in for life.

And I love how he never uses his actors in the same way. 

I know! And I think that’s the reason why he gets such great work out of people. Because I know for myself, I don’t want to do what I already know how to do. I’m so happy when someone asks me to do something I don’t know how to do, and then we sorta figure it out. And I think that’s the great trick he has as a director.

Yeah and I think that’s why so much of the feedback on the film has been “oh my god, Adam Sandler!”

Right! Exactly [laughs]. That guy…he is such a hard-working actor. I was blown away. He’s an awesome guy. And a beautiful actor.

You’re one of those great character actors that I always look forward to watching. Do you think of yourself as a character actor or is that a label that other people put on you? It seems kind of a strange label. I mean aren’t all actors playing characters?

Right, well that’s the thing, what does that mean? I don’t really know. Isn’t’ that a job for all of us. For me, what it’s symbolic of is that I never had to assimilate. I’ve never had to adhere to an idea of femininity. I’ve never had to adhere to an idea of what an actress is, or what she does, or what her weight is. I’ve just been able to dig really deep into my own authenticity and source it, and really not worry about anything. Which is super lovely as I get older [laughs]. Because age is not an issue. Weight is not an issue. None of that shit, which I think is often thought of as the actress’ job, has not been my experience. It’s a lovely time to be a character actress!

And it also means that you’re not relying on any kind of natural charisma that you have. No one is saying “once you’ve seen one Elizabeth Marvel role, you’ve seen ’em all”.

No, no that’s a great joy of mine. It makes me very delighted when people are like “oh my god, you’re that person!” Or they don’t recognize me. And that’s the joy of what I get to do. And I’m so grateful that it’s the only job — actually, I had two other jobs in my lifetime. I was a cocktail waitress for David Bowie and I was a nude model for art students. But apart from that, I’ve only ever been an actress.

Ok. I’ve gotta ask about the David Bowie thing. 

Oh my god yeah! I was a Julliard student and I was perpetually broke. And a friend of mine who was a cocktail waitress at some chic little spot in Chelsea, couldn’t show up one night, so she was like, “It’s this big record promotion party. Very small, but a very big deal and you’ll just have one person but you’ll have to be with him all night. Will you do it?” And I was like “yeah sure”. And it was David Bowie. I literally stood behind him all night, bringing him seltzer. But I got to eavesdrop. And he was as awesome as you’d imagine! My history with David Bowie is that I was always a super duper odd kid. I used to lie out in the yard and line the flashlights alongside my bodies because I was waiting to signal UFOs to come and get me because I was convinced that I was on the wrong planet. So I remember seeing David Bowie on Saturday Night Live, and he was in a dress. And when I saw it, it was like I relaxed for the first time. So when I got to be his waitress for the night, it was…it was a highlight.

So The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was just released. You must be very proud of that. I really loved the film, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed that you only got a parenthetical as a chapter. Did you and Noah Baumbach talk at all about developing the role, or did you always know it was gonna be smaller?

You know, I really defer to him as the writer and director. I view myself as a facilitator more than anything. That’s always been my thinking as an actor. I’m there to facilitate the story and I’m there to facilitate getting the crew home to see their family. But I did grow to feel an understanding of why Jean was marginalized. Why her story was almost a quota. Because that is her story. I think it wouldn’t have been appropriate if he had had a larger chapter. Because also she’s an enigma and that’s important as well to keep that. Now, do I think that Noah should write another movie about Jean? Absolutely. [laughs].

You know, and he’s so smart about it. When you listen to Jean tell her story and you see the way my brothers react and then destroy the car and they’re all jacked up. He just looks through the lens of gender so perfectly. So much of what it is is their reaction to me.

Totally. And the sexual assault backstory. That’s such a delicate and politicized thing. The scene isn’t a super emotional cathartic moment for Jean, but it’s also not undermined in any way. As you say, it’s more about the men.

It’s totally about them. And that’s what’s so fucking smart about what Noah did with it. It’s so interesting that this movie is out at this moment because a lot of my conversation has been about this when talking about this movie. The thing that we realize when Jean tells her story, and her father’s response to it, his response of, ” but did he touch you?” and it’s clear that he didn’t touch me. And he just wanted to go play tennis with him. And the inconvenience of it. The total inconvenience that we as women experience. My experience as a woman, and I’m sure your experience as a woman — every fucking woman’s experience as a woman. Let’s just talk public transportation. So how many times have I had men jack off in front of me on the subway? How many men have grabbed me? I would need 25 hands to count. And that’s just public transportation. And this is New York and I’m a “character actress.” I’m not one of  those women in bikinis. But as we know, which is the other thing that’s so interesting about the boys’ reaction in the film, sexual assault isn’t about sex. It’s all about power. That’s why it doesn’t matter if I’m in a bikini or not. Because there are a lot of people who want to see a female President on the knees. But! We’re talking about it. And isn’t that great. And Noah is sensitive to women’s stories.

I think it helps that the scene is done in such a nuanced way. 

And I think that that’s useful to the conversation we’re having at the moment. You don’t see the assault played out. There are no flashbacks.

And the fact that it’s told so many years after. Because as women, it’s like “well yeah, of course she’s going to carry this trauma around with her for decades.” But also, he doesn’t introduce it super early on. She’s not defined by it.

Totally. You see someone, and I mean – she’s got her issues, she’s got her stuff. But she’s very healthy and happy and has gone off and created this really wonderful world for herself. She didn’t grow up under his dominant gaze. She escaped it. She was able to create a life for herself in a way that Danny couldn’t. And yet, Danny is a great success. He’s raised a great kid.

And that’s what I love about Noah Baumbach’s films. He doesn’t impose failure on his characters or judge them at all. He’s very kind.

I love working with Noah so much because of that. You know, It was 170 page script of dialogue. And that is the film we shot and that is the film you see. Nothing was cut. And to do that, he gave us a month of rehearsal time. And for people like Adam, it also gave him the stamina to do the movie. Because a lot of those takes are some long fucking takes. And with Noah, it must be word-perfect. Nothing is improvised. And it’s not just word perfect, it’s syntax perfect and punctuation perfect. And so, it was often a good 25-30 long takes. And it was also about creating that organic family dynamic which you never fucking get in movies. Because you have to spend time together.

Right, and you have that specific type of chemistry. You’re half siblings that don’t see each other very often, but have known each other your whole lives. It’s not just about being close.

Yes. And that specific kind of taking each other for granted. And talking over each other. Thinking the same way, using the same language. That you can’t just instantly make it happen. But many films do. So you might see a good performance, but you won’t see an ensemble.

Since we’re on the subject, I wanted to ask about the recent allegations about Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman. Does hearing about those allegations change wanting to work with those actors again, or perhaps affect the kinds of actors, directors and producers you want to work with?

Yeah. I mean, look, in the world we’re in, I work in a business where people still dominantly have meetings in hotel rooms. Like, things have got to change. Our unions must set protocols. And it’s long overdue. So am I surprised by things like this happening? No. Am I happy that we’re talking about it? Yes. I personally have not been on the receiving end of it, or witnessed it with the actors that I’ve worked with. If I had, I would’ve addressed it, just like I yell at the people on the subway.

I’m super excited to see your new film [The Land of Steady Habits] from Nicole Holofcener. Can you share anything about the film?

I’ve made two films back to back with really smart and loving writer/directors about language and adult relationships. And how often do you get to do that? Although a big goal of mine now is the get a role in a big superhero movie, because I have an 11 year old son who can’t see any of my movies.

But the movie with Nicole is a beautiful movie. It’s a heartbreaking film.

And that’s the second film in a row of yours to premiere on Netflix.

Oh is it? [laughs]. Both of them are filmmakers. Noah is an auteur. But it’s incredibly cool that the film is streaming because more people get to see it. It’s kind of awesome that their films are being screened in theatres – as they should be, because you need the cathartic collective experience – but if you can’t, you can stream it. I think Netflix is doing a great thing. It’s doing a very smart thing of working with these filmmakers and prizing the artist.

Red Dots

The Meyerowitz Stories is available to stream on Netflix. Homeland Season 7 premieres January 15th on Showtime.

Related Topics: ,

Writer/Director/Actor/FKA the girl at the party who'd ask, "does anyone wanna watch a movie?"