From ‘Freaks and Geeks’ to full-fledged fame, ‘Cougar Town’ actress & Oak Park native Busy Philipps talks about her past dramas & current comedy.
If “Cougar Town” has a moral (besides that midday wine swilling is completely acceptable), it’s that you’re never too old to change. In fact, the TBS show proved that point when, about halfway into its first season, it completely switched its premise: No longer was it a program about 40-something Courteney Cox dating younger men, it was about a group of, well, friends. And that’s the type of show in which Busy Philipps thrives.
It was with two culturally iconic ensemble shows that the Oak Park-born Philipps, 34, built her fame: “Freaks and Geeks,” the show that launched the careers of Judd Apatow, James Franco, Jason Segal and a slew of others, and teen drama “Dawson’s Creek.” In both programs, she played something of a wild child — like she does now as Laurie Keller, Cox’s energetic best friend, on “Cougar Town” — but it was her role as Kim Kelly on the short-lived “Freaks” that was her original springboard.
“We had the best time on that show,” Philipps says. “We were all so grateful every day that we were allowed to keep shooting on ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ We were young and none of us had done much before. I think most of us had some semblance that it was fairly extraordinary, but moving on, you look back and realize, ‘Oh, wow. That’s never going to happen again.’ ” The show, which lasted only 18 episodes, has since become a cult classic, recognized as an underappreciated work of Apatowian genius (it only had 7 million weekly viewers — at that time a small number). To this day, Philipps remains close with the cast: The mother of two even named co-star Lizzy Caplan as godmother to her first daughter, Birdie.
Though her time on “Freaks” was short, it wasn’t without its struggles. “[James Franco] and I did not particularly get along working together. There were definitely some contentious moments,” Philipps says. “But for whatever reason, that real-life tension made for a really compelling onscreen relationship.”
If, for Busy, the cast of “Freaks” was like a bickering but ultimately loving family, the cast of “Dawson’s Creek” was like a family in the middle of a divorce. Philipps was added to the show in its last two seasons as Audrey Liddell, the free-spirited foil to Katie Holmes’ uptight Joey Potter. “[When I joined] everybody was already fairly well-established and they were at that point where they were all feeling like they were ready for the show to be over,” Philipps says. “I had just come from a place with ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ which only lasted just shy of a season, and all we had wanted so desperately was for it to continue and for it to be a success. So I really didn’t understand their feelings about wanting the show to be over.”
Still, Philipps managed to forge close bonds — not an easy feat in the ultra-competitive Hollywood scene. “Michelle [Williams] and I became best friends on that job and we still are to this day,” she says. “And I genuinely keep in touch with most of the people.” That’s the thing about Philipps: She’s just so likable. Maybe it’s the Hollywood smile, or maybe it’s that she’s retained her Midwestern approachability by visiting her family here at least once a year.
But her outgoing personality has occasionally landed her in some sticky social situations. “We do have a binder in my life that we call ‘It only happens to me,’ ” she says. “One time I sat with these girls at breakfast because they were so confident that they knew me, that I thought I was being rude and that I did know them. About five minutes in, I realized that they thought I was their friend’s new girlfriend … and I was not. But instead of explaining to them that it was a misunderstanding, I just sat at breakfast for 45 minutes pretending to be this girl!” Philipps laughs: “What was I supposed to do? Get up and move two tables over and finish breakfast? I had no choice.”
If she can bond with perfect strangers under an assumed identity, it should come as no shock that she’s grown close with her “Cougar Town” castmates as well. Now in its fifth season — “Fifth season? Didn’t see that one coming,” read the opening titles on the season’s premiere episode — the show centers on a group of eight friends, dubbed “the cul-de-sac crew,” and their constant, wine-fueled interactions. Philipps’ character could best be described as “loud.” Loud hair, loud makeup, loud clothes and a loud voice usually spouting over-the-top stories about being medically dead four times or being attacked by an animatronic bear.
This season, Philipps gets caught up in more madness when her character pretends to be in a lesbian relationship to help get her friend’s son into private school. (“That storyline is very close to my heart, since I’m trying to get my 5-year-old into private school,” Philipps says.) Fans will also watch her character enter a romantic relationship with Travis, Cox’s 21-year-old son on the show. “No one saw this coming, that I was going to be the only cougar of the actual series,” says Philipps. “Although I realized the other day that no one knows Laurie’s age. We’ve never discussed it. It can be anywhere from 24 to 60, it doesn’t make any sense.”
But Philipps has a confession to make: Unlike her earlier shows, which she regularly watched, the mom and wife hasn’t been tuning in to “Cougar Town” recently. “Being totally honest, I do watch the show, but I had to go back to work very shortly after having a baby this year. For me, watching myself with my baby weight is not the most pleasurable experience. So my husband suggested for my own mental well-being that I just take a breather from watching this season of ‘Cougar Town.’ ”
After giving birth to baby girl Cricket in July, the mother of two is quick to share her method for getting back in Hollywood shape. “It’s difficult sometimes to be an actress. I like to be as normal and grounded as I can possibly be, but I’m still on television. No one wants to be put on television 60 pounds heavier than they normally are,” she says. “There’s no secret. I mean, I guess the secret would be don’t gain so much weight when you’re pregnant. Really, it’s just moving and not eating things that are enjoyable. It’s such a bummer.”
Raising a family in Hollywood is one of the world’s greatest plate-spinning acts, and Philipps has gone on record admitting it takes some help. “When I first got the job I had just had my first child, and Laurie’s world seemed so far removed from what I was going through: being a new mom and being married. It was pure escapism,” she says. And are there things she’d be doing if she didn’t have her family responsibilities? “My agent is like, ‘You need to write down [your stories]. You need to compile it and you can have a book,’ ” Philipps says. “I really could. But in between raising my two kids and working full time on ‘Cougar Town’? I’ll try to make it happen. … In my free minute.”
Though her obligations don’t leave her much down time, Philipps wouldn’t have it any other way — in fact, she’s thrilled to be back on set. “To this day, the two greatest most fun jobs that I’ve ever had have been ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and now ‘Cougar Town,’ ” she says. Sure, the actress has changed since her first days on TV (and definitely isn’t feuding with Franco anymore — the two have finally become friends). But that’s the lesson here: It’s never too late to change.
Watch “Cougar Town” Tuesdays on TBS at 9 p.m.