As charming as ever, Suzanne Cryer first grabbed America’s heartstrings during her time on “Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place,” balancing out comic legend Ryan Reynolds. Cryer now can be seen in “Silicon Valley,” where’s she’s just as funny as ever, playing Laurie Bream, a female venture capitalist.
How did you get your start in acting?
I started doing community theatre when I was pretty young. My mother was saintly driving me across town more than 30 minutes each direction so I could sing in a pink skirt in the chorus of musicals. I really liked the community aspect of it and I don’t know how good I was at it – I’ve never been a terrific singer and I’m an appalling dancer – but I really enjoyed it.
I think for kids that feel that they are outsiders it’s a way for them to be a part of something. You always read interviews with people saying they weren’t popular and now they’re famous. I work a lot with kids and I don’t think if you asked them 10 to 20 years later if they were in the inside group they would say they were. There may be one or two, but by and large, kids are looking for a way into the world and I think doing theater or choral work are ways for them to feel a part of something.
My entire youth was dominated with a feeling of shame. All of the time. I felt ashamed of everything. I think when you get on stage it’s such an opposite. It’s the antithesis of shame. It helps you negotiate those feelings.
I remember in high school I was doing something that required me to do a costume change backstage and it was fast. I remember having this enormous anxiety of having my body seen. I couldn’t stand it anymore and there was one day where I said to myself that I’m not going to be ashamed of myself and I don’t care. I didn’t want the embarrassment of my body or any of my anxieties to rule my childhood. They’re really heavy on a child’s shoulders that they can really weigh you down. I wanted that gone and it was enormously freeing to say, “I don’t care if anyone sees me in my underpants.” It’s a lot easier on in life not to be ruled by shame.
When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
I don’t know if I knew I wanted to be an actor then, but I knew I really liked it. Every year in school I would say, “Well, if I get parts next year or if I get parts in college then maybe I’ll consider continuing it.” It was always a kind of “if” and I always tried to keep my alternatives open. It’s a big world and I like being an actor, but I could be happier doing a lot of other things. I get very annoyed by people who act like being a part of the arts is more special than a lot of other jobs because I profoundly don’t believe that. In fact I think teaching is incredibly involved creatively. I don’t think some jobs are more special. They certainly get more attention in People magazine. The speech that Viola Davis gave – where she said actors were the only ones who knew what it felt to be alive – was so nauseating to me. That’s just not true. That’s like saying a guy who’s wheeling people into the emergency room or someone fixing telephone poles doesn’t know what it means to be alive. I don’t know what that means. That’s insane. I think they understand it even better. The pedestal that performers are placed on is deeply problematic to me. That’s why I try to keep my professional and my public lives separate.
How transformative were your years at the Yale School of Drama?
It’s interesting. Everybody talks about it because Meryl Streep went there and there’s a lot of great actors who went there, which certainly was a ppositive experience for me in many ways. I would say my experience as an undergrad, where I did 30 plays, was really transformative for me. I think my years at Yale School of Drama were helpful. I feel that there were certain things they allowed me to do, like doing a run of a Broadway play or doing the same part every night for a year that I would not be able to do if I hadn’t gone to Yale School of Drama. It gave me some tools that I did not have. Getting a master’s degree in something and trying to respect the field you’re in is a worthy endeavor. The teacher, who has since died, Earle Gister, used to say to me, “You have a fundamental problem, Suzanne. You don’t respect your profession.” I think that is ultimately true. I love it. I enjoy it. I have a lot of reverence for doctors and teachers. I roll my eyes a little bit. It’s hard for me not to because there are people like Meryl Streep, who’s extraordinarily skilled and can do wonderful work. But then you go look at early Italian cinema and they’re using people off the street and they’re really, really fucking good. Now I don’t think those people could do the real thing night after night on Broadway, but I just went to see “Wonder Woman,” which was terrific, and [Gal Gadot] was a model and really good. She’s not Meryl Streep, but she’s darn good. It’s a little hard to be so precious about acting when you have people that are so good at it. I’ve always had a push-me, pull-me relationship with acting, but I’m thankful to it and there are things I have done in my career that I couldn’t have done otherwise.
So “Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place.” How did you get that and what was the biggest takeaway you took from that show?
I got that job because of Danny Jacobson. I had been kicking around Los Angeles for a while, I had done a fair amount of sitcoms. A lot of people thought I would be on a sitcom, but getting a sitcom is different. It’s very different. First, it has to be the right part and then you have to do it and then it has to get on air, which is why George Clooney kicked around so long before he found “ER.” It’s not necessarily that George Clooney wasn’t terrific, it’s just he didn’t necessarily do the right pilot and it necessarily didn’t get picked up by the network.
I think people had a hard time knowing what to do with me, because I think they thought I looked like a “leading” girl – in the sense that I didn’t have big, curly hair or a funny voice particularly. But I didn’t seem like a leading girl because I lacked the fragility and the vulnerability and the sweetness that leading ladies tend to have, which isn’t to say that they’re not strong. Debra Messing and I used to test for a lot of things together, and a lot of other girls who were in my age range, but Debra’s really different than me because she’s really strong and funny, but vulnerable in a way that’s very attractive. She has a pathos about her that I don’t have. I know that and I’m totally aware of that. I have it on stage, but when the cameras are up close, I just read very differently.
“Two Guys” was looking for another girl – that I didn’t think they were going to make a series regular – but still needed. They had Traylor [Howard], and Traylor’s really different than I am. They needed someone to balance Ryan [Reynolds], which takes a lot because Ryan’s a force of nature. They brought me into read with him, I got about four lines in, and Danny Jacobson said, “For fuck’s sake, give her the job.” And that was it. They didn’t even make me finish the audition.
My biggest takeaway from that job was to remember to enjoy what you have and to not worry. Because, despite the bitching and moaning that many of us would do because we were a bunch of 20-year-olds on set, it was a joyful experience with really talented people. Traylor is really, really talented. Rich and Ryan are very gifted comedians. We all know Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion. It was a really great cast. Everybody thought it was a derivative of “Friends,” but the fact of the matter is we were doing really interesting stuff there. We had a silent episode. We had crazy Halloween episodes. It was actually this weird, interesting and fun show. I think we spent a lot of time worrying that people like Aaron Sorkin were making bitchy remarks about us, when we should of just been enjoying the fact that it was a really smart, little show that was for a certain age group at a certain time. I just try to remember and hold onto that every day at “Silicon Valley.” Be thankful and joyful.
How did you get your part on “Silicon Valley”? Did you feel a sort of pressure taking over the role from Christopher Evan Welch?
It would be foolish to say that I didn’t feel any sort of pressure. The fact that I was a woman made it slightly more manageable. I think it’s one of the reasons they chose this slot to be filled by a woman, because he’s really irreplaceable.
When I got the material, I had a very specific idea of what I thought this person would be like and it was very different from any character I had played before. It was a sort of different audition approach than I had ever taken before. I hardly wore any makeup, I didn’t do my hair very much and wore a fairly ugly Brooks Brothers shirt. I got nervous as I was getting dressed and my husband told me not to change what I was wearing and to not cave. He said I was doing the right thing and I was either going to get the part or not get the part. I actually made a tape for it because they weren’t able to see every person. So I went to get the tape professionally done with lights and a desk. I could tell the man who was filming me thought I was terrible because I wasn’t making eye contact. There was lots of dialogue and I was talking very fast at him. I was probably acting very twitchy and weird. He had taped other women who wanted the role because everyone wanted it. So he had seen this all day long. He didn’t say anything nice to me; it was almost embarrassing. Then I didn’t hear anything for a long time and I became ashamed. I told myself that I should’ve made myself prettier. How could I have not looked pretty on HBO?
Then I got a call right around Christmas saying Mike Judge really liked my tape and really wanted to meet with me. I thought it couldn’t be true. I had to relearn it, but I remembered it because I worked really hard on it. I normally don’t work very hard to be perfectly honest. Things usually aren’t. This was. I really cared about it. I did it – not because I wanted the job – because I loved the material. I met with Mike and Alec Berg. I think it had helped me that I had been having children and working, but not working in the limelight. I don’t think they wanted a familiar face. They didn’t want to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing a character. And even though I am playing a character, people weren’t thinking about that as much because people hadn’t seen me on a regular basis on TV. I’m speculating, but I think that’s true.
We had Stephen Tobolowsky come on a few years ago and people certainly know him. But they’re not really into that. Even though the characters are really broad, I don’t think they wanted to be distracted by star power on the show unless people are playing themselves.
Laurie really is a gem in my opinion. How do you get into and embody that character? She’s unlike anyone I’ve seen on television.
For me, I definitely think I have some similarities to her. My dad definitely does. He’s a truly empathetic person in some ways. My dad went to MIT when he was like 16-years-old and he’s never really understood social convention in some ways. I definitely am not Laurie Bream, but we have some things in common. It’s hard for me to talk about this because she’s obviously on the spectrum, but I try not to talk about it that much because we don’t want that to be the subject of her. I have an interaction with a lot of people that have some characteristics that Laurie Bream has. I have a kid that has some of these characteristics. My dad does. This kind of inability to function socially and also be unaware of one’s inability to function socially.
She is not anxious or full of shame; she just has a different internal rhythm and she’s perplexed by the world around her. I find it really freeing and I really like Laurie very much. I enjoy her and enjoy the fact they reveal a little bit about my personal life but do not go very deep. It was funny being pregnant this season, but it was also business as usual for her, which a tremendously feminist statement. I have been pregnant a bunch of times and I can recognize that being pregnant and motherhood can be challenging, but it’s not always challenging and there are plenty of people who can work until delivery day – I was one of those people. And then there are people who are able to have children… I don’t know if Laurie’s the best mom in the world or the worst, but she makes it work. I think it’s really feminist and I’m into it. I think in this season of “Silicon Valley,” in a subtle and quick way, they were able to put a lens on what’s it’s like to be a female venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. I’m also really glad I was able to start my own company with Monica, too.
Intellectually, I’m attracted to her and I have access to her that way. She’s her own bird, but I can think of other people like her, like Lilith on “Frasier.” But there are definitely other women who don’t fit into the traditional mold of femininity.
Any idea on Laurie’s future?
I really don’t. I always just hope that the storyline stays business oriented. I like the funny stuff, but I certainly don’t want a scene with my children. They do personal stories on the boys, sort of. Even when Thomas is going on a date, it’s always crucially tied into the story. I feel like on most shows, the personal stories are the driving force and they shape the medical or tech or legal situation. It often makes the eye roll. Our show, I feel like the tech is the tech and that story of Silicon Valley is the driving force. They would never create a tech arc to serve the dating life of a character and that’s really different from other shows. I think that’s what makes our show really interesting and what makes writing for our show phenomenally difficult. Anybody can write a show about axe murderers or love affairs – you can make that up in your head at home – but the stuff our guys are coming up with is accurate, predictive, hilarious and insane, and yet they’re culling things out a year in advance. Our writers and producers blow me away. I think that’s what makes “Silicon Valley” not jump the shark. As soon as it changes, we’re lost, as far as I’m concerned.
The nice thing is that you don’t have to be a techie to watch it. That’s miraculous to me. I’m completely useless with tech, but I get the show enough to where I can enjoy it.
What has been a favorite moment or a favorite scene over the past four seasons?
It’s hard to say. When I first came on, my sides at the beginning were just talk, talk, talk. They write for me in a very spare way, but I love the way they write for me. I guess I can’t help it… I’m like a viewer because I’m such a big fan of the show and I think back at the things that made me laugh. I’m always laughing when I’m working with Jimmy and T.J. When I was filming that “Smocation” scene, every time I watch them (Jimmy and T.J.) I crack up. And you didn’t see 90 percent of what they did in that scene because it went on and on.
I always love working with Amanda. She’s just this dear person and a solid actress. I remember the scene where we were watching the video of the screaming guy that was falling. I don’t know why I thought it was so funny. I just love the way Laurie reads the world. Her perspective is charming to me, so when she’s able to read something that’s foreign to her and doesn’t get it, I always enjoy it.
I don’t know. I just really like to be on set. I’ll never forget Thomas trying to take his jacket off. He’s so astonishingly talented. His physical is so good and he’s always emotionally truthful. He’s just an amazing backbone to the show.
I just love watching these guys work. It’s nice because Laurie tends to watch. I like that she watches and listens because I tend to talk too much and she plays her cards close to her chest.
What do you think is the biggest difference between working on a network platform for so long and now working for a platform like HBO?
I do think network television is changing a little bit. You see something like “Black-ish,” which I’ve been banging the drum for since the beginning, and I’m glad it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves. They’re just doing great comedy mixed with social commentary.
The general difference is that platforms like HBO let programs breathe and let them be what they are. It lets the showrunners create the thing they envision. I’m not saying they don’t have notes, but the nonstop notes and shaping by executives at networks is like hammering nails into a coffin. The reality is that Mike Judge and Alec Berg are brilliant and they’re the bee’s knees, but they aren’t the only smart people in the world. There are other smart people, but the problem is that the networks don’t let them do what they’re hired to do, I think. They hire them and don’t let their shows breathe. They try and line up stars and shape them and create a recipe for the same chocolate chip cookie that’s been made for a long time. Every once and a while they let something different happen, it explodes, everybody loves it, and then everybody starts copying that. Let me put it this way… I never have a feeling HBO is on set, but when I was on network, I always have a sense the network was on the set. Always. I like a lot of the network executives and a lot of them are tremendously smart, but there’s so much anxiety.
Now, the numbers game… As popular and as loved “Silicon Valley” and “Veep” are, we’re not getting the number that “The Big Bang Theory” gets. I’ve never seen the show, which I actually hear is very good, but I guess there’s a different set of concerns and worries and criteria. Who am I to say? But it’s nice to work for a network when the producers feel like they’re getting to do what they want to do. You definitely have happy producers.
What’s been the biggest pinch me moment of your career?
I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited than when I got “Silicon Valley.” That’s up there because it was that rare combination of a good job with a part that I really care about. When I got my job on Broadway doing the Neil Simon play that was a really big deal for me. The play was imperfect at best, but I’ll never forget that and being able to create the Neil Simon character.
What has been the biggest thing you have seen change or not change in the industry?
It’s two-fold. One is high definition. It sucks for women, particularly for women over 22. High definition is just a beast. But the biggest thing that’s changed is social media. You have to understand, when I was on “Two Guys” there wasn’t even emailing. I think that was just starting. There’s been an exponential change over the last 20 years. When I was on a show or doing pilots for other shows you weren’t worrying how many Twitter followers you have – which I still don’t care about. But I have friends that really care about that stuff. And the access that fans have is a totally different world. You used to get hired because of x, y and z, and maybe you had to do a morning talk show. But there are just so many media outlets and the scrutiny. It’s just really, really different. It’s not good or bad. I’m just glad that back when I was wearing leather pants or doing bikini shoot that there wasn’t the access.