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Maria Bamford on Arrested Development, Acting Anxiety, and Cake Parties

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

We named comedian Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special one of 2012’s top ten stand-up events, so it was with sheer delight that we watched her play Tobias’s love interest and recovering meth addict DeBrie Bardeaux in the new season of Arrested Development. [Spoilers ahead!] Unlike her character on Louie — a rougher-edged, crabs-infected version of herself — Bamford’s DeBrie is something of a fragile weirdo who gets caught up with the toxic, self-centered Bluths. By the time she ends up strung out in a pile of garbage, all we want to do is throw her a lifeline, or at the very least give her a hug. Vulture rang up the comedian to chat about Arrested Development, overcoming her acting anxiety, and her recently launched web series, Ask My Mom!

When you were on Louie, you wrote about acting being especially nerve-racking. Did you feel any better doing Arrested Development?
Oh, I still felt really nervous. Everybody on there is an incredible actor and improviser, so I felt pretty … yeah, I just hoped to keep the job, say whatever had been typed out, be quiet, stay small so nobody notices me. Maybe I won’t get fired. But it was really fun. Now I actually feel so much better about my acting because I’ve gotten some compliments from my friends who are actors.

What was the best thing you heard from them?
Well, to be honest, one of my favorite compliments was from my therapist. She has heard all of my anxiety about this. We go on walks together around Occidental College with our dogs. She’s heard all my angst, worrying about my skill level or whatever. We were at a cake party last night, celebrating Arrested Development, because you gotta celebrate things in life —

A cake party?
Every kind of cake! They’re kind of dangerous, actually. There is too much sugar. I start to freak out a little bit. I had a piece of Vons cake of some type and an alcoholic beverage and I started to feel a little weird, like I wasn’t gonna make it through to midnight. You gotta have peanuts and carrots and apples available for people to come down off the cake. You have to be responsible. But yeah, my friend the therapist took me aside and said, “Maria, you were great on it!” It’s always the compliments from people you love that mean so much. It’s also been nice getting compliments from people on Twitter.

You had worked with Mitch Hurwitz on Sit Down, Shut Up. How did he bring you in to Arrested and what did he tell you about DeBrie?
He just sent me an e-mail. No, we met at a garden at midnight and then our hands came together by accident. Sadly, no. The Internet makes everything much less mysterious. “And then he Facebook’d me!” Really, he e-mailed me. I only found out what the role was the night before I filmed, I think.

So you agreed to do … anything.
I mean, it’s such a ridiculous thing. Because I am afraid of acting what I do is I avoid getting training for it. Someone else might have wanted to prepare. I just figured, Hey, how far off am I really from a methamphetamine addict? I have a light tremor! Let’s work that in. So it was okay!

On set, Mitch seemed very hands-on, rewriting things on the fly, co-directing every episode. What did he tell you about what he wanted out of DeBrie?
I just remember Mitch being so much fun. He’s so nice and so funny. Super supportive. It’s so neat to see him work. He’s always like, “Yeah, let’s do that again!” like, he’s in a positive mood sixteen hours straight. All I could think was, What? After fifteen minutes of conversation, I need to go somewhere else and stare into a blank space. I think all he said to me was, “She’s a methamphetamine addict.” I don’t remember directions. [Laughs.] Could you see from my performance that I had direction?

No, no. But of all the characters, DeBrie is the most vulnerable, the most sad, the most shoved around. It’s all funny, but really, the Bluths are horrible to her! 
Awww, that’s great! That’s real, actually. That’s just what was happening. No, I don’t know. It’s so beautiful to watch David Cross improvise. Pages of monologue, and he’ll do it completely different every time. While running! Or interacting with someone else! Just so wonderful. I remember one of the acting classes I went to — it was one of my first weeks in L.A. — they said they were casting for a drug dealer for this part one part but then they went down to Venice and found an actual drug dealer and he was perfect. So maybe the part of the methamphetamine addict is me. Maybe that’s it. I have this gift. No need for prep.

She’s one of the only characters on the show you want to hug. DeBrie and George Michael. When Lucille’s yelling at her during the Fantastic Four rehearsals …
This is going to sound sad, but I didn’t think about that too much! And Jessica is so nice! I’m so glad it’s gotten a positive response. I hope to get another part, because I did enjoy it despite my fear. It’s exactly how I feel about stand-up — I enjoy it despite my terror. Turns out I always have a nice time. Usually there’s free food. People don’t realize that about the arts: There is often some form of free food and drink around. You don’t get that always in offices or in other jobs. And having to sing and dance wasn’t so bad, either. It was fun because it was so silly. It wasn’t like I had to actually be good.

How much butter did you have to eat?
It was real artificial butter, like margarine or something, and there was a spit bucket, which I learned about, too. We have those in show business. Acting is a little creepy like that. Are they really eating? Are they really kissing? I always think, It seems like they’re kissing, but they’re not really kissing. Well, I think they are kissing. I always find that so mysterious, like how do you detach? But I kissed David Cross so I guess I do know. I guess I do know! I guess I am an actor! Hmmm.

Do you feel better acting on your own online shows than on a TV show?
It’s just different when other people are around. [Laughs.] I think I have this fantasy of how to do it. At one point, I ordered, like, eight used books off Amazon about how to act. I was gonna learn by reading. I think that’s a pretty good way to learn, by reading instead of doing it. They just said, “Do it.” Variations of, “Hey, why don’t you stop reading this book and go out and do it.” They are all at Goodwill now.

Tell me about your new series, Ask My Mom.
My mom used to answer questions off my website until she got sick of it, which is fair enough. She started to feel a bit overwhelmed. At the same time, I always wanted to do sort of a reality show bringing health services — all my family are health practitioners of one kind or another — to comedians. I tried to pitch that show a few times, but it never happened. I think this is the best version of it. My mom can enjoy her life and I get to wear fat suits. And she’s seen it. She thought she looked good. It’s not really a fat suit; it’s like a curve suit. It’s like a womanly suit. It’s just that I’m living in L.A. where none of us are getting enough to eat. There are rations. When they serve you at restaurants, they take away the food before you’re done. “Yeah, you’re done now.”

Maria Bamford on AD and Cake Parties