How Elisha Cuthbert Carved Out A Place For Herself In Hollywood
The five roles — Are You Afraid of the Dark?, 24, Love Actually, The Girl Next Door, and Happy Endings — that helped Elisha Cuthbert prepare to star on NBC's One Big Happy.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1996, 1999–2000)
Cuthbert made her screen debut as an extra in a 1996 episode of this spooky Canadian kids show before joining the cast full time — as a member of The Midnight Society — in 1999. The show, which aired in the U.S. on Nickelodeon, has become, in retrospect, a who's who of emerging Canadian actors that included Ryan Gosling, Neve Campbell, Hayden Christensen, and Emily VanCamp.
"Every actor trickled through there because they needed so many people to fill in those stories," Cuthbert told BuzzFeed News at The Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California, during the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "It's just crazy how many actors were on that show. I had done it before I became a campfire kid — and I'm going to try and talk about this with a serious face — I was in one of the stories when I was younger, so later on, to come back and become a campfire kid was like a dream."
Cuthbert was cast as a member of The Midnight Society after the first generation of actors aged out of the roles. "The only way you could get onto the show was to make it into the story, so I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would become too old and then move off and do other, amazing things and they'd have spots to fill," she said. "All of a sudden, this audition came my way, and it was awesome. When I first put my hand in the bag of glitter, oh man."
While Cuthbert's episodes aired over the course of two years, it took much less time to actually film them. "It was two weeks, boom, done," she said. "It was like Oprah for her magazine covers. She shoots every cover in a day and she's good for the year. That's how it is. One big shoot and we were gone. It lended itself to us being available for other things, which was so great."
While Are You Afraid of the Dark? was popular with kids, Cuthbert exploded onto the American entertainment scene with 24, the real-time drama that co-starred Kiefer Sutherland and went on to become one of Fox's most popular series. Cuthbert played Sutherland's daughter, the perpetually in-peril Kim Bauer — a character the show struggled to integrate after the first season, which revolved around her kidnapping.
"I wish my character wasn't so frustrating to people," Cuthbert said. "I think TV Guide named me The Character Most Loved To Hate on TV. Which was a heavy thing for me. But if you look at shows like Homeland and see the daughter, writing for a child on an adult show is difficult."
"But you know, art is interesting," she continued, "Especially television, because there are characters you hate, but also love — like on reality shows, there are those women that you're just like, 'UGH,' but they're the most entertaining. I didn't realize that at the time, but looking back, I realize, maybe not everyone loved me, but I think I did a good job and was entertaining enough that it worked for what it was."
While viewers may have found Kim frustrating, 24 was one of the biggest hits of its time. "It was the best show to be on at the time," Cuthbert said. "It was the coolest show to be a part of. We were going to the Golden Globes, we were killing it at the SAG Awards, it was magical. At that moment in time, I never felt like, 'Ugh, why me?' You know? Working with Kiefer was an incredible experience, he was very much a mentor for many years, I was getting challenging material, it changed television, and it changed my life in a way where the exposure from that show solidified the next 10 years for me. 24 opened so many doors for me. I take away nothing but amazing things from that experience."
Love Actually (2003)
Cuthbert had a small role in writer/director Richard Curtis' new holiday classic, playing Carol-Anne, one of the American girls Colin (Kris Marshall) meets when he flies from England to Wisconsin in search of love.
"I got Love Actually because of 24," Cuthbert revealed. "Richard sent me a letter saying, 'I'm obsessed with the show, and I've got a really small part in this movie. You probably don't want to do it.' And I'm like, 'I don't care, I'm getting on a plane, see you in a week.'"
"I remember getting the script, and it was the biggest script I'd ever seen," she added. "It was like a manuscript of someone's life. And I have the smallest of parts, but we had a lot of fun. We spent the whole day riffing and improv-ing and doing the whole bit, but, it was such a huge script. I mean, that was like six movies in one."
Despite having "the smallest of parts" in the film, Love Actually continues to have resonance in Cuthbert's life — especially around Dec. 24. "Did I know it was going to become a holiday classic? No, I didn't," she said. "That people would meet me, then see it during the holidays and call me to go, 'I forgot you were in that!' And I'm like, 'Yeah, that's me, in the bar. Talking about straws.' It's crazy. But I knew that given all [Curtis'] past work, I was going to be in a great film. That's why I did it."
The Girl Next Door (2004)
Cuthbert scored her first lead movie role when director Luke Greenfield cast her as Danielle, a former porn star who falls for her neighbor, Matthew (Emile Hirsch), in this romantic comedy. The underrated coming-of-age story opened in 10th place at the box office and went on to gross a paltry $30 million globally — but thanks to a savvy script and dazzling performances from the leads, Girl Next Door has found a lot of fans over the last decade.
"I had to work hard to get that job," Cuthbert said. "I had to pitch myself quite hard. I was stepping into a studio who had no idea who the hell I was. Luke really fought for me because when I met with him, I said, 'I can do this movie. I am going to do this movie. I promise you, I will have the right look.' Because at that time there were big, beautiful girls — Shannon Elizabeth, Katie Holmes — that were pretty well-known up for it. Probably if it had been me at 32, I would have thought, I don't have a chance in hell at getting this. But I was young and gutsy and read that script and thought it had so much heart and brains. Yeah it's a porn star, but there was so much more to that film."
To illustrate her point, Cuthbert highlighted the fact she never appeared nude in the film despite playing a porn star. "My choice not to get naked made it sexier," she said. "That was a huge conversation. I said, 'I'm not doing this movie if I have to be naked,' and my example was Weird Science. Kelly LeBrock is never nude, and she was the hottest thing for decades. Because everyone's taste is so different, I became what every single guy wanted that character to be. That wasn't me. That was bigger than me. That was what every man's image of sexy was at the time."
"Of course I was disappointed that it wasn't the hit I thought I could be, but everything is about timing and we came out at a time when the American Pies of the world were massive," she said. "We were really promoted as if we were that kind of film, but we weren't. I think a lot of people went in expecting a certain type of movie and were disappointed, but other people were pleasantly surprised. But it's become this cult thing, the following has trickled over the years, and it's done just as much for me as if it had made $100 million that first weekend. It didn't have to happen in two days. I was patient and it happened over a longer period of time."
Happy Endings (2011–2013)
In 2011, the actor was cast as Alex Kerkovich in ABC's beloved comedy that co-starred Casey Wilson, Adam Pally, Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans Jr., and Zachary Knighton. While the pilot episode initially established Alex as a runaway bride, eventually the character morphed into an absent-minded yet lovable idiot with a fondness for BBQ ribs and a racist parrot named Tyler.
"There was something really magical there," she said of the cast and crew that produced three seasons of the show. "I was really patient because I was adamant that it was time to do comedy, and I had to break down some doors to make that happen for myself. It was the one thing I felt I hadn't tackled. I had done horror films, I'd done suspense, drama, and dark indies. I tackled some difficult characters in The Quiet and He Was A Quiet Man, and it was all just so much angst. It was time to lighten things up a little bit. For myself, but also to see if I could do it."
"I knew I was funny in real life, I just didn't know if I could make that translate," Cuthbert continued. "I wanted to get back in television because I love TV and I waited and I waited and got offered drama after drama after drama, and all the procedurals. I thought I might never work again. I felt like it just wasn't happening. I kept telling everyone I wanted to do comedy and everyone kept coming back with, 'Here's a really great one-hour series.' Like, am I not making myself clear? I wanted to be funny."
Once again, Cuthbert found herself fighting to convince the powers that be she was right for the role. "Steve McPherson [former president of ABC], God bless him, he believed in me and [creator] Davis Caspe and [executive producer] Jonathan Groff were like, 'OK,'" she said. "This was my pitch to David Caspe, at the Chateau Marmont: I was like, 'I will be the straight guy if you just give me one joke an episode. One joke. And if I don't land it, you don't have to use it.' And I was cool with that. I was cool with getting my toe a little wet, just kind of easing into it. Then, all of a sudden, out blossomed this character. It was nuts. That's how it transpired. I was around all these amazing funny people, so I couldn't help but learn stuff from them because, like a true comedian, I stole all my bits."
While Happy Endings found many champions in the industry and a very loyal audience, it was never a ratings smash, so its future was always in question. "We were kinda like the little train that could," said Cuthbert. "The little choo-choo train that was constantly trying to get up the hill. But you know what? We banded together, we hunkered down, and all we cared about every day was making the funniest show possible for ourselves. I think ABC found us at a time when we all had something to prove. That's why we were all so gung-ho. I had to prove I was funny, Casey had her thing to prove, Adam kind of had to prove, 'Here I am,' Damon had to prove he was just like the rest of his family; we all had something to show and work for."
In May 2013, the final episode of Happy Endings aired on ABC. Rumors quickly spread that the show might move to another network (it didn't), but Cuthbert believes Happy Endings lasted just as long as it should have. "Frankly I'm kind of glad we didn't do more than three seasons because we'd all be dead," she said, with a laugh. "We partied too hard. A lot of drinking. Well, I shouldn't say dead. We'd all be in AA. At least a few of us would be, so maybe it was a blessing we stopped when we did."
One Big Happy (2015)
On March 17, Cuthbert returns to television with NBC's One Big Happy, where she plays Lizzy, a lesbian who decides to have a baby with her best friend, Luke (Nick Zano). But their happy little modern family gets super complicated when Luke falls in love with Prudence (Kelly Brook).
"It was really about getting to be funny again," Cuthbert said of her attraction to the series, which is executive-produced by Ellen DeGeneres. "This character is front and center, [so] this was sort of my time to shine, my moment to step up and, no pun intended, come out into the comedy forefront. I felt like it was such a big opportunity, how could I say no?"
One of the elements that initially gave Cuthbert pause was the fact the show filmed in front of a live studio audience — something she'd never done before. "I was fearful about the sitcom aspect of it, I was fearful of the audience," she said. "It's a daunting thing when you don't specialize at it and to start going at it at 32? Never even guest-starring on something like that? Not even understanding the process? Nick convinced me I could do it, but I told my husband, I literally feel like I've signed up for bungee jumping, and Tuesday I'm jumping off a bridge and hoping that I don't die. That's how terrifying it was. It's going to be fun and thrilling, but I'm scared. Then I did it, and I am so proud and happy [about] the show."