Queen of self-mockery

Fame fatale
Last Updated 25 May 2013, 16:39 IST

In her new film He’s Way More Famous Than You, directed by Michael Urie, Halley Feiffer plays a bumbling narcissist named Halley Feiffer who, dumped by her boyfriend, fired by her agent and drowning in alcoholism, finds herself riding a high-speed, downhill skid.

Maybe it’s because she offered sexual favours to Ben Stiller, with whom she appeared in The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway. Or drunk-dialed Jesse Eisenberg, her boyfriend in The Squid and the Whale, one too many times. Or made it obvious to her doppelganger, Mamie Gummer, that she hated her for being Meryl Streep’s daughter. Nice try, but we’re not buying it.

Although the on-and off-screen Halley shares the same bewitching nasal laugh, rockin’ bod and boozy back story, the real-life Halley — her celebrity friendships intact — is a writer bee who has two plays opening this fall: How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Stella Adler Studio, where she is the resident playwright. It’s in her genes: Her father is the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and her mother is the monologuist Jenny Allen.

“They’re very supportive on a broad spectrum, whether it’s a movie I’m acting in or a 10-minute play that’s being performed for eight people on 36th Street at 2 o’clock on a Sunday,” she said. “And they understand my humour, obviously, since it’s their humour too.” Recently, Feiffer, 28, spoke about her dry spells and great expectations. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

You wrote ‘He’s Way More Famous Than You’ with Ryan Spahn, who plays your brother. Was your life really that awful when you guys were thinking this up?

Ooo hoo hoo. You’re like, “Oh, I feel so bad for you.” It wasn’t. But it is based on a sort of nightmarish fantasy of what my life could have become if I’d made slightly different choices. It has a happy ending, though. I don’t act like that anymore.

Were you drinking to the extent portrayed in the movie?

No, that’s an exaggeration. But the feelings that are in the film, mostly of that self-obsession and the envy and trying to control your life in ways that are impossible, those were all things that are real. And I tried to write about it in a way that was funny, because doing so allowed me to have a sense of humour about things that I’m not so proud of.

At 17, you were cast in Noah Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale. How did you temper your career expectations with the dry spell that followed?

You get to see that life is really unpredictable and nothing guarantees anything. At the risk of sounding corny, you have to find a way not to depend on that external stuff that I have zero control over and try to find a way to be fulfilled emotionally and creatively with stuff I do have control over. And for that, writing is really important.

You also won the National Young Playwrights’ Contest when you were that age.
And then I went through a dry spell with that, too, because I was drinking too much. I thought I was brilliant, and I would write short plays and think, “These are hilarious.” But I didn’t have the humility to say, “All right, these actually are not funny.”

You called in favours from actors who seemed willing to poke fun at themselves.
Ralph Macchio is an upstanding family man. And that’s how we wrote the part. Then he said, “I’d like it if you could sleaze my character up a little bit and make him kind of disgusting like your character, Halley.” So we gave him some STD jokes and hitting on inappropriate young women jokes, and I think he enjoyed that more.

(Published 25 May 2013, 16:39 IST)

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