Eliza Coupe on Improv and Learning Chinese for ‘Shanghai Calling’
Regardless of what it says on her Wikipedia page, Eliza Coupe does not have a background in improv comedy. “It’s funny that people say I studied at all these places because really, I never did,” she says. “I paid to put up my one-woman show at ImprovOlympic, only rehearsed a show at UCB, and only took one class at The Groundlings because I was told that I wasn’t good!”
Whoever said that must be eating their words now, because Eliza Coupe has turned out to be one of the strongest comedic actresses working in television today. From her two-season turn as Dr. Denise Mahoney on “Scrubs” to her hysterical portrait of Jane Kerkovich-Williams on ABC’s “Happy Endings,” Coupe has stolen scenes by committing fully to outrageous characters with loveable personalities.
And she’s not just doing that on the small screen. In her new film, “Shanghai Calling,” Coupe plays Amanda, a relocation specialist helping powerhouse attorney Sam (Daniel Henney) make the transition from life in New York City to life in China.
Coupe chatted with us about “Happy Endings” and what she’s learned about improvisation through the years.
We’ve bucked the myth about your improv background, but the “Happy Endings” cast is known for doing a lot of improv on set. How does that come into play when working on a scripted series?
Coupe: It’s much easier improving off of something that’s scripted. And we’re lucky to improv off of our work because the writing is so exceptional. You can’t improv off of bad writing. Then you have to actually create your objective, which is really hard to do in an element without the skeleton to go off of. With ‘Happy Endings,’ we all have our own storylines and arcs. If you improv off of random jokes, that’s not going to stay in the cut. It’s a 22-minute episode, and they have to stay on story. But if you improv off of the story and off of what your character’s intentions and needs are, that’s going to stay in because it’s only going to drive home the point to the audience in a more comedic way.
Life imitates art for actress Eliza Coupe in her upcoming indie ”Shanghai Calling.” The story focuses on a group of Americans who reboot their lives by starting over in China; Coupe has enjoyed her two consecutive roles playing biting blondes on TV — on “Scrubs” and now “Happy Endings” — but relocating to an exotic locale for the part of a sweet single mom gave the actress a powerful understanding of the expat appeal.
The pull of Shanghai notwithstanding, Coupe did return to the States, where we got the scoop on faking conversational Chinese, the dangers of playing too many a**holes, and more.
You didn’t speak Chinese at all before filming “Shanghai Calling,” right? But you speak quite a bit of it in the movie — and very convincingly! Did you actually learn any Chinese for the role, or did you memorize it phonetically? It’s impressive, either way.
I think if I remember correctly, I had just come back from a French lesson [when I got the role]. I learned the Chinese through Pinyin, which is phonetic. Oh my God, I could not write in Chinese characters by any stretch of the imagination. I kind of just learned my lines … I didn’t say the tones right, to begin with … I thought I was speaking Chinese, but … my assistant over there was always like, “I don’t know what you’re saying.” When I was really, really trying to just imitate and not really know what I was saying, I found that everyone knew what I was saying. But when I was really trying to actually speak it, it was like, “No, go back to imitating us.”
In college, I went to school for acting, we had to learn phonetics just to be able to do dialects and all that stuff. I’m somebody who does better just hearing it. I’ll just imitate it, and I get it better that way. When I know too much information, I’m not great. I used to play the piano by listening to it — like Chopin pieces, when I was like a little kid — and then the minute my parents got me lessons to read music, I couldn’t do it anymore.
Eliza Coupe is best known from bringing the funny thanks to her sublime sitcom Happy Endings and so wrong it’s right webseries, Frenemies. But in her new movie, Shanghai Calling, Coupe proves her heart is as strong as her funny bone.
The fish out of water tale casts Coupe as Amanda, a relocation specialist who is tasked with helping Sam (played by Daniel Henney) acclimate to his new surroundings in Shanghai. But filming the movie on location in China led Coupe to wish she had an Amanda of her own.
In addition to opening up about this amazing moviemaking experience (as well as hooking ETonline up with an exclusive clip!), Coupe talks about the current season of Happy Endings and previews a couple fun surprises coming in the near future.
ETonline: Shanghai Calling actually filmed in China. Did that immersion help you step into the character’s shoes?
Eliza Coupe: Yes, and I’m going to steal that from you because that’s exactly how it felt. There’s nothing like being on location and throwing yourself into the world you’re representing. We were really there. My character was supposed to have been living there so she knew the language, but I had never been to China, so I felt more like Daniel’s character — which is funny because David’s lived in Asia a lot, so he ended up teaching me a lot in our off-time. But I have to say, filming this movie was one of the best experiences of my life.
Eliza Coupe watches awards shows for the ‘accidental nudity’
Fashion is pain… and humiliation. Just ask Eliza Coupe.
“I cannot feel my legs from the waist down any longer. But who cares? I look good and that’s all that matters,” the Happy Endings star told EW at our pre-SAG Awards party on Saturday night. “And when I die of hypothermia for wearing formal shorts in winter, tell them to put that on my tombstone.”
Coupe isn’t just willing to suffer personally for the sake of looking good, she’s also what you might call a sartorial sadist.
“I also like awards shows for the danger. I wait and hope for fashion emergencies,” the actress admitted. “I love a good nip slip. I want a boob to fall out.” And she’s always on the lookout for a flash of some rarely seen part of the male celebrity anatomy.
“While this never happens, I would not be opposed to a guy having a testicle fall out. Considering they are usually wearing tuxedo pants, that would have to be one huge testicle,” she joked. “And in that case, that sounds like a medical problem and that guy should go see a doctor.”
Though dressing for the red carpet may be the fashion equivalent of a blood sport, Coupe was careful to note that she wouldn’t want to see any actual bloodshed.
“I don’t want anyone to get seriously hurt,” she explained. ”But I do watch awards shows to critique the clothes while I sit around eating chips in my sweat pants and in hopes of seeing some hilarious accidental nudity.”
Eliza Coupe Loves Jack White, Hates Cats, Thinks A Lot About What Her Last Meal Would Be
Eliza Coupe is probably best known for her work as Jane Kerkovich-Williams on Happy Endings — a show we adore around here — and as Dr. Denise “Jo” Mahoney on Scrubs. Raised in New Hampshire, Coupe played ice hockey as a kid and is well-tattooed (her tats are covered for the show). Prior to her success on television, Coupe studied improv at The Groundlings, toured France in an all-female production of King Lear, and staged a one-woman sketch show at Upright Citizens Brigade.
Eliza was nice enough to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule recently to answer a few of our questions.
1. You walk into a bar. What do your order from the bartender?
Before I order anything from any establishment I use their bathroom first. I have a walnut sized bladder. Then I order a water with lemon to start….which makes me have to pee more, I’m a wicked good time.
2. Who’s your favorite person to follow on Twitter?
3. What’s currently waiting for you on your DVR/TiVO?
4. It’s your last meal — what are you going out with?
I play this game all the time when I’m eating my boring salads day in and day out. Ok, so it’s probs gonna be fettuccine alfredo, a burrito, a king sized snickers bar, cereal (a mix of all my faves), pumpkin pie, a couple of Cadbury eggs, toast with homemade raspberry jam, a grilled cheese sandwich and then something with peanut butter and chocolate. And then for desert…..
Eliza Coupe Talks Stolen Birthday Thunder, Pinterest Rejection
The controlling and often OCD heart of Happy Endings, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Jane (Eliza Coupe) is the kind of person who might fake her own birthday.
Tuesday’s Christmas episode of the ABC comedy (“No Ho Ho”) reveals that the character reluctantly shares her real big day with the baby Jesus. And in an attempt to give her a proper celebration, the gang overcompensates by trying erase all signs of the holiday… quite unsuccessfully.
“Like any great television show episode, it’s sad in the beginning, she goes through a thing and then in 22 minutes she’s happy again,” Coupe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “TV is the best. I wish that’s how life was.”
It actually hits oddly close to home. Coupe’s own birthday thunder has been stolen by Easter and, when she was really young, her older brother falling off of a 50-foot cliff.
Coupe, who frequently showcases her off-color humor on recurring Funny or Die shorts like Frenemies, also opened up about the show’s evolution, her latest obsession (Pinterest) and the recent announcement that the Happy Endings third season will be slipping off the schedule earlier than originally planned.
The Hollywood Reporter: So Jane has been pulling a birthday con since she was a little kid? Eliza Coupe: She’s a Christmas baby, and she’s hid it from everyone including her husband Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.). She doesn’t want to share her birthday with a national holiday or the birth of Christ, so she decided her birthday is in July. She has a whole experience of walking around and feeling down, and then everybody makes her feel better.
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