From the moment she got her big break on Freaks and Geeks in 1999, Busy Philipps has been synonymous with cool. Here, the outspoken actor, author, and soon-to-be late-night host talks about taking control and putting Hollywood sexism on blast
Busy Philipps is wearing a stylish version of a power suit and striking what’s basically a Wonder Woman pose on the L.A. set of our photo shoot when the photographer, Ramona Rosales, compliments her fingernails. They’re long, freshly painted gold, and filed to a dangerous-looking point. “I got them after Donald Trump was elected,” Philipps quips. “I needed talons.”
If you know Philipps from her role as Laurie, the nutty, kind-of-extra BFF to Courteney Cox’s Jules on Cougar Town, or as Audrey, Joey’s outgoing, kind-of-extra roommate on the late ’90s-to-early aughts millennial teen soap Dawson’s Creek, it might be hard to picture just how fierce the 39-year-old is IRL. Even if you are one of her million-plus Instagram followers, intimately familiar with the minutiae of her daily life, from sweaty morning workouts to afternoon margaritas to evening confessionals from her comfy-looking bed, an iPhone screen cannot convey the sheer force that is Philipps.
If you love Kim Kelly, Philipps’ first major role as an iconic mean girl on the indelible cult favorite Freaks and Geeks, you might have an inkling. Except Philipps isn’t mean. She’s animated and gregarious and drops Valley girl–accented f-bombs with gleeful regularity. But most of all, she’s a boss. The actor-turned-internet celebrity is a woman who knows what she wants, whether it’s finding the fad toy Poopsie Slime Surprise (for her older daughter Birdie’s 10th birthday), becoming a published author (her memoir This Will Only Hurt a Little comes out October 16), or having her own late-night talk show (Busy Tonight premieres October 28 on E!). And it’s her time to get it.
“This year is going to be the year when everything happens for me,” Philipps tells me when we sit down to talk on a couch in the photo studio. She’s drinking a giant bottle of dark green chlorophyll water and scarfing a wrap from a local juice spot, her freshly blonded hair pulled back in a knot. Considering that Philipps has been working steadily in the entertainment industry since 1999—her IMDb page also includes stints on ER and Vice Principals, and parts in movies including 2008’s Made of Honor and last year’s I Feel Pretty, co-written and co-directed by her husband, Marc Silverstein—it might seem like everything has been happening for her. But in the last couple of years, something’s changed. And a lot of it has to do with Instagram.
In November of 2016, Philipps began chronicling her life on the social media platform’s new Stories feature. In a 2017 New Yorker article heralding her as the feature’s breakout star, writer Marisa Meltzer described Philipps’ daily snippets as “I Love Lucy mixed with a modern lifestyle guru.” And that’s totally apropos, especially when Philipps and I start recounting some of her past Stories as if they were episodes, like the one where she and Silverstein were “maybe almost murdered” by an Uber driver who turned out not to be an Uber driver at all. Or when she found herself drunk and locked out of her house after partying at the Golden Globes with her BFF Michelle Williams. Or my personal fave, an up-close slo-mo video in which she uses a neti pot to run saline water through her nasal cavity, the slowed down stream of water pouring out of her nostril both weirdly artful and masterfully funny.
“I never at any point thought, I’m gonna get a book deal and talk show out of this bullshit.”
But if her stories have a sitcom air to them, they also have a refreshing realness—Philipps talks openly about her struggle with anxiety, and her means of addressing it (she traded Ativan and Xanax for high-CBD, low-THC weed two years ago and hasn’t looked back). She’s upfront about the less-than-perfect reality of parenting two daughters (in addition to Birdie, she and Silverstein have a five-year-old named Cricket). She talks a lot about her terrible sinus problems (hence the neti pot) and loves pointing out zits since she’s often sans makeup. In an industry where artificiality is the norm, “reality” shows are scripted, and PR teams often handle social media, Philipps’ honesty is a revelation. And people, mostly women, are responding. Which is exactly what Philipps was looking for. “I was deeply sad and lonely and I needed to talk to somebody,” Philipps explains when asked about why she started using Stories in the first place. “I was at the end of the night, like, ‘Is this thing on? Hi guys.’ I’m someone who has always been fascinated by reality television. I’ve watched all of Real World from the very first one. I love a confessional. I love a talking-to-the-camera moment. And I think that was all in my head when I started the Stories,” she says. “It’s like creating a little sitcom every day. And I think part of that is that I’ve always been a writer and always thought of myself as a storyteller. It just came from a very intuitive and genuine place. I never at any point thought, I’m gonna get a book deal and talk show out of this bullshit.”
That, however, is exactly what happened. But it’s her way of telling stories, more than the platform she tells them on, that’s really at the heart of this Busy Philipps renaissance. After so many years playing parts written by other people, and auditioning for roles cast at the mercy of other people (she gives a gutting account in her book of almost landing a prime character on Party Down, only to lose the part because of her weight), she decided to change tack. “I feel like I hit a point maybe three years ago where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to take control of everything and I’m only doing what I want to fucking do from now on,’” she says matter-of-factly. That includes not only writing This Will Only Hurt a Little, but also hiring Autumn de Wilde to photograph the cover, teaming up with her stylist Karla Welch to create her pink-suited look for the book, and tapping a graphic designer friend to lay out the title. “I’ve been really bossy about this whole thing,” she says, gesturing at my dog-eared copy on the table next to us. The collection of essays covers her early childhood in the Chicago suburbs where her mom and dad (who are still married) grew up and were high-school sweethearts. It follows her family, which includes her older sister Leigh Ann, to Scottsdale, AZ, where she spent her teen years. It chronicles her Hollywood tribulations after moving to L.A., ostensibly for college but really to pursue her love of acting. And it takes us through her marriage, near divorce, and the births of both of her daughters. It’s the kind of book that will undoubtedly be reviewed as “unflinching,” in part because of the painfully detailed account she gives of losing her virginity to a date rapist at 14.
“The one thing that was truly the hardest for me knowing I was putting that story into the world, [is that] my parents never knew that. So I had to have a conversation with them, and my mother took it as a failure on her part, which as a mother I completely understand, although I tried to impart to her that not only do I think she’s the hero of the book, but also it was a totally different time. It was ’94 and you have, like, Bill Clinton shoving a cigar in Monica Lewinsky and she was the slut, you know?” Philipps says, slipping off her shoes and tucking her legs underneath her. “Culturally we were at a very different place,” she continues. “I do think that I was raped. And I have dealt with that and the repercussions from that for my entire life. But he 100 percent does not think he raped me. And if I asked him today, I’m sure he would be flabbergasted. Like, What are you talking about? But it was clearly not what I wanted. It was horrible.” In fact, You Don’t Get All This Without the Trauma was one of the working titles she kept in her head while writing the book. “I think it’s really interesting when people, especially women, are super successful, or they start from nothing and end up somewhere, and it’s almost always deeper than, Oh, I just thought it would be fun to be an actress. I wanted to honor that part of my story and my journey, which was the thing that has driven me year after year after year and has always pushed me so fucking hard.”
“I’m just going to take control of everything and I’m only doing what I want to fucking do from now on.”
In addition to getting deeply personal, Philipps spends ample page space putting jerky dudes in the entertainment industry on blast. “Why not?” she asks emphatically when I bring it up. “Why the fuck not? What do I care?” Those outed for bad behavior include screenwriter Craig Cox (her former boyfriend), Modern Family creator and showrunner Steve Levitan, and her Freaks and Geeks co-star James Franco. If the #MeToo allegations against the A-lister didn’t seal your disdain for the guy, her recounting of their time spent together on set certainly will. Adding insult to injury, Franco faced zero repercussions for being a Grade-A asshole. That is a culture, she notes, that’s finally starting to change in Hollywood. One example she cites is the firing of Clayne Crawford from the Fox show Lethal Weapon. “They had a lot of on-set incidents and now Seann William Scott is replacing him next year. And you know what?” she asks. “I’m so fine with that. I’m not shedding one fucking tear for any of these dudes. I mean, even some of the people losing their jobs over past indiscretions—I’m like, oh well. Sorry.”
It’s this kind of brazen confidence and zero-fucks attitude that make Philipps a perfect contender for joining the male-dominated world of late-night talk shows. Busy Tonight is still in the early stages of development when we chat, but she knows it will likely feature one guest an episode, will have a casual vibe, and will air at 10 p.m., four nights a week—a victory in and of itself. “I don’t know if E! is going to love if I say this to you, but they really wanted to just give me one night a week for my talk show, and my feeling was fuck that. The men always get four nights a week,” she says. “Is it going to be way more work for me? Yeah. Is it possibly going to backfire? Maybe, we’ll see. Part of the whole reason why I even had the idea that I wanted to do [a talk show] was because since Chelsea [Handler] left, we have Samantha Bee and Sarah Silverman doing wonderful shows, but they are more political, deep-dive shows that happen once a week. They’re not fun, late-night talk shows with a guest; it’s not what the dudes are doing. To me, the inequality of the thing was unacceptable and I wasn’t going to be happy until I got what the men got.”
She’s also stacked her show’s team with talented women: Tina Fey’s company Little Stranger is producing Busy Tonight, former Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen executive producer Caissie St. Onge is the showrunner, and screenwriter/Twitter queen Kelly Oxford, who is also a close friend of Philipps’, is one of the show’s writers. That’s not to say men didn’t apply for positions. “I had a guy come in to interview for the show, to interview to work on my fucking talk show, and he sat there and asked me about how I got the job, why I wanted to do it. This is not the conversation that’s happening, dude. I got so angry because I looked at his resume and he had worked with so many men. I wonder if he did the same thing in his interviews with them,” she says. “How did you get this? So did you just call E! or…? He kept asking whose idea it was and how I got it. It was mine, it’s mine. It was my idea.”
“There’s something so comforting to me about women, and I am truly inspired by all of my female friends. I am rooting for every single one of them all the time, and I know they are rooting for me.”
Philipps packs her non-work life with women, too. Her friendship with Michelle Williams, whom she met on the set of Dawson’s Creek, is beloved by the whole internet. Philipps, who Williams has referred to as “the love of [her] life,” is godmother to Matilda, Williams’ daughter with the late Heath Ledger. And in May, when Philipps underwent sinus surgery, Williams sent her a cardboard cutout of herself, so she wouldn’t be lonely during recovery. “I loved her immediately. I think we loved each other immediately,” says Philipps, who could teach a master class on forging female friendships. “There’s something so comforting to me about women, and I am truly inspired by all of my female friends. I am rooting for every single one of them all the time, and I know they are rooting for me. They give the best advice and understand nuance and can see things different ways. Marc has been trained, but something with men, when you are in relationships with them, they want to fix things, they don’t want to sit with you in the thing. The other day I was having a really rough time emotionally and I went over to my friend [Girls producer] Jenni Konner’s house and she was like, ‘OK, we are just going to have some tequila, order chicken, and cry. There’s going to be so many tears tonight, I can’t wait.’ No one was trying to fix the other person’s thing; we were just listening and crying. Letting the emotions happen.”
In most interviews, it can take a few minutes for the person being interviewed to warm up, but Philipps embodies the phrase comin’ in hot. She’s probably like this with every journalist, but when she tells me she loves BUST, I decide that’s the reason. “[You’re] my people,” she says. Philipps is a lifelong DIY-er. She often does something unheard of in Hollywood: her own makeup for red carpet events. And her penchant for creating extravagant cakes, like the frosted unicorn confection she recently made for her daughter Cricket’s fifth birthday, is next level. But she is also a staunch feminist, and quick to identify as one, coming, she says, from a long line of strong women. “My mom always led with a very empowered way of raising my sister and I,” she says. “I remember very clearly being in second grade and complimenting one of my friend’s mom’s jewelry at school pickup and she said something to the extent of, ‘Oh, you have good taste, you’ll have to marry rich.’ And my mom said, ‘Busy is not going to marry rich. She’s going to be rich for herself!’ It’s such a weird thing to do to a second grader. But it really got into my brain and I remember thinking, Yeah! I don’t need a man, I’m going to be rich. Even now, I do the same thing. I was driving, listening to my daughter and her friend talking in the backseat. And her friend was saying that she’s going to marry a rich guy and ‘He’s going to take care of me’ and blah blah blah. And I was like, ‘That is not what you’re going to do!’” she says, mimicking the way she whipped her head around and defiantly wagged her finger in the air. “And I heard my mother coming through. I was like, ‘You’re going to make money for yourself because you never want to rely on a man for money.’ I was going on and on and the girls were rolling their eyes. Whatever. No wonder Birdie doesn’t think I’m cool. But it’s a thing that we have to shape immediately. Even as far as we’ve come, they still get these messages all the time.”
Women of every age get these messages all the time. Which is why amplifying a voice like Philipps’ feels like a power move in the dismantling of pop culture’s wild gender inequality. Luckily, she’s up for the job. “I’ve always been a person who rails against patriarchal society,” she says. “I feel like it’s part of my mission on this planet to take it down. Truly.”
By Lisa Butterworth
Photos by Ramona Rosales
Styling by Dani and Emma / Hair by Bobby Elliot @ Starworks
Makeup by Kindra Mann @ Tomlinson Management Group
Cover fashion credits: Top: See by Chloé; Earrings: Melody Ehsani
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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