Rachael Harris has proven herself to be a very funny person. Her roles have ranged from a brief stint on “The Daily Show” ten years ago to performing opposite Kirstie Alley in “Fat Actress” and playing Ed Helms’ bitchy fiancee in “The Hangover.” Now, however, Harris has proven she has more than pure comedy to offer. In “Natural Selection,” she plays Linda White, a married Christian woman from Texas unable to have children, but still devoted to a settled life with her husband. That all changes when she finds out he has been a sperm donor for years, and has a grown son living across the country. When her husband suddenly finds himself on his death bed, Linda hits the road to find his mysterious spawn, who turns out to be wanted criminal Raymond (Matt O’Leary).
Directed by first-timer Robbie Pickering from his Hollywood blacklist screenplay, the movie swept the SXSW awards in March, landing trophies for Pickering in addition to breakthrough performance nods for Harris and O’Leary. Since then, it has traveled the festival circuit and found more acclaim. Shortly before the first screening at the L.A. Film Festival this week, Harris sat down with indieWIRE to discuss why she took a turn for the dramatic side.
You’re not exactly a newcomer, but you’re definitely broadening your range here.
It didn’t feel like it was something I didn’t know was there. It was a do-or-die thing. I really wanted to do things that weren’t comic. It felt like finding people who can see this other side to me. I think Linda is honestly closer to me than all those other funny characters.
Were you looking for a performance like this when you learned about the project?
I told my agent which women I aspire to have a career like: Frances McDormand, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney and Emma Thompson–character actresses who have something to say. I also said that I loved Madeline Kahn and Jessica Lange. When I studied theater, my intention wasn’t to do comedy. I wanted to go to New York and be a stage actress, doing things like Chekhov. None of that happened, and then I went to L.A. and an agent said, “I think you belong in commercials and TV.” So I did that and got some opportunities that I absolutely love. But my intention wasn’t to only do comedy.
Was it hard to convince Robbie to cast you?
Originally, he didn’t want to meet me. But he was doing meetings with back-ups in case the person he really wanted pulled out. I knew if I could get in the room I could change his perception of me, if not the casting. Robbie and I met in Beverly Hills. We both live in Silverlake. I went through a terrible divorce a few years ago, and there’s one scene in the movie that I really related to where Linda is brushing her teeth in front of a double sink, and she has to turn the water on the other sink because she used to having somebody else there. I…felt like I knew who that really was from that scene. I struggled with that so, so much. From the meeting he was like, “She’s actually more like the character than when she tries to act like her.”
What does that mean?
As much as I don’t want to admit it, I really am a people pleaser. If I throw a party at my house, it’s hard for me to relax. I’m too obsessed with whether everyone’s having a good time. I would love to say it’s because I’m worried about you, but it’s more about how I look. That’s how Linda operated for so much of her life–doing the right thing because of how the church would receive her.
Well, that’s certainly a helpful quality to have when you’re working on a low budget movie.
(laugh) To be a people pleaser? Yeah! I think because I was raised with a working class mentality, which is that you start in the middle and work your way up, I have the same feeling about my acting career. I thought, well, I have to start out doing this. When we went down to New Orleans to shoot, my foot went through the trailer, because they were post-Katrina trailers. The toilet didn’t work. Our producers didn’t know about that on the first day, and they didn’t know how I was gonna respond. I was just like, “I’ll use the restroom in the restaurant.” That same night, we had a terrible wardrobe problem, because somebody made a continuity error. We were shooting out of order, so you have to remember everything you wear. We had to go to Walmart at one o’clock in the morning to buy the right clothes. So it was really collaborative.
What was exciting about the material?
Matt and I both felt these characters were great for us to play. I didn’t know if Robbie would be a good director, but he had a great handle on the material. It felt great to work with a young director. We shot the whole thing in 18 days. We ate goldfish instead of craft services. Everyone was so nice. How many times after takes do crew members come over and say, “How did you do that?”
Probably not often on the T.V. productions you’ve worked on.
I just did this pilot for Shawn Levy. Every two hours they would bring something for him. Robbie would go without eating for eight hours and start to freak out. It was a totally different experience, although both experiences are awesome. I left Austin during South by Southwest and went directly into shooting the pilot with Shawn called “Family Album.” I took picture of the craft service table, and it was as long as a hallway. I sent it to the guys who were still in Austin. This was the entire amount of food we ate for the whole “Natural Selection” shoot. So that makes you appreciate both.
In one case you have stability, and the other experience is more about working outside of that safety zone.
And there’s not enough time to think. There aren’t 18 people. It was just about whether or not the light was in the right place and if we hit our marks.
Did Robbie give much leeway for interpreting the character?
I worked with a coach and we went through the character to figure out the arc. Since we weren’t shooting in order, I needed to know where I would be emotionally at different points, so it wouldn’t be out of order. I had a chart for it.
How did the chart work?
It’s like a graph that shows you where you are emotionally, in terms of how high or low the stakes are. With Linda, they’re pretty high, but there are some moments when it comes back down.
Were you surprised that the movie won so many awards at SXSW?
Yeah, I was. We had no sense of what would happen. I could tell Roger Ebert liked it, because his wife Chaz said so. He kept writing that he couldn’t say anything since he was on the jury. He did give me the thumbs up. I was like, “I just got a personal-fucking-thumbs-up from Roger Ebert. I grew up watching him. So that was a thing. It was crazy for me.
Have you received more offers for parts like this since SXSW?
I don’t think enough people have seen it yet. But I do want those opportunities to do more interesting movies.