The Contenders: Judy Greer's every emotion in 'The Descendants'

Quick, funny and offbeat — blend those traits with her adorable strawberry blondness and Judy Greer is a natural for the scads of supporting roles she's played in romantic comedies such as "27 Dresses"; such TV shows as "Two and a Half Men" and "Arrested Development"; and in movies from A-list directors Cameron Crowe ("Elizabethtown") and Spike Jonze ("Adaptation"). But the Chicago-trained actress has always hankered to unveil some of her depth and complexity, and she gets the chance to do just that opposite George Clooney in Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" — mostly in a single scene that's a tour de force example of the real, relatable and awful-hilarious behavior that defines today's most effective comedy work.

You seem to have a gift for making an impact in even a minimum amount of screen time. Is there a trick to that?

There's a story about the opening night on Broadway of "A Streetcar Named Desire." The critics were going crazy, and a reporter went to the stage door and followed an actor out and said, 'What's this play about?' and the actor told him, "It's a play about a man who comes to take a woman away to a mental institution." Well, that was his part, and that's all he needed to know.

So I just focus on the part I'm playing. I read the whole script a couple of times, and then I pull out my scenes and the ones where my character is talked about. That's all the info I really need. That keeps me in my little microcosm and makes my part feel bigger because I don't have to flip through all the scenes I'm not in!

In "The Descendants," you're in three scenes, total. In the first one, you meet Matt King (Clooney) on the beach; in the second, he shows up at your family's vacation house at night; and in the third, you show up at the hospital room where his wife is dying. And you're bringing flowers, but you know she was having an affair with your husband. That scene is such an emotional roller coaster. How did you build up to that?

I had to do all three scenes for my audition. The major work was that last scene in the hospital. I took it to my friend Sean Gunn's house — he's an actor — and we did it every way possible. Like, do it happy, do it sad, do it angry, do it giddy. Whatever we could think of, we did the scene from beginning to end with that emotion. And nothing was really the right thing. So he said, "I kind of think it's all of it." So I put all of it in there, and I got the part, which I never thought would happen.

Then on the set, Alexander said, "Just do what you did in the audition." For me, it was understanding that there's no answer to this problem. No good is going to come of this — it's a lose-lose. … You're losing your wife, and your daughters are losing their mom, but my husband still cheated on me. If you're cheated on by your husband, you want her to die. But then you go to see her, and she's dying, and you're like, "No, no! I take it back!" But I'm still so mad. That's what amazing — Alexander makes movies about gritty, raw, weird, real-life situations that you just pray you're never involved in.

It's a little like that scene in "Adaptation," where you're such a sweet, adorable waitress that the screenwriter character (Nicolas Cage) asks you out, and there's that incredibly awkward moment where he sees he shouldn't have done that.

I hated that scene! I feel so bad! Nic Cage was so heartbreaking and vulnerable. When it came out, I had guys saying, "Why do you have to be such a bitch?" And I'm like, "Why do you have to ask out your waitress?" I've done those jobs, and I know. Don't ask out your waitress or bartender. If there's a real connection — and there probably isn't — she'll ask you out.

When you moved to Chicago to study acting, did you focus on comedy?

Actually, that's just the way the ball bounced. It's what I do the most of, but I'm super-excited that I'm in "The Descendants" and also in "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which is coming out soon. It's a small, compassionate movie about family and following your heart. I don't really think of myself as a comedic actress. I know everybody else does.

What would you say "The Descendants" is about?

I'm stealing this from Alexander, but I think he's right when he says that the movie is about forgiveness. It's about family, it's about love, it's about starting over; but forgiveness is what each of the characters has to learn.

And weirdly, that's just what your character is struggling with in that hospital room scene.

See what I mean?

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