Interview: Carrie Brownstein of ‘Portlandia’

jason stives interviews Carrie Brownstein, the star of IFC’s Portlandia and guitarist for Wild Flag and Sleater Kinney …

Carrie Brownstein has a duel identity to her appeal, both enriching for her talent and sensibility, as well as being a funny and an inventive craftsman of her work. Part accomplished alt-rock musician — formerly of the Portlandgroup Sleater Kinney and now the critically acclaimed all-female rock outfit Wild Flag — she is also a respected comedy writer, thanks in part to her work as writer and actor on the IFC sketch comedy Portlandia. The show, which stars Brownstein and Saturday Night Live actor Fred Armisen, has received much praise for its mix of topical sketches and colorful characters that feel and act like people in everyday occurrences, as well as the great on-screen chemistry between the two lead actors.

With Portlandia entering its second season, which begins Friday January 6th on IFC, Pop-Break senior writer Jason Stives had a chance to talk witg Brownstein on the phone about the upcoming season, the sights and sounds of Portland, and the awesomeness of bike messengers and Kyle MacLachlan.

Photo: Chris Hornbecker/IFC

Pop-Break: Hi Carrie, it’s really nice to meet you.

Carrie Brownstein: Thank you! It’s a pleasure!

PB: So the first season was well received, and for understandable reasons — it’s awesome. When it came time to write the second season, were their ideas held over from the previous season’s writing sessions, or was this all fresh stuff?

CB: I think the only thing that was a holdover idea from the first season was Artisan Knot, which ended up on the show this year. I mean, of course, everyone wants something to be artisan, and we were trying to think of the weirdest thing so the knot idea was held over. For the most part, everything was fresh and new this year.

Photo: Chris Hornbecker/IFC

PB: Your and Fred’s backgrounds are obviously similar, since both of you are musicians, but it’s amazing how well you guys work together on screen considering he has been doing television for quite awhile. Has he taught you a lot when it comes to being in front of a camera?

CB: I learn a lot from Fred, of course, his quickness and his ability to be exhilarating and very absorbing to his work. To recreate a story the way he does that, it becomes this whole new reality, it’s very hard to do, but he is very masterful at that. I think that I just learn from being around him and watching him in terms of timing and what not. For the most part, what we learn from each other is just figuring out our dynamic and relationship and how to capitalize on those moments and definitely to give and to listen. It’s improvisational. There’s more sharing than taking which helps for him being on an ensemble show like Saturday Night Live, and that transfers well into our show.

PB: A lot of the ideas on the show you would think are allocated to where it takes place, but some I found myself relating to a lot. Like Fred as Spike the bike messenger — that pretty much sums up my feelings about bicyclists on the road. Were a lot of those ideas based on daily occurrences everywhere more than dealing with people in Portland?

CB: Do you mean like are these characters based on people in Portland?

PB: I mean, the difference situations. Are these examples of people you would meet on an everyday occurrence like Spike or the Women And Women First bookstore, or even from this season, the notion of going into a Whole Foods-like store and forgetting your reusable bags?

CB: Yeah, I think the most dangerous thing we could do would be to make this show a concept show where the issues are conceptual. We have to draw from our own lives and experiences and to be able to relate to the characters because we don’t want them to be targets for cynicism as far as what we think of them. Even if someone seems extreme like Spike, I think of the handful of times a year that I ride a bike in Portland or even if someone rides a bike once a year, you become the biggest judger of car drivers. You pull up to a stop sign and you look at the car next to you, you want them to look at you because you feel superior for that one day of the year you are riding it. [laughs] Sometimes you do things, and that kind of situation shows that sometimes you can be just outlandish and self-righteous, so Spike isn’t that crazy — he is just the embodiment of someone doing something different. Forgetting grocery bags is the same way — that’s something I forget all the time, and I feel so guilty. [laughs] I keep buying reusable bags because I forget them each time I go so I’m just wasting these bags and now I’m a hoarder. [laughs] So a lot of these characters and situations I feel come from a place of truthfulness.

PB: Outside of the show being very well written, the one thing most people do discuss when it comes to Portlandia is the guest stars. Considering your connection with musicians, and Fred and his connections with comedy actors from working on Saturday Night Live, how did a lot of the people who have guested on the show come into the fold? Like, you have bits in the show that were specifically written for certain people like Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan, but how do a lot of them get involved?

Photo: Chris Hornbecker/IFC

CB: Some of it is a role written with a specific person in mind, and other times we will have a role we will start thinking of ideal people to play that role. Then it becomes a matter of availability, scheduling and just an overall desire on their part. We were trying to structurally compare it to people we would assume would be interested. But the people who tend to say yes are ones that already share our sensibility and have a desire and eagerness to create a character from the ground up. Like, Tim Robbins appears in the second season. He flew out and brought his own wig that was made for him in the movie High Fidelity. So he asked to talk to our costume designer beforehand about what to wear and he had a lot of his own ideas. He was great, and I think the people who have come on the show have embraced that. Heather Graham wrote her own journal entries for the episode she was in last season. It’s really fun. Sometimes it’s a formal process, and other times it involves Fred and I just getting on the phone and being like, ‘Hey remember me?’ [laughs]

PB: As soon as I saw Kyle MacLachlan on the show as the mayor of Portland, I had so hoped one of you was a fan of Twin Peaks because he is fantastic on the show.

CB: Yeah, Kyle is amazing! His take on the mayor is great. He is slightly ineffectual and he is very well-meaning. Like, there is a lot of humor to him and everything about him is just great to watch. We are so grateful to him because he did the pilot and he said yes well before this was tested as something that might get picked up. I mean, this show was a gamble, and he was all for it from the start. He was very much game and he is such a gentleman and we love writing for him. Like, writing for Season 2, we were like, ‘What are the mayor sketches we can do?’

Coming this season -- guest stars like Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, pictured here in Episode 2 with Carrie Brownstein.
Photo: Danielle Mathias/IFC

PB: How do you guys find time in your busy schedules to sit and collaborate on ideas? I mean, you are always on the road or in the studio recording and Fred is engaged with SNL nine months out of the year.

CB: It has to be intentional as far as the actual nuts and bolts of writing. As far as ideas are concerned, there is always something percolating between Fred and I. We are thinking of ideas throughout the year, but in terms of writing for the next season, you need to schedule time for that. Fred actually came out to Portland a couple weeks ahead of the initial writing schedule. We probably came up with 15 to 20 ideas from just sitting over two days of works — one was just sitting outside a coffee shop thinking up ideas. I remember walking into the coffee shop to use the restroom and realizing there was a DJ during the middle of the day. I was like, ‘Wow, half the e-mails I receive from my friends are people who are not DJs by trade but have a DJ name!’ [laughs] So then we did our DJ sketch, and you just need to entrench yourself in the writing process. But because we don’t know if we will have a third season ye. We have no reason to start the process again. [laughs]