Life imitates art for actress Eliza Coupe in her upcoming indie "Shanghai Calling." The story focuses on a group of Americans who reboot their lives by starting over in China; Coupe has enjoyed her two consecutive roles playing biting blondes on TV — on "Scrubs" and now "Happy Endings" — but relocating to an exotic locale for the part of a sweet single mom gave the actress a powerful understanding of the expat appeal.
The pull of Shanghai notwithstanding, Coupe did return to the States, where we got the scoop on faking conversational Chinese, the dangers of playing too many a**holes, and more.
You didn't speak Chinese at all before filming "Shanghai Calling," right? But you speak quite a bit of it in the movie — and very convincingly! Did you actually learn any Chinese for the role, or did you memorize it phonetically? It's impressive, either way.
I think if I remember correctly, I had just come back from a French lesson [when I got the role]. I learned the Chinese through Pinyin, which is phonetic. Oh my God, I could not write in Chinese characters by any stretch of the imagination. I kind of just learned my lines ... I didn’t say the tones right, to begin with ... I thought I was speaking Chinese, but ... my assistant over there was always like, "I don’t know what you’re saying." When I was really, really trying to just imitate and not really know what I was saying, I found that everyone knew what I was saying. But when I was really trying to actually speak it, it was like, "No, go back to imitating us."
In college, I went to school for acting, we had to learn phonetics just to be able to do dialects and all that stuff. I’m somebody who does better just hearing it. I’ll just imitate it, and I get it better that way. When I know too much information, I’m not great. I used to play the piano by listening to it — like Chopin pieces, when I was like a little kid — and then the minute my parents got me lessons to read music, I couldn’t do it anymore.
Let's rewind for a second. You’re taking French lessons? For funzies or for a part?
For funzies. I have wanted to learn French forever, I’ve been determined to move over there and just be over there for the rest of my life. But I don’t know French, and my family’s French.
And now you now how it feels to be an expat, at least for a few weeks. Are you still on track with your permanent relocation?
No, I’m actually pretty cool with not moving away now. It was one of those things where I really didn’t think it through. It was like, "Oh s**t, but I really love my family!"
Shanghai cured you of wanderlust! Was it scary to be that far from home?
A hundred percent. I got over there and I was like, "Oh, wow, I don’t know anybody." I hadn’t met Daniel Hsia, the director. I had Skyped with him because he was already in China, so I never got to meet him before I went over to film. Daniel Henney, who was my co-star, I think he didn’t even show up until like five days after I got there. I didn’t know anybody.
And it was so hot there and I have this weird thing where I can’t stand wearing pants in the summer, like I will be wearing shorts no matter what. And so I'm five-eight, very much a blonde American, and I’m just be-bopping around in my little shorts. When you’re walking around in Shanghai, I called it the City of Near Misses, because they do not stop for pedestrians. And the pedestrians do not have the right of way. It’s those little things that no one tells you.
Your character in "Shanghai Calling" is spirited but much sweeter than Jane from "Happy Endings." Did that appeal to you specifically?
I went from being on "Scrubs," where I played this scary, sardonic ... very bitchy, sly doctor, and then going into "Happy Endings" which was just as bitchy and sardonic but wrapped in a very different package. I was going for all these parts that were very similar to my part on "Scrubs" ... so I’m like, "Wait there's so much more. Those are just two characters, I mean, that's not even who I am. So I was actually really ... relieved to do something sweet and nice because I was like, "I swear, people, I'm not the biggest bitch in the world, I promise you."
My parents, they were like, "You come off so mean and you're not like that!" I do have a nickname with my family, I'm called Snappy, because I do get to be a bit snippy at times. They call me Snappy Bear. That's from New Hampshire. My dad's called Crazy, my mother's Happy, it's a whole thing.
Speaking of your parents, is there a movie you regret watching with them?
Oh God, what is the name of it … I just watched it. It's…oh my God… Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon…it just came out. Matthew McConaughey makes Gina Gershon give him a blow job ... "Killer Joe," oh my God, "Killer Joe." Really regret that one. Not a family movie.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
I do. It's Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." That or the duet from "Grease" and I grab whatever friend knows the song. Carly Simon, I am such a dork with that one. I think it's because like my mother used to sing that. It's just, like, in my register and I've got a very big deep weird voice, but I also sing, so that’s like my ... I don't know ... I'm a weirdo.
It’s harder right? Karaoke is high pressure if you’re a good singer. You care too much.
Oh my God, I love it, because I have done karaoke and I’m like, "I better knock this out of the park." And meanwhile, everyone’s drunk and nobody gives a s**t and I'm like, "This is my Grammy-winning performance right here!"
Okay, who would play you in a movie?
Oh God ... Kristen Wiig?
Rap or rock?
Backstreet Boys or N*Sync?
Very good. Beer or wine?
Umm, I’m not a drinker but wine.
And ... your porn star name. It’s the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on.
Bruiser Garland ... Bruiser was a yellow lab.
"Shanghai Calling" opens in limited release on Feb. 15.