EXCLUSIVE: Lennon Parham Brings Us Into Her Improv World, Dishes on 'Lady Dynamite' and 'Playing House'
By Emily Krauser
Photo: Getty Images
Regardless of what type of screen watching TV on, there's a solid chance Lennon Parham has come across it. Within the last year, the 39-year-old actress has appeared in Netflix's Lady Dynamite, guest starred on HBO's Veep, and helmed USA's Playing House, the sitcom she not only created with her best friend,Jessica St. Clair, but also writes, executive produces and stars in.
Now that the weird and wonderful Maria Bamford vehicle, Lady Dynamite, has been fully binged by fans, ET chatted with Parham to find out more about her turn as lazy hippie Larissa, plus how her pregnancy with baby No. 2 will affect Playing House, her close friendship with Jessica despite all those working hours, and how her time with the Upright Citizens Brigade has influenced her acting career.
ET: Lady Dynamite feels like you're living in Maria Bamford's world. Does it feel that way when you were started working on the show? Lennon Parham: Sort of. My first scene with her, I was really nervous because I am a huge fan of hers and her standup, so I didn't know what to expect. I knew Mitch Hurwitz [Arrested Development] and Pam Brady [South Park] were involved, and I'm obviously a huge fan of Arrested Development, so to be a comedian and a comedy nerd, just getting a meeting felt huge. Then I met with her, and I was nervous, like, "Am I going to live up to the amazing stuff I've seen in her standup?" She started essentially describing her character to me and then started to do her, and then I started to do her, and then she started to do Maria again, and then we were in a scene together improvising at the table, and it was so easy and fun. Immediately, we were like, "Yes, this. Let's do this."
Between the time jumps and broken fourth wall, the show can feel a bit jarring until you realize what you've settled in for. When you were filming, did it feel like a new type of comedy or still like a traditional sitcom? It felt really traditional, with the exception of some extra dirty or insane [scenes]. We shot the first episode and Mitch was directing, and he was trying to explain, "At this point, we break the fourth fall and cut away. We'll see all of these stands at the backstage, and then the AD will come out, and it will be revealed that it's a set, but none of that was real." One time, Maria turned into a lamb, and you're talking to her as if that's really happening -- that kind of stuff we had to imagine, almost like a green screen.
Your character, Larissa, is a lot of fun, but what I especially like about both her and the show in general is that it manages to stay rooted in reality despite being an exaggerated version of Hollywood. How were you guys able to achieve that balance? With Larissa, I didn't feel like I was doing a sketch character, because I understand her fears. I understand where she's coming from and the sensitive nature of that person that has lived in a Los Angeles-type of place. They've been taught that everything they say or do is extremely important, whereas if you grow up anywhere else, you're pretty quickly told that you don't know what you're talking about or you’re an idiot and to buck up. Here, everybody is chi-chi city, just very gentle with each other.
With your Upright Citizens Brigade improv background, were you able to create parts of Larissa or was she a fully formed character when you came into the show? She was pretty fully formed. We did some improv, and I think the back-and-forth chemistry between Bridget Everett (Dagmar) and I was already built in, but elements of it were found. Bridget has her own amazing angst that she brings to it, and I was just playing within that.
There's a lot of overlap of actors in shows you've been on -- Zack Woods, for instance, is in both Veep and Playing House. Is there a solid sense of community among the improvisers you've come up with?
There definitely is. Obviously, when we write, we write with people in mind. I've known Zack since he was 17. We were on an improv team together, riding around in vans and doing crazy stuff in Chicago. He is like a brother to me, so writing for him is super easy. I get so excited when he shows up on set, because I love spending time with him. I wish I could do it all the time. There's a lot of people like that. Basically, we were doing comedy for free in a basement for a long time, for the love of the game, so now, we feel really blessed to be doing it on a larger scale and getting paid to spend time with people that we really like and think are all geniuses.
When I get to Veep and I see Tony Hale, who I've worked with before, and Matt Walsh, who founded the theater that made my livelihood, it's sort of like I'm coming home. And even though I didn't know Maria, it felt comfortable, because she's from that world. I love getting to see all of these comedians just nail it. Obviously, tons of work goes into structure and creating these amazing stories with all these twists and turns, but you hire people that know what they're doing and then let them do it.
What can we expect from season three of Playing House?
We have a rough mark for the season, but it's definitely all still super changeable. You're going to have that same amount of really funny stuff [as past seasons], but also, everybody's crying.
Will you have to work around being pregnant when you start filming? We were going to write it in, but it ended up we weren't going to have enough time, because we just started writing. We'll basically finish the writers' room, I'll go on maternity leave, and then we'll start shooting. That's what we did for Jess. I had a 10-week-old when I started season one of Playing House's writers' room, and then she had a 10-week-old when we started shooting it, so it'll be the same for me this time. I'm pregnant almost through the writers' room, and when we start shooting, I'll have a 10-week-old.
Will we have more HDTV stars? That's the dream: more Property Brothers. Once you've lived it, you just can't return. Honestly, they're 6'5", they couldn't be nicer, and they're super charming. They deliver on what you see on TV. It's next level.
How do you and Jessica separate friendship and work modes? It depends on if we're writing a pilot by ourselves or if we're in the [writers'] room. By ourselves, we do the girlfriend talk, and then if we remember something while we're working, we'll talk about that. But because the work is an examination of our friendship, we are also talking about stuff like that while we're writing. In the room a lot of times, when we have our full staff there, we come in fully loaded with like 15 different ideas for episodes or things we think might happen, and then our writers also help. Some of the ideas automatically feel ready and we just start brainstorming and laughing, and we all cry together. There are a lot of emotions.
Playing House feels like a natural progression from your first show, Best Friends Forever. Was that the hope when creating it? You get better. Doing BFF and having a deal, it was really sad when it went away, but that's one of the reasons that I decided to go ahead and have a child. I was waiting for the right time, and I realized you don't have any control over that, so if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right now. Also, we were writing about our twenties for BFF and growing into a friendship that already existed. With Playing House, we're writing about motherhood, being friends as mothers, small-town life, and having a village to raise a child.
Has working on the shows helped strengthen your relationship with Jessica? We are closer than ever. You'd think that at some point we would want to kill each other and throw it away. It is difficult, but we did the work. We went to an astrologer together, this amazing woman -- a very L.A. thing. It's [about] having an emotional response. We talk to each other, and we say, "It doesn't feel good when you do that" or "G*ddamn it, I'm so proud of you." We appreciate each other for what each person brings -- we've been together long enough.
You're like a married couple. We are. We both have husbands that we have good relationships with, but this relationship still takes work as well. We literally spend so much time together, and because we are so close, the flaws in our relationship could open up a lot of [bad things]. If there's something weird going on or if somebody's having a day where they're just super tired or depressed, everything is raw, available, and super honest. It's a rare partnership that doesn't take work, so you have to just respect that, and I think we respect each other very completely.
How much of your own personal experiences with motherhood do you two bring to Playing House?[Lennon's little girl, Saraya, is three, and Jessica's daughter, Isobel, is five months younger.]
We always kind of write about what we're going through or went through. Jess heard a story about a Sex and the City group that used to go away for a retreat weekend and basically share everything they'd been through during the year, like all the bad dates they'd gone on, and then they'd mine that for the show. It's similar to whatever Jess and I are going through as friends. Relationships, especially lifelong friendships, go through different phases, and they grow and they change, and it's like a lifelong partnership.
Lady Dynamite is streaming on Netflix, and season five of Veep is currently airing on Sundays on HBO. An official date for Playing House’s return has not been set yet.