WAt 21, Busy Philipps was cast in the fifth season of the groundbreaking ’90s teen series Dawson’s Creek, in which she plays Katie Holmes’ hedonistic college roommate. She brought some much-needed panache to a flagging series, but behind the scenes she was under scrutiny. The message from some crew members was clear: she needed to change her appearance. She didn’t understand. In her previous series freaks and geeks, another groundbreaking if less soapy and fantastical teen series, she was asked to be nothing but herself. She and the rest of her castmates – future stars like Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini and James Franco – had been hired because their pimples, their bodies, and their perceived authenticity, not because they might look great in a Gap ad. There were occasional problems on set — Franco was a bully, she wrote in her 2018 memoir, This will only hurt a little – but otherwise it was blissful.
“I was surrounded by creatives who didn’t appreciate the kind of things that other showrunners and networks were pushing young women at the time,” Philipps recalls today via Zoom, her tacky West Coast stretch that was only slightly masked by the police sirens in front of her Manhattan apartment. “And then I went in [show] where it was like, oh wait, my body ain’t okay with you? Are My Cutie Marks Ugly? I have too many of these? You want me to change?”
The 42-year-old says her “innate confidence” prevented her from fully giving in to messages from some of the show’s crew members. What remained, however, was that these things were asked of her at all. We’re talking about that period – the late ’90s and early ’00s – because of Philipps’ current series, which is called a delightfully off-kilter comedy Girl5Eva. She plays one-fifth of the title’s fictional girl group. One minute they were the most popular band of 2001, the next they had released a single entitled “Quit Flying Planes at My Heart” the day before 9/11. Flash 20 years into the future and one of the five has died in an infinity pool accident while the other four are forgotten relics of year 2000 nonsense. Of course they are planning a comeback.
The show bears all the hallmarks of producer Tina Fey, in its fast-paced dialogue, maniacal references to pop culture, and penchant for the bizarre (Philipps’ character Summer credits her outrageously toned new face not to a surgical thread lift but to “Japanese yams and gratitude”) ; another band member – Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Wickie – is appalled that the famous foot fetish website Wikifeet finally got a glimpse of her deformed right foot). But it’s also a show about the trauma of being a young woman in the new millennium. In recurring flashbacks, we see the band being sexualized by a lecherous press, coerced into inappropriate interviews, misogynistic rivalries and endless self-loathing. “Looking back on that time as a Gen X woman,” Philipps sighs, “no wonder we were all a mess!”
Philipps is wonderful on Girl5Eva, giving Summer a disturbingly sleepy speech pattern reminiscent of a helium balloon filled with vodka. She is said to be unbearable, but Philipps gives her a soul. However, that has always been her talent as an actress. As freaks and geeks‘s resident bully Kim Kelly is a gum-munching monster who is mean to the series’ heroine, Lindsay (Cardellini). But it’s all a mask, a clever survival tactic to hide deep insecurity and loneliness. You end up worshiping her. So is her role as Courteney Cox’s drunken wise beast in the cult comedy Cougar Town. She’s so flattering to the role that running into the sunset with Cox’s college-age son isn’t even that odd.
Still, Philipps wasn’t sure she still wanted to act when Fey approached her Girl5Eva in 2020. “I was just disgusted with Hollywood,” she laughs. “I didn’t see the value in it. I had been doing this for so long and was fed up with the feeling it was giving me. Acting is my first love and it makes me so happy, but I had to say no to all the stuff in the industry that surrounds it. The unrealistic expectations of how I look, my body, how it would make me feel…”.
These feelings coincided with her becoming much more famous for being Busy Philipps than for playing fictional characters. Long before any other celeb started doing it, she was turning her Instagram account into a lucrative business. In 2017, she began introducing brands and products to her millions of followers – making far more money than she did as an actress – and sharing her everyday life on her Instagram story. It’s not entirely honest — days before our interview, she and her husband, screenwriter Marc Silverstein, announced they’ve been separated privately for more than a year — but it’s at least a convincing illusion. Before I speak to her, I see her walking around New York, dancing in her office in a Tori Amos t-shirt and listening to Haim, Sufjan Stevens and co Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Soundtrack. She says acting herself is a natural progression from a time when she was exclusively playing others.
“One of my greatest gifts as an artist…” she begins before grimacing. “Sorry, I’m so sorry I even said those words. But as a person who creates things, for me it’s all about connection.”
When she was hired as an actress years ago, usually as the “third, fourth, or seventh female character” in a project, she always tried to find something in the role that felt real. “The trick was to tie it to something that spoke to me, even if it was silly or over the top. So I’m playing a version of myself on my Instagram, but it’s really important for me to be honest about it at all times.”
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I admit, pre-Girl5EvaI’ve missed seeing her show, despite a media presence that felt almost constant at one point (a talk show; a memoir; on the red carpet with her best friend and once Dawson’s co-star Michelle Williams; Gasps from the audience at the Oscars, though la la country briefly stolen moonlightOscar for the best film).
Your eyes widen. Not that I’m tired of them, I add. “No, I understand!” She laughs. She says she was tagged in a conversation with a stranger on social media a few days ago. “This person was like, ‘Ugh, I used to follow her, but now she’s just bugging me — she’s too much.’ And I’m like, I get it! I wish I could unfollow myself sometimes too, know what I mean?”
Philipps is used to such reactions. “A friend once told me I laughed too loud,” she says. “And then a friend who told me people would think I was prettier if I was quieter.” She rolls her eyes.
Nicknamed Busy by a childhood babysitter – her birth name is Elizabeth – Philipps was always on the move, sauntering away and refusing to sit still. She was interested in acting from an early age, appeared in school plays and asked her parents to help her find an agent. When she moved to Los Angeles from her native Arizona in 1998, she was desperate for success. freaks and geeks, her very first job, proved to be a safe haven at a time that, with hindsight, left her open to exploitation. “I was very lucky to get that when I was 19,” she says. “Right then, I was so vulnerable to the industry. I wanted it so bad I would cry at night and long for a chance to be on a TV show.”
While Philipps always worked – a run on HE here a supporting role in the infamous race-swap comedy white chickens there – it was only on Instagram that she started making real money. Her success on the platform led to her memoir and a talk show. Busy tonight, which ran for a year. She currently hosts a podcast with her author friend Caissie St Onge that oscillates wildly between effervescent spray and existential despair. Anger at opposition to abortion rights, trans rights, and health care sits comfortably alongside chatter about attending fancy parties and theories about a Dawson’s Creek reboot.
That kind of whiplash has been bothering her lately. She admits she almost canceled our interview, unsure whether to talk about a silly comedy days after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. “You have those moments where you think I’m going to do what now? Promote a TV show?” She shakes her head. “It’s like not talking about it anymore Girl5Evawhich is such a light in my life that I have to hold my child because they are having a panic attack and children are dying here in a brutal manner due to the inaction of a small number of people who are also systematically pulling their hair out for women’s and trans rights taken away, and it’s just complicated and so hard to know where to go and how to show up for those things.” She’s breathless.
She still has many of the same struggles as she did when she hopped in between freaks and geeks and Dawson’s Creek All those years ago People often expect different things from her: a real Busy Philipps and an idealized one. Social media has inevitably made this even more complicated.
“That’s the truth about me as a person, as an actor, as a mother and a wife,” she begins. “An ex-wife or whatever. A friend, an activist, a loudmouth… and what becomes of it. Those are two separate things. In a pop culture sense, the idea of Busy Philipps is unabashedly honest and “let me tell you how it is!” But I’m also a real person. And it’s sometimes hard to have to show yourself in the same truthful and honest way over and over again.”
She plays with her necklace and stares at the camera before snapping back to look at me.
“But at this point,” she snorts, “what the hell do I have to lose?”
The first three episodes of Season 2 of Girls5Eva premiere Monday 6th June exclusively on Sky and NOW on Peacock, with additional episodes releasing weekly
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/busy-philipps-interview-girls5eva-b2092845.html Busy Philipps interview: ‘I was just disgusted with Hollywood’