Over the years, audiences have gotten used to seeing Mireille Enos as a zombie-fighter (“World War Z”), as a blue-jeaned detective on the trail of a murderer (“The Killing”), and even doing her own stunts on the high-concept thriller “Hanna.” (Unsurprisingly, she has a black belt in taekwondo.) As for the more everyday-people skills of showing off her deft comic timing and happy-to-see-you smile on her new series, AMC’s funny-sad “Lucky Hank”? Not many saw that coming. Except for Enos herself.
“It was just what I was looking for,” she says. In it, she plays Lily, a small-town vice principal and wife to William Henry Devereaux Jr. (Bob Odenkirk), a third-tier college English professor and world-class grouch. “For me, I’m telling the story of two people who are in the right marriage,” she says. “Then life rolls along, like life does, and puts them on a path that they weren’t expecting.”
What’s trickier to pull off — a rogue CIA agent or someone you might pass at the supermarket?
When you’re doing gun shows, it’s actually a smaller toolbox. It’s like flexing one muscle: how to show nothing, to be contained. “Lucky Hank” actually asks a lot more. It asks me to bring a bigger version of a person, to be silly, to be all the things that a person is. Actually, I got very scared in the weeks before we started shooting. I was like, “What if I don’t know how to be a full person on camera? Why do I only know how to be a lone wolf?”
Looking back, why do you think it took so long to be given the chance to play someone like Lily?
I had this idea that what was fascinating was to play someone with a secret. I’d actually say it in interviews: “It’s fascinating playing someone with a secret.” But at some point, when I felt committed to shifting, I said to myself, “I have to stop saying that phrase.” I have to say, “I want to play someone who’s an open book,” then wait and see what that brings.
How did Lily end up as an undervalued school administrator?
I think she didn’t want to be a vice principal. I think she had lofty goals. My mom was a high school French teacher, an excellent one, and she loved teaching. The other side of it was all the red tape, all the bureaucracy. All of that made her miserable. So I definitely thought a lot about that, about the love of teaching, and also the weight of all of the forms that have to be filled out. I think Lily’s life has become a lot about forms.
What other research did you do?
Lily is bright and open, and I found myself in the preparation stage compulsively emailing [showrunners] Aaron [Zelman] and Paul [Lieberstein] and being like, [mimes typing at her laptop] “I think she eats gummy cherries!” Random, to the point where I was like, “They’re going to fire me before I walk on set, because I’m so annoying.” But I couldn’t help myself [laughs].
You’ve played a lot of unflinchingly quiet types. What’s it like to tap into your naturally bouncy, cheerful side?
In dramatic pieces where stillness is what’s invited, there’s something restful about that. The cameras are rolling, we’re in this cocoon of the world of the movie, and I get to just be still. But it’s not as exhilarating as what “Lucky Hank” invites you to do, which is just to not control it so much, to just let life flow through you and see what comes out of your mouth. You never know what’s going to come out of Bob’s mouth. And to fire something back is exhilarating.
Even though you are firing back at Bob Odenkirk, an undisputed king of improv?
That was a little terrifying. I had to keep reminding myself that when I started out, I did 10 years of theater in New York. A lot of it was very funny and involved physical comedy and farce. It was an arena I felt comfortable in. Partially, that’s because you have an audience’s response. You know when you’re on the right track. In TV, you don’t have that. I talked to my husband, Alan Ruck, about it. He’s a very funny guy. He did “Spin City.” And I was like, “You don’t have that feedback.” And he’s like, “No, you just have to know that what you’re doing is funny.”
What’s your theory about why sunny Lily fell in love with the perennially disgruntled Hank?
They’ve been together 24 years. The seeds were always there of him being a curmudgeon, but he was a softer version of himself. There’s an age difference between them, but not huge. I think that plays into why they fell in love. She was dating a bunch of 25-year-old idiots and then there was [Hank], who was intelligent, who could really see her, who could make her laugh harder than she’d ever laughed, but who had this negative side. And she had the power to pull him up, which was nice for him. And it was nice for her too.