Fred Melamed is the consummate character actor, the ultimate “that guy from that thing.” With his deep baritone voice and a warm presence, you’ve definitely seen him in something over the course of his long career. He’s worked repeatedly with directors like the Coens and Woody Allen, and Melamed has also carved out quite a niche on television, popping up on shows like Casual, New Girl, Benched, and The Good Wife.
His latest project is Lady Dynamite, the new Netflix comedy about the life of Maria Bamford. As Bamford’s hapless agent, Bruce Ben-Bacharach, Melamed plays against type as the ultimate bumbler. UPROXX recently spoke with Melamed, about his new show, the cut throat business of voice acting, and the undeniable talent of Bamford.
I’ve seen the first couple episodes of Lady Dynamite, and it’s so unique and really surreal, and I really enjoyed it. What was it that drew you to the project?
I’m delighted. I actually was brought in sort of through the back door. I had been a huge fan of Maria’s, just as a person. I didn’t know her. I’ve only lived here in LA for three years. Prior to that, I lived out in East End of Long Island with my wife and kids. I just happened to be friends with Patton Oswalt. I had done a movie with him a long time ago, and he told me about Maria. He had just done a tour with her and he made a movie with her. This is probably nine, 10 years ago or so. He told me about her, and I just looked her stuff up on YouTube and I thought she was so funny. I thought she was so great. I think she’s an elite … I hate to start up this interview by delivering this hagiography of Maria, but I really do think she’s in the league with Richard Pryor and the true greats of comedy, in my book. But anyway, I was just a fan, I loved her. I never met her or any of that stuff.
And then, when I moved to California, I was on a show, a sitcom called Benched and so was she, so we became friends. And I was so chucked because I adored her as a comedian and then I got to be friends with her as a person. And I was even more enthusiastic about her, knowing her as a woman. And we just really liked each other and worked well together, but I had no idea that there was anything in the offing.
Then, one day about a year ago, I was doing another show, and I got a call from my manager saying “Mitch Hurwitz,” whose name I had known, as everybody does, from Arrested Development … “Mitch Hurwitz would like to meet you about this project with Maria Bamford.” And I knew nothing about it. I said “Okay, great.” And the day that I was supposed to go in and meet Mitch Hurwitz, I got this horrible stomach flu and I was really ill. I could hardly get from my bed to the bathroom, it was really pathetic. So I called him up and I said “I’m so sorry, I’m just really ill. I can’t come in like this.” Oh, and I thought that’s the end of that. They’re going to audition people … I didn’t know what it was for … You know how Hollywood works, they’re going to fall in love with somebody and that’ll be that.
Anyway, in a couple of days I was better and they called back and they said “No, no come in we’d like to meet you.” So I went in to Mitch Hurwitz’s office, I saw a casting director whom I knew, who had been the same casting director that had cast me and Maria in Benched. And she said, “Do you know what this is about?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Well I don’t know either, I was just hired an hour ago, so I know nothing. You and I are going to find out together what all this is about.” And I had prepared all these nice things to say about Maria because I really do think so highly of her, so I walked into the room and there was Maria sitting there so I said, “Oh. I had all these nice things prepared to say about you, now you’re sitting here. I feel kind of embarrassed.” She said, “Oh no, go ahead, go ahead.”
So I said how great I thought she was and Mitch said, “Well we have this show that we have written and are working together on. It’s already sold. Thirteen episodes have been sold to Netflix. It’s all about Maria’s life.” And of course, being a friend of Maria’s, I knew something about Maria’s life. And he said, “And we want you to play Bruce.” Bruce is Maria’s manager, and Bruce is a real person. My character, Bruce, is modeled rather liberally, loosely, but based on a real guy who I actually knew.
Really? I would not have guessed that.
Yeah, so he said, “We want you to play Bruce.” I said, “You do?” I said, “That’s great.” He said “Yeah, we’re not auditioning anybody, we’re not seeing anybody else. From the beginning of it we always had you in mind for this.” That was extremely … That’s something you don’t hear so often. And I was extremely excited about that prospect, especially because I really love Maria and I think she’s so great. And also Mitch and his partner in this project, Pam Brady, was one of the head writers of South Park, had a rather impressive reputation.
I said, “Yeah.” That was great, so I literally just stumbled into it and then we started in May, and then we started working. We had script meetings in June and then we started shooting in July, so it just happened. And I was so excited to be a part of it. And I didn’t know what the quality of the show was going to be like, what the flavor of the show was going to be like, except I knew Maria well and I knew it had to reflect her. I just became involved because they wanted me to be involved and I thought it was … Maria wanted me initially and then Mitch and Pam wanted me to be involved. I think Maria wanted somebody who she liked to work with, that was important to her. She wanted somebody who was modest, in spite of being remarkably talented. That was an important thing for her. And then probably somebody with a large, impressive mane of back hair like I do. There was only about three hundred or so people in Hollywood who fit that description, so I was lucky that they just came up with me.
The show is very structurally ambitious and it features a modern comedy who’s who. With all those great minds, did it feel like a competitive environment or was it more collaborative?
I wouldn’t say it was competitive at all. It was exciting to be around. It sounds a little show-offy, but it has Maria and I as the two leads, and then you have Ana Gasteyer as her agent, whose a huge talent. Her best friends are Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham, Patton is on it as you know, and then these smaller appearances all the time, like Sarah Silverman. This pantheon of the comedy best, at the moment, just wanted to be involved. But I wouldn’t say it was at all competitive, it was just exciting to be around it all.
A lot of the story has to do with the fact that she was standing at the precipice of this stardom maybe seven or eight years ago, and she’d always had this specter of mental illness to deal with, in addition to all the other problems everybody has to deal with in life. This kind of specter of mental illness that she’s always had to struggle with which came on with a fury when she was standing on the edge of being a star. That precipitated this breakdown that she had, and the essence of the story is telling what happened to her, how she came back.
But what’s important in that story is that Maria is Maria. In other words, it’s not just that she was a person struggling with mental illness, but she’s also who she is. In other words, she has this almost pathological degree of niceness and she’s the sweetest, nicest person and not just on the person level, she really does care deeply about people and that’s just the way she is. It’s hard to imagine a person being that kind, but that’s really her reality, that’s the way she is.
But in this world of Hollywood, where it’s a conflict between that and the kind of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement that’s the coin in the realm of Hollywood, is very clear. This story involved Maria’s personality coming up against all that, plus having to deal with putting herself back together. We knew that it was a tall order to tell that story and jump back and forth in time and show her coming to rehabilitation, to being in a nuthatch and trying medications and having to endure the difficulties of being a grown up, and having to move back in with your family. When you’re in your 30s and you have to go back with your family because you can’t keep it together, it’s rough. Even though they love each other and they’re close to each other, it’s still humiliating and hard and that stuff.
So, it wasn’t just the story of Maria having to cope with mental illness, but Maria with all her stuff. All of her self-esteem issues that she has, the need to do for other people and keep other people happy that she has, so all that was necessary in the story. The telling became challenging, but I’m hoping that people will find that it hangs together as a whole.
You tend to gravitate toward roles that have a certain dignified air to them, like therapists, professors, that sort of thing. Was it fun to undermine people’s expectations with Bruce? Was that something you were actively seeking? That chance to mix it up a bit?
I know, what a joke! I was delighted to play that kind of a part. I have a great deal of affection for Bruce.
How could you not?
You’re right. I am often, because of the way I look and I think partly because I look so authoritative, I look so rabbinic, much to my chagrin. I look so authoritative. So this was a real treat to play kind of a bumbler, a guy who is standing at the glass window of success in show business. He’s so close that he can see it and smell it and taste it, but he just can’t ever reach through the glass. And meanwhile, he keeps making a mess of everything.
But he’s so loyal to his people. Nothing is more important to him than being loyal to his clients. And usually, they get to a certain level and then they split. Once they get on Letterman, then they’re kind of done with him and they go to somebody bigger. But not Maria. Maria, like Bruce, is really really loyal. And even though they occasionally disappoint each other or hurt each other, usually unwittingly but they sometimes do, but they will never betray each other. They have this deep need for each other.
So yeah, it was a real joy to play somebody like that who was not so glim, not so successful, not so together. That was really really fun and we’ll see what happens in the future when I’m eagerly waiting … If we get a second season, which I’m fervently hoping for, I’ve been told that Bruce is going to come into his own and things get … He starts getting really good at what he does. He starts having a little show biz swagger to him which is nothing to me could be more fun to play than that. Like Hank Kingsley on Larry Sanders, my favorite character of all time. I’m totally looking forward to that, to when Bruce has a taste of success and therefore thinks he really knows what’s what.
Oh man, I hope we get to see that, because that sounds incredible.
On Casual, your character Charles is such a deeply flawed father. Do you think he feels remorse? Is he likely to put in the work to mend his relationships in season two?
Well we’ve already done the second season. As a matter of fact, we just finished the last episode last night.
Right. So I know the answers to those questions, but I can only tell you in the most general terms that, in his own way, in his own screwy way, he does wish to be a better father than perhaps he is, or was. All I can say is, the form that that takes, the admission to that, has a very important part in the second half of the second season, but I can’t disclose any more than that.
You were also in a similarly fraught father-child character relationship in In a World. What was it like working with Lake Bell on her directorial debut? And as someone who has done so much voice work, did the experiences of your character and the other characters in that movie ring true to what the business is really like?
Well, to answer the first part first, it was a total gas to work with her. I never knew her before that, I had never met her. But I knew who she was. That was before I lived out here, I was living in New York at the time. And my agent just said, “Do you know Lake Bell?” And I said, “Well, I know who she is.” And he said, “Well, she left something here for you. She left a script.” He said, “I think you should read it.” So I went to his office and I picked it up and Lake had written me this handwritten beautiful letter saying, “This is the script I wrote, I’ve been working on it for about two years. It’s very important to me and I would like for you to play my father in it. And it’s a role that I think you’d be wonderful” and it was very very flattering, but also very interesting. And after I read it, I was so impressed with it. She was, by my standards, a kid. She was 30 years old or less at the time that this happened. I thought, “Wow, this is so good.” And she said in the letter, “I’ve directed a short, but I’ve never directed a feature before.”
Then we started and I was so impressed with her as a director, because the really, really good directors don’t say too much. They just say a little bit, and they have this gift of knowing, or having an instinct, about what the right thing to say is and then letting you run. The really good directors — I’ve worked with the Coen brothers and Woody Allen and people like that — they just say a little bit and then they trust you to be creative. They trust you to do your work in a bold way, and they like that.
Lake, even though she was very new to directing, was like that. She was really really good and, to me, poised and relaxed for somebody directing their first film. I just thought she was so good. And I was also amazed at how easily she could go from one role to the other. In other words, we’d be sitting there shooting a scene, acting in it, and she’d be fully concentrating, fully invested in the scene as an actor. And then she’d say, “Cut!” And she’d say, “Well we have to move a little bit this way, and Michaela’s hair looks funny, can you move this here …” She was able to perhaps because she had worked so long and hard on this script and knew it so intimately. I don’t know, but she was able to go back and forth with great ease. It’s always remarkable to me, but especially somebody doing it on their first film so that was great.
Lake didn’t know that I had had this whole career as a voice-over actor.
Yeah. It was a strange thing. She thought it was plausible because my voice sounded like I might have that kind of voice, but she didn’t know I had actually spent many years tilling those fields myself. And I told her and she was pleased about it. I think, if anything, … It’s funny, there’s different levels of the voice-over business. And I think, I should probably start by saying, the voice-over industry has changed radically in the last few years. A lot of the work has become non-union. And that has vastly altered the profile of the kind of people that do it. And it used to be, for most of the time that I was successful in that world, it was a relatively small coterie of people that did ninety percent of the work, there was maybe a hundred guys and girls that did … And very few girls relative to the standards, that did 90 percent of it. And you recognized the voices that you heard, at least if you were in the business.
There was a strike some years ago, a Screen Actors Guild actor strike, and a lot of the work started to go outside the purview of the unions. And then the technology changed, and now people can do voice-overs from everywhere in the world. They could be in their garage where they live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and be a voice-over guy because they don’t have to be in the union and they can accept very low wages by the standards of what used to be. That has very much changed things. But when it was a much tighter group of people that did it, like when I was really doing it full-time, there was a lot of jockeying for a position and a lot of jealousy. Everybody likes each other, but I think behind closed doors, whenever the work is so light for such a big paycheck, there’s not only jealousy, but there’s paranoia. People are always worried that somebody’s going to come up and take their good gig away. It’s such a dream to work for such short hours and make such a lot of money, so I think if anything we soft-peddled some of the cut-throatness of the upper echelons.
There is, even though that movie is a comedy, it doesn’t shrink from telling the hard truth about the way things really are, which is the institutional sexism in the business. It’s very much there, particularly in the world of movies as high budget movies, where the whole future of a studio can be essentially a single roll of dice on a movie. Movies now cost a hundred and fifty million dollars. That means if you have two or three, as evidence by what happened last year, if you have two or three bad movies in a row, your studio can be on very shaky legs. There’s such vast sums of money that the studios are very reluctant to change any formula that works. That’s why we keep getting superhero movies and why every promo and movie trailer looks like every other movie trailer. The formula, they’re the last ones to change anything because the sums are so great. You rarely get fired for leaving things the way they are. There is this built in institutional sexism, not to mention, family sexism and all the stuff that happens in families.
I remember people saying … I looked up the IMDB responses to that movie, and I remember people saying stuff like, “No father could be that much of a bastard to his kids.” Well, that isn’t true. I know many people who are vain enough, narcissistic enough, messed up enough, selfish enough, full of self-doubt enough, that they are threatened by their children who are more successful than they are. It’s not so far from my own experience. That actually can happen.