Ladies First: Regina Hall and Haley Lu Richardson Talk Support the Girls
There’s a particular sort of joy to be found in watching Andrew Bujalski’s new comedy Support the Girls, in which the women workers of a Texas sports bar, or “breastaurant,” named Double Whammies tackle the pains and predicaments of an especially trying day on the clock. This joy is largely a result of seeing stellar actresses like Regina Hall, front and center as high-spirited but long-suffering manager Lisa, and Haley Lu Richardson, offering invaluable support as peppy star waitress Maci, display their range in parts unlike anything we’ve ever seen them attempt.
If the Academy held the same respect for comedic dynamism as it did for biopic mimicry then Hall, easily one of the most winning comic talents currently at work, might have been a shoo-in for a nomination not too long ago for her uproariously unhinged performance in Steve Pink’s 2014 remake of About Last Night, in which the actress outmatched no less than Kevin Hart in the funny-making department and brought crazy, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her conviction to a standard gal pal role. Since then, Hall has most memorably played the sturdy straight woman of Girls Trip’s Flossy Posse, but in Support the Girls, Hall shines in one of the rare three-dimensional roles afforded her. As Hall’s Lisa gradually reaches her breaking point during a day from hell, the actress registers her character’s self-revelation across her falling face with a quiet magnitude, excavating every crevice of a tired mind perpetually at work.
I talked to Hall before the film’s release about the lure of indies, the relevance of Bujalski’s gently anarchic comedy, and keeping it real with her fellow actors.
I loved Support the Girls when I saw itback in June at BAMcinemaFest. It’s been on my mind ever since.
I’m so happy that people have received it [favorably] and been so supportive of it. It’s been a really good feeling. It’s a film that I hoped people would get…because it’s a different film.
Over the course of your career, you’ve hopped back and forth a fair amount between studio-made movies like Girls Trip and independent productions like Support the Girls. Beyond the inherent budget dissimilarity, do these experiences differ for you in any meaningful creative ways? What keeps you returning to independent filmmaking?
Oh, I don’t know, I love the stories. There’s something so beautiful…I love the creativity you’re forced to use because you are on a budget. I love seeing what the directors create in their shots because they’re like, “Okay, well, we’ve got to do this many set-ups today because we’re shooting for three weeks and we don’t have the time…” I like the people and the stories. It’s beautiful. It’s just another art form, another form of storytelling. I mean, it’s great to do the big-budget ones so that you can do the indies, where you’re not making any money but you’re so artistically rewarded.
Was there anything about Support the Girls that felt rewarding in a different way from past projects you’ve worked on?
Yeah! You know, I loved the people represented in this story. I thought it was interesting the way Andrew took Double Whammies and pushed the women [forward] and then used [the setting] to create such a solidarity of sisterhood. We get to see women together, and focus on what we wouldn’t think of [when we think about these women]—their values, their integrity. And yet they were all there. There are people working hard every day and they’re doing their best. They’re good people. Lisa was a good person. And the girls were good. That doesn’t mean they weren’t without flaws, but they were so inherently good. Like most of us.
At this stage in your career, what stories and characters excite you most? Are you seeking out a lot of the projects and collaborators you’ve been involved with recently or are these opportunities more often coming to you?
Probably a little bit of both. Projects come, but I’m also definitely seeking them out as well, just so what I’m doing is varied and layered and interesting to play. I’m interested in showing and playing things that are different. For me, it’s always wonderful, whether it’s leading or supporting, to just be a part of a great project, and have a collaborator who is interested in and cares about filmmaking.What was your entryway into Support the Girls? How did Andrew Bujalski’s script find its way to you?
Andrew had seen a movie I had done with [writer-director] Jim Strouse called People Places Things. I think he and Jim knew each other from the indie world and producers, and [Andrew] had called and spoken to him. And my agent had read the script and was helping it move along, finding portions of financing for it. And he said, “I have a script I want you to read that I think is really good.” I was shooting Girls Trip so Andrew came to New Orleans, and I really liked him. I thought he was really smart. We talked about how we might end up making the movie, and then eventually he said, “Yeah, let’s do this together.”
There seems to be an added urgency in the way that people are talking about and even watching Support the Girls, in light of the deeper discussions about workplace harassment and systemic gender discrimination that have been taking place since late last year. I know production on Support the Girls took place in summer 2017, right before these movements gained traction, but were these larger concerns on your mind at all during shooting? And are these ongoing conversations at the forefront of your mind as you now promote the film?
During the shooting, I don’t remember. The movement hadn’t started so we were just kind of making a movie. I remember being concerned because [the movement] started right before the festival run, and I was like, Uh-oh. Haley Lu’s character [talks about] touching [customers]. And I hoped people wouldn’t miss the bigger movie because of the climate and because of where it takes place. I definitely had concerns about that, how people would perceive certain things, even the name of the restaurant, Double Whammies. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that people have really looked and seen what the characters experienced. There’s a more thought-provoking impact beyond the film’s location.
I’m a big admirer of Andrew Bujalski, particularly when it comes to his work with ensembles. It always feels like every single person in his films seems to have a life we can easily imagine continuing just off-screen.
How did his particular directorial approach shape your performance and your own deeper connection to Lisa?
We talked and we rehearsed before [shooting], which was great. Andrew is interesting. As a writer, he’s clear on these characters. But he’s also particularly easy [as a director]. I told him, “Andrew, when I read [Lisa], I keep hearing an accent.” And he was like, “Alright, that’s fine!” He was clear, but he wasn’t overly cautious or precious with his work to the point where he wasn’t collaborative. And the film was shot almost docu-style so the way we were shooting affected what was happening in the scenes. It’s a comedy, but Andrew’s approach made it a more grounded film.
Support the Girls is structured as a day in the life of Lisa, and while we come to know a great deal about her over the course of the film, I’m curious if your approach to this particular project differed at all, given that this is only a condensed snapshot of a character’s larger life. Did you create a backstory for Lisa or flesh her out in ways that aren’t necessarily disclosed on screen?
Yeah, a lot! I think I was always fleshing out who she was. Her history, her parents, her first marriage, her break-up, where she worked before [this]. I mean, there were so many questions…What was her relationship with her mom and dad? Is she an only child? A lot of questions, right down to her favorite color, and where she and her husband met. I met Lawrence [Varnado, who plays Lisa’s husband, Cameron] and we talked about where our characters met. I wanted to realize how she got to this place and how she got to be this person, and what that meant to her.
The dynamics you develop on screen with your fellow actors, but especially Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, and James Le Gros, feel so believable from the start. What goes into making these types of pre-existing fictional relationships feel so real and lived-in? In your experience, does chemistry between performers develop off-screen in rehearsals and behind the scenes or is it something that just sort of clicks once the camera’s rolling?
I mean, you can fake it, but it’s really nice when it’s real. For this movie, we all met there. I met the girls in Austin and we got to hang out together. And they were also really special. It was great to work with and off of them, and they were so different [from their characters]. [Laughs] I remember meeting them—and that’s the great thing about casting—but maybe what I read on paper was not what I expected. But now I can’t imagine anyone else [in those roles]. I just thought Shayna was great…I don’t know, I love them all! I think we got lucky. We bonded a lot during shooting and that’s half the job right there. You can make anything work, but you can always feel when people have a real affinity for each other.
In Kogonada’s soul-searching 2017 drama Columbus, Haley Lu Richardson delivered an emotionally porous performance that—through the power of its casual gestures and aching, unspoken intimacy—achieved something akin to pure cinema. Support the Girls’ Maci, the self-appointed, full-hearted cheer captain of Double Whammies, is a creation that couldn’t be farther removed from the wistful, architecture aficionado at the center of Columbus. Yet the actress utterly sparkles in this comically-inclined assignment, earning big laughs while projecting a fully-realized girl of ditzy manner yet undeniable spirit and smarts. Richardson is only a handful of years into her screen career, but she has quickly solidified a reputation for herself as a valuable actress of ever-extensive abilities who rewards her audiences no matter where she wanders.
I spoke with Richardson about deepening archetypal roles, the universality of Support the Girls’s centralized sisterhood, and refusing to be boxed in to any one type.
A lot of young actors seem to get stuck playing certain variations of the same type of character early in their career, but the roles you’ve taken on so far, whether it be in The Edge of Seventeen or Columbus or now Support the Girls, are each emotionally and temperamentally distinct yet also untethered from any single archetype. I’m curious about how you’re choosing projects these days and what has drawn you to these characters you’ve played recently.
First of all, thanks for saying that. I really appreciate that comment because I feel like that’s something I really work hard at…I feel like just more recently I’ve been able to honestly get in gear with things that I’ve chosen to do, whereas a couple years ago I was just making anything that stuck with anyone who wanted me—[laughs]—and then doing the best that I possibly could [to make my characters] well-rounded, actual humans. I try to do that with every role I take. I’m attracted to things that already feel well-rounded in the writing and in the story and in the situations that the characters are in. But I also come in and try to really find things about myself that relate to the character. Even if it’s someone completely different from me on paper, I find something about myself to connect to that person so that I really feel like I’m doing justice to her life, in some way or another.
What drew you to Support the Girls specifically?
Honestly, the story and the universal feeling of true sisterhood and female bonding. I think [the story is] interchangeable with any kind of situation; it doesn’t have to be, you know, in a breastaurant in Texas. But I loved the message and the story, and also the challenge of playing Maci, a brand-new character that I’ve never gotten to play before. It scared me a little bit [to have] such a big character to portray. Maci is someone who could so easily be kind of stereotypical. It was a challenge to commit to her bigness and exuberance and positivity, but also make her somewhat grounded…A genuine big, as opposed to a broad comedy big.
Yeah, we’ve definitely seen variations on the type of bubbly, good-hearted woman that Maci represents, but your performance, like everyone’s in the film, is ingrained with a great deal of humanity and an unmistakable sense of respect for the character. How did you work with Andrew to deepen this role beyond what already existed on the page and give her the sort of three-dimensionality that is so often withheld from previous versions of this archetype?
Andrew was on the same page as me about wanting that. I mean, she has to be that character, that’s her purpose in the story. And people like that have a purpose in life. It’s important to have balance, and she’s definitely one end of the spectrum. So I couldn’t not make her that. But Andrew really cared about making her have a reason for why she is the way she is so that it’s not just, Oh, look, she’s a ditz. Andrew and I talked at the beginning about how maybe that’s her way of coping with things she’s dealt with in the past, adversity or trauma. Maybe her way of dealing with it is to be a cheerleader for herself and for people around her…Also, I was really excited to have her have an accent because any of those girls in that restaurant would have some sort of Southern accent. And Maci would be the one to ham it up. So we worked on different levels of her accent…Like the character, it had to be a certain amount of big to fulfill her part in the story, but also be grounded in a true place.
At the BAMcinemaFest screening of Support the Girls back in June, Andrew Bujalski mentioned that you and co-star Dylan Gelula actually worked shifts in establishments similar to Double Whammies before the cameras started rolling. What did you observe on the floor during these shifts and how did this experience inform your eventual performance?
First of all, that was so fun. And I think Dylan had fun too. It was just really, genuinely fun.
Did you work together?
Yeah, we worked the same shift at the Twin Peaks, which was actually in the same lot where our set for Double Whammies was built. It was basically five steps away from Twin Peaks. When we would go to the fake restaurant for rehearsals, we would eat lunch at Twin Peaks and we started becoming friends with the manager there and all the girls. And we were like, “We should try to see if we can work here for a day and really feel what it feels like.” We asked them and they were super open to it. They gave us the exact uniforms and we each shadowed a girl who was one of the top girls that work there. And we each came up with alias names for ourselves, and worked a shift. [Laughs]
Honestly, I feel like everything that is in the movie is accurate. These girls are working at restaurants like this because they get insanely good tips. They have a real sisterhood, they’re all, for the most [part], really close friends. If anything, their situation and the environment that they’re working in brings them even closer together because they have to rely on each other and have that energy as a reprieve from the people that come into those restaurants. We learned a lot of little things, like the tricks they use to make the guys sitting there happy. They said a lot of those guys that come in aren’t necessarily bad monsters; they’re just lonely men who need a nice person to talk to for an hour. So that was interesting, as was finding out about these girls and what their dreams are outside of the restaurant. Many of them are trying to pay for law school or support a family or raise money to move somewhere and follow their dreams. It was cool to get over the initial shock of going into an establishment like that and then see those girls for who they are outside of it. And that’s exactly what the movie is about.The camaraderie between you and Regina Hall and Shayna McHayle is incredibly convincing. You absolutely get the feeling, while watching the film, that these women have worked with each other for a long time and know one another in unspoken ways that deepen their every interaction. Can you talk about forging those credible, tight-knit bonds on screen with Regina and Shayna in what must have been an abbreviated amount of time?
I think a lot of it was in the writing, and in the concept in general. When you act, you have to obviously put yourself in an imaginary situation with talented people. But then the actual situation we were in [while] filming, Andrew, [producer] Houston [King], and everyone had this attitude that made for a very comfortable and respectful environment…At the same time, we were in small costumes for 10-hour days and acting like these characters. So that gets kind of uncomfortable, even when everyone’s being respectful around me. It still feels kind of raw and naked and vulnerable, physically and emotionally, doing that. In the real world, not the movie world, there was just a lot of support amongst all the girls on set. We really leaned on each other for protection if one of us was feeling uncomfortable in her head about something.
What was it like to shoot that climactic sequence in which the women of Double Whammies revolt, which is hilarious and thrilling and almost feels like a theatrical scene because it’s confined to that one space. There’s a genuine sense of anarchy there, where it feels like anything can happen.
[Laughs] I felt a lot of things. That honestly, for me, was the thing I was most intimated by when I read the script. I thought, Oh my god, how am I gonna do a scene where I get up on a bar in front of all these random extras and say all this? As an actor, that was scary for me. But once I did it a couple times and once we all got up [on the bar], it felt very real, but also very comfortable. I just felt in charge. I felt like I could kind of give Maci, but also me, the freedom to do anything she wanted at that point. You know, a “fuck it” feeling. And having that feeling bleed into me was really freeing.
I know that Support the Girls was written and filmed before the tipping point of this past fall, in which the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements marked a new era in how we talk about gender inequality, specifically when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. In light of these discussions, it’s difficult not to see the resonances of these movements in the finished film, in which working-class women are hounded and marginalized around the clock. Has the impact of this particular moment affected your own impression of the movie?
Even though [this movement] became a trend—a deserved trend—of people coming out and being heard, and that’s very important, I’ve always had the same feelings about it all. It’s just now much more welcome to be a public conversation. I feel like the film is relatively the same for me because what drew me to the script was its message. And yeah, maybe it’s a little more relevant now. But it was the same message when I read the script, before the movement officially started…I feel like I would feel the same thing no matter when the film came out because it’s a very universal message that women and all people can relate to, even if they’re not working at a breastaurant.
I’ve seen the film twice and there are certain interactions and lines of dialogue that always elicit these groans of recognition from the audience. They seem to ring so true, especially in the context of this current moment, which has perhaps propelled the film into a new light.
All of that stuff, that inequality, has been going on and existed for a long time. Now, the focus is more about how we have to do something. I’m sure people would have groaned three years ago, but maybe they would have just groaned a little softer because it wasn’t comfortable or safe to be open in public about that.
I saw that you’re playing Louise Brooks in an upcoming film, The Chaperone. What was the experience like of taking on such a fascinating, relatively well-known figure?
I’ve never played a real person before…[Louise Brooks] was iconic, but also someone so rebellious for that time. She was a leader of what the Roaring ‘20s were all about so I feel like I got to learn a lot about a whole different era and a real person. I got to empathize with her and, again, step into the shoes of another character and make her grounded, even though she was already real. Every time I do a movie I learn more about a different life situation and it just makes me wiser, inch by inch, in every single thing I do. Louise Brooks was a big one for me because she had such an impact and a unique view of the world. Getting into that headspace opened my mind a lot.
Are there certain stories and characters you’re actively looking to play?
My goal and dream is to play a dancer in a movie, a contemporary dancer. That’s my biggest dream because I danced my whole life before I started acting. So that’s my all-time end goal. I really like playing different people, and exploring different personalities and different walks of life. It’s a therapeutic way of feeling what it would be like to be this person or live this life or have these problems and adversities. I just like having those experiences. And I hope the next thing I do is something completely different.
Have you ever seen The Turning Point by any chance?
Is that the ballet movie?
I think I saw it when I was younger. That’s the big ballet movie, right?
Yeah, it was an incredible hit when it came out—
That’s the thing! People want to see dance movies!
They absolutely do.
I’m waiting! I’m waiting for someone to write a great one.