'Cougar Town': Meet Carolyn Hennesy, the genius behind super-cougar Barb
Image Credit: Karen Neal/ABCAs we here at EW have been saying since ABC’s Cougar Town premiered last fall, the show’s super-cougar Barb is one of the funniest new characters on television this season. Granted, she only shows up for maybe a minute every other episode—if we’re lucky. (And you’re in luck, she’ll appear, however briefly, in tonight’s new episode!) But regardless of her slim screen time, we thought it high time that we figure out exactly who is behind the hilarious one-liners and over-the-top cougaring Barb puts out there.
Turns out, it’s none other than the genius Carolyn Hennesy, an actress revered and loved for her role as bitchtastic mob attorney Diane Miller on ABC’s daytime soap General Hospital. So we rang Hennesy up. And shocker! Carolyn is a freakin’ hilarious delight in real life, too. Here we spent a little time chatting with her about the reaction she’s gotten to Barb, her penchant for playing cougar-rific roles, a smattering of her other important roles (including Boob Jobs & Jesus!), and her secret to making a mean meatloaf.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the office here at EW, we’re all obsessed with Barb, even though she’s only literally on screen for about 30 seconds every other episode.
CAROLYN HENNESY: There has been almost no negative response to Barb.
So there has been some?
I know—it shocked me, too! And I thought this person obviously had a desperately bad childhood and is need of some serious therapy. Someone called me “aggressively unfunny,” and I went, “Aggressively unfunny? Really, like a disease?”
That person clearly doesn’t know what funny is.
Does not know what funny is, exactly! I believe it was in response to Tim Stack’s column on EW.com. Someone wrote I was “aggressively unfunny,” and I thought, well, this person needs some ice cream or something. Or a colonic.
But it has mainly been a positive response?
Everything has been positive! We won’t even count that person. We’ll say all the response to Barb has been over the moon. People will come up to me and say, “You know you’re my favorite character on the show,” and so on and so forth. Which is very interesting because Barb gets to go on, look great, drop little tiny comedy bombs, watch them explode, and then, like Monty Python, run away. She goes in, she delivers the A-bomb, then leaves. That is a gift. The way I refer to Barb is: She’s got no morals, no scruples, no filter, no shame, no fear. She is absolutely balls-to-the-wall. She is every inch who she is. There’s no artifice to her, which is a gift to play and so much fun because you know you could almost never really behave like this in real life without getting arrested.
You couldn’t ask for more.
Well, you can always ask for more, Tanner! There could be a whole Barb episode. But in a way, you’re right: It’s great. I don’t want to say it’s a part-time job because Barb is maybe not integral to every episode, but people need Barb. They need to go to that opposite end of the spectrum—because Jules is not Barb. She’s struggling between morality and what she perceives to be wrong action. And what she does not understand is that it’s not wrong action. Dating a younger guy is groovy, groovy, groovy! But she’s very conflicted right now. And Barb says, “No conflict here, baby. Come on in, the water’s fine.”
In a way, you’re the cougar who gives cougars a bad name.
I’m everything that’s wrong and everything that’s right with a cougar. I am all extremes: I’m the genius and the devil.
You’re on General Hospital regularly, which is on ABC like Cougar Town. Coincidence?
No connection. [During the audition] I went in and there was a room full of, I would say, about 12 other women, and I walked in, I did it, and [Cougar Town creator] Bill Lawrence looked at me and went, “Wow, you made it kind of angry, that’s great! Why haven’t I met you before?” And I said, “I don’t know Bill, but I feel we both missed out.” Then I got a phone call. There was no call back, no test, nothing. It was one of things where you wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, God loves me today.”
Did they tell you to play an over-the-top cougar?
The breakdown came out: “demure, conservative, realtor by day, queen cougar by night.” So I walked into the audition and everyone was in a suit, showing the realtor side. And suffice to say, I was not. I was displaying the wares at the farmer’s market because I thought, They can put me in a suit. They can picture me in a suit. They have to know that this is an actress who is available, who is willing to go the extra mile, so I walked in trying to look as hot as humanly possible. Or, as possible for me. I think that helped, or it might have just been the read. I think it was probably a combo.
You went out on a limb!
The skin-tight white sweater. There you go.
Any inspiration? Blanche Deveraux from Golden Girls maybe?
I think about all the great ones, and really, the one I was thinking of was Sue Ann Nivens meets Karen from Will & Grace. What’s that actresses name? Megan Mullally. Sue Ann Nivens meets Megan Mullally with a touch of Cloris Leachman thrown in. The sharp, witty, it doesn’t even need to be a one-liner—it can be just one word. Don’t leave it unattended for too long because when you get back it won’t be there.
One of your lines that we loved most here at EW was when you were like, “I’m 45 up here, but…”
“…below the waist I’m 19. Now let’s detail this Ferrari.” Yeah!
How do you hold it in when you’re shooting? Do you have to do a lot of takes?
Right or wrong, good or bad, Barb seems to be an integral part of me. The deliciousness, the great meal that is Barb: I eat it, and then the crew cracks up, and I crack up after each take. It’s like you just devour it and then everyone is kind of holding their breath, waiting to see what’s going to come out of Barb’s mouth, and then we all crack up. But we get through it and then we all laugh. Every once in a while I say things and I look at the director or the supervising producer, and I just go, “Really? You’re going to put this on the air? Really? How much fun.” And they do.
Have you ever been told to pull back a bit? Can you go too far with Barb?
No. We’ll find out. I doubt it, but we’ll see. I’m sure if I truly start salivating then they’ll send makeup over to touch me up. Because the only thing they’ve had to pull back is my hair in one particular episode. The Barb realtor hair is slightly more conservative, and the Barb cougar hair was getting to the point where it was almost a Maire Antoinette wig. It was so high, and I think [my hair stylist] Randall looked at me and went, “Uh uh.” And I went, “Really?” I had a small gypsy family living on my head, really? “Birds could nest in this thing, Randall.”
Is your hair real or a wig?
Oh, it’s my hair! It’s teased. It’s not teased. It’s humiliated. It’s humiliated and shellacked within an inch of its life.
With this role, you literally became an instant gay icon. Have you felt that?
Yes, and I’m thrilled. Oh God. And again, there’s a freedom to Barb which gay men embrace. And you know because, let’s face it: Homosexuality has been around since the beginning of time, but the ability to be out is, looking along the historical time line, it’s still a blip, in its infancy. So anyone like a Cher, a Madonna, a Liza, a Judy, anyone who goes balls to the wall with their emotion, who is absolutely 100 percent present and authentic, I think gay men—and gay women—kind of go, “Wow, this is someone who is getting away with it. This is someone who’s embracing it, who’s living it just living it.” It just completely and utterly validates the gay lifestyle. Only in that you can life your life with freedom.
Your motto must be: “I do what I want.”
Exactly. I do what I want, and I’m not hurting anybody, so back off.
Looking at your resume, you’ve had some rather interesting roles over the years. You always seem to play larger-than-life characters.
Larger than life! A little arch, a little snarky. Again, always with the best line. I was told by someone, the snake always gets the best lines and the best shoes. This is who I have been, really, since adolescence. I was never an ingénue, even when I could play an ingénue. Always the older, wiser, snarkier woman who sometimes gets her comeuppance and sometimes doesn’t. More of the arch-villainess. Never Cinderella, always the evil stepmother.
But literally, you’re credited in something called Boob Jobs & Jesus on IMDB.
It’s a film by someone named Ursula Whittaker, and she’s now trying to get some money together for a feature. It’s a short, and it’s high-larious! She plays my daughter. I play a woman who walks in in a leopard shirt and a mini-skirt and her daughter has written a book about her life and about how her mother was far more interested in a boob job than making sure her daughter went to the right preschool. It’s “I gave up my dancer’s body for you!” It’s a very funny little movie.
And then you did a movie called Cougar Club.
These two young boys want to start a cougar club and make a little money on the side. Well, it turns out that whatever they’ve been doing is illegal, so they come up in front of this judge, who then summons them into chambers and proceeds to crawl across the desk. I play the judge. They sent out the script on that one and then shot other stuff. It’s like, they got people to be in it, and then decided to shoot other stuff that wasn’t necessarily in the script. It’s kind of like, Really? Really? This is the movie that they did? Even the trailers and the party scenes, it’s like, Wait a minute, there are girls going topless here! I did not sign up for this!
You’ve played cougar Barb and this cougar judge. Have you ever played any other cougars?
I think when I was in high school, I did a play called The Rimers of Eldritch, and I was Cora Groves, the chastised woman who lives on the edge of town and takes the young handyman. So it’s basically just been me and younger men. “People are talking Cora!” I don’t care. If you really look at my resume, there should be something called Feeding where I have an affair with a garbage disposal. If you go on Strike.TV, there’s a series called Penny Dreadfuls and there’s one episode Feeding, and it’s me and my husband, my actual husband, Donald. It’s seven minutes worth your time. I have a love affair with a garbage disposal. And then I feed my husband into it.
And you’re the voice of Bambi’s mom, right?
I am the voice of Bambi’s dead mother. That was really interesting how they did it, because they recorded it, and then they played it backward and I had to phonetically learn that and then say that. So I was saying the words backwards and then they played that backwards. That’s the way they get the best ghost voice.
I love that your credit in Legally Blonde 2 is literally “Congresswoman with haircut.”
Congresswoman with very bad haircut. And I’ll take it.
If you weren’t doing acting, what would you be doing?
Well, Carolyn Hennesy is also a writer. I would be writing or I would be on Top Chef. If I weren’t Carolyn Hennesy, I would like to be Anthony Bourdain without all the incredibly gross food. I would just like to eat great food and travel.
What would be your signature dish?
I have to tell you, I probably make some of the best comfort-food meatloaf in the world.
Is there a secret to it?
A little sausage, a little sage, and rosemary.
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