Elizabeth Perkins first turned up on most people’s radar as a result of one of two films: if it wasn’t her first film, About Last Night…, in which her co-stars were Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, and Jim Belushi, then it was Big, the film that officially made Tom Hanks a superstar. Mind you, it didn’t exactly hurt Perkins’ career, either: that was in 1988, and she’s rarely been without a gig since, starring in a diverse slate of films ranging from The Flintstones to The Ring Two, not to mention appearing in such series as Curb Your Enthusiasm, GLOW, Sharp Objects, This is Us, and a five-season run on Showtime’s Weeds.
Currently, however, Perkins is part of the Fox family, co-starring with Denis Leary on The Moodys, which started as what’s best described as a holiday-centric sitcom miniseries in December 2019. Now it’s back – and before you ask, yes, so are all of the original cast members – and this time it’s a proper ongoing series. In the midst of the publicity blitz for the show’s second season premiere, Perkins was kind enough to hop on the phone with Decider to discuss how excited she was to have Denis Leary as her TV husband and to tease a very special song their characters once shared, but she also took time to talk about her aforementioned film debut, the late ‘80s glut of body-switching movies, whether she’d ever want to reprise her character from Weeds, and how much we need a network devoted to pilot episodes.
DECIDER: So I want to freely admit up front that I was belated into getting into The Moodys, but I actually went and bought the first season to make sure I was fully caught up before I talked to you, and it’s very funny.
ELIZABETH PERKINS: Oh, thank you. We think it’s fun!
Well, I’ve been a fan of Denis Leary’s – and a fan of yours – for ages, so seeing you two working together is particularly nice.
I know! And then we’ve got Jay Baruchel in there, too, and he just brings everything together. I mean, he’s just inspiring.
Oh, yeah, it’s a very solid ensemble all around. Well, since I don’t know the actual origin story, how did you find your way into the series? Was it a case of them reaching out to you specifically?
They did! And I was sort of like, “Is this a joke?” Because I always wanted to work with Denis. I mean, I love Denis Leary’s sense of humor. He does goes for it. He’s so dark and sardonic and just calls a spade a spade. And I hadn’t realized that he and I had actually grown up about 40 miles away from each other in Massachusetts, which made sense to me, then, why I had always sort of admired his humor: because I know where he comes from, and he knows where I come from. And I was just thrilled that he was onboard. I was, like, “Wow, okay, yeah, I’ll do this! I’ll do anything to work with Denis!” And then we got Jay Baruchel, and then Chelsea Frei came after that, and then Francois Arnaud, who plays Dan. It’s just a really, really great group of people. Oh, and there’s also Gerry Dee, who is a Canadian comic/actor who’s amazing as Denis’s b rother. He’s just so stoned-faced. I just think it was amazing, this group of people that we put together.
I would not have thought that the simple act of regularly giving directions would be so funny, but I laugh ever time Gerry offers them.
Oh he’s just stoned-faced. He’s just a miracle. And I also just love the tone of the show. Nobody’s doing, like, pratfalls. It’s just very homey and very realistic. And the comedy is sort of underplayed, but in a very good way. They feel like normal people to me, and I really responded to that.
I agree. There’s a dry wit, but it’s a realistic one. It never feels over the top.
No! Even though some of the stuff sis over the top, it doesn’t play that way. And I think we were all really cognizant of making a comedy that was sort of true to the time we’re in and what it’s really like to be in a big family like this, without it being sort of sitcom-y and foretelling all these jokes and one-liners. It didn’t feel like that.
Well, rather than dig too deep into potential spoiler territory, I’ll let you tell me what you can tell me about the new season.
You know, The Moodys always sort of centers around some kind of event. Originally we were a Christmas show, and there’s always going to be something major going on in the family that will bring everybody together. In this case, it’s a wedding….and I can’t say who’s getting married, but everybody is sort of focused on this impending wedding that’s gonna happen. Last year it was definitely about Christmas, and this year we’ve gone to regular series, so it’s more about… [Hesitates.] You know, we’ve come out of the pandemic – we mention it briefly, that we’re no longer wearing our masks, so we’re sort of pushing time forward a little bit. And what it’s like to still sort of have still have these remnants of the pandemic, where everybody was sort of crammed into the house together. You know how everybody’s starting to open that up again, and we sort of touch on that metaphorically with Sean, Jr. finally being out of House Arrested and finally be able to go out into the world. To me, it’s a family show about three older kids and their parents and how we all sort of maintain the status of family and yet try and be out there in the world and find our joys.
I won’t spoil the actual song, but the first episode back introduces viewers to the soundtrack to Sean and Ann’s – ahem – first time.
How was the decision made to go with that particular song?
Well, you know, Denis and I always talk about how you’ll see a lot of parents on television, and they sort of grew up in the ’60s or the ’50s. But Denis and I are products of the ’70s. When we were in high school, we were going to concerts, driving around in the Impala, probably smoking some weed, drinking some sloe gin… So we’re that generation, the ones who are now in their 50s or 60s, and we just come from a different place than, say, the sort of parents who are depicted as being more traditional. So it was a great chance for us to… I mean, nobody wants their first time to be to that song, but…that’s kind of the reality of things. [Laughs.] You’d probably want it to be to Barry White! That’d be everybody’s dream, right? But the reality is, it was that song…and that also sort of defines their relationship on some level.
Well, it made me laugh very hard. But as I say, I won’t spoil it…except to say that it wasn’t Barry White.
No, it was not Barry White. [Laughs.]
I wanted to ask you about a few things from your back catalog, and – like a lot of people – I think virtually the first thing I saw you in was Big.
Oh, yeah. Which was a big movie. It was a blockbuster at the time.
I’ll tell you, one of my favorite people that I ever interviewed was John Heard. I think between our two conversations, I probably ended up with three to four hours worth of stories.
Oh, bless him. Yeah, that sounds like John. [Laughs.] That’s exactly how I remember John. Well, at the time we were making it… We were shooting in New York, and there were probably two or three movies that were being released as we were shooting Big that were body-changing movies. There was one with Judge Reinhold (Vice Versa), there was one with Dudley Moore (Like Father, Like Son)…
There was one with George Burns (18 Again!)…
Yeah! And Tom [Hanks) and I and Penny [Marshall], we were, like, “Oh, God, we’re gonna go straight to video, aren’t we?” [Laughs.] But then we would see what Tom was doing, and what Penny was doing with the script was constantly writing and working. Penny was the master of multiple takes, and Tom just loved it. And I think it was because of his performance that Penny Marshall – and the rest of the cast – we just turned in a movie that sort of broke ground in that area.
I mean, Tom was nominated for an Oscar for that movie! Which doesn’t happen with a lot of comedic performances. Almost never. But he’s a brilliant actor, and he brought things to that role that no other actor could’ve possibly brought. When I was cast in the movie, the role was going to be played by Robert De Niro, which…would’ve made it a completely different film! [Laughs.] Especially in the ’80s. Can you imagine Robert De Niro wandering around New York as a lost boy? It sort of takes on a whole different tone! So once Tom came on board, we were, like, “Oh, yeah. We got this.” But there was some fear at the time because that genre – body-switching – had really taken off. But like I said, I think it’s because of Tom that ours really stood alone.
Yeah, in fact, I remember one of the things John said during our conversation about the film was that the paddleball scene, it was Tom who made it funny.
Oh, absolutely. John was in it for blood…as John would’ve been! Yeah, I remember that. I think Tom actually got hurt. [Laughs.] But he always took everything and just elevated it. If you remember the scene with the big party where he eats all the food, it started with the cream cheese and the celery, and then the baby corn, and then the caviar. Penny would just turn on the camera and say, “Go eat the food!” And because he’s Tom… You know, nobody would’ve predicted that he’d eat the baby corn like that. But that’s his genius, you know? That’s just who he is.
You’re also in one of my favorite ’90s movies that almost no one seems to remember: Indian Summer. I just thought it was a wonderful ensemble.
Yeah, we thought so, too! We were sort of surprised when that movie came and went. Mike Binder, who was the writer and director, it was a very personal film for him. And, yeah, we had Sam Raimi and Diane Lane and Bill Paxton, who I adored, may he rest in peace. We had Kevin Pollak… We just had all these great people, and we were all up there in just sort of the middle of nowhere, about three and a half hours north of Toronto, just having the time of our life. My God, we got to go sailing, we lived in cabins… It was just a lovefest all around. We had a really good time making that movie.
Alan Arkin is just a hoot in that film.
So good, so dry… [Laughs.] So perfect for the role. And that’s actually where I met Diane Lane, who literally been my best friend since we worked together on that movie. We have a lifelong friendship because of Indian Summer.
How do you look back at the experience of doing Weeds?
Weeds… [Long pause.] Weeds was definitely a labor of love. You know, we were one of Showtime’s first real series. There was Californication, very briefly there was a show called Barbershop, and then we came on the scene and really pushed the boundaries in terms of what we could get away with. I was only on the show for five seasons, and then they just decided to write me off, which was… I was little confused at the time. But I adore Jenji [Kohan], and Mary-Louise [Parker] is just a stellar performer. I mean, she never did anything that I would predict. And we had a great time with each other because we were both sort of unpredictable. She would throw something out at me, and I would catch it and throw something equally as oddball back at her. That was a very rare experience. Very rare. And the show was incredibly well-received. None of us expected that! But I’m proud of that show. I loved that characters. She was evil incarnate.
And that’s always fun to play.
Yes! [Laughs.] But she was also vulnerable and hurt. Everything she did came from hurt. I loved playing her. I’d love to play her again!
And I know you were only in a few episodes, but I was a huge fan of GLOW.
I know! And they canceled it! What happened there?!
The pandemic, apparently, although that’s just not a good enough excuse for me. I still need no more.
No, that is not a good enough excuse! When I found out it was canceled, I was, like, “No! I love those ladies!” I have to be honest: Jenji called me up and she was, like, “So it’s a small part…” I was, like, “There are no small parts.” [Laughs.] I just wanted to go and hang out with them, because they were so much fun! One of the episodes I did, Alison Brie directed, and she was just so enthusiastic, and they were like a family by then. I was really disappointed to find out that they canceled it. I just thought it was unique, it had all these great characters, it was so women-centric… I loved the creators, Liz Flayhive and Carly Mensch. They were just… I mean, it was a lovefest! And a great show. I really just couldn’t believe they canceled it. I was ready to go back for many more.
To jump way back again, I also really enjoyed… Okay, hang on, because I want to phrase this right: I enjoyed About Last Night… for all the wrong reasons when I first watched it, but over time I became able to appreciate it for all the right reasons.
Got it. [Coyly.] And what were those reasons?
Unabashed nudity the first time. After that, it was the realistic portrayal of relationships, because by then I’d actually been in one. It explores them in a way that I couldn’t appreciate the first time around.
Yeah, I think it was… [Hesitates.] I agree with you about the unabashed nudity, but it was the ’80s, and that’s how we’d sell a movie. I was glad it wasn’t me, I can tell you that much! [Laughs.] Because that was my very first film. I’d never even been in front of a camera before that. But it was very sort of topical in terms of the ’80s and being in your 20s and wondering, “Am I ready to move in with somebody?” And then there’s always that friend who’s jealous because you’re finally settling down and they’re not. I thought Jim Belushi was hysterical in that movie.
Yeah, actually, I talked to him for Decider, and he told me about how hard he had to fight to even get a shot at auditioning for the part.
Oh, absolutely. And it was such a Chicago piece, and originally the script was David Mamet, but David didn’t want to be involved it because…he’s David. [Laughs.] But, yeah, 100%, Jim had to fight for it, but with his Chicago background, he just knew who that character was immediately. You know, he was wearing a baseball jacket, his pants were too big, he drank a lot, he hung out on Division Street…
And for me, I was friends with the producer, because he came from the Chicago theater, and I knew him from there, because that’s where I got my start. But I was in New York, and he said, “Hey, I’m doing this movie. Would you come in and read for it?” And I was, like, “Ooh! A movie!” So I went in, and I had a pack of Life Savers in my hand, and just sort of unknowingly, I decided to chew them throughout the entire scene. And Ed Zwick, the director, said, “Well, that’s why I gave you the part: because it took a lot of cajones and just eat those Life Savers throughout the scene!” [Laughs.] And I said, “Thank you! Oh, my God, should I bring them to every audition I do?”
My name as above the title…and it was my first job! I hadn’t even done a TV commercial or an episode of anything. So it was very trial-by-fire, but I felt like I was truly blessed. And again, another lifetime friendship with Demi [Moore]. Just an incredible woman.
Lastly, I’m fascinated by pilots that never made it to series…
Like, to the point where I think there should be a network that’s devoted solely to pilots.
There should be a pilot channel! Why isn’t there? What is that about? Talk about all the lost revenue!
Well, if they ever start one, I’d love to see Dumb Prince. I’ve read about it, but I’ve never seen it.
Dumb Prince! God, that was fun. Me and Kevin Nealon playing the king and queen of an imaginary country, and our stupid son. Created by Charlie Grandy and directed by Amy Poehler, with a great cast, including Jessie Ennis. [Sighs.] You know, you never know why people don’t pick up a pilot. And sometimes even when they do… I mean, I did a show where they did a pilot, they picked it up, and took it to series. It was with me and Brad Garrett as parents, our daughter was Sarah Chalke… They pulled us after two episodes. We were, like, “We’re just getting going here!”
But, yes, Dumb Prince was hysterical, and I was very surprised that they didn’t want to go with it. I mean, it was me and Kevin. How much fun is that? [Laughs.] But what are you gonna do? They pick up the weirdest things, and they cancel the oddest things. Like GLOW. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. They got Emmy nominations, Golden Globes nominations… It just doesn’t make any sense to me. But I’m all for a pilot channel. How do we make that happen? Because I’ve actually said this to a few people, and they say, “Oh, it’s just too much licensing.”
I guess that’s it. But even so, how costly could it be for, say, a single studio to do something like that?
Yeah! I mean, it’s just sitting there in a vault anyway. Put it out there! They’d probably say, “It’s only gonna make, like, $5,000.” So what? It’s better than nothing! And just for people to have the chance to see them. I mean, Dumb Prince… Yeah, it was dumb, but it was so fun! They were completely out of their minds. They’re walking around wearing robes and crowns on their heads, even though their country was only, like, two square miles. [Laughs.] It was just fun. And I never actually saw the completed pilot, because they never even put the money into it to complete it.
Was Vince Uncensored funny as well?
God, how great was that? Me and [Michael] Chiklis, I played his wife, and he survives a brain aneurysm, but now he says everything he thinks, no matter what it is. [Laughs.] Oh, and I did another pilot that I was surprised didn’t happen. It was called What Leonard Comes Home To, and it was me and Griffin Dunne and Caroline Aaron. Griffin played this guy who just couldn’t quite get his life together, and I was his ex-wife. But it’s, like, why not just show that? I’d watch it…and I know that a lot of other people would watch it. I think we should work together to try and get the Pilot Channel up! [Laughs.]
Will Harris (@NonStopPop) has a longstanding history of doing long-form interviews with random pop culture figures for the A.V. Club, Vulture, and a variety of other outlets, including Variety. He’s currently working on a book with David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. (And don’t call him Shirley.)
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