Working consistently since the 1980s in film, television and theater, Becky Ann Baker may forever be known for maternal turns in two iconic series, the blessing and occasional burden of extraordinary work.
Both from executive producer Judd Apatow, those series would be cult classic Freaks and Geeks and Lena Dunham’s Girls, in which the actress powerfully manifesting the experience of grief, loss and aging in brutally honest, smartly written scenes.
From the beginning of Girls—which signaled the presence of an exciting 24-year-old prodigy—Baker was stunned by Dunham’s vision and command. Looking at the series in the rear view mirror, Baker thinks fondly of the experience, and the gift that was Loreen.
Speaking with Deadline, the first-time Emmy nominee discusses the constant stream of surprises that came with making Girls, heartbreak over a lost TV partner and her optimism about the future in store for the series’ central characters.
Can you explain the general process that has defined your work on Girls logistics of the Girls over these six seasons?
Well, it’s interesting. Like most TV shows, we didn’t know a lot of time in advance what was going on. There were always a lot of surprises. Season 1, I think I found out from the costumer when she said, “Hey, we won’t need many fittings this week” that I was going to be doing a nude scene.
This season, the real surprise for me was finding out that that last episode would just be Lena and Allison [Williams] and I. I think I had that script maybe a week or two in advance of shooting it. Often, what we would do is have a table read of the first three to four scripts of the season, and then meet again halfway through.
We had a few heads up, but there were a lot of things that were pretty much of a surprise, especially when it came to my TV husband, Peter Scolari’s character, coming out as a gay man. Those were all kind of, “Wow,” with maybe a week or two’s notice. The writing was so amazing that it was always a pleasure.
What has it been like working alongside Lena Dunham, as she’s balanced work as both the series’ creators and its star?
It’s been an extraordinary relationship. Judd [Apatow] and I worked together on Freaks and Geeks, so when they were shooting the pilot, he suggested me. We had never met, and she knew Freaks and Geeks. I was hired without any kind of introduction to her whatsoever.
The first time we met was to audition a father for her and a husband for me. We sat in a room with the casting people and Jenni Konner and auditioned maybe nine or 10 guys. Peter jumped out at all of us at once. He just walked into the room and was extraordinary. Our beginning was really that casting session.
The most extraordinary thing for me, when we were shooting the pilot, was that we would be in the heart of a scene—we would have rehearsed it a little bit, but we were all these very involved scenes—and as we’d end the scene, Lena would be the one saying, “Cut.” [laughs] I’d realized that she was not only invested as an actor, but was also watching the scene through her director’s eye.
It was just amazing to me—I think she was 24 when we started. She had such a clear idea of exactly what she wanted from the series, sending up her own generation in what millennials were doing and thinking about. It was extraordinary to watch her work on that.
It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, looking at the mother you played in Apatow’s earlier iconic series and Girls’ Loreen. They’re worlds apart.
I always felt like Jean Weir in Freaks and Geeks had been brought up in the ‘50s in a perfect America, in this very domestic, perfect world. To me, she was this mother who was trying her best to give her own children this blissful childhood.
I think Loreen is much more a realist. I don’t want to call her bitter at all, but she’s ready to move on. She feels like her parenting days are over and it’s time for everybody else to get with the program. They’re two wildly different women coming from such different worlds, both with extraordinary writers behind them. I feel that’s the one thing they have in common.
How did you approach Gummies, your Emmys episode, which encroaches on dark and brutally unsentimental territory?
What was so interesting about the entire sixth season was that there was no one episode that was the finale—it was almost as if all ten episodes were wrapping up this show, so we didn’t have to put all our eggs in one particular episode.
To be honest, the ones that I’m in, I rarely watched, just because it makes me uncomfortable. But I watch all the other episodes. I was getting recommendations from friends, so I said, “I think most people are saying Gummies.” Then later, of course, friends were saying, “No. The last one, the last one.” I honestly had no opinion because I hadn’t really watched either of them. It makes me feel like I’d never step in front of a camera again if I did.
I loved doing both of those episodes. Jesse Peretz had directed the Gummies episode, and Jenni Konner did the finale—I felt like I was in good hands either way. I loved doing the Gummies episode, just because she didn’t try to make anything sentimental or neaten it up. It was all just messy. People are hurt, they’re shattered, they’re trying to move on.
I think what they wrote really well—not just this season, but last season as well—was a woman that is trying to piece together her future, when everything she thought was her future has been yanked from under her. I think a lot of people find themselves in that predicament, whether it be from death, or their spouse leaving them, or whatever the circumstances. I thought that was a pretty important story to tell. I’m glad we didn’t just make it all okay in the end. It was still just as painful and messy at the end as it was when it was happening. I think that was pretty smart of them.
Do you undergo specific preparations for episodes like Gummies, where your character is in a place of such volatility and vulnerability?
I think that when the writing is as good as it has been on Girls, you don’t have to fight against it. You can lean into these amazing writers and what they have to say. Being a woman of a certain age really hit home, after spending all these seasons with Peter as my partner, to have that taken away.
It was a remarkably easy season to play, and last season as well, because it did feel like something was taken away from us. Peter was upset to no end, even though he thought it was a great direction to go. I think we both felt like we were working with each other all this time, and now we have these other partners. I’m working, I’m flying solo, and he has this great new love interest. It was very easy to act that because of our true circumstances. When you have an acting partner that all of a sudden is gone, it feels pretty hollow there.
It seems like a real act of generosity whenever a show creator dedicates an entire episode to a character—particularly in a final season. Is that how it’s felt to you?
I think what’s so interesting about them all—Jenni, and Lena, and Judd—is that they’re all filmmakers, and because you don’t have to cut to commercial breaks and things like that, you really can make each one a standalone piece. The one with Lena and Matthew Rhys was some of the best television I had ever seen in my life. They’re little mini-movies.
I feel like those are the artists I’ve been working with all this time. I have never been in the room when they were writing. I’ve only been there for rehearsals on the script, which was also incredible generous—they were always interested in our input.
I think that I was lucky enough to work with some of the best people working in television because they also work very specifically in film, as well. There’s this amazing crossover.
I don’t know if you know this, but Bruce Eric Kaplan, who was one of our producer/writers, is BEK in the New Yorker—this extraordinary cartoonist. Every time you turned around, there was somebody that also did something extraordinary, and they had all that input into the show. It was just a really lucky situation.
What is your takeaway from the series finale of Girls? Are you optimistic about Hannah’s future? Loreen’s?
I think I’m very optimistic. Loreen has her work cut out for her, and I think she’s still mourning the loss of a husband and trying to figure out what her next step is. But she’s not holding back, she’s not trying to cover up; she’s saying, “I’m in pain,” and trying to work it out.
With Hannah, and that look on her face when the baby latches on, I think she’s going to be a terrific mother. It’s not going to be without her typical Hannah ups and downs. I also love the fact that they have given her some success as a writer, so we know that she’s going forward and is going to be okay.
It would be fascinating to revisit her again in five years, with baby. It was time for all these young women and men to take the next step. I think they very wisely decided six seasons might be enough at this point. You can’t keep them clueless for much longer or they start to look like they are disabled in some way.
I thought it was a really smart season to wrap things up—I would give them the open door. I don’t know if it’s as much wrapping them up as letting them out, sending them forward.
I’m very optimistic, but I tend to be optimistic anyway. I think she’s going to do fine. She has been successful with her writing, and she’s a good writer. This isn’t just her mom talking—I think she really is.
With that final episode, do you see Girls as a series that’s exploring the idea of a new family dynamic—new possibilities for the way we live our lives?
I love the fact that when she’s in trouble, she calls her mom and her best friend. You have this baby, and who is the one person that I trust to help me figure out how to work this out?
I thought that was a lovely way for Hannah to say, “This is the help I need,” instead of trying to just fling it out there. She calls for support. The idea that she calls for her mom is a great one, I think.
In the bigger picture, what has Girls meant for you and your career?
Judd has definitely given me the two best jobs of my television career, by far. I will forever be grateful, and I’m hoping there is a lucky number three in the future. It’s going to be hard to look at the next job and hope for something that has as much intelligence and quality to it as Girls, and Freaks and Geeks.
I just keep my fingers crossed. I do a lot of theater here in New York. Sometimes when things are being offered that aren’t quite what you’re hoping for, you just go ahead and do a play instead. There’s so much great writing, so many good shows out there right now. It will be fun to see what does come along next.