chat room

Euphoria’s Martha Kelly on the Terror of Playing Unlikable

Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images

Martha Kelly is known for comedy, both as a stand-up and an actor who worked on projects like FX’s Baskets and Fox’s The Great North. Yet there she is on the current season of Euphoria, playing a drug dealer named Laurie who’s as serious as a shot of morphine, something that, coincidentally, she administered to Zendaya’s Rue in the most recent episode.

Kelly brings her signature understated style to the role, which makes Laurie even more inscrutable and menacing. During a recent Zoom conversation from her home in L.A., Kelly explains how she got the part, what it was like working with Zendaya and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, and why Laurie is absolutely someone both Rue and viewers should fear.

How did the Euphoria role come to you?
I didn’t audition. It was the very beginning of 2020, before the pandemic, that someone from Euphoria reached out to my manager and said they were thinking about me for a role, a really interesting kind of villain. Before everything shut down, I met with Sam and they offered the part and I accepted very gratefully. Then things shut down, so we ended up shooting much later.

When you met with Sam, how did he describe Laurie? Was the word “villain” brought up in your initial conversations?
No. When I met Sam, I had already read the scripts and I was very nervous about playing somebody as bad as her. I’ve really only done comedies before this and I was scared to be that unlikable, but he was so lovely and made me feel like, Okay, this is worth trying.

I would imagine one of the reasons he was interested in you is your deadpan delivery. That works in a different context in comedy, but bringing it to this character makes her more unsettling. Did you talk about that?
I don’t remember, but it’s really smart of Sam to know that a mild-mannered sociopath is much scarier and more dangerous in real life. If someone is aggressive up front, everybody knows to be on guard. But sometimes, really manipulative sociopaths are very, not just mild-mannered, but charming. They can project that they are the victim, which Laurie does toward the end of the last episode.

Did you try to make sure you didn’t lean too hard into her meanness? 
I wanted to back out of her creepiness as much as possible because as a stand-up comic, I always want to be likable. Part of me was like, I hope there’s a way I don’t have to go full monster. But it’s also scarier. It reminds me of a documentary about a guy who forged a bunch of documents and then killed a few people. Some of the people had a relationship with him and were fooled by him. After he was caught, they became so distraught that they were suicidal for a while, because of what you just said: Someone like this can seem like they’re almost nice. Then you’re confused, like, Were they trying to do this terrible thing? What’s really going on? In real life, people like that are the most damaging because anyone who trusted them leaves with this feeling of What’s real, then? How could I have been fooled? Then they’re always still wondering, like, Are they really not that bad? That’s so scary to me.

Then you start second-guessing everyone around you. It has incredible ripple effects for how you go about life.
The good thing for Rue is that it doesn’t seem like she’s in that world of drug use and addiction with rose-colored glasses. There’s at least that mitigating factor that she’s on her guard.

In episode five, Laurie says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been angry.” It’s almost funny. Did you draw on your comedy instincts even though it’s a dramatic piece?
I always want people to think what I’m doing is funny, but I don’t think I was [trying in that moment]. I’m always so nervous acting because it’s so different from stand-up. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I try to go into it like, I know my lines. I showed up on time. I’m friendly to everybody. I just hope the director will tell me what they want and that I can do it. I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this character funny? I was just remembering my lines and trying to not mess up.

Do you remember going to set your first day? Were you able to get over your nerves fairly quickly?
I don’t think I ever got over the nervousness of being starstruck by Zendaya, but she and Sam were so easygoing. It was pretty obvious I was nervous. Probably I also said, “I’m really nervous.” But they were so nice. The day that we shot the scene where Zendaya comes to Laurie with a business idea, I messed up my lines on one of the takes and I was really apologetic. Zendaya was like, “It’s totally fine. It’s no pressure.” You can’t not be starstruck by her because she’s such a gifted actor and so young to have accomplished all that she has. And Sam is really brilliant and I’m a fan of the show, so I can’t totally get past the internal pressure of, Don’t mess this up. But they made it as easy as it could have been.

Were you watching the show before you got the call to be on it?
Yes. I love it. There are some episodes that are hard to watch — some of the violence is not something I normally would watch. But it’s such a beautiful show. It’s really mesmerizing.

Why do you think Laurie agrees to the partnership with Rue? Does she really think Rue is going to succeed, or does she see Rue as somebody who is going to be beholden to Laurie?
I don’t actually know yet. When I read that scene I thought, Well, the way that Rue explains it, it does sound like a foolproof plan. But what happens in episode five, it’s like, did Laurie know it was a win-win for her whether it succeeded or failed? Then Rue would owe her. But I’m not sure how Sam pictures that.

When Rue comes to her in withdrawal, Laurie tells a story about her first encounter with opioids. Is that story about her addiction true?
I assume it’s true, but I wouldn’t take anything Laurie says at face value in any way that makes her less of a monster. Everything she says and does is what a manipulative sociopath would be like as they project this [image of] I’m just a nice person and I’m down on my luck too. It’s clear by the end of that episode that she’s a really calculating, destructive person.

What is her long game? She just wants Rue to continue her addiction and remain a customer?
I don’t know how I could answer that without possible spoilers, but it’s safe to say Laurie doesn’t have any non-harmful plans for anybody that enters her life. Especially teenagers. She’s a pretty bad person.

Zendaya seems so completely committed to her character, especially in the scenes where she comes to your house in dire need of help. Was she able to snap in and out of that between takes, or does she stay in the mind-set of the character when she’s not filming?
It appeared to me that she was able to go in and out of it, which I have so much admiration for. It’s similar to what appeared to me to be the case with Adam Driver. They’re going from normal conversation with a cast or crew member, a director, just so easygoing, normal. Then when it’s action, they’re immediately this other character and fully in it. It seems like it would have to take a lot of concentration to do that and to do it so naturally and make it seem real.

Those scenes between Rue and Laurie are tough because you can tell Laurie’s taking advantage of her. Was that hard for you to play?
I found it very disturbing. The day we shot the bathroom stuff with Rue, I was really uncomfortable and nervous about it and really glad when it was over, and also really grateful [about] the way Sam chose to shoot it, where the focus is on that little squirrel or chipmunk and Laurie and Rue are totally out of focus in the background.

That was a huge relief because we didn’t have to do anything where Laurie is actually putting her hands on Rue and moving her around. When I read that in the script, I was like, I don’t know if I can do this. It’s definitely in the neighborhood of creepy, pedophilia-type exploitation of a kid.

Is it fair to assume that we’re going to see more of Laurie before the season is over?
I don’t think I can answer anything about the remaining episodes.

I don’t want you to get in trouble for spoiling, but I have to think that Laurie’s going to want the rest of her money.
Someone like her will go to any length to get what she wants. That would be my assumption about any sociopath like that.

Euphoria’s Martha Kelly on the Terror of Playing Unlikable