Every person needs a member of their squad who cuts through the bullshit, who gives you the cold, hard truth like a swift kick to the funny bone. Enter June Diane Raphael: an actress who’s mastered the art of getting straight to the point. Her roster of veracity-obsessed characters includes the wonderfully terse business owner Brianna Hanson on Grace and Frankie, the queen bee of the schoolyard Devin on Big Mouth, and — most recently — Maggie Millikin, the key adviser to a female presidential candidate in Long Shot.
Raphael’s characters are the kind of well-suited alpha women who know how to put out fires as well as start them, as long as it means lighting some semblance of a patriarchal system aflame. That’s why she took on the role of Maggie, the right hand of Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron); she connected with the urgency to advocate for a woman to take on the most powerful position in the world. But in order for Charlotte to win the popular vote, Maggie has to remind her boss of the very real lenses through which powerful women are judged — under the microscope are the clothes they wear, the warmth of their smiles, their romantic lives (including ones forged with Seth Rogen’s sloppily dressed, serial masturbator–slash–liberal speechwriter Fred Flarsky).
In Maggie, Raphael sees a kind of clarity, free of gendered stereotypes that limit what it means to be a “strong female character.” It’s the kind of clarity she wishes would inform her two sons (with husband Paul Scheer), who she hopes will grow up to understand how strength dovetails with vulnerability. For the actress, it’s less about spewing savage one-liners that could make MMA fighters whimper (though she’s incredibly good at that), and more about dismantling old beliefs that have pigeonholed capable women into labels like bitch, one of the boys, and brave. Ahead of her movie’s premiere, the actress talked to Vulture about why she gravitates toward alpha women, how she avoids being the “comedy crasher,” and her beef with PAW Patrol.
What drew you to Maggie in Long Shot?
When I read the script, I connected to how supportive she was of Charlize’s character, Charlotte, and her love for the presidency, and the belief in a woman being in the most powerful position in the world. I certainly understood the desire to see not just anyone in that role but someone who’s as smart, intelligent, and deserving as Charlotte. So, this was not a leap for me. In fact, it was oddly cathartic and healing to be a part of that journey and actually see [her become president] in the world of the movie.
It’s a nice revisionist image of the present.
Exactly. It felt really good.
But it’s not a total fairy tale. It doesn’t glaze over how difficult it is to be a woman in power whose physical and romantic image is even more scrutinized than her qualifications. As a woman herself and one of Charlotte’s key advisers, Maggie is very conscious of how gendered public perception is.
Yes, that’s absolutely right, and I think we’re seeing it play out right now [in real life]; this dance where women have to be overqualified and wear power in such a specific way. I think the question for Charlotte and Maggie and for so many women right now is whether to [navigate the system] that’s already set up in order to get to where they need to be or try to dismantle it. As Maggie, I really want Charlotte to believe that it’s incredibly important for the world that she [become president]. So I’m pushing her to compromise in ways that she’s uncomfortable with and so freaked out [by because she could possibly be] throwing this all away for a gentleman named Fred Flarsky.
I love that name.
Oh my God, it’s the best. I think appearance, perception, and authenticity is a really interesting thing to talk about, specifically [in terms of] how women candidates are judged — women of color candidates even more so — for how they look and what they’re wearing. Whereas men can just put on suits and they look powerful. The movie is a wonderful romantic comedy and so funny, but it also does a really good job at investigating some of these things.
It does. The pantsuit has become a turning point for women in power. Women like Hillary Clinton or fictional characters like Miranda Hobbes used to be maligned for wearing one because people thought that it hid their sex appeal. But we’ve seen that conversation shift today with the prevalence of the pantsuit on red carpets, and even with some of your characters. Why do you think the pantsuit has become so important today as we reconsider women in power?
Women in suits are having a real renaissance. Ultimately, I think women should wear whatever the hell they want in order to feel powerful and sexy, and I’m resistant to the idea that we should prescribe what that is for any woman. But I know for some of the characters I’ve played — Brianna on Grace and Frankie is a good example — wearing pantsuits is not just about wearing a stereotypically masculine costume. [Costume designer] Allyson B. Fanger and I have worked hard to make sure that her suits are always an expression of her sexuality and power. Maggie wears darker colors and a more traditional D.C. uniform to remain in the background of her boss. But I think that the pantsuit is a look that you can ultimately use either way: as a uniform to hide away in or in which to stand out.
You’ve played some wonderful alpha women lately, including Brianna and Maggie. I would also add Brenda in Blockers. Are these the characters you’re typically drawn to or is that the majority of what’s presented to you?
I think as an actor I try not to approach [a character] with too much judgment or expectation because I think people are so many different things. But at the same time, Julie Gristlewhite on Burning Love is one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever played and she’s not that typical powerful female — yet I love her so much and she’s hilarious, totally demented, and so much fun. I think most of the characters I’ve played recently are strong, but I think in general women are. The great thing about right now is that we’re finally allowing women to be more than one thing. So if you want to push your career, that doesn’t mean you are not soft and vulnerable. And if you’re a full-time mom, that doesn’t mean you’re not a fucking bitch and a badass. We’re letting go of these one-note characters.
I think the reason I’ve been drawn to comedy and to so many powerful women characters is because I was really frustrated for a long time [because I was] always going out for the role of the wife or the girlfriend. [Raphael’s longtime collaborator and comedian] Casey Wilson and I always described that role as the comedy crasher. Like, “Hey, guys, stop doing that!” or like, “Hey, remember, you’re a dad!” I much prefer to jump into [a character] who’s really bold and powerful and do more comedy because that’s what I love.
I feel like we are reaching a point where the “strong female character” is no longer defined as a woman without emotions who can get in the ring with men.
That’s a really good point. We could talk about this forever, but I think our culture is still misogynistic, and it’s very hard to even investigate the language and definitions on this stuff. I [could be like], Oh, yeah, men are stronger because of the physical things they can do. But after having two children, I’m like, Oh, now wait one second. We’re defining it through the wrong lens. If we’re just talking about physical strength and being strong, then women are the strongest people I know.
That’s why I love Wonder Woman so much because it was such a beautiful portrayal of women’s strength, as well as our empathy and humanity and willingness to be vulnerable and connect emotionally, which are also strengths. Strength to me isn’t just a character who doesn’t take shit from anyone. There’s a multitude of ways to define what a strong female character is, and it’s not just Lara Croft.
How do you think the probability of a female presidential candidate in real life has helped to shape the kind of alpha roles you’ve been offered or have seen onscreen?
Listen, we haven’t seen a woman president yet. I think and hope that we are witnessing a real change. Some people have asked me, “Are we post–#MeToo movement?” I’m like, “Sweetie, we haven’t even started.” We have just begun. I think we want things to be over. We want to move on and be like, Okay, we did that. We did the work. We talked about it. Isn’t it done yet? The truth is, there are so many systems in place to unravel. There’s so much that we breathe in on a daily basis. There’s a part of me that thinks we can never be done. But I certainly don’t think it’s now. When I watch TV and film, I see some change, but not nearly enough.
The thing I’m most aware of right now is what my children are watching. When I look at PAW Patrol, there’s one female dog on the show and she wears pink and she flies. I’m like, Why is there only one? I see what my two sons, who are boys until they tell me otherwise, are consuming — and the lack of girls’ and women’s voices is pervasive. Or there’s one girl and she’s super brave and just like the boys. But she doesn’t get a chance to also fail and not be brave and be other things. I’m hyperaware of how it informs the way they think. I really don’t see a major change, but I am looking forward to it.
Same. I do think that we’re seeing some progress in terms of how female characters, including Maggie, are talking about romance and having sex, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, “like a man.” Do you think this progression will help us get to a point where female dominance is not conflated with masculinity?
I hope so. I grew up at a time when I only saw women as the ones who were desired and never really saw examples of them desiring anyone else. I wonder what seeing more of these sex-positive characters like Maggie and Brianna — and even Charlotte in the sex scene with Fred in which he’s so shocked by what her sexual desire is because he’s usually in the powerful position — will ultimately do. I think so much of the culture is surrounded by the idea that women are to be looked at and be the sexual objects. But I didn’t grow up with the new porn and the stuff that’s so available to young women now, so I’m not sure what effect that would have. These things have been so shrouded in mystery, and I love that these characters that I’ve had the privilege to play can change that.