Melissa Rauch and Small Town Celebrity

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published March 21, 2016

MELISSA RAUCH AT  THE HOLLYWOOD ROOSEVELT IN LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 2016. PHOTOS: BRIAN HIGBEE. STYLING: LAURA MAZZA. HAIR: CRAIG GANGI/EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING KERASTASE HAIR CARE AND GHD TOOLS. MAKEUP: DESIRAE CHERMAN/EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING NARS COSMETICS. 

In her hometown of Amherst, Ohio, former Olympic gymnast Hope Ann Gregory (Melissa Rauch) is a celebrity. Her name is on the town welcome sign; she never has to pay at Sbarro in the local mall’s food court. This special treatment enables Hope to stay in the past, unemployed and still wearing her 2004 Team USA kit every day. When another local girl, the teenaged Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), shows promise in gymnastics and threatens Hope’s status, Hope decides to sabotage her.

Hope possesses none of the qualities of your typical movie heroine: she is selfish, entitled, fond of profanity, and pretty pathetic. She treats the people around her atrociously, from her too-patient father Stan (played by Gary Cole) to Maggie to her love interest Ben (Thomas Middlemitch). But that—and her exaggerated Midwestern twang—is what makes her fun to watch.

Co-written by star Melissa Rauch and her husband Winston Rauch, The Bronze debuted at The Sundance Film Festival in 2015. There was plenty of buzz surrounding the film—particularly the athletic sex scene between Hope and her rival Lance (Sebastian Stan)—and it was promptly purchased by Relativity. When Relativity went bankrupt, however, The Bronze was momentarily in release limbo. Fortunately, Sony Pictures Classics picked it up, and The Bronze finally came out in theaters on Friday.

Raised in New Jersey, Rauch studied acting and musical theater (“something sturdy to fall back on,” she jokes) at Marymount Manhattan College. Now 35, she is most widely known for her role as Bernadette on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory but has been writing with her husband since college.

EMMA BROWN: What made you choose gymnastics? Did you have any experience with it?

MELISSA RAUCH: I wish that I could say that I had some experience with gymnastics other than just loving to watch it on TV. We knew that we wanted to do something with the idea of celebrity, specifically celebrity in a small town. There was this moment that happened when I went to visit my family in the small town in New Jersey that I grew up in. This was years ago, and I had a first little bit of success on a VH1 talking-heads show that I was doing, one of my first appearances on TV. I went back to the mall with my now-husband and they gave me a free pretzel in the food court, and I was very excited about it. Then the next time I went, my show was cancelled, and they cut me off from giving me a free pretzel, and we were talking about what that could do to the psyche of someone who bought into that. We were talking about that in the world of athletics; young girls essentially peak at 16 [in gymnastics], at the age that most of us are trying to figure out what to do with our lives. Being that I am under five feet tall, we thought gymnastics would be a good match. I wasn’t going to be playing someone in the WNBA.

BROWN: Did you always want to set it in Ohio?

RAUCH: We did. We really wanted the feel of small town America and specifically the Midwest. We googled “small town Ohio” and originally came up with Butler, Ohio. Then when we were location scouting, we found the perfect town of Amherst and we just fell in love with it.

BROWN: I heard that your Ohio accent in the film is inspired by your college roommate. Is that true?

RAUCH: Yes. My college roommate was from a small town in Ohio. I came to college with a very strong New Jersey accent—mawll and tawk and cawffee—to the horror of all my first year acting teachers. They made me take voice and speech classes. My roommate was from near the Cleveland area, but a little farther outside, and she would say things like [in an Ohio accent], “I’ma be absent from school today,” and I started saying that to tease her. When we decided to set it in Ohio, I knew that that was something we wanted to add as a little flavor in the script.

BROWN: Are you still friends? Did you tell her?

RAUCH: I did. She actually came to set. She visited her family while we were shooting. Her nieces are extras in the end gymnastic scene, so she was very excited. When I was first starting to learn the accent, I had her read a few pages of dialogue and put them on tape for me. She currently lives on the East Coast, so she put that on tape for me, and then a few of her friends from her town also put that on tape for me. I wanted to make sure that it was authentic to their town. I also worked with a dialect coach.

BROWN: When you went home during college and you no longer had a Jersey accent, did people point it out? “What’s wrong with your voice”?

RAUCH: Absolutely. My best friend in high school, her name was Dawn, and we all called her Dahwn. When I went home, I said Don, and her mother was like, “What are you saying? That’s not my daughter’s name! Don is a boy’s name. It’s Dahwn, Dahwn!” So I did get some flack for that.

BROWN: Were you always good at accents? You have a slightly different voice for your character on The Big Bang Theory as well.

RAUCH: I’ve always been fascinated by different accents and dialects. As a kid, I didn’t go out much, so I would spend my time learning how to mimic people. Once I learned how to tape things off the TV, I would oftentimes tape things so that I could mimic them back—standup sets on HBO that I should not have been watching at that age because they were way too R-rated for my eight-year-old brain. I would memorize them and then go and perform them for show-and-tell, and my teachers would call my parents and say that I was doing very inappropriate standup sets. I was a super shy, shy kid, so that was kind of my way of expressing myself—to mimic what I saw on TV. I was a bit of a weird kid, but luckily my parents encouraged it.

BROWN: You and your husband wrote a one-woman show as well, right?

RAUCH: Yes, we did. We met in New York at Marymount Manhattan College, and we were writing partners all throughout school. We would write sketches together. We enjoyed doing it for fun. When we graduated from college, we were waiting tables and looking for jobs, so we wrote a one-woman show for me. It was originally about the time when you first graduate college and you’re trying to make it as an adult, and it ended up being very self-righteous and boring. Then we saw Jenna Bush speaking at the Republican Convention on TV, and she’s about the same age as me and we had read that she was going to be starting to teach at a charter school, so we decided to combine the two: the one-woman show that we were writing for me with this idea of making it through Jenna Bush’s voice, and exploring the Bush presidency through her eyes. We called it The Miseducation of Jenna Bush, and it was a way to do this coming-of-age story, a young woman coming into her adulthood, while also using the Bush presidency for some comedic exploration. We set it the night before Jenna was going to be teaching her first day of elementary school. She was drunk and hungover and needed to become an adult in one night. We did it at the New York Fringe Festival and the Aspen Comedy Festival and then we brought it out to L.A. Essentially, that’s what brought me to Los Angeles and helped me to stop waiting tables for a bit.

BROWN: What’s the dynamic like between you and your husband when you write? Do you tend to agree? Or if not, how do you resolve disagreements?

RAUCH: We pretty much operate with “best idea wins” all the time. Our process is that we outline everything to death before we take a stab at writing the dialogue. We’ll have some ideas of a line here or there that would be an overall theme for the scene, but the script is pretty much broken down before we start writing any dialogue. Once we’re finished with the outline, we’ll either improvise what the dialogue should be, or we’ll just sit next to each other and pitch ideas for the dialogue. Sometimes I’ll take a stab at the scene, he’ll take a stab at the scene, and we’ll combine the best of. Or it will be like, “What you wrote is better.” It’s pretty balanced. We take turns who’s sitting at the computer. Sometimes it’s both of us at our own computers or one of us paces and one of us writes. But I would say that the writing aspect of our marriage is the most equally divided part of our relationship. [laughs] As a couple, there are things—whether it’s just the household chores—that are mine and that are his, but this is something that is I think the most 50-50 of our relationship.

BROWN: Once you had the script, what made you choose Bryan Buckley as the director?

RAUCH: We met with a lot of directors when we were going through that process, and Bryan put together this beautiful PowerPoint presentation of his vision for the movie. The thing that I had said from the moment we wrote the script was, “I want it to look like a drama. I don’t want it to be glossy. I want it to look gritty and grounded and real.” We have some big, broad moments, but I wanted it to be centered around the truth of this character and the darkness that she’s living in. The first thing out of Bryan’s mouth when he sat down was, “This movie needs to be shot like a drama. I want it to look like The Fighter,” and he had this beautiful pictorial of all the movies he saw it looking like. Bryan’s just an aesthetic and visual genius; he’s absolutely incredible the way his mind works. He took everything that was on the page and he made it look better than we ever could have imagined. He’s so specific in his ideas; it’s like he can just see it all in front of him and he’s able to paint this picture for you.

With this script, it was very much our baby, and when we were looking for a director, it really felt like we were giving it up for adoption and wanted it to be an open adoption. Bryan was very collaborative while also taking command of every moment. Also, Bryan has an Oscar-winning short film that’s absolutely incredible. It’s about Somali pirates. We watched that and it’s very different from The Bronze, but the similarities were the heart and comedy that he infused into this dramatic situation, so that spoke to the tone we wanted to go for with this. Also we have all these big, grand set pieces in the movie—like the games at the end and the sex scene—and Bryan has such amazing experience with the hundreds and hundreds of Super Bowl ads he’s done. We were working on a crazy tight budget and really tight schedule, and we just knew Bryan would be able to execute it. Going from this small town, we wanted the scenes to look really grand when she gets to the Toronto Games, almost like Dorothy going into Oz. Also he’s just one of the loveliest, nicest people you’ll ever meet, and we became like family shooting together. He’s like a dear brother to me at this point.

BROWN: The sex scene between Hope and Lance was all I heard people talk about at Sundance when the film premiered in 2015. Was that the reaction you expected or were hoping for?

RAUCH: I guess I should’ve known; we were very excited that there was such a wonderful response to it. I called my mother from the airport from Sundance on the way home. I knew that a lot of the news coming out of Sundance was, as you said, the sex scene, and for some reason, I didn’t think to prepare my mother for that [beforehand]. We were just excited—we were opening night at Sundance. I told her a little bit, but I knew she was reading everything, because my parents are incredibly supportive. So I called her and I said, “I’m so sorry, I know you’re probably reading all this stuff about the sex scene.” And she went, “This is great! Sex sells! Whatever it takes!” She was really sweet and supportive. She hasn’t seen the movie yet, but they’re going to come to the premiere. I’ve warned them at this point what they’re in for. I’m sure it will be slightly awkward for them, but they’re happy it’s a body double for me.

BROWN: You’ve got such a great cast, which role was the hardest to find the right fit for?

RAUCH: We really lucked out. Gary [Cole] I had worked with on one of my first jobs when I moved to L.A. He was so sweet to me—he played my boss—and when we were about three-quarters of the way through writing the script, I went to Winston, “Gary Cole would be so perfect as Stan!” We luckily got it to him in time; he was about to sign on for another movie. We sent it to him right before we started shooting and we heard back from him the next day or two days later saying that he was on board to do it. We’d been a fan of Thomas Middlemitch’s for a while when he came in and auditioned, and he just was phenomenal. He’s so hilarious while at the same time having this enormous wealth of heart. Sebastian [Stan] talked about someone he knew who was a little bit like Lance, and he dropped a couple of lines as how this guy would say Lance’s lines, and it was absolute perfection. Then Haley Lu Richardson, we auditioned a lot of teen girls for that role, and when Haley walked in, she just embodied this character so perfectly. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted for that role until we saw it.

BROWN: Did being on the other side of things and watching all of these actors audition change the way you audition?

RAUCH: A lot of times I’ll read a script and I’ll rule myself out at the description. When Winston and I write a script, sometimes from the moment we write it we know in our minds: “This is exactly what we want. This is who we see.” We have a vivid picture of it. Other times, we’re like, “Let’s describe the character as this” and we’re not necessarily dead-set on it. When we started the audition process, I realized that I should actually just go based on what the character’s essence is, and if there’s something I feel like I could bring to it, and not count myself out based on the description. We didn’t really know until some of these actors came into the room that that’s what we envisioned the character looking like. That was something that I took away from it.

THE BRONZE IS OUT NOW.