For the longest time, the biggest question about FOX's “The Last Man on Earth” was how literally we should take the title. Would Will Forte's title character be the last human on earth after a virus wiped out everyone else, or simply the last male of the species?
Last night's hour-long premiere gave us our answer in the form of Kristen Schaal as Carol, a fellow survivor who responded to post-apocalyptic life very differently from Forte's Phil. FOX tried to keep Schaal's presence on the show, and the nature of her role, largely under wraps, which meant Schaal had to lie to many of her friends about what she's been working on for the last year.
(Also, for what it's worth, I agree with Fienberg about how good “Last Man” is.)
Schaal and I spoke on Friday, as she prepared to finally come out of the closet as the apparent last woman on earth.
What's it been like, having this job for a while and having to keep it a secret from everyone?
Kristen Schaal: It's been a dream come true. I love it! I prefer it! There's something really fun about having a special project that I'm working on that nobody knows about. It's really cool. Having a job in general is such a privilege, but sometimes when people ask you what you're doing, it can kind of feel like bragging. So I got to avoid that.
So what would you tell people about what you were up to?
Kristen Schaal: I would tell them the truth, which is that I'm working on “Bob's Burgers” and “Gravity Falls,” because I was still recording those shows whenever I got time off from “Last Man.” But it was fun, because I'd be like, “Yeah, I'm doing my voiceover stuff,” but I never told anybody about the big show.
How did this come about, and how early did they impress upon you the importance of keeping your existence on it a secret?
Kristen Schaal: I found out that I was going to do it a year ago. And I told a lot of people – at least my close friends and my family. And then a couple months went by, and my agent and lawyer went, “Alright, the deal's closed, and you're on the show. Oh, and they also want you to keep it a secret.” And I was like, “WHAT?!?! I told a bunch of friends a couple of months ago!” They're like, “Well, did you tell journalists?” And I said no, and they said, “You're all good.” And I had to keep it a secret for a year.
Did the friend you initially told about it bring it up again later, or did they just assume you weren't doing it anymore?
Kristen Schaal: (laughs) I think they forgot about it.
A lot of this project has been shrouded in mystery beyond your involvement. How much did Will have written when you first came in to talk about doing it, and what made you want to be involved?
Kristen Schaal: He had the first and second episode written, and they're pretty close to the actual ones that we shot. I was on board from the minute it was Will Forte asking me to do a show with him. He's so incredible. He's one of my favorite performers and actors and comedians. But it's also sort of surreal, the whole thing. I got to read the pilot, and it's like what everybody's saying: it's beautiful and funny, and at the same time, it's just something so unique. It's so refreshing. You just haven't seen it, and I was excited to do it.
What did you make of Carol when you first read that script?
Kristen Schaal: It was tough, because I would like to think that I'm not a lot like Carol – that I'm more like Phil than a Carol. So I was a little bit worried about people liking her. That was my original thing: “Oh no, is she likable?” And then I realized she is 100 percent likable. You're just so in the world of Phil that I just wanted to make sure that people would accept her in the world, too. And then I realized her personality in a lot of ways makes just as much sense as the way Phil's dealing with the situation. And I realized there are so many people I know like her, and it took me a couple of months of sitting with her before it clicked over to me how real she is, and what to do with her. She wants to get married so bad, and I was wrestling with that so bad: “What is that? Who wants that?” And then it hit me, “Oh, your mom would want that. All the people you grew up with would want that.” And then I never looked back on who Carol was.
One other thing I want to say about Carol being likable, that Will brought up to me that I really valued: I was worried she wouldn't be likable, but he told me that his goal is to make the audience go back and forth between who they like, which I think is such a good idea, and so much fun.
Like you say, we're so in Phil's perspective early on. And on the one hand, it's sad that he thinks he's the last person on earth, but on the other, he's been having this ultimate bachelor hedonism experience in a weird way. And then Carol comes along and tells him, “You can't s— in the pool, and you can't do this and you can't do that.”
Kristen Schaal: I think Phil was making do the best he could, and on some level he was proud of it, and to have someone come in and judge how he was dealing with this overwhelming circumstance is a big bummer. But also, it needed to be said. It didn't lead him down a very good place. (laughs)
How did you feel about the gag where Phil first imagines seeing a different woman before he fully wakes up and sees that it's you?
Kristen Schaal: (laughs) Why not? Keep 'em guessing. I thought it was good to show, again, where Phil's state of mind is, and she looked similar to the mannequin he was crushing on all that time.
I don't know if it comes up later in the season, but do you have any sense of what Carol's experience the last two years was like, or have you thought up some ideas on your own?
Kristen Schaal: No, that hasn't come up, and I've been imagining it a lot. In fact, I would love to see it, too, if there was any chance to get more seasons or another go at it. I would love to just show her backstory and what she did by herself, just a little bit. It's already fascinating to watch Phil's journey, but then someone like Carol, what did she do when she was by herself? There was one early early version of the second episode script where she talked about visiting all the famous landmarks, only she went to the Softball Hall of Fame instead of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a quilting museum – just really offbeat, very Carol places.
What was the experience like filming on location and trying to create the illusion that the world consists of just the two of you?
Kristen Schaal: I have a trained ear now for airplanes, and I can tell you there are a lot of airplanes in the sky. I don't think we ever did one single scene, or take, where we didn't have to pause halfway through our dialogue because of planes becoming inevitable for sound. It got to the point where we would both be in the scene, and be really in it, and then whoever had the line would stop talking and we would just stare at each other. It just became part of it, part of the work, and as soon as it was gone, we would have to pick right back up. That was something I never thought about, and train noises, and car noises, and just the desperate need for silence was a big part of doing the show.
And when you were filming on the soundstage, were any unusual precautions taken, or did it feel about the same as any other time you shoot in a studio?
Kristen Schaal: It was about the same. You could hear a train. For some reason, the studio is right by a train track. Around five o'clock, the train really started to toot its horn. But being in the soundstage felt like, “Oh, we might be able to do a whole scene without stopping tonight.”
Finally, this story's going to run the day after the premiere, but I've seen the next episode, which has (REDACTED). How does it feel, still having things you have to keep secret, even though you can at least finally say you're on the show?
Kristen Schaal: Oh, great. This show's got a treasure chest of secrets. So if you liked one…!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org