To answer the question on everyone’s mind: Yes, that’s how Martha Kelly really talks. The comedian turned actor — who rose to prominence as a stand-up before making her screen debut playing a deadpan insurance agent opposite Zach Galifianakis on FX’s Baskets — is known for her distinctively muted voice and unsettlingly dry delivery. But it’s not shtick: “This is just how I sound,” she explains.
She’d never felt like her acting skills were particularly strong — in fact, she only agreed to Baskets because Galifianakis is a close friend and had written the part for her. “He made it seem as un-scary as possible. I still thought that I was going to get fired on the first day.”
While Kelly may have had doubts about her abilities, the response to her work on the show was extremely positive and led to several roles in prestigious film and TV projects. Audiences may remember her brief turn as an unflappable social worker in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opposite Adam Driver. Again, she was concerned casting had gotten it all wrong. “On the second day, I felt like I was doing a terrible job and I was like, ‘I’m going to ruin this. I should quit so they can get somebody good to work with Adam Driver.’ But I wouldn’t quit. I would rather someone tell me, ‘Sorry, you’re fired.’ ” She did manage to enjoy herself by the end of filming: “The last day, when we shot the scene with the knife trick, was really fun. Everybody was laughing a lot. But I still thought I might be cut out of the movie.”
Despite earning her first Emmy nomination this season for guest actress in a drama as the stoic drug dealer Laurie on HBO’s Euphoria, Kelly still doesn’t think of herself as an actress per se. “Real actors can become a person who sounds nothing like them, whose mannerisms are not their real mannerisms. I’m a comedian who can do a dry character,” she muses, adding: “I have a very small emotional range in real life, and that’s what I have as an actor.”
She’d been a fan of the show in its first season, but upon reading the part she was being considered for in season two, Kelly was dead set against joining the Euphoria cast. “I can’t play a child trafficker,” she recalls thinking. “I can’t do this.” But after meeting with creator Sam Levinson, she had a change of heart. “He was so lovely, really kind and down to earth. And then I was like, ‘I have to try. I might be terrible at it, or it might backfire, and the fans of the show might end up hating me, but I have to try it,’ because I liked him so much.”
Working on the series, she says, was “very intense — not because the other people on the set were intense but because the subject matter is super heavy.” The Euphoria set necessitated some complicated camera maneuvers to achieve the hyper-stylized look of the show. “My favorite thing was this one shot where Zendaya is coming back out to the kitchen from the bathroom. It was really cool because it was a bunch of different people moving at different times from different marks. Everybody had to be exactly timed correctly. It was really fun to be part of a team of people trying to get this complicated thing done.”
Kelly has been pleasantly surprised by the reception to her performance. Of her Emmy nomination, she says, “It is a really nice feeling. But it also just seems wild and not real.” She’d braced herself for backlash from Euphoria’s obsessive viewers, imagining them “being on social media like, ‘F this lady, how could she do that to Rue?’ ” But she has found the fan base to be extremely welcoming. “My agent texted me the night the finale aired and said, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’ People were basically just saying, ‘This lady is scary, but also funny.’ I’m a comedian, so I was like, ‘Thank God they threw in funny.’”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.