I told myself I’d never cover the same series twice, but when I made that promise, I hadn’t conceived of a couple like Ann Carr and Warren Holstein – the hearts and brains behind one of the web’s longest running and consistently excellent series, The Actress. In a digital environment saturated with folks making shameless grabs at quasi-fame and fleeting HuffPo notoriety and then trying something new if they don’t get instantly huge, this series stands out not only because it’s quality, but also because its creators are so apparently committed to putting the time in, nurturing The Actress in its native state to make it the absolute best it can be for them, not for a development executive who may be scrolling through this site.
Tell me about how you each got into comedy and what the beginnings of this series were?
Ann Carr: Everything really started with this one-person show I did at UCB probably about 4 years ago. It was called “Use It”; it was just a bunch of different vignettes of different experiences from my day job and auditions. Then after that stage show was done, it ran about a year, I was kind of at a loss. I was really missing it and wanted to do more. I felt like one of my vignettes from my show would make a good episode so I put it online and we sort of started from there.
Warren Holstein: Me and Anne have been together for twelve years. I don’t really do a lot of acting, but I do do standup and writing so even when she was doing the stage show I would help her with punching it up. Just putting jokes in it. About four of the episodes come from the one woman show that Ann did and it’s kind of strange because in the show the characters were all played by Ann but for the web series we had to cast people to play these characters Ann had played in the show. We would get into arguments about what should happen in episodes because we both were so invested in it and the compromises we ended up making ended up making the episodes even better. By the second season the arguing became less, it didn’t become as heated, and we both got into this process where either Ann or I would write the first draft and then we would go back and forth between the two of us. Eight times. This is probably the most regimented that we’ve done it, this season. Like this season, “The Dermatologist,” is based on my real dermatologist that I recommended to Ann. We did exaggerate but that scene where he’s squeezing her face, that guy really did that to her, he really squeezed Ann’s face.
So you write separately and then reconvene?
Warren: We brainstorm ideas but Ann usually writes the first draft. I’m so glad that we made “The Dermatologist” into an episode because even as we were filming it we talked to all the different women who we had cast in that episode and a bunch of them had the exact same experience. That’s why I’m so glad that episode got a lot of press and was picked up by the Huffington Post. You go in there and the dermatologist just tries to sell you shit! I think it’s something that people don’t really talk about. We always try to start out episodes with something truthful and go from there.
What other series are you guys watching right now? What’s inspiring to you?
Little Horribles and this series share a lot of the same sensibilities. They both have subtleties and little ebbs and flows which is so different from the usual 2 minutes of joke joke joke joke.
Warren: We were talking about this the other day. When we were going into the second season people were telling us, “You need to make things more viral, you need to make them shorter” but Amy who was helping us with production at Barnacle, the production company we used for the web series, believed in what we were doing and was great at marketing and all of that. We did a Kickstarter for this third season and raised almost $7,000 and realized that people really liked our show and the style we were doing it in. There were a lot of people who donated money that we don’t even know. It wasn’t just friends and family, and some of those people gave $200-$250 dollars and we don’t even know them! We just realized that going viral is less important to us than having that kind of fan base and going forward doing things that move people. Ann is involved in theatre and I just mainly do stand up so it’s very moving to have this kind of a response outside of someone just coming to me at the end of show. I really feel like I’m doing something here with Ann that’s moving and emotional and is ballsy. Part of the reason Ann even got cast on Louie was because of the pilot episode of The Actress.
You guys have been able to transcend the boundaries of what people are willing to sit for online.
Warren: Yeah me and Ann were just talking about this. Did you see Transparent? I feel like we’re in the early days of people starting to pay attention to long form shows on the web. But they’re really hard to make.
I hope that’s where things are heading.
Warren: Yeah and that’s part of why we brought Amy on because we wanted to expand our viewership. And we’ve just been so lucky to get so many great people on the show. I still can’t believe we got Maurice Levy from The Wire on the show. And that was all Ann! She had just done a commercial with him for Allied Bank.
Ann: I wasn’t even supposed to go in and it was just all luck that the director called me.
What advice do you have for people who are looking to get into the web space—people who may not have never shot anything before?
Ann: I think the best advice I could give is just write from your voice and from your truth. Whatever that is, don’t’ try to mold it into anything other than what it is. I think it would’ve been a big mistake to make these 5 minutes or less and I knew that and knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do or talk about. I wanted to talk about real things that were happening to me in a real narrative way.
Warren: Don’t compromise your vision. Don’t skimp on production, don’t skimp on sound. If you have bad sound people wont be able to hear anything, make sure you get a good director and editor. I think the thing with the actors on our show is everyone we cast on The Actress is great. Even for the small roles, we always make sure to work with quality people. Like for “The Dermatologist,” I know Zack Broussard and I’ve seen him because Ann was on a Maude team with him, but he brought out nuances to that character that deepen the entire episode. Also part of not compromising your vision is we actually filmed two entire episodes that we then had to completely scrap. We weren’t happy with the performances and just scraped that episode.
Ann: I felt a pressure to just put something out there but Warren really was like, “These aren’t quality, you can’t put them out there.” They were “The Teacher” and “The Scene Partner,” which we later went back and re-shot and now everyone loves them.
Warren: If you work with people who really respect your vision then you get actors who really love what you’re doing too. People love to be there. I feel like the best thing about this series is that it shows an aspect of the industry that you never see portrayed accurately. It’s always heightened dramatically but the reality is a lot of the business is just taking shit. In order to make great art you have to suffer.
Ann: I did walk that teacher’s dog and pick up its shit to get a reduced rate [on classes] because I felt like that was all I was worth, that kind of thing. I still stumble sometimes, but I just love people who are just trying to figure it out. I love the underdog; I’ve always loved that. I gravitate towards that in any character that I do.
Warren: I think that’s why people empathize with Hannah too. It’s the rare bird that’s always standing up for itself; you have to build up for it. Most of the time you have to take a lot of shit while trying to do what you love.
Your three reasons to watch are…
It turns out the acting in The Actress is really good. The more snide among you might be saying “Great insight, idiot,” and I may very well be an idiot but if there’s one thing I know it’s misleadingly titled web series and this ain’t one.
Every episode is good. For three seasons. Few successful TV shows can boast that.
You’ll never go wrong if you write things that are personal and true to your life. The thing about being creative is, you have to be brave to be successful. The more afraid you are of writing something that’s going to reveal some deeply personal part of your soul, the more you should write it.
Watch more of The Actress here.