By ALLISON KUGEL
Few models have seamlessly made the transition to the silver screen and television as successfully as Brooklyn Decker. Decker leapt from the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue (the Oscars of swimsuit modelling) onto the big screen in 2011’s hit rom-com, Just Go With It. Aside from her classic slow-mo emergence from the Hawaiian sea in a swimsuit, reminiscent of the classic film 10, starring Bo Derek, she held her own opposite comedic heavyweights Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Hollywood took notice, subsequently casting her in 2012’s Battleship, alongside Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna and Liam Neeson. Next up was the ensemble comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting (based on the mega-bestselling mom-to-be tome) alongside a bevy of A-list actresses, including: Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth Banks, Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick. Decker famously played the young and super fit “pregnant unicorn” who leaves actress Elizabeth Banks’ pregnant character scratching her head in envy and disbelief.
On social media, where most celebrities are retouching their images, Decker thinks nothing of going make-up and photoshop-free at times, representing the daily rigours of being a multitasking working mom while adding “tech entrepreneur” to her growing resume with her recently-funded fashion startup, Finery.
Decker is currently riding a wave of success, playing the role of Mallory Hanson on the hit Netflix series, Grace And Frankie, now in its fourth season. Mallory is a young married mother of four children, navigating complicated relationships with her parents, played by Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen, and her sister, played by June Diane Raphael.
What have you learned about great comedy through playing the role of Mallory?
I’ve learned from my colleagues on the show, especially June Diane Raphael who plays my sister. She’s one of the most talented comedic actresses I’ve ever worked with. What I’ve learned from her and from the rest of the cast is the more you’re playing a scene, the funnier it becomes. All of us, when we’re shooting, we play with each other… that sounds very inappropriate, by the way.
Don’t worry. My mind was not in the gutter…
Ha! We’re like, “Can I push you here? Or maybe can you grab my hair here?” We do get physical, and we find a way to play with each other to bring physicality to the scene. What happens from that is it becomes funnier, and it feels more real. I really learned that from June, who, again, is one of the funniest people in my life. And the wealth of talent on our show is just incredible. I’ve really learned that when it comes to comedy, if you’re having a fun time, the audience is going to have a fun time.
There’s an interesting parallel of female relationships on Grace And Frankie. You have the close relationship between Jane Fonda’s character, Grace, and Lily Tomlin’s character, Frankie. At the same time, there is the sister relationship between your character, Mallory, and June’s character, Brianna. You don’t often get to see one close female relationship on television, so two female storylines in one show is pretty cool!
You’re one of the few people who have clued into that. Someone else commented to me that it’s rare to see sisters on television. There aren’t these female relationships that are at a deep level. I feel like Grace and Frankie does a really good job of showing sisterhood as friendship.
Tell me the difference between Jane Fonda’s comedic style versus Lily Tomlin’s comedic style.
They approach their work entirely differently from one another. Lily is just in the scene. She doesn’t care about the technical aspect of a scene. She just wants to be present and then receive. As far as her character Frankie goes, she really embodies that. Jane is so technically perfect. She knows where every camera is, she knows when to take a pause, she knows how to angle her face. They do very few takes with Jane, because everything is pretty perfect. Whereas Lily gets on set and likes to play. You get something different from Lily on every take, because she’s constantly playing, constantly moving. They approach acting so differently; it’s similar to the difference in their characters. It’s fascinating to see the two of them work together. They just rib each other all day long. You can see that there’s so much love and history there.
Because they’ve worked together before…
Yep, 9 To 5!
One of my favorite movies of all time! Speaking of which, will Dolly Parton make a guest appearance on Grace and Frankie?
Abso-freakin-lutely! We beg for it every episode. They’re so secretive about it, that I don’t know if it is in the works, or if it will ever happen. I know that a lot of fans of Jane and Lily have wanted to see Dolly on the show because of 9 To 5. In the first two seasons they wanted to make sure that they fleshed out the show before they brought in what would be the tornado that is Dolly Parton. Now that we are in Season Four, they are playing it super close to the chest.
How is it having Martin Sheen, who is also a fantastic actor, playing your father?
He is such a wonderful person. One of my favourite shows of all time, before doing Grace and Frankie, was The West Wing. Everyone says you should never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed. I was nervous to work with him, because I really had him on this pedestal. And he is such a kind, present, lovely person. My son was born when I was shooting the show, and the next week he brought me a rosary with the date that my son was born. He’s so paternal and wonderful, and to be able to play his daughter feels really natural. I have such respect and affection for him.
You were pregnant in Season Three? I just watched it and you weighed 2 lbs!
Well, no, I was pregnant in Season Two, and then I was pregnant with my second in Season Four.
I’m going to be on the lookout for a bump in Season Four!
It’s so confusing. June and I have four children altogether, off the show, and I have four children on the show. We have trouble keeping up with what’s real and what’s fake.
Could you see you and your husband [tennis star, Andy Roddick] being parents to four kids like your character Mallory?
Honestly, that’s my dream! I want a ton of children. Both me and my brother wish that we had more brothers and sisters. Whereas my husband comes from a family with three boys, and he likes the idea of two. So far, we’re good with two and we’ll see where that takes us.
Of course, the main plotline of Grace and Frankie is that Robert and Sol, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, come out as gay after their kids are grown up, they announce they’re in love and leave their respective wives [played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin] to be together. Your character, Mallory, being one of the grown children, has to process and deal with that on the show. Have you ever thought about how you would react if that were to happen in your real life? If you had a parent who came out later in life and left your other parent, how do you think you and your brother might have handled those circumstances?
That’s interesting. I’ve had two male friends who had children and came out to their wives later in life. It hasn’t happened to me, personally, but people do go through it and I think I can relate to the kids on the show. During Season One, one of the more poignant moments was a scene when all of the kids were having a conversation, and basically saying, “We’re not mad that dad’s gay. We love dad no matter what. We’re mad that he’s been lying to his wife, our mother and our family, for 20 years. For me it would be about the fact that they’ve been having an affair for 20 years; that would be a big deal. June’s character, Brianna, said on the show, “What if dad had been having an affair with a woman? We would all be pissed. But because it’s a man, we have to accept it.” I think that is so true. That was an interesting thing to tackle on the show, and I feel like that would probably be true in real life. If a parent was having an affair, and had been having an affair with one person for so many years, that would be the issue. For me, it would be less about their sexual orientation.
You came on the scene as a model. Back when you were on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, was the end goal an acting career?
When I moved to New York and first started modelling, I moved thinking that I was just going to pay for school. That was the goal. When I started modelling I was 18, and all of my friends were in their freshman year at college. I really missed that. The reason I started studying acting was because I really missed school. My manager said, “Why don’t you get an acting coach and study acting? It will at least give you something to read and study when you’re on the road.” I liked that idea, so I started studying with a coach in New York and we started reading a bunch of Tennessee Williams. We approached it in a weird way, kind of academically. It was less about performance and more about learning and studying. I fell in love with studying acting. When I started auditioning, I didn’t think anything would come from it.
What made you come to that conclusion?
Growing up in Matthew, North Carolina, becoming an actor and becoming a model wasn’t a realistic career path. My brother’s a firefighter, my mom’s a retired nurse. It’s not something that you do where I’m from. We weren’t in the arts. In that respect, it was something that happened by chance. Once I started studying and auditioning, I fell in love with it and then of course I really wanted it. By 2010, I got three movies in one year. The second I booked my third movie, I said to my manager, “I’m quitting modelling. I’m done.”
One of those movies was Just Go With It with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston?
Just Go With It, Battleship and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Once I booked my third movie, I had the courage to decide to stop modelling and focus on acting, and that was seven years ago.
At what point did you feel like you made the transition from a model who’s done some acting, to an actor?
I don’t feel like that… yet.
I do think that as a model, especially one who was in Sports Illustrated, which really puts you on the map, you have a lot to prove. People are constantly viewing you as one thing, and seeing you as sort of a wannabe.
I get it. When you’re on the Grace And Frankie set, you’re surrounded by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen, June Diane Raphael who is a seasoned comedienne. You got a seat at the table, but are you constantly questioning, “Do I belong here?” “Should I be here?” Or do you feel like, “Yes! I belong here”?
I feel the insecurity that you just said of “do I belong here?” every single day. I think it’s me. It’s my own neurosis. But I do think that no matter what, any actor, and I’ve been acting full time now for seven or eight years, but any relatively new actor would feel insecure working with that group of actors. But I do feel a little bit more insecure because of where I came from, for sure.
How does the cast feel about you?
I don’t think they care. Jane is an ultra-feminist and she does not care what your past is. Her attitude is if you’re here, you are part of the show. I think that is how everyone feels.
What would you say is the overarching moral of the story, or the overarching message of Grace and Frankie?
I think it really is that love and relationships come in all forms. Family can come in all forms. If you look at the central story, it’s the story of two women who typically aren’t represented on television. We don’t usually get to see women who are 80 going through life, and this show explores that. Second to that, I think it shows different forms of relationships. You have the two brothers who are adopted, and you see them navigating that with their parents. You have two sisters who have chosen completely different lives from one another, Grace and Frankie are exploring this sisterhood and family between the two of them, as two single women in their eighties. And Sol and Robert are a gay older couple who have just come out and are married.
This show throws a lot of the “shoulds” that society places on us out the window.
In Season Three, Sam and Martin’s characters were wanting to go to gay clubs and open up their relationship, and they were wondering what gay couples are supposed to do. A lot of it was they thought they were supposed to be doing something because they’re gay. Just like Grace and Frankie feel all of these cultural expectations on them because they’re 80 years old. You see each of these characters defy what the societal expectations and projections are. It’s about busting through expectations placed on people.
In past generations, television didn’t reflect the true messiness of life. I can remember my mother telling me that she would watch shows like Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver, where everything was so perfect and idyllic, and she would wonder why her family wasn’t TV perfect. The stories we are seeing now on television are embracing the messiness of life, which is what real life is.
Exactly! And the messiness is more interesting and what’s fun to watch. I don’t know what Netflix’s expectations were, but I do know there was pressure surrounding us when we were filming the first Season. The Netflix streaming demographic was a relatively new concept at the time, and they didn’t know who the audience was for this. What Netflix has discovered, and why it’s such a huge hit, is because it resonates with people in its messiness. The show makes people laugh, makes people cry… there are things people relate to and things that people learn from. Right now, more than ever, people want something that feels real, but also lifts them up. They need 30 minutes to have fun.
What are your thoughts on the movement that Netflix has become? The fact that so many talented writers and actors are flocking to this platform, and everybody is coming on board and trying to be a part of it?
What’s so exciting about it is that, ultimately, the talent wins out. It’s the first time that we’ve really had that in Hollywood. Because there is such a wealth of opportunity now, you are really getting to see talent. The cool thing about Netflix is they can just make really good content, and with that, they can hire really good talent and they don’t have to be stars. Netflix doesn’t have to share their numbers, and they don’t share their numbers. They’re not about making sales at the box office, so they can just focus on making great content. You’re seeing the result of that. With the way the business is changing, talent wins out, and that’s exciting.
Apart from Lisa Kudrow, are there any other interesting guest stars coming up on Season Four?
I don’t want to reveal who the guest starring actor is, but the important and interesting thing is the storyline with this actor. Sam and Martin are having a hard time in their relationship, and they ask themselves if they should bring a third party into it.
Your character, Mallory, announced that she is separating from her husband on the last episode of Season Three. Can you share how that unfolds this season?
I play a woman who got married out of college and who hasn’t been in the professional world at all. For the first time, I have to figure out what I want to do with my life, and Mallory goes back to work. And I may or may not be seeking employment with one of the family members.
On another note, I want to congratulate you on getting funding for your tech startup, Finery! Can you share a bit about what the Finery app does?
When you think about what iTunes did for music – before iTunes you had tons of CDs in your car or in your house in a CD rack – iTunes took it all completely digital. We are doing that for your wardrobe. Everything is automated these days. Your banking is on your phone, your music is on your phone, your correspondence, everything. The one thing that’s still antiquated is your interaction with your wardrobe. Women will spend two hours a week figuring out what to wear. It’s not because we necessarily love clothes, or because we are fashion loving women – it’s because we need to get dressed. We felt there had to be a better way, and women can spend those two hours doing something more productive. We call ourselves your Wardrobe Operating System.
What is a day in the life of Brooklyn Decker? You’ve got the TV show, the Finery app, the two small kids and the husband. How does it all break down day-to-day?
That’s something I’m still navigating. Fortunately, we have been on hiatus for the show for the last couple of months. When we were thinking about baby number two, we wanted to plan it around Grace and Frankie, so I didn’t have to come back to work right away. Our baby was born at the end of November, and we did our fundraising for this seed round for Finery starting in July and August. It all worked out that I wrapped the show, we did the [fund]raise, and then I was off four weeks before the baby was born, which was good because my doctor told me I couldn’t travel 30 days before my due date. We literally flew from San Francisco and I landed back in Austin [Decker and Roddick’s home city] at midnight, exactly 30 days before my due date). We had the baby, and now I’m back to work promoting Grace and Frankie and Finery.
You’re making me tired! I need a nap now.
And I’m not finished! Finery is based in New York, I’m based in Austin and for Grace and Frankie I work on the west coast. Yesterday I had conference calls for Finery, I was getting ready to fly to LA to do all Grace and Frankie press. Tomorrow I’ll fly back to Austin and I’ll be with my family. Our Finery CEO is coming into Austin for meetings. It’s a juggling act, but I have a husband who is retired and who is wonderful. He is around and present with our kids, which is amazing; and I have a nanny. My family couldn’t afford a nanny when we were growing up, but we had neighbours. I’m lucky to have people around me who help, and I swear, it takes a village!
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.