Though her work in the Groundlings, in Christopher Guest movies, and “The Hangover” earned her a reputation for being a comedic actor, Rachael Harris began her training with dramatic theater pieces in college. And throughout her career, Harris has proven her range in 2011’s “Natural Selection,” for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best female lead, and Netflix’s “Lucifer,” which fuses both dramatic and comedic elements. Here, Harris discusses how she became a true jack of all trades (and genres).
What advice would you give your younger self?
Just keep showing up, and work begets work. Say yes. I’m so glad I said yes to moving out to Los Angeles. I never gave up on thinking I was a good actor, it just was trying to figure out my way in. When I started taking classes at the Groundlings, that’s when I started to make friends and really feel like I [did] know what I [was] doing. And that’s what led to commercial auditions and me finding my voice. When you’re in your 20s and if you’re just starting out as an actor, give yourself time to bloom, give yourself life experience.
Just keep believing in yourself and knowing that if you keep showing up, it only takes one casting director to say, “You know what you’re doing and I believe in you.” For me, that was Danny Goldman, who was a wonderful casting director. He cast a million commercials back in the day. He said to me, “You’re really good, you just have to keep coming in.” I’d be coming in for all these auditions and [getting] put on avail—for three years, getting callbacks, put on avail. Which doesn’t seem like a long time but when you’re into a year-and-a-half, two years of hearing “You’re so close,” you start to question. Finally, it was miraculous that in one day I booked two national commercials. That was a major moment for me.
What is your worst audition horror story?
There was a McDonald’s commercial when “The Lion King” was coming out—I booked it, actually—but we had to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and it was like a chorus line. We all were standing in a line and we had to go down and sing it and act nuts, act out like we were in a limbo line. I remember being [like], I’m going to be the best limbo person. I’m sure that I was way too enthusiastic but somehow they hired me anyway.
What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
In 2010 I got sent a script called “Natural Selection” written by Robbie Pickering and I read it in a coffee shop in two hours and I couldn’t put it down. I called my agent and I said I would love to do this film. She said I’m talking to the director and he doesn’t want to see you. So they begged him to read me. I was crazy nervous when he finally said OK. I went and met with the writer and the producer and I read for it and I remember his eyes went wide and I could tell that he didn’t expect me to do that, because I hadn’t done anything like it. I think I had just come off of “The Hangover” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” so they were not expecting me to do a depressed woman from South Texas. They called and said, “Robbie thinks you’re the only person who can play this part.”
I got the part and then my brother got very sick with leukemia and I had promised him and his kids a trip to Disneyland. And [production] came back and they said, “They want to shoot these dates in May.” I said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do it. That’s when my brother, who is sick, and his kids are coming to visit.” I had always been putting my career first and this was the one time I said I cannot. I said no to the film and they hired another actor and the actor that they hired said to Robbie Pickering, the director, “I thought this was a serious movie, why would you hire Rachael Harris?” And he said, “She actually was really wonderful” and they were like, “I don’t see it.” That actor fell out, for whatever reason. Robbie Pickering sent me a Facebook Message saying, “Hey Rachael, if we move our production a week and a half, would you be willing to do it?” I said yes, I’d do it in a heartbeat if you just give me that week with my brother. He asked the crew if they’d wait 10 days and they said yes and I ended up shooting it and being nominated for best actress for an Independent Spirit Award.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
My coach, Charles Carroll, is one of my favorite people. I don’t usually audition or work on anything without going over it with him. He always reminds me that when I’m auditioning, it’s just a presentation. It’s not a finished product. It’s not what you’re going to do on the day when you’re shooting. You’re just giving them an idea of the choices that you would make and then hopefully in that audition, the director will give you direction to see that you are truly an actor and that you can take direction and try things differently, that you’re not stuck in doing it one way.
It also reminds you that you might not be right for that job but it’s going to give them a truer sense of what you are right for. You might not get that job, but if you are really committed, they’ll think this person will be great for this because this is what they brought to this audition. That’s happened to me several times. I had so many auditions that I didn’t get but the casting director would keep bringing [me] in for different projects trying to find the right fit.
I just finished working on “Lucifer” and it’s really exciting because I haven’t been available to do the independent films that I love to do. So now, it’s exciting to know that I’m available to do films again. I’ve been auditioning again for things. The beautiful thing is getting back out there and getting to show casting people, “Oh right, she has the ability to do comedy and drama.”
What performance should every actor see and why?
One of my all-time favorite performances is Sally Field in “Steel Magnolias.” In particular, it was the entire ensemble at the funeral scene where Sally Field’s so angry. She just dissolves into tears. It’s on par with Shirley MaClaine in “Terms of Endearment.” Other performances that I always will love: I absolutely love Mery Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” I love Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in “Raising Arizona.”
Tell us about your first day on a professional set.
My first professional job out of college was in Cincinnati, Ohio and I worked on the Showboat Majestic. It’s an old-timey boat with one of those big wheels that pushes it, sort of like what you see in the south. I was playing Maria in “The Sound of Music.” The boat was docked, it didn’t go anywhere but it was still on the water. That was my first job before I even got out of college, which was so exciting that I got to go to a different city, which was only two hours away from my hometown, and do theater.
From there, I moved to New York where I got a commercial agent. I started auditioning for theater in New York and then my next job was with a children’s theater company based out of New York and we would do children’s theater up and down the East Coast for schools. Then I moved back to New York and I wanted to do theater so bad. I didn’t get any dramatic work. I had a bond with my instructor at college and he said, “I think you should think about doing comedy.” I was so offended.
I had an agent in New York that said I’m opening an agency in Los Angeles and I think you’d really work in commercials and TV so I moved out to Los Angeles. And then within three years, I booked two national commercials and I did a bunch of theater at the Tamarind Theatre, which is now a UCB Theater on Franklin. I was doing a show there and at that time, a friend said to me, “I’m going to see a Groundlings show. You want to go?” So we went to see a show at the Groundlings and in the cast was Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Jim Jackman, Chris Parnell, Chris Kattan—all of these people were in the show and I saw it and I thought, Oh my gosh, I want to do that right now. Then I started taking classes and I got into the main company in 2000, which was where all my closest friends are from. I had representation and that’s where Chris Guest, Eugene Levy, and Karen Murphy saw me for all the Christopher Guest movies.
You’re well known for your comedic roles. Was it difficult to shake that perception?
It was a cognizant choice that we made because I had been doing so much comedy—and I love it. If somebody were to say, “We’d love you to do a comedic series right now,” that would be great. Especially after I did “Natural Selection,” that’s when everything started to turn around. I said I started out wanting to do “ ‘night, Mother” and these very dramatic plays in New York and I would like to get back into that so that’s when we did “Natural Selection.”