Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Vignettes from Vermont: Q&A with Melissa Stephens

Melissa Stephens

BENNINGTON -- Millions will tune in to Showtime on Sunday night to watch "Californication" kick off its 6th season. One of those viewers hopes Hank Moody dies in a fire by season's end because David Duchovny has taken his tortured man-whore writer to the edge of the cliff and it's about time for the Bukowski disciple to take the final plunge.

Not that the show sucks after five seasons -- two were great, one was utter crap save the finale and two others were up and down -- but as a fellow fan put it a few months ago, Californication has become "a caricature of itself."

Californication is about a writer named Hank Moody who smokes hard, drinks harder and drugs it up when he's not trying to stay sober. And he shtups like a dog with 2 dicks.

The problem is that Hank's fuck-all-comers lifestyle prevents him from holding onto his true love (Karen, played by Natascha McElhone) and daughter (Rebecca, played by Madeleine Martin) for any stretch of time. Hank's agent is the perverted fuck-up Charlie Runkle (played by Evan Handler), and Runkle's wife is "Cokey Smurf" (Marcy, played by Pam Adlon).

It's hard to imagine anyone else playing those characters. But the beauty of Californication has been its ability to surround Hank, Karen, Becca, Runkle and Marcy with a devastating cadre of guest stars each season. Kathleen Turner, Rick Springfield, Michael Ealy, Rachel Miner, RZA, Carla Gugino, Stephen Tobolowsky and Rob Lowe are a few of them.

Another one is Melissa Stephens, who, strangely, is not on the list HERE. That makes no sense because Melissa was one of the best characters during a strong fourth season, a pretty role-playing sex maniac by the name of Peggy. 

What kind of sex games make Peggy wet? "... brother and sister Holocaust survivors in the sack" is one of them. In the wrong hands, Peggy would have sucked something fierce. But Melissa Stephens, who no one has really heard about, killed the part.

But who is Melissa Stephens?

Melissa Stephens is from Fayetteville, Georgia. Her Hollywood resume isn't what one might call long and distinguished. Shit, she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Here's what her bio at reads:

Melissa studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following graduation, she worked Off-Broadway at PS 122 and Ensemble Studio Theatre. Since relocating to LA, she studied at Groundlings and UCB and was a member of Groundlings Sunday Company. She is currently a member of IAMA Theatre Company as a producer and actor and her credits include Reverb, Bachelorette and Assistance. She has also had recurring roles in Californication and NBC's Outsourced. She writes, acts, produces and rides the bus in Los Angeles. Yep, that's right. She also has a sweet, sweet bike. You can follow her on Twitter @melmstephens.

As someone who loves blonde honeys who are into "getting finger-banged underneath the kids table," Art Gallery Dude took an interest in the actor who played Peggy. 

The following is an interview AGD conducted with Stephens around Thanksgiving:

AGD: You have performed in several Funny of Die videos, including the perverse Jewish Santa Is Coming (HERE). It very much reminded me of the basement scene from Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. A 2-video Vimeo series called "I Hate Myself" (below) featured you rubbing one out to an episode of The Wire while the song "She's Like the Wind" plays in the background. Your resume also includes The Groundlings comedy troupe, the 1-line character Nadine in the movie "Elektra Luxx", and several other bit roles. In 2010, Californication gave you the character of a lifetime: Runkle's girlfriend Peggy, a twisted soul and role-playing sex psycho. You should have won an Emmy for the role, or at least been nominated.

AGD: Why did Peggy work so well for you, and vice-versa?

Melissa Stephens: I think it was a matter of timing. I was coming into my own. I don't mind being out there and this part just fit.

AGD: How did you prepare for that role?

MS: I answered a lot of Craigslist ads. Kidding. I just drew from my own experiences and my goal was to show up and do my best job.

AGD: In retrospect how might you play Peggy differently?

MS: I wouldn't play her differently. It was a moment in time that worked and her now is different than her then, because I've changed. So it's kind of impossible.

AGD: Did Peggy open bigger doors for you?

MS: Small little mini-doors. But yes. But not as many as I think people think. This career is built off of many jobs, but not just one, and I was grateful for that one but people only remember the last job you did in this town. So I am always trying to expand my creative life.

AGD: Of all the sex role-playing with Runkle, which one still makes you laugh?

MS: Hilarious talking like a little girl. It's fucked in such a great way.

AGD: In the famous dinner scene Peggy A) establishes that she and Runkle pretended to be Holocaust brother and sister for sex, B) stabs Runkle, C) cat-fights with his ex-wife Marcy after the stabbing then D) swaps spit with Eddie Nero (Rob Lowe). It's one of the greatest dinner scenes in TV history. Describe the atmosphere during the taping of that scene.

MS: I was a kid in a candy store. I was having the time of my life. I was surprised they let me on set. It was fun and fantastic and everyone was so sweet. I think they could see how much fun I was having.

AGD: How many takes did the scene require?

MS: I can't remember actually. I know the director wanted to shoot the dinner scene like a Robert Altman-type movie, and I love Robert Altman. The rest I don't remember.

AGD: Rob Lowe's lips are like ________.

MS: Not better than mine! Kidding. They are normal. I guess I never thought about that. But he's a famous actor so he's who he is for a reason.

AGD: Where does the scene rank on your resume of work?

MS: I don't know. Never ranked my stuff. But it is what people remember a lot of the time and people still talk about it, so it's up there.

AGD: Have you watched the first five seasons of Californication? If so, how would you like to see it end? And would you like to have one more appearance with Runkle? If so, Runkle and Peggy would role play ________.

MS: Yes, I've watched the show, love Tom Kapinos. He is a genius. Not sure how I would like it to end. I love that they do such a great job getting us wanting things and then tearing them apart and putting the back together again, if that makes sense. I guess it would be hilarious to see anyone role play the bunny costume fetish or whatever it is called ... that's just great.

AGD: In researching your work, I found the movie Elektra Luxx with Carla Gugino, who also guest-starred with you on Californication. You played Nadine in the movie, who gets a second and a half of face time in the first scene. I thought "Is that it?" but then you get a solid line in the closing scene when you tell Luxx that you have "a real flair for coming up with the filthiest things -- he can't get enough." Did you get the role of Nadine because of Peggy, or was it a coincidence to work with Carla twice in a short amount of time?

MS: I shot Elektra Luxx before Californication. Carla and the director had seen me in a play and asked me to come do a bit part which I was happy to do. Then I booked Californication later and we were together again. Just a happy coincidence that I loved.

AGD: Working with Carla Gugino was ________ because _______.

MS: Amazing because she is a true pro, something I hope to be.

AGD: More research (IMDb) revealed that in the 2012 movie Bachelorette you play Wasted Stripper, which is the 22nd character listed. I have yet to shell out 8 or 9 bucks to see Bachelorette, but if I did what kind of performance will Wasted Stripper deliver?

MS: A memorable one. The character description gives you a good look. My best friend in the world wrote it so definitely shell out the money to see it. She is a genius. Leslye Headland.

AGD: That's now 3 performances that involve sex. Do you feel like you're starting to get type-cast?

MS: Maybe, but I'm just happy to work.

AGD: Even another sex-themed role emerges in the Funny or Die video "White Man's D!#k" featuring Susan Sarandon. You don't have a line but get called a whore by a dude in a car. How much practice did that role require?

MS: Zero.

AGD: Six months ago you appeared as a guest on Letters to My Younger Self with Ingrid Haas, an Internet series for relationship advice and the like. For all of the high-level comedy and low-brow sex and self-loathing, the appearance with Ingrid gave the world a window into the real Melissa Stephens. At times it became poignant, like when you read your first question about cheating. It struck a nerve, it seems, and put you on the brink of tears. You revealed your dad cheated on your mom. You sounded maternal when you answered that "forgiveness is the key to life" and you also spoke about truth and self-sabotage, how you lost your virginity at 20 and how you "have dark thoughts a lot."

AGD: Do you suffer from depression?

MS: Yes and no ...

AGD: What did you get out of the appearance with Ingrid?

MS: A great friendship and collaboration.

AGD: Your Twitter feed is funny if not bizarro at times. How would you define Twitter?

MS: A place I call home.

AGD: Favorite actor and why?

MS: This is tough and changes from time to time. But initially Natalie Wood in "Splendor in the Grass" made me really think as a kid. The bathtub scene changed my life. Nowadays too much. Will Ferrell, Warren Beatty, John C. Reilly, Susan Sarandon, love me some Sandra Bullock -- who doesn't?

AGD: Favorite movie and why?

MS: "Splendor in the Grass" because that's real life.

AGD: Best way to prepare for a role is _________.

MS: Connect with the character. Immediately I find where we are similar, never separate myself from a character or judge it.

AGD: Getting back to Jewish Santa is Coming ... you deliver a line to the other two women: "How long do I have to wait for that Oscar?" Is winning the Oscar your dream or is not not on your radar?

MS: I want to win anything in life. I'm not going to turn it down but I'm not focused on it in any way right now. I just want to be a working actor.

AGD: You get the lead in a feature movie. Who would you like to direct it and why?

MS: Either my bestie, Leslye Headland, or David Lynch. I have a kindred relationship with her and she is a fantastic director. We could make magic. David Lynch is someone who I admire and love what he does. That would be great. If not, maybe John Waters 'cause he's crazy like me.

AGD: You're never given the lead in a feature movie ... when will you know it's time to stop acting?

MS: Yikes. Next question, please. Kidding. Here is the cliche saying they say in acting school: There is no small part just small actors. As long as I am working and creating I'll never give it up. It's not about the end result it's about right now for me.

AGD: Why don't you have a Wikipedia page?

MS: I feel too narcissistic to start one. Feels like that is something actually famous people should do and someone does for them. To sit in my studio apartment creating a Wiki page seems really sad.

AGD: Write the Wikipedia description of Melissa Stephens, actor.

MS: You are trying to trick me into writing a fake Wiki page and I just said it's sad to do that for myself in my apartment. Haha. So let's say this 'cause I can't take myself that seriously: "She is like the seasons, she is constantly changing."

Here is Melissa Stephens in action ...