For a comedian who plays a lot of weirdos on screen, Rachel Dratch seems surprisingly well-adjusted - even ordinary - in real life. The former Saturday Night Live cast member-turned-secret weapon in too many movies and television shows to count has spent much of her career being loud and goofy, but off camera, she’s kind, understated and thoughtful. In fact, she seems a lot like Rebecca, the character she plays in director Amy Poehler’s new film Wine Country, about a group of longtime friends who travel to Napa Valley for Rebecca’s 50th birthday celebration.
But then again, Dratch resists that too, acknowledging her extreme comfort and familiarity with costars Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Paula Pell as the main inspiration for her performance rather than the formal theatre training she seems to take about as seriously as a walk-on role on 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Broad City or Difficult People. Speaking via telephone about Wine Country, the tremendously gifted actress and comedian talked about the origins of her participation in the project, her ongoing, fluid collaboration with her former SNL castmates and the lessons they’ve learned together, and finally, the impulses, modest and uncomplicated though they are, for embarking on a career in comedy that has made her an indelible presence on screen without revealing too much of her actual self in the process.
Watching the way that Amy and Tina obviously love to deploy you as this great comedic asset in their different projects over the years, how did it feel to feature in a starring role as a comparatively normal character to the ones that you've played for them before?
Well, this was such a group thing - it evolved off of the real trip that we took, and they thought, let's all do a group movie. I like being big and goofy, but I just sort of went with their concept, and Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski, the writers, and Amy, went off and wrote it and then came to us with what they had. They were open to input and everything, but it's really written by those guys. So I was like, wherever you want me, I'll go for it.
Is playing a character who is a little bit more understated something that occasionally you kind of yearn for, or is this actually more of an adjustment for you than people might think based on your other performances?
It probably is more an adjustment play a more normal girl, because it's not really my usual thing. But like I said, because it was an ensemble, you just kind of do your contribution to the story. And so mine happened to be that I'm the birthday girl who this is all centered around. But I don't know - I guess I didn't put that much thought into it, but I do tend towards the goofier, I suppose, as my natural inclination.
You said this was a character that was written for you. How many of the issues or insecurities that your character deals with in the film were relatable at all when you started preparing for it - and how important is that in general to you?
Well, there's some characters in the movie that are very similar to the actual person. But what they did is they took a quality of the person and then sort of blew it up. Like Amy really does like making schedules and stuff, but she's not as manic and hardcore about it. I think with maybe Maya and Ana and I, they just kind of pictured how we were going to say the lines, rather than thinking ‘Ana is all business.’ Or ‘Maya is always worried about her health.’ It wasn't really that much of a parallel, I guess, with me. Like, they probably picked little nuances from my personality, but not really the broad strokes for that. And then Emily Spivey, who’s one of the writers, she really does have some sort of social anxiety - she would maybe rather stay home a lot of times. So they really played that up in the movie. That was a pretty strong parallel to her.
Maya’s real-life obsession with Prince, which shows up in her character, is well-documented. Were there any details or conversations in the film that were more or less directly inspired by your own interests or experience?
This is kind of silly, but the main one was that one time at Saturday Night Live my back really did go out like that. So that was borrowed from real life. We were at the SNL read through and all of a sudden out of nowhere, I was reaching for something and my whole back just twanged and I couldn't move. I was on the floor and it was during the read-through where everyone's there, and they had to send for a doctor. So that’s one thing that was borrowed from real life.
There's a very palpable sense of enjoyment you guys have in your scenes together - the movie lets you laugh at one another's jokes. How much of a shorthand have you guys have developed with one another to know how far to take the humor and allow each other to enjoy it and then still sort of preserve the shape of a scene?
Tina and I started out together at Second City way back when in the '90s, and Amy was there too in Chicago. I didn't overlap with Amy quite as much, but we all sort of trained at the same places and had the same background of learning comedy. So even though we all have different styles and little idiosyncrasies about how we would approach comedy, we all sort of speak the same language, if I may get corny. So being in a scene with these guys, you always knew you were going to be surprised because someone would always surprise you with a choice or make you laugh. And then in another way, you knew you could rely on this person, whoever it was in the cast, because you've all been working together so long. Like SNL is kind of like a comedy fox hole because you're in front of a live audience on national TV and there's no net. So you've been in that situation, so you're just kind of bonded from that. And then in real life we all really do laugh hard at each other's jokes or just commentary or whatever, so that was based on our real relationships - what you see in the movie is how we interact in those jokey moments.
Whether it was on this film or in general, how careful do you have to be not to take an idea in a direction that sort of derails the scene, no matter how funny it is?
In the movie, you're on a certain amount of time. Like you don't want to be goofing off with this whacko idea, but we were allowed to improvise in some areas. I mean, we pretty much followed the script, but there's a scene where we’re wine tasting where Amy and I are with the wine maker, and that was all improvised. And Emily has this whole run where she is listing all the party music they're going to play, and I don’t know if she was making some of that up but it was probably improvised, knowing her. So you're still trying to serve the story and serve the scene when you're improvising so you're not going to take some like weirdo left turn, but every so often you do crack up in spite of yourself. So I try not to do that, but there were some times when I got the giggles.
A lot of the characters you've played have served a very specific purpose in a story to escalate it or to throw in that strange or unusual element. Wine Country has such a light touch in terms of the life lessons and epiphanies that these characters experience, but is it a different discipline as an actor to have a genuine emotional moment than to be goofy or riff on an idea?
There's moments when you have to be real and you can't just be a goofball. Believe it or not, I did major in theater, so I had training. I never felt like I wanted to do dramas, like I said, but I've had enough training. And I think most comedians that we know make really good actors; I love it when I see a comedian in a more serious role. But it’s just about being real in the moment. So you have to honor the moment like you would in an improv scene - you have to honor the moment and be real in it. So that's kind of what you transfer over to a more serious moment within a bigger comedy.
You've had such a fascinating, idiosyncratic career. Are there acting challenges that you feel like you haven't faced that you want to, or that you are actively seeking, that by virtue of your success playing all these wild roles you haven't had the chance to do?
Well, having dipped my toe in a few more dramatic movies. I have learned about myself that no, I like doing comedy. If it's kind of a weirdo character in a more dramatic movie, then I would enjoy that. But in general, what really gives me the charge is doing comedy, whether it's TV, movies or theater. That's what I really gravitate towards, and I don't feel like I need to stretch and play. But looking forward, I've done some writing and that's more challenging to me, so trying to write more I guess would be a goal. But I need to really feel the muses when I'm going to write. Like at SNL, it never worked for me or probably for anyone to just sit down at your computer and be like, okay, let’s think of something really funny right now. It had to be you saw something during your day, or think of a scenario or a character and then be like, that would be a good sketch. And that could maybe happen once or twice a year for a really great character, so I feel not in control of, like I said, the muses, but then when something strikes me, I can kind of run with it. So that would be one goal. And then in general, I feel like I've gotten to do so many different things that it's been a lot of good variety, like Wine Country, or the year before I got to play Adam Sandler's wife in this other Netflix movie called The Week Of and that was kind of a street person but a little bit broad, like a little bit of a crazy lady. And I’ve done a lot of guest spots this year. But things seem to keep floating my way, and I just like the variety.
Is there a personal goal other than being creative that you feel drives the choices that you make? Or do you feel comparatively well-adjusted to some of those folks who like to explore those really dark edges where every character is exercising personal within themselves?
Well, I've never done standup. I was always an improviser. But it’s not about just getting laughs in Improv. Because if you just go out there trying to get a laugh, you're going to kill the scene. But it's about finding every comic moment you can within the scene. So that's sort of my approach rather than wanting to explore this certain topic. Some standups like more political commentary, even like Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman, they have an edge to them - a social commentary - and that's not really what I do. I totally admire them and what they do, but I don’t want to talk about this [specific] topic in my comedy or explore it. I'm just honoring the script. The stuff I tend to think of is a little more goofy, coming from SNL and thinking of funny characters. That's kind of just the way my mind goes.