Emmy Watch: Sarah Burns discusses that extremely awkward hospital visit in 'Enlightened'
Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.
Krista was in an impossible position from the beginning. As Amy Jellicoe was burning out in a spectacular fashion at Abbadon, her assistant Krista was actually given an opportunity: with her old boss gone, she could rise in the corporate ranks. When Amy returns after an extended leave, she finds Krista thriving. She’s pregnant. She’s happy. She’s successful. And she’s occupying Amy’s old office. It was always going to be awkward.
Creator and writer Mike White allowed his show to luxuriate in complexity, and Krista is never reduced to just one thing. Actress Sarah Burns created an empathetic character who is fundamentally conflicted about her relationship with Amy. Even though we may have experienced most things in Enlightened through the vehicle of Amy, we’re never blinded by her, and can see the always earnest and sometimes tone-deaf strain that she manages to put on others. On one level, Krista is just kind of trying to lead her own life and deal with Amy’s intermittent, terribly self-centered, interruptions as they come.
EW spoke with Burns about her character, knowing what it feels like to outgrow a boss, and Enlightened’s bittersweet ending.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Out of all of Enlightened’s supporting cast, Krista is given so many great moments throughout both seasons. Is there an episode or a scene that stands out for you?
SARAH BURNS: I was thinking about “Revenge Play”. It’s the second episode in Season 2. It was one of my favorites. Amy has this dream sequence where she imagines these gorgeous agents storming into Abbadon, and Krista gets arrested. Later in the episode Omar (Jason Mantzoukas) is framed by Tyler (Mike White), and then Amy visits Krista in the hospital. I think this episode kind of encapsulates how great Enlightened is, or was. It shows this huge diverse cast and just these great Mike White characters that are so lovable. You either are one of the characters or you know one of the characters. And we’d had a season to get to know and fall in love with these characters but I think this is an episode where a lot of the characters are experiencing a turning point. It showed this very complicated relationship between Amy and Krista, and how conflicted Krista is. I don’t think we’re ever entirely sure what the relationship is between Amy and Krista. Are they friends? Is it a straight mentor/mentee relationship? Are they adversaries? It’s like it’s choice D. It’s all of the above.
Were you ever an assistant in your career?
Yes, I was an assistant many times trying to afford this lifestyle of trying to make it as an actor in New York City. And you get these day jobs and you usually end up getting these bottom of the rung jobs and that’s usually as someone’s assistant. Someone pays you to care about whether or not they’re having a tuna sandwich or lox on a bagel. You obviously don’t really care but eventually, if they’re a good mentor, you outgrow the relationship. It’s kind of bittersweet, probably more for them than for the person who was the assistant. There’s a shift in power especially because Krista rises up just as Amy has her downfall. There’s definitely this bitter resentment on Amy’s side and this guilt on Krista’s part.
You really capture that dichotomy well and make Krista so complicated and compelling.
I think that’s credit to Mike White’s writing. Enlightened is funny, but it’s not just the punchlines. There are these very full and emotional scenes, but he really gets into the nooks and crannies, because emotions kind of come in value packs, you’re never just sad. You’re also anxious and guilty. And he really colors that in his writing and gives you these opportunities to shade your work with all these emotions. It is a value pack of emotions! That’s a new term. I’m debuting it today.
What do you remember about filming that confrontation in the hospital?
I got to work with Laura Dern and she’s really wonderful to be in a scene with. That day I had to spend a lot of time in this rundown former hospital that’s used now for many hospital scenes in TV and film. And being in a hospital is kind of upsetting. You’re very vulnerable. I was very comfortable because I was laying down all day while we were working, but it was kind of helpful to me to be in this former hospital because I don’t like being in them. I don’t think anyone does. If they do I’d like to meet them. But looking back on that scene I just feel really lucky to have been given it. I really got to run the gamut of emotions from when Laura comes in to the moment when she leaves, I get to go from fear to panic.
It was just devastatingly awkward. Amy is trying to be kind and reach out, but she just doesn’t understand how others view her. The audience just wants her to get out.
There’s always a moment between Krista and Amy where Krista has to kind of brace for the impact and think about how she’s going to deal with this. It’s this very uncomfortable and forced congeniality. In that moment, Amy comes in and she really wants to see her friend and she gives her this pillow. At this point they haven’t spoken in a while, they’ve been ignoring each other. And now there’s this pillow. This weird pillow. It is very kind, I guess.
But it’s really from Amy’s mom! It’s not something Amy did.
Right! Like “I’m a teenager and my mom gave me this pillow to give to you.” Even though it’s just a scene there’s this arc of emotions. Amy just keeps going and Krista kind of throws herself at her mercy. She’s begging her, saying: “please I just want to protect my baby. I don’t want to get upset.” And then Amy just dives right back. It’s just so baffling. Finally Krista kind of says “nope, I cannot do this.” And then she’s immediately stricken and guilty. But I just love it. What a wonderful gift to give to an actor.
What is it like working with Mike White who is directing the words he’s also written? Is there any room for improvisation?
Improv is great when it can fill in and give some bones and muscle to a scene, but you don’t really need to add a lot of your own whistles and bells here because Mike’s writing is so beautiful. It’s really full. On set he almost makes it seem like you’re chilling out with your bros. Mike has a really great way about him.
We all felt a little robbed of Enlightened obviously. Looking back on it, how do you view the ending of the show?
I thought it was so smart. It could have gone on. And it could have followed many paths. I think it was a really satisfying, but sad ending. It’s satisfying in that it is wrapped up and you get to see her mission completed. She won! She got to take down the company. But really I’m still just proud that I got to be on that show and that I got to work with those amazing people and make really good friends. It’s that value pack of emotions again.
Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr.