A famed actor, writer and stand-up comedian, and the recipient of two Daytime Emmys for his 1995 animated series Life with Louie, Louie Anderson this year received his first Primetime Emmy nod for his portrayal of Bakersfield matriarch Christine Baskets in the FX “slapstick drama” Baskets. Using his mother as inspiration for much of his material throughout the years, Anderson’s mother was again present as the actor donned a wig for the first time in the engaging oddball series.
Up against stiff competition in the Supporting Actor category, including Veep regulars Tony Hale and Matt Walsh, Anderson remains most proud of a performance in which he transcended himself earnestly, digging in deep with a different level of understanding. As AwardsLine spoke with the actor, before the series’ Season 2 production start date on September 12, an unidentified individual cut in to deliver a parcel. “You know, Christine would have been a lot more mad about that,” he jokes. Below, Anderson discusses his return to television, his own super-heroic mother and Season 2 teasers.
How did it feel to receive your first Primetime Emmy nomination for your work on Baskets, returning to television in such triumphant fashion?
Well, it’s great to get an Emmy nomination. One of the main reasons to get an Emmy nomination is so that you don’t hear from people, “Hey, you got robbed.” You know what I mean? “Hey, I’m sorry that you didn’t get a nomination.” “Hey man, I’m really sorry.” “Hey, man.” A lot of that—which really is almost like when [Game of Thrones character] Jon Snow got killed with the knives. [Laughs] They didn’t just stick one into him—they just kept sticking knives into him. Obviously, they couldn’t find his heart. They tried. Isn’t that amazing? It was a jaw-dropping scene, for sure.
What was it that attracted you to Baskets?
I got a call from Louis C.K., and he said, “I’m here with Zach Galifianakis, and we’re doing a show together—we want you to do a part.” And I go, “Yeah.” I wasn’t working in TV; Louis C.K. and Zach call you, and you go, “Yeah.” You sort out the rest later. And then they said, “We want you to play Zach’s mom.” And I go, “Yeah!” Yeah. That was just perfect—what a good call. I do my mom in my act—I have been for a long time—but it was a chance to create something, and in this part of my career, to get a juicy role like that, it was either going to be a complete bust or I was going to do it right.
All the planets were in line, including the non-planet Pluto. Everything lined up for me with that part. I watched a couple episodes of Transparent to see how [Jeffrey Tambor] played it, because I’m such a fan of his work, and I saw that he didn’t change very much about himself. It was him, and I love that. I took it a little bit differently—they put a wig on me, and I tried to make me disappear in that part. That’s what my goal was. The Louie Anderson you know, I don’t think appears on that show in one episode.
Having mentioned Tambor’s Transparent role, you’re doing something entirely different—you are a man playing a woman, rather than a man becoming a woman, and there are so few performances of this nature out there. Do you see a window for interesting, creative casting decisions of this nature in film and television?
I think the world right now, when you go out—I don’t know about you, but when I go out places, I see people where I’m not sure who they are, in a gender sense. After playing Christine, you see people a little differently. Like I would have made a good mom, I think, just right from the get-go. [Laughs] But I do hope that things can become more real. I think Christine exists everywhere—I think Christine reminds people of someone they know, don’t you?
How did you prepare to inhabit the mental space of Christine Baskets? There’s a distinctly Midwestern quality to her.
You know, my mom—this is the sensibility I took for this character, I think. My mom, and people from the Midwest, can make the biggest deal out of absolutely the smallest thing—like a bottle of water, like a curly fry. That character is always going to find the good part of a torn pair of jeans, by saying, “Well you know, that torn thing is in right now! I see it everywhere.” But she does it in the most earnest way, because your life as a mother, I think, is answering ad nauseam simple questions that your kids ask you. You know, “Well I can’t go, because this shirt doesn’t match these pants!” “Well, in Ireland it does.” Whatever you have to do to get your kids to school, whatever you have to get them off to the job, whatever you have to do to get those kids to leave the nest, but not go too far, I guess is what Christine is. I want you to leave, but do not go too far.
Having taken inspiration from your mother in so much of your work over the years, what is it about her that continues to speak to you as a character, and someone who should be explored, on-screen and otherwise?
She was our 911 call. I mean, my dad was a raging alcoholic, and he was very abusive, and more so when I was born—mostly by then, more verbally abusive. So here’s this guy who was just a violent tornado within our house, and my mom would take her arms and her dress and spread it out, and shield it in front of us, basically. That’s how I saw her—that was her cape. She was our superhero. No matter how bad my dad was, she never berated him, which is amazing. I think the worst thing she ever called him was a “louse,” and we didn’t even know what that was.
She never tried to get us to turn on him, but she stayed with him—I mean, what else would she do? She didn’t know what else to do. Without meaning to, she perpetuated all of that making up, in one way or another, for what she couldn’t give us. I think that’s who she was, and she was a happy person. She didn’t talk bad about people; she’d say, “Be nice to people—you never know what kind of day they had.” So no matter what, our complaints were minimal compared to what our mom put up with. I wish I could give you a one-line answer, but the real truth is, she raised 11 children during war times, and she managed to raise some pretty nice people.
What were your conversations like with Jonathan Krisel in finding your way through this series’ complex tonal balance, and the unique, often bizarre world in which it’s set?
I’ve got to put that all on Jonathan and Zach—I think they collaborated quite a bit. It is Zach’s point of view, this show, I think. I think what Jonathan knew was how much he could provide to the audience that was new and different. He calls it a “slapstick drama,” which is really a good name for it. But Jonathan was crucial in making Christine the character she is. He was so deftly handling me—he didn’t give me a lot of direction, he just let me know where I might go, or where I might not go, or said, “Well, why don’t you just try it the way you think it should go?” If I said, “Can I say it like my mom would say it?” he’d go, “Yeah.”
He also used his family, I think; even though he was raised in Hollywood, I think no matter where you are—the Midwest, or Hollywood, or New York—there’s a mother element, and it especially kicks in and takes place at Thanksgivings. It takes place at holidays, it takes place at graduations, it takes place at the birth of a baby. It takes place at crises, also; even though the father charges in and does his thing in these situations, it’s interesting that the father carves the turkey, and the mom does every other damn thing. Am I right? That’s kind of my mom’s saying: “He carves the turkey, and I do every other damn thing.” That’s as mean as she would be. She had an unbelievable Puritan attitude.
I think what Jonathan and Zach tried to do was push the boundaries as far as possible, and then let the audience rebound on things from Martha [Kelly] and I. Like, just when you think you can’t take any more, then we might show up. Or just when you think one thing about me, as Christine, you might find out another thing. Or like in the Easter episode, where you meet my mother, and you find out what I’ve been through. Actually, everybody, during the shooting of it, felt the same way—that we were doing something really special and different. I’ve hardly ever been on a set like that, where you go, “Oh, this is interesting.”
What was it like for you to see Zach perform at a frequency, and with a range that TV and film viewers had never seen before?
I don’t think people realize how beautiful Zach’s performance was this year. I think some people did, but I actually thought some of those scenes were just spectacular—and I was moved to tears more than once when he would do something. You know, what I always call him is a “reluctant superstar”. I don’t think he ever tries to bask in any of the sunlight of fame. He reminds me of Chaplin and those guys. His face is magnificent, you know? And I think the clown thing—people might register it one way, but I don’t think it’s been that way at all. There’s true tragedy in all the stuff he tries to do as a clown. But when he rollerblades down the street, and Jonathan puts that music with it—and when he rides in that costume in the streets of Paris, smoking a cigarette—I think they’re powerful, beautiful moments.
This series is unique in a number of ways—it gave Martha her first acting role, a platform allowing Zach to be seen in a new light, and you, your first opportunity to don the wig—among all these things, what stands out most to you, in your experience of the series?
That when I watch it, I don’t see myself in it—that I don’t say, “That’s me.” For me, I really did create a character that isn’t based on Louie Anderson. It is, obviously, on some level, but I accomplished my goal. But I think that the show reflects where TV is moving, where the public wants to go. I have more families or individuals coming up to me, when I’m at the airport or out on the street, saying, “We can’t wait for Baskets’ second season,” or, “We love Christine.” That’s a really great thing. Even someone asked me, “Who plays Dale?” [Laughs] I thought they were kidding, but they weren’t, so I gently explained to them that it was Zach playing both roles. But I think the originality of it, and the fact that FX, after only five episodes, renewed it—I thought that was a big, Wow. FX really is fearless, because look at that.
Where are you in the process with Season 2?
I’m reading the scripts for next year, and it’s powerful again. It’s just super powerful, and I think you have to go to the writers—and Jonathan is the head of that writing room—I sat in the writers’ room with them, and it’s like sitting around a cauldron, and people are throwing things into the cauldron. I felt privileged and out of my league, sitting there, in the sense of, “Oh, these guys. They’re not thinking like I am.” I’ll be like, “How about throwing a banana slip on?” [Laughs] It was complete silence. But when I would say something that was good, they embraced it 1000 percent. That’s a sign of true collaboration.
What can you tease?
I’ll just say that the train that Zach got on is not heading where you think.