Ari Graynor may be the lead on a high-profile CBS sitcom — a stark contrast to her usual indie film roles — but that doesn't mean she's "made it." At least, that's not a phrase that she would use.
"Just last year, there was sort of a moment where I thought, OK, this is all amazing, but now what? I've been working so hard at this one thing — and not that I'm there. There is no there," Graynor says, leaning into our table at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "It's the constant journey of it. But I've accomplished things, specific things that I wanted to, and now what do I want to do?"
Those familiar with Graynor's bold comedic roles in films like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and For a Good Time, Call… might be surprised at just how subdued she comes across in person. She's passionate about her work, but far more thoughtful than loud.
And Graynor has plenty to say about her latest project Bad Teacher, CBS' sitcom inspired by the 2011 film of the same name. The series, created by Community and Happy Endings alum Hilary Winston, offers a slightly different take on the "bad teacher" concept. Graynor's titular role as Meredith Davis is an exciting challenge, but it's certainly a stretch: "I'm much farther away from her than people might think."
The confusion is understandable. Since her first major role as Meadow's neurotic college roommate Caitlin in Season 3 of HBO's The Sopranos, Graynor has tended toward comedic roles, and a specific type of character. Her role as drunken disaster Caroline in Nick and Norah may be her most recognizable, but she's an equally commanding force as Eva Destruction in the roller derby comedy Whip It and as Jewish bad girl Rachel in Holy Rollers.
Bad Teacher's Meredith may come off as more of the same, though Graynor was drawn to the character's complicated, multi-faceted identity: Like Graynor, Meredith is not quite what she seems.
"More and more, people probably associate me in this world of comedy and these confident, brassy, big ladies, which I love, but my insides and who I feel like internally and the kind of work that I hope to continue doing feels very different from that," she says.
Not to mention the fact that Graynor is also working behind the scenes: She's one of show's producers, and was granted input during Bad Teacher's development process.
"I've been calling myself 'just an actor' since I was 6 years old," Graynor says. "That's a long time. And really in the past six months I've started thinking about and working on writing and creating things. And I think for a long time, I didn't even go there because I had more fear than I realized. And I really want to think about what it is that I want to say and put into the world and stand behind 100%, and say, 'This is something that I feel inside that I'm putting out into the world and hope it affects someone else.'"
The decision to make the switch from indie features to TV comedy wasn't always an easy one for Graynor.
"I was definitely nervous about it, so much so that for years I had said no TV," she admits. "Last year was a turning point for me where I wasn't going out looking for it, but I just said, 'It's not a hard no, let's see what's out there.'"
In Bad Teacher, Graynor found something that's still regrettably rare in both TV and film: a strong, outspoken female character who doesn't make concessions for her behavior. Meredith may not always be the best teacher — that would, of course, go against the show's logline — but Graynor still sees her as a role model in her uncompromising nature and constant need to speak her mind.
The sad reality, Graynor notes, is that these kinds of roles are few and far between.
"The truth is, there are so few female roles in movies," she says. "That's really limiting. As an actor, you wanna be able to sink your teeth into something. You don't want to just be the best friend. You don't want to just be the girlfriend. And a lot of the really juicy roles that do exist go to the top five people out there. So I think there was a certain reality in that, which was, I want to get in there. I want to create a character. I want to explore someone's whole life."
And while Meredith may bear some similarities to Nick and Norah's Caroline and For a Good Time, Call…'s Katie, she still represents a distinct new venture for Graynor, who refuses to settle for doing the same thing over and over again.
"If I'm gonna stay in this world of comedy, then it has to be a really special character to me in a really smart piece of material," she says. "That's what Bad Teacher was. It was a totally new challenge and opportunity, and it was really exciting to stay with the character for so long."
Over the course of 13 episodes — and potentially more, if Bad Teacher is picked up for a second season — there's plenty of time to grow.
"When I got this script, it was so funny and smart, and this character was so rich and unique," Graynor continues, "and there was clearly so much room to play around, that I felt like, OK, yes, there are fears about network television, but in terms of what's real and what's in front of me, this is the best thing that I've seen and the best opportunity I have to go do work that excites me."
It wasn't just playing Meredith that drew Graynor to Bad Teacher: The script as a whole spoke to her comedic sensibilities, which are more down-to-earth than broad. For that to work, she explains, the characters have to be well constructed and honest, so that the humor develops naturally.
"I think shtick can get old fast," Graynor elaborates, "but the way that things stay fresh and exciting and interesting and funny in the truest ways is when it comes from a place of reality."
Finding the truth in a character can be a difficult task, especially when the character can veer into over-the-top territory. But in past roles, Graynor has made sure to latch onto the reality of the character and the moment, drawing from personal experiences and refusing to let herself fall into stereotype.
To play Caroline in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Graynor thought back to her wilder days, particularly drunken college nights where she — like Caroline — demanded a turkey sandwich from anyone who would listen.
"It goes back to trying to be real," she says. "It comes from never looking at it from the outside in and thinking, What would be funny from the outside? And if you think about it, it's hilarious if you try to wrap your mind around the emotional rationalizations that a really drunk person is making in their mind … In Caroline's case, she's lost her friend, she's hungry, she wants to get home, and so, the more that I could really engage in those stakes and make those stakes as high as possible, then that's what allows other people to laugh."
While working on For a Good Time, Call…, on which Graynor also served as executive producer, she "[went] through the script with a fine-toothed comb" along with screenwriters Lauren Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, and director Jamie Travis. The raunchy comedy follows two girls who embark on a phone sex business together — but it still had to be true to life and emotionally honest.
That can be difficult when a climactic final scene involves a dildo fight, a moment in the original script that didn't end up in the finished film.
"There were some versions of the script where there was a guy that worked at a porn shop who drove a car that looked like a penis. And it's funny on the page, but we just realized, that's not the kind of movie and the kind of story that we were telling," Graynor reveals. "All of it was to get it to the most grounded place so that it was really about this friendship between these two girls who are very different from each other."
It's not about censorship or embarrassment: Graynor says she has few limits when it comes to comedy. If she can't believe the characters, however, she's less likely to laugh.
"What I always find to be the funniest, both in life and when I'm watching movies, is the kind of humor that is situational, that is based in who two people are and their dynamic, what people aren't saying," she notes. "Everyone has their own taste, but for me, the more real something is, the funnier it is."
Of course, as grounded as Bad Teacher may be, there will still be those who take offense to its central conceit: a woman who takes a teaching job for all the wrong reasons and, more often than not, isn't quite cut out for the profession.
Meredith is a toned-down version of Elizabeth, the character Cameron Diaz played in the film Bad Teacher, but she still drinks and swears and generally carries herself in a way that is far from perfect. To Graynor, that's nothing new.
"I was made fun of for being overweight as a kid. I wanted to be an actor and be a part of this world that seemed very far away, and I had an emotional life that people didn't understand," she recalls. "I think that's why subconsciously I watched so many films with these really fun, outrageous, and unique women and actresses." Among the childhood favorites Graynor mentions: Big Business, Baby Boom, and Troop Beverly Hills.
Graynor knows that some viewers will make assumptions about Meredith — she's a curvy blonde in a tight dress who wants to land a rich husband — but the character has layers beyond that. Those dimensions are something Graynor is proud to play.
"It's incredibly important for girls and for people in general to see female characters that are confident, that are unapologetic for who they are, that are not victims, that are go-getters," she says. "That's important. And it's also just important that we have more of them."
As Graynor acknowledges, flawed female characters are held to a different standard than their male counterparts. Men get to be the antihero, while women — depending on the ways in which they deviate from the norm — are dismissed as "bitches" and "sluts."
That's all the more reason, Graynor suggests, why she continues to be selective about her roles.
"Just like every male character that exists is not a perfect representation of what it should be to be a man, it doesn't mean that every woman that is portrayed should be some perfect ideal of a woman, whether that be physically, or whether that be within her life," she continues. "Women should be allowed to be as complicated as men are allowed to be, because that's the way it is."
Graynor is as forthcoming as ever when she discusses the role of women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. But the frustration shows through, and that's not surprising. Like Graynor's career, shifting the industry's gender disparity is a constant work in progress.
Her role in Bad Teacher is a start, but there's still a long way to go. Graynor is up for the challenge.
"A lot of the women that I know that are writers, actresses, producers — we all are a little bit sick of having the woman conversation," she says. "It shouldn't be about, here's a woman doing this. It should just be, here's a person doing something. And here it is from this point of view. And I think the key to having that not be such a dialogue is just having more of them out there. Hopefully — all of those stigmas, all of that being an issue — will get less and less the more that it exists."