Parents know her as Mel, the psychotically obsessed fan on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, and as The Daily Show‘s Senior Women’s Correspondent. New York kids know her the girl who makes their stories come to life. In between filming Flight and a handful of feature films (including the upcoming John C. Reilly/Salma Hayek project, Cirque du Freak), Schaal works as a founding member of the Striking Viking Story Pirates, an NYC-based nonprofit that conducts writing workshops in area schools then turns stories written by kids into full-scale theatrical productions. We caught up with her just before she heads off to London to film a pilot based on her web series, Penelope: Princess of Pets.
– Christina Couch
You could be working on any project you want. Why start something like Striking Viking?
Story Pirates are really fun for us actors because the characters are crazy. I got to play a donut machine that takes over the town, a talking quesadilla that was part of a team of crime-fighters. There are so many wonderful characters that kids come up with. They take their imaginations farther than adults ever do. It’s also awesome to see these kids learning how to create a story, what the elements are. To get to see their work done is also really exciting for them, their moms and dads are usually there. It gives them a sense of pride. It shows them that their work matters and hopefully will inspire them to create more.
I’m not sure many leading actresses would admit to playing a talking quesadilla. What’s the worst role you’ve ever played?
Back in 2003, 2004 when Pirates began, I was just running around, trying to get any jobs I could and FAO Schwartz was hiring. They were inventing new characters for the store and one of them was a girl named Peppermint Twist, who worked in the sweets shop. I got to make up my background for her, so I basically told this disgusting story about how she was left in this store kind of like Punky Brewster, but her fate was much worse because she accidentally fell into a giant vat of candy and that’s why her hair was pink and she couldn’t leave the store.
You played the hostage toy with Stockholm Syndrome? That’s horrifying.
I know. The whole job was horrible. I had to wear a wig all day, seriously six to nine hours and sunglasses and tights and I had to be enthusiastic about candy and it made me so sad because you couldn’t turn it off. It’s not like I was doing a half-hour performance. It was a six-hour performance about candy everyday and that is the worst job ever. The second worse job is working as a waitress at Planet Hollywood. Don’t ever do that.
Peppermint Twist, donut machine, in Penelope: Princess of Pets (Episode one is here), you’re playing a girl who’s using her ability to talk to animals to kill a U.S. senator (with the help of a thirty-year-old orphan of course). Are you attracted to “freak parts?”
[Laughs.] They come to me and I don’t mind. It’s really fun to play them. I’m just not like the leading-lady Hollywood type, so as soon as you don’t have leading-lady Hollywood looks then you get to be in freaky stuff. I’m not complaining.
You’ve said before that most roles for leading Hollywood women are “f-ing boring”
Oh geez. Well it’s true. It’s so formulaic. There aren’t very many real surprises in movies now anyways, but there’s almost never one as far as female characters go. If there’s a leading lady on the screen, you almost always know exactly what her deal is going to be, so I’m happy playing other characters.
There’s obviously a looks-based caste system in film. Do you feel that sort of discrimination in comedy? Is the playing field equal for male and female comedians?
When this question comes up, I always get really nervous, because the women who are really successful in comedy are the women who aren’t really bitching or complaining about being discriminated against. They’re just doing good work successfully. I think that’s the truth. If you are a comedian that has jokes that are very funny, I honestly don’t think it matters if you’re a man or a woman. A laugh does not discriminate. I know that’s a very idealistic thing to say, but I think it’s true.
Are you ever worried about being judged?
“I love Mel. Here’s a character that’s completely un-self-aware.”
I’m fortunate in that when I’m on stage or behind the camera, I don’t really think about what people are thinking about me. I just try to think about the nature of the show and go with it. I don’t know where I got that from. I think if I were to psychoanalyze myself from an early age, I would pinpoint it to when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control what people thought of me no matter what so I just gave up. Does that make sense?
Sure. That seems to be true of your characters as well. How much do you relate to the character of Mel?
I love the role. Here’s a character that’s completely un-self-aware. She would never check-in about how weird she’s making other people feel, which I really adore about her. In that sense I’m like her. I like to think that I’m different on every other level.
Have you ever been psychotically obsessed with anything?
No, no, no.
Damn it, Schaal.
[Laughs.] I know. That’s the question I get asked by everybody. I wish I had something, but I have nothing and I have to be honest.
It must be strange to all of a sudden have people calling and asking the same questions, saying, “I read this about you” or “I’ve heard that . . .”
Well, it’s definitely made me more self-aware. When I hear stuff like that, I feel like Oh God, really? I said that? Why am I talking about myself so much?