Clea DuVall (Finally) Graduates From Cheerleader to Captain
By John Boone
Photo: Getty Images
Clea DuVall is right on time.
The actress is known for always being prompt, if not early. With lunch plans set for 1 o'clock, DuVall, dressed in a green army jacket and black sneakers, strolls through the front door of Little Dom's -- one of those hip, in-the-know eateries on L.A.'s East Side -- at exactly 1:00:00. Like clockwork.
Soon enough, between spoonfuls of Italian wedding soup, DuVall is getting philosophical about therapy and the emotional growth she experienced writing and directing her first feature film, The Intervention. It's the next step in her career, one she made flanked by two stellar actresses -- Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne, who also happen to be her best friends -- and the whole thing has been profoundly personal.
"It's like, we want to pretend that the versions of ourselves that we feel better about are who we are, and that person [before] wasn't us," she muses. "But it's all us. And we have to be that person to get to be this person that hopefully we're feeling good about today. I feel pretty good today. How do you feel today?"
DuVall was born in L.A. and born into Hollywood -- acting is something of a family business. (Her father, Steph DuVall, is also an actor. He played Shorty on Ray Donovan!) At the age of 19, she made her big-screen debut in Little Witches, before breaking out in 1998's The Faculty, playing the one-liner spewing goth Stokely and coining the phrase, "F**k you, gutter sl*t!"
The now 38-year-old actress has found consistent work in the two decades since, with a steady diet of TV roles -- including memorable turns on Carnivàle, Heroes, American Horror Story: Asylum and, most recently, as the first daughter's girlfriend on Veep -- and an impressively extensive filmography. (She has one of those IMDb pages you scroll down and go, "Oh, yeah! Girl, Interrupted!" "Oh, yeah! Identity!" "Oh, yeah! Argo!")
Somewhere in there, maybe 12 years ago, she guesses, she began writing -- "Taking scripts as far as they could go but ultimately nowhere, because I didn't know what I was doing." So often actresses say they turned to writing because it was the only way to get the roles they wanted. That wasn't the case for DuVall.
"As an actor you have a lot of free time and you have a lot of creative energy, and I wanted to have another outlet,” DuVall says. “It was more about just being creative than it was about making something or creating an opportunity for myself."
"Writing parts for myself is the least appealing thing of being a writer, because there are so many actors I respect and admire who I think are so much better than I am," she says. "Being able to create a role for them that is something a little bit different is really exciting to me."
The Intervention, a heartfelt, often hilarious dramedy that plays like a Big Chill for millennials, is an ensemble affair, centered on three couples who organize a weekend getaway as a guise to hold a marriage intervention for a fourth couple. "This movie, in particular, I wasn't satisfied focusing only on me anymore. As an actor, that's what you do. Your role fits into the whole, but the main thing you're thinking about is you and what you're doing. I wanted to focus on more pieces of the puzzle."
DuVall explains that the idea stemmed from admitting her own blind spots. "That came out of me really thinking that, at a time in my life, I knew what was best for everybody else." She pauses thoughtfully and leans back in her chair. "That was really just a way for me to not look at myself. [Writing the movie] sent me down a path of really dealing with things that I was avoiding and doing work on myself that I hadn't done before. It changed my life and got me to a place where I was able to have better relationships with other people and with myself."
Meanwhile, DuVall wrote the lead role -- Annie, a meddling know-it-all -- for her best friend, Lynskey. She wrote a supporting role for herself: Annie's best friend, Jessie, who is grappling with her own commitment issues with a long-term girlfriend. During a Writers Guild LGBT committee panel in June, DuVall called Jessie "a gay character that is gay in a way that is the gay that I feel like I am."
"I think it's not so much about the character but the role that they play," she says now. "So much of the time, it's about their struggles coming out or about the character being gay and it's a thing. I find it really refreshing when I see a movie or a TV show and being gay isn't a thing. They just are. It's a part of the world, almost as though it were a normal thing. "
It's normal?! (I’m gay, too, so I can make this joke.)
"No," she deadpans, and then lets out a laugh. "But in this script, if I'm writing a part where I'm basically playing myself, it felt dishonest to me to write myself as a straight character in a story that I am telling. I play straight characters all the time, and it's not a big deal. But if I have the opportunity to tell a story, I felt like it would be inauthentic of me to not take the opportunity to represent gay characters in that way, where they're just a part of the story. The movie is not about them being gay. They're fine with it. Everybody else is fine with it. They're way past all of those conversations, to the point where it's just a part of life. Because it is a part of life, whether certain people like it or not. Gay people exist."
So, this is a fantasy film...?
"Yeah, its a science fiction movie. It's kind of like The Matrix," she jokes, her voice lilting. "I've only seen one Matrix movie, but I kind of feel like this is Matrix 4. People are going to love it! I don't know why they didn't invite us to Comic-Con."
DuVall enlisted her other best friend, Lyonne, to play her onscreen girlfriend, effectively turning The Intervention into an unofficial But I'm a Cheerleader reunion, the 1999 film that achieved DuVall icon status -- at least in the LGBT community.
The satire starred Lyonne as a high school cheerleader outed as a lesbian and sent to a "sexual redirection" camp run by RuPaul Charles -- yes, that RuPaul! DuVall played the out and proud object of Lyonne’s affection, and Lynskey rounded out the cast as a nerdy fellow camper. But I'm a Cheerleader cemented DuVall's best friendships with Lyonne and Lynskey, even if, countless film sets and co-stars later, she is unable to put into words exactly why the relationships have lasted.
"Natasha and I are so different that -- I don't know..." DuVall says. "We just have a connection. We always have. She is my family and I really love her, unconditionally. Forever. Sometimes we can push each other's buttons. But it feels very familiar and very comfortable and loving. Melanie and I are a lot more similar, but just very -- I don't know! It's that same sort of just soul connection."
DuVall says asking Lyonne to play her other half onscreen in The Intervention was her shortcut to guaranteed chemistry -- and one less thing she'd have to worry about while directing.
"Sometimes when you're playing love interests opposite someone, it is uncomfortable and awkward. That all of a sudden you're just like, holding hands and hugging and kissing? It's bizarre," she admits. "I think you can sometimes see when people don't have chemistry or they don't have that connection. It's obvious. I knew that Natasha and I would effortlessly have that. In our friendship, we're affectionate with each other and we really love each other and really care about each other. We have such history, and I knew that would come through."
Admittedly, DuVall never intended to be behind the camera on The Intervention. "I wrote a part for myself, and I thought writing and acting and directing for my first thing would be too much." But after failing to find anyone else who was the right fit for the project, she had to accept the fact that it was because she was that person.
A perk of having worked almost nonstop over the past 20 years is that DuVall had also inadvertently gotten a crash course in directing from the pros and knew what to do on set -- and what not to do. She credits director Rodrigo García, who helmed a handful of episode of Carnivàle as well as the 2008 Anne Hathaway thriller, Passengers, for showing her the invaluable experience being on set provides in terms of understanding every job from grip to gaffer.
"Ben Affleck was another person who I really loved working with. I just love him so much as a man, but also as a director," she adds of her Argo director. "He's so smart and he really empowers his cast and his crew. That was something that I really tried to do, because I've worked with those first-time directors that try to micromanage you, and it's not fun. You can't do your best work when someone else is trying to do it for you."
With the rest of the cast assembled -- Lynskey's real-life boyfriend, Jason Ritter, landed the part of her fiancé, while Alia Shawkat, Ben Schwartz, Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza rounded out the other couples -- the ensemble headed to Savannah, Georgia, for an 18-day shoot, where DuVall stuck to the Affleck Method. "You are all better at your jobs than I am and that's why you are here," she says was essentially her philosophy on set.
"I wanted them to feel appreciated. I wanted them to feel invested. I wanted them to feel like they were getting an opportunity to be their best selves. Is that what happened? I don't know," DuVall says, before cracking a grin and backtracking: "Don't ask that! They loved it. They loved me!"
Directing your first feature is one thing. Directing your best friends in your first feature is another. Directing your best friends who are Emmy and Critics Choice award nominees and SAG Award winners in your first feature is, well -- it begs the question: Did casting Lyonne and Lynskey make the experience ultimately feel more comfortable or stressful? "Kind of both."
(Lynskey recently toldThe Los Angeles Times, that she had no option but to do the movie, since DuVall had written it for her. "I just talked to my therapist about how we could communicate without ending our friendship. I had three sessions about it.")
"They both were so respectful and loving and supportive and really wanted me to succeed and really wanted to help me. And I really got that. I really had that sense," DuVall makes clear, but admits that having the "two people who know me better than anyone" made it so that she couldn't lie about feeling stressed.
"There was only one moment, which was I think our second or third day of filming, where I woke up and I was like, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" DuVall says. "And I cried. It was the only time I cried! And then I just let myself feel scared for, like, five minutes, and then I went out and was like, 'All right, everybody, this is what were doing.' And then it was fine."
The Intervention premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it garnered a Special Jury Prize for Lynskey's performance and was quickly bought up by Paramount, to be released in theaters and on demand on Aug. 26.
DuVall has lined up a few acting gigs while she searches for the next project she wants to direct. She's certain she wants it to be something she isn't acting in. As for the specifics? "I kind of know it when I see it." Whatever it should be, with her first feature in the can, she shouldn't have any problems finding work on either side of the camera.
But, for DuVall, The Intervention will always be more than just her directorial debut.
"I watch it now and I'm so happy I'm in the movie! I'm so happy they were in it and we get to have this thing that we did together forever. It's incredible. We created something that will live on, like way beyond any of us. And that's so cool," she reflects on the experience.
"To be able to go to Sundance together, when we were there with But I'm a Cheerleader, and now we are all together in this thing that I wrote. I was in my apartment and had this idea sitting on my couch that I've sat on with both of them, and then we got to go and make the movie and then we're at Sundance and now it's coming out. And now anyone in the world can see it, if they want to. It feels very surreal," DuVall says sheepishly, before adding with a smile: "I'm not connecting with the reality of that."