Most audiences were first introduced to Kerry Bishé thanks to her role on the final season of the show Scrubs, where she took over the protagonist position from the departing Zach Braff. Despite breaking out in the world of comedy, she quickly made a name for herself in the dramatic world, winning a SAG Award as part of the ensemble cast of the Best Picture winning film Argo before taking on one of the leading roles in the critically-acclaimed AMC series Halt and Catch Fire.
Bishé has had a varied career in film and television, mixing comedy and drama with an assortment of genre fare, including a primary role on last year’s Showtime series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Editor’s Note: Kevin Smith‘s Red State as well). This ability to move seamlessly from one genre to another made her the perfect choice for writer/director BenDavid Grabinski when he was casting his debut feature film, Happily.
Take a glance at the cast list for Happily and you’ll notice an abundance of some of our best comedic actors working today: Joel McHale, Stephen Root, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, and the list goes on. That gives you an idea of what the movie is going to be, but Grabinski clearly has a lot more on his mind than just making a generic studio comedy. The film is a roller coaster of genre and tone, oscillating between comedy, thriller, and domestic drama so fast that it might make your head spin. Bishé proves more than up to the task at handling it all with ease.
Centered around Bishé’s character Janet and her husband Tom (McHale), Happily begins with the two many years into a loving marriage. The marriage is so perfect, in fact, that it’s made their friend group resentful, to the point where they confront Janet and Tom before their big group vacation. When a mysterious stranger (Root) shows up at their door with some surprising news that shakes up their entire worldview, Janet and Tom are sent down a path that keeps them, and the audience, constantly guessing.
It’s a wild movie that defies easy categorization, and in my discussion with Bishé she explains why that was part of the appeal for her to sign on. From the moment we got on Zoom together she was full of energy and engagement, excited to talk about the movie, and so much more. We get into her appreciation of making movies as “the most collaborative art form”, along with her adoration of penguins and Antarctica, demonstrating that this was a conversation as varied as the film she’s currently promoting.
Read on for my conversation with actor Kerry Bishé:
Mitchell Beaupre: I have to say that Halt and Catch Fire is one of my favorite shows of all-time, so I’m pinching myself a little bit being able to talk to you.
Kerry Bishé: Oh my god, I’m just happy to hear that you ever saw it! That was always the best show that no one ever saw, which is really nice because I love an underdog, but it gets a little tired after a while. I was so proud of it, and it really means a lot to me whenever I talk to anybody who’s actually watched it, so thank you.
MB: Happily is a movie that from the very beginning keeps you on your toes, never letting you know where it’s going to go next. Was that something that drew you in when you were reading the script, the fact that every five minutes it’s swerving in a new direction?
KB: Very much so. This script on the page can be hard to grasp, if you can imagine that. So much of the meaning of the movie comes from the filmmaking choices and the technique, the cuts, the score. I think the whole first section of the movie where we’re with Tom and Janet and learning about their perfect – too perfect, maybe – life has you in this place where on the page you don’t understand why you would even be watching this. In the movie, though, there’s this creepy ass score underneath the whole thing, and you’re like, “What am I supposed to understand from this?” When I watch the movie I think I’m left with a lot of questions after it’s over, so it continues to be this mystery in a way that I really love.
MB: When you see the cast list for the movie with all of these well-known comedians, you get this impression that it’s going to be a straightforward comedy. However, even from the first moment where your character is given this striking introduction bathed in red light, you can tell that the movie is doing something unique. Were those stylistic choices something that BenDavid communicated with you beforehand, or were you shocked when you saw the movie and this unique style he brought to it?
KB: BenDavid had made this short film before that really helped communicate that he has the skills and the perspective to manipulate the raw materials of the movie in the way they would have to be in order to make it successful. When talking to him about this movie he was extremely clear on the style and tone, which to me was where this movie was going to live or die. For me, looking at this cast list of extremely intimidating and talented comedians frankly scared the pants off me, but what was great was that it ended up working out where all I had to do was be completely earnest and committed to the moment because BenDavid was so deliberate in the way that he used everything. Those moments could then be funny, they could be scary, they could be sexy, which are all things that I think this movie does. It’s one of things that makes it so unique and bizarre and entertaining.
MB: There’s not many movies that you can accurately dub a “sex comedy thriller”, as I’ve seen you refer to this. One of your first major roles was in Kevin Smith’s Red State, which similarly was a movie very different from what you’d expect when you see Kevin Smith’s name attached to something. It had funny elements, but was very much a horror thriller as well. Are you drawn to movies like this, where you can’t really place them into one neat little box?
KB: Definitely, that’s a thing that I’m into as an audience member, and also as an actor/creator/participant. I think that’s a great way to describe Kevin Smith’s movie, and I think both Red State and Happily have this sense that they’re making fun of the genre, but they’re also very much deeply of the genre, which is a really interesting mashup. There’s this quote that I always think of that says, “There are no new stories, there’s only new ways of telling stories”. You think about the premise of this movie and it sounds like any Judd Apatow movie, but it’s like if David Lynch directed a Judd Apatow script. I find that extremely beguiling, mysterious, and appealing, and also deeply engaging, and intellectually stimulating.
MB: Another thing I’ve noticed you get drawn to a lot are these movies with big ensembles. Red State, Argo, Fitzgerald Family Christmas, and this as well. Is that something that you particularly enjoy doing? It’s almost like a theatre company, with this troupe of actors in the same location bouncing off one another the whole time.
KB: Mitchell! Yeah, it really is! I think making a movie is the most collaborative art form that exists. So many art forms are things that are more singular, but so many people have to come together and express their talent in a movie. Thinking of Happily, you know, the camera crew was incredible, and the production design is just astonishing, the costumes and hair, it takes all of those people to come together and make a movie. I love most the feeling of being on a team. Argo won the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble, and I love it so much because to me it’s basically a teamwork award, and I couldn’t think of anything better than that.
MB: So much of the movie is the group of you in the house together, and it made me realize that aside from the party scene at the beginning you could have made this film with COVID guidelines rather easily, despite the fact that it was shot back in 2019. Did your relationship with the movie change at all between the time you shot it and now, when it’s being released?
KB: It’s hard not to think about everything differently now, you know? I think the last year has put a new lens on literally everything you could think of in your own life, in the world, in America. I actually really think Happily is a great piece of entertainment for right now. When I rewatch it now it makes me think about how much I compare myself to others, or it makes me question whether my fears are self-fulfilling. It’s nice to think about those things instead of thinking about all of the tragedy that I’ve been consumed by for the last 18 months.
MB: That idea of comparing ourselves to others is one of the core themes of the movie, which manifests in how early on we see this resentment within your character’s friend group because they find your marriage to be too “perfect”. Were you interested in the way that the movie dissects that idea of how we’re all constantly comparing ourselves to everyone around us?
KB: Yeah, I think that’s a really important theme in the movie. Also, this idea of who are you choosing to spend time with, who are you allowing into your intimate circle, how well do you know them, and do they really deserve those intimate parts of your life? I think those are great, delicate questions, and really pertinent questions for the world we’re living in now where you can compare yourself to absolutely anybody who’s airbrushed themselves and trying to pass it off like that’s their life.
MB: There are several dream sequences throughout the movie where your character is walking through these eerie woods, shrouded in fog. There’s no dialogue in these scenes, but you do an amazing job of communicating with your facial expressions what she’s going through, tapping into that idea of everything seeming perfect on the surface, yet there’s something not quite right lurking underneath. Could you talk about those scenes and how you got into the right headspace for them?
KB: There’s a lot in this movie that I like to think about as this kind of electric neutral. It has to be able to be perceived as being either totally fine and normal, or this really creepy scary premonition kind of thing, and it would ultimately be the context that would tell you. In those moments though, both of those opportunities had to be alive, so you can’t really do nothing, but you also don’t want to tip it in either direction. It was this real fine line to walk through to allow both of those things to be true. It’s a thing BenDavid does throughout the movie, allowing different opportunities for you to think like, “Is this funny? Am I supposed to laugh? Or is this scary? Or is this creepy? Or do they just love each other?” I think that idea of not ever knowing where to land in any moment is an extremely brave way to make a movie, and one of the things that I’m most proud of about it.
MB: On your Instagram you mentioned a moment during the making of the film where Joel took you on a “high-speed chase” that wasn’t in the script, and cameras weren’t rolling on it. Could you tell us what the story behind that is?
KB: (laughing) We were sitting in the car with a walkie talkie, about to do this shot where we just drive up the street at 10mph and pull into the driveway of the house. While we were sitting there in the car, another car sideswiped us as it was driving by. They nicked our mirror and they continued driving, didn’t stop to check if anything happened or anything like that. Joel was so furious. He took off after the car, and so we were on the walkie talkie, like “Hey, we just had to go real quick, we got hit by a car so we’re gonna chase them down”, and on set they’re freaking out like, “Did Joel just kidnap Kerry Bishé? Is that what just happened?” So, we drove around following this car until we could get close enough to get its license plate. That was a very colorful day on set.
MB: Did you get it resolved?
KB: Um, yeah, we got it resolved. The guy had a talking to from the local police officer.
MB: Something else that I noticed on your Instagram is that you really love penguins. You posted some very cool fun facts about them, like that they trap air bubbles underneath their feathers so that they can go deep underwater, and then launch themselves up out of the water. Where did your love of penguins come from?
KB: (laughing) So, I didn’t know that I was going to love penguins so much. I had seen them at like the zoo or the aquarium before, but then a year ago I went to Antarctica, and it was a mind blowing experience. To me it’s the closest thing you can get to going to outer space, it’s like visiting another planet. When you see penguins, if you just see one tiny little 2-foot tall penguin standing on an iceberg in the middle of nowhere it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. When they’re on land they waddle around, and they trip and fall over. They’re so awkward, and there’s no land predators down there, so they don’t need to be coordinated when they’re on land, so they’re just ridiculous in their little tuxedos. Then, when they go into the water, they’re like superheroes. They go so fast, they’re like lightning. You can’t even see them. So, on that trip I learned a lot of things about penguins, and just found them totally amazing. We need to protect them at all cost.
MB: Yeah, I noticed that you called Antarctica your favorite continent, which is an unconventional choice, but seeing the pictures you posted down there made me feel like I need to go. You’re clearly a big traveler who loves to see the world. What’s one location on your bucket list of places you want to go that you’ve never been to before?
KB: Wow! Well, since going to Antarctica last year I’ve really had to reassess and think about it. Before that I went to the Arctic Circle and saw the Northern Lights, which I’d never seen before, and was absolutely amazing. I learned about this thing where you can swim with killer whales in the wild in the arctic, and also see polar bears, which will be extinct within our lifetime. Going to make a pilgrimage to see some polar bears and swim with Free Willy would be pretty awesome. Going to places that will be either fundamentally different or gone within my lifetime I find particular urgency about. This is a weird one, but I want to go see the Florida Keys before they’re underwater. That’s how I’m trying to think about travel now, and also how to do it responsibly and carbon neutral.
Happily will be available in theaters, on digital, and on demand on March 19th, 2021
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]