When I was kid, I couldn’t wait to take the world by storm, to be a woman—beautiful, powerful, confident, sexy, thoughtful, and deep. All the things I knew I was inside … even though I was only 4. Look at a picture of me from that age and I swear you can see it all percolating. I just needed my body to catch up.
By 12, my body had changed, although instead of blossoming into Cindy Mancini from Can’t Buy Me Love, I more closely resembled Chunk from The Goonies. My inside world may have been filled with a poetic and vital feminine life force, but the outside world saw and told me otherwise. (Mainly it said I was “fat” and “too sensitive” and most socially appreciated when facilitating my friends’ relationships with boys I had crushes on.)
The only part people sort of got right was my sensitivity. If you get hurt, you put on a bandage, right? Well, my whole being hurt, so I put on a personality bandage made up of jokes, self-deprecation, and faux confidence. But just below my Elaine Stritch exterior were the longing looks at “the pretty girls”— the ones who didn’t have to work so hard to get through the day, who didn’t have to make a joke to be acknowledged.
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I don’t know what I would have done without acting. I officially fell into it around age 6 in a class play that reimagined The Ugly Duckling. My joy in performing was so boundless, you would have thought I’d just won a Tony. From then on, the stage became my safe place, where all that self-consciousness and effort and making myself smaller was replaced with a sense of freedom. I could be all of myself and no one would make fun of me.
I never meant to make people laugh professionally. My first onscreen gigs were serious affairs like The Sopranos and Mystic River and indie films about child abuse. At 21, my career took a comedic turn when I was cast in a new Broadway play called Brooklyn Boy, by Donald Margulies, which was equal parts funny and sad. I realized that the more seriously I expressed my character’s feelings, the funnier the scene became.
Fast-forward a few years to when I got a huge opportunity playing a drunk mess who had a practically Shakespearean love affair with her gum in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. And that was it. I was officially, professionally labeled “funny.”
I spent the majority of the next six years playing for laughs onscreen and off. Sometimes it was magic, and sometimes I was just trying to live up to the label. I’d attempt to convince people of my more quiet tendencies but usually just got nudged back to the “funny” aisle and told to stay put. I felt like Fanny Brice in Funny Girl yelling, “Wait! You’ve got it all wrong! I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls!”
And then one day a few years ago, something happened: My sense of humor left the building. There wasn’t one reason for the falling out. It was a combo platter of turning 30, starting therapy, and having a TV show canceled after three episodes. But I stopped registering funny. I couldn’t see it on the page; I couldn’t do it in an audition. It was as if all the parts of myself I had neglected staged a coup and wouldn’t let me have a sense of humor until I paid attention.
I was a real barrel of laughs in my personal life as well. I left L.A., traveled alone around Europe, and spent lots of time watching Werner Herzog documentaries. I very seriously tried to get all my friends to pick up The Denial of Death (which, honestly, you should read). Sometimes on the path to taking yourself seriously, you take yourself a little too seriously.
After about a year I started to lighten up, got softer and more natural than before, feeling closer to that 4-year-old than I had in years. And then, out of the blue, I got an email from Jonathan Levine about a new pilot he was directing for Showtime about the stand-up comedy scene in L.A. in the early ’70s called I’m Dying Up Here. It was an hour-long drama about the pain that produces comedy.
He wanted me to look at the role of Cassie, the lone female comic trying to find her voice, letting go of her shtick to make room for something more real. I cried when I read the script, partly because I realized what my biggest fear had been all along: that I would never fit in anywhere if I were completely myself.
But here Cassie and I were—two women, too big for small labels. It was never about “pretty” or “funny,” it was just about wanting to be all of me, free to roam the aisles. I don’t know where my roaming will take me next, but now that I’m not so worried about where I’m allowed to go, the possibilities are endless.
I’m Dying Up Here premieres June 4 on Showtime.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download May 12.