The character Betsy Putch in The Mindy Project may be awkward and naive, but it is undeniable that Zoe Jarman (the actress who plays her) isn’t. I spoke to Zoe a few days ago. It was so enjoyable to interview someone who’s so thoughtful, so intelligent, and extremely down to earth. With each of her answers, she provided insight and honesty that could teach us all something about navigating both make believe and real life.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
ZJ: I think I always sort of had it. As a kid I was always the performer in the family; I liked to make people laugh. Then, I first started acting when I was about twelve. I did Community Theater, auditioned for a play and got a role, and I didn’t stop.
Was there anyone or anything that really inspired you to become an actress?
Yes. My grandfather was in TV, film, and theater his whole life. He did a lot of different things; he was a stage manager in theater, first, and then became a TV director. Also, he did a lot of theater within LA and worked for CBS for a while. He had a real passion for the arts. He wasn’t really a performer himself, but we were so close with him growing up, my mom’s dad. (Of course I was close with both my grandfathers, but my mom’s dad was the one who was in the business, basically.) We adored him, so he was definitely an influence.
You studied theater at Northwestern. What training did the school provide you with to help set you up for a successful career?
Northwestern was incredible; I loved, loved, loved Northwestern! I had a magical experience there, which I think a lot of theater majors there leave feeling that way.
I was just in Chicago talking to my acting teacher from college and started thinking about this: I think Northwestern’s theater program is populated with interesting, good students and teachers, people who are really well rounded and diverse, people who love theater for different reasons and bring different things to it.
I think that the program there taught me a lot about occupying my own space– being in a space, relating to other people on a stage, opening up, and being able to feel what I was experiencing. It all sounds simple when you take them one by one… I was cultivating a much deeper experience of consciousness– feeling and expressing, being in my own body, grounded in a space with other people listening and reacting. So honestly, I think that my training at Northwestern helped me be more myself, more confident and at ease in myself, comfortable with people looking at me, and me looking at them. I left knowing how to be a performer in a deep sense. I don’t know, this might sound nebulous, but it is definitely a specific thing for me and totally invaluable. And although I have taken classes in LA to hone my specific acting abilities (on camera and scene study classes) I think Northwestern laid a groundwork that wasn’t just about acting, but a foundation in knowing myself.
That must have been really great to go from Northwestern, having come into your own, I guess, and then go do a bunch of improv (where you have to be totally out of your head, confident, and able to rely on your skills as a performer).
Yeah, Northwestern gave me this foundation, but I wouldn’t say that I came out to LA the most confident person who knew herself incredibly well. That is an ongoing thing and has been a huge part of the journey through the eight years I’ve lived in LA (a lot of work getting to know myself and stuff like that). Learning confidence and groundedness in different situations is also something you learn a lot from improv.
Both the schools you studied at (The Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings) are very well known. What were the biggest differences between the schools and what did you take away from both?
Well, that’s interesting. Most of my experience is at UCB, but I took the first two levels at the Groundlings and I had a great experience; it was really fun. I basically did all the levels at UCB first and got involved with that community first. I did so much improv, and I took I those classes that I got comfortable being on stage improvising and not worrying about the information that was coming out of my mouth because I knew it would come. You do so much of it that the muscle starts to get stronger. With UCB, I wouldn’t say I’m the best at their form/method of improv. For me, it feels really fun and it can be really exciting; it can also feel like I wish I were better at writing on my feet. I know that a lot of really smart writers do really well at UCB being able to think fast on their feet, except at UCB their motto is, “Don’t think,” and it is what they teach…Well, I guess when I was doing a lot of improv, I would sometimes go through a phase where I felt really good and every time I went on stage I felt comfortable and confident, things came really easily, and then sometimes I would really get in my head and think too much about it.
When you see people who are good at the form UCB teaches it’s really funny and very successful. What was fun about the Groundlings, for me, was they really focused on developing a character. I was able to get on stage and not worry about improv, in general, I was comfortable being on stage, and doing a scene out of nothing. I was able to concentrate on physicality, making strong character choices, using my voice and point of view– really going into a sillier version of character performing. People definitely played characters at UCB, but it also had to be connected to the real world. At the Groundlings, it was really fun for a person who likes to play weird characters, I guess. Both things taught me a lot.
Do you have an all time favorite character that you created?
I did this one sketch which a friend of mine wrote. We did the sketch a bunch because it was really fun to do. This really funny guy named Matt Manser, who was really involved with comedy at UCB, wrote this sketch called “The Introvert Talk Show.” I played the host and was a paralyzed with fear introvert. Like, I could barely get words out. Then I had, I think like, three different guests who were all introverts, and they were painfully, painfully shy introverts who could barely talk. So, the whole sketch was like ten minutes, and a lot of it was me sitting in painful silence by myself with the audience, which I LOVED.
That’s so funny.
It was a lot of physical stuff and nonverbal where I’m reacting to things or having an interesting, weird moment on stage, and I’m also letting the audience’s reaction tell me how long I can hold it for. That was a couple years ago.
Do you think you use more of your improv knowledge than what you learned at Northwestern on a daily basis?
Oh gosh. I think both things are there on a daily basis. I mean, Northwestern taught me a deeper thing that’s engrained in myself, or something about me being Zoe as a performer. The improv stuff that I learned really comes in handy just being open, listening, and reacting in a way that my character would react, sort of like listening with a filter on my ears. On The Mindy Project it’s Betsy, so when I’m playing Betsy and if I improvise at all, then it’s about being alive to what’s happening, listening, and rolling with the thing that someone else said that’s unplanned, and being very reactive in a situation. So, I use both things. I mean, I would say, that they’re sort of meshed with each other now.
Do you have a funny or worst audition story you can tell?
[Zoe Laughs] Something that I’m just remembering now is, one of the first auditions I had in LA I got through this website called either LA Casting or Actors Access, it’s a really great resource for actors who might not have an agent (which I didn’t at the time). You can submit yourself for all sorts of jobs like: non-union jobs, industrials, or student films. I was on there and I would submit myself for things that I thought I was right for. I would get auditions that were all over the place. Some of them were interesting and some of them were terrible. I got one that was this dramatic material, I don’t think it was very good or interesting, but I tried my best to take it seriously, do a good job with it, and be committed. I remember that I went in and did the scene and it had a really dramatic ending where I was supposed to be emotional (or I thought that that was what the script was asking for, that I was sad or needed to cry or something) and the director cut me off before I was done and sarcastically said, “Oh, we should stop before she cries.” (Or something like that.) [Zoe Laughs] I was mortified, but I was also sort of like, Well this is ridiculous. What do you want from me?
So, there are definitely moments as an actor out here where you’re like, Well my job is to put myself in these vulnerable positions, and go to an audition and be vulnerable. Then it’s not met with any sanity. You sort of get used to it, but at first you’re like, Oh my gosh, you’re the one who wrote this dramatic material. I guess you don’t want me to throw myself into it. But I did my best.
When you used a site like Actors Access, or whatever, and then have that kind of experience, how did you trust that you were at a real audition and not some scam sort of thing, I guess?
You know, there were times (and I was using it seven years ago, or something) that I didn’t really know how it was. [Zoe Laughs] I always went to those things being like, I don’t really know what this is, or what this is going to feel like.
Sometimes I would get notices with an audition appointment for something I had submitted myself for, and then get a weird feeling about it and not go. If I had a feeling like this is sort of shady (not dangerous shady but just something that doesn’t feel like the people are organized) I just didn’t go. I would try to look for the things that looked the most interesting and legit, which is probably what a lot of people do using those websites. You want to build up an interesting reel, you want to meet interesting people, you want to get paid if you can. [Zoe Laughs] Yeah, there were definitely those times where I was like, Oh I wish I hadn’t come to this audition.
Oh gosh! Well, your first recurring role on TV was as the tour guide on Greek. Did you know it would be recurring and what was it like to be thrust into a show that had already been on air for a while?
I didn’t know it was going to be recurring and honestly it was a really amazing experience because it was my first TV part ever, in general that I booked and it was one scene where I was giving this tour of the campus during parents weekend. It was a really funny little speech where I was talking about this landmark on campus (which was a big rock) and I was giving the history of it. I think I went into the audition feeling like I knew what the character was to me and I ended up getting the part and everybody was sooo nice to me, and I think it turned out really funny. What I heard was that the writers really liked that scene and that character, and then decided to very generously write me into a couple more episodes where I would have a line in a group scene. In one episode there was a student fair and I announce that there’s pizza or something. The character was very excited and bright and overly friendly but very genuine. It was just really fun to play. It was a really positive experience.
Next, you got the role of Poppy on ABC Family’s Huge. Although it only ran for ten episodes, did you learn a lot being with a series from start to finish?
Yes I did, I totally did. I loved Huge; I loved the people on the show, the writers, the whole Huge family. I had done one day jobs on a couple of paid gigs and a lot of “do it yourself” Internet shorts, but being on a set everyday, coming to work, learning how to relax on camera was definitely, for me, a class in acting on camera…but it was a job [Zoe Laughs] so it was the best of both worlds. We worked with incredible people on that show, amazing directors; all of the cast members were really talented but also loved their job and loved being there, really believed in the show. Because I was a recurring character and not a series regular, I got to be in every episode to different degrees, I really felt like I was part of a family, but there wasn’t any scrutiny on me (I don’t think) [Zoe Laughs] so, I sort of got to have the weirdest lines, be in the background of scenes doing bits I’d given myself to do that I don’t think were distracting, but I just got to be in there and play around. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but I really loved that character and loved that world. It was a real learning experience for me.
Now you play Betsy Putch on The Mindy Project! What’s your favorite part about playing Betsy?
[Zoe Laughs] My favorite part about playing Betsy is she has a childish quality to her. She could come across as someone who is just dumb, although I don’t think it’s written that way and I don’t mean to play it that way at all. I see her as someone who has had a very specific life up until this point and her perspective is very specific to her and very, sort of, oblivious and young. I love having lines that are what Betsy’s version of reality is, and the she’s like, Isn’t that how everybody experiences the world? And the other people are like, Oh my god, where did this person come from? That’s not reality at all. She’s very convinced and confident in her own experiences. I just really like her perspective. It’s sweet and specific, which is fun to play.
I have also really loved the moments where she gets to be a little darker or a little more serious. She has these top notes that are very musical, sweet, and bright, but then when she gets serious, weird, or perturbed, that’s also really fun to play too.
Betsy’s a really great character. One of my favorite episodes was “Triathlon” where she tries to help convert Mindy. This is a very specific question, but you guested on an episode of The Office (which Mindy Kaling was on) and played a teen going on a mission to Mexico with her church. There are a few similarities with Carla and Betsy. Do you think your guest spot on The Office helped you at all with getting your part on The Mindy Project? If so, do you know if Mindy always had you in mind?
I don’t think that it hurt. I knew Mindy a bit before the show through the comedy community. She’d been really supportive and kind to me just in the times that I had gotten to be around her, then she was really nice to me when I was on the set of The Office, and made me feel really welcome; I had a really positive experience doing The Office. Then when I auditioned for The Mindy Project, I knew it was her project. But you know, when I went in, I auditioned with a lot of other “character actresses” out here in LA. So, I don’t think she necessarily had me in mind when I auditioned for this part. But, she did know me and I hope I’m right in saying that she already saw me as someone who was funny and had my own abilities. It worked out, because I got the part. So honestly, I haven’t talked to Mindy about it, but I think that it certainly didn’t hurt. I had a really good experience on The Office and I was really happy with the way my part turned out on the episode, so it felt really good going into the room and auditioning for Mindy knowing that she already thought I was a funny performer. I think it just ended up being the right fit, but I don’t believe that [Betsy] was written with me in mind.
It certainly has worked out in a good way! [Zoe Laughs]
Yeah, I would say so!
But, that is true. Actually, when we did the “Triathlon” episode, I was like, Oh this is interesting. She leads this bible study group and it is similar to Carla, the youth ministry leader on “The Office.” I like that similarity.
You use a voice while playing Betsy. What other character traits have you given her through the course of the show?
That’s a good question. I think there’s an upright physicality that I step into when I play her and a rhythm to her movement. There are certain innate things that I’ve just developed in my body when I’m playing Betsy. There’s a brightness to her eyes; I think I use my eyes a lot– certain expressions that I fall into when I’m listening or reacting as Betsy. So yeah, I think it’s physical and it’s also combined with how I’m feeling in my head (how I’m thinking of her when we do a scene).
She also has a very distinct style and fashion sense. Do you have any say in her costume at all?
At our first meeting with the costume designer in the beginning of the series we talked a little bit about it. I tried on a lot of different things. I think Sal [Salvador Perez, Jr.] (the costume designer who’s amazing) saw what fit me the best, what looked the best, and what seemed right, what resonated or clicked with us. I think we definitely agreed on that. Then, he started to fall into a pattern of skirts and blouses with sweaters over them. It’s a cool position to be in, I show up in the morning and there are very colorful, very beautiful clothes to wear, so I don’t really pick them out. But, when we have fittings, I usually give my opinion if I’m trying on two different dresses and there’s one I like a lot, or better than something else, or if I don’t really feel comfortable in something. The way she dresses has become very much part of the character; it feels like I’m choosing it, but it’s really the vision of the costume designer plus Mindy’s vision of the show.
I have done things where I have to look dowdy. I’m totally down for that, but when you’re there at work everyday it’s nice to be in something that’s colorful, fits me well, and is cute. [Zoe Laughs] It’s nice.
Congrats, by the way, on being picked up for a second season. That’s really exciting!
Are you looking forward to trying anything new or going deeper into something with Betsy that you didn’t in the first season?
Sure! I am totally excited and looking forward to do the second season just spending more time with Betsy and the other characters in The Mindy Project world. As an actor, too, I feel like I’m still very much towards the beginning of my journey and my learning curve. I want to deepen my ability, try new things, and have even more of an ease being on camera and in my comedic abilities– be funny and very out there but grounded. There is a lot I look forward to in expanding my horizons, skills, and my presence. Stuff like that.
What do you watch on TV?
[Zoe Laughs] Well, I’d say my favorite thing (besides The Mindy Project)…
Yes, of course…
I love Parks and Recreation; that’s probably the first thing that I watch. Love, love, love that show. Of course loved watching 30 Rock, although I haven’t watched the last half of this last season. What else do I watch? I really loved Girls, although I haven’t seen the second season because I didn’t have HBO for a while.
I definitely recommend it.
Yeah, I know. I have to catch up on it and now that I have HBO again I’ve gotta watch Girls. I watch Game of Thrones. It’s really outside of my comfort zone in terms of watching things that are violent, and the sexual violence is really disturbing. The stories are so good and I think the performances are so great, I don’t know it’s really fun to watch. I love watching The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, that kind of stuff. I would say those are my shows right now. But, I also try to watch newer shows on Netfilx and things. I just don’t watch a ton of TV; I’m not a person who watches everything, so I pick and choose. Oh, I watched the first season of Veep and I have to watch the second season because I love Veep.
If you could step into anyone’s role on TV (not Betsy, obviously) who would you want to play?
Oh my gosh. Well, definitely Cersei on Game of Thrones. I could totally say anybody on Parks and Rec; I think those parts are so funny. But, actually I wouldn’t do that because everybody on Parks and Rec is so perfect as their characters. I don’t know. It’s a funny question. I like it. I would probably choose something that’s totally different than what I would play or get cast as right now, so maybe Cersei.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
It’s hard to give advice because I think it happens so differently for everybody. It terms of “it happens” I mean starting to get work and building up a career. I would say learning to be yourself more and more and taking off the pressure of being anything but that is incredibly important for taking off the things that you carry around that aren’t you and that feel like pressure to be anything that you’re not, or pressure to be anything you’re not interested in being. Taking off those layers, and then doing work on finding out who you are, what makes you happy, and what engages you in life, what excites you. You do that through so many different things. Some of it is process of elimination, trying different things, realizing you’re not interested in them, and then letting them go. Or, doing things until you find the thing that you’re really interested in. I think the most interesting thing that you can do is go into a room and be really at ease within yourself. For me, Zoe, I can walk into a room and play a character in an audition only in the way that I can do that. I’ve tried to let go of the idea of what do these casting directors want to see, what does this look like from an outside perspective? I can’t really control that; I can only walk in and be myself. I feel like the more I’ve cultivated my own interests, my own perspective on things, I don’t know if it has helped me be a better actor, but it has helped me to be more relaxed and engaged when I walk into a room. It has given me more of an ability to listen and respond, sort of be real– even when I’m playing a character, to be honest. I’d say over all (not that I’ve mastered this) I think learning how to be engaged with yourself, life, your community, and stimulated creatively, helps everything else in your life fall into place. If you feel like you’re doing something fulfilling and rewarding (even if it isn’t what you’re getting paid to do) it just takes some of life’s pressure off. ♦
Photo Credit: Bruce Birmelin, Mary Ellen Matthews/FOX, FOX