Ted Sod: Will you talk a bit about where you were born, where you were educated and how your career evolved?
Janeane Garofalo: I'll start with Newton, New Jersey, where I was born in 1964. My family, at the time, lived in Sparta, New Jersey. My mom went into labor near Newton. I lived in Sparta very briefly and then we moved to Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. The majority of my life was spent in Madison, New Jersey with a few years in Houston, Texas because my dad worked for Exxon, which was headquartered in both Elizabeth, New Jersey and Houston. We went back and forth. Then, I went to Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
TS: Did you ever have any acting training?
JG: No, I didn't train, but I knew I wanted to be involved in comedy. I didn't start acting until I was 27. That was mostly because of my friendship with both Ben Stiller and Garry Shandling who both, in the same year, had TV shows. One was on Fox called “The Ben Stiller Show.” Garry was on HBO in “The Larry Sanders Show.” I got into acting very fortuitously, but unprepared. As it happens sometimes, I was given access to opportunities that I may or may not have deserved, and I worked quite a bit in the '90s. Then, those opportunities slowed down. Now, I have to audition for everything the way one would at the beginning of their career. It's almost like I've had to start again. This isn't me saying, "Oh, poor me!"; I'm just telling you how the heat eventually wears off as it did for me in the early 2000s. So, I took two years off to work at Air America. After two years, it's really hard as a middle aged lady to jump back into acting. A few years ago, I did do a play with The New Group entitled Russian Transport directed by Scott Elliott, which was really my first theatre work. I had done some work with the Fire Department Theater Company, but they were short vignettes. I was shocked when I got the audition for Marvin’s Room. I never thought I would get it because I still don't perceive of myself as a "real actor."
TS: What do you think the play Marvin’s Room is about? How do you relate to Lee, the character you are playing?
JG: Many good stories are essentially about the same thing: human beings. It doesn't matter what the era is or what the country is or where they are socio-economically or what have you. If the story is good, it’s about the human condition. How people relate to each other, the personal baggage that they bring to their relationships. In this case, there is the childhood issue with my character, Lee, and who did what to whom. She feels she was treated badly and we see how memory plays into that. There’s a constant tension between Lee and her sister, Bessie, regarding Lee’s leaving and not helping Bessie take care of their dad. It's like any family.
How I relate to Lee, personally, is that I can’t spend an enormous amount of time with my family. Unfortunately, when my siblings and I get together, we regress. We're 15 again. After the first hour of pleasantries, here comes the same argument we've been having since we were kids -- who did what to whom and who felt slighted. They all seem not to mind hanging out with each other. We are very different politically, culturally. I was raised in a conservative, religious household. By the time I was out of college, I was not only an atheist, but quite liberal in my politics. That is not the norm for my family in general. I find it difficult to navigate peaceably through certain conversations that come up. I don't want to have the same arguments over and over. I don't want to have the same conversations. I'm not proud of this, but I keep my distance. There's a resentment that builds up on both sides. This is, again, not me asking for sympathy. I had a very lovely childhood. I'm just saying I relate to the play in that I have kept a wider distance from my nuclear family than my other siblings have.
TS: What kind of preparation do you do for a role like this?
JG: I just think about it. I don't want to over-prepare before we go into rehearsals because one never knows. You don't want to get locked into something because it can be difficult to unlock yourself. One must remain completely open. I also don't want to memorize it before we start rehearsing. I don't want to get locked into a tone of voice or an inflection.
TS: What do you make of Lee’s relationship to her children, Hank and Charlie?
JG: It seems like Lee is exacerbating the problems with her son, Hank. This is a single parent who has struggled and struggled and made bad choices. She knows this and she's her own harshest critic. It's hard for any single parent. It's hard to be a parent period. To do it well is extremely difficult, and to be on your own and economically challenged, that's really difficult. Lee chose a partner who is working against her, to the detriment of her sons. She has enough guilt and anger about her choices without others suggesting she's a terrible parent or a terrible person.
TS: What do you look for from a director?
JG: Any good director knows it's a collaboration. The actors need to feel not only validated and confident, but that they are also in the hands of a man or woman who is absolutely at the top of their game. Even if they're not, they have to pretend that they are. If you're working on network television, it has nothing to do with quality 90 percent of the time, nothing to do with "Let's deal with character. Let's deal with narrative. Let's deal with content." In fact, that is very low on the list of things that are thought about during the day, unfortunately. When you work in television, you realize very quickly that obedience is prized above all. Whereas, when you work in theatre, you have time. Also, everybody comes prepared. Everybody is in service to the whole. You must have the long game in mind, have everybody's best interest in mind. You have to be as generous as possible and listen, listen, listen. Systems work at their best when everybody is pulling for it and working with empathy and intelligence -- both emotional and academic.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who think they want to be part of show business?
JG: I would say, first of all, really think about why you want to do this. Really, why are you doing this? If it's to become successful, then don't do it, because there's too much pain involved in rejection. Part of the human condition is that we all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. It's a natural impulse. I am a perfect example of that. If I didn't have stand up comedy -- which I find very fulfilling -- I don't know what I'd do because I can control my stand up gigs. I can book them. Part of the beauty of living in New York and being here for many years is you can do stand up every night, if you want. You can find fulfillment. With acting, it's not up to me. I have no control over it. I have to wait to see if anybody is interested in me. It's constant waiting until you have sustained career success. If you have sustained career success, then you have control. If you don't have that -- and 90 percent of SAG actors don't -- it's a waiting, hoping, and rejection game. Also, if you're really serious about acting, stay away from mainstream television and, for the most part, mainstream film because you're not going to be satisfied there. Start doing theatre. Theatre is where you'll become good. That's where you'll get fulfillment, and that's where you're going to work on excellent scripts.
TS: Are there things that inspire you as an artist?
JG: I actually don't call myself an artist. I feel like I haven't achieved that yet. I don't feel like I've earned it. I aspire to be better than I am. I don't mean that in a weird way.
TS: Who is an artist in your mind, then?
JG: Mark Rylance. Not only is his work very subtle, there's no one else that would have done it that way. Obviously, Meryl Streep. I just watched Heartburn this morning at 4:00 a.m. I love that movie. Albert Brooks. Carol Burnett. Norman Lear. Do you remember SCTV with Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short? It was a Canadian sketch show that started in 1975. I would say those people are artists because of their attention to detail, their specificity and the quality of content they create.
TS: Since you've done a variety of work: stand-up comedy, television, radio, plays -- what haven't you done that you still want to do?
JG: I hope that in the future I have the opportunity to work with certain people. I am not saying I deserve this, but I would love to be in a Coen Brothers film or a Woody Allen movie. I would like to work with Lena Dunham. I've gotten a chance to audition for the Coen Brothers before. That was a thrill of a lifetime. I've gotten the chance to audition for “Girls,” which was also thrilling. I would like to have those opportunities again because I think that they write great stuff. I would also love to be on a British detective series or any Masterpiece Theatre classic or contemporary thing. That is a dream. I'm a bit of an anglophile, especially TV-wise. I would love to work with Armando Iannucci. I would love to work with Steve Coogan. Also, to live in England and work for the BCC would be a joy. They're all high-brow ideas, aren't they? Classy, I'm real classy.
Marvin's Room begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on June 8. For tickets and info, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room