Back in the 1990s, comedian and liberal activist Janeane Garofalo became the poster child for jaded twenty-somethings after starring in Reality Bites, The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Larry Sanders Show. Now, Garofalo is making an ambitious career move in the New Group's premiere production of Russian Transport, a family drama by Erika Sheffer. Garofalo stars as Diana, a Russian immigrant mother with a sharp tongue (and a few secrets) struggling to raise her two assimilated teens in Brooklyn. Aside from an appearance in Love, Loss and What I Wore, Russian Transport represents Garofalo’s first foray into professional theater. Broadway.com recently chatted with the actress about learning Russian, getting typecast and the upcoming presidential election.
How did you get involved with Russian Transport?
My agent contacted me and said, “I have this script for a play from the New Group and the director, Scott Elliott, wants you to play this part.” And I was sure he was mistaken. I read it and I loved it, but I was like, “No, I can’t do this. I can’t [speak] Russian and do a broken accent with like, seasoned theater people. They’re gonna think I’m the biggest hack in the world.” So I met Scott for coffee to tell him I couldn’t do it and by the end of coffee I was doing it.
He must have had a convincing argument!
He said, “Oh no, you can do it. You’re doing it.” An hour later, I was doing it and that’s that. And I’m so glad I did. This has been one of the most enjoyable working experiences, every single day. Now I feel like all I want to do after this is continue with these people and do another play, and another one, and another one.
You’ve said that you hate to rehearse. Is that still true?
In this case, I will amend that. I’m talking about when you’re in a bad movie or a bad mainstream TV thing. Rehearsing bad lines hurts me terribly [laughs]. TV, it’s a director’s medium, and they wanna make it look interesting. To be rehearsing mostly for the sake of where you’re standing so they can do the lighting, that’s what I don’t like. But in this case it’s been really enjoyable.
In Russian Transport, the five cast members play a family. How well have you gotten to know one another?
Luckily we all get along very well, and we hang out when we’re not working. I’m the old lady of the bunch and I’m sober, so I sort of envy them, their youthful energy and their beer drinking. I watch them longingly. But it’s mostly just coffee and getting to the theater much earlier than we need to, which is unusual. I think we all feel that way.
What was it like learning to speak Russian together?
Actually, I feel like my accent is shit. I feel like I’m the weakest link of the bunch. Morgan Spector [who plays Garofalo's brother], especially, is so good. I’m always feeling intimidated by my co-workers’ talent. And to speak the Russian convincingly, which I don’t know if I’m doing, always makes me anxious. There are Russians in the audience sometimes, and I’m always wondering if they’re shaking their head when I’m speaking, going, “Oh my God, that is so wrong.”
Is learning Russian the most challenging thing about this experience?
The most challenging thing is having to say the exact same thing the same way every night, with no wiggle room. Lighting cues depend on it, other people depend on it. Whereas what I love most about stand-up comedy is I write it, I can say anything I want and I control it. There’s multiple ways to do and feel things in a night, and sometimes you feel a completely different way. I don’t wanna sit on the couch right now! I don’t wanna be holding this cup right now at this line. I sometimes feel constrained by the very nature of the medium.
Not having kids, what’s it like to play a mom to two teens in Russian Transport?
I feel terrible the way I talk to them. I wish that I could be more affectionate, especially with Sarah [Steele’s] little baby face. [Diana] was raised in pre-Perestroika Russia, and maybe her parents spoke to her that way. But it’s hard to say “shut up” to my daughter. There have been a couple of [audience members] the last few nights who do not like Diana at all. It hurts my feelings personally. I felt like saying to them, “This was just a character that I was doing. I would never treat my son that way.” But man, they seemed mad at me.
Diana seems far removed from the real you. What about prior roles you’ve played, like Paula on The Larry Sanders Show?
I was 27 when I first started acting, and the Paula character unfortunately typecast me right out of the gate. In life, I’m far chattier. I am actually not like, with that deadpan voice, but unfortunately, a lot of people think that’s how I am. Which especially as you get older, doesn’t wear very well. It’s one thing to be 27 and taciturn. It’s another thing to be 48 and be seen as a person who’s like, “Oh, fuck you.”
You’ll be guest starring on the Adult Swim show Delocated this month. What can you tell us about your upcoming appearance?
I love that show! I was so thrilled when they asked me to do that. I’m a huge Jon Glaser fan. I play Susan Shapiro, who’s the head of the network that does Jon’s reality show.
Did Eugene Mirman, who stars in Delocated and was born in Russia, give you any speaking tips?
I didn’t wanna bug Eugene too much, but I did bother him a little bit. I would say, “In broken English, how would you say ‘Verizon’?” If I said something [in Russian], even if I said it wrong, then he would understand what I meant and correct me.
Would you ever do a sitcom?
I would do anything—granted, I don’t wanna do something shitty. There aren’t a ton of things for middle-aged women to do, especially if they are not considered quote-unquote classically attractive. That’s not me being self-deprecating, that’s just the way it is. If you think about mainstream sitcoms, you gotta have a hot wife. You could have a schlub husband and a hot wife. There’s an unfortunate double standard.
But with Bridesmaids and 30 Rock, don’t you think women have been grabbing the torch?
I love Kristen Wiig, and I think Tina Fey has been instrumental in that. But say you read a script and there’s two parts for women and eight parts for men. I’ll say, “I don’t respond to this part here, this female, but I love this part of Ed.” “Yeah, but it’s for a guy.” “But there’s nothing about what this person is saying that couldn’t be a female saying it.” “No, but it’s a guy.” Why are women relegated to Fiancé, or Best Friend of the Girl, or Office-Inappropriate-Oversexed Lady? Or Older Woman Who Swears a Lot, like what they make Betty White do sometimes. And look, there’s eight parts here for guys that are Paul Rudd’s friends. Why can’t a female be the friend of Paul Rudd?
Let’s talk about the upcoming presidential election. What do you think?
If I could vote for Stephen Colbert, I would. But I’m going to be forced to vote for Obama again even thought I’ve been bitterly disappointed in his Republican behavior. I’d rather have [Obama] than any Republican I can see out there in the field. But as much as I feel there’s a great man there, I don’t understand why he’s so conciliatory to these Republican ideas.
Who will Obama be running against?
Whoever the Republican machine wants him to run against. They’ll finesse whoever they need to be there, whether it’s Romney…I don’t think they’re gonna support Gingrich. Or there’s gonna be a late-coming dark horse that’ll jump in before they can be properly vetted, Chris Christie or something, and there’s not enough time for the public to know them. They’re doing a weird thing now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. Some Republicans have been coming out supporting Obama. Here’s my theory. Maybe what they’ve decided is, let’s let Obama win because he is the best Republican we’ve ever had.
Has your outspokenness about politics impacted your acting career?
Oh, absolutely. Also taking two and a half years off to work at [the now-defunct liberal radio network] Air America had an impact. But I’m an easy target. During the height of the Bush era, when I was a particular right-wing punching bag, it’s easy, ‘cause who gives a shit? It’s not like I was some hugely famous person who disappeared. I was a moderately successful person who took a hit. It’s not like there’s people going, “Awww!” Who cares?
See Janeane Garofalo in Russian Transport at the Acorn Theatre.