An interview with 'Bad Teacher' star Lucy Punch
'Bad Teacher' star Lucy Punch talks about getting vomited on by Cameron Diaz in ‘Bad Teacher,’ the inspiration for her outrageous character, shooting a love scene with Justin Timberlake and her new role in the comic book-turned-TV pilot, ‘Powers.'
We had the chance to speak with costar Lucy Punch at the Los Angeles press event for the film. Subjects ranged from “playing crazy,” to working in Hollywood vs. her native London, and being repeatedly thrown-up on by Cameron Diaz.
The tremendously gifted Lucy Punch (who you might know from such films as Hot Fuzz and Dinner for Schmucks) costars in Bad Teacher as the painfully perky and perfectionistic Jr. high school teacher, Amy Squirrel. The fanatically by-the-book and fascistic-girl-scout-type Squirrel acts as the film’s unlikely antagonist against Cameron Diaz’s hilariously and unapologetically inappropriate very bad teacher, Elizabeth Halsey.
Lucy Punch is the sort of person who you immediately feel is game for a laugh (I become quite British when talking about UK actors). The phrase “down to Earth,” is often applied to people we like, though it is not always the most accurate descriptor. For me, “down to Earth” denotes a person who has a fairly valid vision of their place in the larger scheme of the world and a good sense of humor about it. Lucy Punch has that quality.
Punch and I sat down together in her cozy (read: plush) hotel room and began our chat with following exchange:
Screen Rant: Hi, I’m Roth, as in David Lee, Phillip or the IRA… we could also go Eli or Tim. I’m from Screen Rant. Screen, as in, “oh, look at this wonderfully hilarious film on the movie Screen” and Rant, as in, “Grrr, they’ve just broken canon six times in this film, I feel I must RANT!”
Lucy Punch: "Lovely. Have you tried one of these?" (Points to a variety of high octane caffeinated beverages available to us.)
SR: Nooooo, but they look absolutely terrifying. I’m positive I’d be climbing these walls for days like a leftover from The Exorcist if I did.
To which Lucy Punch gave the following (quite perfect) response:
“Yeah. I think I need one.”
SR: I’m actually off to your homeland in about an hour.
“Oh really!?! Why are you going to London?”
SR: Top secret…(she stares at me)…really I can’t tell you…alright you’ve made me, it’s for the Queen.
“It’s Cameron’s other movie isn’t it…it is I bet.”
SR: No it’s actually…
At this point I realize that Ms. Punch is not only a tremendously gifted comedic (and dramatic) actress, but she is also quite good at my job. I feel as though I must tell her everything — immediately — but forcibly restrain myself and make attempts to get us back on track.
“There’s more work here.”
We always appreciate pragmatism.
SR: Well that’s good.
“Yes! There’s more stuff going on, and I usually have to hide my British accent when I’m working over here.”
SR: Is there a personality difference between the two towns do you find?
“You know it certainly wasn’t the case on this movie because Cameron (Diaz) and Justin (Timberlake) and Jason (Segel) are the most wonderful, funny, grounded people – but sometimes when you’re working with stars, you really know you’re working with stars, do you know what I mean? And I don’t think that really exists in the UK because actors are a bit more grounded in general. I mean there’s plenty of very grounded and wonderful actors here, but movie stars don’t exist in the UK like they do here, so they don’t do the sort of giant trailers and the craft services, which are sort of fantastic — you’re lucky if you get a cup of tea and a morbid biscuit.”
Punch plays the grating goody-two-shoes/hilariously cracked know-it-all to a comedic “T” in Bad Teacher. She is initially reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon’s character, Tracy Flick, in Election. The portrayal is so detailed and nuanced that walking out of the theater after seeing the film, the following question was on the top of my mind: Who does Lucy Punch know that is just like her character Amy Squirrel?
SR: We’re you basing your character on anyone?
“I was thinking of someone, and I’ve told a few journalists and they’ve been like (makes shocked face) and I’ve thought, ‘Well maybe I shouldn’t say this.’”
SR: No, you definitely should.
“Well, when I read it I thought, ‘This person reminds me of someone…’And I was sort of channeling what I could imagine as the teacher/cousin of Sarah Palin. And I think they sort of share a lot of qualities.”
SR: In terms of…
“I’m not saying that Sarah Palin is unhinged or completely bonkers — but you know, she’s certainly incredibly perky and energetic and sort of this type A seeming character. There was just something about the sort of tween way of speaking, you know, ‘Holy guacamole!’ and shut the front door!’ and all those sort of expressions.”
SR: I feel like with a character like this you just love to hate her. The same way that we love to love Cameron’s character even though it seems kind of paradoxical. You’re in theory (at least at first) “the good guy” and she is “the baddy” but as much as you make us laugh — we just can’t stand you.
SR: And I think it’s because of the level of the sincerity that they each do, or do not, bring. I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about. It’s fake, all of the smiling…
SR: And the ‘shut the front door’ – it’s all put on and fake. So how do you work with that as an actor?
“Well definitely it was kind of important that…You know seemingly she does mean well. You know she has got a good heart, it’s just that she just gets it totally wrong. And Cameron is pretty awful, and is awful to her, so it was important that she was also really irritating and annoyed everyone, and that she was sort of universally disliked in the school and you just felt like she was this total pain in the neck. So that you were sort of rooting for Cameron to bring about her demise.”
There is repeated mention in the film of an “incident” in 2008 in which Lucy Punch’s character, Amy Squirrel (seemingly), went off the deep end and created all manner of chaos that no one wants repeated. The specifics of the ordeal are never revealed in the film, however, leaving the audience to fill in the (in my mind) debaucherous blanks.
SR: Now, I know that you said you didn’t want to give specific details about what happened in 2008, but did you and Jake talk about it at all?
“We didn’t actually, but you know in my mind it was just something totally embarrassing that she did, like she went crazy and perhaps started taking her clothes off in public – that sort of thing – and had to be sort of shuffled out and sent to the hospital for a couple of months to sort of rest, relax, and regenerate and find her inner Squirrel again. But I really enjoyed that aspect of the character that it was never divulged what happened. That it was sort of, you know, fresh in everyone’s memory — all these sort of crazy things that she had done.”
You said that Cameron, Jason and Justin were all down to earth and lovely to work with. There also seems like there’s a lot of joking around. Were there any on-set shenanigans?
“There weren’t really pranks or anything like that, because I feel like within the script there are kind of enough pranks going on so everyone had gotten it out of their system. Also, we really were working pretty fast but certainly we were laughing all the time and it was such a pleasure because we were waiting for lights to be set-up and rather than just going back to the trailers everyone was just hanging around on-set and making jokes and just cracking each other up.”
SR: Were there any scenes that were tough to get through?
“I found the scene with Justin where I give him Eat, Pray, Love (and it’s his favorite book) and we’re looking at each other and… the pair of us kept cracking up during that scene. I think, sadly, it was so ludicrous to both of us that he could be falling in love with me. I mean it was just such a ludicrous situation, and I found the voice that he was doing so funny, he had on this very gentle voice, very sincere and earnest and he was just looking at me and falling in love… it just completely cracked me up.”
Even in our brief meeting with Punch we can see a myriad of reasons that JT would fall in love with her — Amy Squirrel however, is a whole other matter.
SR: Is there anything that you’re looking forward to seeing that was cut out of the final film?
“I did a scene that was my worst scene to shoot that didn’t make the movie, and it’s where Cameron vomits on me. I’m sort of talking about my sort of ideal guy and it’s totally nauseating and she’s also really hung over and she threw-up all over me. And we did so many takes and Camron is incredible, she was just holding this awful stuff in her mouth. It was like mushroom soup mixed with something else — cold — ugh, and the smell of it, I wanted to be sick. Phyllis and I were both doing the scene and we were both just like gagging. I’d like to see that because I just need to see it once. I guess it was so gross that it got cut. It was decided that we don’t need to see people throwing up — but I’d like to see it.”
SR: How many takes did you do?
“A-lot! And I had to get changed — it was going down between my boobs…”
At this point the two of us must pause to make ralfing noises and laugh.
“It was awful! I was really, really awful and I just couldn’t believe how great Cameron was about it. She was just like happy holding it in.”
SR: Where do you go from being thrown-up on repeatedly by Cameron Diaz?
“I’m actually about to start working on Yellow which Nick Cassavetes is directing. I’m excited for that because it’s really dark and a very dark character. She’s this girl that’s just getting out of an insane asylum, I keep playing all these unhinged characters, and she cuts herself and she’s talking in tongues and she’s in love with her brother.”
SR: Who’s her brother?
SR: Oh wow. I literally measure an actor’s performance by degrees of Ben Foster. Eight degrees of Ben Foster is pretty much Brando.
“Isn’t he wonderful?
SR: Yes, he really is. So she’s in love with her brother and is he in love with her?
“No, she’s kind of the monster in the attic, this crazy girl. But no he’s not, that’s sort of why she was so screwed up because he’s sleeping with our other sister.”
SR: Whaaaat! So, does it become a thriller, a modern-day Jane Eyre-esque thriller?
“It’s not a thriller. It’s actually got comic elements — but the darkest of dark comedies.”
SR: Okay, so it’s about the interplay in those relationships?
“Yes. Nick Cassavetes’ wife is the lead character in this incredibly dysfunctional family.”
SR: She’s the other sister?
SR: Well that sounds absolutely amazing.
“You know I love doing comedy, but it’s lovely to go between the two. So as soon as I finish that up it’ll be like, ‘well now I’m ready to do something light and fluffy!’ "
SR: What about your character at the end of the film, where does someone like Amy Squirrel goes from there?
“Well at the end of the movie she’s going off to Malcolm X high school.”
SR: I know it’s hilarious.
“I know. I mean I think that’s another spin off. I don’t think they’re going to make another movie about that but maybe a webisode. I think it would be really, really funny to see her life at the school and to see how she copes. I think she kind of, she’d light the charge…”
SR: Or get shot. (Both laughing)
“Or get shot. Yes.”
SR: Or a little of both, I feel like she’s a little unstoppable.
As is Ms. Punch, who (aside from playing a mad-as-a-hatter brother-lover for Nick Cassavetes) is now also slated to star in Powers, the new show based on the comic series about a homicide detective who works cases involving people with superpowers.
You can see Punch go toe-to-toe with Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, beginning this Friday, June 24th.
Roth Cornet blogs at Screen Rant.
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