Some of the greatest restaurants are fictional ones, seen only in our favorite television series and existing only in the wonderful world of Hollywood backlots. If I could visit any fictional restaurant in existence, it would be Patsy’s Pies from Shameless, where I would sit at the counter, and ask Melinda the waitress to bring me a cup of coffee and a big slice of coconut cream pie.
I had a chance to visit with Rebecca Metz, the actress who plays Melinda on the series. There was no pie, since everybody is still having virtual meetings, but it was a great pleasure to hear about her work on the show, her other work as a TV mom on Coop & Cami Ask the World, and the many, many TV series on which she has appeared.
Rebecca attended the acting conservatory program Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, an auspicious beginning for any actor, and Rebecca is fortunate to be doing what she went to school for. It was an intense experience, she says. “Totally immersive, eat, sleep, drink theater and acting 24 hours a day for four solid years, which many people advised me not to do, but there was no talking me out of it. I think it’s good preparation, and a good way to learn whether you want to commit to doing this. I thrived there, and I use that training every day.”
Rebecca started out in theater before Carnegie Mellon though, when her parents, who were classically trained singers, were in a local performance of Carousel for the Monmouth Civic Chorus. “They needed kids. To be one of the kids in Carousel, that was probably my first time on a real stage, and I loved it.” Today she is dominating the small screen though and has appeared on Malcolm in the Middle, King of Queens, American Horror Story, Better Things, and so many others, but the one that’s her favorite is Shameless. “That’s the first time I was on a show regularly enough that I got past the point where you’re just trying not to get in the way, and I really became part of the cast of such an excellent show where everyone works to such a high level. I was challenged every day I was there, and it meant a lot to me to have some seniority after a season or two, to not be the newbie on the set, but one of the people trusted and relied on to keep up, and to be able to deliver and be directed by William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum and John Wells, one of the greatest television showrunners. That’s the one that stands out for me.”
Shameless, which depicts the dysfunctional Gallagher family on the south side of Chicago with Macy playing the always down-and-out dad, is realistic – which those not familiar with that life may not realize. Are there really characters like that in real life? Absolutely. “I remember seeing an interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman when someone asked him, how do you make such huge unrealistic choices for your characters,” Rebecca recalled. “And he said, there’s no choice I could make that is crazier than you would find in a real person. There’s no limit to how crazy actual people are, so we don’t have to worry so much about making unrealistic choices.”
Macy’s character, the loveable but lazy (and usually drunk) patriarch Frank Gallagher, contrasts with Macy in real life, Rebecca says. “When we were working together, in between takes he would be off-camera, sitting in his cast chair, very quietly practicing on a ukulele. Very calm energy. Soft-spoken and professional, which is about as far away as you can get from Frank Gallagher.”
On the set of Shameless, which is set on the grittiest part of the south side of Chicago, Rebecca’s scenes were usually in Patsy’s diner, which was actually shot on the Warner Brothers lot. “Most of the time it was beautiful southern California weather, and occasionally they would scatter snow around, and we would all have to be reminded to act like it was winter.”
In another series with decidedly more upbeat characters, Rebecca plays the TV mom Jenna in Coop & Cami Ask the World. The TV mom is part of a long tradition that goes all the way back to June Cleaver, but today’s TV moms are a little less perfect. Rebecca explains, “I love getting to be the TV mom, which is very much not like June Cleaver. When the audition came up, I was worried about that, because the other shows I’ve worked on were much grittier and featured deeply flawed characters, and that’s what I like to do. I like shows that explore the complexities of human beings, which are usually not all good or all bad. So when it came up, I wasn’t sure if I was who I would cast as a Disney channel mom. But I love that the showrunners and Disney made room for a character who is imperfect. She’s a single working mom, she gets flustered, she screws up, she gets mad at her kids. But it’s always based in love and she always comes back to being there for her kids, loving them and supporting them, and making good choices. I love being able to play a character like that because it’s truthful. I hear from parents all the time that it’s a show they enjoy watching with their kids, and they relate to Jenna. That means a lot to me.”
Coop & Cami is a much different premise from the FX comedy-drama Better Things, on which Rebecca plays Tressa, and she was actually working on both shows at the same time. Does it cause some confusion? Does she show up on the Better Things set still in TV mom mode? “It was a little jarring sometimes,” she admits, but “There weren’t many days when I was doing both on the same day, so that made it easy. I would wake up and say, ‘which world am I going into today?’ But on the first season of Coop & Cami, there were days when I was going back and forth, and I would try to take my time in the car driving between sets and have a little talk with myself about making the necessary adjustments in acting style and my on-set behavior. The characters are both single working moms, but that’s where the comparison ends. So I did try to spend conscious time making that transition when I was going back and forth so I wouldn’t be doing a Disney sitcom version of Better Things.”
Rebecca has had the good fortune to work with some of the industry’s most prominent actors and directors, and she especially admires Margo Martindale. “She was a guest on an episode of Person of Interest. A friend of mine was a writer on the show, and they needed a flashback to a younger version of her, and they recommended me. She’s the kind of character actor I think I am, who shows up in everything. And I’m at a place now where I get to do these interviews, and people say, ‘hey, I’ve seen her in everything!’ She’s had such an accomplished career in theater and film and television, having been in everything. During a lunch break on Person of Interest, I just watched the whole crew line up just to say hello to her and how much they admired her work. It was a big deal for me to work with her and play a younger version of her because it affirmed for me that I’m following in the footsteps of actors like that who I’ve admired forever.”
Eventually, Hollywood will be back in business, and Rebecca will be busier than ever. “Better Things has been picked up for season five, which is exciting,” she says. “We’re still waiting for word on Coop & Cami, and those decisions are probably delayed because nobody knows when we can get back to work.” Besides her many television projects, she would also love going back to the theater, but she says that doing voiceover work would be exciting. “I’ve done a little bit, but that’s an area I haven’t really focused on. In terms of what kind of acting we can do while we’re standing far apart from each other, and still be creative, that would be a fun area to explore.”
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.