Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro on Arm Wrestling Comedy ‘Golden Arm’ and the Future of Improv

The hilarious buddy comedy “Golden Arm” manages to combine all the things we love most about a sports comedy with a theme of female empowerment and the unique comic stylings of stars Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro. Holland and Sodaro, who have built a strong connection that comes from years of performing improv comedy together at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, play Melanie and Danny, two longtime friends and polar opposites who hit the road together and head to a championship competition. Danny, who is injured by reigning champ Brenda the Bone-Crusher (Olivia Stambouliah) early on and unable to participate, convinces Melanie to step up to the plate, but this means that the recently divorced baker must regain her confidence and harness her inner strength before she can have full use of her outer strength.

Both Holland and Sodaro recently spoke with Entertainment Voice over the phone. They opened up about the making of “Golden Arm,” the comfort and trust that has made their working relationship so successful, and comedy in a post-Covid world.

What attracted you to the script?

Mary Holland: I am very good friends with Maureen Bharoocha and Betsy Sodaro, so when the script came to me, and I knew that Maureen was directing it and Betsy was attached to play Danny, right away I was like, “I’m interested!” I read the script, and Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly created this really fun, really vibrant buddy comedy in the sports movie genre that I just thought was so exciting. I was just thrilled to get the chance to be a part of it.

Betsy Sodaro: First, the world of ladies’ arm wrestling. I was like, “Whaaaat. I didn’t know that existed. That’s so awesome!” Then the idea of being like, “Whoa, this is a straight-up buddy comedy.” It’s a road trip buddy comedy, and I just love those with all my heart. “Tommy Boy” was such a huge inspiration for me… I love working with [Bharoocha] so much that I would do anything, and it just so happened that the script was really fun, and a buddy comedy, and everything I wanted to do in a movie.

Did you attend any live ladies’ arm wrestling competitions for research? I’ve been to a few in L.A., and they were so much fun because the women really do go all out with their costumes and personas.

Holland: Not in person, but I watched videos, and I also have friends who participated in that. It’s such an exciting, celebratory world to be a part of. Yes, it’s about arm wrestling and it’s a competitive sport, and there’s a lot of strength involved, but it’s also just really joyful. It’s an expression for these people of who they are. It’s a chance to get to play and be performative and put yourself out there. It was really cool to get to witness some of that world.

Sodaro: I went online and I watched a bunch on YouTube, and I was blown away. I loved that there is this world out there… It really makes me feel happy. I hope people find these little [organizations] of people who have a similar interest and are able to just escape everyday life by going and just getting weird with other people. It’s so exciting and cool.

You two have been performing together for years on stage. What was it like co-starring together in this film and creating that bond for the screen?

Holland: Betsy and I have known each other for well over a decade now. We’re both in the improv comedy scene out here in L.A. We’ve performed together a ton, so stepping into the friendship with Betsy as Danny and Mel was just totally effortless and comfortable. We already had a shorthand with each other just from being friends in real life for so long, so I think getting to lean into these characters and flesh out that dynamic even more, it was one of the best experiences ever. I think back on that time shooting that with her, and I feel so lucky that I got to play her best friend, because she is the absolute best.

Sodaro: There was this immediate comfort, and this immediate [excitement about] working with my friend. For me, personally, I look up to Mary so much. I think she’s so funny and so talented. She’s just such a good actor that I really was like, “Okay, I want to bring my A game every time I’m with her.”  And I do that on stage, too. It was just every morning waking up and being so excited to a scene with her, and with everybody else, but there was that extra comfort and ease with her. I just knew that no matter what big move I would make, Mary would have my back and say “yes.” Whatever she would do, I would have her back. 

Melanie has this awesome persona that incorporates her passion for baking, Breadwinner. Mary, were you involved at all in the creation of this alter ego and her costume?

Holland: The costuming was so much fun. The costumes, as you can see in the film, are so dynamic. The [costume design team] did such a great job. I had a lot of fun doing that sequence where Danny and Melanie are trying to figure out what Melanie’s person is going to be. We must have shot 20 costumes. I’d go behind the curtain and put on another crazy outfit, I’d come out, and Betsy and I would improvise on who this persona could be and how we can make it sound intimidating and intense. One of the ones that didn’t make it into the movie, I found this sparkly dress, and for some reason, I stepped out and I was like, “I’m an ex-wife!”

That was in the film. It was a really funny moment.

Holland: I remember, one time, I put on this pirate shirt and a pink tutu and tried to see myself as a pirate fairy. “I’m a pirate fairy, and I’m really scary!” (Laughs). But becoming the Breadwinner, that was such a great persona for Mel to come to, eventually, because that is her embracing herself as the persona, as the embodiment of strength. She’s a baker, so when she steps into that persona, it’s like leaning more into owning her own strength and being herself.

Were you given a lot of freedom to improvise on set? 

Sodaro: We got to get weird, and it was just so much fun. And this is how Maureen’s always been, she’s just like, “I love working with improvisers, so I’m going to let them do what they do. Let’s, of course, do the script, and let’s make sure we know what our goals and intentions are for each scene and what we need to do to make the movie continue to move forward, but also, let’s have fun and get silly and improvise.” Maureen is so good at [reining it in]… But there was, once again, with Maureen and everybody, that comfort of being like, “Okay, I know I can make big choices and it won’t make anyone mad or waste time.” The whole vibe was just really wonderful, and comfortable and fun, and a lot of everybody saying “yes,” which was really cool.

Holland: We totally felt freedom to improvise, and a lot of the scenes with Mel and Danny where they’re joking around, or us being in the cab of the big rig, we improvised so much. Maureen was saying there’s about 30 minutes of footage of us improvising in the big rig that didn’t make it into the movie, but could be a short film on its own.

Mary, will you talk about the romance between Melanie and Eugene Cordero’s character, Greg? I loved the scene where they’re at the baseball diamond and they have that kiss and play around with the power dynamic.

Holland: Oh my gosh, Eugene Cordero is just so talented. He’s such a phenomenal actor and improviser. I’ve also known him for many, many years, so, again, there was this comfort level that I had with him. 

What was so fun about that scene was Mel’s character, and I’m so glad you picked up on that power dynamic shift where she suddenly just leans up against the fence and is in charge, or kind of dominant in a way that Mel has never been in her entire life. She experiences a kind of awakening from that, and is able to enjoy being in the moment with this man whom she’s attracted to and let herself go for it, which she would never do normally. She’s very much a person who stays on the sidelines. With him, she felt the safety and security to really go for it.

Betsy, you really let loose and let the sparks fly with Ron Fuches. What was it like working with him?

Sodaro: Oh my god, it was such a dream. When Maureen said he was in to play Carl, I was so excited. I had met him a bunch through the world of comedy, but we hadn’t done anything together. But we were friends and it was immediately like, “Oh, we’re going to have so much fun.” And, once again, it was about just feeling so comfortable with him and [being able to make huge choices] and having a blast. He’s just the nicest, funniest dude. Once again, I just wanted to make him laugh and have a ball with him.

Let’s talk about Dot-Marie Jones, who just kills as Big Sexy, the former champ who trains Melanie. What was it like doing scenes with her?

Holland: She is so cool. The training sequence that we shot with her character and Melanie, that was the first thing we shot. She was a professional arm wrestler. She brought all of these trophies and belts and told us all these crazy stories. I never knew there were so many different ways somebody could break their arm arm wrestling. She was just fabulous and was an incredibly valuable resource as far as a consultant and training not only the character Melanie, but training me and Betsy and the whole crew and cast. We were so lucky to have her.

Sodaro: She had unbelievable stories about everything… She traveled the world arm wrestling. I think she started arm wrestling with sailors, just making money and destroying sailors in a bar. We were all just fascinated and sitting around criss-cross applesauce and being like, “Tell us everything you know about arm wrestling and life!” She was one of the nicest and most talented people I had ever met.

Betsy, you mentioned “Tommy Boy,” and I’ve read that Chris Farley is a source of inspiration to you, and we see this shine through in “Golden Arm.” Will you talk about that and your influences?

Sodaro: Farley is gigantic. One of the things that really struck me about him was that he had such heart. He could make these big, wild, funny moves and be outrageously funny, but then immediately ground it with being so lovable. That really got me. I also love Lucille Ball. I grew up obsessed with “I Love Lucy.” I watched that nonstop, that and “The Simpsons.”

Let’s talk about what you both have coming up. Mary, you’re currently filming the Netflix limited series “The Woman in the House” with Kristen Bell. Will you tell us about that project?

Holland: I play Kristen’s character’s best friend. It’s sort of a thriller, a darker comedy that I think will be received so well. Kristen’s spectacular in it. I’m so excited for that to come out. Otherwise, I’m just writing a bunch. Maureen, Betsy and I have actually written a horror movie that we’re to make at some point. I’m writing with other friends. Clea [DuVall] and I are working on this TV show idea, and I’m writing a movie with my friend Nora Kirkpatrick, and my friend Lauren Lapkus. So, yeah, just trying to create things and write things for us and our friends to be in. That would be such a dream.

Sodaro: I’m in a Fox cartoon called “Duncanville,” and season two is coming out May 23.

Is the horror movie you two are developing with Maureen a comedic horror film, or is it a straight-up horror?

Sodaro: I’ll just say this: It’s a horror movie that happens to be funny (laughs). We’re very excited about it.

Speaking of Clea DuVall, Mary, she previously directed you in “Happiest Season,” which was a holiday hit for Hulu last year. Will you talk about that experience?

Holland: It was an incredibly special experience. This is a story that’s so dear and personal to Clea, and one that she wanted to tell for many years. When she asked me to come on board and work with her on it, I was so honored. Getting to see it come to fruition and being received so well by people and have it be impactful in the way that it was, it just means the world. 

You both have a long history of performing with the UCB, but with the pandemic, everything has changed, and the theater in Los Angeles on Sunset and Western has officially closed. I know you both and others have been honing your craft and staying connected with fans through Zoom shows and podcasts. What has that been like? And what are your predictions and hopes for the future of live improv?

Holland: I really hope that we’re able at some point, hopefully soon, maybe this year, to be able to do live theater again. It feels so unimaginable now, having been without it for a year, and understanding how Covid-19 spreads and how a packed little black box theater where people are laughing is exactly where covid spreads. It’s hopeful, with the vaccine rollout and everything, that things will start to shift soon. But transitioning to performing virtually, it’s very different. You’re not feeding off a live audience, but I’m grateful that we have some sort of outlet where we can improvise and be creative. Maybe not to the physical extent that we used to be able to, but it has been a lifesaver to have that outlet. 

As for the future, it was heartbreaking that one of the UCB theaters closed. That really was tough for our community, but I have a lot of hope for the future of improv in this city. I think once it’s safe to do so, it will just come booming back because people will be so eager to laugh.

Sodaro: I feel lucky because I have my podcasts where I get to really let that energy out. But I miss doing live shows so much, and I talk about it in therapy a lot (laughs)… It’s kind of like my yoga, where I get to get on stage for an hour and leave my mind and get weird, and I need it… I personally feel, for me, the first show I do, I’m going to lose my mind.

What are your podcasts called and how can we find them?

Sodaro: One is on Patreon, and that’s called “We Love Trash,” and it’s hosted by me and Mano Agapion. We are two very trashy humans, and we just celebrate everything that’s trashy –– food, people, movies, all that stuff. I have another one called “A Funny Feeling” with Marcy Jarreau. During the pandemic, we’ve been listening to and reading a bunch of listeners’ paranormal stories, but we also have guests on who talk about their paranormal experiences, because we love spooky stuff!

Golden Arm” releases April 30 on VOD and in select theaters.