From Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist to The Mighty Ducks, Lauren Graham wants to 'test some limits'
"I just had to flip a switch in terms of confidence," Graham tells EW of her latest roles.
Lauren Graham is tired of playing the mom.
After becoming a household name on Gilmore Girls as the young single mother Lorelai Gilmore and going on to play yet another young single mother as Parenthood‘s Sarah Braverman, Graham knew she needed to change things up. Now she’s singing and dancing on NBC’s new musical series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and ice skating for Disney+’s The Mighty Ducks sequel series.
“At this stage, when Mighty Ducks came up, my agent was like, ‘Are you just choosing jobs now according to what extracurricular activities they are?'” Graham tells EW with a laugh. “Which is not how I’m doing it but I am looking for a different kind of challenge.”
While she’s once again playing the lead character’s mother on The Mighty Ducks, spending all her time “at the skating rink with like 45 12-year-olds” — “It’s hard to get any time away from the ice, which is a thing I say now,” she adds with a laugh — is something so outside her comfort zone that she jumped at the chance to do it. “Even if I’m going to do a similar kind of character, I’d like to do it in a different environment or with a different age group,” she adds. And on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, not only is she singing and dancing, she’s also playing the antagonistic, bullying boss instead of the kind, loving mother figure.
“Not everybody thinks of me as a person to put in charge of things as an actor,” Graham admits with a laugh. “Like, I don’t get the boss roles. That was really appealing to me, and to make something fun and off and interesting and odd. Then singing and dancing? Forget it. I thought it would be really fun — and it was.”
NBC’s new musical series from Austin Winsberg follows Zoey (Jane Levy), a smart and driven computer coder working her way through the male-dominated tech industry in San Francisco who all of a sudden starts to hear the innermost thoughts, secrets, and desires of the people around her… through giant, colorful, musical numbers. Graham plays Joan, Zoey’s boss and the only other woman in the entire company. The series begins with the no-nonsense, tough Joan as more of a bully than an ally for the shy, awkward Zoey as she begins to take on her own leadership role managing a team of coders. But as the season progresses, Graham promises they’ll get closer, and for an important reason.
“I didn’t want them to be rivals,” she says. “It started out a little more that way but they’re the only two women that we see at this company and however I got to my position there had to be, even if it’s not in her nature to be super nurturing, I thought of it as, ‘I’m going to be your mentor whether you like it or not.'” Graham just wasn’t interested in seeing the only two women who work at this fictional tech company to constantly be at each other’s throats and in conflict with each other. “That was really important to me. Even in Devil Wears Prada there’s that turn at the end where she gives her a leg up but that’s just not interesting to me. I don’t like seeing women clash. It didn’t seem realistic to me.”
She also didn’t think it fit with who Joan was being shaped into as a character. “I just kept thinking that the No. 1 thing this person cares about is work,” Graham adds. “She cares about work, work, work, and Zoey’s really good at her job. That is something she respects her for.” So fans can expect to see Joan and Zoey bond further down the road this season, especially as Joan’s marital struggles become more difficult and she finds herself needing some girlfriends — probably for the first time in her life. “She goes through a tough personal time, and Joan is the kind of person who doesn’t really know how to have a girlfriend. I wanted her to be really awkward when it came to trying to be friends with someone instead of compared to what I’ve mostly gotten to do.”
Graham later teases with a laugh, “There are some fun things coming up where we go out on the town. My character struggles with boundaries this season in several different ways.”
While playing the strict boss was a new role for Graham, she actually took to it quicker than she expected. “It was really fun to play around with that — I went from being like, ‘I don’t know if I can boss someone around,’ to being like, ‘Sit there, do that, stand up, sit down,'” she says with a laugh. “I got it really fast and I found where she lives, which is less in meanness and more like, ‘It’s so frustrating that people aren’t as smart as I am.’ That’s her through line.”
And it was actually Levy herself who helped Graham realize her potential to play Joan. “I’m friends with Jane who is best friends with [my onscreen Parenthood daughter] Mae Whitman so I actually read [the script] when Jane was deciding whether or not to do it,” Graham says. “And then it almost became a joke where she was like, ‘You should play my boss.'”
Smash cut to Graham not only playing the boss but also tapping into her inner rock star, especially in this Sunday’s episode. “A lot of this character, this show, this experience, I just had to flip a switch in terms of confidence,” she says. “I had to sell it. It’s a very different thing than the intimacy of a regular TV show and I really trusted Mandy Moore — the choreographer, not the singer, who I also trust. It’s a physical challenge and a mental challenge.”
Adding that the musical performances get more challenging as the season goes on, Graham points out one in particular that was both thrilling and terrifying. “I dance on a bar to a Kesha song and that was a real moment for me,” she says with a laugh. “Mandy was like, ‘So what we ‘re going to do is put you on a bar and you’re going to jump into the arms of one of the dancers who is going to catch you,’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t do any of that!’ And then I was like, ‘Yes I can!’ And I just did. It was cool to test some limits I thought I had.”
She adds that it’s Joan’s crumbling marriage that “launches her into some bad behavior that can only be permissible because she’s in such a state. Thus, the dancing on a bar.”
As Graham looks back on her career so far, she has noticed some similarities between Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Gilmore Girls, but not in the way you’d expect. “This was similar to Gilmore Girls in that I returned to hours that were pretty bad,” she says with a laugh. “But the aspect of a show being in its first season is challenging. And then when you add recordings, rehearsals, choreography, singing, dancing, much more rehearsal than you would normally have, it’s just long. To get everything right just takes a lot of time. Where Parenthood had the easiest hours in the world, this was more a return to a longer day. But it’s all the stuff I liked about being an actor when I started out, doing musicals, children’s theater, and it brings me back to the pure fun of performing.”
And now that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has wrapped filming on season 1, she’s lacing up her ice skates for The Mighty Ducks, which is now in production. “I finished one job, went home for a week, and literally came back to start the next job,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a little much but it’s also really fun. These kids are so sweet and the story is really funny. It’s a hopeful throwback. My skating needs work, however. I’m going to be training for the next six months on them.”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
The Mighty Ducks