On MTV’s Awkward., Desi Lydic steals just about every scene in her role as the well-meaning but rather delusional high school guidance counselor Valerie. In real life, she’s just as funny and charming – and even better, seems to be up for any adventure.
Desi talks to us about some of those adventures – working on Awkward., charm school, buying a zoo with Cameron Crowe, throwing her bra at Chris Evans and what she loves about women in comedy.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Louisville—I was there my whole life, I went to school there, my family is back there. When I was a kid, I would take acting camps or summer camps with the Youth Performing Arts School. I knew that that was something that interested me. I loved it. I went through modeling classes.
Which I don’t know if you know this, but Louisville is the fashion capital of the world. Clearly, there is a lot of modeling work to do.
It is pretty renown. It’s Milan and Paris and Louisville.
It’s Vogue (laughs). It’s Elle and Dillon department store catalogue modeling.
I actually took modeling classes when I was going through my incredible awkward phase, which is quite embarrassing. I stuck it out and I ended up loving this school. Obviously in Kentucky there is not a lot of modeling work to do. A lot of it is the charm school aspect of it all.
Ooh! What did you learn in charm school?
We learned about confidence, crossing your ankles the right way when you sit, how to put make up on properly without over doing it. I learned to walk the runway, of course. It is the classic mall walk—stepping one foot in front of the other, stopping in the middle, doing a quick pivot, making your way to the end of the runway, looking in three different directions, smile on your face the whole time and gracefully turn and walk back. This is when I was like ten or eleven years old.
[As] part of our graduation process, we had to write and perform a 30 second commercial. I did a commercial on Del Monte Green Beans. It was something incredibly awkward like “Del Monte Green Beans because they’re good and they’re good for you. Eat Del Monte Green Beans.” Then a big smile and walking off the stage. It was so ridiculous.
It was this mom and pop agency called Alix Adams Modeling Agency. The couple that owned it really became second parents to me. They are just the sweetest, most supportive couple. Through high school, I ended up working there and teaching some classes. They were just so sweet. I still keep in contact with them.
That was kind of my background in Kentucky—growing up knowing that I was going to get into the entertainment field some how. It wasn’t going to be modeling. I wasn’t going to be on the cover of Vogue. It was always silly catalogue modeling or tradeshow modeling—nothing particularly glamorous.
It is kind of funny that who is teaching classes then that who knew you would eventually become a fantastic guidance counselor.
Oh god, I was probably just as inappropriate as I am on the show. I’m sure no one learned anything.
How did you end up going from Kentucky to LA?
It was either New York or LA, but [since] my passion was acting, not modeling, people were encouraging me to go the LA route. My parents are incredibly supportive. They did everything they could. We packed up the U-Haul, and at the last minute, Monica, a dear friend of mine said, “Yeah, I’ll go with you.” We hopped into the car and we drove across country. My parents drove the U-Haul. We settled in Studio City and lived together in that apartment for the first seven years that we were both out here.
Monica and I discovered everything together. We built a foundation together and supported each other. We’re still great friends. It kind of worked in the best possible, supportive way.
It is really good adventure to work out with someone else. It is kind of rare to really get to do that with someone else.
Especially with someone you can trust, a really good friend. We made a really good team. We went through all kinds of transitions. We did extra work and did catering and waiting tables and odd jobs—all kinds of silly adventures along the way. It was not all glamour for sure.
What was the strangest odd job you had?
I did come out here and do some modeling to pay the bills. It wasn’t anything glamorous—I wasn’t getting make-up campaigns or high-end fashion campaigns. It would be like promotional modeling at trade shows selling Simple Green, the cleaning product.
Once did a trade show for a company called JE Pistons. I know nothing about pistons. I know nothing about the car world. They just wanted girls there to wear smile and pass out the brochures. It was the most ridiculous job. I was not qualified for it at all.
I read that one of your earlier credits was that you played “Cutie” in Not Another Teen Movie. I have a not-so-secret love for that movie. I think it is underrated and secretly brilliant.
I do too! I love that movie. I shouldn’t even call it a real credit – it is sort of a fake credit. I did extra work on that movie almost every single day. It was right when I first moved out here and I was learning about what sets were like and how movies were made and the process that actors were going through. It was a cool crash course in that silly comedy world.
One day I got upgraded to the cutie that threw my bra at the jocks. I threw my bra at Chris Evans. It was not exactly multilayered. I had a great time on that set. I’m a sucker for spoof movies. I thought it was really, really funny. It is underrated.
When you got to LA, did you do any study in comedy?
I started in a scene study class, which incorporated some improv. I learned that I loved it. From there I went to The Groundlings—that was my first experience with improv. I think that it is an incredible place to learn about comedy, it is like comedy boot camp. I went from the Groundlings to a place called IO West. They do long form improv.
I was at IO West for a number of years. I went through their program and performed there for a while. I really enjoyed it. It is like working out – I’m sure I’d be rusty going back. I think it is such a great skill to have. You don’t always get to use it.
It’s great when you don’t have to use it because you have a strong script; like in Awkward we have incredible writers. It is not something that we need to rely on. It is great. I always feel like I need to go back to it from time to time to help me think on my feet and stay present. It really forces you to stay present.
My manager sent me the script. At the time, the role of the Guidance Counselor was a just a guest star for the pilot. It was up for debate about whether it would be role that would be brought back into the equation or not. It was towards the end of pilot season. I was going out for a million pilots a day, hoping to land something. I had been going through the pilot season auditioning for the girlfriend role—the girl who gets to set up all the funny guy jokes, the sidekick, the best friend role. Those are great and there is a value to those also.
I was getting really close on some things and this script came. I just thought it was so well written and so smart and so unique. I don’t care if this is a guest star. I don’t care if it is a one-day [role]. I definitely want to get in on this. I thought the Valerie character was a character that was someone like me doesn’t get the opportunity to play very often. It is the role that Steve Carell or Tina Fey gets to play.
I’m earning my opportunities at that point. It was so well written and so funny. It had so many opportunities to expand on. I went in and I auditioned for the casting director and [Executive Producer and creator Lauren Iungerich]. I loved Lauren’s energy. We got along really well. A couple of weeks later that I found out that I got the role. I went and shot the pilot. It was just a day.
Lauren was so incredible. Not only does she have this smart and funny and witty and unique script that she wrote, but she is such a mother hen. She got all of us together for a celebratory lunch meet and greet for the pilot. We really got to know each other before shooting the pilot. I felt like the project was so special. People were so special. You never know when you shoot something whether it is going to go or if it is not going to go. I just so valued that experience and hoped that it would get to continue. Then we got the good word that it got picked up. A month later, I got the good word that they actually were inviting me to come back as a series regular.
I was over the moon about that because of all the projects I’ve been able to do in the last few years, this was the one that a really wanted to go. This is the one that I didn’t want to let go of.
Do you find that you try to top her in every episode or is it the writing or the way you approach her? What is the back-story that you have given Val in your own head?
There is so much that Lauren and the other writers do to arc her out really well. I don’t know if she is really topping each episode, but there is a challenge in finding a new way to become more and more oblivious. Valerie is one of those characters that is a total wild card. That is the fun of her. You just don’t know what she is going to do.
Valerie seems completely oblivious, but I think she is actually very smart. She is just smart about all the wrong things. That’s the fun in playing her. Valerie walks in and she knows she is the smartest person in the room. She truly thinks that she is the smartest person in the room and that she is here to help. It is just in completely the wrong context.
I think that is perfect. Val is really smart, but just about the wrong kinds of things.
I totally relate to that. This is why she is so much fun to me. I grew up – I had my friends here and there, but I was an outcast. I was the uncomfortable girl. The guys weren’t interested in me at all. My crushes would never look twice. I grew up feeling like the outcast so often that I was aware of that and carried that around. I think there is something so beautiful and freeing about a character who is that way, but she has no clue. I wish I had no clue growing up. I could have rocked it like I was the Homecoming Queen.
Coming from that is what is really fun about Val is that not really caricature. As wacky and off-kilter that she is, she always feels like she is a real character. She’s not just doing crazy things for the sake of it.
Oh good. I’m glad to hear you say that. It is definitely broad comedy. We go out on a lot of limbs. I think that Lauren insisted on watching that there was some authenticity and that everything is coming from a truly organic and motivated place. If there is a question, then we work to try and make it come from that place. You take a risk when you play a character like that to go out on all those limbs but find a way to make it as truthful as you possibly can. At the end of the day, it still has to be funny.
Valerie really cares for Jenna and wants to make a positive impact in Jenna’s life. She is pretty certain that she knows how to do that. Her way of doing that is relating that to her own life. Her experiences are so inept and wrong. She just kind of personalizes everything and misses the boat, but her intentions are there. I think the intentions are really, really good. I look at Valerie like she is the awkward goofball in school. She’s the total outcast, but she thinks she is the homecoming queen.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to Awkward at all?
On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, no. From first read of the script and then doing all the table reads—to see all these talented actors read everything aloud—it really excited me and I know that we all truly wholeheartedly believed in the project. You don’t know and you can’t control how people respond. For MTV, this is a new venture. You don’t know if people are going to support their scripted programming or not. When we did it, [The Hard Times of] RJ Berger was relatively new and they had some success with their show. I was really grateful that they gave us a great shot. They gave a great time slot.
[MTV] let us tell the story that Lauren wanted to tell. They supported us all along the way. It has been overwhelming that there has been such a positive response not just from teenagers, but from adults. The cool thing for me is when I get a call from one of my guy friends who I went to high school with and they are like, “Look, I didn’t think I was going to like the show. It is totally for teenage girls, but I have to tell you I’m totally into it. It is kind of my new favorite show.” At which point I make fun of them incessantly and then say thank you. It is a cool call to get. You hope that teenage girls watch it, but it is also a nice surprise when full-grown men are appreciating it also – or creepy. I don’t know.
If the quality of the writing was not as good, it would probably be a little creepy.
I have seen a lot of people comment like that as well, “I’m way past the demographic. I never thought I’d be watching a high school show on MTV of all places.” They’re like: “This is a show that I actually have to make sure that I tune in at eleven o clock on a Tuesday night.”
It is so nice to hear. Those were the responses I was not expecting. That’s the stuff that has really been positively overwhelming. That means that our ratings have been strong. All this stuff is really exciting and stuff that you don’t expect walking into it. It has been really fun. We are all trying to enjoy just each step of the way. Just fully be grateful and appreciate every aspect of the success.
Most of you are on Twitter. What kind of experience is that? This is like your first real series and you have like all of these people now who are fans of yours, who can follow you and are really excited if you respond to them. What is it like to have the immediate reaction with fans?
I don’t think that Val has quite the following that the boys have. The boys are going crazy. The girls are out of control. It is adorable.
I’m the worst at Twitter—I opened an account a while ago, but I could never really commit to it. It is really fun to talk to people, but I don’t know to respond. I didn’t know what hashtagging was until a few weeks ago. I’m always responding in the wrong way. I’m putting links that are too long on there. I put the @ when I should be putting the #. It is really confusing. I’ve never felt more old. I feel like a Golden Girl trying to tweet. It is really fun. You actually get to chat with people who appreciate the show and hear their thoughts and their input and what they’d like to see happen. It has been pretty cool.
Do you have anything because it is so funny that you – what would go on your blooper reel for the season?
Oh my gosh. There were so many silly things. I think the rap from [Jenna’s 16th birthday] was so hard. I knew how ridiculous the whole thing was. Between the bandana and the bull horn, then Ashley [Rickards, who plays Jenna Hamilton]. Ashley is so good at keeping that dead pan, dry face that horrified, “Oh my god. You’re ruining my life thing.” We could not keep a straight face.
[Also] the Grim Reaper stuff in Episode 7. [Val] is running around and chasing people. I have a terrible run. I’m not an athletic person. I can barely run. Between the gloves and the robe, it was just – we had some fun. Anytime I have a scene with Molly [Tarlov, who plays Sadie Saxton], we crack up. That girl is so talented. I’m just so blown away by her every single week. Her natural impulse for comedy and timing is so smart.
And that whole scene with Nikki [Deloach, who plays Lacey Hamilton, Jenna’s mom], where I got to feel her boobs and all that inappropriate goodness. We have so much fun, we can’t really keep a straight face together.
In the long run, would you say that you’re Team Matty or Team Jake?
I’m kind of torn on this—It is not just my political correctness.
I was always a team Jake kind of gal. I love [Beverly Hills 90210’s] Brandon Walsh. Brandon Walsh was the good guy. I never really went for the mysterious guy. Matty is pretty gooey inside. I truly go back and forth each episode. I was doing it while watching some of the scenes while we were filming and now I’m doing it again watching it on TV. I don’t know. I really flip back and forth.
I can understand that. I was pretty solidly Team Matty and then when I realized how awesome Jake was, I think I have completely flipped over to Team Jake. Normally I like the mysterious bad boy. I was all about Jordan Catalano, not Brian Krakow. Now I’m like Team Jake, Brian Krakow.
I know. He is so charming. Brad is just as charming in person. He is such a sweetheart. Beau is too. It is impossible to choose. I keep going back and forth. It is kind of fun.
That is definitely the appeal of it all. When you still keep rooting for one or the other, it is a good sign.
I think so. Hopefully the other girls are too.
Jumping forward, you’re in the new Cameron Crowe movie We Bought a Zoo. They have released the trailer—you’re right there right front and center. What was that like to see the trailer for the first time?
Oh my god. It was crazy. It was a small role, but I got to work with Matt Damon and Cameron Crowe, which was a total dream come true. You don’t know what will happen when you do a small role like that. You could end up on the cutting room floor. Who knows? I was just hoping that it would some how make it in the movie. To see it in the trailer was a really cool experience that was the first scene that they use. I think that it works with the character. I am grateful.
[Cameron Crowe] is such an incredible director and you understand why he has been as successful as he has. It just has this fantastic energy. He just loves every part of movie making. When I went into the audition, I met with him. He was on his feet and he came up to me and welcomed me. He was ready to have some fun. We really got to play around with a lot of different angles on it.
It was a small role, but for him to be so excited about the whole process about it make me feel at ease. I was so nervous to go in and meet this director whose work I had watched over the years and really admired. He wouldn’t let me feel nervous. It was a very cool experience. Everyone from hair and makeup to craft service were all there because they wanted to be there. It was a really lovely, positive experience start to finish.
That’s fantastic. Is there a lesson that you took away from the experience?
It is so easy to walk into those experiences and put a lot of pressure on yourself to do well and impress people or to meet their expectations, make them happy and give them what they want. At the end of the day, it is about going in and doing what you love. It is about doing what excites you. I’m out here in LA to follow my dreams and to do what makes me happy. I think that that whole experience is like just have fun with it. Have a great time with it and do what you love to do. Don’t get bogged down with the pressure and trying to meet everyone’s expectations.
What other projects do you have coming up?
We got a second season of Awkward next year and We Bought A Zoo comes out in December, Christmas week.
I just shot movie called The Babymakers with the Broken Lizard guys. It is about a couple trying to have a baby, and not able to do it successfully. It is about their trials and tribulations in a hilarious way. It was great experience shooting that. I’m not sure when that is going to be coming out, but that is a really funny indie comedy—some great actors in there, I hope that that does well.
What would you love to do next?
The choices that Kristen Wiig is making these days are really fantastic. I’m a huge fan of Bridesmaids. I love that that was her passion project. She made it happen in such a big way.
I think women in comedy are very successful these days. Women like Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler are opening up doors for the rest of us. This is a really exciting time for women in comedy.
You made a really good point. I’m a very big fan of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and I like how they have taken the criticism that “women aren’t funny” head on. There is a shift—not only are TV shows and movies showing that not only can women be funny, but they don’t have to be funny in the same way that men need to be funny.
What I found so interesting about Bridesmaids was that everyone said that it was going to be “The Female Hangover.” When I went to see it, I was surprised to see that it had so much more heart, so much more honesty than The Hangover. That is what I feel has such a strong appeal for the movie.
I think so too. It proved that women could be just raunchy and balls out funny as men can be. We can do the fart jokes and the poop jokes. Bridesmaids is funny. Calling it the female version of The Hangover is what got it sold and maybe got guys into the theatre, but you’re right there was so much more to it. There is relationship and authenticity at the heart of it. That’s what made that movie so beautiful.
For so many years it was the women setting up the jokes for the men. That is fine. Now is our time. We can thank women like Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig who are opening up opportunities for us. It existed years ago with women like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin and all these other women who have been doing it for so many years. Now it is happening in a whole new way. I think that is really exciting.
I look at Lauren, who is the creator of our show who is really blazing her own trail in the female comedy world. She’s kind of doing what Freaks and Geeks and great comedies like that, but for women. She is someone who I really admire — she has an incredibly unique voice and is incredibly ambitious. She is an inspiration as a strong female in the comedy world.
I hope to follow in those footsteps, maybe working on my own projects. Hopefully one day I could get those made and get to work with great directors in the comedy world like Judd Apatow. Woody Allen would be a dream. There are a lot of people that I would like to work with. I’m just open to it all falling into place in the right way.
Awkward. Season finale airs Tuesday, September 27th at 11p/9c on MTV.
(Desi Lydic cupcake photo and main page photo credit: Rebecca Sanabria at http://www.rebeccasanabria.com/)