Updated: 24th August 2017

Ari Graynor in Im Dying Up Here: The Funny Girl Finally Takes the Lead

I hope that all my deep thoughts wont make me sound like a horrible pretentious asshole.

Its likely that you fell in love with Ari Graynor in Nick and Norahs Infinite Playlist when you saw her picking her half-chewed gum out of the vomit in a toilet at a Port Authority bathroom and putting it back into her mouth. Maybe it was when she was funding her rent through phone sex work for 1-877-MMM-HMM in For a Good Time, Call.

The truth is Ari Graynor is not a brash hypersexual drunkard, like shes played in her most attention-grabbing film roles, nor is she a horrible pretentious asshole.

Im still trying to figure out all of this, she says, adjusting the straps on the denim overalls she wore to lunch at Caf Cluny in Manhattans West Village, where she lives. I feel like the point of doing these interviews is sharing experiences that might be useful or helpful to people, or make them feel acknowledged or less alone. But you also feel like, oh god, maybe I just sound like a total fucking idiot.

Were meeting to talk about her role in Showtimes Im Dying Up Here, in which Graynor plays Cassie, the lone girl in a group of struggling stand-up comedians hustling for their big break at a Los Angeles comedy club in the 1970s. For a show about stand-up comedy, Im Dying Up Here is remarkably soulful, honing in beyond just the struggle to win laughs, to the comedians struggles to develop a sense of self.

When Jim Carrey, who executive produces the series, attended the shows kickoff dinner, he told the cast it was their responsibility to alchemize the pain into something beautifulsomething that really struck a chord with Graynor.

So much of my own journey of deepening and peeling back of layers and getting to something more truthful, thats his jam, she says. You think of this wacky, wild Jim Carrey that we grew up with and loved. Thats still there. Hes hilarious. But hes also a very wise, deep soul. Hes such a beautiful embodiment of how those things live in a person and need their space.

Its only recently that Graynor has been able to do that herself.

Graynor has been one of Hollywoods next big things long enough to have had an entire career while weve been hyping her. Her first job was in 2001, on The Sopranos, before barging onto the scene with an uproarious turn as the hard-partying best friend in 2008s Nick and Norahs Infinite Playlist.

Shes had roles in films like Whip It, The Guilt Trip, and the rom-com Whats Your Number? and starred in ten episodes of Fringe and the TV version of Bad Teacher. On stage shes starred in the Tony-winning play The Little Dog Laughed and Woody Allens Relatively Speaking, and most recently played an alcoholic absentee mother in the well-reviewed Yen.

She parlayed her bulldozing comedic chops to graduate from scene-stealing BFF to leading lady in 2012s For a Good Time, Call, which she executive produced. But, ironically, Im Dying Up Here marks her biggest move yet to break the mold of the funny girl, even though shes literally playing a stand-up comedian.

When she read the script for the pilot, she cried. I felt like it understood so much of this big journey I had just been on, she says.

She didnt always think she was going to be the funny girl, or even want to be. She developed a self-deprecating sense of humor at a young age when an awkward puberty set fire to her insecurities.

As she wrote in an essay for InStyle, Just below my Elaine Stritch exterior were the longing looks at the pretty girlsthe ones who didnt have to work so hard to get through the day, who didnt have to make a joke to be acknowledged.

Her screen career began with a string of dramatic roles, before playing a drunk mess who had a practically Shakespearean love affair with her gum in Nick and Norah repositioned her in the eyes of Hollywood. She was suddenly the go-to scene-stealer, playing brash, bawdy BFFs so artfully she spurred pop-culture blogosphere fretting that shed been pigeon-holedwhich she was.

And then something happened. She forgot how to be funny. Or, at least, she couldnt be.

Maybe it was turning 30. Maybe it was starting therapy. Maybe it was a series of professional let downs. Or maybe it was just that she had concentrated on living up to the hype of the funny girl for so long that she lost touch with who she really was.

It was as if all the parts of myself I had neglected staged a coup and wouldnt let me have a sense of humor until I paid attention, she wrote.

When we start talking about that time, Graynor laughs. Clearly I have been to a lot of therapy in the last couple of years.

For a Good Time, Call, which was supposed to be an indie hit, floundered at the box office. She starred in the Broadway comedy The Performers, a rom-com set against the backdrop of the adult film world, but Hurricane Sandy hit New York during previews. The play opened on a Wednesday and closed that Sunday.

She had also been cast as the lead in CBSs TV version of the Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher, on paper as perfect a fit as can be imagined for Graynor. The show was canceled after only three episodes.

They were three things that were back-to-back heartaches, she says. I was heartbroken. I think thats what led to all of this big thinking.

That big thinking involved taking a step back from the industry. (Network TV money affords the luxury to do that.) She traveled alone around Europe. She watched Werner Herzog documentaries. And she thought.

Its hard and it feels lonely and sometimes its sad and uncomfortable, she says. But Im a big believer in facing yourself and sitting with yourself, as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes, is where all the beautiful transformation takes place.

Her character Cassie in Im Dying Up Here arrived like a breath of fresh air when Graynor needed it most.

When Cassie lobbies for more stage time from the owner of the comedy club where she performs, shes told shes not ready because she hasnt developed her voice. She didnt know who she was yet.

She needed to let go of her shtick, and learn to embrace the darker, more honest parts of herself. She needed to let go of the fear that she would never fit in anywhere if she was completely herselfthe very fear that Graynor had been afraid to confront all along.

As a human, Cassie is all of the things, Graynor says. She is vulnerable, and loving, and soft, and warm, and strong-willed, and ambitious, and fierce, and all those things that I also feel. Sometimes its hard as an actor, as a person, as a woman, to be able to embrace all of those parts equally. I felt like this project became this beautiful space for me to embrace all that as an actor as I was embracing it in myself.

To prepare for Im Dying Up Here, Graynor performed at a handful of open mic nights. She would sign up as Cassie and perform material the character performs in the show. There was one time, though, that she worked in her own bit, about how all of us are essentially 13 on the inside, and no matter who you become as an adult theres a part of you thats reacting to the world as if you were at the most awkward stage of your life.

Thirteen-year-old Graynorinsecure, overcompensating, afraidis very much still around. And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

I have more access now to my pit of wisdom, but I also have that little girl in me that is scared, that wants attention, that feels less than, that wants to be liked, she says. Doing a lot of press and having a show come out, she can really flail in my head.

Graynor actually writes letters to that girl: hey, I see you; I love you; its going to be alright. Its comforting, she says, to acknowledge that part of herself and not shun it completely.

She sounds wise. Enlightened. Happy. But, as always, full of self-doubt. Getting up to leave for a fitting and reflecting on the conversation, she cant resist one last self-deprecating joke: Im terrified of looking back on this interview in five years thinking that I knew something that I knew nothing about.

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