LAUREN GRAHAM as JOAN BAXTER
It was quite possibly the busiest month of Lauren Graham’s career. For four hectic weeks she combined filming her hit TV show, The Gilmore Girls, in Los Angeles with starring alongside Steve Carrell in Evan Almighty - which, by the way, happened to be filming in Virginia.
That’s quite a commute but it was worth it. “Oh yes it was,” she smiles. “I really wanted to do Evan Almighty so badly and I was delighted that I was able to make it work.
“The issue became the schedule because the movie started a month before the show ended. And we shot the movie in Virginia – and the show was shot here in LA – so it wasn’t even like New York, or some place where you could fly direct.
“So there was a little bit of Universal helping out with their planes and stuff. And, you know, it was fun - it was like rock star stuff! I’d work in one state and then fly and work in the next state the next day. But I just felt so thankful they would do that because I just really wanted to do the movie.”
Evan Almighty is the follow up to the blockbuster hit Bruce Almighty which starred Jim Carrey as a TV newsman given Godly powers and Steve Carrell as his preening rival, Evan Baxter.
In the new film, which, like the first is directed by Tom Shadyac, Evan has recently been elected to Congress and moves his family, wife Joan (Graham) and their three boys, to the suburban town of Huntsville, Virginia, where he will try and live up to his campaign promise to ‘change the world.’
But Evan’s new life is hijacked quite literally, by the Almighty – once again in the human form of Morgan Freeman who also played God in the first film – who has other plans for him. “God, in the delightful form of Morgan, wants him to build an ark to survive an impending flood,” explains Graham. “Which, as you can imagine, leads his family to believe that he’s going a little loopy.”
Featuring spectacular special effects and a host of animals, Evan Almighty is, she says, a film about relationships which happens to be a biblical epic and a very funny comedy.
“To be straight man to such a great comedic actor was something I’d never done and that was fantastic,” she says. “But I couldn’t have imagined how that stuff – all the amazing effects - would look at the end because I was more focused on the dialogue. But when I saw the finished movie I was absolutely blown away. It’s incredible what they’ve done.”
Graham, was born and raised in northern Virginia, and studied English at Barnard College in New York before taking a master of fine arts degree in acting at the Southern Methodist University.
Her sitcom, Gilmore Girls, ended last year after a remarkable seven year run and more than 150 episodes. She’s still getting used to the new found freedom and adjusting to saying goodbye to project that dominated her life for so long.
“It’s very rare that something runs that long. Having had a commitment that lasted so long I‘m now enjoying the freedom. You know, the idea of, ‘There’s a project, let’s do it!” And then you’ll be free to do something else.
“And I’m just sort of finding out where I am as an actor and as a person and I don’t want to go back and work as hard as I did on the show just yet. I’m happy to have some more variety and learn something from other actors and directors. So I don’t really have a plan.”
Q: How did the role come about? Were you still doing your show?
A: It’s funny on a big movie like this because you just kind of hear they’re considering you, that you’re in the mix of a group of people. I had a meeting with Tom (Shadyac) that was really fun and nice. And then the issue became the schedule because the movie started a month before the show ended and that was a year ago. And you know I’m in a lot of the show so they had never really been able or been inclined to work around it because there’s no way. Except when they heard of this movie, because the director has such an amazing track record and Steve (Carrell) as well, they knew it was going to be a big deal and they worked it out. It was quite difficult, but Universal was helpful too. But for a month or so I was flying back and forth.
Q: That’s a big commute…
A: Yeah, we shot the movie in Virginia and the show was here (LA). So it’s not even like New York or some place you could fly directly to. There was a little bit of Universal helping out with their planes and stuff. But this was fun. It was like rock star stuff. I’d work in one state and then fly and work in the next state the next day. But I just felt so thankful they would do that because I just really wanted to do the movie.
Q: It’s a move that incorporates different genres – comedy, biblical epic, special effects blockbuster. How did Tom describe it to you?
A: Well I’m not good at imagining that special effects stuff. I just really try to connect to the character and the relationship. My scenes are pretty simple and straightforward. And to be straight man to such a great comedic actor was something I’d never done and that was fantastic. But I couldn’t have imagined how that stuff – all the amazing effects - would look at the end because I was more focused on the dialogue. But when I saw the finished movie I was absolutely blown away. It’s incredible what they’ve done.
Q: The production actually built an ark?
A: Yes, in several stages. The main part was built first, because that’s where most of the action takes place and then the end bit was added later. The ark was a huge, mammoth thing that became almost a tourist attraction in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a college town and kids would drive by night and shout, “Whoaaa!” out of their car windows. That was where we shot all the pre-flood stuff and they built it in sequence, because we shot a lot of the movie in order. So when I got out to Virginia it was an empty field and then there were huge piles of lumber there, then there were the bones of it, and then it was built and that mimics what happens in the story, which was pretty cool.
Q: That must help you as an actor, actually having that construction there in front of you?
A: Oh absolutely. We shot that stuff and the scenes where all the reporters come. Hundreds of extras were out in the boiling heat. They appeared to be having a lot of fun. Then we came back on stage to do the water stuff. All the exterior stuff, which is really the bulk of the stuff we shot, was real. There was nothing that needed to be added there except animals. And then we shot on a stage for some of the waves and the flood scenes. And they built a piece of the boat in conjunction with a wave machine so that we would be doused with the water. That was amazing.
Q: Was that here at the Studio?
A: Yes, that was here. That was outside and you had to walk up this crazy ladder to get to this thing. It was the beginning, I’m sure, of what will be a ride someday Laughs. The ark ride! And the guys who built it were working on this thing for months because they wanted it to look as real as possible. So they made it so that it actually moves and water’s falling and stuff. I’m sure other actors have it far worse on big blockbuster movies, where they have to use imagination alone. They’re reacting to absolutely nothing, a piece of tape marked out on the floor, and being flown around with the green screen. But not on this. Plus a lot of the animal stuff was real. A lot of the animals did amazing things.
Q: So you had real animals to work with?
A: Yes, you had to use your imagination for some of the animal stuff but not all of it. At times you were supposed to be having a reaction to hundreds of animals so they’d at least use a couple of animals, which was weird enough to fire up the imagination. I actually didn’t work with the animals very much so I’m afraid I haven’t got any funny animal stories for you. Most of my stuff was with Steve and the boys.
Q: The flood scenes when you are on the ark are spectacular. Tell me how you shot those…
A: It was sort of two weeks of being squishy and wet. And you change at lunch and peel your jeans off and I always found it funny that there is all this technology and all this amazing advances that have been made in film making yet still the best way to get an actor wet is to hose him down with a hose Laughs. There are no special effects, you just have to be wet and so you try to find a patch of sun and stand shivering in it. And they do all of us at the same time; a huge crowd and then spray your hair more when you’re needed in shot.
Q: Were those the days when you think, ‘What a job!?’
A: Well there are so many days when I think ‘what is this job?’ But all that stuff is helpful to tell a story and there are many kinds of different stories to tell. So a lot of what I’ve done on the TV show has been telling stories about relationships and this is a story about a bigger event and all the costuming and the effects and the water helps you to tell the story, so it’s kind of fun.
Q: It’s a story with a real heart and one of the themes is that we have to protect our environment which is very timely. Did that appeal to you?
A: Totally. But I’m not in the business of making a message out of the things I choose. But you do have to connect to the story you’re telling in some way. I didn’t do it because I’m only out to make movies with a message. But, yeah, I thought it was great because the movie is really funny and fun and not heavy handed. It should be a fun family movie, but also it is about Steve’s character and his journey. It’s about a man who isn’t aware and then becomes aware. And I think that’s a cool thematic arc that’s taking place in this country anyway. Maybe people aren’t aware of the effects of what they’re doing and how it’s affecting the planet or maybe they’ve thought about it but don’t know or aren’t too sure. But this will raise consciousness now and it’s funny too!
Q: Steve’s star has risen considerably since Bruce Almighty. What was it like working with him?
A: It was great. To me when I saw The 40 Year-Old Virgin I thought, ‘Oh this guy’s really an actor. He’s not just whacky. He created a character and an idea and then the funny stuff happens out of that.’ I think he’s a person of great depth. He’s nice but also very smart. Very precise in his work.
And the thing people ask is ‘Was it hard to keep a straight face?’ Well he’s very funny but those weren’t the scenes we had. It’s more about where this family is and what’s happening and I loved doing it.
Q: You’ve worked on Gilmore Girls for seven years. How does it feel now it’s over?
A: I don’t know yet. It was such a strange year, where the whole year the question was, ‘Are we going to keep going?’ And there were mixed feelings for many reasons and I’m happy that it ended but I think it could have had more ceremony to the ending. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the people. I think it was the right thing for the show and for me personally, but then I went right to work on the little movie that I’m doing, so I still have the boxes from my dressing room in my garage. I don’t know how you end something like that and talking to some of the other actors that I’ve seen, many people don’t know how you end that. And it’s so rare that a show goes on for that long and there isn’t a thing in place that says, ‘Here’s how you say goodbye to it.’ But it’s helpful that I have this movie to talk about and then I’m doing this other thing, an independent movie that Hilary Swank is producing, Laws of Motion. And I’m doing another film with Greg Kinnear called Flash of Genius.
Q: Do you want to concentrate more on film in the future?
A: I love TV and I think I’ll do it again. But I also know that it’s very rare that something runs that long. Having had a commitment that lasted so long, I‘m now enjoying the freedom.
Q: When did you first know that you wanted to get into acting?
A: I think it was something I had as a kid.
Q: Are your parents involved in the business at all?
A: Well, no. I grew up with my dad. My mum had been a singer a little bit and was sort of artistic. I grew up kind of where this movie takes place in the suburbs of DC. And everybody that I knew, their parents were lawyers and diplomats.
Q: So where did the acting come from?
A: I don’t know. My dad was a big reader and always read to me and so storytelling was in our house. I started doing plays as a kid, and acting just seemed to be the next natural thing for me. But where you get the drive to do it as a profession, I don’t really know.
Q: And your dad was supportive?
A: I think it got easier the more I was able to support myself. He was like, ‘Oh, yes, totally! I’ve always said you should be an actress.’ But I think he thought I’d grow out of it, like horse riding, because I was big horseback rider as a kid and he’d take me to lessons and he’d say, ‘Well it’s a girl thing and they grow out of it. And I did grow out of it.
Q: But is it true you wanted to be a jockey at one point?
A: Yes, but I also wanted to be a mounted policeman Laughs. It was anything to do with horses. I love horses and it was like ‘how can I be around horses?’ And then I end up as an actress! Very weird! Laughs.