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The Unlikable Factor: Melissa Rauch on “The Bronze”

The fan base for CBS’s sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” often seems as vast as the universe itself. I still remember the audience going ballistic when Jim Parsons showed up in a fleeting cameo during a public screening of “The Muppets.” Now, “Big Bang” fans have a chance to watch one of the cast members headline her own feature: “The Bronze,” a comedy co-written by its star, Melissa Rauch, best known for her role as Howard’s wife, Bernadette. Needless to say, the role that she created for herself here is a major departure from Bernadette’s neurotic sweetness. Rauch plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, a former gymnastics star and Olympic bronze medalist whose dreams of claiming a gold medal were vanquished by a torn achilles. Years after her fame has faded, Hope still lives at home with her father (Gary Cole), who encourages her to train a plucky young talent, Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson).

Rauch spoke with RogerEbert.com about the stigmatization of unlikable female characters, her collaboration with her husband Winston Rauch (who co-wrote the script), and the outlandish sex scene that caused such a stir at last’s year’s Sundance festival.

Characters stereotyped as “geeks” have often been on the fringes of a narrative, rather than the primary focus, which is perhaps why “The Big Bang Theory” has connected with such a large audience. 

I couldn’t agree with you more. Before I joined the cast, I was a fan of “The Big Bang Theory” for the same reason. I was a nerd growing up, and I still am [laughs]. But I think part of the show’s appeal is that we all feel that way. We can all relate to feeling like an underdog at some point in our lives. I’m sure there’s a select few people who don’t feel that way. But for many people, they’re seeing themselves reflected onscreen. I attribute the success of the show to the architects behind it. The writers have now created over 200 hilarious, heartfelt episodes. I really don’t know how they do it.

Similarly, your character in “The Bronze” would typically be the cardboard villain in someone else’s movie. How did your experience on “The Big Bang Theory” inspire your approach to this project?

“The Big Bang Theory” is a multi-camera show that’s shot in front of a live audience, and we have a phenomenal audience see the show every Tuesday night. So it’s almost like performing in a play that’s being filmed, and the audience is like a built-in focus group that tells you whether or not something is working. The scripts that our writers put out are always hilarious, but there are times the writers are like, “We could do better on that joke.” Even when the laugh is really good, we may try to get an even bigger one. When we were shooting “The Bronze,” we didn’t have an audience and were really limited on time. We had 22 days to make the film on a shoestring budget, so there wasn’t time to tweak anything, but Winston and I would still go over to the side and be like, “I think we could do better on this line, let’s see if we can try something else.” That was definitely something that I learned from being on the show, and we still found time for it, even though we only had two takes tops per scene. It was kind of crazy.

How did you go about creating the character of Hope? She reminded me a bit of Tracy Flick from “Election.”

I love that movie so much. I think that Hope is stuck and is unable to reset and reengage in this new phase of her life, and we wanted to stay true to that. We didn’t want to water that down, and we didn’t want to make her a picture perfect version of herself by the end. We just wanted to take her on a truthful journey. In the world of gymnastics or any sport, when you’re cut off from your passion because of an injury, some people are able to go on and become amazing coaches, and inspire a whole new crop of athletes. But Hope doesn’t have the type of personality that enables her to move past her circumstances, in large part due to her father and the enabling that he has done over the years. It takes her a while before she’s fully able to mourn the loss of being unable to compete anymore. There are parts of her story that I drew from personal experiences—not that I had any gymnastics experience or am close to Hope in any way—but there are times in everyone’s life where you feel a little stuck or that your best times have passed. There was a time when I was looking for work and I was either at the unemployment office or waiting tables. I wasn’t getting hired to do what I love to do, and having that disconnection from what made me happy caused a lot of sadness. What I wanted to show with Hope was that all of her horrible actions are caused by that sadness.

Gymnastics has always been my favorite Olympic sport, since the slightest movement can have either victorious or disastrous results.

[Winston and I] had been avid watchers of gymnastics for years, and we did a lot of research for the film. There were a lot of YouTube rabbit holes that I went down. We actually got season passes to the UCLA gymnastics tournament, and we would go every weekend to watch these meets and sort of stalk the athletes [laughs]. They were just incredible. I read the biographies of gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu, who was willing to do a cameo in the movie, which was so exciting. When she came to set, I grilled her about everything, and she couldn’t have been more lovely.

Haley Lu Richardson manages to find a tricky balance between her character’s innocence and the ambition that fuels her tirelessly chipper affect.

Thank you for noticing that! She was such a great find. I think she’s going to explode—I know that’s a douche-y term, “explode”—but I do feel that her career is going to be tremendous. She’s such a gifted actress, and she actually comes from a competitive dance background. We knew that whoever we hired for this role had to do as much of the physicality as possible. She did her entire floor routine and some stuff on the beam, and she worked with our gymnastics coordinator, Kristina Baskett, who was also incredible. Haley is so effervescent, and had the perfect mix of bubbliness along with a grounded emotional core. She was able to play all the layers of this character that we wanted to bring to life, and just did it so beautifully and effortlessly.

Hope is unapologetically profane and sexual, which goes against the grain of female characters who bend over backwards to be likable.

There still is such a resistance to the unlikable factor when it comes to female characters. There’s a long line of male antiheroes that people get onboard for, though I think we’re making huge strides in the right direction. Look at Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” Although tonally, it’s obviously very different from “The Bronze,” but her character is so complex. She’s not likable because she doesn’t like herself. Part of the reason why there’s resistance to women being unlikable on camera is because there’s resistance to women being unlikable in life. 

One reason why I think the sex scene between Hope and her rival, Lance (Sebastian Stan), has gotten so much attention is that it pokes fun at the public’s speculation on whether the flexibility of athletes would translate to their performance in bed. 

[Laughs] First of all, we outline the heck out of all our scripts. We know what’s going to happen in every scene before we plug in the dialogue. That sex scene was something that wasn’t in the original outline. We knew that Hope and Lance would meet up at that point and go back to her room, but once we started plugging in the dialogue and we got to that scene, Winston and I looked at each other and went, “Oh of course, these are two world-class gymnasts, this is what would go down!” So we ended up writing, “They have the most crazy, epic gymnastics sex scene,” which we then bolded and underlined with twenty exclamation points. Then we bullet-pointed each action as if we were writing a porn, and then presented it to our gymnastics coordinator and director. We ended up using a handicap accessible hotel room that already had rings on the window, which we reinforced so that no one would get injured. You could go rent that room now if you wanted to, although I would disinfect it first. 

How did you and Winston first click creatively?

We started as writing partners. We met freshman year of college and we talked about our shared love of comedy. I was doing stand-up at the time and he came to watch my set. We decided that we should write some sketches together because we have a very similar sensibility and our favorite thing to do is make each other laugh. We ended up getting together after that, so writing has always just been a natural part of our relationship. Prior to “The Bronze,” our play, “The Miss Education of Jenna Bush,” was the only thing we had gotten off the ground, and all of our other scripts were either sitting on shelves or stored in computers that don’t work anymore. The experience of actually getting something produced and being onset together was so exciting. When you’re working with a person you love—this is going to sound so cheesy—there’s something about watching them do what they’re meant to do that is so gratifying. When we started writing together, we were in an apartment that was half the size of this [hotel] room. That was a great training ground for our relationship. If we could figure out a script together in these close quarters and not kill each other, then we’re golden, we’re okay, at least for now.

Would you ever return to stand-up with material inspired by your parents? Conan O’Brien likened your impressions of them to Woody Allen.

I would love to eventually go back to it. I grew up being such a huge fan of comedy and stand-up. I did stand-up for about ten years in New York, and I was one those comedians who started out just handing out fliers on the street in the freezing cold to get people to come see comedy in order to get stage time. As a kid, I was really, really shy and awkward, and I didn’t talk at all in school. I would memorize stand-up sets that weren’t my own, which I didn’t realize was not allowed, since I was seven years old. They were actually really inappropriate for a kid my age. I remember memorizing a Whoopi Goldberg HBO special. I went into class and did a weird stand-up set from the special that dropped a lot of F-bombs, and the teacher called my mom and was like, “Your daughter doesn’t talk and then came in and did this show-and-tell where she was using very inappropriate language” [laughs].

Regardless of whether you’re labeled a “geek” or a “jock” in school, everyone is insecure and trying on different personas. With “The Bronze,” it seems like you’re trying to get at the vulnerability beneath Hope’s persona in order for us to better understand her behavior.

That’s such a fantastic way to put it. Oftentimes in real life, we don’t know where someone’s coming from. We don’t know why they’re horrible, but if you know someone’s story, then you can forgive them a little bit. At the beginning of the movie, we see how Hope was raised and how she got to this point. Even the profanity she uses isn’t for the sake of using profanity. She was told for years to act a certain way, to look a certain way, to speak a certain way and to eat a certain way. Now everything she’s doing is a rebellion against everything that she was told to do, and so the language is really about her pushing boundaries and saying, “You can’t tell me what to do anymore.”

Would you say that your comedy is governed by the principle of separating character from caricature?

Yes, absolutely. The story has always been what is most important to us. When we were writing this, we knew that we didn’t want there to be a joke on every page. We wanted this character’s truth and her journey to be authentic and real, and then we’d crank up the comedy from there when necessary. 

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