Mike Birbiglia’s new gem of a film, Don’t Think Twice, explores the relationships between members of Commune, a long-standing improv troupe. When the troupe’s theater is sold to Trump and a key member of the group garners a big gig on “Weekend Live”, the friends are forced to reassess their individual values and sense of identity. Kate Micucci of Garfunkel and Oates plays Allison, a peculiar improviser and illustrator. Although in real-life Micucci had no previous experience with improv, you wouldn’t know it from her relaxed, imaginative performance. I talked with Micucci about her creative spirit, knowing your own butt strength, and one particularly hard day.
Your character Allison in Don’t Think Twice is multi-talented. She draws, she performs comedy, she writes. In real life you have all these gifts and more. You sing, you make puppets, you play the ukulele. What kinds of things do you do to get into the creative spirit?
Oh gosh you know, sometimes I hit a wall because I’ll be too tired and the way I get into the creative spirit is to take a break and then I’m like oh wait, I miss doing the things that I usually do. But I think for the most part, I’m just doing the same thing I’ve done my whole life. I’ve been drawing, I’ve been making up songs, I’ve been putting on shows in the backyard since I was little and making movies with my brother. So I feel like it’s cool to be doing the same things I was doing just on a different level, you know? But that’s not to say that I still couldn’t put a show on in the backyard. [laughs] That could happen anytime. I think I’m just someone who really gets a high off of making things. If I make a cartoon and put it on Instagram, that’s like my fun. I don’t know if that makes me boring or what, but I’m like “Let’s draw a picture! Whoo hoo party!”
No, I think that’s really great. Many people get overly self-critical and that stops them from making things and putting it out there, but it seems like you feel free to explore and try different things without worrying about whether other people think it’s good or not.
I’ve always been the kind of person who needed to share the thing I made immediately. Whether it was just me running across the hall to my neighbors in the apartment and saying “Hey, you want to hear this song?” Or I have friends from college who still recall me knocking on their door and saying, “Hey, can I sing this for you?” I don’t know what that says about me, but I’ve always just wanted to share the things I make. And that’s the cool thing about the internet is that now anybody can do that. And that’s the thing – not to be scared. I definitely have things that I’ve shared that I’m like “Oh, that didn’t go the way that I had planned,” but then you just make another thing.
That’s amazing. It seems like your fellow cast members in the movie have a similarly open, creative vibe. Are there any notable behind-the-scenes moments with them that still make you laugh when they come to mind?
Oh my gosh, we had so many funny, good times. We really did sort of become a family. I think partly because we got to rehearse before we actually started shooting. We got to rehearse for two weeks. You know, we went bowling, we went out to dinners and lunches, we shared stories and so we really got to know each other quickly. Having that time was really helpful for playing friends who have known each other for so long. I loved those late nights, after a long day, you know, just sharing funny stories about your life to keep the energy up. I remember one day there was this little cartoon or line somebody wrote that said, “Miles doesn’t know his own butt strength.” And then Keegan and I started singing that and then we kept singing it. And then we sat down at the piano because there just happened to be a piano in this room where we were getting our makeup done. And then Emily Skeggs, who is the lead in Fun Home and is in our movie, sat next to me at the piano and then most of the cast came around and then Ira Glass was there and we all wrote a weird song together. And that was a moment where I was like “This is ridiculous and fun and I need to record the song because this is never going to happen again!” [laughs] So I recorded it on my iPhone. It was really cool.
That’s wonderful, that sounds hilarious.
Miles doesn’t know his own butt strength. You might not ever hear it in a musical but… [laughs]
Incredible. [laughs] Was there anything that ended up on the cutting room floor that you would have loved to see make the cut?
Oh gosh. I think that the movie worked so well. No, I just think it was kinda perfect. It’s one of those movies that was just edited so well, it moves, the score is beautiful, it was a beautiful piece of music, I think it works perfectly. I can’t imagine there being anything extra in there. We definitely shot more than what was in the movie and that’s always the case, but I think Mike did a great job along with the editors to make a really beautiful piece.
How much of the movie was scripted and how much was improv?
It is mostly scripted. We actually did improv in front of a live audience while being filmed, which was…terrifying. So some of those scenes were scripted and some were actual improv, but Mike likes to keep the mystery of what was and what wasn’t. But other than that the script was such a beautiful script and when I read it, I loved it.
I did not come up through the improv world, I came up through the alternative comedy scene, so as far as improv goes, I didn’t have that experience and I remember telling Mike, “I don’t know, I’m not an improviser” and he was like “No, no, it’s mostly scripted.” So there was that, but before the movie started, we were doing improv shows in New York as if we’d been together for a long time and that was so much fun and also so scary. But I love doing things that scare me, so that was fun.
At one point in the movie your character shares that she had OCD as a kid and she had a ritual that required her to touch all four sides of picture frames. Is there any truth to that story?
That is actually my story. [laughs] That was a moment of me going off and saying a true thing of my life. Yeah, I had OCD really bad and I had to touch every picture frame in all four corners – and by the way, I had so many picture frames in my room because rather than being a kid who had posters on the wall, I had to frame everything. So um, yeah, it took a long time before I could actually start my homework because the ritual was to go around and touch all four corners before I could do my homework. It was a real pain.
Oh my goodness. Is OCD something that you still struggle with?
You know it’s funny, because I’ve done some research on OCD and talked to other people who have dealt with it, and a lot of people grow out of it after their teenage years. It’s the worst during their adolescence and it can get better. I definitely have – when I’m really exhausted or really nervous it can come back up but in the smallest of ways, it’s not nearly what it was during my teen years. Thankfully.
Yeah, that sounds like it was pretty disruptive to your life. Holy moly.
It was time consuming more than anything. [laughs]
Chris Gethard has a line in the movie about how “Your twenties are all about hope and your thirties are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” As someone who’s career really took off in her thirties, what advice would you offer aspiring artists in their twenties?
Oh, I mean, I would offer to anybody just not to give up. As long as it’s something where you can find happiness in it, continue to do it. Because even when I was really struggling, there was still a joy – I mean not to say it’s not really hard work or that there weren’t times where I wasn’t like “What am I doing?” or times where you really have to buckle down and miss out on other things because you’re really focused and working hard – there’s always a joy in it. And if you’re having fun, don’t stop. Even if you’re in your forties or fifties or sixties or even people who are wanting to start something and they’re thinking “Oh, I’m too old to start.” You’re not! I think that especially with any of the arts, you can do it at any age. I would say just follow what makes you happy. I know it sounds cheesy, but I mean it.
I think that idea is reflected in all of your work. You’re always creating just for the sake of it and I think that is really appealing to people.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think I would still be doing the same thing – I mean it’s hard to know. I’m grateful I can pay my bills doing the things I love, but I would probably still be doing it, because I just have to.
The Commune comedy troupe in the movie always prompts the audience for a scene suggestion by asking has anybody had a particularly hard day. Can you describe one of your particularly hard days?
Oh my gosh, yeah, the first one that came to mind just as you asked me that was my first day of college. I was not ready for college. I was really a homebody and I was not ready to leave my mom and dad. Like, I just was a very, very young eighteen year old. I was emotionally stunted or something. I don’t know, I just wasn’t ready to leave the nest. I literally showed up to college wearing overall shorts and a purple backpack that had my Doug doll in the back, you know the cartoon Doug? Because I loved Doug. You know, I showed up thinking “Here I am at college!” and I cried my eyes out and I remember waving to my parents as they drove away. I really wasn’t ready so that was a really hard, bad day. [laughs] But I’m sure that the first day of college is somebody else’s best day of their life, because they’re like “I’m a grownup!” And then I’m sure there are other people who can relate to my story of not being ready.
Oh absolutely. You were like, “I don’t want to grow up!”
Yeah – I mean I didn’t bring my Doug doll to class, that would have been extra weird. [laughs] He did not go with me to Algebra.
You and Riki recently released a Garfunkel and Oates special on Vimeo called Trying to Be Special. Why did you decide to host the fundraiser in Seattle? How did it go?
Yeah, the premise of our special is that we really wanted to have a special so we put on a fundraiser in order to have a special but the fundraiser is actually the special – there’s the giveaway. But yeah, Seattle is one of our favorite cities. We’re really lucky, Dan Savage is like the honorary mayor of Seattle, people love him there and it’s his hometown. He was the first person who said “Hey! Check out Garfunkel and Oates!” And that was the first town we ever played thanks to Dan and his husband Terri and so we fell in love with Seattle and they’ve been so good to us, so we thought that was the perfect place to do our special. It’s a great city, it’s a great comedy town, the fans were super excited. It was awesome, it was such a fun time. Yeah, and we just got an Emmy nomination for best song.
Yeah, it’s very exciting. I’m really proud of the special. It also shows Riki and I and our friendship and it’s really sweet and yeah, hopefully you can all check it out on Vimeo.
I hear you also enjoy making puppets. What is your most favorite puppet creation?
Well when I was in college I made a whole puppet show called “A Southern California Christmas” about a little kid who wishes it would snow in Los Angeles, and I took that show all around to different LA elementary schools. Just packed all the stuff in my car and performed it. That was a really fun show. I did all the voices and all the music, so I think that was my favorite thing.
That’s great! If you were to have a career that wasn’t in the arts, what would it be?
Oh my gosh. That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it. Maybe I would want to work on a train? I really like trains. So I think driving a train would be cool. I have a trainset at my house, I’ve always had trainsets. Or maybe something in a shipyard, something with boats.
Awesome. What else is coming up for you?
I have a couple movies coming out in the next year, I do the voice of Velma for Scooby Doo - which is like a dream job because I love Scooby Doo and I always have. I also voice a character on Nature Cat which is a show on PBS, so I have those and I’m playing Garfunkel and Oates in Vegas on Saturday. Lot’s of exciting things happening!