ABC Takes a Pregnant Pause
A pivotal force behind the independent 2001 movie hit "Kissing Jessica Stein" -- which she co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred in -- she's content just to be an actress for hire by returning to the television sitcom world in ABC's new Wednesday series "Notes From the Underbelly."
Delayed from its originally planned debut last fall, the show is based on Risa Green's novel about a couple (played in the show by Westfeldt and Peter Cambor) approaching first-time parenthood with great trepidation. They try to keep the big news to themselves as long as they can, fearing how it might change their lives while gauging how their acquaintances feel about parenting in general.
Not a parent in real life, Westfeldt reports that for research, she has been "canvassing all my friends who have had a baby in the past year or two. When we started production, I had two pregnant friends I was watching expand. I definitely feel like I've heard everything firsthand: 'I'm at the point where I can't even sleep. I can't get comfortable. I'm like a beached whale!' I've had a lot of resources to get perspective."
The style of "Notes From the Underbelly" often finds its main characters "breaking the fourth wall," or addressing the audience, a technique Westfeldt enjoys. She also likes having filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "Get Shorty") on board as an executive producer: "It's great that he responded to this and wanted to do it. He brought a lot of his fantastic crew from films he's worked on, so it's nice to feel we're with the 'A' team."
"Notes From the Underbelly" isn't Westfeldt's first series. Previously a regular on "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" and "Holding the Baby," she also had recurring status on "Judging Amy" and "Hack."
"With every pilot you do," she says, "you realize it can [develop into] a really big chunk of your life, and that is always scary. Then you look at the odds, and it's so rare that something will go two or three or four seasons. If it does, that's a pretty high-class problem to have, but it's always a challenge."
While she's happy to be sought by other producers, Westfeldt still appreciates how rare an experience "Kissing Jessica Stein" -- the story of two women's relationship -- was for her and Heather Juergensen, then her main creative partner.
"It was exciting that it came about in such an organic way," Westfeldt reflects. "We were doing this little play in a tiny, 99-seat theater, then I came back to Los Angeles right after that to start 'Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.'
"Suddenly, my agent said, 'All these studios are calling to option your play and make it into a movie.' I was like, 'What?' It was this tiny play we invited friends and family to, just a creative, fun thing; I guess that's always when you can do your best work, when it's just for the art of it. It became about learning how to write a screenplay, and then it just languished in development hell."
Westfeldt and Juergensen decided to buy back the rights and make the film on their own, with Fox Searchlight Pictures ultimately purchasing it for distribution.
"With every step of the journey, it was like the project led us," Westfeldt reasons. "I'm not sure I would have chosen that, but of course, I loved the freedom of getting to have such an impact on the product, and also of getting to play a role that maybe was more complicated than others I was cast in."
The picture's success and film-festival honors could have resulted in something on the order of "Kissing Jessica Stein Again," but Westfeldt notes, "Sequels almost never work unless they're part of a franchise, which is not what such a small film is meant to be. I also don't think that most TV series based on movies work; besides 'M*A*S*H,' I don't know of many examples. I loved those characters, and I just want them to live where they were."
Since then, Westfeldt has created newlyweds and their relatives for "Ira and Abby," another comedy she wrote and stars in. It earned audience-decided awards at Los Angeles and Boston film festivals last year, fortifying her belief that such showcases are "the way to build word of mouth. To have 600 or 700 people appreciate your film seems the most compelling evidence to convince buyers that it's viable. You can show that audiences are responding to it."
With a resume also encompassing considerable stage work, Westfeldt earned a Tony Award nomination for the 2003 revival of the musical "Wonderful Town," her Broadway debut. "Part of the thing that draws me to an actor's life," she concludes, "is that I really like killing myself for a number of months and just giving my all to something, then doing something else. I like the cyclical nature of it. That's part of the thrill for me."