The incense is burning. A sitar CD is playing. And Rachel Dratch is ready to see her future. Sitting in a curtained-off room at the back of a New Age bookstore in Venice, Calif., the Saturday Night Live alum watches as a psychic deals a deck of playing cards. Since this is Los Angeles, he immediately starts talking showbiz. ”Someone’s getting an award — yes, for sure. Mmm-hmm. Is it an Emmy?” He turns over three aces in a row. ”The way these came together like that,” he says. ”That’s like a star. So you have star quality!” Dratch leans over to the reporter sitting beside her and asks in an exaggerated whisper, ”You get that?”
Indeed we did. Hollywood, on the other hand, might need a copy of that mystical memo. Since leaving SNL three years ago, Dratch has faced one career derailment after another, from being replaced by Jane Krakowski on 30 Rock to watching Spring Breakdown, her first foray into writing and producing for the big screen, sit on the shelf for more than two years. On June 2, the female buddy comedy — which stars Dratch, Amy Poehler, and Parker Posey as nerdy thirtysomethings chasing the hedonistic spring break they never had in college — went straight to DVD. Cue the Debbie Downer soundtrack: wahn-wahn.
Naturally upbeat, with an easy, joyous laugh, Dratch is not one to sit around bemoaning her fate. Plus, things are looking up. In February, she got terrific reviews for her turn as the comically untalented daughter of a nightclub impresario in Minsky’s, a stage musical that hopes to follow its L.A. run with a Broadway opening this fall. She also recently appeared as an Edith Head-like fashion writer (and her twin sister) on Ugly Betty, and as an obnoxious American tourist in Nia Vardalos’ My Life in Ruins. Still, it’s hard not to wonder how the hilariously rubber-faced gal from Lexington, Mass., got saddled with such an epic case of bad luck. ”I did Second City and SNL and everything was chugging along,” says Dratch, 43, referring to the famed Chicago improv group. ”And then the chug got a little slower. When I was on SNL, I envisioned things going differently.”
Dratch left SNL after a seven-year run — the longest tenure of any female player — with a solid plan: Tina Fey had written a costarring role on 30 Rock specifically for her. After the pilot was completed in 2006, however, NBC execs decided they wanted Krakowski for the part instead. (Fey, who says the casting change ”has never been a big deal” between her and Dratch, then wrote a series of zany cameos for her friend.) ”Tina’s very loyal, and I’m sure she did what she could,” says Dratch, sitting in her Minsky’s dressing room at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre last winter. ”As an actor, you’re used to: I have this part; no, I don’t. You get a thick skin.”
That protective shell came in handy as the blogosphere buzzed with speculation that Dratch was replaced because the network wanted a ”hotter” actress. The very notion irks Fey. ”It’s an outside perception that’s never been the truth,” she says. ”It’s not worth talking about.” But even if the real reason was mundane — the network wanted 30 Rock to focus on workplace high jinks, not sketch comedy — the more catty interpretation stuck.
At SNL, looks never even entered into the equation. In fact, Dratch thrived on playing ”gnarly” characters like Debbie Downer and Angelina Jolie’s deformed child Qterplix. ”Rachel is fearless in that way,” says Poehler. ”There’s a vulnerability in her characters that, for the audience, is so endearing.” While lack of vanity served Dratch well on the show, she now wonders whether it hurt her. ”People see me and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re so much prettier in real life!”’ she says, her big blue eyes widening in mock astonishment. ”And I’m like, ‘Well, thanks.’ It’s definitely narrowed the opportunities, which is a bummer because… I want a job! I didn’t enter this biz because I thought I was a supermodel. I entered because I liked finding out what makes people laugh.”
A year after her cameos on 30 Rock dried up, Dratch was starting to feel like the world had forgotten her. She pitched a pilot with SNL writer Emily Spivey — ”a cross between Fantasy Island and Love Boat” — but to no avail. Then, in April 2008, came another blow: Vanity Fair published a ”Women in Comedy” cover story that showcased close friends — Fey, Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph — but barely mentioned Dratch. ”That was right there in print,” she says. ”You’re not in the gang anymore.” When she made the mistake of saying as much to a New York magazine reporter that spring, she woke up to a fresh batch of humiliating headlines, like this one: ”Unemployment a ‘Downer’ for SNL-er Dratch.” Says the actress with a sigh, ”People on the street were like, ‘You’re gonna be fine!’ It just put this, like, stank on me.”
Dratch isn’t wallowing, but she is reassessing her goals. Success like Fey’s or former castmate Will Ferrell’s takes a certain do-or-die drive that she, by her own admission, doesn’t have. ”I’m definitely not a schmoozer,” she says. ”I can’t even force it.” And for the first time since the 30 Rock fiasco, Dratch is enjoying performing again. After her run in Minsky’s, she returned to New York, where she’s getting her kicks in the Off Broadway production Celebrity Autobiography, doing live readings of stars’ memoirs alongside the likes of Kristen Johnston and Paul Rudd. ”I was telling my friends, I feel like me again,” Dratch says, smiling. ”If I became the comedy chick of the Broadway scene, I’d be fine with that. Things are getting good again. It’s ongoing, so…” She trails off, then bursts into a hearty laugh. ”Maybe tomorrow I’ll be a big star!” Well, it is in the cards.