Whether she’s an unpredictable contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” or playing an eccentric senior citizen in the Fox sitcom “Raising Hope,” Emmy/Oscar/Tony winner Chloris Leachman is the very definition of a “scene stealer.” In “Raising Hope,” Leachman plays Maw Maw, the great-grandmother of Jimmy Chance (played Lucas Neff), who unexpectedly also became a father of a daughter named Hope (played by twins Baylie and Rylie Cregut). Leslie Jordan guest stars as the minister who performs the wedding ceremony.
Jimmy gets help in child-rearing from his parents Virginia Chance (Emmy winner Martha Plimpton) and Burt Chance (played by Garret Dillahunt), who became parents as teenagers to son Jimmy. Virginia and Burt are now about to become in-laws, since Jimmy is going to marry his girlfriend Sabrina (played by Shannon Woodward) and then go on a honeymoon with his family tagging along, in two back-to-back episodes that premiere January 29, 2013. Here is what Leachman said when she talked to journalists via a telephone conference call.
Can you talk about how you go the role in the show?
How did I get the role? I think Greg [Garcia], the creator of it, he wanted me. I think he just wanted me, and there I was, so he got me.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Leslie Jordan?
First of all, he walks in and he’s there and he’s so short that you just start laughing. I don’t know he handled it all his life, but he’s certainly turned it to something good. He’s just rare. He’s not a little person, but he’s very short.
The wedding episode is sort of a spoof on “Modern Family” When you were filming it, were you aware that it was being done in this different sort of way?
I don’t know what “Modern Family” is, embarrassingly. Hmm. I’d better watch it.
Could you predict the winner of Super Bowl XLVII and what will the final score be?
I don’t play football myself. Every once and a while I watch it with great avidity, it’s very exciting, but I’m never for any team just because it’s accidental if I watch it. I’m not very good with those answers, am I?
Is there anything about Maw Maw that wasn’t originally scripted for you, but you added to the role?
Goodness, let me think for a minute. They added everything. I added a white bra that the head of wardrobe, we decided what kind of bra I would wear. It’s a white, good, serviceable one that holds me up.
Is there anything you’ve learned about comedy or being comedic from portraying this role?
Oh gosh, what questions these are. What did I learn? I laugh too much. I keep ruining scenes and they have to do it over, so that’s not too good. What did I learn about comedy? Not to laugh. I haven’t learned it yet. I still laugh too much.
Out of all the media that you’ve worked in, what’s your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite. It’s the material and the people and the situation, that’s my favorite. It’s all exciting and fun and I love every bit of it, including radio. No, but stripping is fun.
Maw Maw makes some people uncomfortable. How do you react when people say you shouldn’t joke about certain subjects?
I’ve never heard that or read that or know anything about it. Nobody tells me anything. That’s what happens when you get old. They talk about you but you never hear it.
Is there anything that should not be the subject of comedy?
I don’t think so. No, that’s how you get through them. If you find the humor in things, it saves people’s lives. My phrenic nerve was overextended for about 5 years. My son was my manager and he’s so funny - really, really funny, and his timing is exquisite, it’s perfect. So I would laugh so much with him that my phrenic nerve got out of hand. Once it hooks in it just keeps laughing.
After playing so many great characters in your career, how much of a challenge was it to be different with Maw Maw?
It was just easy as pie the first year. The second year, Greg said, “This year, you’re going to have … dementia.” Good for you. Dementia.
So I did that second year, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. I couldn’t find myself, I really couldn’t. I didn’t know who to be because I was a little too aware and knowledgeable and with-it. I still had funny lines, but my character, I didn’t think, was as interesting as the first year. Third year’s the same thing. Let’s hope we have a fourth year and I find out.
When you were a young girl, before you began acting, what did you dream you’d be doing at this age?
When I was 14, I had to make a list of what I would like to be in school. I’d been taking piano lessons from Andy Williams’ aunt Cornelia Williams Hurlbut, and I loved her with all heart. I even did a game show once and I won a piano for her, and I gave it to her. That was my great happiness. I don’t know how much she taught me, but we talked all the time, just talked constantly together, just so interested in her and that she loved me.
She sent me somewhere in Iowa to a place where all the best students are sent to compete, really with themselves. Anyway, I got the highest score, which was the superior rating. I loved the piano. I never practiced it, just with my heart, I just loved it. I would just touch the piano and it was as if something from heaven came into my body. So I was either going to be a concert pianist, but I decided I couldn’t do that because I was definitely going to have children and they wouldn’t let me play and that’s really true, too.
Or a social worker, but I do that in my work anyway. I’m always rubbing people’s backs or telling them what to eat or taking their cigarettes out of their mouths. Or I was going to be an architect or marry an architect. In my day, when I was little, women weren’t architects. But I’ve done architecture in every home I’ve ever been in.
Right now, I’ve bought a new house in Topanga Canyon, but I can’t live in it probably till June . It’s clear down to the studs. It’s just beautiful and I love it. I’m very thrilled with what they’re doing so far. It’s sort of a hobby. What else? There were four things, but I don’t remember the fourth thing.
Is Maw Maw lucid today?
Well, they woke me up for this phone call, but I’m outside now and someone gave me a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, just squeezed this minute, it’s so delicious. It’s a beautiful day in L.A., my goodness, it’s not cold or anything, it’s just lovely and cool.
Do the “Raising Hope” cast members have fun behind the scenes? Do you play pranks on each other or anything like that?
There’s not much time. We’re very aware that we’re probably behind and going to have to work late and we have our own places to go to the minute they say “cut.” We either know we’re going to do another take and we get ready for that or we go back to our dressing rooms or we go and eat something or look for something to eat and find it.
What’s your relationship like with the other characters on the show?
Wonderful. I made Martha [Plimpton] awfully mad for a long time because she said, “You ruined it,” and I did. It was not willingly, it was entirely by accident. For instance, one night there was an award show and I was invited and she couldn’t be there, and she won an award.
They were going right by it, she’s not here, so I tore up onto stage and accepted the award for her to give our show more publicity, which I thought we were not getting enough of properly. I accepted the award but I don’t know what I did, for sure, that may have made her mad, but I did something that was not right. So we had to work through that and we have.
I am the best back rubber in the world for a non-professional. And she loves my back rubs, and she thinks I have a real talent for it. Anyway, I think we really love each other now. I had to work really hard to earn her respect and forgiveness, but I think I did it.
You’ve taken on a ton of different characters throughout your career. Is there anything that you’ve been surprised to learn about yourself by playing Maw Maw?
I think there were body parts on myself I hadn’t even seen and I can’t see. But I’m sure that millions of people will see shortly.
Do you feel there’s a formula for good comedic TV?
Once on “The Carol Burnett Show,” Bob what’s-his-name was trying to make the other guy laugh all the time and he’d just crumble him. The audience couldn’t wait to see him helplessly turned into a helpless fool laughing.
Do you have a lot of that on the “Raising Hope” set, trying to make each other laugh?
Garret’s really funny. He’ll do something that’s completely surprising in some reaction and I just go south. He’s so funny. I think we all respect each other very much and look forward to the scenes we’re going to do to see what each one is going to do with it. It’s amazing how we fall into it instantly, though.
What’s your favorite part of working on “Raising Hope”?
Oh, being half naked or wearing a bra or something. My favorite part is finding out what the other guys are going to do when they do their parts.
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