Drew Barrymore was in the middle of chaperoning a clamorous kiddie play-date – theme: Disney princess – at her Los Angeles home when the subject of vomit came up.
Fake vomit, to be clear.
It was a Friday afternoon and Barrymore was child-like in her enthusiastic description of the artificial puke she became intimately acquainted with during production of Santa Clarita Diet, her TV series headlining debut.
“Oh my God, you should have smelled it,” she said in her signature vocal cadence. “It smelled worse than vomit. Like something in the mixture was spoiled. It was so disgusting, but also so cool and fun. I wanted more of it on me!”
She realises this is an odd thing to say. But not any more bizarre than learning her first lead TV series role is in a quirky comedy in which she plays a suburban wife and mum who becomes a zombie.
Barrymore, 41, has been a Hollywood mainstay since she was a youngster, coming from a legendary theatrical family and rising to fame at age seven with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Over the last 18 years, she’s become synonymous with bouncy, girl-power-type characters (Charlie’s Angels, Whip It, Going The Distance) in which she starred and, in some cases, produced through her company Flower Films. Santa Clarita Diet is in that vein – only with a bit more flesh and blood.
In the new Netflix comedy, Barrymore stars opposite Timothy Olyphant (in his follow-up TV role to Justified) as couple Sheila and Joel, real estate agents who live in the easygoing California suburb and whose lives are upended when Sheila dies – after a torrential gag-fest (hence, the barf talk) – and is reborn as a zombie with special dietary needs for human flesh.
The series, the brainchild of Victor Fresco (My Name Is Earl, Better Off Ted), tackles a variety of issues, such as the strength of love, narcissism and self-empowerment.
But Fresco wasn’t even sure Barrymore would be open to the idea. “The hard thing, frankly, is getting an actress of a certain age to read a script that has a 16-year-old daughter in it,” Fresco said in a telephone interview. “A lot of actresses don’t want to play a mum to kids, let alone kids that are 16. Drew embraced that.”
“In my opinion,” Barrymore said, “I only get better. If I have to age to do that, bring it on. I would never want to go back to my younger self – not because things weren’t great but I just would never want to give up what I know now. In Hollywood, it’s the same (stuff). It’s like, I don’t care what people think about getting older.”
That story detail hadn’t been the source of hesitation at looking at the script. Barrymore just wasn’t interested in an acting gig.
Her time these days is split between her production company and a cosmetics line, Flower Beauty – she even has a brand of wines. But then she began to see the role as an opportunity to rejuvenate her life following a divorce from her husband of four years, Will Kopelman, last summer.
“When I started the show,” she said, “my life was falling apart. And I know it sounds melodramatic, but I felt like my dreams were dying. It was a really hard time for me.
“This show gave me and my children this wonderful adventure. The schedule was great; my girls and I were able to take road trips every weekend. It’s like I got back to believing in things again.
“The only way I could put it is, I felt like someone had dimmed my light. And by the end of the show, I felt so bright; like I was burning at full mass. Sheila gave me a lot more than just a job.”
Barrymore is talking by phone and stops occasionally when one of her daughters – she has Frankie, three, and Olive, four – seeks her attention, such as when a pint-sized pal isn’t sharing or if a costume needs fixing.
“My guilty pleasure for my kids is I buy them those awesome dresses in a bag for like US$10.99 (RM49),” Barrymore said while venturing off into another room to escape some of the noise.
“They have this big chest full of them and they invite their friends over and go through it and play dress-up. It’s the cutest thing ever. And me and all my mum friends come over and we chat while the kids play.”
Sheila, on the other hand, chips some meat off of a frozen corpse and tosses it into a blender to make a smoothie to take on her ladies’ power walk.
The once-mousy real estate agent – who doesn’t exhibit the typical pallor of the undead, making it easy for her metamorphoses to go undetected by her neighbours – comes to relish her new zombie identity; it gives her more confidence and energy.
“I realised I could really parallel my life with her,” Barrymore said. “I started the show and I was like, ‘Victor, I’ve gained 20 pounds and I’m going through hell in my personal life’. So we sort of made this plan of how Sheila would go from Cro-Magnon to erect human through the course of the show.”
Barrymore said she went on a strict but “very healthy” diet and lost the 20lbs (9kg) by the end of the series. The series also offered a recharge in another form.
“I liked making a show where a husband and wife excel and become stronger partners through crazy adversity,” she said.
“I liked seeing a couple that worked well together. That was real optimistic to me. I was happy seeing a functioning couple. I was like, this is good. I don’t want to watch couples fight. I’m not in the mood for it. They are faced with an insane situation and instead of going into a dark place, they kind of use it as momentum to get stronger and better.”
Plus, she said, “It was just really fun.” As to be expected, there is plenty of blood and gore and dislocated appendages – enough to require that Barrymore take after-work showers lathered in shaving cream to get the residue off before heading home to her kids.
“She’s a rare one,” Olyphant said in a phone interview of his co-star. “There’s just something very refreshing about being around her. She shows up and she’s completely willing to make an ass out of herself, and that’s what the job calls for.”
Fresco takes it back to the vomit scene from the first episode: Barrymore was drenched in bad- smelling liquid for hours on a cold stage to film a scene.
“People would have to leave the set for air because they just couldn’t stand the smell,” Fresco recalled. “Drew never complained. She sat there in the uncomfortable position and just took it all in. That’s when I realised I loved Drew Barrymore.”
Barrymore’s take on the special effects: “I would laugh so hard because I couldn’t believe I was on a job where I couldn’t go home without showering because I’m covered in blood, guts and vomit,” she said.
“It’s nice to have some lightness in a project. I can’t take the heavy stuff anymore. It doesn’t mean it has to lack depth. And, hello, I’m a mum, I deal with weird liquids all the time.”
Back to the play-date. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Yvonne Villarreal