Talk to Ari Graynor on the phone and it becomes perfectly obvious why she’s often been cast in the role of the best friend. Just like her characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, What’s Your Number?, and Celeste and Jesse Forever, Graynor exudes the sort of easygoing camaraderie that would make anyone consider her a pal from the get-go. That instant likability is now serving her well as the lead on Bad Teacher, CBS’s comedy based on the 2011 Cameron Diaz vehicle of the same name, in which she’s easy to root for despite playing a status-conscious Real Housewives type who swindles her way into a teaching gig at a tony SoCal school just to meet a rich husband. While prepping to start rehearsals for the play American Hero, which debuts next week at Second Stage Uptown, Graynor made time to talk to Vulture about Bad Teacher’s all-star cast, meeting Cameron Diaz, and whether she’s a Carrie or a Samantha.
I tried researching this on YouTube, but I just want to make sure I know how to pronounce your first name correctly.
Do you just use that for a stage name? Because your full name is Ariel, yes?
Yeah, my full name is Ariel. As a kid everyone started calling me Ari, so yeah, that’s just what I’ve always been called. But I love Ariel. I sort of wish that people called me Ariel, so a lot of my friends now call me ARiel or AriEL, sort of like in jest. But I’ve always been an Ari.
I knew a surprising number of Ariels growing up — certainly not so many as all the Jennifers or Jessicas, but a lot — and I’ve never met two girls who pronounce Ariel the same way.
That’s so funny, because as a child of the ’80s, all I wanted was to be a Jennifer, a Jessica, a Britney, a Michelle. I mean, I was just dying to be a Jennifer. But yeah, Ari and Ariel is the way I go.
Are you aware of the song?
Am I aware of the song?
The song “Ariel.”
What song is this?
It’s a kinda weird, Jewish singer-songwriter from the ’70s named Dean Friedman. I’m gonna change your life. I’m gonna tweet you this song.
I couldn’t be more excited for anything. A weird, Jewish singer from the ’70s?
It is hilarious. You will love it, I promise. He kind of looks like Bob Ross, the PBS painter, and he rocks a corduroy blazer.
Ahhh! I can’t wait!
So, I think you are hilarious on Bad Teacher, but we’ve got to talk about your dream-team cast.
Yeah, I know, isn’t it ridiculous?
It’s like the Murderers’ Row of TV sitcom casts. It’s like a TV sitcom supergroup!
I know, I know! It’s outrageous to me because — and I’m not just saying this — I legitimately was a huge fan of every single one of them. My deepest fear about doing TV, especially about doing a network comedy, was what if it felt too surface-y? What if it felt too jokey? That sense of depth, of fulfillment and satisfaction that I look for as an actor, and why we’re all doing what we’re doing — what if that gets lost in a network situational comedy? That’s why it’s such a pleasure to work with and be surrounded by these people that are so fun and funny, but take their work really seriously as actors.
How much TV do you watch? What are some of your favorite shows?
I have to say, I haven’t been watching a lot of TV recently. As a kid, I watched a lot of TV. There were so many of those shows in the ’80s and ’90s that were so formative — The Cosby Show, Roseanne. I have seen every episode of Sex and the City, I’m not kidding you. All of the NBC Thursday night lineup, Friends and Seinfeld and all of that. That’s another thing I love about Bad Teacher; even though it’s really fresh, there’s a certain type of inspiration and heart at the root of it that reminds me of some of those older shows, that balances a heightened reality that’s funny based on who these characters are and how they’re living their life, rather than just a lot of jokes or gimmicks.
Now I have to ask you this cheesy question: Are you a Carrie or a Samantha or a Miranda or a Charlotte?
I mean, who doesn’t think they’re a Carrie? I feel like everyone assumes that they’re a Carrie and all of their friends are somebody else. So that’s my answer; I’m a Carrie. I think the greatest sign of success for Bad Teacher would be if people started saying, “I’m a Meredith,” or “I’m a Principal Carl,” or an Irene or a Ginny or a Joel. I’m gonna start pushing for that.
You really play up Meredith’s vampy side to the hilt. Is there someone you’re basing that character on?
It’s not based on anyone specific. A lot of Meredith’s spirit was on the page when I first read the pilot. And then, look, the outfits and all that fake hair and great makeup and body-tanning, that doesn’t hurt things in terms of finding her. She embodies so many of the characteristics that I wish I had, so in a lot of ways, she’s an alter ego of mine. It’s about tapping into parts of myself that I wish I could have more on display.
One of the funniest and most understated parts of your performance is the way Meredith walks. It’s swishy without being over-the-top.
Oh, thank you! It’s really fascinating when you observe people moving or how they walk, how they hold themselves and what that’s revealing. That naturally starts to come out when you put on those clothes and you get to do scenes with incredible actors, you know? It’s not premeditated.
I saw an interview you gave not too long ago where you admitted you’ve never seen Bad Teacher, the movie?
Have you seen it yet?
I have still not seen it. As long as Bad Teacher the TV show is going on, I am not going to see it. I feared that if I was at hour 14 in the day and having a tough time or feeling bad about what I was doing, if I had seen the movie, I’d just start comparing myself to Cameron Diaz and thinking, Oh god, I’m not as good as her, not as funny as her, not as pretty as her. What am I doing here? So I just thought, let’s just take that temptation away. Better to be in denial than in the dark about it.
Cameron Diaz is a producer on the show, isn’t she? But you haven’t talked to her about the character?
She’s not part of the day-to-day; she’s an executive producer. Obviously, a huge part of the success of the movie was due to her and her performance, so she’s a big reason the show exists. I met her once, like, two years ago through a mutual friend, and she seemed just as lovely and fun as one would hope and expect. We had a really fun time together, but it was before all of this. It would be funny if I were to run into her now: “Hi, sorry, hope you remember me …?”
What was it like for you to shoot the pilot and then have a delay of almost a year before the show went on the air?
We shot the pilot in March of last year, and then I think we found out at the end of May that we would be a mid-season. The great news about CBS is that they’re such a successful network, their comedies especially do unbelievably well are are around for ages. The bad news is, there’s so little real estate on the network. Airing this April was a bit of a surprise and maybe a little bit later than I would have thought. It was on Valentine’s Day of this year that we found out our April airdate, and there was this little part of me at first that was like, Oh, does that mean we’re just kind of being dumped or they don’t care? And then it was quite the opposite: No, they’re putting us on Thursdays at 9:30 after Two and a Half Men. It’s their biggest night of comedy and they’re starting to air us during sweeps. So all of that was just a major sign of confidence, which was so nice to have after working on it for a long time. You know, you make network television for the most number of people to see it, so it’s a bizarre thing to work on something like this, our baby, for over a year, and during that time so few people see it. It’s so exciting now that we’re going to get to share it.
I always wonder about the psychological trauma about it all, working as an actor and not knowing if people are going to see your work, or how it’s going to be received.
Is it really that bad?
Yes! yes! It is a total and complete mindfuck. I think a reason why actors get reputations for being crazy and neurotic is because your life task is constantly in flux. Part of doing good work is caring deeply about it, believing in what you’re doing, and getting incredibly attached to the characters that you’re playing, the stories you’re telling, and the people you’re working with. And just as quickly as it comes, it goes away. For TV, there’s this constant play between, this is something that you could be doing for 10 years, or you could not even return to finish shooting. I’m so happy that all of this is happening for me now at 31 rather than 18. I think I have a slightly better sense of calm about it and an awareness of the big picture of life. I’m also so lucky that I’m doing a play that I’m so in love with, at a theater that is sort of my home away from home in New York. The first play I ever did in New York was at Second Stage Uptown 12 or 13 years ago. That’s been a godsend with the craziness of releasing the show. To be reminded every day that the reason I’m here in the first place is my love of and need for expression and art and theater and creativity. At the end of the day, regardless of what happens, that’s the anchor that holds it all down.
Honestly, you sound very psychologically healthy. Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you about your mom.
Oh, yes! Oh my god! Joani Geltman! Her new book is incredible — A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens. I was just in Boston at her book signing. I just went up literally for eight hours to go up and see, you know, every member of my family, every friend, every person from all of the Passover seders, all of my childhood friends. Everyone was at this reading. I wrote the foreword to the book — which, thank God, has nothing to do with parenting me. She’s been a therapist and working with teens her whole career. But she and my dad have been so incredibly supportive of me. The only reason I’m here is because they listened to me as a kid when I was 7 in Boston and said, “I want to be an actor.” And for whatever reason, they listened to me and schlepped me to New York. Even when all of their friends were like, “Yeah, but what is she really going to do?” they were like, “No, she’s really going to do this.”
How did you and your family do when you were an adolescent? Was the relationship rocky? Were you a challenge to them?
No, you know, we had a really amazing relationship and I never really went through a rebellious period because I never had anything to rebel against. We were always very close and she was always really close with my friends. We would have different TV dates during high school, like when Ally McBeal was on, there were two different friends that would always come over to watch Ally McBeal. And then when Sex and the City was on, I had another three or four friends and we’d all get frozen yogurt with my mom and watch Sex and the City.
Wow. Your mother is officially the coolest mother.
Ha-ha, I know!
She watched Sex and the City with you when you were a teenager!
And my friends! And my friends! Every Sunday night, there’d be three or four of us with frozen yogurt and my mom watching Sex and the City. That’s just how it went down. It was pretty great.
You’ve done a lot of “best friend” roles in movies like Celeste and Jesse Forever and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Even though roles like that have their limitations, is there anything you learned from them that helped you grow as an actor?
When you’re in the best-friend role, there’s less pressure, but you get to learn and watch. Especially with so many of these wonderful female actresses I’ve worked with, like Rashida Jones and Anna Faris and Kat Dennings, that was huge. Also when you’re playing a supporting character, you really have a lot of freedom. I think there’s a certain — I don’t think this was true in any of these movies — but typically there’s a concern or truth about a leading lady being somewhat bland, and more of the color comes from the surrounding characters. So I’m just grateful and lucky that I’ve been able to create and play around with these really fun characters. And then to be able to be the lead in Bad Teacher, in many ways she’s the kind of character that, in another vehicle, you might see as more of a peripheral character, but here she gets to be front and center.
You did Woody Allen’s one-act play, Honeymoon Motel, on Broadway. So I have to ask you your meeting Woody Allen story.
It’s not so much a meeting Woody Allen story so much as a working with Woody Allen story. Much to my surprise, he was unbelievably involved, as much as any new playwright is. He was there at almost every rehearsal and he was at every preview — we previewed for a month, eight shows a week — and after every performance we would have notes in the theater with him and [director] John Turturro for about an hour. I have some of these notes sessions taped. He would say things in such a direct way that only Woody Allen could’ve said. Things like, “You know, it’s not bad, but it could get bad,” or, “You did not do that joke correctly.” He has such a music to his words, and especially that piece was sort of like a throwback to some of his early, sort of Borscht Belt humor. I learned so much. Also, for opening night, his opening-night gift was a mezuzah. I have a mezuzah from Woody Allen, which is pretty much a dream.