Lizzy Caplan at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.
Lizzy Caplan is a woman on the verge of stardom. Just don’t tell Lizzy Caplan. With two high-profile, markedly different films in this year’s Festival—dramedic romance Save the Date and the jet-black comedy Bachelorette—Caplan is showing the kind of range and adaptive likeability that is bound to push her career forward.
She’s not ungrateful for the promises and praise bestowed upon Festival up-and-comers. It’s just that Caplan, whose razor-rasp wit and dark-eyed beauty has turned heads in everything from Mean Girls and Cloverfield to Party Down and True Blood, has heard this song before.
“Whenever I’m told to take a deep breath because this is going to be a really big year, I take that all with a tremendous grain of salt,” she says, talking on the phone from her native Los Angeles. You get the feeling that she’s not just reacting to the cliché of an actress “blowing up”—the sort of thing she’s inevitably heard with the various well-received films and shows she’s accrued over the years—but to the whole notion of a life-changing event. After all, that premature world-weariness, that smart girl, side-glance aspersion, is one of her distinctive charms.
“Because, come on,” she says as punctuation, leaving off the implied get real, yet still hastening us to do so.
For someone on the rise, Caplan is impressively down to earth. She comes across not as a charm schooled or calculatedly tentative, but rather as someone who wouldn’t know how not to speak her mind. She seems to have few illusions about a film business built on the bottom line, yet struggles to manage her career accordingly.
“You start hearing all this from agencies and stuff about branding and platforms, all this stuff to raise your value financially in the marketplace. It’s the opposite of why many people get into this business as actors or directors,” she says.
Perhaps if she’d been more willing to hold her nose and play the game, the 29-year-old Caplan might be a star already. “I’ve probably overmanaged my career, to the point of frustrating my representatives to no end. I was ultra picky and selective about roles way before I had any right to be,” she admits. “Not that I haven’t signed on to things I didn’t fully believe in, but it’s really hard to show up to work for 15 hours a day when you don’t believe in what you’re doing.”
But she says it often comes down to the fact that in higher profile projects the parts often just aren’t very good. With the industry obsessed with comic book franchises, “scripts are often afterthoughts. They just feed the machine.”
Which is where independent films, largely free of the kind of corporate micromanaging that can choke creatively, come into play. “If you want to hold onto any of the artistic merits of [the work], then chances are you’re going to be doing smaller films,” she adds. “I’d much rather do a film with a $5 million budget than one with a $200 million budget. You don’t have all these suits to answer to and all these numbers to live up to.”
And yet in one crucial aspect, the tide seems to be turning in Caplan’s favor. With the runaway critical and box office success of Bridesmaids, Hollywood is finally waking up not only to the fact that women are an under-exploited source of great comedy, but that people will pay to see them. For an actress as adept at generating knowing laughs as Caplan, that can only be a good thing.
“Bridesmaids was such a massive deal for so many comedic actresses,” she says. “It’s not a lie that nobody thought that girls could be ‘the funny’ in movies. I’ve read so many hundreds of scripts to play the thankless girlfriend role, and as soon as that movie was successful, everything changed. The dinners I have with my fellow comedic actress friends have gotten a lot less depressing.”
Caplan credits the Bridesmaids effect for putting one of her two Sundance films—the women-behaving-badly ensemble comedy Bachelorette—into production. Based on director Leslye Headland’s original play, Caplan says that it wasn’t until the past year that anyone would touch a script in which its leads’ unladylike behavior merited a hard “R.”
Co-stars Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher have higher Hollywood profiles, but there’s no doubt that Caplan’s cocaine-addled Gena is the (dark) heart of Bachelorette. Any chance of the audience pushing past revulsion to empathy depends on her romantic story arc opposite Party Down co-star Adam Scott. It’s a testament to Caplan’s finely tuned comedic finesse that she manages to be vulnerable and relatable without sacrificing an ounce of angry umbrage.
Whereas Bachelorette further proves that women can behave just as badly as men, Caplan’s other Sundance film, Save the Date, also inverts gender expectations by offering up a heroine with major commitment issues. When her live-in, indie rock star boyfriend proposes marriage, Sarah hightails it back to single living and shacks up with another man, played by another Sundance triple-threat, Mark Webber (who wrote, directed and stars in another Dramatic Competition film, The End of Love).
“I really enjoy playing that character,” she says, coyly adding, “because it might ring true in my actual life. As a woman you’re expected to be the all-in nurturing, maternal one. And when you’re not, there’s not really a place to put that. I find that within any relationship, it doesn’t really matter which gender is pulling away. By the nature of how relationships work, if one person pulls away the other person gets needier.”
Though Caplan seems well at home in an indie drama, she admits that she’s become most comfortable in the world of comedy. “In the early days I had these fantasies of being a dramatic actress, but I don’t really see myself that way anymore,” she says. After all, it’s more fun to play a fool than to play it straight, even when you’re blessed with Caplan’s crush-worthy looks.
“It’s so strange to me the people who have a hard time looking unattractive for a joke. You can look unattractive in a scene in a movie that gets a huge laugh, and still look pretty good in the magazine editorials,” she says. “Nobody’s actually going to think you’re a disgusting beast, and if they do, that’s fantastic, you’re actually doing a better job.”
Part of her comfort in comedy circles stems from the atypically supportive community of comedic actors in Hollywood. Though competition for roles remains stiff, Caplan describes a comedy culture that supersedes individual films. “What’s so amazing about the comedy community is that you make friends on projects and you maintain these relationships professionally and socially,” she says. “It feels like a true community.”
Actors show up on each other’s shows, make Funny or Die web clips, and actually celebrate—can it be true?—each other’s successes. “The fact that we can maintain extremely supportive relationships when it shifts from being on the same team to being opponents, has been the best part,” she says. “If I lose out to a friend of mine, I’m actually proud of her. I never thought I’d get to a place where I could say that, but it’s 100% true.”
And with parts suddenly opening up for comedic actresses, such collegiality extends to optimism for what lay ahead. “It used to really feel like everybody was competing for that one shitty slot. And now it’s opened up so much. The more girls who are doing funny, good work, the better it is for all of us in the long run. It paves the way for more opportunities for everybody.”
Judging by her two standout performances at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Caplan’s opportunities aren’t likely to let up anytime soon. Not that she wants you to go on about it. Because come on.