I always wanted to be an actress in movies since I was really young and that came before wanting to be a comedian. When I was middle school I think I started developing defense mechanism skills, like comedy or whatever, for survival. And then I got into “SNL” and improv and “Second City” and all that kind of stuff. When I saw that people like Adam Sandler, who would do really funny crazy movies like “Billy Madison” and then do “Punch Drunk Love,” that’s when I kind of devised an evil plot to try and do both. You can only plan so much and you never know what’s going to happen. I’m just lucky that I’m acting as a profession, but I always wanted to do both things.
When you were tasked for the first time to carry a feature in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” did you have doubts?
Yeah. Every moment is filled with doubt, for me. I was really nervous about being in the entire movie and I think I was so used to kind of popping in and out of things, like being funny and leaving. But to have to navigate the arc of a character and their transformation throughout a movie is really tricky. But it’s a challenge that I really like and something that I really crave. So that’s how I see leading a movie, being a leading lady. It’s more about being able to navigate the entire movie. But yes, I was always doubtful and continue to be.
Have you eased into it more though?
I feel a little more confident about it just because the more you do it the more you are used to it. And also, Amy Poehler was instrumental just in shaping how I am in a leadership role because she’s so good at it on “Parks” — being the star of the show and being able to be professional and have it be the funniest ever, but then also have a good time. All that stuff I think is combined in making a good movie. So I learned a lot from her too. I don’t know if I’m getting any better at it, but I’m just gonna keep doing it as long as people let me.
She must be a proud momma.
Amy? I think so. Yeah, we love each other a lot. I think she’s always proud — we call each other mommy too. So I’m a proud mother of her too.
What’s the story behind that?
No story. Just a term of endearment that stuck, I guess. But, yeah we mother each other. It’s nice.
You were talking about character arc earlier. Beth goes through a hell of a lot in this comedy. Is that what appealed to you most about the role?
Yes. Normally a character goes through an emotional transformation or a coming of age or something. But in this movie I literally transform into a monster, so the physical part of that was really appealing to me. I hadn’t really gotten to do a physical movie. It was really appealing to me because being a zombie… a zombie is a made up thing. So in my mind it was kind of cool to create our version of whatever that is.
Did you have total freedom to create your own interpretation of a zombie?
A lot of it was in the script. But there was so much up for interpretation. You know, when you read the dialogue and it’s just a bunch of sounds, I have to figure out how to make those sounds in what way. So it was a collaboration. It came from Jeff’s imagination first and my imagination on top of that… and then the elements.
You’re so known for your deadpan humor, but the term deadpan is not one I’d use to describe your zany performance as Beth, a lovesick zombie. Did you take on this role to surprise people?
I am getting all kinds of tired with the word deadpan. I wish I never heard it again because I hear it so much. I think my personal sense of humor will always come through in any character I do because that’s just a part of me. I get the question though. It’s hard for me to have perspective on myself like that. People tell me I’m one way and I’m like, “am I?” I don’t know.
Do you watch yourself on camera?
I do sometimes. People encourage me to and I really resist it because every time I do it’s never a positive experience for me. It doesn’t really do anything for me. I don’t do anything for myself. I don’t turn myself on in any way. So I’m more interested in the work. If you told me I was never allowed to see anything that I did I’d be like “Great, sounds good to me!”
Watching yourself in this must have been especially jarring.
I’ve seen this movie more than I’ve seen any movie that I’ve ever made because my boyfriend directed it and wrote it and I live with him, so it was a constant thing in my life for a longtime, but also because I’m playing such a character. It was easier for me to separate those things and not judge myself as harshly.
Were you at all wary of playing a manic and vengeful basket case in a film written and directed by your partner?
I mean he knows what he signed up for. He knows how capable I am of becoming a manic, basket case so there were no surprises there.
Are you a big zombie fan?
Honestly, no. I’m not not a fan. I don’t watch “The Walking Dead” even though I want to because everyone tells me how good it is. I mean I don’t know. I guess I’m not that big of a zombie horror fan. But I like watching them.
Did you go full method playing Beth?
It sounds like a joke, but I think I did stay in character a lot. I can’t help that really. It’s not like I’m being Beth or I was Beth on set, but I usually carry the energy of whatever character I’m playing around with me. I’m not going to call myself a method actor at all, but I think I’m capable of heading into that direction because I usually get really consumed by whatever I’m doing. I would say that I was a little bit of a manic weirdo on set. I wasn’t eating anyone. I wasn’t breaking walls, jaws or laws. All of those I did not break.
I read that you put your back out when carrying that fake stove on your back as Beth. Was that just a story made up to get press?
I didn’t hurt my back, but I did tear my abdominal wall. I tore muscles in my abdominal wall, if that’s a thing. The first time that I tried to lift it up in the kitchen I hadn’t practiced it and it was really heavy. It was like doing a massive crunch and I felt like I ripped something. So I did injure myself. But then I went back and they fixed it and they made it kind of more manageable and then I carried the fridge up that mountain.
You didn’t need time to recover?
I did not. I mean I was recovering as we did it. I wasn’t dying or anything. I was in great pain. I actually had thought an organ had burst in my stomach. But the day after I did that I had to fly London to do “Parks” because we were shooting the season premiere in London, so I had got on a plane thinking my organ had burst. But then I saw a doctor there and they told me I tore an abdominal thing. And then I flew back and finished shooting the movie.
What kind of approach are you taking to your career going forward?
Well, I don’t have as much control over the projects that I do as much as I would like, but I try to be selective, I guess, in whatever I read. But most of the things I read aren’t things that I can do just if I feel like it. It’s stuff that I really still have to pursue, so it’s really just a day-to-day kind of hustle. I guess my focus really, right now, is working with really talented directors and people that I respect and admire. I’m not so much concerned with a strategy for fame or whatever. It’s more that I want to work with good people. And the more you work and the more people that like your work, the more opportunities you get to be in movies like a Coen brothers movie or stuff like that. That’s what I would like to do. But I can only plan so much. I just got to keep it cool and collected, and not freak out.