Where were you when you realized that Holly Hunter, serious thespian and Oscar winner, was starring alongside Ted Danson in an NBC sitcom from the 30 Rock creators? Was it only just now? Well, that’s a shame. Engage in the culture once in a while. In Mr. Mayor, Hunter portrays Arpi Meskimen, the newest deputy mayor of Los Angeles in charge of public outreach, opposition research, and mini-wolf reproductive services, a politician cunning enough to know how to wade through the bureaucratic bullshit to accomplish what she wants for her city. (Unless there are holes involved. She has a big trypophobia problem.) Arpi is also a study in complexities, and a study in terrible hair: She was a councilwoman for several decades with her own dreams of becoming mayor, and you get the sense that she has something, if not a lot of things, up her corduroy sleeve to secure even more power. On a recent phone call, Hunter indulged Vulture with a conversation about why Mr. Mayor finally convinced her to do a sitcom, the show’s spectacular Chrissy Teigen cameo, and her “hateable” wig.
You’ve had the distinction of delivering dialogue from the likes of the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick, and Jane Campion. Where do Tina Fey’s scripts fit into this pantheon?
Tina has her own kind of genius with character revelation through the briefest amount of words. She’s extremely economical and powerful in what she can convey about a character in a conflict, and it can still be ridiculously funny. Her economy astounds me. It also pushes the audience into a greater intimacy with each of the characters in a way that I think is very unusual. Particularly in situational comedy where that isn’t necessarily part of the equation. She’s able to do that and be incredibly silly at the same time.
How else is Tina’s comedy unusual to you?
I can give you a perfect example from the show: My character during the sexual-harassment seminar [“Respect in the Workplace”] says something like, “My boss used to put his fingers in my mouth and ask me, ‘Does this Coffee-Mate taste old to you?’” [Laughs.] It’s kind of spooky, completely believable, and also this is a moment of trauma Arpi is sharing. It’s just funny as hell. That’s Tina.
Before agreeing to Mr. Mayor, were you getting offers to do television sitcoms?
Over the years I was occasionally approached with offers for sitcoms. I honestly can’t even remember which ones. But this is different. It’s Tina and Robert [Carlock]. It’s just a whole other genre, really. Their humor, while being incredibly silly, is also sophisticated. I think the layers of jokes in the show have a sophistication that all sitcoms obviously don’t have. They beg to be watched more than once. Tina is a rock star. So when I got an indication they were interested in the possibility of me joining the show, I was immediately intrigued and almost apt to say yes just based on that. And then I read the script and I felt that Arpi was pretty unforgettable.
What makes Arpi an unforgettable character?
I think she’s very unpredictable and there’s something of a mystery about her. You don’t know quite where she’s coming from. What is her belief system? [Laughs.] She seems to hold it quite seriously but it’s always changing. I like that there’s a sense of the unknown about her. There’s a sense of danger with her unexpectedness. Other characters find her off-putting or a little unsettling. I love that about her.
She’s such a delightful enigma. I feel like half of the time she’s fulfilled by being a deputy, and the other half she’s quietly plotting a takeover.
In every way, not even just in terms of her ambition of where she’s stationed in life. There’s a free-floating enigmatic quality to her that I find attractive.
I love the physicality of the character — Arpi is small in size and dresses plainly, but she commands every room she walks into. Did you draw any inspiration for Arpi from real-life political figures, or did you want to make the character uniquely yours?
It’s interesting what you said about her visibility. I like that! I wanted her to be a completely original creation. Nobody alive is an inspiration who I would point to. I tend to take bits and pieces from life. That’s why I miss living in New York, it’s a place of intense observation. If you want to be out and around and collect stories throughout the day, you can do that in New York City. You can come home at the end of the day and have many different stories of who you saw on the subway or on the sidewalk. Stuff like that I always feel is incredible food for me, especially when I’m exploring a character. I can get immediate sustenance being in New York and I can get stuff that I can plug into a character right away. Those are my inspirations. But they are anonymous!
In the pilot, Arpi is teased very early on for having a terrible haircut. Can you tell me how that beautifully asymmetrical wig was chosen?
I loved that line about her hair. [Laughs.] The sentiment that her haircut is hated. I was like, Oh yeah, let’s get something that’s even more hateable and out of date. I like to think that Arpi had been cutting her hair like that for decades. It’s a cut that she liked in, let’s say the early ’90s, and she just stuck with it. I really liked the idea of that cut — a center part with shaggy layers. For a while we thought about cutting my own hair, and then I chickened out. I was like, Oh no, I really don’t want to live with that cut.
How would you define the relationship between Arpi and Ted Danson’s Neil? Both the power and friend dynamics do seem to shift from episode to episode.
First off, I’m so unbelievably thrilled to be acting opposite Ted Danson. Whenever we’re doing anything it’s just fun to be with him. That’s who Ted is. He’s a mensch. He’s a great guy. The expertise that he brings to the part and the relaxation Ted works with is so beautiful for the show and for a character. But to your question, Neil figures into Arpi’s life much more than Arpi’s in his. He’s always around in her head, and I don’t think she’s that way to Neil. She has much more at stake in her position and in her philosophy of life. Being in city government is imperative and an essential part of her. It’s not imperative and is not an essential part of Neil.
Does she want to be mayor? Absolutely. She tried to be mayor at least twice and failed. I think there’s a competition that Neil may or may not even know about. But there’s also a real, true collaborative sense with Arpi. When you work in government — and it’s a true love of hers — there’s a real collaborative spirit. There’s a lot of team spirit with good government. Arpi has that. Rather than trying to annihilate Neil, she’s trying to enlighten him. Their relationship isn’t simple.
How many times did you get to push Chrissy Teigen down?
Several. And she was so cool about it. [Laughs.] I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and pushing her down. She was so up for it and told me there was no way I could hurt her. She still had a crash pad. I thought she was outrageously funny in the episode. That girl is a hoot, and she moves the ball forward. She’s willing to put herself out there and she does. In terms of her social-media presence, she’s made so many things permissible to get out there. I was thrilled to work with her.
Back when The Good Place was on, I got into a rhythm of asking the cast what their favorite Ted Danson stories were, because everyone just seemed to love talking about Ted Danson. To keep that tradition going with Mr. Mayor, what’s yours?
Gosh, at the top of the head I can’t think of any. I’m terrible with anecdotes. I don’t know if I’ve got one.
Okay, what’s your worst Ted Danson story?
I’d come up blank there too! [Laughs.] What you see is what you get with Ted. He’s exactly who you’d imagine him to be. He’s playful and childlike. He’s loving and kind. He’s just a lot of fun. When Ted is funny it’s not a mistake, he’s a real engineer at work when the timing is perfect. You need to be a real technical know-how to really be funny. Ted has all of that going on.