ABOVE: CHARLYNE YI. IMAGE COURTESY OF RAYMOND ZAPATA
When Entertainment Weekly crowned Judd Apatow the “smartest person in Hollywood” back in 2007, they did so with good reason—though often challenged, Apatow’s ability to discover and assemble groundbreaking talent is rarely equaled in Hollywood. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that team Apatow is responsible for what is understood today to be the modern American comedy.
Of this class, Charlyne Yi may very well be the Where’s Waldo of the bunch—omnipresent, a unique voice, and ever shapeshifting. It’s not easy to pigeonhole Yi. IMDb lists nine categories tied to her name: actress, composer, music department, soundtrack, writer, producer, miscellaneous crew, thanks, and self. Her career path in her own words? “I’m a person!” she clarifies enthusiastically.
Yi, 26, can be seen in This is 40, the latest from Apatow, his wife, et al., in which she reprises her bit role from Knocked Up  as Jodi, a cheery, unassuming, and surprising character onscreen. Yi, adamant about keeping her contribution to the film a secret, instead spoke to Interview from home in LA about her start in comedy, working with Megan Fox, growing older, first laughs, Conan O’Brien’s thighs, and spirit animals.
JOHN TAYLOR: Do you remember the very first time that you made Judd Apatow laugh?
CHARLYNE YI: When we did Knocked Up , I was bombing so hard. I was so nervous. I had never acted in my entire life, and I was so bad. I was so stilted—I was like, “Hi, I’m Jodi. I heard you were pregnant.” Judd [Apatow] comes out, he’s rubbing his forehead, like, “Agh… can you do what you did in audition? Uh… you know what, let’s just let it roll for 10 minutes, you say whatever the heck you wanna say, and I’ll chime in.” I flubbed some lines, which made it funny, I guess. I think I was supposed to say, “I fucking love kids!” But I accidentally said, “I love fucking kids,” and we all started laughing. We didn’t keep that in.
TAYLOR: [laughing] Oh, my God.
YI: Everything that was coming out of my mouth was awful, and I was improvising with Seth Rogen. His face was towards me, and he looked so pained. He was so pained by everything I was saying. I finally said one thing that made him laugh. I don’t even know if it was funny, but it was like, “Haaa, finally! Haaa…” I don’t remember it being funny—but maybe that’s why it was funny, because it was me trying to be funny.
TAYLOR: I want to hear about the first time you gave someone the giggles. Anyone.
YI: Kindergarten. I was always kind of alone at school, at recess, and I was at this tree. I was spinning in it, and these two girls—Annie and Andrea—found me, and they wanted to spin on the tree too, and I was, “No!” I didn’t know how to make friends. I was afraid of people, and so I dived into a pile of leaves to hide myself. They started laughing at me, and they’re like, “Us too!” and they went inside the leaves to go find me. They thought I was playing, and they thought I was being funny. I think my hard shell of, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it,” was like, “Maybe I do want friends…” Then I remember getting Popsicle sticks that had jokes on them, and I would bring them to school to make them laugh.
TAYLOR: I find it really it interesting that the first time you made someone laugh, you weren’t trying at all.
YI: I think that’s usually how it works. I think if you try too hard, it doesn’t work. I think whatever comes natural is probably the truth, and the truth is the strongest form of anything—whether serious or funny.
TAYLOR: Did you wander into comedy willingly?
YI: I don’t know. I was looking for a job, and there was a comedy club by my house that I auditioned for. I had never done comedy in my life. I didn’t even understand what it was, or what stand-up was. I think I thought it was a fad in the ’80s.
YI: It was like, “You can do stand-up too!” And I’m like, “Yeah, maybe I can do stand-up!”
TAYLOR: I read that you when you started out in comedy, you were couch-surfing and living out of your car. What kept you going? Perhaps your parents offered some encouragement.
YI: They didn’t know I was sleeping in my car. They didn’t know any of that sort of stuff. When I quit college, and I quit my Wal-Mart job, they said, “You only have one life, why not make something of it? We never had the opportunity to chase after our dreams, we support you in that way.”
TAYLOR: And now you’re in This is 40. What can you tell me about your role in the film?
YI: I… I never know how to answer this question. Because, if I describe the character in this movie, it will give everything away. But basically, the boring answer without giving anything away is that I work at Leslie Mann’s store with Megan Fox, and me and Megan Fox’s character don’t like each other.
TAYLOR: Megan Fox? I never would have thought of putting you two together.
YI: I met her at our audition, actually. Funny, I didn’t know what Megan they were talking about. They come in, and they bring in Megan Fox, and it’s like, “Oh, that Megan.” I hadn’t seen her in anything, but I knew her name, and immediately when she sat next to me, the whole room started giggling. I guess we look funny together? I kind of felt like Joe Pesci, like, “What’re you guys laughing at?”
TAYLOR: You don’t see yourself as a nerd, though, do you?
YI: No, not at all. It’s kind of shocking to me, actually, that I’ve almost been stereotyped, in a way—physically—because, I didn’t get good grades in school; I got in a lot of fights. I wear glasses because I don’t want something tugging my eyeball, but I wouldn’t consider myself a “nerd.” I don’t know what really makes someone a nerd.
TAYLOR: Why do you think everyone started laughing when you sat together with Megan?
YI: Because they’re dicks.
YI: They’re like, “Look how different Charlyne is! She’s so nerdy and weird looking. And then look at Megan Fox. They’re interacting.” I also think people have deep thoughts about what kind of people she and I are, so I think our interacting made their brains explode.
TAYLOR: While we’re on the subject, I think you look especially hilarious standing next to the 6′ 4” Conan O’Brien.
YI: I think I may have even noticed his thighs because I was so nervous. I was just like, “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”
TAYLOR: “Conan’s thighs! Nooo….”
YI: It was fun and awesome, but also scary, because—okay, meeting people in general can be intimidating, because you don’t know if you’re going to click or not. If they’re not interested in you, you can see it. But when you’re meeting someone for the first time onstage, in front of a bunch of people, it’s so crazy! It’s weird. It’s the strangest feeling ever, because you’re like, “Hi, nice to meet you,” and there’s clapping, clapping, clapping, and the audience, and, “Oh, there’s people here watching our blind friend date.” It was fun, but it was really scary. I like him. He’s nice. Also, I’ve only seen it once, but from what I remember, because it was so painful to watch—I muttered, like, bad jokes under my breath that no one would ever hear.
TAYLOR: Do you come up with jokes on the fly?
YI: I mean, really terrible ones. I’m not even sure if they are jokes. I think they’re just words, where I’m like, laughing nervously.
TAYLOR: Tell me a terrible joke.
YI: I can’t. I can’t! It’s like, “Interview someone else on the spot right now. Do a really bad job interviewing someone else. Go.”
TAYLOR: I just realized something—you basically sat where I’m sitting right now when you were filming Paper Heart .
YI: What do you mean?
TAYLOR: You were the one asking people questions.
YI: Yeah! It’s really hard. Interviewing is tough, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
TAYLOR: How am I doing so far?
TAYLOR: [laughs] Thank you for being honest.
YI: [laughs] You’re welcome.
TAYLOR: How about something fun? Let’s choose spirit animals for your fellow This is 40 cast members. We’ll start with you…
YI: I think I’d be a raccoon.
TAYLOR: Paul Rudd?
YI: A meerkat.
TAYLOR: Leslie Mann?
YI: One of those cats—like, a sexy cartoon cat that has white fur, and is very like, delicate. Kind of dance-y.
TAYLOR: Jason Segel?
YI: He kind of reminds me of a kangaroo. [laughs] I can’t explain that one.
TAYLOR: Megan Fox?
YI: [laughs] I just thought of something. I can’t say that. I can’t. [continues laughing] Oh, shit! This is hard.
TAYLOR: Let’s talk about growing older for a second. Charlyne, where do you think you’ll be when you turn 40?
YI: [pauses] It’s not far away! Oh, my God! Well, okay, I’m turning 27, that’s almost 30. In 10 years, I’ll be 40. I don’t know. I hope to teach at that point. Crap! Part of me is like, “Oh, I have so much learning to do so I can become a teacher by that time,” and then part of me is kind of like, “I wanna live life! Until I’m 40! Do wild things!” Well, not wild things, but, like, I don’t know… I’m learning how to ride a motorcycle.
TAYLOR: You’re learning how to ride a motorcycle?
YI: That’s what people do when they have mid-life crises. [pauses] I’m about to turn 30! Oh, my God. I’m almost 30. Wow…
TAYLOR: I’m sorry you had to learn from me.
YI: That’s okay. I’m not that afraid of age. It’s all mental.
THIS IS 40 IS OUT TODAY.