Iliza Shlesinger on the real-life liar boyfriend who inspired her Netflix comedy Good on Paper
"There's no manual for unearthing something as dark as this from someone you trusted."
Face it: We've all dated someone who turns out to be different from what we expected. But that "I thought I knew him" narrative took an extreme turn for comedian and actress Iliza Shlesinger when a pal-turned-boyfriend wound up being a compulsive liar who invented pretty much every detail of his life - including where he went to college, the fancy home he "owned" in Beverly Hills, and his mother's battle with cancer.
Fortunately, Shlesinger was able to channel what could've been a traumatizing experience into a hilarious new comedy, Good on Paper. Directed by Kimmy Gatewood, the movie stars Shlesinger as Andrea, a stand-up comedian who meets a seemingly charming man named Dennis (Ryan Hansen) on an airplane. But as their friendship blossoms into something more, and inconstancies start popping up, Andrea's best friend Margo (Margaret Cho) begins to suspect Dennis isn't exactly who he says he is.
It all makes for pretty hilarious viewing, but the fact that it actually happened to Shlesinger adds an undeniable layer of creepy. We chatted with the comedian about the stories she used from her real life and how the experience shaped her outlook on dating.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The things Dennis lies about - and the lengths he goes to in order to conceal those lies - are pretty outrageous. How much of the character is based on the real guy you dated?
ILIZA SHLESINGER: So, we say this movie is "a mostly true story based on a lie." I think two-thirds of it is true - I can't say 100 percent accurate because we had to change some characters. The third act is not real, or I'd face criminal charges. But yeah, I became friends with someone who I met on a plane. Little did I know from the moment I met that person, for the full year we were friends, everything about them was a lie. We only dated for about three months - we abridged that timeline in the movie - and during those three months, all the pieces started to crumble. Me, my friends, and other people, we all unearthed that this person was a total sociopath. A couple of years later, here's a movie about it.
Wow, that's insane. Were all those details - like when he lied about his mom being sick, his dad being dead, owning a house in Beverly Hills - things that happened in real life too?
You know, what's crazy is that all of the things that Andrea was lied to about are things a normal person wouldn't think to question. So this movie isn't about a woman's scorn. This is about a totally normal girl who's living her life, taking care of herself, and she just met this person whose duplicity was unexpected. We're so trained, because of music and movies, to look to see if a guy is cheating, but it's very normal that if someone says their mother has cancer, you just believe that. What kind of a person would lie about that? In the movie, this girl isn't a girl who needed to get taken down a peg. Nor was she some hapless girl who was bad at romance. She's like me and a lot of women, where you're living your life, you're taking care of yourself, you're building your career, and then you just come in contact with someone who's totally evil. What do you do with that? I processed it and made comedy out of it.
A great solution, but how terrifying. I'm scared to ever go on a date again.
Don't be! Once I told this story, I was shocked at the hundreds of people who reached out to tell me something similar had happened to them. What's strange is that people always talk about a woman scorned, but this movie is actually about a man who was scorned and how he chose to take that out on society.
So, in real life, how did you find out he was lying? Did you just piece together inconsistencies bit by bit?
So, in real life the character Margaret Cho plays, Margo, is an amalgamation of three women, one of whom is my mother and one of whom is my best friend who is a lesbian. So of course I was like, "This character has to be gay because my best friend is gay and that's how we speak to each other." I wanted it to be as close to real as possible. I didn't want to harp on the beat where she doesn't believe Margo, because in real life it's not that the person seems too good to be true - it was just, why would this person lie? I have cousins who went to Yale. It wasn't like he said he walked on Mars. In real life, I met his mother, and what kind of a monster says, "Hey, how's your cancer?" So he definitely preyed upon these very real things.
So this was my mom suggesting something, and then us digging, and then me starting to ask questions, because if somebody with a lot of money says to you, "I have a house that's being renovated," you don't think about it. I bought a house before; it wasn't the weirdest thing. Once I started asking those questions, I noticed all the answers were a little too perfect. This movie is about a character going against her instinct. She's trying to give this nice guy, who she wouldn't normally go for, a chance. It's not about about getting punished because you didn't date the nice guy - it's about listening to that voice in your head when something is off. There's a reason you're not attracted to the person.
I love that. It's so important to listen to your instincts when it comes to dating.
It's funny because when I first met my husband, I was like, "I just don't think he's for me." And a friend was like, "Give him the chance." And of course it worked out because we're married, but it's just this thing in our society where we always tell women (and this has nothing to do with my husband), "Settle for a guy you're not attracted to because I bet he's nice." We've never said to a guy, "You know, she's hideous, but she'll be good for you. So just go with it." It's alway about him being attracted to her. So a little bit of that rubbed off on Andrea. I was friends with [this guy] for a year, as she was, so she really fell in love with his heart. The sad thing is in the end, and I think she says this in the movie, all the things she liked about him - his kindness, his intelligence - were things he didn't lie about. It's so sad that this person and other men feel that they aren't enough and they don't even give you a chance to get to know them.
That speech in the courtroom at the end, when Andrea makes those points, is so powerful.
I was like, "Oh, this needs to be powerful." But it was so funny. We had an extra in the jury who kept falling asleep. I'm like, "I'm trying to deliver the speech of my acting career," and this guy's eyes are closed the whole time.
So rude! When you found out the real-life guy was a complete liar, were you afraid at all? It's pretty creepy in the movie.
We wanted to create doubt in the movie and make it feel like a rom-com, and then at the end we wanted to show how creepy he really was. Lying like that is super creepy. Sleeping with someone under false pretenses is creepy! In real life, there's no manual for unearthing something as dark as this from someone you trusted. So it was a combination of nervousness and not wanting it to be true. I was never scared for my physical safety, but it is unnerving to dig deep and find out these secrets, because what you're finding out is that somebody has been watching you and lying to you and you don't know how far it goes back.
I don't know if he knew who I was before I met him on the plane. I remember when I went to his friend's house in real life and they told me about him. I said, "Well, I feel so bad for him because his mom is dying" and they said, "What are you talking about? His mom doesn't have cancer." I remember feeling completely alone and small. I went home and fell asleep for like 15 hours. It's such a gut punch when you allow yourself to think, "Okay, maybe this person is right for me. They're the opposite of me and everything." After I dealt with all of it, I thought, "This person feels they aren't enough and they're paying it forward and making other women - and probably other people in their life - pay for their shortcomings." I made an active decision: "I will never pay this forward. I will never, ever take this out on a guy I date." I was very honest moving forward. I would say, "Hey, I'm not really ready for a relationship. You can still come to my comedy shows and we can still get drinks, but I'm just in a very vulnerable place." It was almost like his dishonesty made me even more honest in dating. I came out a healthier person after what happened with that guy.
That's great because it easily could've prevented you from trusting anyone for a long time.
I think women sometimes think that if you just swear off love that it's like an "F you" to the universe, but I said, "No, I'm a healthy person." Then after, I started writing the script as a cathartic process. Now that I look at it, it's funny, I don't think about him. I think about my character. I think about the comedy. I think about the movie. So there's no anger there. I'm happy to talk about it. I think that's part of what we do as artists: You take something horrific and work on it and work on it until it's a piece of art you're proud of and that you can get something from.
Ryan Hansen is so good at being creepy. How did he get involved?
Full disclosure: I had never heard of Ryan. Kimmy [Gatewood, the director] had the idea of Ryan and brought it up to him. I looked him up and my first thought was, "He's not ugly, so that creates a problem because if the guy were attractive, this story would be very different." Ryan wanted to play a creepy bad guy, and a lot of good-looking guys don't - they want to be Captain America. But he was like, "I've got a tooth guy. I'm going to wear these caps. I'm going to dye my hair. I'm going to wear glasses." Then we dressed him. And then Margaret Cho was such a slam dunk. Not just for representation and diversity, but my best friend is gay, and Margaret is a comic, and I wanted to have that back-and-forth with someone. She was so perfect. Plus, we get along in a special way in real life.
Is Andrea's nemesis Serrena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) based on anyone? Do you have a real-life Hollywood rival?
I think Serrena is representative of the fact that we all compare ourselves to other people. She's not a specific person. It's more that over the years - whether it's an actress or someone from high school or a colleague or another comedian - there's always that person who seems perfect and like it was easy for them, and you're killing yourself comparing yourself to them. I think it's a very real storyline, especially in Hollywood. We all act like we're on our own paths and we don't notice anyone and everything's amazing, but the truth is, this business forces competition. So Andrea's journey was about not having anger towards this person she thought was her enemy who turns out not to be. And there are a billion Serrena Halsteads. Andrea is someone else's Serrena Halstead. There are people who feel that way about me. It's just human nature.
What do you hope the takeaway from watching the movie will be?
We always want women to have a flaw: to be so strong that they need to be taken down a peg, or to be so weak that they need a man to show them that if they just took off their glasses, they'd be beautiful. I talk about this in my stand-up. Most women are like Andrea: We take care of themselves and have a career, we aren't desperate and hapless, and we aren't the hot messes we all like to pretend we are on social media. Andrea is a great example of a girl who did not deserve it. So it's a very honest story. I think I'd like to see more women like that versus training women to think they're broken in some way and had it coming.
Do you wonder how the real-life guy will react if he sees this movie?
My honest answer is that this movie is not a revenge movie. I made this for me. From the bottom of my heart, I don't care if he ever sees it. The point was not to make him feel bad. It was for me to create a vehicle for myself and do something steeped in honesty. So it's funny, there's actually no revenge fantasy. Andrea doesn't come out of this worse or better. She's back where she was because when you're on a path and you're steadfast in who you are, no one can shake that.
Good on Paper is streaming now on Netflix.
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