You know those talented, hilarious actors that constantly pop up in so many of your favorite comedies? The ones where you go, “Man, where else do I know them from?” Edi Patterson is one of those actors and she’s moving closer and closer to broader recognition. Over the years she’s brought her strong improv background to shows like Weeds, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The League. She can currently be seen reprising her role as Ms. Abbott in season 2 of HBO’s Vice Principals and will soon be appearing in the new Tracy Morgan TBS show The Last O.G. I caught up with Patterson to discuss her early improv days in Austin, getting established in Hollywood, and how her experience on Vice Principals was so good it made her say something incredibly douchey in this interview.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Texas City, which sounds like a fake city from a TV show.
Did you begin your your comedy/theater/acting career in that area or did you leave there to pursue it somewhere else?
I was doing plays and stuff in school. When I went to college I majored in theater with an emphasis on acting. I realized kind of quickly after college you kind of need to live somewhere with industry if you want to make money doing it. You figure out quickly that doing improv and free independent movies doesn’t pay you to live.
It all feels so exciting in the beginning though.
Dude, totally. And it still does. Feels awesome if you can do that stuff and get a check for it.
Where did you go to school?
I went to school at Texas State in San Marcos, which is a half hour from Austin. Texas State in the last three years has become this giant place that people go for musical theater, which is not what I studied, but it’s one of the top ranked in the country.
Did you start improv in Austin?
Yeah, I did. I was doing a thing called Theatresports, which is improv based off of this philosophy of this dude Keith Johnstone, who is an English guy who most of his improv career took place in Canada. There’s a few people who are the sort of main gurus of that: Keith Johnstone, Del Close, Viola Spolin. He was one of the dudes from way back and it just so happened that one of the guys starting the improv group in Austin had studied with him.
At what point did you realize that you had to make the move out of Austin?
I was still doing things I dug. I had done a couple of independent movies and I was doing improv and plays with this genuinely rad – still to this day – group called The Rude Mechanicals, who do stuff all over the country. Because I was doing that, I also worked answering phones and stuff. It dawns on you sooner or later, “I’ve got to go to LA if I want to be on a TV show.” Maybe now people can do it since there’s so much production out of LA, but then I kind of knew I needed to go where it is.
What was your experience when you first got to LA?
I had two pals here. I lived on their couch for a month until their lease was up and then we got two apartments next to each other. I was just blanket sending out stacks of my headshot and resume. Pretty quick I figured out that once you get your smaller world going here it becomes way more manageable and fun and one of the best cities on earth. For me it was getting into stuff at Groundlings and Impro Theatre. Once you find your people and the places where you’ll be performing live, then LA starts to feel like it’s yours. Once you get your little pocket of friends and people you perform with, you start to meet the kids from the other schools.
What was your first break where you felt that things were starting to take off?
It’s so hard to quantify it like that, because so often you have no idea what anything is going to equal. The feeling of, “Oh my God this is exactly right,” the first time I had that feeling all the way through my bones was Vice Principals. I had done stuff before, a lot of fun stuff, but Vice Principals was the first one where I was like, “Oh yeah, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at the exact time I’m supposed to be doing it.”
You’ve popped up in so many great comedy projects like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, Black-ish. What sets Vice Principals apart?
A lot of it came down to vibe. I was a huge fan of those guys already from the stuff they’d done like Eastbound and Down and The Foot Fist Way. I already knew their work and I liked what they did. But to get there and see that the writing was so good and there was an improv element on top of it…not to get too weird or gross, but I was kind of like, “Oh cool, my tribe.” [laughs] Now I’m the asshole that says “tribe.”
I wouldn’t have laughed out loud if you hadn’t basically apologized in advance.
If you don’t do a lead-in when you’re about to drop “tribe” you’re a douche.
The show is broken up into two semesters. Season 2 is Spring Semester. Was the original plan to only do one school year?
Yeah, I think that’s what they kind of wanted to do from the jump – just tell one big story. As a result it sort of plays out like a giant movie. Originally when Danny (McBride) and Jody (Hill) wrote it it was a screenplay. As they were working on it it started to feel bigger than just a two-hour movie.
I saw that you had a couple of guest writing credits on SNL. I think a lot of aspiring writers would like to know how that all came about.
They came to see a show that we did at The Groundlings. They liked my stuff in them. Colin Jost said they wanted me to come for a guest writing thing. It was really cool, because I felt that for that two weeks I got to have the full experience. I got a sketch on that I wrote the first week, which was a live sketch. The second week I collaborated on a video and got to help write and produce it. It was really fun to have both sides, each week a different side of it. I felt like I learned a ton. It’s one of those experiences where you walk away and go, “If I had to write a pilot or a movie in a few days I could.” I can’t even fathom how I would, but you just make it happen when you’re there. You do the all-nighter night during the week. You go, “If I just got my head right, expanded my thinking, and thought about writing and working in a way that I haven’t before, I could kind of do anything.”
Photo by Robyn Von Swank.