Judy Greer is happy being the go-to gal-pal

December 2, 2011

She’s generating major buzz – perhaps even Oscar buzz – for her role in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.”

But actress Judy Greer is just happy to be in the film at all.

“Oh, I expected to be cut out,” she says earnestly, sitting in a conference room in the office of Fox Searchlight Pictures in New York this week. “This is obviously a nicer way to go.”

With her endearingly high-pitched voice and sunny disposition, Greer is a lot like the characters she’s played in a variety of films and TV series: too self-aware to be chirpy or perky and yet managing to be bubbly just the same.

Her pessimistic view of her work in “The Descendants” is not “because of the work,” she says, “but because I always expect to be cut out.

“I usually play supporting characters,” the 36-year-old actress says. “When a movie gets long, those are the first to go. It’s never like I have the assumption that I’ll be in the movie. I like to be pleasantly surprised. I’ve been doing this so long and I still enjoy it so much. But it’s still always a miracle to me that I’m in the movie.”

She’s particularly dazzled by this film. “The Descendants” is one of the most acclaimed films of the year; the Alexander Payne effort stars George Clooney as a Hawaiian lawyer coping with the impending death of his comatose wife, who discovers that she was having an affair. Greer plays a woman he encounters in his search for the man who cuckolded him – and gets a juicy scene at the end that’s crucial to the film.

So saying yes to the role wasn’t too difficult, she admits: “Well, start with the fact that they were shooting in Hawaii,” she says. “And then the double miracle of having a scene where I smooch George Clooney. And the biggest miracle: Alexander Payne was directing. So I was happy just to be in the room – I mean, that’s already one of the best days of my career.”

Greer is too modest. She’s been working almost since she graduated from the theater school at Chicago’s DePaul University and moved to Los Angeles to try to find acting jobs.

“I won the lottery,” she says, to describe her success. “My fantasy in my head was that I’d try this and then go to Sarah Lawrence for graduate school – although I didn’t know what I’d do there. When I got to L.A., my mom wanted me to get my manicurist’s license and do nails. I might have been good at that – although I don’t think I’d like to do toes.”

Instead, she started winning parts almost immediately and quickly settled into a certain kind of role that’s kept her busy ever since.

“I’m the go-to gal for sidekicks and best friends,” Greer says. “People always think of me that way. Personally, I don’t see limitations to what I can do. I mean, I’m not going to play the lead in a procedural cop drama, although I think I’d be good as an undercover cop. But I still feel the way I felt in college – that I can play anything.

“Then I get out and audition for jobs and I end up playing myself. How many versions of yourself there are is up to whoever is casting.”

Still, Greer is amused at the idea, particularly because she so closely identifies with two characters who she believes are close to who she is as a person – but are polar opposites in terms of temperament.

“I played a character on a failed TV show, ‘Miss Guided’ (2008), that I loved so much,” she says. “She was so positive and happy. I was really excited about the future playing her because I got to be so happy.

“Then I shot a movie called ‘27 Dresses’ (2008) – and my character was crabby and mean and bitchy. And that came very easily, too. And then there’s Kitty Sanchez on ‘Arrested Development’ – she’s all over the place. None of them feel that far away from me – but they’re all so different.”

Still, Greer has an earnest sense of gratitude for the career that she has, because it was so unexpected – at least by her.

“I never imagined getting real acting jobs that pay money,” she says. “I thought I’d work on the stage in Chicago and then get some other job. I never thought I’d get jobs in movies and TV shows. It does seem like a miracle because the number of actors who make a living acting is incredibly low.

“I mean, it’s not a confidence thing. I don’t sit around going, ‘Oh, I’m so awful and terrible and ugly that it’s no wonder I didn’t get that job.’ But it still always feels too good to be true. There are so many amazing actors; I always think, ‘Why not them?’ And yet it’s sometimes equally surprising when I don’t get a part I wanted.

“Who knows what the factors are? It’s a crapshoot.”

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