Jessica Walter’s Two-Woman Show

Published January 13, 2014

ABOVE: JESSICA WALTER. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALI GLDSTEIN/FX NETWORKS.

Don’t ask Jessica Walter to choose between Lucille Bluth and Malory Archer: “I can’t be disloyal to my people,” she explains of her two most famous television characters. It’s a difficult choice for most people; Walter plays both unsympathetic matriarchs with precision and hilarity. As Lucille in Arrested Development, the actress accompanies her barbs with a simple eyebrow raise.  As Malory on Archer, Walter makes up for her physical absence with her timing, delivering the show’s saltiest—and raciest— lines with a deceptive sweetness. “We do have a giggle or two. Let’s put it that way,” she tells us. “With voice acting, especially with animation, you have to have extra energy—a certain kind of energy that, if you were on camera, would look a bit over the top,” she continues. “But you need that extra thing in animation to sell it.”

Like Jon Voight, Dennis Hopper, Alan Alda, and Christopher Walken, Walter got her start on television when Marion Dougherty cast her as an extra in two episodes of the ’60s cop show Naked City. While she’s been working steadily for the past five decades, Walter’s most memorable roles have come in the past 10 years. The roles haven’t stopped coming: when we talk over the phone, Walter has just finished filming a pilot for TV Land called Jessica Falls with Jaime Pressly. In the future, she’d like to work with Meryl Streep. We hope they do a two-woman show.

EMMA BROWN: Malory Archer has a recurring line: “Do you want ants? Because that’s how you get ants.” Have you ever had ants?

JESSICA WALTER: Oh, yeah. We had carpenter ants in my house in L.A. when I lived there. They live on wood, you know, and they’re big red things. I opened the drawer and pulled out some linens and it was totally crawling with carpenter ants. It was horrible. And I was in Australia doing a show and this field—a vineyard—as covered in red ants. We were really scared to walk.

BROWN: So there’s actual sincerity behind that line?

WALTER: There’s definitely, definitely sincerity.

BROWN: I read that all the Archer actors record their lines separately. Is it hard to get into the spirit of things when you’re by yourself in a recording booth?

WALTER: It’s not, because Adam Reed, who created Archer, and his producers Matt Thompson and Casey Willis, are on the other end of the line, and one or the other of them reads the other parts, and they read it quite well. So it’s not like you’re just going line by line by yourself, you’re going through the scenes with somebody acting them with you.

BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got involved in the show?

WALTER: My theatrical agency sent me, over the computer, two pages of the script to audition. I read it, and I really couldn’t tell from the two pages. Then I got a phone call almost immediately after from my commercial agent saying, “I have this copy for an audition for this show called Archer. It describes the character and it says in parenthesis ‘Think Jessica Walter.'” That happens a lot in voiceovers, they’ll have “Think Linda Hunt” to give you an idea of the voice that they’re looking for. And I said, “That’s funny, because I just got some copy that didn’t have my name on it.” She said, “I’ll send you the whole script on the computer; read it, and then if you’re interested I’ll tell them I that I represent you and you’d like to do it,” which is exactly what happened. They said, “Oh, wow. Terrific!” I guess they thought—I don’t know why—that I wouldn’t be interested, but I was more than interested.

BROWN: Have you ever been cast as a “Think Jessica Walter” before?

WALTER: No. Usually when I get those voiceover copies, I don’t get them. I don’t get “Think Jessica Walter.”

BROWN: Was there one role that kind of changed your career—a role after which you didn’t have to audition?

WALTER: Wow. I didn’t audition for Jennifer Falls. You know, maybe Arrested Development helped. I think that probably helped. In the last maybe 15 years, I haven’t really auditioned. Maybe once or twice, I can’t even remember what it was for. When you get to be a certain age, when you have been in the business for 50-plus years, they’re going to want you or they’re not. Nothing’s going to change their mind. No agent is going to say, “Oh, you must see Jessica.” They know what you can do and they know if it’s going to fit what they have in mind, so I think that’s part of it. When you’ve been around, they know your work, so they’re going to either say, “Yeah, she’d be great for it,” or “She wouldn’t.”

BROWN: If Ben and Jerry’s made an ice cream flavor based on Lucille, what would it be?

WALTER: Piña Colada. I can tell you Franklin the Puppet’s [would be] chocolate.

BROWN: Do you have a favorite Lucille line?

WALTER: I do have so many good ones—I’m so grateful for them. One of my favorites is, “I’d like to cry, but I can’t spare the moisture.”

BROWN: Do you ever feel compelled to tell people that you’re not a horrible mother?

WALTER: I’ve said that many times, yes. [laughs] I have a daughter, I have a grandchild, so people that know me know I’m really a good mother. For people that watch the show, I would hate to think they would believe that I was those characters. It’s only pretend.

BROWN: Did you always want to be an actor?

WALTER: Yes, from age three. I don’t quite get it because I went to see Bambi, the Disney cartoon, and my mother told me that from then on I wanted to be an actress. Now why I would put that with a cartoon about animals… I don’t know what was the inspiration, but that’s when she told me I said I wanted to be an actress.

BROWN: You weren’t traumatized by Bambi?

WALTER: I was a little bit. My husband was much more traumatized by Bambi. I don’t remember being traumatized by it as much as he was when we talk about it now.

BROWN: Did you ever have any moments of doubt about being an actor?

WALTER: I never had a doubt about wanting to be one, but certainly when there were periods of unemployment, I would think, “Oh, I’m never going to work again.” The only thing I don’t like about it is the business part of it—the negotiating and all this stuff that you don’t learn in school. I’m not good with business.

BROWN: How did you get your Actor’s Equity card?

WALTER: I was an apprentice at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I was 17 years old. Apprentices sort of clean the bathrooms and do odd chores, and if they’re lucky, like I was, they get short parts in the plays. I got a small part in a wonderful play by Paddy Chayefsky called Middle of the Night and then I got another part in a new play that didn’t go anywhere. That’s how I got my card—if you were in more than one play, then you get a card.

BROWN: Are there any particular roles on your bucket list?

WALTER: The ship has sailed on a lot of the roles that I would have liked to have played. But in my younger days, I would have loved to have played Blanche in Streetcar, and Lady Macbeth. There must be a ton of roles in the classics that I would have liked to play but didn’t, but those two in particular. And Tennessee Williams.

SEASON FIVE OF ARCHER PREMIERES TONIGHT, JANUARY 13, ON FX.