Erika Christensen's Journey From Teen Star To "Parenthood"
She was a druggie rich kid in Traffic at 17, and at 31 is a lawyer mom on Parenthood — here, Christensen discusses her long career, growing up famous, Scientology, and how harrowing it's been for her character this season.
Erika Christensen in Traffic (2000), with Topher Grace; Christensen and Sam Jaeger on Parenthood.
Erika Christensen began acting professionally at age 12, stole every scene in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic in 2000, and currently co-stars as Julia Braverman on NBC's Parenthood, which draws — sobbingly, weepingly — to the close of its fifth season Thursday. Over brunch this week at a Los Feliz restaurant near her home, Christensen, now 31, talked about her varied career, her experiences as a young actor on the L.A. club scene, Scientology, and, yes, whether fans of the Julia and Joel (Sam Jaeger) relationship on Parenthood will get some good news after a season of looming infidelity and separation.
You were born in Seattle, but you moved here when you were little. What brought your parents to Los Angeles?
Erika Christensen: The weather. Job opportunities for my parents. Certainly I don't think my parents could have necessarily predicted that I would have wanted to be an actor. But this is the land of opportunity. And I know that they very much took into consideration me and my brothers. And without starting a whole huge other conversation, it is the largest concentration of Scientologists in the world. We're Scientologists. So it's really cool to have that community as well.
I'm now peering around you to look at the new Scientology building across the street.
EC: So pretty. It was a parking lot.
It was! I would like to talk about Scientology later. You became an actor when you were a kid.
EC: I was going to school with a girl who was an actor. And I was, like, "No, I want to be an actor." I told my parents I wanted an agent, and they decided to let me have a go at it. Then I started working right away. I was 12.
What was your first job ever?
EC: It was a McDonald's commercial.
I'm going to ask you about random things you've been in both before and after Traffic. Leave It to Beaver in 1997 was your first movie. What was that like?
EC: I remember thinking, This is fun — this is a job, but I like being here. You kind of have a lot of responsibility, no matter how old you are. People are counting on you, and I think that's a good thing to grow up with that. You'd better step up to the plate.
That doesn't seem good for every child actor?
EC: It could be bad. But just kind of theoretically and philosophically, granting a kid the respect: "You're important." Not in a way, like, "You'd better perform or else," but, "We value your contribution here."
You were on a CBS show in 1999 called Thanks that was a comedy about Puritans in the 17th Century.
EC: Oh yeah. It was a pretty British comedy, and it did not hit. It was kind of too clever for its own good somehow.
Did you wear a Puritan outfit?
EC: Yeah, the bonnet and the whole skirt and everything. I thought it was a good show, but I definitely understood why people didn't get it. It was kind of anachronistic. The joke would be kids are always kids. Like, "I'm going to my room!" But there's no room; it's like a log cabin and she just goes across to the other side of the room and throws herself on her bed.
That's very funny!
EC: The biggest story for me to come out of that is getting to work with Cloris Leachman. She was probably exactly how you might imagine her — she's just a wild woman. She's such a pro, and at the same time, if she wrapped early, she'd be, like, See ya, giving everybody the finger on the way out. She's not crazy; she's just really free. I haven't seen her since.
I saw her once when I was at a valet and she got into the passenger seat of a Town Car, took off her shoes, and put her feet on the front windshield.
EC: She could give a shit. She's like the female Bill Murray.
Swimfan is a crazy movie. Fatal Attraction in high school. Very sexualized.
EC: Crazy movie. I was kind of a late bloomer myself, so that was very weird to be, like, This is my job! Looking back on it now, I'm kind of impressed with myself because that character is so insane. I remember the yelling. I'm so glad that nobody made me aware of what I was doing at the time. It's still my philosophy now to really disconnect. The lines between the character and me are so distinct that I let her do whatever the hell she wants to do, and I go on with my life. And whatever she does is not my fault. What was her name? Madison Bell! Madison is not my fault.
The Perfect Score in 2004, the SAT-cheating movie — an all-star cast. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Greenberg.
EC: The Captain America team. That movie was so fun. We shot it in Vancouver, so we had that no-one-to-hang-out-with-but-each-other thing. So we hiked and white-water rafted and went to the gym together. Really, really hung out. As an example of my complete optimism, I was, like, "This movie's gonna be a hit!" and they were all like, "Uhhhhh — we'll see."
You were in a musical version of Wuthering Heights that was on MTV.
EC: You're right. These are so random.
I know! With Katherine Heigl and Mike Vogel, who's on Under the Dome.
EC: One of the things that I really liked about that is I got to sing, which I always hoped would come into play, because that's how I grew up.
What have I not asked about?
EC: Well, pff, The Banger Sisters.
Of course! Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn.
EC: They're both very generous actors and people. They each, in the years since then, invited me into their homes, and allowed me to glimpse what that life is like.
What were you like as a young actor living in Los Angeles?
EC: After Traffic, I was a total homebody. I was still a kid. It was when I met everybody on The Perfect Score that, like, nightclubs became a thing. I love dancing, and so that came after that. I had a huge phase, three years or so, when I was out all the time. I never drank. I just never started.
You've never had a drink in your life?
EC: I have had drinks. But I never equated it with going out. I like to dance, and I remember one time specifically having enough drinks that my balance was a little off, and I was, like, this is not even fun.
The young actor L.A. club scene. There must have been people around you doing —
EC: There must have been. There were some times when I had a vague awareness, but I never saw people doing drugs in front of me. People were drinking plenty. But for me, we were kind of the disciples of DJ AM. We really went to dance. And we followed him. We would go where he went. And there were a lot of professional dancers — they came to dance.
You were friends with DJ AM?
EC: Yeah. I think he was clean that whole time. All of a sudden, there's the existential thing of, I don't know my friends' last names. But it was really more practical: The world operates when the sun is up. And it would be good to be awake during business hours. I was, like, I'd like a job. I'd better focus and get some sleep.
Were you at some point harming your career?
EC: Yeah, just because I wasn't focused. It's like being caught up in a whole different world where the things that matter to you are where you're going that night. So I never got myself into trouble. I just wasn't being an actor.
Let's talk about Traffic. Stephen Holden in The New York Times wrote this at the time: "Perhaps last year's most remarkable acting debut belongs to Erika Christensen as Mr. Douglas's angry, drug-addicted 16-year-old daughter." You were a teenager, acting with Michael Douglas and being directed by Steven Soderbergh.
EC: In the fantasy version of what it's like to be an actor, that's what it was. It was shot very uniquely, actually a lot like Parenthood, where there's not, like, "Here's your blocking. Stand here. Go there." Natural light, hand-held camera — it was very free. Soderbergh really trusts his casting abilities. He gave me two notes over the course of the whole film. They were brilliant — but only two. I didn't really think to be intimidated. I did my homework, and Michael Douglas was really cool. I remember specifically that he would say, "How's it goin'?" and expected you to answer him. I was 16 or 17 — my mom was there; he would treat her like a human being. He had produced so much, and so sometimes, he'd be, like, Let's get this party started. You could see that aspect of him take over sometimes.
When you read the script, what did you think?
EC: I just didn't want to do nudity. Soderbergh was, like, "Have you seen my movies?" Ultimately, it's a rough topic. But that movie is essentially the truth of it. I also really trusted the writing, which is so cool. The script is correct. Stephen Gaghan wrote that character from experience, and I knew that. He said, "This is me at 17."
I'd like to go back to Scientology — you seem to be an out, loud, and proud Scientologist.
EC: I totally am. It can take over any interview. So that's the only thing I'm wary of.
I promise that we haven't talked about all of this other stuff just so I can ask you about Scientology. You've spoken before in interviews about how Scientology helps you — what does that mean?
EC: What it means is — how to make it concise? The goal of Scientology is to give the person back to themselves. So who you really are — anyone — is a concentration of all your best qualities. Honesty and hard-working and confidence, and all those things: That's who you really are. And anything else that's not those things is not who you really are. And they can go away. If you read the back of a Dianetics book, or if you look at scientology.org, it says these are the aims of Scientology — it's basically that.
Are negative perceptions of it because of the way that goal is expressed metaphorically in Scientology teachings?
EC: Obviously, people make fun of what they don't understand. I also know that Scientologists have a tendency to be super excited when they're trying to explain things. And people are, like, "You sound crazy." Which I know I've done too. Just calm down. Form sentences. And, like, make sense. Instead of being like, "It's so cool!" You can get super, super excited and passionate. And I've seen us as a group do that. And then you look crazy.
Are we talking about Tom Cruise?
EC: For one thing, yes. And trust me, I have felt that, and I go, "I love that you're so energetic, but people don't get it."
I'm interested in the younger generation of celebrity Scientologists who aren't Tom Cruise or John Travolta. I don't feel like people have a real vision for the way the Scientology community works.
EC: Well, it's like this. There are books, and you can read them at home. But most of us go in to the Scientology Center and will go quote-unquote "on course," just go to study. Hey, we're here to study.
EC: All of 'em.
I'm from New York, and there aren't so many visual representations of Scientology.
EC: There are, though. But yes, it's everywhere here. This is going to be so much information, but there are two things I think that I want you to know. One is that there are Scientology holidays. We celebrate L. Ron Hubbard's birthday, and we celebrate the day Dianetics was released, because that was essentially the start of everything. So there are big get-togethers, and we tend to see each other, if nowhere else, at those. That's more of an insight into the community. The other things I want you to know is that there are Baptist Scientologists, there are Buddhist Scientologists, there are Jewish Scientologists. Everybody comes from wherever they come from. And if part of their identity or belief system is another religion, there's no conflict there.
People are very obsessed with Scientology, as I'm sure you've noticed.
I appreciate your talking to me about this stuff.
EC: You being a member of the press is what makes me not want to talk about it. Like, how many inches of the article it will be. But if you were just anybody, I would talk to you for hours about it. I'd be, like, "Sure, ask me anything you want." I think actors specifically have been burned by being associated with weird things. We're so, so open. And I think that the Church has realized increasingly people don't know we are, and that's the problem. You just need to see we're so transparent.
What would you like the rest of your career to look like?
EC: I want to do big, fun action movies and stuff. All the entertainment that's aware that it's entertainment. Even take something like House of Cards, from the first episode where he breaks the fourth wall. It's, like, I get it, I know what I'm in for — then he turns out to be utterly psychotic, but I'm enjoying it. I will always, always be incredibly proud of Traffic. And certainly, if any opportunity like that comes my way, I'll take it. It has so much value. But it's also super valuable to laugh, and imagine what it would be like to be a superhero.
Speaking not of laughing, but crying, you've had a big season on Parenthood. Do you sit down with the show's executive producer Jason Katims at the beginning of the season and hear what's going to happen?
EC: We did talk about it with Jason Katims at the beginning of the season, Sam Jaeger and I. I didn't really grasp the ramifications. Just the gist of it was Julia's going to have someone around, Julia's going to have an affair — Oh, fun. Ooh, sexy, gossipy. And it just got so real, so fast. It very quickly became apparent that this is not something fun and sexy; this is really, really sad and hard to go through.
She doesn't exactly have an affair, though?
EC: The relationship with Ed, they're such kindred spirits, but I did think, "I don't think this is going to happen." And then it didn't. I really sympathize with Joel more than a lot of the audience reaction that I've gotten. People act illogically in real life. And Joel may be acting illogically. His reaction may not be directly to current circumstances. I thought that Joel and Julia would start their reconciliation process sooner.
That's been interesting — is that what fans say to you, "Why won't Joel even talk to her?"
EC: Yeah. What the hell?
And obviously the Julia character has said that multiple times.
EC: "I've said my apologies. What's wrong with you? Can we start working on this?" Yeah. They have two kids. You've seen the most recent two? Just an interesting note that Julia did essentially have an affair.
She had sex with the teacher. But "We were on a break," as Ross would say.
EC: On the technical point, that's valid. But it's still a rough thing when you intend to make a relationship work. Sam and I were so upset when we first found out about that. We were truly, really upset. Sam and I just thought, you can't come back from that. And then we really pleaded our cases really strongly. Jason said, "I'm hearing everything. I'm considering everything with the weight that it deserves. I'm going to write the best story possible, so no promises." And then, when he made the decision that it was going down that way, he called each of us individually and pled his case, and said, "This is why I think this is a really strong move." And Sam and I both thought, "Oh, this is brilliant. It's inevitable — it's the way it's supposed to happen." He completely won us over. Because they are separated, and it's so real, and Julia has been so unhappy.
I don't blame her. Do you?
EC: No! No. Once Jason made the decision, he completely convinced me.
Without spoiling anything, will there be a clear direction in the finale?
EC: Basically, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and that's it. You see them connect in a way that's pretty clear — you would think, you would hope — that they want to rebuild this family.
Part of the pleasure of watching Parenthood is hysterically crying. How aware are you guys of that as a thing? Is that something you talk about as you work?
EC: While we're at work, no — that's not the focus at all. Which is great, because it would be weird if we were trying to go there. But as an audience member, and I think most of us watch the show, we're affected the same way. We're texting each other, and we're crying and tattle-taling on all of our boyfriends for crying or girlfriends for crying. I'm also an active social media person, so I cry a lot and I'm really aware of how much everyone cries.
When you were considering taking the show, were you surprised to be playing someone so settled in life? You were 26 years old.
EC: I auditioned, and it was one of those auditions where I was, like, "I don't know why I'm going in for this, guys." But then I went and had my audition with Jason Katims and Tommy Schlamme. They said yes. And I got on the phone with them, and I remember asking Tommy, "How can I play this role? Like, why are you giving me this role? Not that I don't want it, but help me understand this." At some point, he said, "The audience believes you are as old as we say you are. And that's how that works." And I realized that really is the truth. At the same time, I was very flattered, and I thought it was really cool, because it was somewhere I'd never been as an actor. Not to mention a person.
The show has had an interesting journey. Maura Tierney was supposed to play Sarah, and then had to drop out because she had breast cancer, and Lauren Graham stepped in. Then it barely got renewed and has had these short seasons until this past season. What's it been like?
EC:The short seasons have been really strange. At first, I was, like, Good for you, NBC, performing this experiment. Then, it's, like, No! Give us a full season. I'm really glad we had that this year. Getting on the air in the first place was really interesting. But truly, I always had faith that we would make it on the air and that it would be, for me, the right choice. I'm such an optimist, it's crazy — I'm trying to find the shred of…
Say whatever you feel, though. You don't have to pretend to be worried.
EC: Well, I know that some of the other actors have felt that being on the bubble more. With the numbers and things like that, there've been reasons to think, well, maybe not. With all that, I've been like, this is a great show, and this is what my life is supposed to be. It's all very me-centered! My life is going to go this way, so you're all coming with me. It's such a unique show on network television, period. And it's such a unique show for NBC that I just feel like, why would they take us off the air?
Given that, how are you feeling about whether it will come back next year?
EC: Totally optimistic! We have to see what happens now: I mean, they have a school to start, and Joel and Julia — I mean, I don't have any inside scoop, necessarily. Although I do feel like if this were our last season, they ought to have given us that heads up so that we could deal with it appropriately and wrap up all our storylines.
I should ask someone else.
EC: Yes! Totally optimistic!
This interview has been edited and condensed.