In improv, there’s something called the “game” of the scene. It’s the point of comedy: the thing that the performers zero in on, heighten, and use to get the laughs. As a seasoned improviser, Andrée Vermeulen knows the importance of playing the game right. Like sports, a single move can make or break the whole shebang. Hollywood’s a lot like this, too. Hitting it big takes talent and strategy. Vermeulen studied hard and now she is one of the stars of TBS’ hit show Angie Tribeca. In this interview, she talks training, Tribeca, and taking the comedy world by storm.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
AV: Oh boy. I did theater in middle school and high school. That’s when I actually started doing it. When I was little, I did dance and would have dance recitals. So I always did some sort of performance. I started doing musicals in middle school and I kept doing that all through high school. Then I studied theater in college.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in acting?
Originally I was so obsessed with musicals. I would watch Singin’ in the Rain almost every day when I got home from school [Andrée laughs]. I wanted to exist in a different time altogether. I wish I could have been with Gene Kelly [Andrée laughs]. I really loved old-timey musicals and things like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady. I guess I always wanted to be Audrey Hepburn or Debbie Reynolds. I wanted to be Debbie Reynolds so badly [Andrée laughs]. She was an early inspiration.
I grew up watching SNL. I was really obsessed with Dana Carvey. Dana Carvey had a special that aired. I remember I recorded it and I would watch that as well pretty much every day. I would watch the same things over and over again. It was like Singin’ in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Dana Carvey’s stand-up special, and then Beauty and the Beast [Andrée laughs]. I’d watch that like every day and when Lion King came out I’d watch that every day. Really obsessed with repeat performances.
You know Singin’ in the Rain is coming to Broadway. You’ve got to get your agents on that!
Amazing! Oh man, I’ve got to work on my “shuffle, hop, step.” I’m not so good at tap dancing anymore. I used to tap—I’ve never been amazing at it. I had a dance teacher in college who told me I was an “Air Tapper,” which isn’t actually an insult. He had worked on Broadway for many, many years and he told me in a casting, especially for tappers, you need a couple good tappers and then a couple great “Air Tappers.” You only need two or three people to make enough sound. The rest of the people, if it looks like they’re doing the steps perfectly, that’s all you need. Tapping is so intricate, even if it looks like you’re doing it perfectly, maybe you’re missing a beat in there—that was me! [Andrée laughs]
Nothing you couldn’t learn. That’d be such a cool full circle thing to be in Singin’ in the Rain.
Yeah, if I could audition for the Broadway version and they were cool with me being an “Air Tapper,” I think maybe all of my life’s goals would be met. That’d be so amazing.
So let’s put it out in the universe then! Anyway, you studied theater at Marymount Manhattan. What training did that provide you with to help set you up for success?
They had such a good dramatic program. Even though I’ve now focused my career in comedy, I think that base really actually helped set me up for a more polished comedy career. Especially doing sketch comedy where you have a variety of characters, it really helps to have an acting background so you can ground those characters. No matter how odd the character is, I have that foundation to really ground it in reality and make it seem like this bazaar character just exists in the world. I think at Marymount Manhattan, the acting training was top-notch for sure, so I feel really grateful for that.
Then, on top of it, because I did a musical theater minor, I was able to keep singing and dancing. I had access to Steps on Broadway, which is one of the biggest dance centers there where all the Broadway dancers train. I could just take a class at Steps for three credits, which is amazing! It’s not even affiliated with my college in anyway. You have access to these brilliant teachers and you’re in class with Broadway stars who are just keeping their engines polished. That’s not a saying! All right everybody, let’s keep our engines polished!
Your advisor there told you to pursue comedy, which pissed you off at first. Why?
It’s interesting. Professor Haila Strauss was one of the heads of the dance department. She specifically did dance for actors. She gave me a comedy scene in dance for actors class—it was a final scene. She pulled me aside later and was like, “You need to go do comedy.” I was so annoyed because I was doing dramatic acting and musicals would be the extent of the comedy I was planning on doing. She told me to go to UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. It’s kind of the greatest advice I’ve ever received as far as from a teacher, mentor, or advisor. I am really grateful that she had that insight. The minute I got to UCB I was like, Ohhh.
Everything was just easier from that point. That’s not to say anything should be easy. I think everyone needs to work very hard and have patience: develop your craft, develop your skills so that you have a solid platform to stand on. I think that’s so incredibly important. I don’t think anyone should focus on anything coming fast or easily. But after I had built that platform and went into a comedy arena, it was kind of a big difference as far as the feedback I would get and how far I was going at a much quicker pace than I was going with drama or even in musical theater. I was like, oh okay this is where I’m supposed to be.
How was UCB helpful with you finding your voice as a performer?
They’re just so good at helping you hone your craft and your voice. Especially when I was coming up through the theater and it was smaller, there were less people and more attention. You weren’t allowed any shortcuts. I think everyone on the main stage fought and worked really hard to get there. They just weren’t easy on you. I think UCB is great at pushing you to be your personal best—working harder and not accepting just any old thing up there. You don’t want to throw up any old thing that you’ve barely worked on. They instilled a good comedy work ethic and the idea of workshopping something. They’re really great at allowing you to take a chance and experiment in comedy. Then you use the feedback or the non-response from audience to go back and work on it: figure out why it worked or didn’t…They really instilled that in me. That’s a different lesson you don’t get in acting or drama school…
Do you guys improvise a lot on Angie Tribeca because there is such a strong improv background with so many people on the show?
We don’t and I’m sure that makes people sad to hear. It’s not really that sort of writing or environment. It’s not because we don’t like improv or we’re not able to do it. The jokes that we do on our show are so specific. It’s like comedy science. It’s not like any old dumb joke goes. It’s smart dumb and it’s so specific. The things that the writers come up with are so incredibly precise. I don’t think any improv we would do could top it. There are opportunities when we’ll button a scene or we’ll button a joke. But a lot of the time those won’t make it in.
The most improv I did was actually in the audition. If anyone’s watched season one, Scholls isn’t in the first episode very much. The audition sides were only two pages. I did much more improv in order to get the role. That’s where the UCB training really helped me. The Marymount Manhattan training helped me with grounding Scholls and especially because she’s such a straight, serious character. The UCB training helped with the game of it all and understanding what the joke was: not winking at it, playing it straight so it was funny. In the audition, I had to really understand the game of the scene so that the jokes were actually funny: “on game,” as we would say in the comedy world.
That’s where the UCB training has helped me the most. Thank God I know how to find the game of the scene and heighten it.
When you’re spoofing something, like you do in Angie Tribeca, how do you avoid becoming a caricature and give an honest performance?
I don’t want to generalize, but I think there are a lot of people today who think, I’ll just go to UCB and take classes and then I’ll be famous and be on TV. I don’t really think that’s the right approach. I think that if you’re serious about being an actor, whatever kind you are, comedic or dramatic, you really need to get your foundation. If you are a dancer and ultimately want to become a hip-hop dancer, you have to take ballet, you know? A lot of people don’t want to hear that. You need that foundation because it informs your skill level later. It’s the same thing with acting…[Success is] much more likely to happen if you put in the time and the work. It’s really important.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and comedians?
I think a lot of people in our culture want really fast results. If you want an immediate response, it’ll be a flash in the pan…I think there’s a level of patience and believing in yourself. If you really want to do this in life, you can and will have the dedication to put in the work. You get little jobs, take little steps, and accept those as great. I hear people talking and they say they’re so frustrated. Every actor is frustrated. That’s par for the course. If you’re in acting you’re gonna be frustrated and it’s gonna take a long time—especially if you’re in comedy. Everyone I know, it’s taken at least 10 years. Whether you’re in stand-up, improv, sketch, and your goal is TV, you better be good for at least 10 years. Of those 10 years, you should be in acting school for at least four. I really think that. Continue to educate yourselves even if you’ve graduated. Take a class, constantly be brushing up on your craft. ♦