Intuition, Compassion, Heart

Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants won’t open until 11.18, but the word’s been running strong since Telluride/Toronto, and I think it’s time to settle into a chat about Judy Greer‘s brief but poignant performance as Julie, the wife of a Hawaiian realtor (Matthew Lillard) whose slight relationship to George Clooney‘s Matt King hinges on a relationship her husband has had with Clooney’s wife. She’s only in three scenes, but the final one really gets you and delivers — quietly, almost surprisingly — one of the big emotional moments.

Judy Greer at Le Pain Quotidien — Friday, 10.14, 1:45 pm.

And it hits you later on that it’s not the amount of screen time that counts, but what you do with it and how well you score. And it’s not just about craft but what the audience remembers and feels about your character. (Which is what great acting is finally about, I suppose.) Greer’s Julie has a certain warmth and maturity that settles in. Sensitivity, perception, backbone…the qualities of a good woman. And she sells all this in just…what, ten or twelve minutes? Quality, not quantity.

Everyone knows that George Clooney has a Best Actor nomination locked down and that 19 year-old Shailene Woodley will get lots of recognition for delivering a breakout ingenue performance, but I think Greer is a completely credible contender for Best Supporting Actress. Really. She doesn’t deliver a Beatrice Straight-in-Network performance that just rocks the movie in a single blazing scene, and yet she does kind of do that in a softer, kinder, quirkier way.

In a 9.18 N.Y. Times piece about standout character performances, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott praised Greer’s Descendants turn. “Best known for kooky-friend roles in romantic comedies, Greer makes a strong, poignant impression in three scenes opposite George Clooney. [She's] playing a fairly tangential character: the wife of the man Mr. Clooney’s wife had an affair with. But whether clueless, bewildered or tearful, Greer shifts the film’s center of gravity and alters its emotional chemistry.”

Greer is currently in Manhattan with the Descendants gang (Payne, Clooney, Woodley, etc.) for Sunday night’s New York Film Festival screening at Alice Tully Hall. She’ll be making the rounds all through the season, I expect.

Greer in The Descendants.

Greer and I sat down yesterday at West Hollywood’s Le Pain Quotidien. It was a bit noisy but I recorded about 60% of our chat. I turned it off at one point because I wanted to say something off the record, and then I forgot to turn it on again. Partly, I suppose, because I was having such a nice relaxing time with her. Greer is my idea of a great conversationalist. She knows everything, hears everything, doesn’t put anything on. Her pores are wide open.

Val Kilmer was sitting a couple of tables away with his daughter, and he was nice enough to come over and say hi at one point, and when Judy and I left we were told that he’d picked up our check. Thanks, hombre.

Greer is known as a spunky light comedian, of course, so The Descendants is a big score in that it reminds everyone that she’s got a lot more in her quiver than just pluck and charm and a way with comedy, and it catapults her into that special realm that all contributors to an Oscar-worthy film reside in during Oscar season.

Greer does a lot of television but I don’t watch episodics. Her next significant feature role is in Mark and Jay Duplass‘s Jeff Who Lives at Home, which I missed at Toronto. She projected her usual spritzy, spirited energy in Love and Other Drugs, but that movie was killed by Josh Gad so nobody talks about it.

Greer’s other significant scores have included M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village (’04), Cameron Crowe‘s Elizabethtown (’05), Thomas McCarthy‘s The Station Agent, and Spike Jonze‘s Adaptation (’02 — i.e., the waitress whom Nic Cage‘s schlumpy screenwriter has a big thing for).

  • Rashad

    Jawbreaker is perhaps her most significant role. Henry’s Crime was a good movie she’s in this year too.

    Makes me glad to see Matthew Lillard is still in movies.

  • RobbyH

    Yeah loved her in ‘Jawbreaker’ as Fern. she was great. I haven’t heard much about her role in this film – Shailene has taken all the heat I guess. funny I just saw her on a episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ tonight.

  • Film Misery Alex

    I actually quite enjoyed her in ‘Adaptation’. She has transitioned from one of those “that lady” actresses to a household name. Great interview, Jeff.

  • Gabe@ThePlaylist

    Oh, man, the things I could tell Judy Greer off the record. Val Kilmer can watch, if he likes.

    Waiting for someone to flip out about Matthew Lillard in this. Not that he’s good or anything – he’s great, actually – but because he’s morphed into a boring Midwestern dad. He’s fuller, thicker, and his voice seems to have dropped an octave or two. I haven’t seen quite a transformation like this in awhile. If you didn’t tell me that was Matthew Lillard of fucking SCOOBY DOO FAME, then I would have assumes Alexander Payne did one of those things where he eschews central casting and just hires some Illinois high school football coach.

  • CinemaPhreak

    Uh, that’s Patricia Clarkson in THE STATION AGENT.

    Greer is one of the nicest, most unflappable people you could meet in the Industry.

  • LexG

    More interested in Shailene Woodley.

  • Ray

    Why even bother, Lex?

    “More interest in water.

    — The Fish.”

  • LexG

    I don’t entirely know what that means, just that I saw the first season of Woodley on Secret Life of the American Teen a few years ago, and she was terrific… No idea if the show is still on or not, I did some post on it early in its run, and Woodley kicked ass… And yet NO IDEA how a chick from some low-rent TV SHOW catches the eye of Alexander Payne… or if a 19-year-old girl even knows she’s working with one of the premier filmmakers of the last decade.

    One of the truly PAINFUL THINGS about actors– and QUENTIN TARANTINO once made this point– is most of them, sadly, know FUCK ALL about movies, so some workaday LA cheeseball will get cast working with a Payne or a Scorsese or a Soderbergh, and barely have ANY idea who they’re working for, what their legacy is, what a GOOD MOVIE even is… Much as I love Chloe Moretz, it’s kind of burnt that I’ve known who Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann are for 30-odd years and can recite every frame of their stylistics and every inch of their movies… but I’ve never worked with Scorsese nor has anyone here, never worked with Michael Mann, but some goofy aw-shucks teenybopper chick now has acted for both of them.

    A FULL FILM STUDIES DEGREE and A DISSERTATION ON THE AUTEUR THEORY ought to be a PREREQUISITE for being cast in a movie by a great director.

  • gooddog

    I first noticed Judy Greer in Nancy Myers’ Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt movie “What Women Want” as the suicidal “Erin the file girl” who Gibson’s character saves and helps. That was back in 2000, and there was some unusual intense quality she had that made it surprising to me she did not take off in a big way after that. I’ve seen her since on TV in House and in last year’s Love and Other Drugs. Glad that The Descendants may make her get noticed.

  • Super Soul

    I can’t help but imagine her saying, after the interview was over, “And say goodbye to these! Whooo!”

  • cyanic


    A famous Hollywood actress was being interviewed by Charlie Rose — she tells him there are a lot of talented filmmakers she’d like to work with, so much so she writes them letters (Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers)– they all sent her polite rejection letters in return, the actress in question is Whoopi Goldberg– I don’t even see it as a race thing– my point is knowing about them isn’t enough for them to want to use you at any capacity.

  • Hollis Mulwray

    First took notice of Judy in THE VILLAGE. I was so impressed that I wondered why she wasn’t the lead (Bryce Dallas Howard). A talent. I will forgive her for what I believe is a recurring role on the Two Half Men sitcom. I like to buy nice things too.

  • buckzollo

    good point, but what about Laird Hamilton??

  • The Bandsaw Vigilante

    Greer first came to my attention by getting her brains screwed out by Clooney at the beginning of Three Kings. Been on my “hot list” ever since, even when playing schlumpfy-doofus-roles — her comic timing is fucking killer. Like Kitty on Arrested Development.

    “Glasses on; hair back up. Let’s just get that hair right back up.”

  • CinemaPhreak

    “More interested in Shailene Woodley…. just that I saw the first season of Woodley on Secret Life of the American Teen a few years ago..”

    Let’s do the math on that: AM TEEN debuted in July of ’08 when Woodley was 16. We can assume the pilot was most probably shot 6-9 months before that when she was 15.

    I think James L Brooks via Helen Hunt says it best:

    “Do you have any control over how creepy you allow yourself to get?”

  • Mr. F.

    Super Soul: I’m right there with ya,

  • The Bandsaw Vigilante

    Also, her “Cheryl” on fuckin’ Archer rules ALL.

  • Carl LaFong

    Greer burned a permanent dot on my radar screen after her rockin’ turn in The Hebrew Hammer. Oy!

  • Snoop Marlo

    Greer plays Ashton Kutcher Semi-Ex-Wife on that horrid 2 and a Half Men. A paycheck’s a paycheck, I guess.

    Also, how did ‘Shaggy’ (Lillard) get another job? Thought the Scooby movies killed whatever was left of his career.

  • Snoop Marlo

    One other thing, why is it that a talent like Greer can be so nice to Jeff, and a washed up windbag like Dennis Miller can be such a dick?