The New Normal
With eight seasons of her IFC show in the rear view, actor-writer-producer-director Carrie Brownstein adjusts to life beyond Portlandia.
Every actor has audition stories.
The casting directors who talk on their iPhones. The ones who noisily inhale a meatball sandwich. The people who doze off. But Carrie Brownstein's tale of her tryout for IFC's Portlandia is singular — especially because it took place at the wedding for the short-lived marriage of Brownstein's Portlandia costar and fellow executive producer Fred Armisen to actress Elisabeth Moss.
Having been chosen as the best man ("for lack of a better word"), Brownstein was expected to deliver a toast to Armisen in front of what she admits was a "tough audience" — something of an understatement, given that she's referring to the casts of NBC's Saturday Night Live and AMC's Mad Men. Armisen was still an SNL regular at the time.
Though she wasn't "super scared," Brownstein also wasn't fully aware of the high stakes. Lorne Michaels, SNL's creator and executive producer, was doubling as a wedding guest and, unbeknownst to Brownstein, appraiser of her comic talents.
At the time, just for fun, she and Armisen had been collaborating on hipster-skewering videos they posted on YouTube under the name ThunderAnt. Seeing a sensibility emerging in the short vignettes — which squeezed laughs out of clueless couples, aging hipsters and the painfully earnest — Armisen's manager told them, "There's a tone here, a consistency in terms of point of view. You guys should figure out a show."
Not wanting to offend Michaels, Armisen felt obligated to run his concept for a sketch-comedy series past an executive at Michaels's company, Broadway Video Entertainment. "[Fred's] manager said, 'I'm sure he's not interested in it. Just get his blessing and we'll pitch it,'" Brownstein recalls. What happened next took the duo by surprise: Broadway Video wanted to produce the show.
Michaels was well acquainted with Armisen's goofy charms. But when it came to Brownstein, he needed persuading. Cut to her crushing it with her wedding toast. "The fact that I was able to command a room and people laughed, and that he saw the connection that Fred and I have, I think that instilled in him a confidence in the idea of us as partners. Later, Lorne said, 'That was her audition.'" She shrugs. "It's slightly apocryphal. But it's also partially true."
Now, with Portlandia's eighth and final season complete, Brownstein is sitting at Kismet, an airy Mediterranean restaurant near her Los Angeles home. She's just arrived wearing a sparkly sweater, black pants and a jacket, and a slightly frazzled expression.
Her publicists, having miscalculated her late-afternoon crosstown drive time, have been functioning like a Carrie Brownstein Tracker app, issuing texts every 15 minutes: "She's running late" … "Thank you for your patience" … "She's finding a place to park."
Sitting down, she quickly scans the menu and orders a side dish of turnips with butter and preserved lemon. ("That seems like a nice snack!") Brownstein, who prides herself on being prompt, hasn't decompressed quite yet. Midway through pouring a glass of water, she freezes. "You want some, right?" Then she smiles and makes a deadpan joke. "For some reason I thought, 'Well, you're doing all the heavy lifting right now with all your hard-hitting questions.'"
Like most L.A. residents, Brownstein is subject to the city's traffic snarls. But her career — like that wedding toast — sustains a storybook quality. Who else can say they went from being lead singer–guitarist of an essential riot grrrl band (Sleater-Kinney) to blogging for NPR Music to being an A-plus helper at the Oregon Humane Society (she won a Volunteer of the Year award in 2006) to co-creating and starring in a Peabody-and Emmy-winning sketch comedy series?
The storybook pages keep turning: after directing a couple of episodes of Portlandia, Brownstein decided to branch out, guest-directing episodes of Comedy Central's Idiotsitter, NBC's A.P. Bio and Hulu's Casual.
There's also Search and Destroy, the Hulu pilot she wrote and will direct, which was inspired by Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Brownstein's raw 2015 memoir. It follows a pair of 22-year-olds — loosely based on Brownstein and her Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker — as they look for a drummer in Olympia, Washington, ground zero of the riot grrrl movement.
Developing a pilot with Brownstein, recounts Sue Naegle — head of the TV division at Annapurna Pictures, the production company behind the project — has been an unexpectedly humbling ride. "She's excellent at everything in a way that I find almost infuriating," Naegle says, laughing. "She's the kind of creator where I wake up in the morning and I already have four emails from her laying out what we need to get done during the day."
As Naegle sees it, everything about Search and Destroy has Brownstein's fingerprints on it, from the casting to the hiring of Ashley Connor (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) as director of photography. "Carrie recently said to me, 'Action and participation supersede commentary.' It's really true. How about if we just do it? This is a female director, a female DP. It's going to feel different just because of that."
When asked about foundational figures in her creative life, Brownstein points to her drama teacher at her middle school in the suburbs of Seattle. "You know how when you're young, everyone seems old? Well he was certifiably old — upper 60s, 70s," Brownstein says. She remembers appearing in a somber one-act called Ladies of the Tower in which, at age 12, she sat onstage in a semi-circle, clad in a black robe, playing one of the wives of Henry VIII.
"I loved how seriously he took theater, that we weren't doing the normal Brigadoon or Oliver Twist." Though Brownstein continued to appear in school plays until her high school graduation, she had trouble finding other outlets. "Especially in the [Pacific] Northwest, there's not a huge theater community for a teenager. So the music came along like a wrecking ball," she says.
At 15, Brownstein bought and taught herself to play an electric guitar. As a musician, she first rose to prominence with the band Excuse 17. But in 1994 she and Tucker co-founded the influential, still-revered feminist punk group Sleater-Kinney. The band went on hiatus in 2006 but recorded a new album in 2015 and is currently writing and recording a new album with no set release date.
Looking back, Brownstein credits her tenure in the indie rock scene for providing the basic tools needed to improvise in comedy.
"With music, especially with jamming, there's a lot of listening, a lot of giving yourself over to someone else's idea," she says. "I also think you can't be allergic to collaboration. I'm used to giving the stage. It puts your ego in check automatically, because by default you are giving credit to a community when you don't posit yourself in the front of something. So I think that music and sketch [comedy] have a lot of commonalities."
When Armisen talks about his friendship with Brownstein — they met at an SNL after-party in 2003 — he makes it sound as if their power partnership was meant to be.
"It was an immediate thing — we knew we had the same perception of things," he says. Armisen began flying out to Portland, where Brownstein lived at the time, and, together, they'd beseech friends to shoot them playing characters like Toni and Candace, the cantankerous proprietors of Women and Women First, Portland's leading feminist bookstore.
"We didn't have the sense to monetize what we were doing or turn it into anything tremendous," Armisen says. "I think we just wanted to make these little videos to show our friends. Sometimes the best reason to do anything is no reason."
As excited as Brownstein was about bringing their gaggle of "Portlandia" eccentrics to television, sometimes in the early days jitters would take hold.
"I was scared out of my mind," she says, recalling the moment on Day One of Portlandia when she and Armisen shot what would become one of their signature bits, "Put a Bird on It!" — a sketch Brownstein wrote satirizing the DIY home décor trend. "I was fine when we were doing a two shot," she says. "But I remember there was one point where it was, like, 'Action,' and they said to me, 'Just go ahead and riff on this,' and I thought to myself, [ quavery voice ] 'Am I able to do this?'"
Instead of falling apart, Brownstein rose to the occasion.
"When you're working with one of the best, you have to keep up," says Karey Dornetto, a Portlandia staff writer and coexecutive producer. "I think she's now on par with Fred [when it comes to improvising]."
Dornetto loved the moment when she realized that Brownstein's many transformations extended to the world of music, as well. "It's funny — I feel like she's very intellectual and together in person," Dornetto says, setting up her recollection of the first time she saw Brownstein perform with her post-Sleater-Kinney band, a supergroup called Wild Flag. "Then when she gets on stage, you're like, 'Oh. She's very punk rock. Don't fuck with her.' It's cool to see both sides."
The way Brownstein talks about it, Portlandia was like an education in all things TV, from acting to directing to writing to executive-producing. "It's hard to compartmentalize all those roles, and on Portlandia, we're moving at lightning speed. When I'm on set acting, I'm still thinking about the writing."
By contrast, when she describes her recurring role on Amazon's Transparent, it sounds like she's talking about a me-time vacation. "There was a freedom, a letting go, a giving myself over to another person's vision," she says of her experience playing Syd Feldman, the acerbic lifelong friend of Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann). "Exploring a whole character or narrative arc, you're really immersing yourself in a world. I really relished it."
Along with Transparent, Brownstein has built out her filmography with a small part opposite Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes's period romance Carol and an appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David's assistant. In Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, Brownstein plays the case worker of real-life cartoonist John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who uses a wheelchair.
She approaches the possibility of each new role methodically, first assessing whether or not it's in her wheelhouse.
"I think I am very, very good on Portlandia. But," she continues, laughing, "I'm a very self-aware person. I'm not being self-deprecating. I think it's good to have a sense of what you can do."
Once, while she was talking with a director about a role, he remarked lightly that she'd be expected to speak with a foreign accent. "I really identified with the character," she says. "But after that I was just like, 'Um, no.'"
Last year, while doing a promotional tour for the seventh season of Portlandia, Brownstein and Armisen caught fans — as well as IFC — off-guard by revealing that the eighth season would be the last (viewers can catch up via the IFC apps and on IFC.com, Netflix and other platforms).
Asked about the decision to end the show, Brownstein lights up. "I'm smiling because we were so clumsy about it," she says. "Fred and I said in an interview, 'Yeah, we're just going to do one more season.' And IFC was scratching their heads, saying, 'Please don't say that. Please let us be the ones to announce it.'"
Asked what he'll miss about Portlandia, Armisen sounds like he's already in full-on mourning. "I'm going to miss watching Carrie be really intense," he says. "Whenever she screams or starts doing a chant, they have to either cut away from me or edit it out. I always laugh."
Brownstein, on the other hand, is so busy that she's still in an emotional holding pattern. Along with Search and Destroy and the slow-motion reformation of Sleater-Kinney, she's working on a series of essays, a follow-up to Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.
"Friends and colleagues who've been in the same position tell me it's like a grieving process," she says of the series' end. "But this time of year, I'd be doing the exact same thing: promoting [the upcoming season of] the show. But next spring, when we do not reconvene in the writers' room…?" Brownstein pauses. "I think that's going to be strange. But right now it still feels normal."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018