How Becki Newton Found Success By Refusing To Play Perfect Women
A decade after Ugly Betty put her on the map, the 36-year-old actor is back doing what she does best on Weird Loners: making unlikable characters lovable.
"It's not a basic human right to be on a hit television show," said Becki Newton, former star of ABC's hit series Ugly Betty, followed by two more network comedies that were quickly canceled. "Most shows aren't hits. So I'm aware I've already experienced both extremes and now I'm getting to experience everything else in between."
At the lowest end of Newton's professional career sits Love Bites, an NBC comedy created by Cindy Chupack (Sex and the City) that was derailed by real-life pregnancies (Newton's), contract woes (Jordana Spiro's), and endless retooling (the network's) before debuting in June 2011 to less than 3 million viewers (a series high).
At the other end sits Ugly Betty, a full-fledged cultural phenomenon that premiered to 16 million viewers in 2006. Over the course of its four seasons, the series drew big-name guest stars (like Lindsay Lohan, Victoria Beckham, Salma Hayek) and won three of the 19 Emmys for which it was nominated. Newton played Mode magazine's fast-talking, slow-thinking receptionist Amanda Tanen, who — along with Michael Urie's Marc St. James — became a fan favorite on the Silvio Horta-created dramedy, thanks to the charming aloofness and endless effervescence she brought to the campy show.
"I started out playing the nastiest, sluttiest, most inebriated person on TV and I loved it," Newton told BuzzFeed News of her breakthrough role, as she leaned back in her chair at Le Pain Quotidien in Los Angeles. "The messiness of someone makes them more real to me. It's not how nice and sweet they are, it's how much they fumble."
Amanda Tanen was not only Newton's breakout performance in Hollywood, it was also her first major one. "I really went from the Olive Garden to the Golden Globes," she told BuzzFeed News, with a laugh, of starring in a commercial for the chain of Italian restaurants, her highest-profile gig up until that point. "People don't realize this, but the Olive Garden commercial was actually airing during Ugly Betty."
"I think so much of TV is happenstance," Newton added. "The things that are hits often aren't the things you expected or were promoted to be hits … [Ugly Betty] didn't have 'hit' written all over it from the beginning." The series, she said, was originally scheduled to air on the dreaded Friday night, which is largely considered a ratings graveyard. But after an early positive reaction from critics, the show was moved to Thursdays and the rest was network TV history. "I suddenly found myself with this new cast of people at the Golden Globes, on a hit show," Newton remembered. "There was no intention there. It's not like I read the scripts that year and said, 'This is the one that's going to make me a star!'"
But when Ugly Betty came to an end in 2010, Newton was at a professional crossroads — the offers were in no short supply, but after four years playing an incredibly beloved, highly GIF'd character on a hugely popular series, she worried the industry actually had no idea who she was as an actor.
"It was the most fabulous, high-fashioned introduction I could ever have … It's been interesting to meet people who realize I'm not quite that fabulous or bitchy or all of those heightened things," Newton said. "Other actors want to meet you to prove they can be more than who they seem. I'm the opposite. I meet people to let them know I can speak English and I'm articulate and I'm not very mean. A lot of people leave a hit show and say, 'I'm trying to prove I can do something else.' I'm trying to prove I can play a normal person and still be slightly interesting."
Aside from a 2012 guest arc on How I Met Your Mother as Quinn — the stripper with a heart of gold — Newton found that "normal" and "interesting" were often characteristics at odds with one another when it came to roles for women in television comedies. In addition to the aforementioned Love Bites, Newton took on the female lead in 2013's The Goodwin Games, a short-lived Fox comedy about three siblings on a hunt for their late father's fortune. The series boasted quite the comedy pedigree (it co-starred Scott Foley and T.J. Miller and hailed from HIMYM creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas), but it failed to connect with audiences, premiering to 1.61 million viewers and ending seven episodes later.
"In my age range and opportunity set, the central characters are a bit more…" — Newton paused, searching for the right word — "grounded." But playing middle-of-the-road has never been a particularly alluring prospect for Newton. "When I watch television or read scripts, the ones that mess up and try to cover it up badly, I find them endearing, because I think we all go through that," she said. "Some of us are just more successful at covering up our neuroses."
But script after script proved to Newton that the characters with the foibles she longed to portray were often relegated to the background. "I've always really loved supporting characters because they can get away with a lot," she said, hands waving wildly as she continued. "They can come in, fall over, do some funny stuff, get a big laugh, and leave. I like heightened, over-the-top characters. Those are the roles I gravitate towards, so in looking at TV projects, I've tried to find the leading ladies that are a little off."
For years, Newton's search turned up empty, until she came across the pilot script for Weird Loners, which offered her everything she loved about Amanda on Ugly Betty, but, as a bonus, it would also put her front and center. On the upcoming Fox comedy, created by Michael J. Weithorn (The King of Queens), Newton plays Caryn Goldfarb, a desperately single dental hygienist who, through a set of surreal circumstances, finds herself living alongside three equally weird singles: Stosh Lewandoski (Zachary Knighton), Eric Lewandoski (Nate Torrence), and Zara Sandhu (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).
"This really stood out to me on the page because it was unapologetically unlikable," Newton said of the script, which sees Caryn get high on her own supply and go on an extremely delusional second date that she basically treats as a second anniversary celebration. "She's a leading lady, but she's a mess of a person; she's not an Aquafresh ad. She's a really insecure, messy person trying to get it together — and I love it." And that extends to Stosh, Eric, and Zara as well. "All of these characters are messy and their behavior is not savory, and what drew me to it is they weren't pretending to be winning or charismatic — they're big losers."
While countless dramas have revolved around antiheroes — like Breaking Bad's Walter White, House of Cards's Frank Underwood, and Mad Men's Don Draper — it's incredibly rare for a successful comedy to rest on the shoulders of straight-up unlikable characters. "A very boastful comparison is Seinfeld," Newton said. "Now, that was a huge hit, and I'm not saying we're there; I'm saying that Seinfeld was a show about people interacting and the chemistry between these four very strange people."
Happy Endings, which also happened to star Knighton, is another show Newton likens to Weird Loners. "You just kind of want to watch these people mess up and not learn any lessons. That's what I love about it," she said. "When I read the episodes, I thought, Wow, Caryn doesn't really grow. She basically keeps messing up and then goes right back to the beginning, which I think is a really normal quality. Think of your real life and your weirdest friend — when they get into trouble, don't they go right back to being weird? They don't suddenly straighten up and say, 'Oh, now I'm going to change my way of thinking.'"
And even if Weird Loners goes the way of Love Bites or The Goodwin Games and fails to reach the same heights as Ugly Betty, Newton feels like she's already won. "Because I was so fortunate so early [and] because I have a family and children, combing through scripts is not the only thing I'm doing every day. I have this very full life and I've already checked off, career-wise, things I never imagined checking off," she said. "I could have only dreamed that I would be at the Emmys and be on a TV show and have Patricia Field put me in crazy outfits. The twentysomething-year-old girl who got that part [on Ugly Betty] checked off so many things. The rest is icing."