An Interview with Maggie Wheeler
Maggie Wheeler is an actor and voice-over artist. Maggie has appeared in many television shows including, Friends, Seinfeld, Ellen, Everybody Loves Raymond, Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Shameless, and How I Met Your Mother. She has also provided voice-over work for Archer, Silverhawks, and Justice League, and many many more. I spoke with Maggie about landing her first role, playing Janice on Friends, her voice-over work, working on Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond, and how she has been keeping herself busy during lockdown.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and how did you land your first role?
I think I was always drawn to the arts and to entertaining. I loved making people laugh from the time that I was very little. I did pursue opportunities in theater when I was in school and when I was pretty young. There was community theatre to do. I would always jump on and do that. I was in an after school theater company that did musical theater for children. Those were my high school years, I would go from school to rehearsal and we’d put shows on at the weekend. Then I went off to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco the summer that I turned 17. I had an incredible teacher there, Anna Deavere Smith, who is an extraordinary actress and playwright and it was such a gift to me that I landed in her classroom at such a young age.
I went back to New York City and I was studying with another teacher and I was walking down 57th Street and I ran into Anna. My recollection is that I literally got down on my knees and said, ‘can I please study with you?’ I had the great good fortune of studying privately with her for a while, probably when I was about 18 or 19, I don’t quite remember. I had a chance to do a couple of plays with her and she was really influential in the way that I work.
In terms of my first professional work I started out in radio. I found a manager when I was in high school and I was like a little optimistic super ball, I just kept bouncing myself against any closed door, going ‘let me in, let me in!’ I think that optimism really was my saving grace because it’s a long journey to have an acting career. There are just so many long deserts of nothingness. I have to say my optimistic nature was my friend and I ended up booking some work in radio, so that was my first professional work.
I worked as an extra in commercials and movies. I was so excited every time I got to be on a set. Whether I was up at 4 o’clock in the morning, sitting in a smelly bus waiting to sit in the background of a scene for 5 hours, to me it was just the most exciting thing. I kept after it and I think if you were to chart my story and try to figure out when the dam broke a little bit, I had an opportunity when I was in my 20s to audition for a sketch comedy show that was being directed by Lorne Michaels. It was a year that he took off of Saturday Night Live to do a prime time show. Somebody I knew was working for him and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning and I was so excited. I couldn’t believe I was going to have that opportunity and I said, ‘absolutely, yes, yes, yes.’ She said, ‘okay, you’ve got to do six minutes of original stand-up.’ At which point I locked myself in my bedroom and cried for about four days, thinking how am I going to do this?
I ended up writing six minutes of stand-up sort of based on characters that I knew, characters that I had come in contact with in my own life. I wrote a sketch, a conversation between Jacques Cousteau and Julia Child about sea bass. It was a crazy six minutes, but it got me the job and I ended up working on that show for the season that it ran. As a result of that I worked with some of the most extraordinary comedians, from Steve Martin to John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Gilda Radner. Kevin Kline was on that show, and Raul Julia. I was young and it was absolutely the most exciting time. For Lorne Michaels it was not such an exciting time, it was not received well by the critics, but for me it could not have been more thrilling. When that ended I moved to Los Angeles.
I thought now is the time I’d better get myself out there, now that I’ve got a little bit of momentum. So I lived out here for a year and I booked one job during that time. It was an episode of a show called The Paper Chase. I got a phone call from Lorne Michaels’ office toward the end of that time saying that there was a cartoon company that was interested in speaking with me. That cartoon company was Rankin/Bass and Rankin/Bass is famous for creating all the Stop Motion Christmas Specials. In the US we grew up on Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer Christmas specials and the abominable snowman and The Island of the Misfit Toys, all these incredible stop-motion, animation shows.
They offered me the opportunity to audition for the job if I was willing to fly myself back. I absolutely jumped on it and I went back to New York and I auditioned and I got the job. I ended up working for Rankin/Bass for several years in New York. That was again just really thrilling for me. I worked on a cartoon called The Silverhawks, that’s a little bit of a cult classic. I did several other cartoons for them. Then during that time I met Henry Jaglom, who’s an independent filmmaker and we made a movie together called New Year’s Day. When New Year’s Day premiered I came back out to Los Angeles. This time I thought only temporarily. The movie made a little bit of a splash and I ended up having the chance to go to the Venice Film Festival.
It’s such a crazy journey. If you took a map and you put little red pins in, you’d see these crazy stretches of time when I was not employed, trying to figure out how to rub two sticks together and make a fire. That movie taught me a lot and I was able to be on Johnny Carson. There were some real high moments around that time. Then after that my agent at the time dropped me because I didn’t book a job in a year’s time. I was sort of free-floating, but I had a wonderful young manager who stood by me during that period of time. At the end of that period I auditioned for Seinfeld. I don’t think it was the first time, I think I had auditioned for them before. I auditioned for this particular episode and I booked it. That turned out to be a great episode of Seinfeld. Larry David told me, when I worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm that it is considered among the top five episodes of the show.
As a result of that I was written into the first season of Ellen DeGeneres’ show, which was called These Friends of Mine when it started. I was summarily fired from that show toward the end of that first season and that was also an incredible learning experience for me. I survived and as a result of that I was really free. This terrible, sad awful thing had happened to me where I thought I’d never be able to show my face in a room again, actually the result was that it was very liberating. The next thing that happened shortly after that was that the Friends audition came across my fax machine. I felt really free on the day I went in to audition for that show and I read that character on page and I thought I know who she is. And that turned into ten years of work.
You portrayed Janice on Friends. What was it like being immersed into the world of Friends?
So many things proceeded it as I said, not the least of which was having been fired from a job and really having my confidence in my ability challenged. I think I was in one sense very free and feeling very strong about doing what I wanted to do, not trying to fit myself into an idea of what it was somebody else might be expecting. For myself as an actor, at that point I was very committed to doing what I felt was creatively right for me and that made me feel very strong. I’m fortunate in that I came onto that show at the very beginning, so although there was this rumbling and this sense that there was something extraordinary afoot, it hadn’t hit the public yet. They knew what they knew, but at the same time it hadn’t been proven, so it wasn’t the pressure cooker that it might have been if I’d shown up in year two. I showed up I think on the fourth episode of the show, or something like that. So it was a great time to land on that show.
I had worked with Marta and David before because I had done an episode of Dream On which was their show on HBO, so there was some familiarity there which was wonderful. I knew Jennifer Aniston, we were friends before that show began, so I had a familiar face and someone who knew me. So I felt very welcome and I’m fortunate in that regard because a lot of people describe doing guest spots on these kind of shows as very challenging and hard to find your footing. I think I had a couple of touchstones there that allowed me to feel very welcome.
You also portrayed Cynthia on Seinfeld on The Fix-Up Episode. What was your experience like working on the show?
I ran out to a little mall in Hollywood that was like a hooker’s store. I bought a white suit for very little money and I wore the white suit to that audition. I think it really helped me and I really felt like Cynthia in that suit. I was so excited when I got that job. Then I showed up on that set and it was a very well-oiled machine. I really had to take care of myself on that set. They were all busy, all producing, all writing together and eating together in the writers’ room. They were constantly tooling and re-tooling the show. Unlike other shows where people hang around and it’s lunch time, you can kind of find a spot to be or you’ve got a dressing room, I didn’t even have a dressing room on that show. I was just sitting around in the bleachers in the audience seats. When lunch came they all scattered and ran to the writers' room. I looked around, realized everyone was gone and found my way to the commissary and I had lunch.
What was really incredible about that show was that it reminded me how much I love comedy and it reminded me how much fun it was to be collaborating with people on a comedic project. I had spent the prior year stomping around saying, ‘take me seriously,’ and auditioning for drama and wanting people to know the depth and breadth of my acting ability. Showing up on that Seinfeld set, it was like a light bulb went off. I thought, “AH! This is why I wanted to do this in the first place because I love to make people laugh." It was fantastic and of course working with Larry David, working with Jerry and the whole cast was just extraordinary. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so brilliant and I felt really honoured to be with them.
Is there lots of pressure performing in front of a live audience?
I like performing in front of a live audience. I remember that Larry kept saying to me, ‘would you wait for the laugh!’ He was so mad at me because I wasn’t expecting some of the big bursts of laughter. I think it was probably the first live sitcom that I had done, and so I was a little hurried to keep the scene moving. He came over and said: ‘wait for the laugh!’ So it’s always a learning experience and certainly can be intimidating, and also a lot of fun.
You played Linda Greunfelder on Everybody Loves Raymond. What drew you to the role?
There is a story behind everything because there is nothing that comes up in this realm that doesn’t have some chapters behind it. In that circumstance I read the pilot for Everybody Loves Raymond and I fell head over heels in love with it. I was brought in to audition for the role of Deborah, Patty Heaton’s role of Ray’s wife. I was crazy about this role and I had a new baby. I think my older daughter might have been nine months or something like that, and I had a friend with me who was babysitting and was sitting in the waiting room with my daughter. I went in and I met Ray and Phil Rosenthal and I told them how brilliant I thought this pilot was and then we just had a fantastic time together, it was so much fun auditioning for that show. Phil and Ray were excited about the idea of hiring me, but there are a lot of politics involved in Hollywood and there were other people who were not excited about that idea. So then it became this interesting sort of push and pull and I did go to the network and I did read for the role, but it was already clear that I wasn’t going to get it. I did it because there were other things going on behind the scenes that made me feel very connected to Ray and to Phil. I wanted to show up and bring that to life in front of the network, for them and also for me.
It was a very interesting circumstance, not one I’d been in before, and not one I’ve been in since. As a result, Phil wrote me into the show and I had the chance to play Linda Greunfelder, and to hang out with Ray and Patty and the rest of the gang. We had a really great time. It was so much fun to work on that show and I loved every minute.
You also played a role on Archer. What are the biggest challenges you faced with voice-over work?
I really, really love doing voice-over. I love doing cartoon work. I imagined when I moved to Los Angeles that that’s how I would make my living because I had been making my living doing cartoons in New York. Again, the industry is different in various cities and Los Angeles is a very competitive market and there’s a lot of incredibly talented people out here doing voice-over work, so it was sort of a slower burn for me in that regard. I loved working on Archer.
Archer has its own story. I auditioned for Aisha Tyler’s role and they cast me and then the network said, ‘no she can’t play that role she’s a white woman and this character is black.’ That wasn’t clear when I auditioned. I was told that she was English with sort of a kind of tinge of Jamaican. Anyway that’s how I got introduced to those folks. I auditioned for that role and they actually gave it to me and then they took it way. Aisha was obviously the right person for the role, not me. But it was a wonderful introduction to the Archer family.
Regarding your question, what’s challenging about it... I find it just totally fun. It’s so freeing. I can play a 500 pound tree, or I can play a baby, or a rabbit, or I can play an old man. I have total freedom.
Is there room for a lot of improvisation, or is it very scripted?
It depends on the show. Some people will actually ask for it, but each animation job I’ve had has been different. When I worked for Rankin/Bass we used to do large table readings, and we also recorded together in a room. I did the same thing with Batman and some other shows where they bring all the actors together. For Archer I was alone in a studio, but I had everyone patched in in my headphones. It’s always a little bit different, but they’ll often leave time for improvisation, especially on Archer.
Would voice-over work be your preferred area to work in?
At this point I’d probably say yes. I would love to just be doing that work. I love to work on camera and in a live ensemble with people, but that work is scarce. I wouldn’t necessarily choose voice-over because on camera work is scarce, I would chose voice-over work because I really enjoy it.
I hate to cast a negative light on any opportunity I’ve had because I really love all of the mediums. They are all different and they all feed me in a different way as an actor. I landed in television and television embraced me. I’ve done less film, but I’ve really enjoyed the film that I’ve done. I don’t know what the future holds in that regard, I’m open. I’ve really enjoyed working in television. I raised a family during all of those years, so to work in comedy specifically, not in hour drama, although I did appear on several hour dramas as a guest those are very long hours, very unpredictable hours. You can be there until two or three in the morning and be back at four in the morning, it can be a lot.
When I worked on Californication I had a blast. That was so much fun. I loved every minute of that, but my children were older when that happened. When they were younger and I was doing a lot of sitcom, it really fit my life. It’s like an office job, essentially you know what your hours are going to be, except for show night which can be a long day and long night. It was quite predictable and it worked very well.
Even with series like Friends? Was it planned, or was it a last minute decision that you would be back on the show?
It was not planned at all. My first episode was an only episode. It was just one job, one day and one week, that’s it. How fortunate for me that they fell in love with the character and the chemistry between me and Matthew. That was so unexpected and such a gift, I was pregnant at the end of the first season, but I figured if there is going to be more it’s all over now and at the wrap party I went up to Marta and I said, ‘I have to tell you I’m three months pregnant. If you want to write in Chandler’s lovechild next season I’m all about it.’ That was that and I walked away and I thought I’ll never hear from them again.
When I was eight months pregnant they brought me back. My husband was in the audience and some woman leaned over and said, ‘oh my gosh that is so fake!’ He said, ‘it’s not fake it’s real. I think I know it’s real.’ How much do I love those writers and producers and creators for deciding to bring me back on the show eight months pregnant! That was pretty fantastic.
Is there any character throughout your career that you would say is most like you?
The Jaglom film, New Year’s Day. Henry Jaglom works in a largely improvisational way and he definitely extrapolates from the real stories of his actors. Then it gets thrown in a mixing bowl with a lot of elements and lot of story points that come from his imagination and so that movie is kind of a hybrid. There is a lot of my truth in that movie. So I would say that character probably, certainly. I was working from a lot of truth and telling a lot of stories that were actually my stories, mixed in with situations that were completely fabricated. There’s a lot of honesty in that character.
What has the situation been like during lockdown, have you been working on anything?
I will say this, for all these years that I’ve been an actor, I’ve also been a song leader. Somebody who gathers people together to sing. When I moved to Los Angeles, I started gathering people once a month. My husband is a visual artist and his gallerist offered me her space. So for many years, once a month I would gather people in the gallery and I would sing with them. I stopped for a while when I had my kids and then, when 9/11 happened people really reached out and said, ’we need to sing.’ So I started that work again. When my kids were ten and six I decided to take a few days off from mothering and I went to Canada to a place called Hollyhock, a retreat center. My teacher and mentor in this work, her name is Ysaye Barnwell. She was bass singer for a group called Sweet Honey in the Rock for many years.
My decision to take a minute away from hands on parenting was to go and be back in her classroom and back singing. I met some people there from Canada who said to me, ‘the people who run our choir have this training called the Community Choir Leadership Training and you should come.’ I said at the time thank you but this is the first time I’ve taken a break from my kids in ten years, it will probably be another ten before I do it again. On the day I was getting ready to leave a woman named Gloria came up to me and said,’ I just want to share with you this quote, by Balzac. I really should have this on hand, but what I heard and what she said was, ‘for those who don’t follow their soul’s vocation, it just bleeds like the colors of the paint through the rest of their lives.’ That was the message. I came back to LA and thought maybe I have to go do this training. So I did. I went to Canada and took this choir leadership training. It was there that I had this vision of creating a choir that was family friendly, and that had art supplies for kids, no one had to force anybody to do anything, but they could be there and make art.
I did that and the same woman who tapped me with the Balzac quote said to me: ‘there is gentleman in Los Angeles. I think you should call him, I think you’ll love him. He did the first year of this training. His name is Emile Hassan Dyer.’ I called him and said, ‘do you want to work with me?’ And we started the choir together 15 years ago, it’s called the Golden Bridge Choir. So for 15 years, along with everything else, I’ve been running this choir.
So when the shutdown happened I had to move the choir online and I also started a large, what has now become an international online gathering called Together in Song that happens every Saturday. I have hundreds of people coming from all over the world and three guest song leaders every week. So that’s how I’m working in this time. I’m very fortunate that I have this work that involves other humans and that I’ve been able to start Together in Song, now 20 weeks ago. It has turned into quite a beautiful thing.