Busy Philipps was pulling up her Spanx in a private dining room in Midtown, New York, when we met on an October afternoon. “Are we in a Goodfellas movie?” she asked, using an expletive and laughing as she took in the ostentatiously luxe cherry-wood-walled space. “What is about to happen?”
She was about halfway through a frenetic day of publicity, having knocked out an appearance on Good Morning America to promote her candid new memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little.
The book is a freewheeling tour through Philipps’ career, relationships and on-and-off-again stardom. Though she began writing it before the #MeToo movement took off last year, it has already generated some related headlines. One old story resurrected was her account of James Franco being rough with her on the set of Freaks and Geeks.
The book’s release is just part of what was the biggest month (October) of Philipps’s career so far. She also had her debut on Busy Tonight, her new talk show produced by Tina Fey, pairing the usual topical comedy and nightly guests with the charmingly unfiltered perspective that has turned Philipps into a social media powerhouse.
She was an early adopter of Instagram Stories. The unvarnished glimpses of her workouts, private moments with her screenwriter husband Marc Silverstein, and with her daughters Birdie and Cricket, and more general shenanigans (her Lindsay Lohan Mykonos dance impression) have transformed her into a bona fide “influencer” with more than 1.3 million followers. Those numbers led to the book and TV deals.
Philipps, 39, is a case study for her own “sparkly human” theory – something she invented a few years ago. It refers to someone who isn’t necessarily the most famous, but radiates self-confidence in a way that the world opens up to them.
Since landing her first major role as the tough “freak” Kim Kelly on Freaks and Geeks, she has cycled through Hollywood highs (a six-year run on Cougar Town) and lows (during the housing crash when she was unemployed and so indebted that she auditioned for Glee one week after giving birth). But she has never stopped willing her way through the industry.
She persuaded the American craft store chain Michaels to invent a spokeswoman position for her because she was such a fan. When her male co-stars started directing episodes of Cougar Town, she did the same out of principle. And when TV opportunities dried up despite her award-winning résumé, which includes Dawson’s Creek and ER, she created the equivalent of her own personal sitcom on Instagram.
“When you live truly and when you speak your truth, only positive things will happen,” she says, citing Oprah Winfrey as an inspiration. “When I started doing that, everything kind of shifted in my life.”
She’s been less thrilled by how many websites latched on to a Freaks and Geeks anecdote from the book, in which her co-star Franco shoved her to the ground on the set in response to her hitting him at the director’s request. Philipps has shared the story over the years but the memoir gave it new life online. When I brought it up, she sighed.
“I feel like this kind of celebrity click-bait takes away from how good my book is, how hard I worked on it and what I’m actually trying to say,” she says, using another expletive in a conversation sprinkled with them. “James and I are fine. I’m fine about that situation.” (Franco’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I saw Judd [Apatow, the show’s creator] the other night, and he did not care that I wrote about it, because we’ve talked about it over the years,” she added. “And I said, ‘Guess what? That situation would be for sure handled differently today on a set like that, and maybe that would’ve been beneficial to everyone involved, not just me.’” (Apatow also declined to comment.)
When I asked Philipps about the sexual misconduct allegations that have surfaced about Franco in the past year, she responded with uncertainty and resigned exhaustion. “In the last year I have not been surprised by anything,” she says. He has denied the accusations.
On 27 September – as Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and presented, in heart-wrenching detail, her accusation that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers – Philipps posted a teenage photo of herself on Instagram. “This is me at 14. The age I was raped,” she wrote.
It was the first time she had shared the story publicly – she posted it then because she felt a responsibility to help women realise that they don’t need to carry their trauma alone. “When I think about these dudes that get off scot-free, I’m like, ‘Go live your life, dude who raped me when I was 14,’” she says, tearing up. “I still have problems with sex. I’m 39 years old.”
The bulk of This Will Only Hurt a Little reflects on previously untold stories of her Hollywood career, friendships and toxic situations.
Readers will also learn about, among other things, the night the actor Chad Michael Murray held her hand on the floor of a bar after she had drunkenly injured her knee; the disheartening time she posed for a Maxim cover to help her acting career; the day, in 2008, she flew across the country to be with her best friend, Michelle Williams, after Heath Ledger, the father of Williams’ daughter, died of an overdose. At times she revisits grudges, as when asserting that she co-wrote the film Blades of Glory with her childhood friends Craig and Jeff Cox, only to see her name removed from the script when it was sold. (She eventually received a story credit. “We don’t have any comment but wish Busy lots of success with her book and Busy Tonight,” Jeff Cox wrote in an email in response to a request for comment.)
Such frustrations, failed pilots and other false starts ultimately convinced Philipps to focus on building a brand around being unabashedly herself.
“Years ago, people had floated the idea of me doing a talk show, and I always sort of railed against it because I felt like I’m an actor, and that’s what I love,” she says. But at some point, she says, “you have to lean into” what you’re good at. “Not that I’m not good at acting. I think I am, but it’s just so hard to do.”
Philipps’ personality is what persuaded Fey, whose production company Little Stranger cast Philipps in an ultimately unsuccessful pilot last year, to produce Busy Tonight.
Busy is “so warm and instantly likeable and refreshing when you talk to her,” Fey said. “I always sort of gravitate toward things that I myself would be interested in as a viewer. I felt like her presence is funny, natural and positive in a way – she’s not shying away from talking about difficult things in her life, or in the world.”
The show, which has a 13-week order, will air four nights a week. It was originally slated for once a week, but Philipps persuaded the network otherwise.
Fey said, “I thought it was a good sign that they had the right amount of confidence in her, that they were listening to her, and that she had that much confidence in herself.” She noted that male late-night hosts were not limited to one night a week. So far Philipps’s guest list includes Julia Roberts, Mindy Kaling and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
Despite her successes, Philipps remains grounded by the fact that she’s “well aware of how it all works and goes down”. But she’s found comfort in how her authenticity has resonated with people.
“I’ve just been around for so long, seeing so many people that are having their big moments that are so quickly not a big moment at all,” she says. But, she adds, “it’s really flattering that people have responded so strongly to me, Busy Philipps, as opposed to a character”.
New York Times ©