Judy Greer Is The Main Character
On Hulu’s buzzy Reboot, Hollywood’s best friend becomes the leading lady.
Judy Greer walks through a crowded restaurant in cornflower blue. It's a short journey in physical distance, but it takes a long time — enough that I start to get anxious about finally meeting Greer after so much observation. She seemingly cannot stop engaging with strangers who are compelled to exchange compliments with her. “I love your jumpsuit,” a server tells Greer. “You have main character energy.” It is the paradox of Greer’s career: an A-list character actor, a leading sidekick, a person immediately identifiable to a waitress as a protagonist even if she might not know Greer’s name.
“I want to be mysterious and cool and interesting, like, ‘Wow, what’s that woman got?’” Greer says, in a pitch that rises above the breakfast chatter like a Lizzo flute solo. “I think that ship has sailed.” When I say, in fact, Greer seems quite cool, she makes her “oh my gosh” face — eyebrows up, eyes huge, a smile more vertical than horizontal. “I would love for you to write about how cool I am. I don’t feel cool at all.” That dissonance wound up inspiring the title of Greer’s 2014 book, I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: My Life as a Co-star.
In astrological terms, Greer’s career is aspirational with relatable rising. She’s had featured roles in Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols films, memorable parts in Arrested Development and 13 Going on 30, many, many television gigs, and recurring arcs in franchises from Halloween to Jurassic World. She’s filmed makeout scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney. But Greer’s characters have frequently been defined by their relationships to parts performed by higher-billed actors — the best friend, the co-worker, the current or former love interest. Now, on the very meta Hulu series Reboot, about a 2000s sitcom being revived for the streaming wars, Greer is fully starring.
Though the series is an ensemble piece — think the warmth of Abbott Elementary with the industry insidery-ness of Curb Your Enthusiasm — Greer’s Bree is the lead of both the show and the show-within-the-show. She is effervescently out of touch, charming while she is ineptly conniving. She wears mostly designer clothes, and she’s coming back to the titular reboot after spending several decades as Scandinavian royalty, giving the distinct vibe of someone who does not drive themself but rather is driven. Bree’s enviable waves come courtesy of a hairpiece so perfectly shiny and balayaged it was bestowed the moniker “SJP” by the wigmaker who made the piece. As Greer says, “She is fancy.”
When I blame the conditioner at the hotel where I’m staying for my own hair’s appearance, Greer’s eyes wax to full roundness. “Are you here just for this?” she says. “That makes me feel really famous. That’s probably the most famous I’ve felt.” (Greer has been to the Oscars.) Greer’s analysis of her role on Reboot feels revealing: “I think with Bree, she spent her adult life trying to create high-status out of her medium- to low-status,” Greer says. Bree reminds her of the novel The Help. (After bringing it up, Greer gets nervous. “Is that a bad book to talk about now?” she says. “I don’t know what you’re allowed to say.” At another point in the conversation, she scans her “Drive Home Happy” playlist before letting me see it to make sure there’s no Kanye on it.) “Jessica Chastain’s character in the movie, the woman is trying so hard to create this persona, this perfect persona,” Greer says. “And then when that intruder came into the backyard, she beats him in such a graphic way. And the storyteller is basically like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who you are now. You’ll fucking kill a guy.’”
You root for any Greer character to ascend to the social rung she wants to reach, but the fun is watching her slip. Which means even in her newish capacity as the star, Greer preserves her side character’s instinct for a scene-stealing flourish. In the Reboot pilot, Bree loses the upper hand in a reunion with her ex when her sweater gets stuck on her head during their first meeting in years. Creator Steve Levitan tells me the topless joke was originally written to only show her co-star Keegan-Michael Key’s reaction to her breasts. Greer thought it would be funnier for the audience to actually see them. “She has great boobs,” says Jennifer Garner, Greer’s 13 Going on 30 lead and co-holder of their friendship nickname “JG.” “They're perfect. She should show them off because they're God-given.”
“It just feels like the rest of the world is finally catching up, but she's always been the main character,” Garner says about Greer. “Whether the camera was turned on her the whole time or not was kind of like just a secondary issue.”
Garner seems almost insulted by the premise. “The idea that we're talking about like, ‘Oh, Judy is finally a leading woman,’ to me just feels like, ‘Wait a minute. Since when was Judy not a leading woman?’” Garner says. Then she pauses. “But that's probably easy for me to say, isn't it; she played my best friend.”
Greer is compelling in any context but has thrived in supporting roles because she is a genuinely supportive person. Michael Shannon, who recently directed Greer in his upcoming directorial debut, Eric Larue, tells me, “When I [first] worked with Judy” — on the 2017 Christmas comedy Pottersville — “she had so much humanity, and she was so attentive to other people, and was really curious about the experience that everybody else was having… It was just more fun to go to work when she was there.”
Eric Larue was an intense shoot — Greer plays the mother of a school shooter — so every day, she would pick up Shannon and drive him to set to try and elevate his mood before he descended into heavy material. Greer would suggest something like, “Beyoncé’s new record came out. Do you want to listen to it?” Shannon would acquiesce, and they’d roll down the windows and crank Renaissance into the empty morning streets of Wilmington, North Carolina. “He cares so much that I can see when he starts to get agitated,” Greer says of Shannon.
Though there are other great actors in Shannon’s Eric Larue — Alexander Skarsgård plays Greer’s husband, and Alison Pill and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts co-star — Shannon gave out only one wrap gift, to his leading lady. He drove to a local comic book store and requested a foot-tall action figure of General Zod, his character in the Superman movies. (Shannon briefly imagined headlines that read, “Pathetic loser Michael Shannon buys an overpriced version of himself,” he says, but “no one at the store really recognized me or seemed to have any idea what I was doing.”) Shannon presented the doll to Greer and said, “In case you miss me, have this.”
Greer began carrying the enormous figurine with her and taking photos of Shannon-as-Zod saying yes to life, a scenario inspired by Garner’s film Yes Day. She shows me a lengthy slideshow of Zod’s travels. There’s Zod picking cherry tomatoes in Greer’s garden and posing with Mary, a rescue dog Greer named for Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards. “This is Zod going through security,” Greer says fondly as she scrolls. “Now he’s drinking some white wine. Oh, this is a nice one of Zod at the beach.” It is a classic Greer bit; goofy and slightly off. “She just seems to wring every ounce of comedy out of a moment,” Reboot’s Levitan says. It is also Greer secretly flipping what seems like a gift for her into one for the gifter; she says Shannon told her, “I’m so happy that you play with Zod so much. This is the greatest present I’ve ever given to anyone.”
“Her friendships are really long,” Garner says. “There's nothing too big for me to take and dump on her lap. She just has this thing where she can take whatever you need to say; she can handle it. Like, I've walked into her house and dumped a lot of nonsense and basically said, ‘I'm so sorry, I'm getting on a call now,’ and walked back out. She's just like, ‘Uh huh, no problem.’”
“I’m working on being like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting” [instead of], ‘Here’s what you need to do right now. Go do it.’”
When I compliment Greer on her main character jumpsuit, she tells me where to buy it (Big Bud Press) but warns me I need to go try it on in person for sizing, and that if I like a color I must get it immediately, because she waited to get the raspberry sorbet and they sold out and she’s still kicking herself over it. When I commiserate about getting an upset stomach during times of stress, she commands me, “Fix your gut!” and texts a friend to get the name of a doctor who does such things, then hands me her unlocked phone to forward the contact information to myself while Greer goes to the bathroom. (I will get multiple thoughtful texts after the interview with recommendations for things to do and eat and purchase, signed with “Xoxox.”) When Greer’s concerns about early-40s perimenopause were dismissed by two gynecologists, she went to a third doctor who properly diagnosed her. Then she decided to invest in Wile, a product line that helps other women support their hormonal health.
Greer’s tendency toward, as she puts it, “controlling, problem-solving, type A bullshit,” was challenged when she married Real Time With Bill Maher producer Dean Johnsen in 2011 and became stepmother to the two (now adult) children Johnsen shares with his ex-wife, a sheriff who lives in the Valley. “You do kind of have all the responsibility with none of the authority,” Greer says of stepparenting. “Because at the end of the day, sometimes you’re like, ‘OK. Then don’t tell that person to do that. I’ll just be over here filing my nails and not giving a shit.’” Greer says that when her caretaking efforts were rebuffed, she would soothe herself by wandering through a mall, or a Target, or a drugstore, or — Greer’s mecca — a Sephora.
“I’m working on being like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ [instead of], ‘Here’s what you need to do right now. Go do it,’” Greers says. She says she’s more life coach than therapist by nature. “I don’t think I could sit and listen to people be like, ‘I don’t know what to do about my boyfriend,’ because I’d be like, ‘Fucking break up with him! You’re 24 years old! You think it’s going to get better? This is as good as it’s going to get!’”
If you are Greer, 24 years old is not as good as it’s going to get. As a child in Livonia, Michigan, Greer grew up in a middle-class home she describes as feeling like I Love Lucy. Her mother was a nun-turned-nurse who frequently conscripted her family into fad diets and overly ambitious celebrations; her father was an engineer who seems to mostly enjoy being a supporting player to the antics. Greer prayed for cleavage and straight hair but “resigned myself to not being popular but having one special friend who would always have my back” — someone who could appreciate Greer’s own foibles.
Greer studied ballet, realized she wasn’t good enough, and got into DePaul University’s theater conservatory after making up a monologue from To Kill a Mockingbird for her audition. She thrived despite failing to develop what is known in acting as a “chest voice” — a resonant tone centered deep in the body, several feet below Greer’s register. During her senior year, Greer was scouted while walking in Chicago by a woman who asked if Greer was a model and turned out to not be a scammer. Greer booked the first film she ever auditioned for; the first of her 158 IMDB credits, playing a “visiting cousin” in the David Schwimmer and Jason Lee-led Kissing a Fool.
That someone so hot, talented, and successful is able to depict people so accessible and yearning owes to Greer’s relentless and transparent quest for improvement. She has devoted herself to punishing workouts, improving her already-formidable knitting skills, and an elaborate skin care routine. (Two days after we meet, Greer plans to have invisible-to-me upper lip lines smoothed by “expensive lasers.” The alleged wrinkles come from a pack-a-day cigarette habit she abruptly quit to live up to a lie she told her now-husband early in their relationship: that Greer believed “smoking is so gross.”) “She is the ultimate work in progress,” Garner says.
“I flew under the radar for a really long time and have a lot of living experience that you bring to a character.”
Greer has made peace with the limits of self-upgrading, but remains committed to the pursuit. “My husband is 54, I think,” Greer says. (He is 55.) “He can do like two pushups and change his entire body. I’m like, ‘Go fuck yourself, dude.’ I have to starve myself for months. It took basically the entire pandemic to get to a place specifically where I was like, ‘OK!’ And then about two months for it all to be gone. I can work out really hard and be really careful with my food and maybe not have cellulite for a chunk of time, but that’s just how my body goes.”
At 47, Garner says her friend is “more confident” than when she first met her on 13 Going on 30. While actors like Garner may have been pegged as main characters earlier, space away from public acclaim and scrutiny gave Greer — and friend-to-lead peers like Kathryn Hahn and Melanie Lynskey — the ability to experience life in a way that may have uniquely equipped them to realistically play people their own age. (Perhaps it helps that people who create and fund projects are finally open to featuring those kinds of characters, however unwittingly. When I ask Steve Levitan about whether production companies are looking for stories about ladies in mid-life, he says, in the car on the way to Hulu, “That has not been brought to my attention specifically… but we're heading over there to pitch a show about a middle-aged woman.”) “I flew under the radar for a really long time and have a lot of living experience that you bring to a character,” Greer says.
“She makes it look like falling off a log,” Shannon says of Greer enacting a maternal nightmare in Eric Larue. “There's probably a list of people that you would expect to play this part. People that are more commonly known as dramatic, leading types of actresses… I didn't want it to be what people expected.”
For once, in Hollywood, the new thing is someone who has been low-key ubiquitous for almost three decades. But Greer frets about all the A-listers who were put in a spotlit box and never got to flex their weird. “I think sometimes actresses get seen in a certain way, so it’s really hard not only with fans, but with your teams… If you’re a movie star, you have to be a movie star. ‘She doesn’t play that. She doesn’t do that.’ But maybe she wants to or maybe she could or maybe she should.”
Greer’s mom recently asked her about her own limitations; why doesn’t she go for a part like Flo in the Progressive ads? “Because I do other stuff?” Greer says she told her. Then she admits to me, “The last couple [commercials] I’ve done have been really funny…” If Greer’s playing it, it’s a starring role.
Photographer: Raul Romo