DePaul alum Judy Greer goes from co-star to leading lady — and she’s ready for her close-up.
If you’re looking at Judy Greer’s photo and wondering, “Where have I seen her before?”, don’t worry — it’s a fair question. The DePaul grad is the first to admit that she’s not always immediately recognizable, thanks to a steady stream of sidekick and best-friend roles (a fact that she’s actually grown to accept and cherish — more on that later). But with a reel that includes mega-hits like “The Wedding Planner,” “Arrested Development,” “13 Going on 30” and the currently ubiquitous Sprint ads, it’s likely you’ve seen her on screen. Put another way: Greer’s IMDB page lists 91 acting credits. Meryl Streep only has 73.
Despite that staggering stat, Greer, 38, has spent much of her 16-year career in a perpetual state of semi-obscurity, playing second fiddle to everyone from Katherine Heigl to Jennifer Garner. That’s what inspired her to pen her first book, appropriately dubbed I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star. The book, which came out April 8, is an autobiography in the vein of Chelsea Handler’s, taking a humorous look at everything from Greer’s childhood outside Detroit to her college years in Chicago to her Hollywood successes. The tome is filled with witty anecdotes about being an “ugly child” and tongue-in-cheek chapter titles like “I Don’t (Really) Have Enemies” and “Judy Greer Is My Name — Well Now It Is.”
For some actors, embracing the title “co-star” would be an ego-bruising ordeal, but Greer has always viewed it as a stepping stone. “I don’t think it was a struggle to accept that I’m a supporting character actor,” she says. “I’ve never been disappointed and I’ve never stopped trying to get bigger roles at the same time.” It helps that Greer has a thriving sense of humor — unlike a lot of comedic actors, she’s every bit as lively, energetic and quirky in real life as she is in her films. For instance, when describing her shopping habits, she says, “Basically, I’m the equivalent of a mall walker, but in Target. I rarely go to Target without grabbing a bag of popcorn at the front and walking down every single aisle munching on popcorn and listening to music on my phone.”
The actress’s boundless optimism is finally paying off: This summer, Greer will star in FX’s new sitcom “Married.” The show centers on Greer and Nat Faxon as married couple Lina and Russ Bowman, who are struggling to grow up and keep their romance alive after three kids, financial struggles and years spent in suburbia.
For Greer, who married Dean Johnsen in 2012, playing an out-of-love wife came with some challenges. “I keep getting notes from the director that I’m acting too in love with my husband on the show. They’re like, ‘So stop finding him so charming. You can’t hold his hand and stuff,’ ” she laughs. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll act like I act with my husband,’ but apparently I’m too in love with my husband to be believable in this role.”
“Married” isn’t Greer’s first leading role, but she hopes it marks a milestone in her career. “I’ve been the female lead on other television shows in the past — they just sort of get canceled immediately,” she jokes. “We’ll see, maybe this will be the turnaround for me.” If the pilot and scripts are any indication, Greer thinks the show has real staying power. “I think it’s extremely realistic and also very, very funny,” she says, then quickly adds, “A little dark, though.”
The way Greer talks is one of her most endearing qualities. She’s incredibly upbeat, and often interrupts herself with funny asides (“I do feel like Chicago is one of my hometowns — I don’t know why I didn’t write about it more. Who knows? I probably did. … ”). When she tells a story, she does all of the characters’ voices, even giving her mom an ultra-high squeal.
That theatricality has served Greer well throughout her life. Growing up outside Detroit, she was a ballerina until she lost interest. That’s when she stumbled into acting, doing school plays and taking classes (although she never thought there was a future in it). Her natural talents helped land her a spot in DePaul’s elite acting program, and she jumped at the opportunity to come to the city. “In a way, being in college in Chicago was sort of what I wanted from high school,” she says. “High school felt like such a mess for me — I think everyone feels that way when they go to college — but going to college there, in that city in particular was so awesome. There was so much to do and it had such a great influence on all of us, on our acting.”
Greer’s time in Chicago turned into something of a fairy tale: She was waiting tables at I Tre Merli (a now-shuttered Italian restaurant on Erie) and, like most college students, she was broke. But her life turned around when she landed her first acting gig in the 1998 flick “Kissing a Fool” alongside David Schwimmer, Jason Lee and Bonnie Hunt. “I auditioned for what I call a ‘Judy-sized’ role, just days before graduating from acting school,” she remembers. “It was so surreal: My first job was in a movie, it was a really cool role and it was in Chicago. I didn’t make much money, but to me, it was the equivalent of $100,000. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with all the money.”
When her first paycheck arrived, Greer panicked. She called her dad for advice. His tips were solid: “He was like, ‘Do you have any debt?’ I’m like ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Pay off your credit card.’ I said, ‘Ugh, OK.’ He said,‘Take what’s left and buy a little something nice for yourself.’ ” (Reciting the conversation, Greer gives her dad a deep voice and herself the tone of an apathetic teen.)
After her dad’s directives, Greer was left with a few hundred dollars. She remembers what she did next very clearly: “I bought a nylon Prada bag at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue. I’ll never forget it. I was so excited. ” As she tells the story, she grows more animated. “My whole outfit when I walked in was from a thrift store because I was so broke. I was like, ‘They’re going to kick me out of this store for trying to buy this bag. [They’ll go] full-on “Pretty Woman!” ’ ” Here, Greer pauses, then adds sweetly, “But they didn’t, because everyone in Chicago is nice.”
Since that first role, Greer’s fame has steadily risen, but she’s still enjoying the perks of relative obscurity. “I can do the things I like to do and zone out and not get bothered,” she says. “I remember JLo telling me a story when we were shooting ‘The Wedding Planner.’ I asked her if she had security all the time. She told me that one time, she flew to visit her mom by herself because she didn’t think she needed [security], and it was so crazy when she got to the airport in baggage claim that they had to get airport security and cops to come. Since then, she’s had to have security all the time. That would suck.”
But fear of JLo-level fame isn’t slowing Greer down. “My manager and I always [used to] say, ‘A bird in the hand.’ We tried to take what was coming and not wait for something better because sometimes that doesn’t happen,” she says. “I think that ‘an object in motion stays in motion’ is probably a better new motto for me now.” Greer laughs, adding a typically charming aside: “Sometimes if I slow down too much, I fall asleep.”
The girl with a thousand roles reflects on some of her best movie memories.
That was surreal, because I came to LA for two weeks just to audition. I auditioned for ‘Jawbreaker’ on Friday night and they were starting production on Monday morning and they hadn’t cast my character yet. I just got the scene, read it a couple times and auditioned for it and they cast me in the room. That weekend, I had to cut my hair and dye it platinum. It was really cool. It happened so fast.
“The Wedding Planner” (2001)
When [Jennifer Lopez showed up on set], she didn’t have any makeup on at all and her hair was just pulled back into a wet bun. I remember thinking that she was so beautiful. I thought, ‘What does she do to look so pretty?’ I found out it was: A) She’s just really beautiful and B) she uses this expensive face cream called Creme de la Mer. I saved up all my per diem and bought myself a jar of Creme de la Mer. I still use it, by the way.
“13 Going on 30” (2004)
I remember one day Jennifer [Garner] was touching her phone with her thumbs, and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m texting,’ and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Here, I’ll show you.’ So JG — as we call each other — taught me how to text message.
Styling by Laura Spinella