The Tony-nominated actress-filmmaker explains how being out of sync with her peer group served as inspiration for her latest acting vehicle, Friends with Kids, the new comedy which she also wrote, directed and produced.
Actress-filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt
Tavis: Jennifer Westfeldt is a Tony-nominated actress whose previous films include “Kissing Jessica Stein,” a project that she also co-wrote, and her latest film is called “Friends with Kids,” the movie she stars not just in but also wrote and directed.
It’s opening around the country March 9th, and so here now a scene from “Friends with Kids.”
Tavis: (Laughs) That was funny.
Jennifer Westfeldt: Thank you. (Laughter)
Tavis: So how many other ways could you have offended your friends trying to explain your point?
Westfeldt: I know, right? Oh, god.
Tavis: The idea for this project came from where?
Westfeldt: Well, it really just came from observing so many friends and people in our lives making that transition to becoming parents. Jon and I don’t have kids yet, we’re childless. We have a dog who feels like a child. But really, just being out of sync with your peer group and watching them make that really game-changing, profound transition and being on the outside of it and sort of observing how different people handle it and how different people make that big shift in their lives.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated how you can take what our real-life issues and real-life circumstances and consequences in the lives of real people and find the comedy in that.
So these are very real issues that people have. The romance goes out and all the things we just saw in that clip. But how you find the comedy in that, how you find the humor in that, is always fascinating for me.
Westfeldt: Mm-hmm. Well, I think life is full of the funny and the sad and everything in between, and in the film I’m hoping that it’s relatable above all else. I think there’s always comedy and drama in every moment in life, really.
Tavis: Before I go forward, I should mention when Jennifer says “Jon -” I love how these names just get – (laughter) Jon, of course, is Jon Hamm, for those who don’t know, one of my favorite characters in – there he is. I knew there’d be a photo coming up fast. Jon Hamm from “Mad Men” is her longtime beau, and again, they have a dog, as she said earlier. How is Jon doing, by the way?
Westfeldt: He’s great, thank you so much.
Tavis: Give him my regards.
Westfeldt: I will.
Tavis: He’s been here before, so now if we get the dog on -
Westfeldt: It’ll -
Tavis: The whole family would have come through.
Westfeldt: – come full circle, exactly. We’ll work on that.
Tavis: We’ve got to book the dog, Neil.
Westfeldt: She’s tough to get, though.
Tavis: Let’s complete the circle here.
Westfeldt: She’s hard to get. (Laughter)
Tavis: So this is written and directed – is this your first time directing?
Westfeldt: It is, it’s my directorial debut.
Tavis: Yeah, so how was it?
Westfeldt: It was a challenge. It was overwhelming but exciting. We shot a year ago. We wrapped the movie a year ago this month in the worst winter in New York in over 40 years, (laughter) so to shoot an independent film in 25 days in the dead of winter with babies and toddlers pretty much every day on set was – I’ve got to have a couple of screws loose, I guess, to have taken this on.
Tavis: I was talking to somebody one day and it was their directorial debut and they asked Spielberg for advice, and he told him, on your first film, “No kids -”
Westfeldt: No animals, yeah. Yeah, I have both on this.
Tavis: And you just violated the kids and animals.
Westfeldt: Yeah, I just stacked the decks against me in every possible -
Tavis: Why do that on your first project?
Westfeldt: I hadn’t actually intended to direct it. We were speaking to several directors and indie film is crazy. There’s always just one magic moment where it looks like the whole cast can come together. If you find that four weeks or that one period of time, you have to just go for it.
So the only way we could get the movie made at that point and not lose our great cast was for me to step in and direct it, so I did.
We had an amazing group of producing partners on it to sort of support the effort, and my DP was such a wonderful partner and sort of helped fill in my gaps and helped me prepare.
It was a steep learning curve, but I feel like it only became possible because of the people we had around us to support it.
Tavis: So you want to do this again now, or never again?
Westfeldt: I don’t know. Not soon, but maybe in a few years. (Laughter)
Tavis: The cast of every project is important. As I got a chance to flip through this, though, it seems like this is pretty well cast.
Westfeldt: Oh, thank you. Well, we were so, so fortunate to get this group of actors. It’s really a dream cast and the fact that they all wanted to do this tiny film and do it in the dead of winter in New York; it’s not a cushy job, right?
So everyone sort of shows up because they’re interested in the project, which is a really nice and pure way to work. So we just were blessed, and we knew some of the people.
Adam Scott, who plays my sort of partner in crime in the movie, has been a friend for about 15 years of mine and Jon’s so there was some built-in history and chemistry which is great, and some of the other actors have also worked together before – Maya Rudolph, Kristin Wiig, Chris O’Dowd. They just worked together on “Bridesmaids,” which was an amazing coincidence.
Eddie Burns was best friends with our DP. So there were a lot of, like -
Tavis: You called in all the favors. (Laughter)
Westfeldt: – familial aspects to it, which was really great because when you don’t have a lot of time and you’re playing a group of friends with a lot of history, it’s wonderful to just have some built-in history among the cast.
Tavis: So how paranoid now are the friends of you and Jon, trying to watch this and figure out who’s who and what statements are you making about what friends? So all your friends are paranoid now?
Westfeldt: No. Well, it’s funny – Adam Scott is one of our friends with kids, so he actually came over to read the script the very first day I finished the first draft. We had actors over to read it around our dining room table, and it was literally coming out of the printer and I’m highlighting and Jon’s, like, pouring wine for people.
We had no idea how it would come off or what would happen, and I was nervous because Adam has two kids and he’s one of our friends who sort of disappeared when he had children for a while, and we were like, “Where are you? What’s happened?”
Anyway, it was exciting. It was exciting just sort of here for my friends with kids, I sort of canvassed them at every stage of this journey to ask them, “Did you find it truthful? Is it offensive? Is it relatable? Talk to me.” That really informed both the writing and the rewriting process, but also the shoot, the edit.
I would basically make sure that all my friends with kids kind of watched and weighed in and gave me feedback along the way, which was really helpful.
Tavis: I don’t want to get too far in front of the film for those who haven’t seen it yet, but since we’re talking about it, give me a couple of the advantages and a couple of disadvantages of being friends with kids that we explore in the project.
Westfeldt: Obviously, we’re trying to look at the highs and lows and the comic elements as well in the film. But basically, at the outset of the movie my character and Adam’s character, Jason and Julie, we’re sort of the last childless singles in our friend group, and we’re sort of observing the toll that becoming parents has taken on the romantic relationships in particular among our friends.
So we’ve seen them all move to Brooklyn and out of Manhattan, and early on the film it’s Jason’s birthday and we basically have to bring all the food and the wine and the cake, and I’m the only person who’s brought him a gift, and go to their home in Brooklyn, and they’re not ready for us, and the kids are running around screaming and they’re screaming at each other and no one’s brought him a gift.
It’s just trying to sort of comically show that strain and that stress of the first year of being new parents. That there’s no time for anything and your friends have to kind of seek you out, and you may or may not have time for them. It’s trying to just look at the reality of losing your friends for a bit when they first become parents, and missing that one-on-one time with them and wondering if they’re ever come back to you or if you’ll ever get to go out again to dinner or all that stuff that happens when people become parents.
Tavis: I’m not going to ask this question, but how many times have you been asked on this tour whether and when you and Jon are going to have kids?
Westfeldt: A lot.
Tavis: How many times have you been asked that?
Westfeldt: A lot. A lot, a lot, yes.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) I thought, so I won’t ask you that question.
Tavis: I figured that might have come up a few times.
Westfeldt: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: This is my word, not yours, although you may agree – how empowering was this for you as a screenwriter, as a director, but more importantly, as a woman doing all of that, having to do all of that?
I ask that because I know that this is true for all of us, men, women, it’s true for all of us that when you don’t find opportunities you have to create those opportunities.
I know you said you didn’t plan on doing this, but how empowering, now that you’ve done it, has the process been for you as a woman?
Westfeldt: It is empowering. I’ve done this twice before with my other films just as a writer and actor and producer, and this was the first time, obviously, that I also directed.
But with all three projects I think it’s been exciting and interesting for me to be a part of creating my own work and being a part of telling stories and being in stories that I can relate to, that have to do with our age range and what we’re dealing with and going through.
As an actor, you just wait to see what job you’re going to get, and you can’t pick and choose that much, so it’s an exciting thing to kind of create roles you want to play and tackle issues you want to tackle, and I think we’re seeing more and more of it.
The success that Kristen has had with “Bridesmaids” and Tina Fey with “30 Rock” and Lena Dunham with her new HBO show, and this Sundance there were six movies that were women writing for themselves, which is amazing.
Tavis: And a woman won for director – I’m blanking on the name, but it’ll come to me.
Tavis: I can see her face right now, but a woman, an African American woman, won for the first time as director at Sundance this year.
Westfeldt: Right, exactly.
Tavis: Which is a big deal.
Westfeldt: It’s exciting. It feels like there’s a real wave of women creating their own material, creating their own work to act in, to direct, to produce. That’s the only way things are going to change. We always hear the age-old complaint, there are no good roles for women, there are no stories geared to women.
We’re the only people who can change that, so I think it’s exciting that so many women and girls are doing that right now.
Tavis: It came to me – Ava DuVernay, that’s her name.
Westfeldt: Ah, that’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: Ava DuVernay is the name of the Black woman who became the first Black woman who ever won as director at Sundance this year, so congrats to her.
Westfeldt: It’s amazing.
Tavis: But anyway, back to you, though.
Tavis: The movie’s called “Friends with Kids.” Jennifer, good to have you on the program.
Westfeldt: Thank you.
Tavis: Congratulations. Come back anytime.
Westfeldt: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: Tell Jon I said hello.
Westfeldt: I will, thank you.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.