Published Apr 22, 2016Actor, writer, professor, standup comedian, author — these are just some of the roles that Michael Showalter has played over the years. A key player in the influential alt-comedy troupe The State, Showalter has since shined with roles in Wet Hot American Summer and Stella, not to mention his fantastic David Wain collaboration They Came Together. While his comedy career is deeply linked to silliness, however, he's pushing himself in a number of new directions with Hello, My Name Is Doris.
The film stars Sally Field as Doris, a woman in her 60s who falls for John (Max Greenfield) when they both work at the same catalogue company. In an attempt to win him over, Doris tries everything to win John over. Along the way, she experiences all that life has to offer for young urban professionals.
In an era where women of a certain age are treated as irrelevant onscreen, it's a welcome change to see a character like Doris. On the phone from Los Angeles, Showalter explains to Exclaim! that he was aware of the industry's age problem when he co-wrote the film with Laura Terruso (a process that took five years), but the film wasn't just a reaction to Hollywood's inequality.
"I knew that it was an unconventional protagonist, and that was interesting to me," Showalter says. "It was exciting to me to tell a story where the main character wasn't just another good looking white guy. But it wasn't like an agenda. It wasn't like I was trying to prove a point or something. I would say that I'm really interested more and more in finding uncommon main characters, and I really believe in seeing more women in these roles and just to find as much diversity is more interesting to me. Not that there's anything wrong with 30-something, good-looking white guys but, you know, we've just kind of seen that."
With that in mind, Showalter quickly fell in love with the character of Doris. "It was creatively challenging and fun to try and tell a story about a protagonist that was a woman in her 60s, and have her be funny, and have her be able to misbehave in all the ways that a male protagonist could, which is as it should be," he says. "She's rebellious and she's inappropriate and she's unpredictable, and we love her."
Further, Field's performance is rightly described in our review as one of the best performances of her career. For Showalter, getting the actress was a dream all along, though he wasn't sure if he'd pull it off.
"Only in so much as a pie-in-the-sky way, we thought, 'Wow how perfect would Sally Field be to play this part?'" he admits. "We didn't write it for her, because I would not have ever assumed that she would say yes. When we were writing it we were thinking wow wouldn't she be perfect, but we kind of left it at that."
Many are incorrectly calling Doris the directorial debut for Showalter. In actuality, he first got behind the lens in 2005 with The Baxter, a sweet and underrated dramedy that he starred in alongside Michelle Williams, Elizabeth Banks and Justin Theroux. Showalter explains that he applied wisdom from that set to his work on Doris.
"I had a lot of time to think about how I would do it differently if I ever had a chance to direct another movie," he says. "And that had to do with directorial stuff — just learning how to be a director, really. I felt, on Doris, like I went into it with a much stronger vision of what I wanted to accomplish directorially, and also that I was much more uncompromising about getting what I wanted and what I needed, even if it was going to piss people off. Which didn't happen all that much, thank god.
"But on The Baxter, because I was young and kind of overwhelmed a little bit by all of the different things I was doing, I feel like I let people streamroll me a little bit into doing things a certain way that I really regret. Not making me shoot things I wanted to because it was easier to do it a different way in a desire to make everybody happy, I would say yes to that. This time I wouldn't do that."
Hello, My Name Is Doris is one of the first major projects that Showalter released since taking a pseudo-hiatus to teach at NYU for a few years.
"I definitely was doing things during that time, but I think I was sort of transitioning my career a little bit," he says of his years spent teaching. "In that period I decided I didn't want to continue to pursue acting. Those years when I was teaching were for me a lot about just trying to figure out what my next move would be. Which, potentially, would be to stay teaching for a while…. Unfortunately it's hard to live in New York on a teacher's salary."
To pay the bills, Showalter rerooted his family to Los Angeles and worked on some TV projects before bringing Doris to life. As he explains, the film comes from the refreshed perspective of working with students for so long.
"I mean reading all these scripts and helping all these students with their projects kind of got me interested in maybe myself trying to do some stuff that was less broadly comedic," he says. "So much of the work I was doing as a teacher wasn't having anything to do with comedy. So I kind of got an opportunity to think about different ways to work with characters where I could get out of my comfort zone a little bit."
Hello, My Name Is Doris opens today (April 22) in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax, St-John's, Moncton, Saint John, Saskatoon, Regina, Waterloo, London and Windsor.