When she was 21, Busy Philipps was cast in the fifth season of the seminal Nineties teen series Dawson’s Creek, playing Katie Holmes’s hedonistic college roommate. She brought much-needed vim to a flagging series, but behind the scenes came under scrutiny. The message from certain members of the crew was clear: she needed to change how she looked. She didn’t understand. On her previous series, Freaks and Geeks, another seminal if less soapy and fantastical teen series, she’d been asked to be nothing but herself. She and the rest of her cast mates – future stars such as Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini and James Franco – had been hired because of their pimples, their bodies and their perceived authenticity, not because they’d potentially look great in a Gap ad. There were occasional issues on set – Franco was a bully, she wrote in her 2018 memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little – but it was otherwise blissful.
“I was surrounded by creators who weren’t valuing the kinds of things that other showrunners and networks were pushing on young women at the time,” Philipps remembers today over Zoom, her sticky West Coast drawl only lightly obscured by the police sirens outside her Manhattan apartment. “And then I went into a [show] where it was like: oh, wait, my body’s not okay with you? My beauty marks are ugly? I have too many of them? You want me to change?”
The 42-year-old says that her “innate sense of self” prevented her from totally caving to the messaging of some of the show’s crew. What stuck, though, was that those things were asked of her at all. We’re talking about that time – the late Nineties and early Noughties – because of Philipps’s current series, a gloriously unhinged comedy called Girls5Eva. She plays one fifth of the fictional girl group of the title. One minute they were the most popular band of 2001, the next they’d released a single called “Quit Flying Planes at My Heart” a day before 9/11. Flash forward 20 years and one of the fivesome has perished in an infinity pool accident, while the other four are forgotten relics of Y2K nonsense. Naturally, they plot a comeback.
The show bears all the hallmarks of producer Tina Fey, in its rapid-fire dialogue, manic pop culture references and penchant for the bizarre (Philipps’s character Summer credits her outrageously tight new face not to a surgical thread lift but to “Japanese sweet potatoes and gratitude”; another band member – Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Wickie – is terrified that the celebrity foot fetish site Wikifeet has finally glimpsed her malformed right foot). But it’s also a show about the trauma of being a young woman during the new millennium. In recurring flashbacks, we see the band sexualised by a prurient press and coerced into inappropriate interviews, misogynist rivalries and endless self-loathing. “Looking back on that time as a Gen-X woman,” Philipps sighs, “no wonder we were all a mess!”
Philipps is marvellous on Girls5Eva, giving Summer an unsettlingly drowsy speaking pattern that brings to mind a helium balloon filled with vodka. She should be unbearable, but Philipps gives her a soul. That’s always been her gift as an actor, though. As Freaks and Geeks’s resident bully Kim Kelly, she’s a gum-smacking monster who’s mean to the show’s hero Lindsay (Cardellini). But it’s all a mask, a clever survival tactic to conceal deep insecurity and loneliness. You end up adoring her. Likewise her role as Courteney Cox’s boozy, wise bestie in the cult comedy Cougar Town. She’s so ingratiating in the role that it’s not even that weird when she runs off into the sunset with Cox’s college-age son.
All of that said, Philipps wasn’t sure if she wanted to act any more when Fey approached her for Girls5Eva in 2020. “I was just grossed out by Hollywood,” she laughs. “I failed to see the value in it. I’d been doing it for so long and I was sick of the feeling that it was giving me. Acting is my first love and it makes me so happy, but I had to say no to all the stuff in the industry that surrounds it. The unrealistic expectations of my appearance, my body, how that would make me feel…”.
I was so vulnerable to the industry. I wanted it so bad. I would cry at night longing for a chance to be on a TV show.
Those feelings coincided with her becoming a lot more famous for being Busy Philipps than for playing fictional characters. Long before every other celebrity started doing it, she transformed her Instagram account into a lucrative business. In 2017, she began promoting brands and products to her millions of followers – in the process earning far more money than as an actor – as well as sharing her day-to-day life on her Instagram Story. It’s not totally candid – days before our interview, she and her husband, screenwriter Marc Silverstein, announced that they’ve been privately separated for more than a year – but it’s at least a compelling illusion. In the run-up to speaking to her, I see her going for walks around New York, dancing in her office dressed in a Tori Amos T-shirt and listening to Haim, Sufjan Stevens and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack. She says playing herself is a natural extension of a time when she exclusively played others.
“One of my greatest gifts as an artist…” she begins, before breaking into a grimace. “Excuse me, I am so sorry I even said those words. But, like, as a person who creates things, it’s all about connection for me.”
When she was hired as an actor years ago, usually as the “third or fourth or seventh female character” in a project, she’d always try to find something in the part that felt real. “The trick was tying it to something that resonated with me, even if it was silly or over the top. So on my Instagram, I’m playing a version of myself, but it’s really important for me to always be truthful with it.”
I admit that, pre-Girls5Eva, I missed seeing her act, despite a presence in the media that felt near-constant at one point (a talk show; a memoir; on the red carpet with her BFF and one-time Dawson’s co-star Michelle Williams; gasping from the audience at the Academy Awards when La La Land briefly stole Moonlight’s Best Picture Oscar).
Her eyes widen. Not that I was sick of her, I add. “No, I understand!” she laughs. She says she was tagged in a stranger’s conversation on social media a few days ago. “This person was like: ‘Ugh, I used to follow her, but now she just annoys me – she’s too much.’ And I’m like, I get it! I wish I could unfollow myself sometimes, too, you know what I mean?”
Philipps is used to getting that kind of reaction. “I had a boyfriend once tell me I laughed too loud,” she says. “And then a guy friend who told me that people would think I was more beautiful if I was quieter.” She rolls her eyes.
Nicknamed Busy by a childhood babysitter – her birth name is Elizabeth – Philipps was always moving, strolling off, refusing to sit still. She gravitated towards acting from an early age, appearing in school plays and begging her parents to help her find an agent. By the time she moved to Los Angeles from her native Arizona in 1998, she was desperate for some kind of success. Freaks and Geeks, her very first job, proved to be a safe haven at a time that, in retrospect, left her wide open to exploitation. “I was so lucky to get that at 19,” she says. “Especially in that moment, I was so vulnerable to the industry. I wanted it so bad. I would cry at night longing for a chance to be on a TV show.”
While Philipps always worked – a run on ER here, a supporting role in the infamous race-swap comedy White Chicks there – it wasn’t until Instagram that she started making real money. Her success on the platform led to her memoir and a talk show, Busy Tonight, that ran for a year. She currently hosts a podcast with her writer friend Caissie St Onge, which swings wildly between ebullient froth and existential despair. Anger over pushback against abortion rights, trans rights and healthcare sits comfortably alongside chat about attending fancy parties and theorising about a Dawson’s Creek reboot.
That kind of whiplash has been on her mind lately. She admits that she nearly cancelled our interview, uncertain if she should be talking about a silly comedy days after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. “You have these moments where you’re like, I’m gonna go do what now? Promote a television show?” She shakes her head. “It’s like going from talking about Girls5Eva, which is such a light in my life, to having to hold my kid because they’re having a panic attack, and children are dying in a brutal way here due to the inaction of a small amount of people who are also systematically stripping the rights away from women and trans people, and it’s just complicated and so hard to know where to go and how to show up for these things.” She is breathless.
She still has a lot of the same struggles as when she bounced between Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek all those years ago. People often expect different things of her: a real Busy Philipps, and an idealised one. Social media, inevitably, has complicated that further.
“There’s the truth of me as a person, as an actor, as a mom and a wife,” she begins. “An ex-wife or whatever. A friend, an activist, a loudmouth… and then what that’s spun into. Those are two separate things. In a pop-culture sense, the idea of ‘Busy Philipps’ is, like, unabashedly honest and, like, ‘Let me tell you what it’s like!’ But I’m also a real person. And it’s hard sometimes to have to keep showing up in the same very truthful and honest ways.”
She plays with her necklace and stares off camera, before snapping back to face me.
“At this point, though,” she snorts, “like what the f*** have I got to lose?”
The first three episodes of ‘Girls5Eva’ season two arrive on Peacock, exclusively on Sky and NOW, on Monday 6 June, with further episodes dropping weekly