Leslie Grossman has, as she puts it, a specific flavor for specific tastes. When she played Mary Cherry, the raging Texas socialite in Ryan Murphy’s first TV show Popular, that flavor was big, bold, and extra. She was an unhinged delight, crushing one-liners on a misunderstood satire about high-school power dynamics that was both too early (it was 1999) and out of place (it was on the WB) with its mordant, camp sensibility. Again, it was for a particular taste.
While Grossman steadily worked over the following decade, it hasn’t been until recently — with her full-fledged return to the Ryan Murphy universe in American Horror Story, where she’s playing Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt, a witch whose superpower is detecting gluten in foods, and a recurring role on The Good Place as Kristen Bell’s selfish, oh-that’s-where-she-gets-it-from mother — that she has gotten the roles that allow her distinct flavor to come through. In a phone conversation this week, Grossman discussed how she has navigated being such a specific type, comedy’s gender problem, and why she feels so connected to queer culture.
Hi Leslie, how are you?
I’m giving you a heads up: I have three dogs and they’re all half-feral and out of their minds, so someone’s gonna bark. There’s gonna be a kerfuffle or a scuffle. Something’s gonna happen so just bear down, okay?
I’m ready. What kind of dogs are they?
They’re all half-Chihuahua mutt. The more sick and fucked-up they are, the more I wanna adopt them. My newest one, who’s named Popcorn, I don’t think had ever been inside of a house. I love getting a really skinny, sick dog and rehabbing it and then making it overweight, which is not good either. But this new one has really upset the balance, so there’s a lot of jockeying for position. So cute. They’re the cutest dogs you’ve ever seen, but they’re all monsters. All of them.
Dogs trying to be the alpha is a good segue into witches and warlocks trying to be the Supreme on American Horror Story. How did you find out that Coco’s witch power was knowing if something had gluten in it?
It was Ryan [Murphy] calling me up and laughing hysterically and saying, “You have the best superpower. And this is what it is.” I just love Ryan’s sense of humor. He and I are incredibly simpatico in what we think is hilarious. He called to tell me and I fell out. I was like, Amazing. I love it. It’s so funny.
I have to say, you start off thinking she was one thing, and then you find out she’s another thing. And the story’s not over. You’re going to see, up until the very last episode, you’re really gonna learn about who she is, why she’s there, and her relationship to the other witches.
This season is really about female solidarity, which has a lot of political resonance right now. Do you feel like that feeling of female solidarity has always existed in the industry since you started?
No. I’ve been at this game for a while now. Look, just trying to make it in the entertainment industry pits people against each other. And I don’t think that’s specific to women. It is a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog environment. But I’ve never participated in that, and maybe that’s been to my detriment. I refuse to compete with other people. I am only in competition with myself.
I just think that women get told these rules: You don’t get to have a career after a certain age. You have to look a certain way. And I don’t ascribe to those rules. Sorry, I just don’t, and I don’t have to be part of that. And I don’t have to play that game. For me to look skinny on camera would require me to have a really violent eating disorder, and I refuse to do that. I also refuse to knock other women down to make myself feel better.
But I do think that absolutely, in the past couple years, there is a solidarity among women. The feeling is, We need to stop fighting each other, there’s a bigger issue at hand, and we need to really have each other’s back. You are absolutely seeing women change in the way that we won’t allow people to dictate what we’re supposed to look like, what we’re supposed to act like, and that I won’t let other people tell me that I’m retired. I have so many wonderfully brilliant, talented actress friends who agree. And I think the more that we all say, I don’t know who made the rules — I mean, let’s be honest, it was men. In the beginning.
Have you taken jobs because you needed the work, even if you felt the role was subpar?
Let me tell you something: I would never take a job that morally compromised what I believed in. I would never ever do that. Have I taken jobs that I’m like, This writing is terrible. Yes! Of course. You think that I’m in some position to pick and choose everything that comes my way? Absolutely not. I have health insurance I need to get for my family. I want to keep working. I need to make money. I wanna be able to pay my dues. I don’t mean pay my dues in the business, I mean literally pay my SAG dues.
I just never felt like I wanted to quit. I was never an ingenue. I didn’t get into acting because I was some super-hot leading lady. I got into it because I think I’m unique, and funny, and can bring a certain specific flavor to things. I feel like there’s room for that no matter what your age is and no matter what you specifically look like.
What do you think that specific flavor is?
[Chuckles.] It’s hard for me to say, because I can’t be outside of myself. I’m a strong flavor. I think if you don’t get it, it’s not for you; if you get it, you really love it. I just am who I am, you know what I mean? I can’t help the way that my face looks and I can’t help the tenor of my voice, which people have had a lot of opinions about. I’m a unique and specific person. That’s worked for me and that’s worked against me.
Particularly post-Popular, do you feel like you worked with people who tried to tamp down that uniqueness and specificity?
Absolutely. First of all, because Popular was really the first thing that I ever did, people just thought I could only do this incredibly arch, really big kind of thing. It took me a long time to live that down. Look, I have a really expressive face. I have a very specific voice. Those are things I can’t change about myself, but I do think that I’m capable and I’ve done a lot of other kinds of work that I’m really proud of. I don’t know how to be anything other than who I am. When I’ve tried to be something else, it fails miserably.
Can you give me an example of when you felt misunderstood?
The general thing is this: Many roles in comedy for women are written to be the straight person to a man. It’s the wife role, it’s the girlfriend role, it’s the woman who’s crossing her arms and rolling her eyes and saying, “You’re nuts.” That is not me. I don’t fit into that mold, and it really shrinks the opportunity for women who are a little bit outside the box. I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but the truth is I wouldn’t take those roles anyway. I’m not a good straight person, and many times women are shoved into that category in comedy. I absolutely think that’s changing. By the way, I’ve had many comedy heroes over the years — Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg — who certainly did not fit that mold, but they were outliers.
There’s a certain actress — I am not going to say her name — that my friends and I use as the example of like, “It’s the Blank role.” We’ll say like, “No, not going in on that. That’s the Blank role.” I’m telling you, I can see it my mind’s eye. Her arms are crossed, she’s shaking her head, and she’s rolling her eyes while she’s cooking in the kitchen. Then she looks at the kids, and she’s like, “Dad’s crazy!” It just makes my skin crawl, but I think that now that is absolutely changing. When I look at Broad City and Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler and Aidy Bryant, there’s so many brilliant women who I just love and adore, that I think, I wish I had had those women as role models when I was growing up. There’s a lot now for young actresses out there that we didn’t have. Look at someone like Yara Shahidi. Oh my God. If I had that when I was a kid, you know? She’s so brilliant.
You play Kristen Bell’s mother on The Good Place, and you return for Thursday’s episode. How did that role first come about, and did you discuss the age difference?
I [first] got a call from my agent, “You got an offer to play Kristen Bell’s mother.” I was like, “Well, here it is. Here’s that phone call where you are officially an older actress.” Then she said, “No, no, wait. It’s to play the mother of her character in flashback.” Initially, it started off as playing the mother of a little girl. I thought, “Okay, that makes more sense,” because Kristen Bell and I are not that far apart in age. Look, don’t get it twisted. I know I’m older than her, but I’m not old enough to be her mother.
Then when they said, “We’d like you to come back and work with Kristen,” there was a conversation, “Well, how is that going to work?” Like, “What are you going to look like?” They were like, “We don’t want to do aging makeup on you. That’s not something we want to do.” They came up with a brilliant idea to just Real Housewives her and to make her look really pulled and surgeried. We put in extensions. We gave me a really insane tan. Pulled my face up with tape. Wore really crazy makeup, really intense, Real Housewives-ish makeup.
Did you channel any of the Real Housewives for The Good Place role or any other recent roles?
The Good Place was absolutely Orange County. I just really was channeling some of the Orange County ladies. For Apocalypse, I really did think about Tinsley Mortimer. It wasn’t the whole thing, but I would say she was 30 percent Tinsley. In nice Coco and not-nice Coco, I felt that there were shades of Tinsley there — a woman-child.
Is there a Real Housewife that you would like to play?
Oh my God. There’s been over 100 Housewives now, so there’s such a large pool to pick from. I have to say I really love Bethenny. I think that her whole story is so endlessly fascinating to me. She is so completely watchable, and she brings so much to the table just in her personal life, her business life, and her ability to be incredibly dynamic in front of the camera. I have to say it would probably be Bethenny. I’d have to lose 50 pounds to do that and really work on my fitness. I think she’s a really amazing character. I mean, I’d die for Dorinda. Love her. I love all the Housewives. I really do, but New York is really a perpetual favorite of mine.
I hope you can understand why I’m saying this, but you’re very good at playing these selfish, vapid people. Where does that comes from?
I’ve been married for 19 years. I’m very, very close with my family. We have a very traditionally enmeshed Jewish family. I’m a mom. As corny as this sounds, the most important thing to me is being a parent. In my real life, I’m a very grounded, normal person. I care deeply about the world. I’m very politically aware. I feel like I’m a solid citizen. I don’t really know why I’ve gotten into playing these kind of characters. The truth is, they’re incredibly fun to play and maybe the joy that I have in playing them comes across. I get to say and do things I would never, ever do and say in my real life.
Look, we all can’t be chameleons. I’m well aware of my lane, and I’m happy in my lane as an actor. That’s okay with me because I enjoy it. First of all, I like working. But also, I have a lot of fun playing these characters because it’s so different from me. They’re not boring and I love that. And, again, maybe it’s because those characters are strong flavors and at my core I’m a strong flavor, so there’s simpatico there.
When you were playing a role like Mary Cherry, do you see her as a camp character?
Absolutely. I mean, I always try to stay connected to her innocence and to the fact that she really and truly doesn’t think she’s hurting people. She’s just living her truth. Although she was just trying to emulate her mother, I connected with the childlike innocence in her and also that she was very glamorous. That’s what I was always sort of trying to play. Also, you have to remember that every single thing I ever did was just trying to make Ryan laugh. That was it. Every time I said a word. Every look that I gave. I would just think to myself, “Ryan’s gonna fall out when he sees this.”
I was weaned on John Waters movies. To me, Mary Cherry was a John Waters character. Do you know a lot of 13-year-old kids that were obsessed with Divine? I don’t! That was something that I felt very connected to. First of all, it was the humor that absolutely got me. But it was also that otherness. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I was not a blonde, skinny surfer girl, so I really connected to that feeling of otherness and I absolutely brought that and continue to bring that into my work. The truth is, I also would have no friends and have no employment if it wasn’t for gay people.
How so? Obviously there’s someone like Ryan Murphy, but how has that affected your life and work?
I say it honestly with the utmost respect. There’s this thing that straight women do where they say “my gays” or they talk about gay men in particular in a way that can sound like they’re pets.
Correct. And it makes me sick and I cannot stand it. I won’t stand for that.
When I was a very little girl, my mother went back to school to become a landscape architect, so she would have study groups at her house. There was a guy in her study group who was just fantastic. I was probably about 8 years old. He and I really connected. I had a big personality as a kid and he really saw me. Like, really got me. That affected me deeply. It changed who I was. I felt like I really connected to an adult in a really meaningful way, because I felt like I could be a spaz. I was a spaz! I had a lot to say and he was like, Tell me everything. I just adored him. He ended up dying of AIDS when I was about 12 years old. It was devastating to my mother. Devastating to me. I went to his funeral. He changed my life. I think that that connection really left this imprint on me.
You have to understand that this was the early ’80s. Actually, if I’m being perfectly honest, it was really like the late ’70s, early ’80s. If you were going to be an out gay man then, you had to be a very self-assured, confident person. And that really drew me in, being an outsider and having to fight for who you are. I know that these all sound like platitudes, but they meant a great deal to me when I was young. That was my connection to that community. To this day, the creativity and the brilliance and the heart, that part of that community, that resonates with me. I feel like it’s my people.
And there’s a feedback loop. Mary Cherry, for instance, is a queer icon.
Yes. People come up and tell me, “I realized I was gay because of Mary Cherry.” And that maybe they were young at the time, so maybe they didn’t even know what that meant. But it was because they were drawn to the character. And learning later, “Why was I drawn to that? What was it about that character that drew me? Oh! It was my inherent gayness.” Nothing could make me happier than that. Nothing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.