Janeane Janeane, the Gripe Machine

By Nasia Anam

We wait quietly, perhaps even nervously, in an intimidatingly stylish room at the Peninsula Hotel downtown. There are four of us, me and three other scruffy-looking college reporters holding our breath to see if we are alt enough to satisfy that champion of counterculture herself, Ms. Janeane Garofalo. She is half an hour late, as all hipsters tend to be.

Suddenly, there is a commotion as the dark starlet bursts in and booms, “Is this the COLLEGE group? This looks like the COLLEGE group.” I smile anxiously and immediately begin to feel self-conscious in my thrift-store skirt and red tights. But then, Garofalo has clad herself in torn corduroys, a zipped-up Adidas jacket, and a wool cap, peering through horn-rimmed glasses. Perhaps I should have worn khakis, just so there would have been no issue of competition.

She has made this journey to Chicago to plug her new movie, Big Trouble, which stars Tim Allen and Rene Russo. Garofalo plays a very tan cop of very few words in the wacky/zany ensemble comedy set in Miami. Barry Sonnenfield directs this adaptation of the Dave Barry novel of the same name. (Two Barrys on the same project…whether this is mere chance or cosmic fate, I cannot tell you.) The movie is centered on a suitcase of questionable content which causes a whole lot of people a whole lot of trouble, primarily a father (Allen) and his disgruntled adolescent son (Ben Foster, the kid from Flash Forward) and an unhappy housewife (Russo). However, the film features scads of other people, including Garofalo, all of whom finally come together in an airport, the scene of the crazy/madcap climax. Garofalo, at the time of the interview, could not offer an opinion of the wild/raucous movie as she had “not seen it.”

You might know Garofalo from such films as The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Romi and Michelle’s High School Reunion, and Reality Bites. Or perhaps you remember her from The Matchmaker. In all these movies, she plays similar characters: the dry, deadpanning voice of sarcasm and reason. I asked if her character in Big Trouble is in the same vein.

“Most of the characters I tend to play in mainstream are that way because that’s the only thing I ever get offered. I’d hate to think that was my limit. But in this, yes, I was asked to do what I’m asked to do in most mainstream commercial films. I don’t even know that there’s wit in this one…I would have to say dry. I’m a woman of few words in this one, very serious, and, you know, the usual.”

Garofalo, if she were living in an perfect world, would never set foot on a “mainstream commercial” movie set. Her lack of enthusiasm for her character reveals a general dissatisfaction with her film work. In fact, she does not even consider herself chiefly an actress.

She said, “I’ve been doing stand-up almost 18 years now. I consider my first, primary idea of myself as a stand-up comedian. I don’t get a lot out of movie making, emotionally. Because commercial, mainstream movie making is a director’s medium. It’s really not about the acting at all, you know, I hate to break it to you. It’s really about, ‘How cool can this shot look?’ ‘How can we light this?’ Most mainstream commercial filmmaking is just that, geared toward the mainstream…the most amount of people. Therefore the writing is not the most esoteric or the most complex. When you’re making a commercial film, the goal is not, ‘Let’s really knock the audience for a loop here intellectually! Let’s see some great acting!’ It’s like, ‘Let’s do the most exciting sequence we can do with this car or with this bowling ball!’ So you spend most of your days sitting on your ass in a trailer, waiting while somebody lights a scene or looks for a lens. So I prefer, definitely, stand-up. You get so much out of stand-up comedy that is just not to be found “

But lo, Janeane is not all doom and gloom, lamenting the woes of trailer-sitting while making yet another “mainstream commercial” movie. There is hope! There is an indie escape!

“In the digital medium you get a lot out of it. Because digital shooting is very quick and you get a lot of work done in the day and you tend to use natural lighting. I think the digital medium is one of the greatest things to happen in the movie business. And I’m all for that whole Dogme thing, like the Dogme Manifesto and stuff. Like The King is…The King is Dead and, um, there’s those other Dogme films where you only have to use natural light and only the props that are there. I think that’s the greatest thing and the greatest direction that some movies are taking.”

In comparing her work in mainstream films versus her work in independent films, she chooses to talk about Wet Hot American Summer, the spoof of ’80s camping movies that came out in July, versus Mystery Men, yet another raucous/zany ensemble comedy in which she has partaken.

“What’s different about a movie that’s truly indie like , made for under a billion dollars, made without a distributor, and everyone’s doing for barely any money, literally what you are paid is what you legally have to be paid. And believe me, the directors would not pay it if they weren’t legally bound to pay $1,500, which is the legal pay. That’s truly a collaboration and it is approached differently in that some of those digital moviemakers are literally like, ‘Do you have any clothes from home? Do you have some jeans that you could bring from home for your character?’ You naturally approach it differently because you’re invested in it. All of you is invested in it.

“And then a movie like Mystery Men, I’m invested in it because I have my pride. I don’t want to look like an idiot. But you quickly realize you’re a hired gun. You don’t really have a say. You don’t HAVE A SAY. Like, if you hate your outfit, too fuckin’ bad. If you hate your makeup, fuck you. If you think that this dialogue is inane, you can go straight to hell. Unless you’re Julia Roberts, and that’s ONLY Julia Roberts…or Mel Gibson. People who have the power to say, ‘I don’t like this dialogue, I’m not wearing this makeup, I will not wear those pants.’ I’m a hired gun. I have to wear what you tell me and I have to say what you tell me. It’s not my desire to play, you know, the…dry…friend over and over again, but that’s not my call. I don’t have a say.”

So then the natural question follows. Why does Garofalo persist in making these “mainstream commercial” movies if she has such qualms with it? Why subject herself to such torturous insignificance when she can find solace in indie film liberation? Why doesn’t she grab a digital camera and start shooting? A self-proclaimed pragmatist, Janeane replies accordingly:

“I have a career in the indie world that nobody knows about. Most people’s indie work is below the radar. When people go, ‘Oh, you’ve only done two movies…’ you know, most actors do tons . And how do you keep that world alive? How I mount stand-up tours, pay for a lot of what my friends do, theater work that my friends do, is by making Mystery Men. That sounds horribly crass, and then what’s also weird is when people go, ‘YOU do stuff for the MONEY?’ Who fuckin’ doesn’t? Most people do most of their work for the money. Including thoracic surgeons and public school teachers. They do it for the money, but when someone like me, an actor admits it… ‘OH FOR SHAME.’ How do you think people run their theater companies? Most actors don’t make a lot of money, and when you get to some place like Steppenwolf—Gary Sinese supports that! By making Con Air. That’s why people do that kind of thing.”

And that’s why Garofalo is doing the sort of thing where she plays a tan Miami native in a ruffled silk shirt. It pays the bills. In her ideal indie world, she would be directing a digital movie while listening to The Hives and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (her new favorite bands), frolicking in the land of independent goodness. But for now, she’s in Big Trouble, and apparently not minding it all that much.