Elsa (Clea DuVall)
A therapy session on HouseBroken
Tabitha (Sharon Horgan)
Some of the pets in HouseBroken
Clea DuVall can claim many accomplishments.
Her television acting credits go back to 1996 with an episode of Dangerous Minds and include key roles on Veep, The Handmaid's Tale and cult favorite Carnivàle. She recently directed the acclaimed TriStar Pictures film Happiest Season, often credited as the first-ever LGBTQ holiday movie.
And now, she is poised to voice Elsa, the service dog in a menagerie of household pets and neighborhood strays attending group therapy in the half-hour animated HouseBroken, alongside a cast which includes Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Nat Faxon, Tony Hale, Sharon Horgan, Sam Richardson and Jason Mantzoukas.
With character names like Honey, Coyote, Diablo, Max and Nibbles, the comedy tale - or shall we say, tail - follows them as they work through their issues inside and outside of therapy, concerns including monogamy, mourning and midlife crises.
DuVall, along with a number of cast members and writers appeared as their real selves on Zoom May 13 during a Fox Entertainment summer press tour panel – and the joy and camaraderie amongst them was palpable throughout the on-screen session.
"We never see each other, which is sad," DuVall admits a few days later in a lengthy phone conversation from the Los Angeles home she shares with her partner and their two cats, Twig and Pilot, both adopted from the same litter.
"It's the nicest group of people," she says of the HouseBroken cast. "We would do virtual table reads and then everyone records alone. But I did get to read with Lisa a few times - although it was tricky because of Covid protocols."
DuVall says The Simpsons shorts that aired during Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show before spinning off to become their own legendary series had a profound impact on her and demonstrated how stories could be told.
"I'm a huge fan of animation and I loved Bob's Burgers. I love Fox animation. They do so well with it," she says. "I've always wanted to do something in that space."
Yet DuVall nurtured a separate dream, which would eventually become intertwined with working in animation. She wanted to understand her feline Twig, the female in the brother-sister duo, because Pilot always seemed so happy and Twig seemed lacking on the contentment scale. You might say the purrs were not as perfectly frequent as Pilot's.
"I wanted to understand my cat, and thought about how great it would be to go to a counselor and express what she needed to make her happy," DuVall says. "How funny to have animals talk about their problems and how they experience all the human emotions placed onto them – but what's their perspective?"
Having met Jennifer Crittenden and Gabrielle Allan during her time on the last few seasons of Veep, she approached the two writers with her concept. They augmented it by suggesting it be about a number of pets in group therapy and not just one cat.
"We took that idea and brainstormed on it and HouseBroken was born from that," says DuVall. "I really liked them, and when we went back for [Veep] Season 7, I thought it would be so fun to work with them. They made the idea better by fleshing out the world and the characters."
Although Crittenden had worked on several seasons of The Simpsons early in her career, neither DuVall nor Peterson had any animation experience. DuVall is still adapting to the lengthy and labor-intensive production process, which often involves working on five or six episodes concurrently.
"The pilot episode I feel like we've been writing for three years, up until a week ago. It's wild, the lead time," she says.
"There's an episode I wrote alone, with the first draft in July, and we just now got the animation back a week ago. We have people all over the world working on this, with the main studio in Korea, and other work being done in India and Australia, so it's really cool to realize globally how many people's hands are on it and how much goes into it."
"I feel so lucky to have a hard-working passionate team with the most incredible cast of hilarious, nice people. Our writing staff is a dream and the producers are great. With Fox, I can't fully wrap my head around it to be on the same network as The Simpsons, which changed the game for animation. It's like getting a favored spot on a baseball team and such an honor to be part of it."
Going into the series premiere of HouseBroken, DuVall was also buoyed by the success of Happiest Season, which she directed and co-wrote with Mary Holland – who plays a supporting role alongside leads Kristen Stewart (Abby) and Mackenzie Davis, who plays Harper.
Based on DuVall's personal experiences, the plot revolves around Abby going home with Harper to meet her parents for the holidays, a typical Christmas movie set-up, although ostensibly the first to center on a queer couple.
The LGBTQ+ community welcomed the film, which was released on Hulu around Thanksgiving 2020, skipping a planned theatrical run due to the coronavirus pandemic. (It is reportedly one of the streamer's most-watched originals.)
Yet filming itself dodged the Covid shutdown by wrapping production in Pittsburgh in February 2020.
"I'm such a fan of Christmas movies but had never seen my experience represented," DuVall says.
"It felt like an opportunity to tell a universal story from a new perspective. It sat on my computer for awhile, until I met Mary, who is such a special person and actor and worked on the script with me. I was surprised how many were interested in telling the story. The studios were very supportive, and we ultimately went with TriStar as their vision was in line with what we wanted. Then eOne came on board and they were also great."
Instead of being at a glitzy premiere, DuVall watched the movie on the couch, through the eyes of a nervous director.
"I was watching with an eye for 'Did it sound okay?' And it did," she recalls. "I was not prepared for how many people would watch it and how many talked about it."
HouseBroken premiered Monday, May 31 on FOX.
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