The Actors Of ‘Mascots’ Talk About The Art Of Improvising With Christopher Guest

After mockumenting the lives of passionate thespians in a community theatre, canine obsessives at a dog show, and the reunion of folk musicians, Christopher Guest has returned with a look at the people behind masks. In Mascotswhich recently premiered on Netflix, a crop of devoted mascots retreat to Anaheim for an annual competition to perform their mascoting skills. Leading up to the contest we learn from the competitors on what led them to cheering for teams while dressed up in elaborate suits.

As to be expected from a Guest movie, the mockumentary features Parker Posey as an avant garde armadillo, Fred Willard as Jack the Plumber, and Jane Lynch as former-mascot turned born-again-Christian and author who is there to judge them all. Guest has invited new blood into the fold as well, with Susan Yeagley playing Parker’s sister and fellow armadillo enthusiast, and Zach Woods and Susan Baker, married and mascoting while trying to convince themselves that their relationship, on the field and off, is working.

We met with Lynch, Willard, Yearly, and Baker to talk about improvising with Guest, the beauty of subcultures, and what to expect from Mascots.

Meeting Guest

Susan Yeagley, “Laci Babineaux”: I always told my manager, “The thing I want to do more than life itself is to be in a Christopher Guest movie.” And I got a call from my manager and said, “Well, what are you doing Tuesday at 2:15?” And I said, ‘Why?” “Well, Christopher Guest is doing a new movie and they need a Southern person to play Parker Posey’s sister.” “What? Oh my God!” I had been a fan for years and didn’t even know — how did you even get in one of his movies?

Sarah Baker, “Mindy Murray”: David Rubin, who cast [Mascots] and who cast a lot of the stuff he does, had called me about a year ago and said, “I know you don’t normally do commercials but I’m casting a commercial and Christopher Guest is going to direct, would you be interested in coming in to meet with him?” I got to meet with him then and I was super awkward. A thought a bunch of people would be coming into the room so I did that thing where I stood close to him thinking a bunch of people were filing in and then all the sudden the door closed and it was just the two of us and I was standing right next to him.

Fred Willard, “Greg Gammons, Jr.”: I had just watched him on Saturday Night doing this very effeminate character. He and Marty Short were in some movie and have this very funny scene where they’re gossiping and he said, “Fred, I’m doing this movie. I’d like you to be in it, would you come down and talk to me?” So I walked into his office and out of nervousness I started talking about the character I had just seen him do. Strange enough it was the same character he was going to do in Waiting for Guffman. And he explained it, “We’re doing this movie and you’re one of the first people I’ve asked.” And it’s funny, he said, “I ran this idea by Marty Short and Martin Short said, ‘Great, let’s do it, when do we start?’” And he told Martin, “No, No, I want somebody nobody knows.” [Laughs.]

Jane Lynch, “Gabby Monkhouse”: I knew Waiting for Guffman and just loved it and never thought in a million years that I get the opportunity to do a film like that. I was auditioning for commercials at the time and doing some and I auditioned for a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes spot and [Guest] was directing it. I got the commercial and at lunch that day he said, “You know, I do movies.” And I was like, “I know.” He said, “Maybe we’ll get to work together again,” and I said, “Oh, I would love that.” Three or four months later he was putting together Best in Show and I got a part in that.

Willard: Chris, he’s very selective with who he uses so he probably put a lot of thought into it. There’s a story that when he did the folk scene on A Mighty Wind that Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul & Mary, called and wanted to be in the movie and he said no. I thought that was so fascinating. So I finally ask him about it, “Is it true Mary Travers wanted to be in that movie?” And he said, “No, but she did babysit for me when I was a little boy growing up in the Village.”

Baker: I had a great experience [on the commercial] and I thought, if that’s my one Christopher Guest experience I’m just happy I got to work with him. His people called and said he was writing a part for me in this movie he was working on and I couldn’t believe it.

Yeagley: He really wanted someone who was Southern because these two sisters were from Mississippi and Parker’s Southern and it needed to have that authenticity and honesty about it. So my mind was blown. And he doesn’t read people with sides, a typical audition, you don’t have to go in and do lines, it’s just like you and I sitting here, just a half hour of talking to him, and it was so fun and next thing I know I get the phone call that I got the part and I was screaming like a crazy person.

The Art Of Improvisation

Lynch: The Chris Guest stuff is really jumping off a cliff. And hoping for the best.

Willard: [Improvising] scares me to death, it still scares me. It’s like walking a highwire. You can do it five or six times and then one time the wind blows and you fall.

Lynch: I’m less anxious about it. I was very anxious the first time because there is the great unknown. You’ve never worked this way before and there’s no script, you’re all by yourself, you have to come with something and I had never done this before so boy I packed heavy [for Best in Show]. I really worked on the character and I knew how she spoke. I used to talk to myself in the mirror as her, I would tell myself stories as her, I would read the newspaper as her. So I knew exactly, I had her so deeply inside of me by the time I got to Vancouver to shoot it. I knew exactly who I was and that is the one thing I learned. I have a very clear idea of who my character is to a very deep level before I even step foot on the set.

Willard: [In Waiting for Guffman, Chris] said, “It will be improvised,” and I thought, that’s great, I won’t have to memorize any lines. Then I thought, wait a minute, I’m going to have to come up with the lines, which made me nervous. But there wasn’t that much pressure because we did it in Austin, Texas and there was Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, who I didn’t know then and it was one of the first things she’d done. So we were just having fun and putting it on film. And maybe one day I’ll see it in someone’s screening room.

Baker: He lets you go where you want to go with it. There will be things that work or don’t work. You do this scene once and he might say, “That was good, let’s do it again… maybe we don’t need this. Let’s make sure we hit this thing.” You start to shape it as you go, all the words coming out are improvised and obviously not the same from take to take.

Yeagley: What I love is how much he allows us as actors to be engaged and involved. It’s really not like any other job I’ve ever had. I had a meeting with him after I got the part and he said, “What do you think her job is? What do you think Lacey does as a job?” And I said, “I think she does nail art, she works in a mini mall and does nails and puts seashells on them.” And he said, “Great, that’s great!”

Lynch: He trusts us to do it. We go home and wrap a psychology around them or marinate on it and come up with something and usually I’ll get a couple of hooks into the person. This character, I was given a person who can no longer do mascoting because she has an injury so she had to retire. So how did her whole life being taken from her — because that’s what it was, Minnie the Moose was her whole life — how does she deal with it? Well, she wrote a memoir, became a born again Christian, and she is kind of snooty and loves attention.

Willard: After a while you think, oh gosh, should I do something different this movie? Should I change? I don’t want to do the same character…you just hope to get through it again. And you think, well I did it last time and the time before that but this time is Chris going to say, “Ah Fred, we’ve seen that”? But so far it hasn’t happened.

Yeagley: One thing Chris told me was, “It’s okay to be silent, you don’t have to talk and we can roll film for 30 seconds and up and you never have to say a word.” What a cool thing to tell an actor, especially an improviser. And that is a life-changing tip and life lesson for me. I look back at his movies and some of the funniest moments are really when people are reacting. He is a musician so I think he knows that the pauses are just as important as the notes.

Willard: I Remember [for Waiting for Guffman] I called [Catherine O’Hara] in L.A. and said, “Catherine we should talk about our relationship.” We were supposed to be an older married couple. She never got back to me. First time we did a scene together, after we’re driving back to the hotel and she says, “Maybe we should get together and plan what we’re going to do.” But that was easier because it had never been done. But for the new people, if they’ve seen the earlier films, they think, oh my god, we’re doing this. Are we going to be compared to the other thing? So it’s probably tougher for them. But I think they did quite well.

Baker: [Zach Woods is] a dream. We had never met before, once we found out that we were both doing it we got together a few times just to meet. We knew we were going to be playing this couple and we wanted to be able to say, “We’ve been together eight years,” or whatever it was, have the same information we were drawing on. And because we had never met I think it was just a smart idea to get together and is it turned out we hit it off and he’s an incredible improviser. He’s such a smart guy, the stuff he comes up with. I was just there to react basically to the amazing stuff he came up with because the information that comes out of his mouth is insane, he’s so funny.

Willard: It was kind of strange seeing the young couple doing it and thinking, Catherine and I did those in the first ones, so I know what they’re going through. Of course when Catherine and I did it in Waiting for Guffman I had no idea anyone would even see the movie.

The World Of Mascots

Lynch: The subculture that [Guest] focuses on always changes but it’s really the same thing, it’s about people who want to matter in the world. Who have a single minded focus to be extraordinary and masterful at something because our greatest fear is that we’re ordinary, right?

Yeagley: None of the characters are trying to be funny, we’re just being who the characters are, and our sisters really believe in the armadillo. That is real for us. We believe in this armadillo, we can’t wait to go to California, we are so excited. We’re horny 40-year-olds and we can’t wait to meet men and go there and do this contest.

Baker: I loved Parker’s and Susan’s character’s [performance]. It’s so avant grade and strange, like a modern art mascot. And the fact that there’s a team that exist that let’s her do that really makes me laugh. It’s not jolly, happy mascoting like the rest of us, it’s pretty amazing.

Willard: That whole dance thing was so strange. It went on and on and on. I still don’t get that.

Lynch: I loved the armadillo thing. It was like a Laurie Anderson piece and it had no business being in a show like that. And it was too long, it was trying to tell a story and it was a disjointed narrative, I loved it. I thought it was crazy funny and crazy good.

Yeagley: I think the armadillo performance works because it’s such a counter to the other performances, this very techno punk, serious, life has run over the armadillo, it’s a pre-historic character. It gets run over but still gets back up.

Willard: My guy, Jack the Plumber, when I saw that in the script I called Chris and said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Is that going to stay in the movie?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” The pencil in the pencil sharpener. And the rabbi and the worm was it? What school would they be representing?

Baker: It’s so interesting to think about something where somebody is wearing a mask, I think about it when I go somewhere like Disneyland. Mickey is probably a woman, you don’t know what’s going on. They have a happy face and they could be totally frowning or crying or mad and you don’t know. It’s fun to see who these people are behind the giant fury costumes and masks.

Lynch: Sometimes mascots aren’t even noticed. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed a mascot and yet there are people who dedicate their lives to it.

Yeagley: [Guest] had a real mascot from the Bay Area on set everyday so we could ask this guy anything, we could ask what it’s like and why he got into and he would talk about how great it is to go to children’s hospitals as the mascot and make kids happy. If the team didn’t score people would throw beer on him but he would still do his thing. There’s something beautiful, something spiritual, about being invisible and being okay with it.

Lynch: There are subcultures all over our society that focus on one thing and everybody trying to attain something and they all have the same goal and are vying against each other, that’s the interesting thing. The mascot world, what’s interesting about it, and this is probably why Chris decided to go ahead with a movie about it, is these are not people who are valued so much, they can be ridiculed, but it doesn’t stop them from loving what they do.