If you’ve watched television in the past two decades, Busy Philipps is likely a familiar face to you. With roles on a litany of hit shows including Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, ER, and Cougar Town, Philipps has secured her place as an in-demand actor—a position that’s sure to continue with the launch of her latest project, the new HBO series Vice Principals. Playing Gale, the ex-wife of Danny McBride’s character, Philipps was able to put her comedic spin on a character that’s very different from her own California-cool persona. We recently chatted with Busy about her role on the show and her signature style when off-camera. Read on to find out why she’s been sporting blue hair lately, learn more about her trouble with her own high school vice principal, and about her love affair with an AstroTurf backpack. And be sure to tune into the premiere of Vice Principals on HBO July 17th.
The Window: Vice Principals has been getting so much buzz, and it hasn’t even premiered yet! What can we expect from the show that’s maybe different from shows we’ve seen you on in the past?
Busy Philipps: I think if you look at my career, on the whole, I’ve been very fortunate that every project I’ve been a part of has really been so different. I do understand the inclination to gravitate toward a particular character or role for some actors, and then just to keep playing that. But personally, that’s never been very interesting to me. One of the greatest things about figuring out what to do after Cougar Town‘s 6-year run was that I really had the freedom to decide if I wanted to do a more traditional network-type sitcom or try something a bit different. And the opportunity to work with Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green was too good to pass up. The part itself was actually secondary to wanting to work with those guys and be a part of their brand of comedy. The show is intense. It’s super funny, wild, and out there. I think people are going to be into it. At least I hope they will be!
How would you describe your character, Gale? Are there any areas in which you connected with her, or that were a big stretch for you?
Oh, Gale. I love her, I really do. She was a lot of fun because I was able to imbue her underlying anger and disdain for her ex-husband—and also this intense sort-of disdain for her new husband—into all of our scenes. I like that idea of someone who’s so unhappy with everyone in their life, no matter what, never digging deeper and realizing the issue is probably her own. In real life, I go to therapy every week, so I’m well aware of what my own issues are! I’ve also been dealing with my own feelings about aging and getting older, and I wanted Gale to have a weird competitive relationship with her preteen daughter. I’ve seen this with moms I know—the costume designer Sarah Troost and I decided that Gale probably would be one of those women who would “borrow” her daughter’s clothes. You know, like, “I can fit into my fourteen-year-old’s jeans!” Even if they’re mostly stretch, she feels like it’s a win. It’s also part of why I liked the fact that I had blue hair for her character. It’s a little trashy, certainly, but I think it instantly telegraphs who this woman is. You see her coming and you think, “Oh, OK. HER. Gotcha.” And then when we decided she was a hard-core spin teacher, a teacher who probably is really mean to her students, but all in the name of love and growth. I personally connected to that, since I love my SoulCycle, though I’ve never had a teacher who was mean. That’s unique to Gale.
What do you remember about your own high school vice principal? Did shooting this first season bring back anything from your own high school days?
This question is so funny because I had a real issue with my high school’s vice principal. She told me when I was a senior that acting was NOT a real career and to get it together and start focusing on something that could actually take me somewhere in life. She was the worst. I almost didn’t graduate because of her! She accused me of cheating on some dumb online government class I had to do because she said I “finished it too quickly.” She really had it out for me. It’s obviously all worked out alright for me, no thanks to her! Most of my scenes on the show are outside of the school, since we’re a part of the Danny’s character’s home life, so thankfully I didn’t experience any PTSD from high school on set.
What was your style like back then?
Oh my god—typical ‘90s crazy theater kid. Think Courtney Love in Hole, mixed with a raver club kid, but growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. I would buy weird vintage dresses, then wear them with fishnets and my green Doc Martins. Then for a while, I wore white patent leather Mary-Janes that I bought at Wild Pair and was obsessed with. Anything from the Delia’s catalog I could convince my mom to buy me—I got an AstroTurf backpack for Christmas one year. It was my pride and joy.
How would you describe your personal style today? How has it grown up along with you?
I think when I was younger, especially since I wanted to be an actor and I was quite dramatic, I really dressed for attention. Almost in costume, in a way. And I had to be creative because I didn’t have a ton on money to work with, so vintage and thrift became a big part of my life. Actually, I still love vintage, but now it tends to be a bit more high-end. I love Collection LA and The Way We Wore for vintage. There’s something incredible to me about a garment that has had a whole life before you. That’s why, even while I totally understand it, fast fashion really makes me sad. I don’t like to think of fashion as being disposable or something you wear for six months and throw away. I bought a black and white polka-dot Dolce & Gabbana gown a few years back at Barneys for the Golden Globes, and I wear it to weddings still. I imagine my daughters will wear it someday. It’s timeless. I love the craftsmanship that goes into good clothes, which is why I love what Irene Neuwirth does, or someone like Isabel Marant. I love these people who have a singular vision of what their brand is and are able to articulate it through their garments or jewelry. My day-to-day fashion choices at this point are dictated a bit by the practical nature of being a hands-on mom, so I lean toward good dresses with pockets that I can wear with sneakers or booties—I just prefer dresses, I always have. I have about a million jean jackets. I love my leather moto jacket. I love platform sneakers or oxfords, so you can have some height but not kill yourself running after a 2-year-old.
Of the characters you’ve played, who would you say had the best wardrobe?
I have to say, I’ve yet to play a woman whose wardrobe I’ve envied. It’s a bummer, but also part of the fun. My character Laurie from Cougar Town was the most fun probably, and the costume department really always had such a blast putting together her insane ensembles. But would I want to wear any of it? Probably not. Maybe an occasional accessory or something. But that was what was fun about Laurie—she was always too much!
As the weather continues to heat up, what items are you loving wearing this summer?
I love sandals, especially the embellished sandals of the last 2 years. They’re so cute and you can dress them up or down. I am always excited for summer dress season. In LA, it’s so funny because we really have June Gloom here, so we have to wait a little longer to break out the real summer dresses, but then we get to wear them until October!
Do you have a “fashion uniform” you find yourself going to again and again?
Right now, I’m rocking my silver Stella McCartney platform oxfords on the regular. I always love a good denim dress, and I buy one almost every season—but I’m not one of those girls that you’ll see wearing the same look over and over again. That’s just not my style. I’ve always been into expressing myself through my clothes. I’ve just managed to refine it as I’ve gotten older.
Any fashion rules you live by?
Be open to trying everything. You never know what might work! Except a drop-waist—I have to accept that will never work on me.