“Doing a daytime talk show doesn’t really interest me,” says Tig Notaro. “A talk show interests me. Just not a daytime talk show. I don’t think it’s my thing.”
We’re at the tail end of a 45-minute interview — a continuation of sorts from our last conversation in 2017, ahead of the launch of season two of Notaro’s funny, heartfelt Amazon Prime series One Mississippi — and the topic of Ellen Degeneres’ recent announcement that she’ll be ending her talk show has come up. Notaro, a frequent presence on the program, is sanguine when answering a question about the loss of Ellen’s unique brand of LGBTQ representation on daytime television.
“You might be losing Ellen’s representation,” she says in a tone that is warm, reassuring even. “But I think there’s going to be more and more representation popping up. I think Ellen has paved that way for many. And I think many are on their way.
“I’ve known Ellen almost five years,” she continues. “And every year, I feel like she’s said ‘Okay, this is my last year.’ She’s been trying to wind things down for a while. And so, it seems like it’s time. And whenever a chapter ends, the new beginning starts. So it’ll be exciting to see what comes of that.”
The same could be said for Notaro. When Amazon decided not to renew One Mississippi for a third season, shocking its diehard fans, bold new opportunities arose for the stand-up comic who had already improbably raised her public profile by getting deeply personal about her devastating (but ultimately victorious) battle with breast cancer, turning it into stand-up gold and elevating Notaro in the pantheon of modern-day comics.
Star Trek: Discovery landed first. Notaro was cast in the second season of the CBS All-Access (now Paramount+) hit series as Jett Reno, a survivor of the asteroid-stranded USS Hiawatha. She quickly took root on the show’s titular ship as a whip-smart, smartass engineer who regularly lobbed sardonic barbs at Anthony Rapp’s Lieutenant Paul Stamets.
A fan favorite, Notaro rejoined the Discovery crew for their season three exploits 900 years in the future, and is currently in Toronto filming season four of what is not only one of the best Star Trek shows in history, but also the most LGBTQ-affirming, abundant with gay, lesbian, trans, and non-binary characters. No Star Trek show or movie has ever shown this much sexual and gender diversity, and the hope is that much more will follow.
If Star Trek elevated Notaro to a new level of public recognizability, her participation in Zack Snyder’s action zombie satire Army of the Dead should send her star skyrocketing. She plays cigar-chomping chopper pilot Marianne Peters, and while the character doesn’t have much in the way of hand-to-hand combat with the undead, she does serve the movie’s most integral role — the only means of escape, a point the character has no problem sharing with the band of mercenaries she’s joined as they attempt to rob a casino in the middle of a zombified Las Vegas.
Notaro’s involvement in the movie was unusual, to say the least. When allegations of sexual misconduct arose against Chris D’Elia, the actor who originally filmed the role, Snyder decided to digitally eradicate the actor from the final product. Notaro was his first and only choice for a replacement.
The resulting reshoot mostly required Notaro to appear in costume in front of a green screen, acting, as she notes, opposite a “tennis ball hanging down” on a string. She was then digitally, seamlessly inserted into the footage. It is a testament to both technology and Notaro’s casual comfort in front of the camera that the end result is as perfect as it is. If you didn’t know the circumstances surrounding her appearance in the film, you’d never guess. Notaro will revive the character for Snyder’s forthcoming animated prequel, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas.
Married with two children to fellow actor and frequent collaborator Stephanie Allynne, Notaro is as astonished as anyone that her career has taken such an offbeat, unplanned path. “This is not what I thought telling jokes was going to lead to,” says the 50-year-old. “And it only makes me more curious where the hell my life is headed.”
METRO WEEKLY: The last time you and I spoke, it was 2017, and your career has taken some huge, unexpected leaps since then. But I want to start where we left off, with your remarkable series One Mississippi, which was entering its second season at the time on Amazon Prime Video. It was canceled after season two. I’m curious, how did you feel when this show, which was so deeply personal for you, was forced to end before its time?
TIG NOTARO: It was disappointing. We had a lot more stories that we wanted to tell and that we were excited to do. But I also felt, having been attached to some darkness and negativity with a particular producer that was involved on the show, that there was a bit of a relief to just move on. It just wasn’t terribly surprising to me when it got canceled.
MW: There are so many streaming options now. There’s so much television. I wonder if we’re in a period where we have too much content constantly vying for our attention.
NOTARO: It seems like it’s going in that direction. Everything just seems like it’s really all over the place. It’ll be interesting to see where things land in just a few years, because it’s changed so fast.
MW: While I was disappointed when One Mississippi didn’t continue, it did open some incredible new doorways for you. Suddenly you show up on Star Trek: Discovery in a stunning recurring role.
NOTARO: It was a real surprise for me. My agent called and told me that Alex Kurtzman, the co-creator of Discovery, who is an old friend of mine — we used to work together at Sam Raimi’s production company decades ago — had this idea for a role for me. I met with Alex and we chatted for, I think, two or three hours in his office — just had a blast reconnecting. And I really thought I’d end up just going in for an episode or two. But this turned into something. Alex said, “We’re going to use you as much as we can get you.”
I hear from people all the time like, “Oh, they don’t use you enough,” or “Why don’t they use you more?” And it’s like, I have a stand-up career and a million other things I’m doing. I try to do as much as I can on Star Trek, but I just don’t have the time.
MW: Reno is a very enjoyable character. Her relationship with Anthony Rapp’s Stamets is priceless. Just the way you two snipe back and forth at each other.
NOTARO: That relationship is actually real between me and Anthony when we’re not filming. We are always back and forth with each other. But in a very positive, fun way.
MW: The interesting thing about Discovery is how queer it is in almost every regard. Can you comment as a member of our community on the importance of that LGBTQ visibility for the Star Trek universe?
NOTARO: It’s a continuation of what they’ve always been doing with Star Trek, which is just having such an inclusive universe that they’re creating and pushing boundaries and opening them. It’s not even pushing boundaries — it’s breaking boundaries and opening everything up. I was just talking about this the other day on a Star Trek panel for Pride. It’s typical to be on a show where you’re the gay person or the gay guest star and it’s a gay-themed show or a situation. But on Star Trek: Discovery, it’s almost weird if you’re not gay. It’s a nice feeling to be so much a part of everything that’s woven into the stories and the themes, and you’re not just the gay character in the gay story that week.
MW: I’m trying to recall your character’s LGBTQ history on the show.
NOTARO: I have a wife that died, which I have referenced. Somebody told me I was the first out lesbian character on the show.
MW: This takes us to a topic of conversation that I’ve had with several LGBTQ actors this year. When a character is LGBTQ, should the character be played only by an LGBTQ actor?
NOTARO: It’s so tricky, because there are certain projects that I’ve seen, that I’m involved with, which only get made because of the star power of people who are not gay. But the power of the project getting made is important, and hopefully it will be a door to another project like that being made with gay characters who are actually played by actors who are gay in real life. But then you look at the flip side. What if a gay person in real life wanted to play a character that was straight?
So I think you have to look at each different project and role and hope that you’re going more towards the direction of hiring gay or minority actors, writers, directors, when you can. I feel like as long as we’re pushing forward and the intention is good, there’s room for conversation.
MW: When you were younger, was there a specific queer-leaning role you saw on television that you identified with, that gave you comfort and reinforced visibility for you?
NOTARO: Even though she’s not gay in real life, I, stereotypically, really enjoyed the character of Jo on The Facts of Life. I don’t even think she was gay on the show. I was just like, “Oh, cool, yeah.”
MW: She had that aesthetic.
NOTARO: Exactly. And that’s when I stopped watching TV, around that year. I don’t follow a lot of TV.
MW: You don’t watch Discovery?
NOTARO: I’ve watched some of Discovery. But I just really don’t watch a lot of TV. I have a documentary podcast with Cheryl Hines and I watched a documentary every week to discuss that. That’s mainly my interest. But I don’t really watch TV. Especially stuff I’m in. I was just talking about that with a friend of mine, how before I started acting I’d hear other actors say “I didn’t watch the movie or the TV show after I filmed it.” And I was like, how is that possible? And now here I am, not watching things that I’m in.
MW: How is the filming of Season 4 of Discovery going given the COVID restrictions.
NOTARO: I’m in Toronto now. We’re shooting here. And I don’t start until Monday. Prior to this, I filmed Army of the Dead. And Stephanie and I directed a movie [Am I OK?] with Dakota Johnson during the pandemic. So I’m very familiar with and comfortable being on set during and with these restrictions. In fact, I feel a lot safer on a set because of all the protocols.
MW: I don’t suppose there’s anything you can secretly reveal to us about the upcoming season.
NOTARO: [Laughs.] No, I don’t think so.
MW: Just be wary if they ever hand you a red shirt to wear during filming.
NOTARO: [Laughs.] I’ve been told by Alex that they’re not ever going to kill me.
MW: Are they ever going to give Reno a romantic interest?
NOTARO: I don’t know. I don’t know.
MW: Would you like her to have one?
NOTARO: Possibly, but I don’t know. I think I might want to see maybe struggling with the idea of having one, especially having lost a spouse. It seems like it would be a hard thing to bounce back from.
MW: Let’s talk about Army of the Dead, which has to be one of the most unusual cases of an actor joining a film, with Zack Snyder deciding to digitally replace Chris D’Elia with another actor — you. You’re not known for action roles, so how did you end up getting the part?
NOTARO: I’ve had little tiny action moments on Star Trek but nothing like this. What Zack told me was that when he was talking to John [Papsidera], the casting director, about who they could get, John said, “You should use Tig Notaro.” And when John said that, Zack was like, “Yeah, oh my gosh, that’s a great idea!” And then he told me he immediately thought, “Would she do something like this?”
MW: Did it take much convincing?
NOTARO: No. It was more that I didn’t quite understand when my agent called me. I always assume they’re looking at me and several people for roles that I hear about. My agent was like, “Oh, no, no, no. They just want you.” And I thought, that’s so interesting. It was surprising to me.
MW: What was the experience like? Because you weren’t ever on set with the rest of the cast, and much of the filming was done against a green screen.
NOTARO: There was half a day where I filmed with Ana [de la Reguera]. And then she left. But I still, to this day, haven’t met the rest of the cast in person. I’ve never even met Dave Bautista on Zoom. I’ve met other people on Zoom during press. It was really insane doing this movie. I was having to look at a tennis ball hanging down or a piece of tape on the wall and pretend like that’s somebody’s space that I’m looking at and we’d film it.
And then Zack would insert me into the movie on the screen. And they’d look at it and they’d say, “Alright, we need to move you like half a centimeter the other way.” And then we’d shoot it again. It was so technical. But Zack and his crew were so kind and they made it as easy as possible on me. I had so much fun with Zack and his crew. I really did.
But it was definitely not easy. Because I had to think about how I think I should be delivering it in that moment. I mean, obviously, Zack is directing me, but there’s still internal stuff that I have to sort through and figure out how I’m going to make this come out of my being and make it as seamless as possible. It’s not anything I want to do again, necessarily. And I hope I don’t have to, for many reasons.
MW: There was a moment where you smear blood off the helicopter windshield to be able to see through it. It was inspired and funny and perfectly in line with your sense of humor. Was that your idea?
NOTARO: No, that was Zack. He’s got a great sense of humor.
MW: What’s it like to work with him?
NOTARO: He’s very laid back and very engaged with everybody and everything. Somebody who is directing a nearly $100 million action zombie film and then having to go back and do technical reshoots, you would think there’d be a level of stress and ego, and he’s just devoid of all of that. He feels very present and available and just seems like a solid human being.
MW: I read a statistic today — 74 million households have watched the film so far on Netflix. Between this and Star Trek, your visibility has increased massively. Could you have ever envisioned your career moving in this direction?
NOTARO: No, no, no. This is not what I thought telling jokes was going to lead to.
MW: How do you feel about it?
NOTARO: I guess I don’t feel terribly connected to it. I feel like it’s somebody else’s life and experience, because it’s not anything that I was setting out to do. It’s exciting and I’m thankful for the opportunities, but it’s not ever been my dream. My dream was to sell out theaters as a stand-up. And that’s true. I didn’t get into stand-up to get into acting, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve really loved being on Star Trek. I love playing in a zombie heist action film. It’s the most ridiculous thing. But it’s nothing I’ve set out for, and it only makes me more curious where the hell my life is headed.
MW: You have a stand-up special coming out. And it’s animated.
NOTARO: Yeah, it’s going to be on HBO this summer. Over the years, people have animated different jokes and bits of mine, and so this is start-to-finish 100 percent animation. There’s an animated version of me on stage. And then it goes into stories that I start talking about on stage. And once I go into a story, it becomes a whole other animated world. There’s no actual real me in this special. It’s all audio from a live show.
MW: Was this your idea?
NOTARO: Yeah, I pitched it to HBO. I mean, animating stand-up has been done many times. There used to be a TV show called Shorties Watchin’ Shorties on Comedy Central. That was stand-up animation. And Dr. Katz was [animated] comedians going in and doing their bits. So there have been different versions of it. This is just a full-length stand-up special that’s all animation.
MW: The other thing that you have going right now, of course, are your podcasts.
NOTARO: I have two podcasts. I have one that’s an advice podcast that I do. The other one is a podcast with Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm. We’re old friends and we talk about documentaries every week. It spirals into just nonsense, basically. It’s busy doing two podcasts, and I might even add another to the list.
I used to have a podcast about a decade ago with some friends in the earlier days of podcasting, and it was hard. What I learned from that experience was that it’s hard to have a podcast with three touring comedians. It’s busy, but it’s fun to be able to do a job from home. It’s also been a nice answer to having not been able to do stand-up for a year.
MW: What has the pandemic been like for you? How did you weather it?
NOTARO: I feel like our family weathered it pretty well. It didn’t go perfectly. It wasn’t one-hundred percent smooth. But Stephanie’s father moved in to help with our children, and so we were very lucky. We’re also very lucky in that Stephanie and I worked together so much. So, we weren’t a couple that was shocked by how much time we had to spend with our spouse. We’re used to this, and we did fine.
Add in the fact that we have children that were excited for their lives, and we want them to have something to look forward to and trying to be creative and figure out ways to make life interesting when you’re in your home, finding things to look forward to and dealing with those bad and hard days when you are all home. I tried to see it as something I chose for myself, because I’ve worked so hard. I’ve had a lot of health issues over the years, and I’ve often thought I would give anything to be home with my family. And so, because I was home with them, I just decided to think of it as a decision I made. That’s how I dealt with it.
MW: When we spoke in 2017, the kids were a year old. Now they’re five. What’s that age been like?
NOTARO: It’s been a huge relief in ways that they’re that age, because they are just way more independent, and you can really talk to them and laugh with them on a different level. We’re getting excited by the idea of traveling with them. They’ve already taken — I think Stephanie’s counted like 30 flights in four years already. So, we’re excited to start traveling with them again in a way that they’ll enjoy and have more of an understanding of what’s happening. But it’s been great. It’s been hard. It’s been challenging. It’s been fun. It’s been every adjective you can think of.
Watch Tig Notaro in Army of the Dead on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
Listen to Tig’s podcasts — Don’t Ask Tig and Tig and Cheryl: True Story at www.tignation.com.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream on Paramount+. Visit www.paramountplus.com.
Follow Tig on Twitter at @tignotaro.
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