Gwen Hollander probably never envisioned a role that would have her in a giant astronaut otter fursuit (much less acting opposite Jim Carrey in said fursuit), but…here we are! Gwen plays Sheryl aka Astron-Otter in Kidding, about a children’s puppet show host desperately trying to keep it together after the death of his son. The show masterfully blends dark themes into its peppy premise as Carrey’s character Jeff aka Mr. Pickles tries unsuccessfully to pitch an episode that would help children understand grief and sadness. The upcoming Season 2 follows Sheryl, Jeff, and the other characters – including the puppets – as they attempt to navigate a world without Mr. Pickles on air. Season 2 of Kidding premieres February 9th. You can also catch Gwen as Beverly Marsh in a musical parody of It at Rockwell Table and Stage.
Cliché: Tell us about the premise of your show, Kidding.
Gwen Hollander: The show follows Jeff Piccirillo (played by Jim Carrey), the star of a beloved children’s television show called Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, as he struggles to pick up the pieces of his personal life after the tragic loss of his son. The show kind of splits its focus between the real-life Jeff who’s grieving and trying desperately to maintain his sanity, and his public persona of “Mr. Pickles” who is forced to wear a happy face for his young viewers. Dave Holstein, the creator/showrunner of Kidding, said this in an interview, which I think really sums it up nicely: “I wanted to write a show about a kind man in a cruel world. I wanted to take a character with the depth of kindness and real genuine honesty of a Mr. Rogers type and then just see what it would take to just destroy them. In doing so, we try to find this universal theme of, ‘Can we be good, ourselves, in a world that is so increasingly dark?'”
How did you first get involved with Kidding?
I auditioned! One day last year I got a text from a friend with a breakdown for a different character on the show, saying “Ummm, you have to audition for this. It’s YOU.” Within the hour, I got a voicemail from another friend saying “I’m working on this show and there’s a part I think you’d be right for…” So I thought, “Ok, I guess I should probably try to get in for this show…?” (To clarify, I had done a production of Avenue Q and these friends both knew I had some puppetry experience, which is why I had come to mind). A couple weeks later I auditioned for a different part, then had a callback for Sheryl (AKA Astron-Otter), and then a final audition where I had to pick several different puppet characters to read and sing a song that had been written for the show. About a week later I found out I’d been cast as Sheryl/Astron-Otter!
The cast features heavy hitters like Jim Carrey and Judy Greer! Were you intimidated to be joining such a star-studded cast?
Sure, I guess there’s an intimidation factor in theory…I mean, Jim Carrey was probably the biggest star in the world when I was growing up, so it’s hard to imagine even seeing him in person, much less working with him. And I’ve always loved Judy Greer, Catherine Keener and Frank Langella (this cast is INSANE, across the board!). But it’s funny… once you get to set and you’re actually doing the thing, the intimidation goes away. Yes, it’s completely surreal. But they’re all wonderful, generous people, and suddenly you’re just working together. Watching these actors is like a master class in EVERYTHING. I’d often be in a scene and thinking to myself, “How lucky am I to be watching these actors do this scene from INSIDE the scene?”
Your character Sheryl is one of the puppeteers on the children’s show within the show. Did you know anything about puppeteering prior to taking the role? Did you actually learn how to do it?
So, this is interesting. I do have a little bit of experience with puppetry because, as I said, I had done a production of Avenue Q in New York a while ago. Typically with that show, part of the casting process is something they affectionately refer to as “puppet camp,” which is essentially a crash course in the basics of puppetry. So, I’d had that crash course, and then I learned so much more throughout the run of the show. I did use my own puppet for the Kidding auditions, when I was reading for all the various characters. But then I was cast as Astron-Otter, which isn’t a hand puppet but a full body character, which I had never done before. So there was a learning curve with that! The suit is very big and very heavy, and the head has an astronaut helmet on it which also has a fan built into it (to keep me cool, but also to keep the helmet from fogging up). So not only is the head/helmet very heavy, but we realized that I can’t hear anything at all when I’m wearing it. We discovered that the only way I could really hear someone is if they spoke to me through the back of my neck! So that made for some interesting interactions. It took a while to really figure out how to move easily in the suit (and the huge feet) and how to make thoughts and emotions translate through all that fur. She also doesn’t speak English; she communicates in this crazy beep-boop otter language, so all I had was her physicality. Usually suit performers are gymnasts or stunt people, and I am most definitely neither of those. I did a lot of on the job learning!
For a show about a children’s puppet show, Kidding has a lot of darker and more sobering moments. What’s it like having the opportunity to explore the somber side of what’s perceived to be such a lighthearted industry?
Oh my gosh, I think it’s the most brilliant aspect of the show. I loved the way it was handled in season one, when Jeff wants (needs, really) so desperately to do an episode of the show about death, and the powers that be refuse to air it because they feel it’s not appropriate. Talking to kids about the hard stuff makes them feel less alone, and Jeff knows that. Unfortunately, kids are going to experience death. They’re going to deal with divorce. It’s a really powerful thing, to be able to talk to kids about this scary stuff in a way that’s accessible, honest and really respects the complexities of what they may be going through. This is what Mr. Rogers did so beautifully, and what Sesame Street still does so well. Sesame Street just introduced a character who’s in foster care because her mom is in treatment for an opioid addiction. There’s so much fear around exposing kids to anything sad. Grief is such a profound (and inevitable) human experience, and I love that this show doesn’t shy away from the stark contrast between Jeff’s crippling personal struggle and his happy public persona.
What’s happening in general and with Sheryl in season 2?
Well, I can’t say too much about what’s going on in Season 2 because I don’t want to spoil it…but basically, it picks up right where the first season left off. Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time is off the air for the first time in 30 years, and Jeff is trying to figure out a way to reach his fans who still need him. The solution he comes up with is very controversial and there’s a lot of fallout from that. Even though the show within the show is off the air during this season, the puppets are still very present, and there’s a lot of music, magic, and wonderful surprises. One thing I can say, because it’s in the trailer and it’s been announced, is that Ariana Grande guest stars in an episode with all the puppets, and that episode is going to be mind-blowing! We had so much fun shooting it, and I can’t wait to see it!
You’re also currently performing in a musical parody of It! How did that opportunity come about?
I had done several other musical parodies at this venue (Rockwell Table and Stage); I actually did their very first one in 2014, which was a musical parody of Scream! So, I knew the team who was creating the show and was part of that world already. But I still went in to audition!
What role are you playing?
I’m playing Beverly Marsh, the role played by Sophia Lillis and Jessica Chastain in the movies. We all play both the kid and adult versions of our characters; Act 1 covers the first movie and Act 2 is the second!
How does acting for the stage differ from acting on screen? Do you prefer one to the other?
Well, at the end of the day acting is acting, but there are some major differences. I would say one of the biggest differences is that live theatre is just that: live. It’s an immediate experience that involves a live audience and it’s going to be different every time, even if the differences are very subtle. The show I’m doing at Rockwell is a perfect example of this because it’s completely immersive; the show takes place on stage but also in the audience and throughout the entire space, so the audience feels like a character in the show. The audience is different each night, so the show is different! It makes this particular kind of theatre feel like an extreme sport; there’s such an adrenaline rush when you know that anything can happen. Another thing that’s different from an acting perspective is that on screen, you’re never really shooting things in sequence. On stage, you’re telling a story from start to finish, so you’re on the journey that your character is on. On screen, you have to do the work of “okay, what just happened? In this scene, where is my character in the arc of the story? What has she been through so far, and what does she know/not know?” And also, rehearsal! In theatre we rehearse as a group for anywhere from one week to two months, and that’s where so many of the discoveries are made. With film and TV, that work is (usually) done largely on your own, before you get to set. I love both, but I’ve been working in theatre since I was 14 and I think it will always have my heart. But I’m loving working on camera, too…it feels like flexing two different muscles.
When you think of It, musical parody isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. How does the musical offer a fresh take on the cult classic?
That’s such a great question, and actually something I’ve thought a lot about because I’ve done several of these musical parodies. With the horror stuff, a lot of the comedy comes from sending up the genre itself. I actually think scary stuff might be the most fun to parody; scary movies rely on tension, and laughter is like the release valve! What takes the power away from something scary like pointing out how silly it is? I’ve read IT and I happen to love the book. I also loved the movies; we’re not really making fun of the source material…although the book does go off in some pretty wild directions and we get into that a little bit. As for how it offers a fresh take: aside from being funny, the music is INCREDIBLE (Act 1 is music from the 80’s and Act 2 has more recent hit songs), and everyone in the cast is a killer singer. There’s also a ton of dancing! A singing and dancing Pennywise is something I never knew that I needed to see!
How would you respond if Pennywise confronted you?
I mean, if I’m being honest? If we’re talking about the Pennywise from the movie? I’d probably have a heart attack on the spot. I do NOT like being scared, and while I don’t necessarily have a fear of clowns, I don’t want to be startled by one in a dark alley or anything!
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Gwen Hollander is Just “Kidding” Around. Photo Credit: Jennifer Dionne, Kismet Photography.