A conversation with Louie Anderson is never rushed. Like a swimmer taking leisurely strokes in a pond, the comedian covers ground but may meander at times, such is the enjoyment of being in his element.
IndieWire’s first interview with Anderson in January took enough unexpected turns that a secondary phone call was required to finish the talk. As a stand-up comedian and storyteller at heart, discussing his Emmy-winning role of Christine Baskets on FX’s bittersweet comedy “Baskets” sent Anderson off into contemplative explorations about the character, his own mother who inspired his portrayal and how his life has changed in the past few years.
“I’ve lost a lot of siblings. That changes you completely and makes you think differently. And age, getting older,” Anderson told IndieWire. “This role helped with being a nicer person, like going, ‘You know, Louie, it’d be okay for you to adopt all that stuff that mom did: not being mean and not be so easy to get mad when things don’t go your way.’ When you have success, you tend to become a prima donna, and I stopped that. So I’m looking at the world a little differently. I want to see things better out there.”
He also gave credit to an unexpected source for pushing his career in a new direction: “Splash,” the high-diving reality competition show that had a brief run on ABC in 2013. Not only did Anderson overcome his fears to dive off the 10-meter platform on his first outing, but he followed that with a backflip in the next episode. It was a feat that would’ve had the average person shaking in their swim trunks, much less an overweight, 60-year-old man.
“I think that ‘Splash’ was the start of a metamorphosis for me, a change,” he said. “‘Splash’ was what whet the appetite of America to think about Louie Anderson again. I really think that it made people think, ‘Huh, that’s pretty cool what he’s doing,’ like I was being brave because I was scared. I have vertigo. I’m terrified of heights.”
Perhaps it’s not so much of a coincidence that water also played a part in his character’s awakening in “Baskets.” After collapsing and getting diagnosed with diabetes at the end of Season 1, Christine began paying attention to her diet and exercise. This lead to a scene at night when she drove to a nearby beach to do her water aerobics, backlit by the lights of the city.
“That’s a beautiful scene, isn’t it? It was a giant scene in my mind for a million reasons,” Anderson said. “It was very vulnerable for me to wear that outfit. I think it would be very hard for any woman to wear that outfit, to reveal herself that way and then for her under any circumstances to make an effort like that. I thought it was really beautiful and poignant.”
Anderson, who also swims regularly for his health, understands Christine’s struggle all too well, beginning with the self-consciousness of wearing a bathing suit in public. “I stole one from the ‘Splash’ show that I wear when I swim,” he confessed. “You know the yellow one with the black? That’s my swimsuit. I love the outfits they made for me. It made me so happy. I wanted to make a line of those for big people so that they feel comfortable going to the pool.”
Shooting that ocean scene was also emotional for Anderson because of how he’s had to face his own health issues. “There was some crying in that scene,” he said. “I think Christine is really trying to care about herself. She’s been through so much. She’s starting to face things as her sons are facing things. She wants to live, she wants to go on, she wants to be healthy. I’m missing playing her right now when we talk about it to be honest with you, when we conjure up all of those things. That’s why I tell people this season is even more powerful than last.”
Now that “Baskets” is well underway in its second season, it’s rare now to think of Anderson as playing a character in drag, even though that’s what he’s doing. Instead, much like Jeffrey Tambor does on “Transparent,” the comic is merely a playing a woman, albeit a woman with a big, fussy personality that seems to resonate with fans.
“It’s really important that I try to make Louie Anderson disappear from that part,” Anderson said. “I completely become her. I tell people to call me Christine, don’t call me Louie. I play the character fully. Someone told me last night, he said, ‘You know, my wife said that person looks familiar, but she couldn’t figure out who it was.’ He didn’t tell her until like halfway through the show. This character seems to be real to so many people. They’ll say, ‘I know this woman. She’s just like my aunt. She’s just like my mom.’”
That’s good news for Anderson since he based Christine on his own late mother, whom he resembles once he’s in full wardrobe and wig. Unfortunately, he also inherited her compulsion for eating, which made another scene on “Baskets” hit home. After Christine’s son Chip (Zach Galifianakis) ordered her four desserts at a restaurant, the two bickered when she refused to eat them under her new healthy regime.
“People who don’t have a food addiction don’t understand how horrible it is to have the food forced on you,” Anderson said. “It was really upsetting and horrifying. I think what I was trying to do was I was trying to be real. When you’re trying to work on something and people don’t take it seriously, it hurts you. It hurts your feelings. They don’t understand it. When they don’t understand it, it’s so difficult. It’s very painful.”
Diabetes, body shame and food addiction may not be the most obvious topics to mine for humor, but Christine is far from glum and takes every possible opportunity to announce her condition loudly, almost belligerently. Anderson said, “I’m proud of her character taking it seriously even though she’s quite dramatic about it all. It’s so funny because she’s so real dramatic. She reminds me of my mom. My mom had a sense of drama about her that was so beautifully funny. Christine can make anything a big deal.”
Christine’s quirky behavior extends to how differently she treats her children, two sets of twin boys. On the surface, she seems to be put out with her biological sons Chip and Dale (both played by Galifianakis), yet lavishes praise and attention on the adopted Cody and Logan (Garry and Jason Clemmons), who are DJs.
“I think that the other twins are not hers, so maybe she can shine a different kind of light on them. Because they’re adopted she can be removed from them a little,” Anderson mused. “She has so much more riding on her kids, she’s trying so much to line them up to be successful and to be happy. But the fact that Chip and Dale are hers, they have all of her foibles, and I think Christine blames herself for her kids’ troubles. I think there’s a part of that in there. I think every mother feels responsible for their kids’ troubles, don’t you?
“Christine reminds me of the duck with all of her duckling and one of the [ducklings] has fallen into the sewer drain and she’s quacking very loudly,” he added. “And finally she just goes in and all the ducklings go in after her. She’s relieved because they’re all together, but now they’re in the really big mess because now they’re in the sewer drain with her.”
As apt and colorful as the aquatic fowl metaphor may be, it also illustrates Anderson’s feelings of responsibility for his own family. “I’m really close with them. I call them all the time and try to plan time together and visits. I care about my nephews and nieces,” he said. “I’m trying to present a role model. That’s why it’s so important for me now to look at this health side because it isn’t fair to them for me not to give it a good effort.”
“Baskets” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.