Mary Holland talks stepping into the leading lady spotlight with Golden Arm
"I'm very much a character actor — which I love, I adore it — but this was my chance to be in the more romantic lead role," Holland tells EW.
Mary Holland has made a name for herself as one of the best character actors in Hollywood. From her many memorable appearances on various comedies like Veep, Parks and Rec, The Mindy Project, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, New Girl, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to her scene-stealing movie roles in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, The Package, and most recently Happiest Season, Holland elevates any role no matter how many lines she's given with her comedic timing and commitment to even the most wackiest of characters. But her time has come to finally step into the spotlight as leading lady in the fiercely funny Golden Arm.
The new comedy film (out now) directed by Maureen Bharoocha is set in the world of women's arm wrestling and stars Holland as Melanie, an unlikely contender for the championship in spite of her lack of experience — and any apparent upper body strength. While the role gives Holland ample opportunity to show off her comedy skills as usual, it also gives her the romantic lead arc she usually sees go to her costars.
"In most of the work that I do, I'm very much a character actor — which I love, I adore it — but this was my chance to be in the more romantic lead role," Holland tells EW.
Melanie is pulled into the Women's Arm Wrestling Championship by her best friend Danny (Betsy Sodaro), and Holland points out the real romance of the film is between these two friends. But Mel also catches the eye of one of the referees throughout the movie as well.
"Getting to be this leading lady-esque type character was really exciting and new," she says. "It was just the dream in every way. I said this to Maureen and the producers after I had auditioned and done a chemistry read with Betsy and they were still in the process of casting it, I send them this note where I was like, I just really feel in my bones that I can do this. This is the right role for me."
But it's taken Holland a long time to gain that confidence necessary to fight for what she wants, which is the lesson that Mel fittingly also has to learn in Golden Arm.
"It's very similar to Mel where, covered by all the doubt that she wrestles with, there is this solid core of just knowing that she can do it, and she just has to access that," Holland says. "And that was my experience of doing this movie."
Below, EW got Holland to break down her experience of finally landing the star role, how she buffed up to play the titular golden arm competitor, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you make the leap from accomplished character actor to finally landing the starring role in Golden Arm?
MARY HOLLAND: I've known the director Maureen Bharoocha for years, and Betsy Sodaro and I are in the improv comedy scene out here in L.A. so I've known her for like a decade at this point. I read the script and thought it was so fun and vibrant and very joyful and happy and was a real celebration of this really special friendship between two women. And I leapt at the chance to get to be in a buddy comedy with Betsy Sodaro, [laughs] that's like a once in a lifetime opportunity. But this is really my first time playing the leading lady type role and we had the best time together so that made it easy. Being both from the comedy scene and having known each other for so long, there was just this real ease and familiarity and comfort that we have with each other so it was so much fun to do. It's just this beautiful movie about two best friends rediscovering their love for each other and discovering their power and it felt like the perfect thing [for my first lead role].
What was it about Melanie that attracted you to playing this role?
I really related to her insecurity. [Laughs] She's someone who, at the beginning of the movie, is really consumed with a lot of self doubt and is concerned that the choices that she makes in her life are never going to be the right one and are never going to lead to her happiness. That's what I very much relate to, this idea of wondering if you can trust your gut and if you do have good instincts. She has spent most of her life on the sidelines and watching other people get in there and jump in the game but had never had the courage to do that herself. I really related to where she started and then I thought it was such a beautiful arc for her to gain that courage and that belief in herself at the encouragement of her best friend who knows her better than anybody else in the world and sees what she can be. It's just a very beautiful story and I really felt connected to her in that.
You've gotten to showcase two characters going through that same journey over the past year, since Jane from Happiest Season had a similar arc. Did you find yourself comparing Mel to Jane like that?
That's a great point, they both in their individual ways found a way to take up space where they previously lived most of their lives taking up no space. They feel so different to me though their arcs are very similar. We actually shot Golden Arm about six months or so before we started working on Jane, but obviously for Jane, we'd been writing that script for years. But yeah, I guess I'm very much drawn to that idea of somebody discovering courage and standing up for themselves and feeling like they have worth and value and they have something to add to the conversation. I guess I am very drawn to those characters. [Laughs] I wonder what that says about me!
Watching Mel and Jane both find the self-confidence to stop apologizing and stand up for what they're passionate about no matter what anyone thinks is so inspiring. We all need that reminder every so often.
Yeah, especially me! [Laughs] And with Mel it's been easier for her to just not stand up for herself or not make a scene or do anything to establish her principles and her values and who she is. It's much easier to be like, "Whatever, I'll just let that person walk all over me and that's fine." Part of the joy of going on this journey with these two friends is that there is such a comfort with each other and that they allow themselves to be multifaceted with each other. They're fully complex, complicated people who have a whole range of emotions, and to watch them entangle in the ways that they do, it is really refreshing to just let women be angry and not have it be a joke or like, she's crazy because she's angry. No, this anger comes from a real place and it's warranted. Watching them navigate that as friends is very real and very true to life. With [Happiest Season's] Jane it feels like it was much more that she's just thrilled to be around people. [Laughs] But it's great that she discovers this inner fight and fire inside her. I loved that.
What was it like digging into the world of women's arm wrestling for Golden Arm?
It was a total joy! [Laughs] It was such a blast. These organizations are all over the country, these women's arm wrestling organizations, and one of the writers actually is involved in one in the D.C. area and that was the inspiration for the movie. There's something so celebratory about these women coming together, adopting these personas, these alter egos, and just letting themselves fully commit to this very tactile, very visceral sport. While it is very competitive, it's also just such a celebration of women's strength and their potential. And we couldn't have been luckier to have Dot-Marie Jones play Big Sexy. The training montage with her was the first thing that we shot, and thank goodness because she gave us real training on that set on how to properly arm wrestle. Just thinking about if we had done all the tournament footage before working with her, I mean, I wouldn't have been able to do it. [Laughs] She actively coached me. It was so helpful.
Did you have to do extra training to buff up your arms?
I did! I very much wanted to be able to sell that this person is strong, [laughs] and everybody that I arm wrestled in the movie was contractually obligated to lose to me but I did also want it to be believable that I could win. I definitely worked out and did a lot of arm stuff and tried to get as buff as I could.
And I've got to ask, did you ever see Quibi's The Golden Arm? That's a very different project!
I did! [Laughs] I did, yes. Listen, [sighs] very different plot, but there's actually a lot of similarities. I remember I searched for Golden Arm at some point and that popped up and I was like, "Oh, okay. Great, Golden Arm is really having a moment right now!" We've got to support all the Golden Arms out there.