The Inverse Interview

Geraldine Viswanathan Would Commit a Crime to Work With the Coens Again

“I think every actor dreams of working with Ethan Coen.”

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The Inverse Interview

When Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke first conceived of Drive-Away Dolls at the turn of the century, they had a very specific vision of a wild lesbian crime caper that would riff on the ’70s exploitation movies of their youth. It would star some of the hottest stars of the early aughts, like Selma Blair and Chloë Sevigny. And it would have a bold, cheeky title: Drive-Away Dykes.

Though the film would eventually shed that name and rotate in a new cast of stars, the script remained mostly intact over the two decades since it was first pitched, according to star Geraldine Viswanathan.

“I don’t think the script changed much from when they wrote it in the ’90s together,” Viswanathan tells Inverse. “I spoke to someone who had read it before, and it’s pretty much the same.”

There were some minor tweaks — a character name changed, and a joke was made a little less off-color — but otherwise the script Viswanathan received when she signed on for the role of the bookish Marian was unaltered. That alone is a shocking rarity in Hollywood, and perhaps speaks to the industry power director Ethan Coen holds. Though this is his first solo outing as a director, his collaborations with his brother Joel have created scores of bonafide classics, and essentially popularized the kind of absurd crime thriller Drive-Away Dolls is riffing on. Which is why it was a dream come true for Viswanathan, who got her breakout role in 2018’s raunchy teen comedy Blockers, to get a starring role alongside Margaret Qualley.

“I think every actor dreams of working with Ethan Coen,” Viswanathan says.

Inverse spoke with Viswanathan about the secret joys of playing the straight man, whether she’d like to do another Coen movie, and if she could tease her role in Marvel’s Thunderbolts (she couldn’t).

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Being directed by Ethan Coen was unlike any other experience Viswanathan has had.

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When you signed on for Drive-Away Dolls, what was your reaction to getting to work with an iconic filmmaker like Ethan Coen?

Just complete elation and disbelief. I remember exactly where I was when I got the call. I was on the set of Season 4 of Miracle Workers and doing this scene in an extreme heat wave, and I was wearing this crazy leather get-up and having to scream and jump on this car. I was so physically exhausted and I got the call and I was like, “What?” But I transcended the way that I was physically feeling and was so beyond happy. It felt like a huge gift and honor, and I was just so excited. I think every actor dreams of working with Ethan Coen.

What exactly made you want to sign on to work on Drive-Away Dolls? Other than Ethan Coen, of course.

Ethan Coen was definitely a big draw. When the script came to me, I was just excited to read Ethan and Tricia’s work. I had never read anything like it, and it was so irreverent and it felt like all the best parts were girls. It felt really exciting to read a script where the leading ladies were women who were really themselves in genuine ways. It felt like something that would be really fun to do and watch. I think that’s a lot of what I think about when I choose to do something. I am always drawn to doing things that I myself would want to watch, and this felt like one of those.

Margaret Qualley gives such an outsized performance as Jamie, while you get to be a little more buttoned up. People talk about the fun of doing a big performance, but do you think there’s a secret joy to playing the straight man?

I think so. Playing the straight man is challenging because you have to trust that what you’re doing is funny without being out there. I think I’ve definitely played the larger-than-life characters and I do really enjoy playing those characters, because I feel a little bit more shy and introverted in my life. So it’s a fun holiday for myself to get to be outrageous and just let it rip. This was an interesting challenge, because I tapped into that more quiet side of myself where I’m sensitive and romantic.

I think Marion has such an amazing arc and holds a lot of the heart and emotion of the movie. And I think it was really nice to get to play with that more and be the anchor to Margaret’s performance, which is so off the wall. So it was an honor to do service to Marion and then also to Margaret for her performance of Jamie.

There’s nothing Viswanathan wants more than to work with Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke again.

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What was it like working with Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke on set? Did Ethan give you any unique pieces of direction or advice that you’ll take away with you?

Yeah, I mean Ethan and Tricia are so brilliant and were having so much fun. With legendary filmmakers like that you anticipate seriousness, because their track record is so amazing. But they were so down-to-earth and down to clown. They really went with whatever tickled them.

Their directing style was very technical and very minimal, which was unusual for me. I’m used to getting into it with the director and improvising on the day and workshopping the scene if something’s not working. But in this script, it’s so tightly written and specific that you don’t need to do anything to it. You just have to show up and do it justice.

I remember getting a note from Ethan that was like, “How about you say that line rising instead of falling?” I was like, “Oh wow, that’s really interesting.” I think the simplicity of the notes where you’re not trying to search for the note behind the note and you’re not trying to decode the note, it was very straight and technical and minimal in a way that can only come from someone who has the confidence of making a million amazing movies.

There are so many wild hijinks in this movie. Do you have memories of any particular scenes that made you go, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m shooting this”?

A few come to mind. The scene where Margaret and I are tied up at the dog track, and we have bandanas in our mouths and can’t speak, and we’re watching Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, and C. J. Wilson play out that scene, it just felt like it was a treat. We’re sitting back and watching it all happen. Obviously, we’re stressed out and crying and screaming, but we’re getting to watch. And it felt like a real genre movie. I don’t think I’ve been in a movie like that. Colman is giving his speech and then people get shot, and it just felt like, “Wow, we’re in a Coen movie, and the stakes are high, but it’s also absurd.” It just felt really surreal and cool.

“It feels like a real-time capsule.”

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You’ve made your first Coen movie, though technically it’s an Ethan Coen movie. With talks about them potentially reuniting, would you be happy to do another Coen movie, either with Ethan or both of them?

Obviously I would do anything. I’ll play a tree in a movie for Tricia or Joel or whoever’s doing it. I just want to work with them and hang out with them. I miss them. They’re just wonderful. And I mean, it’s a really fun feeling when you make Ethan and Trish laugh. So I would love to do more comedies with them, but I would do absolutely anything with them.

If we are saying that Drive-Away Dolls is like Raising Arizona in tone, [I’d love to do something like] True Grit. True Grit was one of the first movies I saw as a kid, and I remember being Hailee Steinfeld’s age and watching her and being so jealous. So maybe a Western or something, but literally anything. If they want to go to space, I’ll go to space. We’ll make it work.

You were recently cast in Marvel’s Thunderbolts to replace Ayo Edibiri. Can you tell me anything about that role? Have you met any of the stars yet?

There’s not much I could say other than I’m so excited, and we’re getting into it soon, and it’s an amazing cast.

Drive-Away Dolls is now playing in theaters.

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