Actors-turned-memoirists share stories of Hollywood, heartbreak, and screening Oprah's calls
This month, four of the sharpest women in show business — Ellie Kemper, Abbi Jacobson, Busy Philipps, and Phoebe Robinson — added “memoirist” to their résumés. EW got them all in one place to talk Hollywood, heartbreak, and screening Oprah’s phone calls.
It’s a cool October Sunday in New York, and Brooklyn has hardly roused itself to brunch yet. But Williamsburg’s Industria Studios — done up for today’s shoot in a Skittles-bright riot of color — is already buzzing with energy: Phoebe Robinson, author, comedian and one half of the podcast phenomenon 2 Dope Queens, does a stealth body roll as Robyn and Prince blast in the background; Broad City co-creator Abbi Jacobson submits to a quick makeup touch-up in the corner; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper, straight off a plane from St. Louis, bounces on her toes by the catering table, clutching a coffee cup with both hands. When Busy Philipps strides in, phone and publicist in tow, the women are ready to stop being polite, and start getting real.
EW: Since you haven’t all had a chance to read each other’s books yet, do each of you want to maybe give your elevator pitch?
ABBI: Okay, my book is called I Might Regret This. In the summer of 2017, I was terribly heartbroken and feeling very overworked and very lost, and I drove from New York to L.A., so every essay is a different stop on my trip. I was in a very transitional period. I had never been in love before — I had never been in love with a woman before, so it was, like, a lot. It’s about the country, it’s about a solo journey, but also Broad City, and what it’s like to just kind of work all the time. [Long exhale] Whoof. That’s my stop on the elevator!
EW: With illustrations, we should add.
ABBI: Yes, thank you! There are illustrations. A lot of it is what I was listening to, so it’s album covers, podcasts, food I made, snacks I brought, ’cause when you’re on the road for so long you gotta figure that out.
BUSY: That’s so great, I love it! I wish I had done that for my book.
EW: Busy, you’ve got a lot of music references in This Will Only Hurt a Little.
BUSY: Yeah, every chapter is a song title that corresponds to the time, and also a general feeling or vibe: Hole’s Live Through This, Tori Amos’ “Tear in Your Hand” …it just goes chronologically from my early childhood all the way through my 20 years of working as a professional actress in this business and trying to maintain that job, sometimes with more luck with others. [Laughs]
EW: Phoebe, you’ve already had a New York Times best-seller [2016’s You Can’t Touch My Hair].
PHOEBE: Well, if you gotta bring it up, you gotta. [Laughs] But yeah, the new one, it’s called Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay. After the election, I was kind of feeling like, “Okay, that’s not how I thought the cunch” — that’s country — “was gonna be, and” …do I have something on my lip?
ABBI: Only gorgeous lipstick.
PHOEBE: Okay, good. Anyway, I felt really inspired by everyone who was rallying, especially young people. So I write about feminism, I write about politics, but I also write about, like, meeting Bono, because I’m so obsessed with U2, so meeting him was truly my reparations 20 times over. And it’s also about being a workaholic, getting out of $60,000 of financial debt, finding my current boyfriend. I think I’m more vulnerable this time around, where I’m just like, “I can be not funny for a couple pages and that’s fine, you know?”
EW: Your turn, Ellie.
ELLIE: I wrote a book called My Squirrel Days, and it is a collection of essays about growing up in St. Louis, trying to make it in show business, going to college — and I think it’s a lot of relatable stories that anyone who’s growing up can understand. And the title refers to my attempt to befriend a squirrel in my backyard because I’d just seen Dances With Wolves, and I wanted to be someone who could also dance with the wolves, who could commune with nature, and maybe I didn’t have that many human friends but that was okay. [Laughs] And I don’t meet Bono, but I do meet Gary Coleman.
BUSY: Oh wow wow wow.
EW: And you actually kind of end up getting Mean Girl’d by the squirrel.
ELLIE: Absolutely. Natalie the squirrel. I fall off a tree and she laughs in my face.
EW: Abbi, the subtitle of your book is Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff, and you and Busy especially include some pretty intense personal stories. What was the inner debate about how much to put on the page?
ABBI: It really was a constant doubt — I don’t know what it was like for you guys when you went there — where I was like, “Why am I doing this?” In my other writing, it’s mostly Broad City, and there’s a certain level of vulnerability, but it’s masked behind a character. And this was the first time where I really felt like, “I have to write through this experience and then I can be done with it.”
VIDEO: Busy Philipps reveals her biggest fear about writing This Will Only Hurt a Little
BUSY: Origin stories are always my favorite stories, so I wanted to give a full scope of my journey as a woman and as a person on
this planet and not just give you, like, “I showed up in Hollywood and I got this TV show and things were f—in’ rad and then I
met a bunch of people!” But especially in the last several years, because I am so open with my life in many ways on the internet, I
was acutely aware that things would be extrapolated and turned into clickbait. That was my worst fear — that in revealing these super-personal, really intense things that I’ve experienced, it would be reduced to someone’s s—ty headline. And it has been,
and I’m still alive, so here we are. Right, guys, was that lighthearted? [Laughs]
PHOEBE: I feel like my writing is already pretty close to how I am online, so I didn’t feel too anxious about revealing anything. I think maybe just my parents reading the sex stuff. But my dad was really chill with the first book; he was like, “I know that’s
your persona, it’s your comedy.”
ELLIE: That’s so nice, because I agonize over what my parents think. I play a lot of upbeat, bright characters, so I actually really wanted to write a book to demonstrate that I don’t only play ditzy, that I have something to say other than that. But I struggled because I am pretty private. I literally just joined Instagram three weeks ago, you guys!
GROUP CHORUS: Yaaaay!
ELLIE: Thank you, but I don’t totally understand it. I think it’s confusing — like, how much do you share? And my friend who’s a novelist said, “You signed up to write a collection of personal essays but you don’t want to get too personal?” Because I’m Midwestern and frightened and I don’t know. [Laughs]
VIDEO: How Busy Philipps told her Dawson’s Creek costars she was writing a memoir
EW: Did any of you have to give certain people a heads-up they would be in your books?
BUSY: Yes and no. And maybe I should have done better. We just did the EW reunion of Dawson’s Creek, and that’s when I told all those guys, and I think they were a little afraid. But there’s no takedowns in my book. I talk about my meet-cute with Michelle [Williams], and obviously Michelle read the book. Colin Hanks — he was my boyfriend from college and now we’re really good friends — he’s read it. So I reached out to people when I thought there was something they needed to see.
EW: A lot of you have stories about being young and new in the business and put in some bad situations, and you wished you’d handled it differently. Was it hard to look back sometimes and be kind to yourself?
PHOEBE: I mean, you can’t really beat yourself up. I’ve been doing comedy for 10 years, and there is no HR in comedy. Certainly in stand-up, you show up at a club or a festival and you deal with a lot of guys getting away with bad behavior because that’s just allowed, and you sort of just have to teach yourself what you’re going to put up with and what you’re not. One of the things I write about in the book is, I was walking into this comedy club when I was maybe two or three years into it, and this guy and a bunch of other comedians were standing out front and one of them was just calling me a slut as I walked down the street as, like, a funny joke.
BUSY: That was his bit? [Rolls eyes] Such a good bit.
VIDEO: Phoebe Robinson on how she went from shrugging off being called a slut to not taking any s—
PHOEBE: Yeah, “Hey, slut! What’s up, slut?” And I said, “You can’t do this,” and then he was like, “Whoa, you’re being so extra!” And to me that illustrated that guys can be extremely inappropriate, and if you react to it as a human would, you’re hysterical. I’m at a place now where I just won’t take s— like that, that kind of light harassment.
BUSY: To me the microaggressions are as much of a bummer as the bigger ones, you know? I actually think I am very hard on myself and what I wish I would have done differently. There are so many times where you feel that you just have to swallow it.
ELLIE: It’s almost a matter of, you feel like you only have so much energy. So it’s pathetic that it has to be an issue of choosing your battles, but if you were to address every single mistreatment you’d be doing it all day.
PHOEBE: You wouldn’t work at all.
ABBI: This is not in my book, but Ilana [Glazer] and I just dealt with this on [the Broad City] set where an actor said something that he thought was a compliment to Ilana about her body, and I was right there, and we were both, like, shook. And we’re the showrunners! We are the bosses of the whole show. But I guess he didn’t know that.
VIDEO: Broad City stars had to explain to an actor on set why his ‘compliment’ was not okay
PHOEBE: He didn’t? Read the call sheet, bitch!
BUSY: Well, you know the famous Anne Lamott quote, “If people wanted you to write about them nicely, they should have behaved better”? Do I feel beholden to prepare them? At this point in my life, no, I don’t need to hold your hand, I’m sorry.
ELLIE: I changed the name of my field-hockey coach! I changed the name of the squirrel. It was actually Natalia.
ABBI: Now she knows! Now she knows.
EW: Well, while we’re dropping names, Ellie, you and Busy both had close encounters with the Pope.
BUSY: The Pope actually touched me.
ELLIE: I did not make contact.
ABBI: You guys, can you elaborate, please?
ELLIE: The Pope was visiting St. Louis and I attended Mass at the cathedral, and as he was walking down — I think it’s the nave? — I reached out to touch him, but I failed to do so. He did not proactively reach out to me, and I want to know how you got him to do that.
BUSY: It’s a really wild confluence of circumstances. I was in Rome on a school trip and the Pope was giving some benediction speech at the Vatican, so I wanted to get a picture for my grandma, and we scooted along from the side. It was very exciting.
VIDEO: Phoebe Robinson reveals that Julia Roberts taught her how to swim
EW: Phoebe, you have stories about Bono and Oprah; Ellie, you have encounters with Christopher Plummer and Ed Begley Jr.; Abbi, you write about having Hillary Clinton on the show. Is it good to meet your heroes?
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think I’ve had only good experiences. Bono, Oprah, and Julia Roberts is kind of the trifecta. Julia and her family taught me to swim. I don’t know how to swim — stereotype! But I was overseas in Croatia shooting Ibiza for Netflix, and her husband, Danny [Moder], was our director of photography, so Julia and their kids would come to town every once in a while, and Danny was like, “Hey, the family’s going to be in town, do you want to get a yacht?”
ABBI: Like you do…
PHOEBE: I was like, “I ain’t got no money, but yes!” So I just hung out with the family, thinking, “I’m just going to sit here and drink my rosé.” But then they went, “Come on, we’re gonna teach you how to swim! You’re not gonna die!” They were the most encouraging white people ever, and I just did my little kicks and I sort of fell into the water. And Oprah, she’s like black Jesus.
EW: In the book, she was calling you, and you kept missing her calls.
BUSY: No. I’m about to start crying. Phoebe, please!
PHOEBE: Well, at the time I had about $40,000 in student-loan debt…
BUSY: [Gasps] Did she pay it?
PHOEBE: No, she was like, “You’re on your own, girl, you gure that out.” But I was like, “If I don’t recognize the number, I’m not gonna pick up, because I don’t want Sallie Mae up in my grill.” But it was Oprah!
ABBI: I feel like when it’s Oprah on the phone, an alarm should go off.
EW: Now that you’ve all done it, do you think you would write another book?
ELLIE: [Gesturing to Busy] We’re unsure.
BUSY: Yeah, Ellie and I are on the fence.
ELLIE: It was hard! Wasn’t it?
ABBI: So difficult. But I think I would write fiction next.
PHOEBE: I want to be like Nora Ephron and just have a bunch of essay collections. And then maybe I could write fiction. But sometimes I read fiction describing a leaf and I’m like, “Bitch, I know what a leaf is.”
EW: Ellie, maybe in your next book you can focus on your B list of squirrels.
ELLIE: [Laughs] Yes! The squirrels I didn’t get to, the true exposés. And I will not change their names on this one, Natalia.