NBC’s Community returns tonight with special guest star Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Malcolm play Shirley’s ex-husband, Andre, and the gang isn’t too happy to meet him.
Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) and Malcolm talk to me on a conference call this past week where they talked about working together, the hours of sitting at the conference table filming and their careers.
Yvette, Community’s becoming a growing success. What is it like for you being a part of this series?
Yvette Nicole Brown: You know what, it’s been a great experience. We work so many hours that I don’t know that any of us are aware that it’s become a growing success because all we do is (unintelligible) with each other.
But we’re very grateful that when we do get to go to the grocery store that we see people that are very excited about the show. So it’s been a surprise and a blessing.
Now that you know who Shirley’s ex-husband is, what do you think of him and are you pleased?
Yvette Nicole Brown: This is like my childhood dream come true. When I was like 13 years old I’m like, I’m going to marry Theo and I’ve essentially married Theo so that’s awesome.
And actually I was campaigning for Malcolm to be my ex-husband from the very first day of the show. I’ve always said, if she reconciles with her ex-husband I hope it is Malcolm Jamal Warner and I think the producers and writers got sick of me saying his name. So it’s kind of like, shut up Yvette, we hear you.
Malcolm, you’re playing the ex. How do you feel about that?
Malcolm Jamal Warner: Well, I know – I feel like I owe Yvette a commission check. It’s actually been a good time because I watched the show and, you know, all the actors have such a great report off camera that it’s a really cool place to come to work.
One of the things I absolutely love about this show is that Dan Harmon is so brave when it comes to kind of putting you guys in so many different wacky situations that are, at the same time, very real in between the zombie infestation and Claymation. What is it like waking up every morning and thinking, okay, I could be inside a giant blanket or they’re doing some of these other crazy things every episode?
Yvette Nicole Brown: Well, we say every time we – when we talk about the cast members we’re always amazed that we are not just on a sitcom. We’ve been on a film noir set. We’ve been on a cartoon set. Like every – this show has morphed into so many different things, and you get to be a thousand different characters even though you’re playing the same one.
So that’s been a great gift. And Malcolm actually said something interesting yesterday about the show. He said, it straddles the line, correct me if I say it incorrectly Malcolm, it straddles the line between brilliant and absurd.
So, at some moments it’s totally like a lucid straightforward comedy and then other moments it’s like Bizarro Land. But it kind of works in its craziness. And I think that’s, you know, what is great as an actor to play.
Malcolm, how has Community compared to your past experience on half-hour shows?
Malcolm Jamal Warner: Well, I mean, it’s a whole different…You know, its apples and oranges really because it’s a completely different format. You know the half-hours that I’ve been doing have been traditional, four camera, in front of a live audience situation comedy format. So they’re very different.
And, again, I think it speaks to the progression of time and the evolution of – or a continual evolving of the sitcoms out there.
Yvette, you guys have such great chemistry as a cast. How do you guys continue to maintain that throughout the seasons?
Yvette Nicole Brown: You know, I think it sounds corny and I think everybody says this but we really do like each other as people. And I think when you like each other you tend to have fun with each other no matter what you’re doing even if it’s 16 hours around a table, in a room.
A lot of the stuff that you see on air, a lot of it is a byproduct of the fun that we’re having and we always laugh because a lot of the little jokes that make it on the show, it’s not that we’re not performing for the audience, because we are, but a lot of that stuff comes from ten hours around the table trying to make each other laugh.
So once you say the line 50,000 times, now this ones for Danny. You know what I mean? Because I know if I do this one and Danny cracks up then the world will be happy because Danny is – if he finds it funny the world will find it funny.
I think our silliness kind of translates and that’s what the audience sees hopefully.
Yvette, I was wondering if you could speak on how working with the cast of Community has helped to refine your acting skills and hone your comedic timing?
Yvette Nicole Brown: This is a well-oiled machine that I’m working with. These people are gifted comedically in every possible way. Like each person has a strength, a physical comedy or Joel’s the smartest guy in the room kind of comedy. And Alison Brie is, I don’t know what she can’t do well. Donald – I mean, everybody is so uniquely gifted in a different type of comedy that just sitting around that table I get to see, oh, that’s a good way to do reactions or that’s a good way to, you know, double take or roll off a chair. Chevy Chase is the one to look for that.
Like it would be impossible for me to be around this level of talent and not steal as much as I possible can. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been stealing and honing.
Malcolm, you’ve done acting, you’ve done directing and I’m wondering what you found to be more challenging and rewarding; acting or directing?
Malcolm Jamal Warner: That’s interesting. I definitely have a great passion for both and I think the challenges are definitely different. I think the directing, because your vision goes beyond just one character, you’re looking at the overall picture. There’s definitely a lot more work involved, a lot more preparation involved, a lot more responsibility involved.
And I can definitely say that after doing a couple of directing gigs back to back I do love to just be an actor and just have to worry about my character and I can say I’ll be in my trailer when you need me.
In real life how are you most like Shirley?
Yvette Nicole Brown: In real life me and Shirley are both Christians and I do call people pumpkin and sweetie. So I think that’s where the main similarities are.
I hope I’m not as judgmental as she is. I think that’s where – there’s things that Shirley has said and done in the name of Jesus that has made me go, oh no Shirley. No.
So I’m hoping that I’m not that level of, you know, self-righteousness I would say.
And I think that we’re both very loving. I think she tries to do things from a (place) of love at all times and, you know, fails miserably most of the time but I think that that is always her goal. So that’s how we’re alike and differ.
Yvette, how did you develop the persona and the voice of Shirley?
Yvette Nicole Brown: You know what’s so funny, I have a cold right, that’s why we both sound like men right now. But my natural voice is a little bit higher than this like I do actually sound like a girl usually.
But the Shirley high-pitched voice I kind of love her dual nature and I kind of thought because she’s so presentational in nature and she always wants to put out such a pretty picture with her clothing and her hair and everything is always just so, my thought was that this type of women would talk like this and, oh my goodness, what do you think?
You know and so, it’s not real. Shirley knows that it’s not real and the audience knows it’s not real because whenever Shirley gets upset you see the sister girl come out.
So I don’t think that she’s the high-pitched person or the sister girl. I think it’s somewhere in the middle kind of like me is where she really is.
And I’ve talked to the writers about it and we toyed with the idea of at some point having me speak in my own voice maybe when Shirley’s in a place where she feels completely safe because I don’t know that she completely trusts the study group just yet to show who she really is.
It’ll be great for me if it comes through an interaction with Andre. It will be great if Andre called her on it or something. So, yeah, my regular voice is somewhere in the middle.
This season we got to see Shirley’s wild side, so how did it feel to be able to let loose?
Yvette Nicole Brown: I think some of the most fun I’ve had on set was the day, or the night, that I shot all of the drunk photos.
I have never – I don’t drink. It’s nothing against those that do, it’s not that kind of thing, it’s just I am silly enough and crazy enough without it. When I drink it really becomes a whole other story.
So it was fun to portray the version of me that the world does not get to see because I don’t drink. And it was really insane. I mean, there was tabletop dancing, there were lampshades involved, it was a whole other thing. So it was like a flashback to my old days in college. So it was nice to get to revisit that for a second in a safe environment. No animals were harmed, no people were harmed and, you know, it was funny. And people got a kick out of seeing it so it was cool.
What is a typical work day like on the set of community and which cast member takes the longest to get ready?
Yvette Nicole Brown: Longest to get ready? I mean, it just seems only right that I say Joel McHale. It’s not true but I just wanted to say that.
A typical day on the show is like on a Monday we get there at like 5:30 in the morning, the girls do, and like yesterday I didn’t get home until 9:00. So that’s what, 15, 16 hours a day?
So that’s usually what the day is. And, you know, if it’s a study room scene we’re probably around that table for like 8 or 9 hours for like a three minute scene.
So whenever we see study room on the schedule we all go, oh yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, it’s a long day but it’s a good day because we have a great cast and a great crew so we just have fun as we work. So it’s good.
When you are both on set, either on Community or something else, do you still get nervous?
Yvette Nicole Brown: Oh yeah. If I have a big scene and it’s something that like is very dramatic or something or a lot of lines, I can get my self nervous with just about anything. I can get in my car and get nervous about driving so…Yeah, I definitely still get nervous.
Malcolm Jamal Warner: I think that’s always still kind of part of the process especially if you are, you know, coming in to a show that’s already established. Sometimes there’s that kind of apprehension in terms of trying to do – finding your place to fit in.
And I think, as you mentioned, a lot of times if there’s a big scene where there are a lot of lines or a scene maybe very emotional, nerves come into play quite often.
Yvette Nicole Brown: I had someone say once one of the first (that comes up to me) it was Girlfriends, and one of the actors on there, Golden Brooks said that she sees nervousness as fuel.
So you’re not really afraid or nervous you have your energy. That’s your fuel that you use to make that scene great. So instead of saying I’m really nervous, she says, I’m really excited. I’ve got my gas I’m ready to go.
So I think that’s the way I use it when it comes up because, like I said, it always comes up and it probably should.
What’s your advice to actors?
Yvette Nicole Brown: I would say know who you are and what you will and won’t do before you begin this industry because this industry can be full of compromise and you’ll find yourself going down a path that maybe you never intended for yourself if you’re not aware of where your boundary lines are.
So I would say before you do anything figure out what type of career you want to have, what type of performer you are and what you will andwon’t do to bring that to fruition.
And I think if you stay in line with that you’ll have a good career.
Malcolm Jamal Warner: Yeah, I think kind of, on some level, kind of (unintelligible) in line. My first piece of advice is always to keep your soul intact because this is an industry where a person’s soul tends to be the very first thing that they will compromise.
Yvette Nicole Brown: That’s true. That’s true.