It’s long been established that Jessica Walter, who plays the wonderfully boozy, manipulative matriarch Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development,” is nothing like her character. But what’s interesting is precisely how much that’s the case — not just a genuinely nice person, Walter oozes sincerity – and more than that, gratitude. Even after working for more than 50 years in Hollywood, she’s still enormously appreciative for all of the opportunities she enjoys, and genuinely enthusiastic about what’s yet to come. And with “Arrested Development” set to return on May 26, what’s yet to come holds enormous promise.
Indiewire sat down with Walter at a recent Los Angeles press day for the Netflix series, where she nobly tried to explain the complex narrative latticework that show creator Mitch Hurwitz used to revive “Arrested Development” from its seven-year slumber for a 15-episode premiere slated for May 26th. Admitting that even she didn’t quite understand all of it, she discussed the process of getting back in the bottle with Lucille and rekindling the rhythms of the Bluth family with her fellow castmates. And if that wasn’t enough, she talked about the “Dr. Strange” movie she made in 1978 that she still marvels at (no pun intended), if only because it managed to presage what she might look like when she reached her current age of 72.
You had been doing “Archer” prior to returning to “Arrested Development.” Do you make a clear distinction between the two, or did Malory help you get back into character as Lucille?
When you do animated features, animated TV – and we don’t say cartoons. I got jumped on when I once said it was a cartoon — but when you do animation, you can be so much broader. You almost have to be, because there’s a certain energy to that kind of voice work, because that’s all you have, your voice, to make it work. So I don’t relate the two at all.
Yes, they’re both mothers that don’t know how to show love to their kids. They’re both control freaks. Of course, now the more I’m speaking about it, the more it sounds like they’re definitely alike. But Malory runs a whole big business, and Lucille is not self-made; all of her trappings come from other people — from her husband, from manipulating businesses, not creating them. And I think there’s a big difference between somebody who’s self-made and somebody who’s just living off other people.
How do you make that distinction when you’re performing those characters?
Well, for instance, with Lucille, one of the main things I thought about was her goal is to stay in the lifestyle she’s accustomed to living in, and so what does she have to do to achieve that? Malory, she works for a living and she runs the business — she makes the money and she doesn’t have to rely on people. Well, she has to rely on her agents to do their job, but she’s the boss. Lucille secretly is the boss, but her husband doesn’t know it. She’s the woman behind the man, pushing, grabbing.
What approach did you want to take with the character, and how much did you leave it up to Mitch and co. to recreate the energy she had?
From the beginning, when we first did the series, the writing is there, and as an actor, you decide the back story of the character — you usually make it up — because it fits your idea of what the character should be. And once that character is in your DNA, which Lucille was for three seasons, it was easy to just snap back into it when I saw the scripts. And the writers are so brilliant, our writers — it’s very character-specific writing. And the funny stuff is not like jokes, the funny stuff is because of the characters and their relationships, which is one reason why I think the show is so well-liked by sophisticated audience, and maybe why it wasn’t the right show for Fox at the time, certainly, back then.
The third season of the show was very metatextual, talking about its struggles to stay on the air. How much does the new series do the same thing, talk about the time that’s passed and where it’s ended up?
Hopefully it feels like, oh wow, here are the Bluths, they’re back and we’re going to find out what happens. We pick up directly from where we left off.
Does it acknowledge the time that has passed?
I think we do. I think we definitely do.
How much of a scene would you shoot, even if certain parts were only for certain episodes?
It was all shot at once. For instance, in the episode you saw at the premiere, the scene with the family, which was very brief, Portia was in that scene, and so was David Cross, but their angles were not shown in that episode. They will be shown in their episodes. And in my episode, for instance, much more of that scene that wasn’t shown will be shown. And in Buster’s episode… you know, from everybody’s angle. That scene ran for, like, 10 pages. Not the little two minutes that you saw in the premiere.
So when you get that 10-page scene–
It will say, this is to be for Buster’s episode, and it’s in slanted writing so you don’t get crazy. It was a very interesting way to work. [wink]
How much do you know about the narrator’s monologues when you’re acting in a scene?
It’s scripted so they’re in there, and many times we’ll have to take a pause in the middle of a scene to leave room for a Ron line. So yeah, we know about them. How brilliant is he as the narrator? How about him in the show, playing the director? Or playing the producer, or whatever. It was in the premiere. Oh! You didn’t get that one. Well, they showed it at the premiere, so it’s not a secret.
How easy was it to fall back into the rhythms of the family?
To add on about my comments about the other thing — the other side of it was that you really had to be on your toes. It was a really good exercise for actors, because you’ve got to be open, you’ve got to be relaxed enough to, you know, go with the flow, and to me I would either be doing some of my best work, or some of my worst. But it was challenging, it was interesting. I’d never worked like that before.
You’re obviously nothing like the character. But is there an aspect of you they wrote into the character as a result of your interpretation of her?
That’s such an interesting question — I’ve never thought about that. But I think that when you’re a regular on a show, they do sort of probably glean– they hear your voice, and start to write a little bit in that direction, that they feel your voice is. I’m sure that’s true, that they did that for all of the characters.
Her reaction to Gene Parmesan, for example, almost seems out of character for her. But is that something you came up with?
I remember that. It’s funny because I’ve had a lot of scripts and things in the past where it says, “so-and-so screams.” And to me, if you’ve got to scream, you’ve got to really scream. So I think the first thing they wrote was “Lucille squeals with delight” or something, and to me that was like a scream.
And in the pilot, when George Sr. is talking “I’m going to give my company to the most sexy, the most wonderful…” and everybody thinks it’s Michael. And he says to Lucille, and there was no scream in there, and I screamed. And from that they did a whole thing with flowers, and I don’t know — it says scream, I scream! Or squeal, I squeal.
But the Gene Parmesan thing — Lucille is multi-faceted, and I think that’s good about the writers, they realize you can be silly and still be Lucille, or you can be serious if you’re Tobias. Multi-layered, our writers wrote us multi-layered.
Do you interact with Jeffrey Tambor’s character differently as Oscar than you do with him as George?
Yes, yes, because Oscar in Lucille’s mind is just a pathetic loser.
Who she’s sort of in love with.
Well, yeah – but I think she really loves George, or they could not have stayed together all these years. There’s a lot of hanky-panky going on for the two elders of the group.
How does that distinction manifest itself in terms of your collaboration with Jeffrey?
When he comes on as Oscar, he’s so different that that’s what I react to. I’m reacting to Jeffrey playing that sad-sack Oscar who’s so crazy about me. When he comes on as George, I react to him as George Sr. The funny thing is sometimes Lucille doesn’t know which one it is, and you’ll see that coming up too. I may never work again because I’m giving away these little things.
Did you have any concerns that they would be integrating guest stars like Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen into the show, since they might take away from the screen time the original family might have?
I never thought about that. No no no, and obviously when you get someone like Kristen Wiig to play you as a young woman, I mean, I was blown away — I was thrilled. It never occurred to me to think of them like “the guest star of the moment.” It’s all such an ensemble piece, and the thought that we could attract such good people, like John Slattery. I never thought about it. Honestly, they were just part of the cast that week.
Changing gears a little bit, you did a TV movie in the late ’70s, a Dr. Strange movie.
Oh my God! You have done your homework! “Dr. Strange.”
People want to see a movie about him, but that occurred when those adaptations were in their inception. Did you have any idea these would become the phenomenon they are?
Never. Never. I think that was like 1978, but never could I have foreseen it. That has a big cult following, that little Dr. Strange movie.
Have you revisited it?
No, but somebody – there was a clip of it on the internet, me being 180 years old, standing on a cliff where they do the old age face with the cast of your face, and it’s scary because it’s kind of what I’ve started to look like. So I was like, quick, turn it off! Yeah, I haven’t seen it in years and years and years.
Would you come back for a Dr. Strange movie now?
First of all, I’m about 500 years too old for that part, because she was in her early thirties, that character. But I could do a cameo as her great-grandma.
Why do you think it is that we like watching these people that we don’t like?
Or people that you love to hate. Well, I know I do — I love watching movies with people that I hate. I love those old movies with Bette Davis where she’s the evil one. Because we all have that in us, and we can’t really act on it as the audience, but we can watch the actor act on it and it sort of releases those feelings in us. You know, everybody has those feelings of rage and murder and manipulation, and we can’t really do them in real life. So watching someone else do them, I think, is a release.
Do you feel like that’s a timeless idea? Because it seems like that’s the focus of a lot of shows now — “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Archer”…
“Dallas”! J.R. — everybody loved hating him, and he had his vulnerable spot. He was like a real person — he did everything for his son, and he wasn’t a cliché villain at all. I think if you can find the vulnerability in your villains… Lucille, for instance, she really loves Buster, and the idea that Buster might walk away is so horrifying. I remember some early episode, in the old days, and Buster said something about her, and she goes, “My Buster? My Buster said that?” I don’t know.
How has this and “Archer” introduced you to a different kind of fan — animation, sci-fi, as opposed to fans of your older work?
“Archer” fans are wild — they’re wild. I did a couple of those “Archer” live shows, and honestly, I didn’t know about half of what they were talking about. I really didn’t. But you know, I am just so lucky because people are so nice. Maybe it’s because I’m old or something, but they’re so polite and nice. I haven’t had any bad experiences with fans. It’s not like I’m Rock Hudson and they’re like, “Oh my God!” and you can’t walk anywhere.
My fun experiences are when I’m walking around just like me in New York where I live, no makeup, no hair, with a dog, and people say, “You know, you look just like that woman who plays Lucille Bluth.” And then they walk away! [laughs] They walk away. So it’s fine by me.