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Great News’ Briga Heelan on the Nerve-racking First Time She Filmed With Tina Fey

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Great News, one of NBC’s whip-smart sitcoms set in the world of television journalism, stars Briga Heelan as a news producer who has an unhealthy dependency on her septuagenarian intern mother. (Played by Andrea Martin in full-on maniac “Jersey mom” mode, no less.) Still, Heelan’s character, Katie, can effortlessly take charge when she needs to, as evidenced by the show’s season finale Thursday night, when she simultaneously saves her lead newsman from being blackmailed into retirement and makes out with her new British boo. Here’s hoping for a third season, which may or may not happen. Earlier today, Vulture called up Heelan to discuss being a part of Tina Fey’s TV universe, expanding her comedic horizons, and which hashtag we should all be using to save the show.

There’s still no news from NBC about Great News’ renewal or not, which is very rude.
Dude, I know. We have a small but fiercely vocal and enthusiastic following. You got to hope it’s enough and hope people are watching it after the fact.

We need to think of a clever hashtag to get trending.
I feel like I can’t come up with it. I bet you can come up with one, and then I can be like, Oh wow, has everyone heard about this thing?! If I do it, it looks really not cool.

Please keep it as a really long and wordy hashtag. Yes. [Laughs.]

As someone who grew up outside of Secaucus, Great News’ premise immediately spoke to me. I keep wondering what my mom would do as an intern at Vulture.
It’s surprising, but I guess not too surprising, how many people have said the dynamic would be pretty much the same if their mom came to their work. Which is a very good sign — we’ve tapped into something relatable.

You have the pleasure of being in what I would consider one of the most exclusives clubs on television — being a lead in a Tina Fey–produced series. Two seasons in, how does it feel?
Great. Just great. I try not to think of it too much because I just revere Tina so much and her whole history. I try not to dwell on the, Well, Tina Fey okayed you to do this so you better be perfect! Really pumping up those stakes for myself. I try to look away from it. The truth is, it’s an ensemble comedy. I try to find in Katie the things I relate to and have eccentricities that we both share, so the part is really mine. I can’t believe I’m a member of such a tiny group at this point. It’s quite unbelievable. I’m such a huge fan of Kimmy Schmidt and Ellie Kemper, and if you had told me I’d get a crack at that … [Laughs.] I would’ve hoped, but I wouldn’t have believed you. I’ll never forget this. It’s forever in my heart that I got to do this incredibly special thing.

I feel I should arrange a lunch between you and Ellie Kemper so you can swap stories and gossip.
I’ve never gotten to see her or cross paths with her. And I’m such a fan. So I’d love that, please, make it happen.

I know in the past Tina has written TV roles with certain actors in mind. Did she and Tracey Wigfield tap you immediately to play Katie?
I only have my perspective of the process, but I think I had a pretty typical experience. More typical than smaller TV roles that I’ve done, actually. I went in and I auditioned a couple of times before I ended up chemistry-testing with Adam Campbell. A slow burn in TV is still a very fast burn, but it still felt like a slow, quiet process. I auditioned, didn’t hear for a few weeks, went in again, didn’t hear anything for another week. My manager kept reassuring me that I was a person still in the mix of this. I was hanging on there. Tina felt like I would be right for it. I know she was advocating for me, and right when I read with Adam, I went, Ooooh, I think this is mine.

Did you previously audition for either of Tina’s other shows, or was this your first professional exposure to her?
This was my absolute first exposure to her world. I never had the opportunity to go in for anything else, which is why it was so surprising.

You also get to share the screen with Tina many times this season. What’s the dynamic like acting alongside her, as opposed to having her in a more behind-the-scenes role?
I’ll tell ya — there were a lot of things going on in my head. The great thing about the dynamic between Katie and Diana [St. Tropez, Fey’s character] in those episodes, especially the first one, is that I didn’t really have to do much. Because Katie reveres Diana St. Tropez just as Briga reveres Tina, and she’s very nervous and trying to find her words. [Laughs.] It’s all very loaded and surreal for Katie, so I really had to do very little work. The first scene I filmed with her was Katie bugging out and trying to talk to Diana about finding her direction she wants to go in, and Diana will mentor her, and she’s spinning out. I was so nervous when I did it because it was the first thing we did! I sat down across the desk from Tina and the camera was on me and not her. You could feel the whole crew rooting for me and I was really stumbling on my words. And you would hear this sweet little warming laughter from all around the soundstage because people really knew I was in that place and rooting for me to get one word out. It was a fun memory that I won’t forget.

Also, getting to be conscious about being a co-worker and being a scene partner to Tina was important to me. I have to take that hat off and separate myself to be able to be her scene partner. So I was trying to do that, as well as trying to learn from her while she was there. She’s so prepared, so present, and there were little tips that I somehow absorbed by osmosis that I absolutely learned from her. Like, I learned how I should block on set from Tina and also how to make everybody feel part of moments in a scene.

Was there any advice or wisdom she bestowed to you that was unexpected?
This isn’t “surprising” per se, but this was the extra stuff that I appreciate by getting to watch her. Her girls came to visit the set one day. I just had a baby girl myself and she was there visiting too, and they came and said hi. Getting to see Tina, who’s so present in these two areas in her life, that’s what I want. That’s my dream, to be able to be there from the very beginning from my journey of being a mom and continuing to do a lot of fulfilling work. Work that asks a lot of you — long hours, preparation. When she was there on set, she flew back to SNL in New York to do her monologue with the sheet cake 24 hours after I was sitting across the desk from her and doing a scene and hanging with her kids. That’s some next-level stuff, to be able to do that and have that capacity within yourself. It’s inspiring to see somebody so much down the road when I’m at the beginning of it. I can do this, we can all do this.

The reason why I love Great News so much, aside from the slight job parallels, is the razor-sharp quality of the jokes. Has your perspective on comedy changed at all since starting the show?
One-hundred percent. I’ve never done a show that was just … you have shows that have “funny areas” or situational comedies or soft jokes, or talking about something that’s funny in a funny way. But these are hard jokes. [Laughs.] And to get to do so many of them in every episode is a gift. And of all different kinds of jokes. The tone of the show was definitely in my soul because I was already so attracted to [Tina and Tracey’s] writing style, but getting to go on my feet and do that kind of comedy all the time was new for me. I was just thinking about this — what I learned with these types of jokes, when you nail it the way that’s funny to you and gets the biggest response at the table read. Or when you’re up filming, I learned that you get to do it that way. But then, you also get to take a big swing, and then you have to really press to see if there’s an exact opposite way you can do it. If you’re doing four takes, it’s like, Great, do it the way that got the response twice, and then use the other two times to get uncomfortable and make a really different choice. Of course, sometimes someone on set will tell you, Hey, that’s actually not the way we wrote that. But the job isn’t acting in a way you feel confident in a million times. It’s doing it the way you feel confident in a couple of times, and then taking some risks on some other ones. I slowly learned that. I have more fun. We have unexpected options that sometimes make the cut. I make bold choices a lot and don’t just stick to what worked at the table read or what I feel is the funniest now.

Would you say it’s an improv-friendly set, then?
Strictly improv, not really. The reasons why the jokes are so funny is because they’re said exactly as the writers wrote them. The tiniest little change in the wording of jokes will kill it. We do really have to be word-perfect, which is a great challenge. I don’t think any of us — and John Michael Higgins and Andrea Martin have said this, too — could have made with our own improv skills anything funnier than what the writers wrote. We have fun and, yes, if you have an instinct to try something differently, absolutely try it. But the way that the joke is written, don’t be cute – stick to the words and take some swings on the delivery. It means a lot that many people have said to me, When we can’t watch the real news anymore, my partner and I will turn on Great News. I love that. We’re so honored to be the very wacky TV show that’s also very topical.

If we’re blessed with a third season, is there any particular narrative direction you’d like to see the show explore?
In a general sense, I really love when Katie and Carol are in cahoots together. The central conflict in the show is that we butt heads at work, but since Carol was offered a paying job in the finale, Andrea and I love being in “partners in crime” mode. So them being on the same team and equals at work would be wonderful. Also, Katie and Greg are together now, and getting to see those two people disarmed in a new relationship and trying to negotiate their status difference at work would be fun. I have a hysterical time working with Adam so I’d love to see where that relationship goes.

All right, I’m going to get a hashtag trending now. Do the right thing, NBC.
Maybe that’s our hashtag. #DoTheRightThing. Ah, maybe not, a little too serious.

Great News’ Briga Heelan on Acting With Tina Fey