"I like that spot where fear and laughter converge": Carrie Brownstein on how "Portlandia" takes on aging, "Transparent" and channeling Sleater-Kinney on set

Brownstein talks to Salon about "cascading toward death," feminism and what's coming in "Portlandia" season 6

Published January 20, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

Carrie Brownstein   (AP/Jordan Strauss)
Carrie Brownstein (AP/Jordan Strauss)

Carrie Brownstein is kind of a unicorn. She took a break from being a rock star to start a sketch comedy career, and then took a break from that to write a memoir. In 2015 she played a second season as Syd in Amazon Studios’ award-winning “Transparent” and took a turn on the silver screen opposite Rooney Mara in “Carol,” as an enigmatic romantic interest at a hip New York party. But despite the Sleater-Kinney reunion tour last year and a burgeoning non-comedy career, Brownstein is still committed to “Portlandia.” IFC’s sketch comedy show is remarkably consistent, if niche; last season, “The Story of Toni & Candace” offered a bizarre and brilliant back story for the show’s iconic feminist bookstore owners that indicated the creative fount for the show’s brand of humor is far from exhausted. Brownstein and her co-creator Fred Armisen play all genders and all characters, including numerous that have intense relationships with each other; their own real-life relationship appears to be an endless source of inspiration.

This season, “Portlandia” is getting a tad more serious. The three episodes sent to critics were all about aging, in some capacity—whether that was admitting that weekend-long music festivals aren’t fun anymore, or coming to terms with a tepid relationship, or acknowledging at long last a desire to have kids. Interspersed, of course, with these meditations on growing older are the characters’ desperate attempts to remain young, hip and relevant—or failing that, to at least appear like they are. In the episode “Breaking Up,” airing Feb. 18, Armisen and Brownstein both deliver performances that are almost dramatic, in the midst of situations that are often ludicrous; it’s one of the most affecting episodes of the show I’ve ever seen. As it turns out, Brownstein wrote it, adding one more accomplishment to a long list. I sat down with her to talk “Portlandia,” persona and feminism.

Based on the first three episodes, this season of "Portlandia" is focusing more on aging than the last few have.

Yeah, I think the notion of aging… and death… and mortality… were definitely themes that permeated a lot of the writing this season for sure.

Just because of you and Fred Armisen’s personal experiences, or something else?

I think both. There’s a certain point when you realize that what we’re all doing is cascading toward death, from the moment we’re born. It’s an undeniable fact that we try to mask and obfuscate, whether we do that through our actions or through physical transformations that downplay or mitigate the appearance of growing older. But the truth is that each of us have moments in our lives where we feel acutely aware or confronted by the idea that portions of our life are in the rearview mirror and we can’t really recapture them. So even though that sounds like an existential crisis, that is really our fundamental crisis as humans—and that is, I think, what we were mulling over this season

“Portlandia” is so incisive and observant about this hip, indie, liberal culture. And the free-spiritedness eternal youth of it is kind of antithetical to the notion of death, and being aware of your own mortality.

Yeah, well: I think the flip side of that juvenilia and perennial adolescence is coming to terms with the fact that that’s a fallacy—sort of a false idol. So I think it was almost inevitable that the show that commented on that seeking of youth would eventually run into the very firm wall of aging.

What’s interesting is that you and Fred Armisen and (executive producer) Jonathan Krisel are making it funny. Talking with you, you sound very serious about the topic, but in “Portlandia” it’s very much played for laughs—such as when Fred wakes up with gray hair, for example.

We try to balance some darker subject matter with the absurdism of the show. And we weren’t going to completely eschew that just so that we could— [laughing] lecture people about mortality, you know? We’re not trying to be didactic or pedantic, we’re kind of just trying to explore our own sense of disbelief that everyone has—as they kind of look around themselves, and realize the ways that they moved away from all the things we assumed we would embrace forever. So, yeah, we tried to infuse... even some surrealism. You saw the part where Fred jumps into the black hole, right? [In "Going Gray," as a way of trying to time travel, sort of. —ed.] Our ideal model for an episode is to start with something grounded, move to absurdity and end up somewhere surreal, at least momentarily. Because I think at that point you’re viewing it from all angles, and almost viewing from the way that we each experience things. You know, we don’t always just experience things as this kind of… you’d like to experience everything pragmatically, and even emotionally, in this kind of mature emotional state. But we don’t! We start out pragmatically, we start out with maturity, and then we devolve into these almost, you know, infantile and desperate and sometimes humorous ways of dealing with our own phenomena.

I’ve heard you say in other interviews that with your work on “Portlandia,” you’ve been inspired by Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin on “Saturday Night Live” as well as “Kids in the Hall.” Is that where the surreal aspect of something like, Fred jumping into a black hole, comes from?

I really do love, particularly in terms of a sketch show, “Kids in the Hall,” but also the Gilda Radner years of “Saturday Night Live,” her and [Dan] Aykroyd, even just some of that [Jim] Belushi—some of that just strangeness, you know? And I think strangeness is an undervalued element to comedy, or one that is often misunderstood. To sort of go off on a tangent here—another show I really love is “Strangers With Candy,” and what I loved about that show, and also “Kids in the Hall,” is that it reveled, sometimes, in the grotesque. And grotesqueness and strangeness have, I think, a relationship to one another. Sometimes by making something grotesque you actually see the essence of it. Because it’s the most extreme, distorted view of a person, of a personality, of a situation. And I liked that “Kids in the Hall” were always willing to go there and “Strangers With Candy,” for sure, I love that about Amy Sedaris. So I think that those are tools that we like to employ, whether it’s the strange or the grotesque, to just kind of get at something fundamental about a topic. And that’s always really interesting to us [the “Portlandia” crew], yeah. I guess we like to dive into that realm.

You could be talking about horror, instead of comedy.

Sure, yeah. It’s interesting—when you watch a horror film, sometimes people will laugh at the violence of it, or from fear. Because I think it does elicit something so base. It’s tapping into those places where we realize certain emotions are flip sides of the same coin. Sometimes I think about laughing and crying: It’s the same heaving emotion; you can change on a dime from laughing to crying. And fear and laughter is the same thing, like one is the antidote, or the answer to the other. I like that spot where they converge.

I just saw Sleater-Kinney in concert for the first time in your reunion tour. You have a stage presence in the band that is, I would say it’s related, but it’s different from your presence on “Portlandia.” It’s less about the power or the charisma of being the guitarist onstage and a little bit more about being relatable, and sort of quirky. I was curious if you felt like, you as a performer, if those two were the same types of performance to you—making people laugh and moving people through music.

“Portlandia” isn’t a live performance, so there is a different feeling to it, but it doesn’t feel schizophrenic at all; but it definitely feels like two connected but disparate aspects of who I am. They occupy different personae, but they have an underlying commonality, which is an aiming to connect with people—to do that sort of outside of the confines of day-to-day interaction or discourse, to communicate through performance, communicate through music or humor. The aim for connection is the throughline, but the ways they shape are very different and feel somewhat different to me.

Is your performance in “Carol” closer to the Sleater-Kinney side of you?

There is something stylized about that world that is so different. I would argue that Todd [Haynes, director of “Carol”]’s world is a very unique one, so there was really no analogue for me. “Transparent,” actually, has more of a sense—a similarity, a symmetry with Sleater-Kinney, probably. Where Jill Soloway is coming from, and that desire to push boundaries, that desire to be political, not at the expense of storytelling; those are things I think that cater to me.

If I remember correctly, Jill Soloway describes her parent’s transition using really similar language in the way that you’ve talked about your own father coming out.

Yeah. The first time we met, we sat down, a couple of years ago to talk about my potential participation in “Transparent”; that was one of the first things we talked about. She had read an interview where I talked about my father coming out, and she had her own reasons obviously for relating to that, so it was one of the first things that brought us together. Just some commonalities. We get along in general but we certainly share somewhat similar journeys, in that regard.

I’m curious to see if Syd has a place in “Transparent” season 3. None of the exes have really gone away in the show, I’ve noticed.

[Laughs.] Yeah, the Pfeffermans keep people in their orbit, just in case they want them to come back to torture them more. I really don’t know—I would love to be asked back.

I didn’t realize that there was part of “Carol” that you filmed that we didn’t see. Are you allowed to tell me what that was?

For length, obviously a lot of scenes get cut. It was just more scenes from that party. My part was, at this point, a cameo that ended up appearing on-screen. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. But honestly it was so cool. I was very honored to audition and get that part and have two days on set, in the world of Todd Haynes. There were so many talented and immense people working on that film, that even just to dip my toe into it for a moment was completely worth it.

You were perfect casting for that scene. You’re such an icon. And in this film about, among other things, queer identity, you present this fundamental choice for Rooney Mara’s character Therese when she’s at that party. It’s like, “Here’s the unknown future, with this really cool girl,” or “Here’s the past, with this very deep connection.”

Well… thanks. [Laughs.] I obviously don’t see it with that same objectivity, but I’m just like—who wouldn’t choose Cate Blanchett almost over anyone, you know? Many people would just leave—men and women, would just leave spouses left and right. And just walk toward her, like she was a human Mecca. But thanks for saying that. I think Therese made the right choice.

Sorry, it must be weird to have a random person say something like, “yeah, you know you’re, like, an icon of romance for a lot of people.”

No, no, I’m flattered! But I don’t think anyone sees themselves like that. I’m just like “Oh, OK.” I’ll let my dad know you said that, he’ll be like, oh good, I did something right.

To return to “Portlandia,” the breakup episode struck me as being not exactly serious, but certainly more moving than what I was expecting. There are some great, very funny bits in that—the whole painting nude sequence—

Jesus, yeah. [Laughs.]

But then it ends on this unresolved moment of conflict. It speaks to the fact that the season is talking about aging, and how you sort of can’t be young forever.

That’s actually one of the episodes I wrote this season, and I don’t know. I was so aware—we were all kind of aware—I mean we all write together, and then we kind of split off and then we each work on scripts, and that’s the one that I wanted to write. It was a little bit nerve-wracking because I knew that the tone of it was like, we were making this 24-minute indie film. About love and loss and, you know, just, unfulfillment. But I’m proud of the way it ends in that kind of unresolved way, because that’s the way most of us go through life, including our relationships. As much as we desire certainty, it’s hard not to have a day or a moment—or for some people, months or years—where we’re not grappling with questions about their own motivations, about their own sense of failures, or success and, you know, just trying to improve upon ourselves. So even though we went to places that I thought were humorous, like you said, and with the paintings—I knew by having Candace as a character in there, that we would be able to get to some really funny things. I really like the characters of Dave and Kath; I think they’re very relatable—we really wanted to leave it unresolved in the end, which is how a lot of things in real life are. I think we really actually operate in that state, of feeling unresolved about a lot of things. Not everything is tied out, even things that we’re involved in and we continue on with, the lack of resolution is actually the constant, that’s a very uncomfortable place to be and you have to seek your own… you can’t really find resolution via other people.

It’s a strange one for us but I was glad that we explored that, because it did feel different. Like you said, especially the way we ended it. We finished shooting that scene, riding in that car, and Jonathan Krisel, who directed that episode, was like “Huh... It’s really sad! I don’t know…” [Laughs.] I was like, “OK, I guess we’ll just hope it works, and we’ll try to make the middle part of that episode as ridiculous as possible.”

Lastly—two of your most iconic characters from “Portlandia” are Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore owners. You’ve said elsewhere that you think those characters are heroes, for being able to make feminism funny. Can you elaborate on that?

I don’t know if it’s important to me that it’s funny, because I think it’s a disservice to any ideology or philosophy or political movement to ensure likability. At the same time, I think that to be able to illustrate a variety of viewpoints and perspectives and iterations of feminism and intersectionality I think is crucial, so for me personally, I feel lucky to explore my own relationship to feminism, through various outlets. Sleater-Kinney has its own version of feminism; we have our own history and within the band we have three different histories.

I like to think of Toni and Candace as heroes because they’re just these very unlikely protagonists, and I like how contradiction and flaws are very imbedded into their personalities and their ethos. I mean, they’re barely second-wave feminists—just completely off the charts with how misguided they are. But I like that! Because I think part of the journey of any movement—and this is one that is so multifaceted—is to be able to get to a place where you don’t have to be representational anymore. You get to a place where you get to be both heroic but also completely flawed. It’s a good place to be. For two women running a bookstore that’s kind of an interesting dynamic; these two characters that should be benign, should be underestimated; but it turns out, they can’t be ignored either.

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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