Iliza Shlesinger Tells Us How She Turned a Bad Romance Into Her New Netflix Comedy ‘Good on Paper’
While many women only get to spill about their relationship woes over boozy brunches and the occasional saucy social media post, actress and comedian Iliza Shlesinger has channeled a personal trauma from her dating life into art, and the result is “Good on Paper,” a different kind of rom-com from Netflix. Shlesinger stars as Andrea Singer, a Los Angeles-based comedian who finds herself being pursued by Dennis Kelly (Ryan Hansen), a “Yale-educated hedge fund manager” she meets on a flight home following a failed audition. Although she initially feels no attraction to Dennis, the two start to hang out, and he eventually maneuvers his way out of the friend zone. However, it soon becomes apparent to Andrea that her new man is not quite who he says he is.
Shlesinger spoke with Entertainment Voice about her personal story, the freedom she found in collaborating with director Kimmy Gatewood and her co-stars, what she hopes other women will take from her new movie and how she’s been keeping busy over lockdown.
Let’s talk about the inspiration behind “Good on Paper.” How much of it is true?
We call it a mostly true story based on a lie, so I would say about two-thirds of the film is factually accurate. When you watch, pretty much everything he says and the majority of our interactions are true in the first two-thirds. The end is a bit of a “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” revisionist fantasy ending. When I wrote that ending, because I thought what happens to me/Andrea is so wholly undeserved, I thought that I’d write it as a way to stand up for anyone who has been really hurt for no reason and give it a bit of a revenge twist.
What was it like working with Ryan and creating the character of Dennis? He’s based on a real person, but he also brings a lot of humor to the role.
I didn’t know Ryan prior to the movie. I had heard of him. [Casting him] was Kimmy Gatewood’s idea. He showed up, and I remember thinking, “Ryan is good-looking and this character is not. And that’s a big part of it; he has to be unattractive.” And Ryan, day one, was like, “I got a tooth guy. I’m going to wear these fake teeth. I’m going to dye my hair. I’m going to wear padding.” It’s always great when a leading man wants to play creepy versus Captain America or something.
He did a great job at transforming himself, so much so that my initial thoughts about who Dennis Kelly is and was, I don’t even think about him anymore when I think of this character. I just think about Ryan in that outfit. He was great about collaborating and listening to notes. I definitely had the source material deeply embedded in my mind. He was absolutely a joy to work with.
Speaking of Kimmy, what was it like collaborating with her to bring such a personal story to life?
I think that’s the key, that it was so personal. She was so mindful of that. She got the gig because she understood the story and the character and she came with good ideas… I trusted her because of that. I’m in charge of everything I say as a stand-up. It was a huge relief to trust someone to direct me in a scene, even though I had lived the scene and written it. Allowing room for her input was very helpful and freeing.
How much of your character Andrea was true? Did you have to change her up at all to give yourself some distance?
This story is so insane, and a woman doing stand-up, we have so many shows about it now, but when I wrote it, I was always getting the feedback from executives that they didn’t want to see a woman doing stand-up in a movie or on TV. We didn’t want to apologize for who I am or who Andrea is, which isn’t necessarily a strong woman, but just a woman who takes care of herself and is hurting no one in pursuing her dreams and her life. She, of course, has some growing to do, but we didn’t want the lesson that she learned to be doled out by him. We wanted it to be about competition and herself and other women.
Carrying the weight of [starring in the film] and having lived it, some days [my] bandwidth was so full that I would just look at Kimmy and say, “What did I mean by this line? Why did I write this?” It was nice just to have her always have an idea and to guide the ship. It was oddly relaxing.
You’re now years removed from that toxic relationship and you’ve since gotten married. Was making this film still a cathartic experience for you?
You know, the writing of this was meant to be cathartic, because it took me a couple years to process it, and in 2015 I really started writing it. That was just a way of working through it and making sure that I was mentally happy and healthy, and that I would never make anyone pay for my mistakes the way Dennis Kelly had taken out all of his issues with himself on other people.
After I had written it, the lessons were over. There was no pain. The making of it, it became art and it became about creating something. It became about comedy and timing and the editing of the script. It just became about that project and not about the initial heartbreak.
Tells us about Margaret Cho’s character, Margo. Did you have a real friend like that who helped you out?
Margaret’s character is actually a combination of a couple of women in my life. One of them is my mother, who was the first one who thought, “There’s something not right about this guy.” She’s also based loosely off my best friend in real life, who is queer, and there’s a shorthand that she and I have with each other, and I very much needed to see that character be queer because it was just the most relatable thing. She executed it beautifully.
Then you have Rebecca Rittenhouse’s character, Serena, who comes into Andrea’s world, sort of out of her element, but she ends up helping her. Is she based on a real person?
She’s based on my biggest competition, Beyoncé. No. This is less about a person and more about creating a character who was the physical manifestation of competition, and of a feeling. I really wanted to sort of explore this idea that as women, we’re always pitted against each other, but we’re always told to act like that’s not happening. I wanted to create a character who’s so impossibly beautiful, so different, and so on her own path that Andrea has to arrive at the conclusion that this girl is not standing in your way. Whatever is meant to be yours will be yours. I wanted to have fun with that frustration that we’ve all felt towards someone who we feel is a rival, but who probably doesn’t even think of us.
And Rebecca Rittenhouse was so perfect for it. She’s so beautiful and funny, and she was so down to look silly at certain parts. She played it so perfectly. It was a lot of fun.
Many women, especially those in their 30s, can also relate to the pressure Andrea feels to settle down. What do you hope women take away from the film?
Andrea and I are very, very similar. We’re basically the same person. We don’t see represented in movies, especially in rom-coms, a normal girl. The love interest either needs to be taken down a peg, or she’s not vulnerable enough, or she’s a mess, a hot mess, and she’s falling over and she can’t get it together. In actuality, more women are like me, and that’s who my audience is. We are women who pay our way through life. We’re pursuing our careers. Yeah, you might date the wrong guy here and there, but there’s nothing overly strong. I think women get labeled as “strong” simply by existing, and I think Dennis sought to punish that.
Most women don’t need to be taken down a peg. If anything, they should watch this movie, and I hope it confirms that you’re on the right path. You’re doing life just fine.
You recently had a more serious role in “Pieces of a Woman,” opposite Vanessa Kirby. What was that experience like, taking on a dramatic role?
There’s less pressure because everyone on set was so much better than I am at acting. These are serious dramatic actors. My only goal the whole time was, of course, to learn as much as I could, to show up, be quiet, and learn, and my only goal was to not be the reason the scene was messed up. I just sort of kept my head down and absorbed as much as I could and took direction.
It was a real exercise to get to play something serious on a serious set. I literally shot “Good on Paper,” wrapped at midnight, and at six a.m. was on that flight to Montreal. I was there for two weeks to shoot the movie. It was a real tonal shift. Those two movies are nothing alike. It was great.
Being a stand-up comedian, how has the pandemic affected you? And, what are some things you have been doing to stay sharp and sane?
At the beginning of the pandemic, when we didn’t know how long this would last, my husband [Noah Galuten], he’s a brilliant chef, so I said, “Let’s start a cooking show. Let’s do it on Instagram Live. It’s a great way to remind people to stay home, flatten the curve.” Remember when we used to say that? It was our way of saying, “Don’t panic. Here’s how you can cook with what you have.”
We decided to do it every day. Now we do it twice a week, and we’re over 220 episodes in. We’ve had multiple sponsors, including Dansk, and it was our way of comforting people and dispensing information, but it led to a little cottage industry. He could cook, I could entertain, and we created our own sort of niche genre. Every Monday and every Thursday, live on my Instagram at five p.m. [PT]. It’s like a little community.
Also during the pandemic, Netflix dropped the first season of your hilarious series “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show.” Can we look forward to a second season soon?
I have plans for season two, but, unfortunately, Netflix does not. While there will be no season two, I have a book coming out with Abrams called “All Things Aside” in the next year or so. My husband has a “Don’t Panic Pantry” cookbook coming out… And I have this 60-city tour definitely coming to a city near you.
What can audiences expect from you on this new tour?
It’s brand-new material. I worked very hard in quarantine. The second we could do stand-up safely and socially-distanced, I was out in L.A. doing local sets. I put together a drive-in tour through multiple cities throughout the country, and I cycled through a bunch of material, a bunch of covid material, and in that, I probably wrote an hour that I threw away. So, I have a brand-new hour. I started touring it and people are loving it. It’s a lot of holding up a mirror to society, skewering everyone, a no-holds-barred honest look at myself. It’s just some really good stand-up comedy. That’s the best I can describe it.
“Good on Paper” begins streaming June 23 on Netflix.