I sat down with the hilarious and delightful Retta, best known as Donna from Parks and Recreation, outside of Red Rock, her favorite Hollywood haunt on the Sunset Strip. Retta is a Rett-gular at Red Rock and her adult beverage of choice is “The Purple Press”, aka “The Retta.” Retta is the Queen of the Rock and the regulars all stop over to kiss the ring and pay their respects. We gabbed about how she became a stand-up comic, why she rocks only one name and the effect her catchphrase “Treat Yo’ Self” has on her fans.
You started working on Parks and Recreation a couple episodes in right?
No, I’ve been in from the beginning.
Since the first episode?
I didn’t have dialogue but I was in it.
Okay. So how did it go? Did they just toss you a line one day and you knocked it out of the park so they kept giving you more and more? What was the process?
The way casting pitched the character to my manager was that the characters Donna Meagle and Jerry Gergich would start out as background (glorified extras) and then it would likely go the way of The Office where the lesser characters in the beginning will get story lines later as the series goes. It was posited that if I took the role, there was a good chance I’d be a series regular.
Did you believe that? Or were you thinking it was a roll of the dice?
I honestly didn’t care because at the time, I was doing the road and I didn’t really want to be doing the road so much. So this gave me the opportunity to stay in town. To be on a set. To essentially learn how a series works. Because I’d only done guest spots on shows at this point. Three days here and there. So this gave me the chance to be on set and learn how a show really works.
So did you have it in your mind that when you did get dialogue, you were really going to make it count and go for it?
No, I think one of the things I learned in my acting class was that if you have one line you have one line. Don’t try and get your Emmy award on that line. I didn’t want to do too much and have them go…oooffff.
Ha! Did you and Jim’s character Jerry have the same trajectory in terms of the way the characters unfolded?
No, I think they found Jim’s character Jerry’s “thing” a lot earlier than my thing. Jerry was the butt of the jokes. He was the schlemiel and the schlimazel. He had gotten his “Jerry-centric” episode where he dropped the burrito in the park in the end of season two, beginning of season three. The first time I had a good bit of dialogues was during Andy and April’s wedding. Ann (Rashida Jones) wasn’t at the wedding so they put me in the story with her. That was the first time where people got to see that Donna was a bit of a man-eater. She likes her drink and her boys. She was trying to teach Ann how to work the scene. The next story I had was “Treat Yo Self” in season 4.
That’s a significant amount of time between story-lines.
Well, I still had lines and was part of group things, but not specific Donna story-lines.
Who is Donna?
Donna is a self-assured woman, betting she’s a Leo who does not suffer fools and is so much more confident in herself than I am. I pretend to be that confident but Donna really is. She knows what she wants, she knows that she can get it and when she’s ready to get it – she does.
How much do you think your comedy has influenced the character? Have the writers seen your stand-up?
Um, they may have searched it online, but I’m not sure that they have. A lot of people ask if they incorporate stuff they know about me. The only thing I can say is that I know I say, “He can get it” all the time so I don’t know if they got that from me. I don’t spend a lot of time with the writers outside of seeing them in the production office or on set but we do have opportunities to chat.
Well every time you open your mouth you get laughs so the character had no choice but to keep growing. In a way you’ve really earned your role.
Well, I take this job as such a blessing. I can’t complain, I love the people I work with. For the longest, I didn’t like looking at the camera because it felt unprofessional. But I really watched how John Krazinski played his character on The Office. And I loved how when he looked to the camera it really gave his character depth and let us, as the audience, understand him more. Since, I wasn’t getting lines I took the opportunity to just react to things. I wanted the audience to know I was a real character.
And I’m assuming these asides are not written into the script.
Oh no. Every once in a while they’ll script something for Amy. Instead of having her say something, they’ll script her looking at the camera. But it’s very rare. And it’s crazy because sometimes I’ll look at the camera but the camera isn’t looking at me.
Hahhahahhahahahaha! That’s hysterical.
But now because I do make faces, especially if a director like Dean (Holland) who is also our editor, catches me making a face in the background in a wide shot, he’ll specifically say to the camera guy, “After this line catch Donna’s face.” And hopefully I’ll be making the face again.
So you’re improvising these looks. Are you doing a lot of improvisation because I know that was something you used to not be comfortable with.
I feel a LOT more comfortable improvising now, season 5, than I did the first season. I’ve spent the last five years watching really good improvisors. I’ve learned a lot and I feel a lot more comfortable doing it. They don’t always get the improv stuff in the final product because, especially with our cast… it’s filthy. We do our “fun run”, which is the last run and it’s insane and every now and again something from the “fun run” will get in. One of my favorite improved jokes is from Amy. She was playing drunk and she said, “I’m fart and I’m smunny and I’m totally winning at pizza throwing.”
That’s great. Have you gotten any improvised jokes in?
I didn’t even realize it but in the episode with the water balloon fight, Ann Perkins looks at me and says, “Donna, any ideas?” and I said, “Do I look like I drink water?”
Nice! Who is cracking you up on set of Parks and Recreation?
My set husband is Jim O’Heir and he does a lot of clowning. Chris Pratt makes me laugh all the time. Adam Scott is very deadpan and I never know if he’s telling the truth – he cracks me up. I love to hear Nick Offerman laugh because he has the most hilarious giggle for a man with a mustache and a pompadour. I love when Chris makes Nick laugh because Nick is pretty good with that serious face.
I think Nick Offerman is sexy. Is he?
Not to me (laughs), but a lot of people think so. Nick’s like a brother to me. The man farts on set with his serious face and says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
Amy Poehler is so wonderful on the show. I’m in love with her ‘Smart Girls at the Party’ series. What is it like to work for her?
Well, Mike Schur is the boss, but we call Amy our fearless leader. I think whoever the lead of the show is dictates what the set is like. Amy is always planning nights out for us. She’s just so cool, she’s not a diva. English directors when they come in want to do tons and tons of takes. And I can tell she wants to wrap it up but she just says “sure” because she wants them to be comfortable. I have only seen her once say, “I think we got it.” And that’s a big deal because leads of a show get people fired. I’ve heard crazy things that go on at other shows and their leads.
You’re a really good writer. Do you have any scripts you’re working on?
I have the Fellas, which is a cast of all guys. It’s the pilot episode of a show about three friends from high school and their relationships. It starts with them crashing their rival high school’s ten-year reunion.
Have you pitched it?
I haven’t because my manager wants me to write myself into it. I just want to sell it, keep my name on it as the creator and then they can do whatever they want.
Have your fans done anything wild or funny?
“Treat Yo’ Self” is very popular, so I see a lot of drawings and sketches and cupcakes. One girl did ‘Treat Yo Self’ nails.
HelloGiggles readers love a good nail moment. I love that! That’s really fun.
I know – crazy, right?!
You went to Duke. What did you study?
I was a sociology major, pre-med.
What were you planning on doing?
(laughs) I had the high hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon.
So why didn’t that happen?
I decided to take a year off before medical school and I was afraid that if I was away from school my head wouldn’t be into science. So I worked as a contract chemist for Glaxo Pharmaceuticals (currently GlaxoSmithKlein) but during that time I decided that I wanted to perform.
Do tell how you went from being a contract chemist to being a stand-up comic?
I was living by myself for the first time so I used to talk to the TV a lot. I would watch “Central Park West” and I thought… I can do this. This isn’t hard. I talked to a friend of mine who was in medical school at Duke at the time and I told her that I wanted to pursue acting. I said, “I’d love to have my own sitcom.” And she suggested I do stand-up. She goes, “Don’t all stand-ups get their own show?” and I was like, “Yeah, all those stand-ups get their own shows.”
I think it’s fair to say that your family worked hard to get you into Duke. How did they feel about this new plan?
The new plan. Well, my dad’s very easy going, his big thing was health insurance. That’s what used to stress him out. If I told him I was going to be a phone sex operator he would have said, “What are the benefits like?” When I told my mom I was thinking of moving to California she said, “Well, if you’re going to do it, do it. Don’t half-ass it. You’re carrying around your father’s name.”
Is that why you dropped the Sirleaf and just rock the Retta?
No! I dropped the last name because when I first did an open mic the MC was like, “Who’s next?” and I go, “I am.” And he said, “What’s your name?” “Marietta Sirleaf.” He was like…”What?!” And I just said, “Ugh. Retta.”
It’s like Cher or Madonna. It works! Are your parents super excited about all that’s happening for you?
It’s not that they’re non-plussed, but I feel like as long as their kids are happy, they’re good. My mom doesn’t know how to work the TiVo but I think she’s seen an episode or two. But if I was on Lifetime, she would know every single thing I did. She is good for some Lifetime. With my dad, once I got my insurance, he was straight. But he definitely watches the show.
Gotta shout out your brother George. I follow him on Instagram and he’s hilarious. He’s obsessed with all things sneakers.
He is obsessed with sneakers. He is a sneaker-head. He is a huge sneaker-head. There is a section of the world who is obsessed with sneakers. He’s also obsessed with catching people sleeping in public. He likes taking pictures of people sleeping in public and taking pictures of himself with the person who’s sleeping in public.
I appreciate that. He’s doing the lord’s work.
Are you looking for love these days? Where are you at?
I am. I’ve almost given up. I’m gonna try that trick where they say “I stopped looking and then I found him!” So, I’m aggressively not looking.
Well, if we had to put it out to the universe…if you wanted folks on the lookout for you…what are we looking for?
Someone funny. Someone smart, not necessarily book smart but a thinker. Someone preferably my height or taller, I’m 5‘8″.
Is he in the entertainment business?
I just want someone who’s passionate about what they do.
Now that you’re not doing the road, you can actually have a relationship.
I just feel like I haven’t had any real opportunities but I feel like I would work to make something work. I’d also like someone who is active but they can’t expect me to be active. I have a bad back and bad knees. You go for your hike but I’m going to the pool and walk in the water. I like to go out to eat so don’t expect me to cook. I’m big on take-out and restaurants.
So maybe he needs to cook to?
That would be great. I used to date a guy who was the head chef at Mimosa.
Has Aziz brought Kanye onto set?
I feel like you got your Twitter game got real strong all of a sudden.
I got it real tight.
I believe The Huffington Post said you were the best person to follow or something along those lines. When did all this happen? It seemed like you went from a eight hundred followers to seventy thousand in like a week.
I was watching Breaking Bad in my trailer in between scenes and it was freaking me out. I was tweeting my anxieties about the show and people were walking me through it. Then Showtime PR was following me and sent me Homeland. I watched the first season in a day or two and I was tweeting like crazy due to stress and anxiety. People were re-experiencing the show through me because they already experienced it. I get a lot of requests to watch shows. People also ask me to “live-tweet” their lives.
I wouldn’t mind that. I wouldn’t mind that at all.
Do yourself a favor and follow Retta on Twitter (if you’re not already): @unfoRETTAble
Photo Credit: Koury Angelo