In Dinner for Schmucks, the fairly lighthearted comedy starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, there are a few scenes of utter terror. They involve a jilted lover named Darla, a bundle of twisted romantic rage embodied with psychotic glee by newcomer Lucy Punch. In a film that features supporting turns from the likes of Zach Galifiankis and Jemaine Clement, the 32-year-old British actress stands out above the rest, joining Glenn Close and Sandra Bernhard as one of the all-time great cinematic stalkers. For Punch, this is just the beginning. Her next role as an escort in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is a part that was originally filled by Nicole Kidman. After that, she’ll star opposite Cameron Diaz in the raunchy comedy Bad Teacher. So yeah, things are going pretty well for Ms. Punch. We caught up with the bubbly actress on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel to discuss her surging career, replacing Nicole Kidman, and playing the quirky best friend.
You were terrifying in Dinner for Schmucks. Were you going for scary-scary or funny-scary? Funny scary, I think. I meant to be very intimidating. The first cut was about three hours, so there was a lot more of it. It was a lot scarier and I think it was decided that it was just a bit too horrifying. I was too mean, and people didn’t want to see anyone being so mean to Paul Rudd. There was a whole scene where I tried to commit suicide.
Did you model Darla after any famous movie psychos? The look ended up looking Lady Gaga-esque, kind of sexy but frightening. Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy is like, to me the ultimate stalker. She’s complete genius in that movie. I got the sense that she is madly in love. She’s in pain, she’s in agony. It’s coming from love, but it’s just turned vicious and psychotic.
Was it intimidating doing comedy alongside Steve Carell? He is the nicest guy. I mean, that’s such a boring thing to say about someone, that they’re nice, but the nicest guy, he really is! And he’s so charming and generous and wonderful. It wasn’t so much intimidating as it was inspiring because I’ve never met someone so wonderful at improvising.
Was it hard not to laugh? Yes. We were doing a scene and I was off camera and he was just throwing lines out, and I’m trying to hold back thinking I was going to ruin the take. And I looked back and no one was looking at him. Everyone was facing the other way with their hands on their mouths, shaking and trying not to laugh. He’s just absolutely brilliant.
Do you fancy yourself a comedic actress? I’ve done quite a lot of comic parts, but I’m not a comedian.
You outfits in this movie and Stranger are very sexy. Are you accustomed to playing sexed-up characters? No! Not at all. Usually I’m the weirdo, nerdy characters. So yes, it was really different. I was really nervous about it. I remember for my audition for the Woody Allen thing, I was like on the phone with a friend and she was like, “You need to get those chicken fillets and put them in your bra!” So I went out and bought this whole new outfit and completely tarted it up.
Did you audition in front of Woody? He watched a video of me. I was meant to go and meet him but the part was given to someone else.
Do you know who? Nicole Kidman. I booked a plane ticket and I was supposed to go meet him and then suddenly I got a call going, cancel your ticket, he’s given the part away. And then I heard it was Nicole Kidman and I was like, fair enough, I get it.
And then what happened? She canceled and then everyone got back in touch with me. He doesn’t usually audition people, he was going to offer it to a name. She had such a huge body of work for him to reference and I hadn’t played a part like that before so he wanted to see if I could do it.
When did you find out you got the part? I got a phone call the next day and I was completely delirious, a complete maniac. I was screaming. Within half an hour I had locked myself out of my apartment in my semi pajamas and I was a complete wreck, but I didn’t even care because I was so happy. I went to see my manager and he said we should go somewhere and have champagne and celebrate but he was like, you look awful so we can’t go anywhere. I was in flip flops and half pajamas. I hadn’t worked in a year and I got really close, and I had been on hold for stuff that had fallen through, so it made it even more special.
What was going through your head during that year? Fear, panic, depression.
Does this feel like a new phase of your career? I don’t know! I feel lucky because everything changed from getting this Woody Allen job. Because nothing has come out, I still had to go in and fight for all these roles. But you know they were kind of nice, bigger parts. Bad Teacher is a movie that I wouldn’t have been able to have the chance to go in the room for before. They would have been like, Yeah, she’s great but she’s not in anything, she’s not a name. We cannot put nobody opposite Cameron Diaz.
Who do you play in Bad Teacher? I’m the good teacher, she’s the bad teacher. I’m her nemesis.
And what’s Cameron like? She’s exactly like you would imagine her, but the whole time. So much energy, really fun, really funny, fantastic. But we spent a lot of the time being nasty to each other in the movie.
You’re acting alongside some pretty great people. I know! It’s crazy, it’s slightly surreal. I was on the phone with my mom a while ago and I was like, “Gael and Kate, we’re just going out for a drink,” and she was like “Six months ago I was talking to you and you were on your sofa in LA going, I can’t afford my gym membership!”
Is your life changing drastically? Am I only friends with famous people? How much money have I got? How many magazine covers have I had? I’ve been invited to some nice parties.
How was it working with Woody? I had the best experience. He works very fast and he gave me very little direction, almost none at all, and just let me do it how I wanted to do it. We did improvise a huge amount which was great. I think because he had seen me, I had auditioned for it an extensive amount and done a lot of scenes, and so right before we started he said, “just do it.”
Do you think Nicole Kidman would have done the role completely differently? I think she would have been taller. I think she would have been a little bit better but that’s just a hunch, a wild guess.
In Earthbound you’re playing Kate Hudson’s best friend. That’s a very easy role to get trapped into, the best friend to the leading lady. Yes, it is—the quirky best friend. So I had a red wig, quirky clothes, and wacky and clumsy. I had never played that kind of part before and I liked it as well because it’s a comedy, but it’s not really a comedy. Kate’s character ends up getting cancer. For me, I had never played a part like that before so it was great, but I agree that the best friend part—to be honest, I’ll take anything. I just like working, I’m not fussy.