By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—The character of Shelly in Daniel Clowes’ sardonic graphic novel “Wilson” gets a makeover in the big screen adaption of the book, with the casting of perky and pretty Judy Greer. Initially the grumpy title character’s pet sitter, Shelly and Wilson eventually come together romantically towards the end of the black comedy, directed by Craig Johnson. Greer’s Shelly even introduces the middle-aged misanthrope (played by Woody Harrelson) to yoga.
Best known for her supporting work in big Hollywood movies including “Ant-Man” and “Jurassic World,” Greer says she knew of Clowes’ other works but hadn’t yet read “Wilson,” when she was tapped for the role of Shelly. The prospect of playing a Clowes character along with the opportunity to work with two-time Academy Award nominee Harrelson were a couple of the reasons she was eager to get on board. Another was working with director Johnson, who previously directed Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in the 2014 dramedy “The Skeleton Twins.”
The actress spoke by phone from New York (which she described as “slushy”) about her newest role, working with Harrelson and reprising her role of Cornelia in the upcoming summer tentpole “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which also stars Harrelson.
Q: Playing a pet sitter/yoga enthusiast in this was a fun role for you, wasn’t it?
Greer: Yeah, it was a really incredible experience across the board.
Q: Were you familiar with the graphic novel before signing on to do this film?
Greer: I was familiar with Daniel Clowes, but I hadn’t read the graphic novel. I did read it after I read the script. It was interesting. It was informative, but it was also emotional. I think it was so beautiful. I love the drawings and, obviously, the story. It was so great that Daniel wrote the script himself and that he captured all those wonderful things that were in the graphic novel. I can’t imagine someone else adapting it. They wouldn’t have been able to maintain that tone as well.
Q: Shelly is a different-looking and behaves somewhat differently in the film vs. the graphic novel. Obviously, adapting any book into a screenplay, you can expect some changes. With you playing the character, she’s got a bit of upgrade in the movie. What was the main thing you wanted to capture about the character in the movie?
Greer: Well, once I got cast, I didn’t refer to the graphic novel at all. I just stuck to the script and I wanted her to be someone who was a grounding presence in Wilson’s life. I wanted her to lovingly not put up with any of his ****. What was so great about Shelly was that she might be one of the first people in Wilson’s life who is not co-dependent with him and can shut him off when she needs to… in a loving way. I felt like there was some tenderness that needed to be there. I think it’s funny that, in a way, they bonded over a dog.
Q: Are you the kind of person that when you go to the dog park, you go up to other people’s dogs and go, “Oh! Look how cute’”?
Greer: Yes, 100 percent. It drives my husband (producer Dean E. Johnsen) crazy. I always have to pet every dog. I do. They have to be pet. (She laughs.)
Q: Did you work with a couple different animals? Sometimes films or TV shows use different dogs for different scenes.
Greer: It was only one.
Q: Did you bond with her?
Greer: Yeah, I think her real name was Penny. Bonding with dogs on set is strange. I never worked with an animal on set long enough to really bond with them. They’re really so trained that you can’t. At least I haven’t been able to break the barrier to much, probably because they’re trained to stare at their trainer all the time, whereas if you go to your friend’s house and their dog will be funny and silly and you can play with them and stuff. Movie dogs are well trained. They’re trained to be actors.
Q: That’s because they get treats from their handlers after every trick they do.
Greer: Maybe I should ask my directors to hold up green apple Jolly Ranchers for me when I’m working. Who knows? (She laughs.)
Q: Was the yoga already in the script or did you say, “Hey! I can do yoga; let’s do yoga.”
Greer: No, it was in the script. I actually did that scene sort-of improvisation style in my audition for the movie. It was really funny to be doing it with a fake Wilson, but yeah it was something that was already in there that I really liked. It was a fun thing, because I do yoga and I do like to give my husband massages. I felt like that was easy for me to tap into, but I was very nervous that I was massaging Woody (Harrelson) too hard. I didn’t want to hurt him. I’m not professional masseuse. I was worried I might tweak his back or something.
Q: Speaking of Woody Harrelson, I’m sure you have a lot to say about him? What were your expectations of him? How did you guys get along?
Greer: My expectations of him were high and they were all met. I think we got along pretty well. You would have to ask him that. He is so wonderful and lovely and such a good listener on and off camera. I also just admire his social activism and the work that he does. I really respect him. He’s been one of my favorite actors for years. He’s just so great, so special, and he’s so charismatic. I just can’t say enough good stuff about him but, most of all, I loved acting with him. His eyes are so bright and shiny. He kind of sucks you in.
Q: Did you guys have a chance to do a lot of rehearsal beforehand or was your director, Craig Johnson looking for some spontaneity and improvisation?
Greer: I wasn’t really able to rehearse much with him. I don’t know if he and Laura (Dern, who plays Wilson’s ex-wife) rehearsed a lot. I wasn’t really around for that. It was pretty spontaneous on set. I feel like we had time on set to rehearse, figure some things out and make sure it all worked before we shot the scenes but, no, it wasn’t a long rehearsal process.
That’s never really bothered me. It used to surprise me when I first started acting because I came from theater training where you rehearse a play for six weeks and then you perform it. It’s so strange to me that studios spend millions of dollars on movies and actors don’t even rehearse. It’s actually still weird to me now. Sometimes I think it works. You do what you have to do. If there’s no time to rehearse It’s just not always realistic with everyone’s schedules and with financing and stuff. I don’t think it’s always necessary. Sometimes you can find spontaneity and beauty in the moment or wreck it by too much rehearsal.
Q: How was it working with Craig? Had you seen his previous films, like “The Skeleton Twins?”
Greer: I saw “The Skeleton Twins.” I thought it was so great and I think he is such a talent. I loved working with him. I mean, you see a movie like that and you’re like, “Wow, what’s this guy going to be like?” On set, he’s so calm and assured. We had a really aggressive shooting schedule and yet I never felt rushed.
Q: You shot this in Minneapolis. What was your shooting schedule like and how did that work out with the other projects you’re working on?
Greer: I was there the whole time. Sometimes I would fly back and forth when I working on other stuff at the same time. We shot “Wilson” in the summer. I think it was 30 days and I was there for about three weeks. It’s crazy. They had 58 locations in 30 days and they had to cut the locations because there were so many. We just didn’t have time. We were moving every single day. It was aggressive, but like I said, I never felt rushed and I loved being there.
Minneapolis was a great town. I’d never been there before. The people there informed of the movie. The city informed movie. It’s a very progressive and hip town and the people are down to earth. I really loved how it kind of told me how to be Shelly.
Q: Did you have an urge to throw your hat in the air Mary Tyler Moore-style?
Greer: You know I did! I have a picture of me doing it in front of the statue. My husband flew with me to Minneapolis, and as soon as we put our bags down at the hotel, we ran out to the statue (at Mineapolis’ Niccolet Mall). I celebrated my birthday there. That same weekend we walked through the places Mary walks through in the opening credits (of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” series) and totally did a whole homage to her.
Q: Did you get a chance to speak with author/screenwriter Daniel Clowes?
Greer: He did go to set, but not when I was there. I didn’t get to meet him, but I got hang out with him in Sundance, which was amazing. I totally forgot to bring my book for him to sign. I’ll have to send it to him.
Q: You have a few movies coming out this year, one of them being “War for the Planet of the Apes,” in which you reprise the character of Cornelia.
Greer: Yeah, I’m the Queen of Apes.
Q: How fun was it doing that and having make-up done every day?
Greer: It was all motion-capture. The great people of Weta Digital, from New Zealand, do all of our mo-cap work. It’s the greatest. They go to work and I spend one minute putting on a Velcro unitard. They put all these—I call them lasers—but the guys are like, “They’re not lasers, Judy.” I don’t know what they are. They attach all these things to us and then we act. They make hundreds, thousands of people look like apes. It’s really a special, beautiful experience. It’s really fun to act like that and it’s so freeing. It’s really an incredible experience and Woody (Harrelson) is in that as well. I don’t interact with him in the movie, though. Andy Serkis (who plays Caesar) is a total genius. What and honor to work with Andy and Steve (Zahn, who also plays an ape).
Q: Have you completed the drama “Our Souls at Night?”
Greer: Yeah, with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. I got to work with both of them in a handful of scenes in that movie for Netflix. It was such a wonderful experience. I can’t believe that I got to be in a scene with them. It was one of those Bucket List moments for me. In the scene where we’re bowling and I say, “I’m old” and Robert says, “I’m not.”
Q: What are you working on now?
Greer: I’m working on a TV show called “Casual.” Is it still called a TV show if it’s on Hulu? I’m doing about seven or eight episodes of that.
Q: You’re guest-starring now. Could you become a cast regular?
Greer: I don’t know. Fingers crossed. I would love to, but that’s up to them.