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Ari Graynor on Her Phone-Sex Movie and Moving Beyond Best-Friend Roles

A few weeks ago, while vacationing in Paris with friends, Ari Graynor got the ­letters  Y-E-S tattooed on her right wrist. It’s to remind her to jump at any wacky opportunities that should present themselves, even if such openness occasionally means standing in a room with her mother, “saying the word cock a million different ways” into a microphone.

The naughty recording session was part of the promotional campaign for Graynor’s new movie For a Good Time, Call … , a comedy about two cash-strapped roommates who run a phone-sex hotline out of their apartment. Focus Features, which acquired the distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival in January, bought the phone number 1-877-MMM-HMMM (identical to the one in the movie), so fans can call in and listen to daily messages. There will also be a digital keyboard on the movie’s website that triggers audio of Graynor saying things like “Put it anywhere!” and “Titty-fuck me!”

Graynor’s mother just happened to be in Los Angeles from Boston, where Graynor grew up, when her daughter was called in for voice-over duty. “I was moaning, doing these horrid fake orgasms, and being like, ‘Throw it in my ass! Throw it in my ass!’ With my mom there,” Graynor says, laughing. Also present: Focus executives. “They’re hardly uptight suits. But it’s the studio, so it’s funny when they say things like, ‘So in terms of the orgasm video … ’ or, ‘How do you feel about a sponsorship with vibrators, or personal lubricant?’ ”

Her character, Katie, is based on Katie Anne Naylon, who ran a phone-sex line out of her Florida State University dorm and co-wrote the script with her college roommate Lauren Anne Miller, who stars in the movie as Graynor’s business partner. They conceived the role with Graynor’s voice in mind, based on their love of her most widely seen performance, in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Play­list, as a plastered friend who, on an epic night out, gets drunk enough to imagine she’s been kidnapped.

For a Good Time, Call … has echoes of Bridesmaids and HBO’s Girls, comedies that, beneath the raunch, are really about female friendship. Graynor, 29, felt so strongly about getting it made—it would be only the second lead role of her career, after the little-seen Lucky, about a girl who marries a serial killer for his lottery winnings—that she stepped in to executive-produce, along with Miller’s brother. They raised the money on their own, and asked friends like Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband), Kevin Smith, and Ken Marino to play male callers, because that was the only way Miller would get her big break as an actress, too. “Our group, all of us are new to this,” says Graynor. “Nobody knows who we are.”

She’s invited me to join her on a lazy Saturday in downtown L.A., where she moved this winter “in a life transition” ­following a breakup with Eddie Kaye Thomas, with whom she acted in the 2006 Off Broadway play Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (it was a reimagining of Peanuts; she played a character based on Marcie). She likes the area’s remove from the movie business and enjoys her daily interactions with “your usual schizophrenic homeless friends that live on your corner.” We’re at a coffee shop she calls “my Cheers” when her friend and “gay fake brother” (Graynor is an only child) walks by with his dog. They both crack up upon realizing neither has showered since they last hung out, less than twelve hours ago, and they’re still wearing the same clothes.

Now “happily single,” Graynor has just returned from a month “professionally living life,” traveling to Marfa, Texas; Big Sur; New York; Tuscany; Rome; Paris; and, finally, Amsterdam. While there, she and friends mostly passed on the pot but did go to a co-ed naked spa. “The night before, we were like, ‘Do we all need to get naked and judge each other to get it out of our system?’ ” It turned out to be a nonissue. “We love to shvitz,” she explains. “On both coasts we have a shvitz-ing contingency. We try to go once a week. It’s very Jewish of us.”

Speaking of the Jews, the first thing one notices upon entering her loft apartment is a street-bought portrait of her patron saint, Barbra Streisand. Graynor shot a movie with her recently called The Guilt Trip, in which Streisand plays Seth ­Rogen’s mom. It will forever be a life highlight. “I’ve always just admired ­women who were able to navigate through dramatic and comedic waters, and sort of do it all,” she says. “The Barbra is big in my life.” Also huge was the Broadway one-act that Woody Allen directed her in last summer. He gave her a mezuzah and a note she’s framed that says, “You can come to my Seder anytime.”

Her books only look like gifts from Woody; her desk is covered in used paperbacks like Jewish Reflections on Death, Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Rachel Abramowitz’s Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?, featuring interviews with powerful Hollywood women, many of them Jewish, like Babs and Nora Ephron. “There’s this interesting relationship they all have with their looks. They all feel like they’re the cute Jewish girl, and they all also feel competitive with Cybill Shepherd, which is hilarious and I totally understand,” Graynor says.

We make a detour to her local flower market to pick up hydrangeas, sunflowers, and roses, which she de-leafs and stem-cuts with such sweaty intensity that by the time she puts them in vases, her hair is a mess, she’s covered in thorn pricks, and her scissors have been thrown in the trash. She laughs. “There are so many fucking leaves, what the hell? These are the leafiest roses you’ve ever seen in your life.” Graynor smokes cigarettes out her window, bare feet hoisted onto her security bars (she still has a good-girl fear of getting in trouble for smoking in her bedroom), and tells me she’s glad she’s outgrown the heavy imbibing that served as accidental research for her Nick & Norah performance. Still, she hasn’t yet lived down the infamous New Year’s Eve a few years ago when she got locked out of her New York apartment dressed as the Little Mermaid. “I have a friend that does an impersonation of me, standing there and swaying, like,”—slurring, weeping—“ ‘Sooorry I ruined New Year’s. I can’t find my keys. I have no place to go.’ ”

Graynor appears in two other movies this year—in Celeste and Jesse Forever, as Rashida Jones’s best friend, and 10 Years, as Chris Pratt’s wife. She’s not sure about her next move, but says she’s “done with the best-friend mode.” She briefly considered quitting comedy, too, for fear of being pigeonholed. But then she had a ­“really kind of amazing come-to-Jesus-like conversation” with Focus’s head of production. “He was like, ‘Just because something comes naturally to you doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy.’ I don’t have to fear that if I do more comedy I’m not going to get to do everything I want. I’ll get to do my Yentl.” She beams, drops everything she’s holding, and starts spinning around her apartment, arms stretched wide. “Someday!” she screams. “Someday I’ll be Yentl!”

 This story appeared in the August 6, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.    

Photo: Pej Behdarvand; Styling by Jordan Johnson for Rachel Zoe Studio at The Wall Group; Hair by Richard Collins at The Wall Group; Makeup by Jamie Greenberg for Mark Cosmetics at The Wall Group.