Chelsea Peretti Interview

One doesn’t so much speak to Chelsea Peretti during an interview, rather you just kind of hold on and hope you can keep up. It’s clear the writer/stand-up/actor doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and from the moment we began speaking it felt like a test. We were in Whistler, British Columbia for the Word Premiere of Andrea Dorfman’s film Spinster, which follows Gaby, a woman who is coming to terms with finding happiness outside of having a relationship, and leaning into the notion of not needing to follow the social pressures of both companionship and child bearing. It’s a bittersweet film, and Peretti’s unique comic tone provides the film it’s balance that leans towards understanding and empathy without it ever feeling cloying or forced.

Peretti’s career spans work as a writer for shows like Parks and Recreation, long term collaborations with schoolmate Andy Samberg on Brookyn Nine-Nine playing fan favourite Gina Linetti and a brief cameo in the exceptional Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, to years as a stand-up comic and contributor to major publications. The polymath continues to stretch, and like her partner Jordan Peele, she continues to stretch her talents in ways that go well beyond the world of comedy television.

/Film spoke to Peretti and her latest role, about working with Dorfman and her crew in Eastern Canada, and what book this half-Italian, half-Jewish scribe sarcastically wishes she had written.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and concision

Let’s start with a nice easy question: Can comedy change the world? 

I don’t think anything can change the world but I think it can provide important catharsis. I think it can start dialogue and shift thinking but I don’t think any one thing could change the world. But I might feel kind of despondent right now about the world so I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask.

In terms of despondency, you’re in this film called Spinster which is obviously very different than your own personal experience. Could talk about the challenges and the pressures that your childless character represents, and sometimes that that might have been reflected in your own life. How have you personally dealt with pressures of behaving a certain way in terms of child rearing? 

I had a sort of nontraditional path which was stand up comedy, so I never felt that exact kind of expectation. Pressure was definitely not from my parents – They were divorced since I was very young, so I don’t I didn’t have that traditional family pressure bearing down on me. Also, my brother had two twin boys before me so that took a lot of the grandparent yearning off my shoulders. I really could have seen my life going in lots of different ways and, I really was starting to be like, you know what, maybe I’ll just be traveling the world with my hilarious friends and that’ll be an amazing life. I wasn’t despondent, but I didn’t think there were any good men in LA. I thought I would have better chances in New York, but then luckily Jordan [Peele] appeared and then I had a different path.

 Talk about the path of coming into this project. 

I was sent the offer rather from my agency and I read the script and I got a hold of all of Andrea’s movies and watched them and I thought they had a cool vibe. I just liked her voice and just seeing Nova Scotia in her films made me really want to go there. I kind of fell in love with Nova Scotia from the way she uses it, the landscape, in her movies, and so I was like, I’m gonna do this! Also, I want I really wanted to work with Andrea, with a female director and a female cinematographer. I wanted to take that adventure, and I brought my son who was like eight months old at the time. I was still breastfeeding, it was a whole family affair 

So here you are on set breastfeeding your son while doing a film about a woman who isn’t having kids.

It really did feel to me like I could have just as easily, that could have been my story. I mean, I think so much of love is chance, but I do also think probably working on yourself helps to be ready and to be open and in the way that you need to be to find love. I think in the end of that movie Gabby could very well still find love still. I think once you make your life more rich, love can find you easier than if you’re just sort of sitting around at home, obviously. 

The conversation about different voices and people being allowed within the confines of this industry to actually have their stories be told is obviously vital, but can you point to something specific that you think is unique about Andrea’s voice, the individual, as well as the feeling of simply being on set where the sort of top line are run by women?

 I mean, I was just so pleasantly surprised by Andrea and Stephanie’s communication. It was just so calm and creative but I felt like the crew was really high level too. Everyone just felt really smart and creative and enthusiastic and so that was just really nice. It was a really pleasant experience, creative and inspiring to think about the atmosphere and culture that’s possible to have on a set and on a project, that it doesn’t have to be like everyone’s shouting or speaking in urgent hushed tones and people are snipping at each other, and it was just very collaborative and that was a good energy. 

You came up in two areas where that energy is not so calm, being in writers’ rooms and on stage doing standup.

But you know what, being in Mike Schur and Dan Goor’s writers room at Parks and Rec, and Sarah Silverman’s show and Nick Kroll, they’ve been really funny and fun and philosophical. I’ve heard horror stories about writers’ rooms and about different TV shows’ sets too and I’ve kind of lucked out in being around people that have good energy. I sound like a hippie! [laughs]

I’m just trying to not generalize a stereotypical calmness on a female-directed set because that’s infantilizing.

 Oh yeah, I don’t ascribe it to her femaleness. I think that you could have a woman who’s a nightmare. It’s this weird tricky thing because yeah you want to work with a woman, but I also watched all her films. I wasn’t just like sign me up, blindly. I wanted to see what her taste was like.

So you’re not using gender as the main way of determining with who you collaborate? 

Yeah, exactly, I mean, it’s this weird tricky line you dance upon. You know how you’re using the word infantilize? It’s like, yay, a woman! Instead, you want to actually enjoy and feel inspired by them creatively too. 

And in a funny way your partner is also in the midst of these conversations, and how his work is sometimes simplified or compartmentalized in a particular way, be it by race, be it by class, or even genre. I’m just wondering whether or not those kind of heightened questions actually affect the types of projects you do, or are you simply looking for a trip to Nova Scotia and something true in the character? 

I want to work on stuff that says something and that is vital in some way. I think that people are kind of fatigued of hearing a certain kind of story over and over and I think anyone creative is seeking new stories and I’ll be a passenger in someone else’s story. I just think it’s an exciting time where there’s a thirst for different stories to be told and what that translates to is there’s money for those stories so people are starting to make them more. 

Your own identity is from many different places and cultures, do you find that sometimes both easier to navigate differing poles and also frustrating when you actually do get pigeonholed into a particular group? 

It’s funny. I’m trying to think how I’m pigeonholed. Well, now that I’ve played Gina on Brooklyn, Nine-nine, I’m frequently sent secretary roles which I think is hilarious. It’s so uncreative. Before that, I was always sent lawyers and lesbians. I still get sent those kinds of things, it’s like a hard-ass lawyer.

 So you could be a hard-ass lesbian legal secretary.

 Yeah, that would be the ultimate!

 So you’re not getting sent Hustlers?

 I passed on Hustlers. I want that to be the pull quote for this article.

 It was between you and J.Lo?

 Yeah and I was like, you know what, give it to her, she needs some stuff to do. Actually, don’t use that. It won’t look good in print. [laughs] I mean, people do have a type and it’s silly to fight that. I like to be in my wheelhouse, but yeah, I don’t want to only play secretaries for the rest of my career. I think I have more to explore.

 Do you see Spinster as a political film? 

I actually do. I think that most art is political if it’s exploring something other than the status quo. I do think that self-love is not something that is pushed down women’s throats as much as self-hate and wanting to be different than who you are and wanting to fit in. I don’t think it’s like a massively political film but I think it quietly has an interesting message. I think I could see it being provocative for someone who hasn’t been living their life to the fullest.

In your own life, what is the biggest change that you saw that you thought you would never do once you had a kid? 

That’s a great question. 

Like one of those, before you had a kid, I’ll never, this will never happen, and that was happening, smells you never thought you would actually be experiencing. 

Well smells. I mean that really runs the gamut. I hated moms using words like poop and boob and stuff but now I’m like, what are you gonna do? You can’t be like, oh, you took a shit, you know? Oh, here suck on my tit! You kind of have to soften the blow a little bit. Just the other day my son was just calling me momma pig for some reason. We play a lot of pretend like he’s a baby bear and this and that and then he said something like mama pig make me some toast. I’m just listening to that command and making toast and thinking, what has my life become? My life was so atypical in that traditional sense, and having a kid and getting married seemed like the most crazy choice and the most wild adventure.

 You ran away from the circus.

Yeah like continuing on and dating seemed like the more pedestrian choice and this definitely has not disappointed. Tt’s a twist at every turn.

You made a choice to leave Brooklyn Nine-Nine. What was that like?

Well it’s hard to discuss these kinds of things in their full depth because you just never really can fully. But I loved that experience and I love that group of people so much. I wrote a movie and I have created an album. I’ve been making a music album for the last eight months and it’s like a comedy music album.

More Spinal Tap or Tenacious D? Or more Tom Lehrer? 

I don’t know who Tom Lehrer is. But I think that my influences are probably pretty different from Tenacious D being that I grew up in Oakland in the 90s.

 Slightly more hip-hop? 

Yeah. I mean not that it’s a hip-hop album by any means, but it genre spans. It has amazing features and it’s just been this crazy rabbit hole that I’ve gone down, which is all to say that I have been really, really creative in the past months and feel excited about sharing. 

I asked Simon Pegg the same question, if you could be funny or musical, what would you choose?

And what did he say? 

His father was a jazz pianist, but he said comedy. You’re creative through writing and trying to get that now, but there’s something immediate and beyond words with music.

Exactly and I think in today’s times which are so…I want to say the word “consternation”, but I don’t know how to fit it into the sentence

“Horse-shittery.”

 Yeah in today’s horse-shittery I feel like music has been really, really satisfying because you can get so much more emotion into it than just yammering on stage. It’s been really fun working on music because it’s so similar to stand up in a way. You open the song, and you want people to have some sense of the premise quickly so they’re not disoriented and then you want to surprise them at some point. It’s just been really cool seeing how a creative process translates into all these different mediums.

Can you talk specifically about how you’re doing music? Do you play an instrument?

I have a producer that used to make songs for my podcast and he was always like we should do an album. Now it’s evolved into a, it’s a concept album and he’s a legit real producer and so the music sounds amazing. We’ve got all these features and stuff, it just keeps growing into more and more stuff, we just shot a music video.

 Who shot your music video? 

 Numa Perrier. Her film Jezebel just got acquired by Array which is Ava DuVernay’s company and so it’s gonna be on Netflix.

Another coincidentally female director that’s not coincidentally excellent. 

Exactly and she’s so fucking awesome and this thing looks amazing. It’s just gonna be a real left turn. 

So what are we going to see next? 

A movie that I wrote that I hope to direct, and stand up, I would ultimately like to do another special. I’m not sure the timeframe, but there probably will be some live shows around the music.

Who’s the first comedian you saw that made you think I want to do this, and what was the first movie you saw that made you think I want to do this? 

You know, I will always think about watching Eddie Murphy with my grandmother, Raw I think it was. SNL characters like Gilda Radner, or Lucille Ball, were the women that made me think that I could do this. I didn’t want to do stand up until much later in life. I was doing acting and then I was doing improv and then I started doing stand-up. Radner and Ball were definitely up there in my early comedy favorites, and then Parker Posey in all the Christopher Guest stuff, or House of Yes. She was an idol, Catherine O’Hara was another. Many of my idols were not standups, but then I just sort of liked stand up because I could write my own material, be myself and have my own thoughts and so I just kind of gravitated to it for those reasons. 

Have you ever read something and you know that if you would have been there first that’s something you would have written? In other words, you read something and it was so in your voice and you knew that that person just got there first.

 Yes, Mein Kampf. [laughs]

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