"‘Happy Endings’ Eliza Coupe On Playing Hockey, Getting Tattoos, And Building Her On-Screen Marriage With Damon Wayans, Jr."
One of my favorite sitcoms is Happy Endings, ABC’s show about a group of friends who live in Chicago. Much like Modern Family found a way to revitalize the family sitcom (though it’s fallen off notably in quality), Happy Endings found new juice in the group-of-close-friends comedy. In part, it did so by changing what that group of friends looked like, adding Max (Adam Pally), who became one of the most innovative gay characters on television simply by being a person rather than a stereotype, and Jane Kerkovich-Williams (Eliza Coupe) and Brad Williams (Damon Wayans, Jr.), a loony-for-each-other new married couple who also happen to be one of the rare interracial couples on television. But it’s also a mile-a-minute joke factory deeply rooted in the characters’ quirks and the specifics of their relationships with each other, whether Max is dosing Penny (Casey Wilson), who he’s been taking care of after she has an accident, with sleepy tea so he can get at her physical therapist, or food truck operator Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Jane’s younger sister Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), whose broken engagement kicked off the series, are trying to date again while denying that they’re in a serious relationship.
Coupe and I spoke in advance of the third season of Happy Endings, which returns to ABC tonight at 9 PM, about Jane, whose combination of obsessive-compulsion and gleefully whacked-out sexual chemistry with Brad have made her one of my favorite characters in television. She told me where her style of physical comedy comes from, how she draws on her own marriage for inspiration, and why New England WASPs are so hilarious. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’ve noticed that you have a very specific approach to physical comedy: Jane gets a lot of mileage out of being very stiff or very boneless. Is that something you developed for her character, or does it come out of personal experience?
It’s really funny, because I used to play ice hockey as a kid. I grew up in New Hampshire. I’m from Plymouth, New Hampshire. It was a thing. My dad was a semi-pro hockey player, both of my brothers played, I mean, I was raised by a boy. I was taught to box, I was taught to play hockey, I played baseball and softball for a while. And it was always an ongoing joke, like when I played hockey, I was so stiff on the ice. My dad would be like, “You gotta crouch down, Liz.” And I’m like, “I know,” and he’s like “No, you gotta get down towards the ice.” And I’d be like this, and I thought it was really funny. I was like, I’m such a stiff person. But then I started realizing that can be really funny. It’s either zero or a hundred with me. I’m either that, or I’m like [in a funny voice] “What’s up?” completely loose, because I think I got so much criticism for being that way, so it was like, let’s do both. The physical comedy of it all, saying all of that, I mean, there was one episode in the first season where I’m drunk and I’m all over the place. But it’s fun to go to extremes. I was obsessed with Jim Carrey, like obsessed, and I was obsessed with, I think Sandra Bullock also does some great physical comedy, and I think subconsciously, I may locked that and my head and said “Oh, that’s how you do it.”
I also think with women, either women are supposed to be totally relaxed and loose or they’re thought to be uptight. You seem to mine a lot of comedy from perfectionism, from people holding themselves together when they really want to just let go.
I think that’s what I love about my character. Coming form New England, which you know, the WASPY “Everything’s fine!” but on the inside they’re just completely crumbling. That’s how I feel like my aunts and my mothers are: “Everything’s great! Everything’s fine! We’re fine! Good, good, good, everything’s fine!” But turn a corner and they’re alone and they’re like “Oh my God! Everything’s falling apart!” And I think watching someone who’s unhinged try to hold it together is one of the funniest things. And I think that it’s far more interesting, unless, of course, we let them be completely unhinged. Whenever I see, on a movie or in a play, watching someone completely full-on cry is not as interesting as watching them trying not to cry. In real life, I’ll cry by myself, alone, in a private place, at home or with my husband. But around a lot of people, if I’m emotional, I’m going to try to hold it together, which is actually, if you’re going to put a camera on that and give it a time slot of 9 o’clock on Tuesday nights, is funny.
One thing you also seem to do is play a lot of characters between how they see themselves and how they come across to other people. Do you find that juxtaposition interesting?
Yeah, I think probably because I am that a lot in my own life. My friend once told me that “You are the most confident insecure person I’ve ever met in my entire life.” And I was like, “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.” It is really interesting to see someone who thinks “I am totally cool and going with the flow” when it’s “Oh my God, if you honestly believe that about yourself, it’s hilarious.” I guess I’ve noticed that in my characters, especially in Jane, especially the second season, we saw a lot more of that, what she thinks she is and what she really is. It’s an inner struggle she’s having, so conflicted, but if you put it on a TV show it’s really funny, but I think a lot of people can relate to that.
What it’s like to play a new marriage on screen? One of the things I found fascinating about Jane is you often see families who are settled and established and have their kids, and have moved to the suburbs. But she’s sort of it in a transitional phase.
Damon and I have had so much fun. When I first met about this show, I was meeting for the part of Alex, and I’m so not like this character. I am, I’m a very obsessive-compulsive person, I’m very type A, but I have tattoos all over my arms that have to be covered for the show, every single day. It’s a lot. That’s why Jane has been in long sleeves for most of the second season. Because it’s exhausting. And of course, I went this summer and got more tattoos.
What did you get?
I got a 31, right here, you can kind of see it through there. It’s really cute, right? And then I got an arrow, which you can kind of see over there. I was married on December 31, 2007, so I got a little 31 right there.
So you’re also recently married?
Yeah, like almost five years. I think I draw a lot from my own marriage, too. Damon and I are also really good friends in real life. We met on the pilot and immediately clicked. Like I was saying, I went in to read on the part of Alex. When they said “We’re thinking of you for the part of Jane,” I was flattered because Jonathan Groff, who’s pretty high up on this show, and he was on Scrubs, and I was like “I’m very flattered that you think from that part that I played on Scrubs, you think I could play Jane, the wife, on Happy Endings.” That’s great. I’ve always played sardonic, snarky characters, or I was on an HBO show that never saw the light of day, and I was Lily Tomlin’s daughter and I played the slut, this slutty Texas girl. I walk into this meeting with David Caspe and Jonathan Groff, and all these people, I’m wearing studded black boots, black eyeliner, tank top, tattoos, and they’re like “We want you for the part of Jane,” and I’m like “Uh. In what world do you want that?”
Damon and I both wanted to make sure that our characters on the show weren’t just going to be boring. They chose us for a reason. David Caspe really wanted funny people to do the parts. It wasn’t like “This person does this part really well.” It was “You’re really funny in how you do this part.” That’s how we grew our relationship, Damon and I, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be a boring couple. It’s not going to happen.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship? Have you talked to the writers at all about that dynamic that the two of you developed?
Yeah, big-time. Damon and I were really, again, just did not want these characters to be boring, did not want them to be naggy, typical husband and wife. We wanted them to be, like, my own marriage in real life. We don’t have kids. My husband’s an artist and an acting coach, and we’re just doing our things, we fight all the time but we love each other, it’s like we’re best friends. That’s what I feel like we wanted to do, Damon and I. We did talk to the writers, we both sat down with Jonathan Groff and David Caspe on separate occasions, and just said “Let’s make these guys nutso. Let’s take Damon and my regular relationship as friends, and the crazy shit we come up with, which is so dirty. We have the same sense of humor. Let’s put that in there. It’s interesting.” And so David Caspe was like “Yeah, man. That’s awesome. I would love to do that.” He was all for it. The writers’ then took that and ran with it…Damon and I improv a lot, too.
You guys are one of the very few interracial couples on television.
I feel like the show’s gotten more confident about writing that element of your relationship.
I mean, it’s barely even mentioned. That’s what I love about it. It’s just normal. It just sort of is. What I think is so funny is me, as an actor, I always seem to be paired with someone who’s not white. In the HBO show I did, I was paired with a Hispanic guy. In Scrubs I was with a black guy. I was also with a white guy, too. In this I’m with Damon. And I just did a movie where I was with a Korean. So apparently I look like the type of person who is just all about the interracial couple and I love it. And my husband’s half Native American in real life, so maybe that’s it. It’s just like us having a gay guy on the show. It’s all very normal.
As someone who is a perfectionist older sister, you and Elisha [Cuthbert, who plays Jane's younger sister Alex] absolutely nailed that dynamic. What’s that relationship like?
It’s funny because I don’t have a sister in real life, and I never had a sister, and I used to want one, and then I was like nah, because I have two brothers and I like being the only girl because I get way more attention even though I get raised by a boy. That was a hard thing for me. I think it’s very obvious to people who know me that I’ve never had a sister. I’m so in tune with the way guys think because I’ve been around them all the time. But I do have a younger brother and I can be very controlling with him. But it’s very different for a guy. I can be like “Dude, stop being an idiot.” It’s different with girls, especially with Jane. Jane doesn’t ever really say what she means. She’s always trying to skirt around it, she’s very passive-aggressive. I’m really looking forward to more scenes with Elisha because I think she and I can find a really fun dynamic, the way Damon and I explored the quirky weird side of it and went further into it, I think Elisha and I can do that.
Where do you want to see Jane and Brad go in five years? Will they be having kids?
I want to put the rumor out there that Jane has had a hysterectomy. Jane is not having any babies.
That in itself would be a fairly new thing for a sitcom.
I know. It’s true. I mean, the thing is, in real life I’d love to have a kid at some point but not now. So why do they want to have one now? They’re so young.