Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mo Collins on "MadTV" and "Detective Fiction"

How did you get started in comedy?

MO: I don't have schooling beyond doing the Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop classes for improv. I got started by just doing it. You just start.

When I was in school I learned some improv, and then, when I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, I remembered loving improv. I saw an ad in City Pages for classes, took the classes and before I knew it an agent called and then there was a check in the mail and I thought, "Well, I guess this is what I do."

How did you like the classes?

MO: It was great, because I finally realized where I belonged, which was with fellow comedy people. I learned how to improv and how to write.

A lot people who start in improv say that it provides a bedrock of learning for the rest of their careers. Was that the case for you?

MO: Absolutely, because the biggest thing that's learned there is the work ethic, which is what has carried me through. You really had to work hard there. You had to. You worked really hard and were paid very little. A great lesson, especially if you're headed to Hollywood.

But the work ethic was the biggest thing I learned at Dudley Riggs. So any other long day that came along later, I was used to it, because I started at Dudley at 20 and it's just in my blood that you do long days when you're working. But it's play, so you don't feel it.

And the Riggs experience also taught you how to write?

MO: It did some teaching of that, yes. I still hesitate to call myself any kind of a writer, but because I do improv, I am writing in mid air. But when you learn scene structure from improv -- beginning, middle and an end -- and character development, you kind of naturally get the writing skills that come along with it.

How did you use those skills once you left Riggs but before you moved to LA?

MO: Up there I was doing commercial work and industrial work and plays.

How would your improv skills come in handing while shooting an industrial video?

MO: Well, I was fearless. Improv is theater without a net, as we used to say, so anything else just seemed easy. And safe. Which isn't as fun. But when you have a sense of humor and go into these serious industrials that you're doing, to me it was just playing another comedy character, but playing it seriously.

The first thing I remember seeing you in was a part in a dinner theater mystery show ...

MO: Oh my gosh. Does that fall under acting or that waiting tables?

Then we cast you to play Lucille Ball in an industrial video. And even though you look nothing like her, you became Lucy.

MO: Because I understand what she's doing. It's funny, I just saw her show yesterday -- I hadn't watched Lucy in a while -- and as I was watching her I was noting to myself that I know exactly how she feels doing what she was doing. I understand how she got that performance. I totally got it. I could feel her rhythm and understand what she was doing. If that makes any sense at all.

I feel that I understand comedy so well; if there's something that I've studied in my years, it's comedy. I've been in all kinds of different groups of people who have a different comic tone, and I really do believe at this point that there's any camp of comedy that I could walk into and find my way.

I can feel it. I can feel what they're doing, even if it's not me or what I would naturally do.

As a for instances, I just did a pilot recently with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. And they're a very different group. In fact, women aren't typically a part of that group. They're comedy nerds; they don't even know what to say to women. They don't. But I got in, because I knew how to make it safe for them to let me in and feel okay and not threatened. Not rock their boat but just come in and assimilate into what they're doing, because I understand their geek comedy. I can do it too. And I think it's just because, ultimately, I am a mocking bird. That's what I'm doing. I'm mimicking what they're doing and putting it into my body, my person, my mouth.

What made you decide to move to LA?

MO: I had a two year-old son. And I knew that Minneapolis was only going to allow me to do so well. I was doing okay, making a living, paying my mortgage, but that was going to continue on an even plane, instead of an upward climb. And I didn't want that. I knew that I could do more; I just knew it. And it wasn't going to happen in Minneapolis.

So what was your plan?

MO: To make it.

So like on the top of a piece of paper: "Day One: Make it."

MO: Yes, I'm going to go and I'm going to do this and it's going to work. And with in nine months I had Mad TV.
I knew I had something. So you just do it until you're seen. By the right person. And that's what happened.

I had done a play called Cabin Pressure, with a bunch of women from Minneapolis. We collaborated on this project, a really quirky comedy that we put together and put up on a stage out here. A casting director saw my character and she just jumped on board the Mo ship. She told the Mad TV casting people about me and I got the audition.

I knew, when the audition came, that I was going to get it.

How come?

MO: Because that's exactly what my resume is. It's exactly what I do. I was ready for it. Everything I had done had prepared me for that audition.

I knew, because I had taken a leap of faith, that I would be rewarded. You don't take such big leaps without rewards; I don't think the universe really works like that. I just knew it was going to work out.

It's funny, there were six auditions, and during the fifth one they sent me home early. And I thought it was a horrible mistake. I went home and I was crying and I thought, "They've made a terrible mistake. I'm going to get this. Somebody made a mistake."

Why did they send you home?

MO: Because they already knew they were going to cast me and didn't want to waste any more of my time that day. But I just wanted to stay and play. I wanted to show them more: "I've got more!"

How did the first show feel?

MO: It was thrilling and terrifying, because television wasn't something I knew, at all. I didn't know how television worked; that wasn't something I had experience at from Minneapolis. Commercial work is not television.

Things like, when the first AD starts the countdown ("Five, four, three ...") and then he doesn't say "One." I didn't know that he was just being quiet. And I had the first line, the first entrance in my first scene, and I didn't know. Nobody told me how that works.

I decided to fake it 'til I make it. And it worked out fine. But that was a learning process.

How were you used and how did you want to be used and how did you influence how you wanted to be used on the show?

MO: There's a lot of nuancing my position on Mad TV because there are politics involved and I'm a nice Minnesota girl and an easy doormat. I had to stand on my talent because I wasn't a squeaky wheel as far as saying "Use me more!" That kind of stuff. "How come she's got this and I don't?" I just wasn't that person. And I watched as that didn't work. I watched as the squeaky wheel got the oil and that was really hard for me.

This was where I started to see that Hollywood didn't always function through talent. That talent wasn't what always propelled one forward and upward. And that's a really, really tough lesson. And potentially fatal to a career. But I decided not to let it kill me.

I learned how to stand my ground enough, and stay nice at the same time. And I let my work ethic, my non-complaining, my always showing up with my work ready and my characters full-bored. I kept growing my arsenal of things I could do and add to the show. And I kept growing. And the audience started to pick up on that and writing into the show and saying, "She's good. More her."

One of the things that sets you apart -- and above -- others in your field is your absolute commitment to each character you played. How did you build and grow that ability?

MO: I really love playing characters and taking them as far as I can. Really it's just a self-discovery that's happening within the performance. I'd get a script and there would be an image that would come to mind or a voice or something -- a character just starts. And by the time I'd chosen a wig or wardrobe or whatever, you're looking in the mirror and you see this character emerge. And that's fun. It's dress up. It's play time. And I'm just really good at playing.

Did you ever get to a point where you thought, enough already, I've got no more characters in me?

MO: I did always try to do something, even if it was just for three lines in a scene, I would think, "I'm going to make a person here, that fits in this scene and serves this scene."

On one of my last shows there was this scene and I thought, "I'm just going to go at this completely differently. I'm not going to think about an internal person. I am just going to make one of the ugliest faces I can make, I'm going to throw on the ugliest wig that they have, and just do that." Because a lot of people come at characters from that external place; they'll throw on some character glasses or whatever. But for me, there's a person in there that I can kind of feel when I read a script.

But in this case I went at it completely externally. It was really fun, I was like a kid, just making faces with this wig on. And it turned out to be a really fun character that people loved. Her name was Carol Fitty and I did her for a game show sketch. And then when they invited me back, after I'd left the show, they had me do her again.

So even in my trying not to do a character, a person emerged, which is pretty funny. And it was really fun for me to go at it so differently.

Were you in a position to bring in ideas for characters and sketches?

MO: You had to. You had to every week. It was part of the job. You'd dip into the writers room, pitch ideas, talk about a character or a thought. You had to do that.

Did you like doing that?

MO: Yeah I did. It scared me a little bit, too, because I felt like, they're the writers and who am I?

But you'd been writing on your feet for years. Why would you find that intimidating?

MO: Because I'm also insecure and will over-think something when I'm not on a stage. So I'd think, "This will be funny. I'll take it in tomorrow." And then the insecurity goes, "That's not funny, they're not going to like it, they're not going to get it." Whereas, if I'm on a stage and I'm doing it in an improv sketch, I know I can make it work. It's different telling, I'm much better at showing. It can be intimidating.

At what point did you decide to leave the show?

MO: Six seasons felt just about right. And I think you should do something else before Hollywood thinks you can't do anything else. You can get really trapped in the sketch world and once you do sketch, they say, "Oh, you're a sketch actor. You're not an actor." Especially if you're a woman.

What attracted you to doing Detective Fiction?

MO: It was something other than comedy and it was a lead. I needed it. I wanted to try that.

You have to look at yourself and see where you're at, get a gauge on how you'd do in something like that, so you know what you need to work on. And I certainly need to work on a lot after I saw it!

Really? I thought you did a great job in that film -- very real, not a caricature at all, but a real person in real pain.

MO: I thought I could have nuanced it a whole lot more. I was being, maybe, too polite on the set in terms of making choices that I would have thought would have been stronger, but I didn't want to rock the boat. And I was learning, too. I was learning.

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