Spoilers ahead for Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.
If you’re going to set a TV show in the 1990s, you might as well cast a period-appropriate star. As the characters in Wet Hot American Summer return to Camp Firewood in Netflix’s Ten Years Later, a new face — not just Adam Scott’s — joins the cast. Who’s the Boss?, Melrose Place, and Charmed’s own Alyssa Milano plays Renata, a charming babysitter, who, in the grand tradition of ’90s thrillers, comes with a poorly hidden dark side. As Renata’s facade starts to crack — evidenced by some superbly exaggerated eye-twitching — Milano gets as fully immersed in the absurdity of Wet Hot alongside the show’s veteran comedians, and to hear her talk about it, it was a heck of a lot of fun. Vulture caught up with Milano over the phone to talk about how she bonded with the Wet Hot cast over their despair during the election, what it’s like to shoot a David Wain–style fight scene, and why she’s happy that acting isn’t the most important thing in her life.
How did you get involved in Ten Years Later?
It was one of those blessings. I got a call from my agent and they said, “They’re offering you a part in the next Wet Hot American Summer.” I was like, “What? Yeah, absolutely. I’ll do it!” And they said, “You don’t want to read the scripts? Because they’re already written.” And I was like, “Nope. I don’t care what I play. I’ll just do it.” I’m a huge fan of the movie and what they did last season. Also, I’m just a general David Wain fan. I think he’s a genius.
Did you ever think you would be in a David Wain project?
I never really thought about it, but that’s how I go about my career in general. I just take advantage of the opportunities that are given to me and don’t expect much. I think that’s one of the reasons why I am someone that has been able to accomplish so many things outside of just being an actress.
What was it like to join a cast where a lot of the actors have already worked together for a long time?
The idea of it was super intimidating, driving to work that first day with butterflies in my stomach. For someone that’s been doing this as long as I’ve been doing this, to have that kind of reaction is just a testament to how great what they do is.
But once I got to set, it was like a family. These guys, Michael and David, they have chosen their careers to work with their friends and to create with their friends. That just manifests itself in such a lovely way on set. I’m not one of those actors that’s like, “Oh, yeah, we were nurtured.” But in this case, it was really true. Most of my scenes were with Michael Ian Black and Adam Scott, both of whom I think are geniuses, comedically. But on top of that, Michael Ian Black has this way of making you feel like you’re the funniest person in the room, even though you never really are the funniest person in the room because he’s the funniest person in the room.
I also think, politics totally aside, we all bonded so immensely over the election. We were shooting six weeks before the election, so we were all campaigning and then the election happened and we all had to go into work that next morning.
What was that like?
Well, we weren’t laughing. There were tears. But really, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but right there in the company of those people. I have horses — excuse this analogy, but it really is appropriate. If you have a ranch or whatever and you have five horses and you’re bringing a new horse into the ranch, normally, the horses won’t accept the new horse at first. So the way in which you get them to run together as a pack is you make a loud sound or crack a whip so that they feel like they’re all in danger. That gets them all running together. And that’s kind of what it was like on that set. Someone cracked a whip, we were all in danger because of the election, and we bonded as a pack.
Let’s talk about your character, Renata, who’s this creepy babysitter. How much of that was already in the script? Was there a lot of improv?
There is definitely improv going on, which I think you can tell. But once the improv is found, then it is molded to be part of the scene. It doesn’t feel haphazard. The most important thing to me was to define the moment where [Renata] might not be as sweet as we first thought she was. We played around with it a lot so they would have some choices in the editing room as to where they started to peel away what was going on. You don’t want to let on that you’re psycho until the moment you let on you’re psycho.
You were a big star in the ’90s, and it’s a cool casting wink to have you in the show for this era. Were there specific ’90s references you guys were trying to hit in order to define the era?
I think that my character was definitely ripped from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Every single pop-culture hit that they could possibly do from that era, they found a way to incorporate it, which is so cool. I think it’s hard to draw the line between visually what’s ’80s and what’s ’90s. And I think they did a good job of staying ’90s and not going into ’80s at all.
What’s the giveaway of something being more ’80s?
Shoulder pads. Just Google search “Alyssa Milano ’80s.”
Did you have to keep that fact that Adam Scott was playing Bradley Cooper’s character a secret?
We all thought it was hilarious. What a great choice in Adam Scott. It’s clearly not Bradley Cooper, the way he looks, right? It’s like chocolate and vanilla. We weren’t allowed to take a lot of social-media pictures, or post a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff while we were filming.
Towards the end of the show, you have this insane fight scene with Adam. What was it like to shoot that?
Well, first of all, the best part about that whole fight scene is David had this piece of music that he choreographed the fight scene to. I haven’t seen that scene. I don’t know if that music actually found its way into that scene in the show, but everything was what he choreographed. At one point, during one take, when I’m on top of Adam, David goes, “Okay, now dance to the music! Dance to the music!” We just started dancing slowly to the music but staying in character and fighting. Stuff like that, it was the most fun ever. And to have David saying out loud, “Yeah, I don’t care if we see the doubles’ faces. That’s what makes this funny.”
You mentioned how you do a lot of work outside of being an actress. How do you balance your different obligations?
The balance part is something I don’t have down yet. I’m also a mother and a wife. It’s juggling a lot of things. But I have learned this: Nothing stops moving. All of these pieces of my life are constantly moving and evolving and changing. The thing that I say that I strive for is I have to be present and do the best job at whatever it is I’m doing in that moment and give that thing my attention in that moment. That’s how I’ve been able to juggle it all. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep, but I do the best that I can.
Obviously, my priority is raising good humans in my children and that takes up my heart and my soul. If it’s important enough, you figure it out and you do it. I’ll be honest, acting, I love it, but it’s never been the most fulfilling thing in my life. It’s something that I enjoy doing, but I don’t think I’d be completely fulfilled only doing it.
You’ve been acting since you were very young, so I imagine you’ve learned a lot from the ups and the downs of the industry. Does that help you take a long view of it?
If your goal is to specifically be an actor, you really have to have other things in your life that are fulfilling, because otherwise, your career depends on the opinions of other humans and what they think of you or what they think of your ability. So much of my industry is about rejection and competition and if that’s all there was in my life, I would be miserable. So it was really about creating a life outside of that to feel fulfilled. I have to say, the older I’ve gotten, I feel like the roles are getting better and better in that facet.
That’s contrary to what a lot of people say happens. As you’ve gotten older, do you think there are more opportunities?
No, I think the roles are more interesting. I start shooting my next Netflix show, which is called Insatiable, in October. I play this woman named Cora Lee and she’s got this thick accent and big hair and fake nails and it’s so fun. I just wrapped a movie where I played Emma Roberts’s mom as this New York, Italian, sassy woman, where I just paid homage to every woman in my family. It’s more character-driven, versus the damsel in distress or the leading lady or any of those kinds of roles that you get offered in your 20s or 30s — or the wife role or something like that.
You mentioned living through the election on the Wet Hot set, and you’ve been very active in politics, on Twitter and in the Jon Ossoff campaign. What do you want to accomplish with your political engagement?
I started becoming politically involved or active after the election was stolen from Gore, but of course, nobody knew because there wasn’t social media to cover what I was doing. I campaigned for Kerry, I campaigned for Barack Obama for the Senate. I would just go and go to these rallies and speak on the behalf of the candidates. For Kerry, I went to all the swing states and I went to every college and I’d hold rallies on the back of a pickup truck for the DNC. That’s what being politically active meant then.
Now, there’s such a disconnect between what being politically active means versus what we do on social media that we think makes an impact. My mission and my goal is to hopefully show people that, or give people the tools to actually be active and be members of society, so whether that means sending a video to your representative, asking them to hold Trump accountable, or making phone calls or going door-to-door or driving people to the polls for Rob Quist in Montana, which I also did. To me, you’ve got to get boots on the ground and do something. If you want things to change, they’re not going to just change. I think that we have to redefine what “activist” means and remind people that part of the word “activism” means to be active. That doesn’t mean sitting behind a computer, that means doing something.
A few weeks ago, you had tweeted about needing a group hug and Ted Cruz replied to you. It must be odd to end up having these unexpected conversations.
That’s the amazing thing about Twitter, right? You can connect with people that you’d normally never connect with, for better or for worse. Or Ted Cruz. That was a bizarre moment where I had tweeted something and it wasn’t his reply, it was the emoticon that he used. That winky face? I don’t know. It was just one of those moments. As long as you look at Twitter as really trying to maintain the integrity of who you are as a person and be super true to your heart and speak from your heart and be consistent to your ideas and beliefs, I don’t think you can really go wrong.
There’s been this fad recently of reviving shows or movies, like Wet Hot, or the talk about a Charmed reunion or reboot. When people are nostalgic for something you were in, do you feel limited by that? Or are you happy that people still value those projects?
If it were a time when I didn’t have so much else going on, I may feel differently about it. People talk about the Who’s the Boss? possibility all the time, and the fact that I have two shows that people are nostalgic about is actually a really beautiful thing. How many people can say that? That’s really lovely. [Reunions of] both I’d be open to, as long as they maintain the integrity of the original. Who’s the Boss? was really cutting edge for that time, if you think about it. It was a single mother who owned her own business, who had a promiscuous mother, who then hired a male guy to help raise the kids and clean the house who was a single dad raising a daughter. For that time, 1984, that was a lot. I don’t know how we maintain the integrity of how special that was, but [I’m] definitely open for that.
For Charmed, I feel like that’s a show that’s still so alive in people’s daily lives because it is still binge-watched and is still on all the time on reruns. I think what they’ve tried to do before is not really respect the army of Charmed fans, which are the most loyal fans in the world.
The show came right at the beginning of internet culture, too.
It was when chat rooms were really popular and it was all about female girl power and it also hit the right time for that as well. There were so many shows that paved the way for basically all the shows that are on TV now that star a female lead, because at the time it was so rare.
This interview has been edited and condensed.