An Interview with Halley Feiffer
Written by Victoria Myers
February 2nd, 2015
We love people who do more than one thing, so we were very excited to get to talk to writer and actress Halley Feiffer—we edited it down, but we’re pretty sure Halley heard us say, “We’re obsessed with that,” no less than seven times. Halley’s current play, I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, about an actress and her playwright father, is currently running at the Atlantic Theater Company, and you might want to click on over to their website to get tickets because performances are quickly selling out. Her other (amazingly titled) plays include How To Make Friends and then Kill Them and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. As an actress, you may have caught her performances in The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway, The Substance of Fire at Second Stage, or Tigers Be Still at the Roundabout. She also co-wrote and starred in the film He’s Way More Famous Than You, and the webseries What’s Your Emergency. Plus, she’s now a writer for the upcoming Starz TV series The One Percent. Now don’t you see why we kept saying we were “so obsessed”?
Congratulations on I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard. Fame and ambition are such interesting topics, especially when you combine them with personal relationships.
That’s something I’ve always been really, really interested in. I made a movie a couple of years ago that I co-wrote and acted in that’s called He’s Way More Famous Than You that’s very different in tone than the play—it’s kind of a screwball dark comedy—but that was the theme in that movie too. It’s a big theme in this play—the false belief that if I get fame, I’m going to be okay. And what we get to see in the play is that’s really not true. It’s a look at the dark side of having that kind of attention on you and how it becomes like a drug and like a bottomless pit inside you that can never be filled. The entire first act of the play, basically, is a father, who is a famous person, essentially telling his daughter, “You need to get famous in order for me to love you,” and how destructive that kind of value system is.
You let both characters in the play go to some dark and ugly places. Did you feel like you had to approach that differently when writing a man vs. a woman?
I mean, the characters are so different from each other. The father in the play is in his late 60s/early 70s and the daughter is in her early 20s. They’re completely different generations, so their speech patterns are totally different. One thing that has been interesting with this play is in the first scene she’s young—she’s twenty-two, she’s like a little puppy—and then the second scene is five years later and she’s very different. She’s become her father, and I wrote her, essentially, as I did the father. It’s different in that she has the rhythms of a young woman, but she has the same assertiveness, aggressiveness, directness, arrogance, and hubris as her father does in the first scene. And that was really interesting to get to do. But what’s been really interesting is to see how the actress, Betty Gilpin, has dealt with that. She and Reed [Birney] have almost identical lines and he will sort of scream them and Betty delivers them with this cool, chilly detachment that’s equally terrifying. Hers is perhaps a more quote-unquote female approach and his a more masculine, and that’s been really interesting to watch. I think they both work really well, and I think it’s really fascinating to see how they both co-opt the same language and use it differently as a man and a woman.
Have you noticed the audience reacting differently to the different scenes?
Audiences seem pretty horrified by all of it. I do think the second act is more upsetting because I think we’re less used to seeing a woman behave this way than a man. And to see how she’s hurting herself—at this point in the play she’s also a severe alcoholic. I think it is more upsetting to see a woman abusing herself with substances and with her own behavior, especially a young woman who has her whole future ahead of her, but is killing herself. Audiences seem pretty shaken up at the end of the play. I will say that when we first did a workshop of this at the Labyrinth in their Barn Series, someone said to me, “I’m so surprised a woman wrote this,” which blew my mind. I asked why. I thought they meant because the father uses a lot of really colorful language like ‘cocksucker’ and he’s very homophobic so there’s a lot of the word ‘faggot’ in it, so I thought it was that—like Neil LaBute wrote it—but they were like, “I’m surprised a woman wrote it because the female character becomes so unsavory.” I thought that was kind of a sexist thing to say. I was like, “Because I’m a woman everything I write should be women are great?” That’s not true—there are flawed women and there are flawed men, and I’m just trying to tell a truth the way I see it.
What’s your process like as a writer?
I usually start by writing a very rough outline of what the play is—and outline is a very generous term. I basically just jot down all the ideas I have like: maybe there’s this, maybe this happens, and then maybe there’s this and this. Then I’ll sit down and just start with one scene and kind of let it tell me what it is. That’s the opposite of what a lot of writers do. Like my boss [at The One Percent] Alex [Dinelaris], he starts with structure—he maps out the entire thing from the Aristotelian structure—so I’m learning so much, because it would never even occur to me to start there. [For I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard] I had the idea of wanting to write about a father and daughter where the father was a very famous and successful playwright and the daughter was his protégé. I was trying to write that scene and everything was just very bad and I was like, “This is terrible.” I felt stuck. And I went and saw a one-woman show called No Child performed by Nilaja Sun and it blew my mind, and I was like, “Oh, I think the daughter has written a one-woman show and the second act is her and her boyfriend.” So I went home and wrote the second act at like 11pm, and it was her and her boyfriend. I ended up cutting the entire character of the boyfriend last March when we did a workshop at MCC. So you never know. I literally threw out maybe 70 pages, but I got to know the character and got to know the play, and after writing that, I woke up the next morning and wrote the entire first act, which is similar to what it is now.
What other areas of culture do you find useful in your writing?
Honestly, theatre. I know that sounds so close-minded. I find all sorts of art inspiring, but theatre is my first passion, and seeing a play that works for me excites me more than anything. I have a friend who says, “When I see something and it makes me want to go home and write, that’s the highest compliment I can give anything,” and that’s how I feel too. And how I wrote this play was seeing this woman Nilaja Sun’s show. I mean my play has nothing to do with her play—her play is about being a teacher in a public inner-city school—but she’s just so fucking smart, talented, and amazing, that she made me want to go write something. So for me, seeing theatre, which is the greatest joy I have in this world, that’s really what inspires me to go write.
Do you see any themes in your work? You mentioned a few earlier—fame, ambition, self-destruction.
Yeah, that’s basically it in a nutshell. Fame, ambition, self-destruction—specifically addiction and alcoholism—are things I’m interested in exploring, and they’re kind of rampant in a lot of my work. The ties between humor and pain, that’s something I really like exploring, and the thin line between those two and how one can morph into the other and then back again. Families that are at once dysfunctional but incredibly loving—those are the plays that I never get tired of watching and that I love the most.
You’re also an actress, and we’re kind of obsessed with people who do more than one thing. What do you think is most helpful about being someone who does multiple things?
It’s something I really think about a lot because I’m so busy. Sometimes I’m like, “Gosh, I should just do one of these things,” because I’m very tired. But for me, I think I would be dishonest to not do both since I enjoy both and I feel like both are ways that I feel naturally inclined to express myself. The benefits of doing both, I think, is that it’s all the same thing—we’re all storytellers—so I just get to come at it from different angles. I feel like I learn about both from doing both. Selfishly, I just learned so much by watching these actors, Reed and Betty. I kind of joke that actors will want to quit acting after seeing them since they’re so amazing. I’ve learned so much from just watching them and watching their processes. Then acting, for me, it’s been really nice to give my writer brain a bit of a break and exercise different parts of my brain, and it’s something I’ve been doing for a really long time that I can’t imagine not doing. But I think they all feed into each other, since we’re all just trying to tell a story as honestly as we can.
Have you ever encountered people who are skeptical about you doing both? How did you deal with that?
Yes. The first couple of years I was writing plays, it felt challenging for me to really get people to believe I was a playwright—this could all be in my head—it felt like the attitude was like, “Oh, it’s so cute that you’re trying to write plays,” and I was like, “No, I really want to do this.” But, then again, I can understand why people would be skeptical since there aren’t that many hyphenates, and there aren’t that many that are women. There are more and more now, but when people ask whose career I want, I always say Tracy Letts or Eric Bogosian. There aren’t that many women, but there are more and more; Heidi Schreck is a great example. The biggest unintentional skeptical thing I’ve gotten is, “Are you still acting?” People assume that if something is happening in my writing career it must mean that I’ve chosen that over acting, which I think is kind of funny since it’s like, “Why does one preclude the other?” That seems to be a sort of common thing that I get. That’s something I do worry about: is the fact that I’m trying to do both hurting me in some way? But I was thinking about it yesterday, and I was like, “I don’t care.” I like doing both, and feel that I have something to offer in both areas, so why not just keep doing that?
It’s something that you see much more in film and TV, especially for women.
One of my best friends is Desiree Akhavan, and she just made this movie, Appropriate Behavior, that she wrote, directed, and starred in. No one says to her, “So what do you want to do the most: writing, directing, or starring in things?” People are like, “Oh, so you’re a writer-director.” But people do say to her all the time, “So, you’re like an Iranian-American Lena Dunham?” And she’s like, “Not really. Our material is pretty different.” She’s actually on this next season of Girls, so that comparison worked out really well for her since Lena Dunham was like, “I want to see your work.” But the reason she’s compared to Lena Dunham is because there aren’t that many of them. The thing that a lot of people have expressed confusion with around my work is, “Why aren’t you acting in your play?” And I’m like, “Because playwriting is really hard.” I was at every single preview giving notes—I can’t do that if I’m acting in the play. I just want to do one thing at a time. I think a lot of people are like, “If you’re a playwright, you must be writing to give yourself parts,” and that’s so not how my brain works. I love writing for the sake of writing and I love acting for the sake of acting, and I see them as two different things.
As someone who has a perspective both as an actor and a writer, what’s something you think could be improved upon with new play development?
I kind of have mixed feelings about it. I know a lot of people are like, “There’s too much development. Let’s go to production.” In the case of this play, I wrote it four years ago, and every single workshop or reading we’ve had has taught me something. It’s changed so drastically in the last four years that many people who saw the first reading of it were like, “It’s almost unrecognizable.” And it’s so much better. So I feel like development can be useful. I think when it’s not useful—and I haven’t had this experience, but I’ve heard of other people having this experience—is when artistic directors or literary managers give prescriptive notes like, “We want to do this play if…” But I also think the responsibility is on the playwright to be like, “Thanks for your suggestion, but I’m not doing that,” and then having the courage as a playwright to say, “I’d rather not have my play produced than to take that prescriptive note that I don’t believe in to get my play produced.” I love development; for me, it’s really helpful. And I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I feel you can never get the play perfect enough, and if we had another production I’m sure I’d keep changing stuff. I always think there’s room for improvement and that’s what’s exciting about making art.
(v.) Process- Part 2
What’s your process like as an actress?
I basically just made it up. I have no formal training as an actor; I’ve just been doing it for a long time. It’s very intuitive. I basically just spend as much time with the character as I can, and I really try to get as clear as possible with what my gut tells me about the character. And I also, in many ways, approach it as a writer—I try and work on the character’s backstory. One tool that I sort of invented that helps me a lot is that I’ll go through the text and write the subtext next to each line. But I really just approach it from an intuitive place, combined with pretty extensive research either on my own, or what I’m doing in terms inventing the backstory for the character.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I decided I wanted to be an actor when I acted in a production ofThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Stagedoor Manor, which was my theatre camp. I was twelve, and I just fell in love with that play and found it so rich and so upsetting and so dark and thrilling. That was the first thing I acted in that I thought, “Oh, this isn’t just fun, but this is also intellectually rigorous and challenging.” That’s when I started doing exercises with the character’s backstory and I realized that this was everything I wanted, in that it’s intellectually stimulating and it’s fun and it’s challenging and there’s always more to do. I feel the same way about acting as I do about writing. I never feel like, “Okay, that’s my performance, and now I’ll just show up and do it eight times a week.” Every show I try and discover something new and push myself in a new way, and try to get clearer and closer to what I think the character really wants to be, and the best way to tell the story. And I found that when I got to act in that play at camp.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I started reading plays at a pretty young age, and one of the first plays that really influenced me was Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. It blew my mind. I was like, “Oh my God, you can have a character that’s a fish? And it has lines?” My first play that I wrote was based on that; it was about a talking turtle. That was incredibly influential to me. I was reading a lot of Christopher Durang, Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee, and then also Tennessee Williams and Chekhov. These were all writers that made me want to be a writer. And Caryl Churchill—I saw Far Away at New York Theatre Workshop when I was in high school and it blew my mind. In terms of actors, I was blown away by Frances McDormand and Laura Linney—actors who could be chameleons and embrace both their vulnerability and their strength and who weren’t afraid to really embrace human nature.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
I don’t know if it’s happened yet. I mean I turned thirty this year—I really started feeling like a grownup then. The first day of rehearsal for this play was very moving for me. I had acted in a play at the Atlantic last fall—Women or Nothing by Ethan Coen—and I was like, “I love this theatre. Neil Pepe is the most incredible artistic director. The vibe here is amazing, and what an amazing place. Wouldn’t it be cool to get a play produced here? Well, that’s just a pipe dream.” And it’s literally a little over a year later, and that’s what’s happened. I was in the rehearsal room and there was Neil Pepe making this speech about how excited he was to have my play there, and I was like, “I guess I did something right, and I guess my hard work really paid off, and I guess I’m getting to do what I wanted to do because I’ve worked hard and people want to work with me.” And it really sunk in then—this person I’d admired from afar was now here looking at me like an artistic director looking at a playwright he was producing, and I did kind of feel like a grownup at that point. And this process of making this play has helped me feel like a grownup because I’ve had to keep showing up, and at the same time, write this TV show. So I’ve had two full-time jobs for the last three months, and you can’t not be a grownup. You have to show up. So I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the last few months.
How is writing for a TV show? It’s about organic farming, right?
Yes, it’s about a family of organic farmers in the Midwest. And that’s all I can say about it for now. But it’s really, really special, I think, and it’s thrilling. I joke with them that it’s the best job I’ve ever had, but I’m kind of not joking—I love it so much. Actually, I got the job because I acted in a play that the creator, Alex, wrote—this play called Still Life at MCC years ago—and we knew each other from that. I loved his writing, but we didn’t really stay in touch other than occasionally liking each other’s Facebook posts. I saw on Facebook that he was creating this TV show and I was so happy for him, and then I got a Facebook message out of the blue and he was like, “Call me. I want you to apply for this writing job on my TV show.” I was like, “How did you think of me?” He said, “I was with my friend who happened to be carrying a stack of short plays he was considering for a festival, and yours was in there, and I read it at the bar and was like, ‘This is the kind of voice I want on my TV show.’” But I wouldn’t have gotten this job if I weren’t also an actor and he didn’t know me from that play. And he and Nico [Giacobone, co-creator] wanted three female voices on this show, so they hired three female playwrights and I thought that was so cool. It’s four women and two men in this room—there’s not one white man in the room, which is kind of great.
There’s so much discussion around female characters that it seems we live in a world where writing a female character is a sort of political act. How do you feel about that? How does it affect you?
I just don’t think about that. I’m just going to write about my perspective. I just try to write from a place of honesty. I have a play that opens with a woman telling like fifteen rape jokes because she’s a stand-up comedian and she’s trying out her jokes, and you could be like, “What does this say about women?” And I don’t really know—I just thought that would be funny. I just don’t think any good writing comes from when you’re trying to say something or teach the audience something. From my experience, the best writing comes when I’m writing from a place of instinct and a story that needs to be told, and if I’m thinking, “I really want the audience to think this when this happens,” I’m kind of painting myself into a corner, because everyone is entitled to their own experience. I’ve seen people crack up at I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard like it’s Saturday Night Live, and I’ve seen people gasp and look like they want to kill themselves, and those are both totally valid reactions and it’s the same exact play.
There’s that ridiculous thing that happens where people expect a female character to represent all women.
But that’s not my job. Why can’t I just write what I want to write? Are male writers obligated to represent the male perspective?
Another question we ask a lot is if people feel like their work is talked about differently than if they were a male writer?
I try not to read what critics write because I don’t find it helpful for me as an artist. My last play is pretty dark; it’s called How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them. It’s about women behaving very badly, and I did hear a lot of comments like, “Those women are behaving so badly.” Whereas I feel like if it was about three men, we wouldn’t be getting those comments so much. I think in our culture we’re still uncomfortable with women behaving badly in art. My friend Leslye Headland made a movie called Bachelorette (and wrote the play), and it was a similar thing where people were like, “This movie is about women who are terrible,” and if it was about men, it would be like, “This is about a crazy weekend.” I feel like that’s still a remarkable thing and that makes me sad.
We wanted to ask you, as an actress, about the whole idea of likability. You don’t hear about men having the likability conversation.
That’s something I could go on about for seven thousand years. It’s really, really hard. I don’t think I have that thing in my brain that registers what likability is—I don’t think about it, for better or worse. So, my character in my movie is the most unlikable character ever, and I think it’s hilarious and interesting and some people are like, “This is hard to watch because you’re a sociopath.” I’m kind of obsessed with playing unlikable people, and sometimes I make people too unlikable. I had an experience with pilot season a few years ago. I was in LA and I auditioned for this character, who I thought the whole joke of the character is that she’s so passive aggressive. So I went into the audition and I played it really passive aggressive and the notes I got were, “That was great, but the character is not passive aggressive. She’s just really helpful and really nice.” So I was like, “Okay, I can do that. It feels less interesting and less funny, but I can do that.” Then I got a callback and I was in the waiting room, and I heard the assistant on the phone and she was like, “Yeah, you can send her in for the part. We have made some changes. She’s now going to be passive aggressive and probably Asian.” I want to title my memoir Passive Aggressive and Probably Asian. I was like, “I’m right here. I’m not Asian. What am I doing here? And I told you guys that it should be passive aggressive!” So that’s something I’ve encountered a lot, people being afraid of women being unlikable on network television.
What are your top five “characters other people think are unlikable but I think are awesome”?
1. Iago in Othello
2. Iago in Aladdin
3. Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened
4. Blanche DeBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
5. Beverly Weston in August: Osage County
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Produce more plays by women. Something we talk about a lot in the writers’ room is unconscious bias. There was this study that was done where they gave the same plays to people—some with men’s names and some with female names—and the ones with male names were rated higher. So I don’t know how to fix it because you can’t just be like, “Don’t have gender bias!” But I think the more we produce plays by women, the less remarkable it will be, and I think we’re getting there. And I’d say to women—write stuff. If you want to write stuff, just write stuff. Don’t worry about people pleasing, don’t worry about being nice, and don’t worry about being pushy. I’ve been really pushy and just sent a ton of emails. Be aggressive. An actress that I know, who produced her own movie, gave me a piece of advice that had been given to her that I love: “Be a pain in the ass without being an asshole.” And I think that’s really great.
You can follow Halley on Twitter: @HalleyFeiffer and Instagram: @HalleyFeiffer.