Welcome to Michelle Buteau's Moment: On 'Always Be My Maybe' and Making It in Hollywood (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix
You may recognize Michelle Buteau as the brutally brisk subway patron from Netflix's Someone Great, or you may remember her as the over-it 9-1-1 operator from the Rebel Wilson rom-com, Isn't It Romantic. You also may not actually be recognizing her at all. "Somebody did think I was Kim Coles on a Southwest flight, and she was so old, she was about to die, so I was like, 'You know what, I am Kim Coles. I can't even do this to you,'" Buteau nonchalantly rattles off. "I was like, 'Sure.' So, I signed an autograph."
With the release of Always Be My Maybe, now streaming on Netflix, the actress and comedian, 41, will segue from scene-stealing bit parts to a bona fide household name -- or at the very least someone you definitely know you know, because she was so funny in the romantic comedy you love. The film, from Ali Wong and Randall Park, centers on estranged childhood friends (played by Wong and Randall) who reunite 15 years later and must contend with lingering feelings from an ill-fated backseat hookup.
Buteau co-stars as Veronica, an expectant mother and the right-hand woman to Wong's restaurateur Sasha Tran, and immediately proves she's the pinnacle of what the best friend role should be: Both the funniest person in any scene -- packing more into one deadpan stare than most actors do in an entire runtime -- and somebody real, with an earnestness that makes you fall in love with her and want her to be your best friend, too. They are the same qualities that made Buteau a standup success, but now that she has appeared in three movies this year alone -- and this her meatiest role yet -- we have undeniably entered Michelle Buteau's moment.
"It feels like you're going rock climbing and you're getting to the top of the mountain. Like, you enjoy it, but it's really hard and you just want people to carry you but they can't. And by the time you get up there, you're like, 'Aw, f**k. I'm so tired. This is it? Great. Thanks so much,'" Buteau tells me. She is fully horizontal on the couch in a sunny suite at West Hollywood's London Hotel, lying on her stomach with her heels off and her feet kicked up behind her. "Everyone is like, 'Look at the view!' and you're like, 'It's great. Can I sit down?' That's what it feels like. I just feel tired."
It doesn't help that amid her career frenzy, she became the mother to twins. "Truly, everything in life is happening at the same time," she says. For this trip to L.A., however, her now 4-month-old children remained at home in the comforts of their New York City nursery, and while the babies are away, mom will rosé.
"Girl, that's a glass of rosé, b**ch. That's a glass of f**king rosé," Buteau exclaims, pointing to a goblet on a nearby coffee table. "Mommy is f**king on vacation! This is a work vacation!"
Buteau's omnipresence may seem like it happened overnight, but as is so often the case, she's been on the grind for more than a decade, putting in her hours after starting her comedy career mere days after the September 11 attacks. "September 14, 2001," she recalls matter-of-factly. A New Jersey native, she was working in TV production at the time editing the local news. "Because I had a college professor who told me I was too fat to be on camera and I just believed him, which is so crazy," Buteau says. "But I was like, 'I'm 18, he's an adult and I haven't seen anybody like me on TV.' So, I was like, 'I guess that's what it is.'"
Instead, her performer side would manifest itself in emails she sent to her co-workers about her day-to-day life in New York, her tales of subway woes and that one roommate who named an all-white cat Cocaine. Her colleagues started forwarding her emails to friends and Buteau began to realize that people enjoyed hearing her anecdotes. And then 9/11 happened. "When I started editing news of the worst tragedy that I have ever f**king seen, I was like, 'Well, this is the time,'" she says. "My news director was like, 'We can supply therapy for you guys if you want it,' and I was like, 'No, I'm good, I want to start stand-up.' I was so dumb. I should have taken the therapy. Now I'm in therapy and it's so damn expensive."
Without any formal training -- aside from a single comedy class that taught her about setups and how to take the microphone out of the stand -- Buteau took the stage on September 14 with what she now says were "terrible" jokes. But the stand-up high was real. "You're just this new baby bird on stage," she grins. "You're like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I can say this.' Right? So, people laughed and liked me and I liked that." It was another eight years, give or take, before she felt she'd mastered her voice. "When I met my husband" -- Dutch photographer Gijs van der Most -- "is when I was like, 'This is truly what I want to talk about.' Crazy, interracial, multicultural situations when you find love at a one night stand. It's like, open your mind and your heart and your legs. Why not?"
All the while, she continued toiling away editing the local news, performing multiple stand-up shows each night before pulling overnight shifts knee-deep in Avid assignments. "I can't tell you how many times I would lie to people and be like, 'Your video is rendering, just come back in an hour.' Whatever, b**ch," she laughs. "It was essentially my waitressing job, but it was so great to be like, 'I've got to go.' Plus, it was just kind of depressing editing the news."
"Dude, Tiffany Haddish? She ready. Michelle Buteau? Hashtag: She been ready."
Suddenly Buteau announces, "I'm taking the lashes off, b**ch." And she does, peeling her false eyelashes off with a satisfied sigh and stacking the spider-like remains on the sectional in front of her. "Oh my god, they're like corsets for my face. It feels like I'm taking a bra off my face."
No longer constrained to her regular nine to five (albeit a nine to five that happened to take place from midnight to 9:00 a.m.), the newly minted professional comedian was able to take her show on the road from sea to shining sea and, eventually, a Comedy Central special and comedy album, Shut Up!, in 2015. Last year, Buteau fronted another special, Netflix's The Comedy Lineup, launched two podcasts (a live show, Late Night Whenever With Michelle Buteau, and the comedy-advice podcast Adulting with friend and fellow comedian Jordan Carlos) and booked roles on series like Russian Doll and HBO's High Maintenance, but it was during her stand-up days that she first had the feeling of making it.
"It happens in small doses. It doesn't happen like it does in the movies," she says. "For comedians, if you really admire a comedian before you start and they happen to be in the back of the room of the comedy club when you're performing and you're killing it and then they come up to you and they're like, 'Nice job.' That's a small I've made it. I felt like I made it when Wanda Sykes was like, 'Hey! You funny!' And I'm like, 'What, Wanda?! You know who I am?' Yeah, so stuff like that, with your peers, that's pretty dope. But also when you start doing your tax return and you see that number go up, you're like, "Oo! I guess I did make it now. I'm paying taxes in four different states!"
If we're living in Michelle Buteau's moment, it won't be ending anytime soon. Following Always Be My Maybe, momentum is only picking up for her, with a reoccurring role on Netflix's Tales of the City revival (considering the sheer number of projects she's been cast in for the streamer, it's not a reach when she coos, "Buteau is French for Netflix's go-to girl!" ) and a lead role in BET's television remake of The First Wives Club from Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver. Then she'll probably write a book. And another hour-long comedy special, likely about the journey to welcoming her babies, Hazel and Otis, via surrogate.
"After trying for five years to have babies and to have twins to boot, and then also being in a movie with a really good friend [Wong] where I play a pregnant person just feels crazy. I don't know what that looks like yet, but I just know it's hilarious." she says, suddenly sitting up as she remembers: "Oh my god, and I have a furniture store with my husband."
And a furniture store?
"Yeah, a mid-century modern furniture store in Brooklyn and we deliver anywhere in the world."
The mid-century modern furniture store aside, Buteau credits her continued successes to no longer being confined to the "black girl audition of it all." It used to be that, "You were always the one," she says. "You were the Aisha Tyler of Friends. You were the one to make the bu-dump bump, hey, girl, hey jokes, right? Now, with Atlanta and Insecure and Bubblegum -- or Chewing Gum? Whatever the f**k -- all the other shows, there's just more opportunities. We're not all pitted against each other, which is dope.
"And sometimes it really is about speaking stuff into fruition. I'd always be like, 'We've got to normalize these titties. Let's put it out there,'" she adds. "Someone like me as a size 18 plus-size actress, it's always the character actor or the neighbor that's like, 'Isn't it funny that I sat on my pie?' Now it's just like, 'The love interest?! The best friend?! Yes!' And I'm here for it. The only reason why you're seeing me now more is because the world is changing. That's why." That is, Michelle Buteau was always ready. The world just needed to catch up. "Dude, Tiffany Haddish? She ready. Michelle Buteau? Hashtag: She been ready."