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Rachael Harris on Her Timely Drama Natural Selection, Evangelicals, and Sex Shame

Rachael Harris. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images For Jameson Irish Whiskey

With the uterus once again firmly implanted at the top of the news cycle, Rachael Harris’s powerful new movie Natural Selection might just get lucky. Harris plays Linda, a woman living in an insular Evangelical community in Texas. She and her husband Abe (played by Jon Diehl) can’t have children, so, according to their church, they can’t have sex. Well, at least Linda can’t: Abe takes advantage of a theological loophole at the local sperm bank until he has a stroke, leaving Linda to go forth to find Abe’s biological son Raymond (Matt O’Leary) in hopes that she can … well, who knows exactly what this woman is yearning for, but it’s fascinating to watch. We talked to Harris, who you may remember as Stu’s bitchy and controlling fiancée in The Hangover, about finding laughs in such dreary material, her mini-arc on New Girl, and being the first female Daily Show correspondent to break through.

Do you believe in God?
Yes. I do. I believe in something.

But you’re not an according-to-Hoyle Christian.
No, no, no. But I do believe in “something else.” I don’t know exactly what it is and I kind of prefer that. Like, I like not knowing. I think it’s highly personal, whatever works for you — but yeah, I have a little something that I believe in.

So how did you get into that headspace where what Linda believes feels real?
I come from the place of thinking, Whatever works for people — and if you haven’t been exposed to anything else, you really don’t know better. All Linda has ever known is that small town and that church, and she’s never questioned anything before because she has a very domineering husband. And I know that there are people that do live their life that way. So I look at Linda as an innocent. I completely bought it, because she just lived this whole life of shame. Unless you have people in your life that are actively telling you that you’re a good person, then you are going to carry that shame with you for your entire life.

Are you saying you recognized this kind of lack of self-confidence and shame in your friends, or is this something you’ve felt personally?
I had gotten divorced shortly before the film started. And there were issues in my own marriage where it’s just a constant battle: Is this because of me? Or, can I fix this? Can I not fix this? What is my part? What is his part? And what I could really tap into is going home and dealing with having nobody there. It was really, really traumatic for me when my husband moved out of my house. I had been staying with friends, and when I moved back, it was an extremely difficult time for me. I don’t know if you’re married or not —

Okay, well your marriage ebbs and flows. You go though periods where you’re sexually involved or not. And I think a lot of times when you’re not connecting that way, you kind of don’t want to think about it. So I think for Linda, this is all she’s ever known. Abe keeps saying, this is the way it is with God, if you can’t produce offspring, it’s a sin for us to do the act. She’s struggling with it. So she’s like, My God, I’m having all these feelings. And nobody is saying, “It’s totally normal for you to want to have sex with your husband.” She’s just a bucket of shame.

Linda is so innocent she almost reminds you of a Gracie Burns or Lucille Ball. So when you read the script did you recognize the comedy inherent in being sexually frustrated for 24 years?
Mmm hmm. [Laughs] I mean, I initially thought my agents were sending me a comedy. But very quickly I realized this isn’t a comedy. There were funny aspects to it — very dark comedy — but I think it leans more on the dramatic side.

I think when people see this they’re going to be surprised. Do you think this will open doors for you? Has it already?
That’s what I’m hoping. I hope I can continue to do really interesting films like this. I love Frances McDormand so much. I love her career. And I think it’s fun because she gets to do comedy as well as drama. Effortlessly goes back and forth. I would love to continue to do that. I love doing sitcoms. I love doing comedy. I love the whole shooting match.

This part is almost encouraging and discouraging simultaneously. How many parts like Linda are out there?
I know. We keep joking: People are just dying to see a coming-of-age story about a 40-year-old woman! Studios are just begging for it! The good news is that shows like Enlightened, which Laura Dern is phenomenal in, and The Big C, and Weeds, is that cable is really getting on board with female-driven stories. And now network TV is doing it too, with Whitney and 2 Broke Girls, and even my friend Kate Walsh’s show, Private Practice. So I think it’s getting better!

What’s it like going from an existential crisis with Linda and then going on sitcom and nailing all your punch lines? Is New Girl as fulfilling to work on?
It’s so hard to compare these two. I mean, it’s so fun to say these great words that these people have written and try different things on a sitcom that are really light and fun. And funny wins. But then on a feature, you’re really working together as a team. Robbie [Pickering], who wrote and directed Natural Selection, had so much invested; he worked on this for six years before we actually started shooting it.

It feels like you’re on the verge of being another Daily Show correspondent who’s broken through.
I would be lucky to follow in any of their footsteps. I would love to be a female correspondent who does that. We really don’t have any female correspondents who’ve done that yet. I’m a big fan of Samantha Bee’s. Who knows? My God, I can only hope to be so lucky as to have any of their careers.

Rachael Harris on Her Timely Drama Natural Selection, Evangelicals, and Sex Shame