CHICAGO — Listed under “Special Skills” on Amy Landecker’s resume are “Primitive Sound Emanation,” which has never gotten her a job, and “Yoga (hyper-flexibility),” which has — at least the “hyper-flexibility” part.
The now-41-year-old actress was auditioning to play the wife on the NBC sitcom “The Paul Reiser Show,” when she passed along greetings from her “A Serious Man” co-star (and fellow former Chicagoan) Richard Kind, and Reiser asked whether Kind had ever shown her his ability to jam his entire fist into his mouth. Landecker said no and then tried it herself.
“It went all the way in, because I have an enormous mouth,” she recalled over coffee last week. “The producers and he were like, ‘Oh my God. She could put her fist in her mouth. How many times have people asked you to do that?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know I could do it.’ He said, ‘Wait a second, you literally just (now) tried to put your fist in your mouth?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And then I put my legs behind my head.”
Reiser called the fist-in-mouth moment “one of those ‘you had me at hello’ stories .... I said, ‘Wait a second, not only A) can you do it, which is entertaining, B) you were game to do it, but C) you had the audacity to try it sight unseen.’ So by the time she started reading (the script), we said, ‘Well this is just unnecessary.’”
Landecker had landed a dream job, playing opposite Reiser on Thursday nights on NBC — heady stuff for an actress best known for gritty theater work, soothing voiceover spots (such as those ubiquitous Cymbalta ads) and TV bit parts leading up to her attention-getting turn as the stoned, nude-sunbathing Mrs. Samsky in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009). The last woman to play Reiser’s wife on a sitcom, Helen Hunt on “Mad About You,” wound up winning four Emmys and an Oscar.
But then ...
NBC canceled “The Paul Reiser Show” last Friday after two poorly rated episodes and not-so-hot reviews. Some involved with the show, particularly Reiser on Monday’s “Tonight Show,” have questioned whether the network hurt the show by airing it with little lead time or promotion and scheduling it opposite “American Idol.”
Whatever the post-mortem, now Landecker must demonstrate her flexibility once again.
“I’m kind of new to this failing on a massive level,” she said cheerfully Monday on the phone from the Los Angeles area, where she lives and already was shooting a guest spot on a new Lifetime series called “The Protector.” “It used to be (that) my show at (the since-closed Chicago space) Cafe Voltaire got a bad review, and now it’s my sitcom on NBC got canceled. I actually find that comforting.”
Landecker and her daughter were visiting her father, Chicago radio legend John “Records” Landecker, at his Michigan City, Ind., home when the ax fell. They all watched the show together Thursday night — “we were laughing out loud; I thought, ‘I love this show’” — and the next morning her manager emailed to say the numbers weren’t good.
Later that day she Googled the show, and that’s how she found out that NBC no longer had dibs on the next several years of her life. She said Reiser sent a very gracious email to the cast thanking them for their great work, and soon they were all emailing each other.
“If you’re going to have that much fun, you would love to have that much fun for years,” said Landecker, noting that they’d shot seven episodes. “As a theater person, maybe it’s easier for me because I’m used to shows closing. I’ve never ever had a job that lasted for more than a few months.”
Still, she said, “there’s no way to get around feeling sad. If it hadn’t been a good experience, it wouldn’t be a big deal. And there’s the rejection. People didn’t watch. How do you not take that personally?”
The condolence calls poured in from family and friends, “everybody going, ‘Oh, my God. I’m sorry,’” she said. “That makes it harder. But it’ll pass. We’re all going to move on. That’s show business, baby.”
Landecker certainly is not lacking for work. She recently appeared on “Law and Order” and Louie C.K.‘s FX comedy series “Louie,” she acted in an “NCIS” episode a few weeks ago, she has a guest spot on “House” airing next month, and she shot an episode for the upcoming season of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which, unlike Reiser’s similarly formatted show, is almost completely improvised.
Lesly Kahn, the L.A. acting teacher whom Landecker credits with boosting her confidence and comedy chops, praised her pupil’s combination of sensitivity, vulnerability and “exotic, intelligent sensuality.” She said of the “Reiser” cancellation: “I don’t think that this hurts Amy at all. I think she looks spectacular on that show.”
John Landecker has enjoyed his daughter’s trajectory. “To see her in the context of a network sitcom as a major player is just really fantastic,” he said days before “Reiser” was canceled. “I don’t care whether the show bombs or stays on for five years. Just seeing that happen is just amazing. This is getting into a different stratosphere: Coen brothers, Paul Reiser, Larry David, ‘House’ ...”
None of these jobs, by the way, have involved Primitive Sound Emanations.
“Garry Marshall was on ‘Oprah,’” Amy Landecker explained, “and he said, ‘Every actor should put on their resume some special skill that can be discussed, because a lot of times that’s what gets you a job is communication, the rapport.’ There are a lot of people who can act, but who do you want to hang out with 15 hours a day, right? So if you have something that like makes them think, Oh, that’s a fun person ...”
Hence: Primitive Sound Emanation, which turns out to be a fancy phrase for an impressively fierce wild-monkey screech.
“No one’s requested that one yet,” she admitted.
After growing up in Lincoln Park and graduating from Francis W. Parker School, Landecker studied acting at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then assisted writer-director Eric Simonson as an artistic intern at the Steppenwolf Theatre. She wavered over whether she wanted to direct or act, but after she stepped in as an understudy for two performances as Blanche opposite Gary Sinise’s Stanley in Steppenwolf’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1997, she was in the acting world for good.
Sipping a soy latte in Lincoln Park, her blue eyes dramatically offset by dark rims and long brown hair, Landecker laughed, as she does freely and often, at the memory of the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet’s declaration that “a star was born” after her “Streetcar” performance — “which clearly was not the case since this was over a decade ago.” She worked steadily in Chicago theater, earning a Jeff Award nomination for her performance in Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” (which featured a waist-down nude scene) and later receiving an Obie Award for the Off Broadway production of Letts’ “Bug.”
Even on network television, such as the upcoming “House” episode in which she plays a crack-addict patient boasting some nasty open wounds, she feels her Chicago theater roots close at hand.
“I will never look more hideous in my life than I look in that episode,” she said. “We blacked out my teeth, and we put red eyeliner on and greased down my hair, made my lips all cracked. And you’re lying down the whole time because of course you’re sick for whatever reason, and I’ll tell you, that’s attractive on a 40-year-old woman with a neck.”
“I was like, no vanity, we’re back to our theater days at Steppenwolf where we’re covered in blood and doing Tracy Letts plays. It’s just being seen by 20 million people, but that’s OK.”
Landecker’s working-actress ethic came into play when she was at the AFI Awards for “A Serious Man,” and she and the movie’s lead, Michael Stuhlbarg, were invited afterward to have cocktails at the Four Seasons with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner (who had cast Landecker in an earlier episode) and star Jon Hamm. The hitch was that she was scheduled to drive out to the Valley (in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic) for a pre-read with a casting director (i.e. she hadn’t even reached the audition stage yet) for the pilot of an Adam Corolla show.
She went with the “Mad Men” guys, right?
“I didn’t,” she said. “I’m such a working stiff because of my Chicago background, I was like, no, you go where the work is, right? So I went out to the Valley, and I booked that pilot. It didn’t air, but while I was shooting the Adam Corolla pilot, they were casting ‘The Paul Reiser Show,’ and I got to be in L.A. and actually have a chemistry read with Paul. So the moral of the story is I wouldn’t have gotten (‘The Paul Reiser Show’). That one little decision changed a lot for me, and I’m like ‘Thank you.’”
And now ... back to the drawing board, but at least she’s taking a constructive approach.
“I hope that monkey call can get me a new job.”