The Light Gets In
How did BUSY PHILIPPS parlay a slow-burn acting career and addictive Instagram account into being one of the only women to helm a mainstream late-night TV show? She shares her secret with JENNIFER DICKINSON
Busy Philipps might just be the queen of visualization. The E! talk-show hosting gig that she landed earlier this year, despite being unicorn-like in its rarity (there are only four female hosts of evening shows on the major US networks) was, according to the actress, screenwriter, social-media phenomenon and author, a done deal from the moment she had the idea. “I was in Palm Springs for my manager’s fiftieth birthday and I just turned to Marc [Silverstein, her husband of 11 years] and said, ‘I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to be a woman in late-night TV.’ Well, I actually said, ‘I’m supposed to be the first woman host of The Tonight Show’, but Marc was like, ‘Jimmy Fallon already has that job; maybe you’re just supposed to have a talk show.’”
Today, 39-year-old Philipps has come to our early interview straight from her regular hardcore exercise class in LA, via a chance meeting with actress Gillian Jacobs in a beauty store. Or at least, that’s what her Instagram Stories depicts. In fact, it’s a good representation of the magic formula of her (very popular) social feed – warts-and-all reality mixed with Oscars-level starriness. She’s dressed in workout gear, beautifully glowy in zero makeup, and somewhat distracted by the alerts that constantly ping up on her phone screen, complimenting her on the cover of her new autobiography, This Will Only Hurt a Little (out on October 16), which was released for pre-sale an hour ago.
“I turned to [my husband] Marc and said, ‘I’m SUPPOSED to be a woman in late-night TV.’ Well, I ACTUALLY said, ‘I’m supposed to be the first woman host of The TONIGHT Show’”
It’s immediately apparent that what she refers to as “my perseverance, determination and willingness” is one of Philipps’ greatest assets. Insecurity isn’t something she indulges in. “That’s how I’ve been my whole life; I see something and decide that’s what I want,” she shrugs. Spend five minutes with her and only a fool would doubt it, but, just in case, the examples are plentiful: “I went into my agency a week after giving birth [to first daughter Birdie, now seven; her second daughter, Cricket, is five] and said, ‘OK, pilot season is coming up, I want you to send me pilots for half-hour single camera [shows] that have an established star attached, and are probably going to get picked up, where my character can be number two or number three on the call sheet.’ They sent me the script for Cougar Town with Courteney Cox and I said, ‘Oh, this is what I’m doing.’ Marc said, ‘Calm down, you haven’t even auditioned yet,’ but I was like, ‘Details!’”
“Photo shoots weren’t a place where I felt SUPPORTED, or like people wanted to take a GREAT picture of me that looked like ME. They wanted me to look like Tara Reid”
Talking with Philipps is a little like sitting down for coffee with an evangelical priest. It’s not always easy to get a word in, but the stories are so convincingly told that you quickly realize that’s no bad thing. She’s brilliantly opinionated and smarter than even her most avid Instagram followers probably realize. She’s also noticeably different from a lot of us in that she is, or at least appears very convincingly to be, completely happy with herself. There’s no prickle of unease or guardedness – extra tricky when the intent of your companion is to ask you all manner of questions, welcome or otherwise.
It was a similar story yesterday, when she turned up on the PorterEdit set to discover (apparently when the mood board file didn’t open for her before the shoot day, she figured, how bad could it be?) that the clothes she would be wearing were, in fact, mostly underwear and tees. Her reaction? A shrug, an “OK”, and a “Can I have a face mask first?”
The body confidence, at least, hasn’t always been so buoyant. “Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s when I would show up for photo shoots, all they would have pulled was sample-sized clothing that I didn’t fit into and I would feel like a burden to the stylist and embarrassed,” says Philipps. “[Photo shoots] weren’t ever a place where I felt supported, or like people wanted to take a great picture of me that looked like me. I always felt like they wanted me to look like Tara Reid.”
Fashion shoots are just one of the ways that Hollywood can knock your confidence. The audition process is notoriously brutal and it’s something Philipps just isn’t prepared to put herself through anymore. “Acting is exhausting and heartbreaking and I truly think it doesn’t get easier for anyone,” she says. “For years, I feel like I tried to fit into something that I thought I was supposed to be in order to procure work as an actress. I have many friends at all different levels of accolades and fame and none of them have an easy road. It’s always a f***ing struggle, you always feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.”
It must have been incredible, then, to find that her biggest break so far came not through a role, but through just being herself. Instagram, where she documents everything from nasal surgery to making cakes for her kids’ birthdays, has fully embraced Philipps’ unbridled authenticity. “In the last year and a half, I’ve felt so much more freedom. With Instagram, I get to create content for myself and entertain in a way that I’ve never been able or allowed to do. I come from a long line of writers and I’ve always been interested in writing [Philipps co-wrote the screenplay for Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory], but when I started off in this business, there wasn’t as much of an opportunity to be a multi-hyphenate. I wish I had had the foresight to create stuff for myself earlier, but it just didn’t occur to me that that was going to be an opportunity.”
Philipps’ no-holds-barred approach to social media extends to everything from how much she perspires at an exercise class (a lot, just like the rest of us), to how weak entertainment magazines are when they organize industry panels with a ratio of one woman to ten men (very). “Come on @Variety, how tone def [sic] can you be? ONE WOMAN??? Embarrassed for you,” she called out on Twitter last month.
“Acting is EXHAUSTING and heartbreaking and it doesn’t get easier for anyone. It’s always a f***ing STRUGGLE, you always feel like you’re beating your head against a WALL”
The gender imbalance is a regular peeve. When it comes to her E! show, Busy Tonight (the name’s a gift), she’s been careful to ensure plenty of women are joining her behind the scenes, and it was important, she says, that a female photographer (Autumn de Wilde) shot her for the cover of her book. “For so long, I wanted to be perceived as a cool girl,” says Philipps. “A girl who could take it and hang with the guys, and that usually meant being objectified, occasionally being bullied and having to be the one who is able to laugh off the joke at my own expense. I hit a point maybe four or five years ago after the birth of Cricks where I was like, ‘F*** this, I’m not doing it anymore.’”
The past year has seen Hollywood looking underneath a lot of rocks, attempting to bring to light buried injustices, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, says Philipps. “I had a crazy situation on a set not that long ago with an actor,” she illustrates. “It was just mind-boggling and the way everyone handled it was so ridiculous – no one did anything. It’s that guy code. My husband and I talk about it because he’s such a feminist and such a strong dude and I’ve asked him, ‘If you were working with a group of dudes and they were objectifying a woman, would you say something?’ He said he would, but I just don’t know.”
The relationship between Philipps and Silverstein is one of those you can’t help but feel warmed by; the mutual appreciation and acceptance is so clear to see. “I had my heart broken really badly in my twenties,” she says. “When I met Marc, we got along so well, I knew instantly that we were going to be together. I’m never skeptical when people get engaged or married really quickly because I feel like sometimes that thing just happens. Marc and I waited two years, but I probably would have married him immediately.”
“When I STARTED off in this business, there wasn’t as much of an OPPORTUNITY to be a multi-hyphenate. I wish I had had the foresight to CREATE stuff for myself earlier”
It’s almost time for Philipps to disappear, but we haven’t quite got past the stage where it’s not essential to ask which of her cult TV shows – Freaks and Geeks, Cougar Town and, of course, Dawson’s Creek – she thinks was the best. “Freaks and Geeks I think is ultimately the classic,” she replies. “And then probably Cougar Town. I never watched Dawson’s Creek. I didn’t watch it before I was on the show and I barely watched it after I was on the show, so I don’t have the same connection that other people have to it.”
It did, of course, give her a famously close and enduring friendship with Michelle Williams. “It’s so interesting that [our] friendship became basically mythological after that show,” she muses. “We had very few scenes together; Jen and Audrey were unlikely friends. But in the last season, sometimes they would give us scenes together, just to make us happy.”
A cashier held her to ransom recently, withholding her change until Philipps would agree to say that there would be a Dawson’s reunion. “I said, ‘OK, yeah sure. It’s not going to happen, but, yeah, go on then.’” She’s right – she’s going to be way too Busy for that.
A self-confessed skincare obsessive, Busy Philipps shares the face facts she swears by – and the one time things went very wrong…
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