Alanna Ubach has been one of the most in-demand character actors in Hollywood for the last three decades. But recently, she’s experienced an explosion of attention. “What the hell happened? I’ve only been doing this for 368 years,” she joked over the phone, calling from her home in Los Angeles. Her list of acting credits from the early 1990s to today is interminably long, and she has a habit of selecting projects that end up garnering fervent fandoms.
Whether she’s playing a naive, boy-crazy office temp in the indie cult classic Clockwatchers, a ditzy CULA cheerleader in mainstream cult classic Legally Blonde, a shoemaking matriarch in Coco, or a mom with a predilection for a glass (or three) of red wine in Euphoria, Ubach disappears so fully into her roles that she becomes almost unrecognizable. And in her latest part, a kooky flight attendant in season two of HBO Max’s mystery-thriller-comedy The Flight Attendant, Ubach really gets to have fun playing someone she once described as a “hateful bitch.”
Below, Ubach tells W all about her origins as a young performer in Southern California, her favorite part of being so closely tied to the zeitgeist, and her biggest regret.
One of your earliest films, Jill Sprecher’s 1997 indie Clockwatchers, has also re-entered the zeitgeist. It is one of my favorites, and I’m wondering how you feel about people discovering this small indie movie—starring yourself with Toni Collette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow—that can barely be found online?
You’re kidding! We just had a screening of that at LACMA not too long ago. It’s funny you say that because Jill Sprecher and I were the only ones who were there for the Q&A. Ironically, there were only a few copies of Clockwatchers. There’s one company that was able to get the masters and transpose it onto a screen, so that development is why we were able to have a screening.
Yes, I had seen the film ages ago and was looking for the DVD recently, even trying to find it at a library and I couldn’t. Then one day last summer I saw it was available to stream on the Criterion Channel. What do you know about the story behind how that film was made?
I’ll be honest with you: it was one of the most interesting scripts I had read at that time. It was coming out of an age when indie films began to become commercialized and rather corporate. It seemed to be at the very tail end of making indie films with private investors for the love of just making a film, wanting to say something poignant. I believe businessmen caught on watching Quentin Tarantino films and all of these films at Sundance where they thought, wow, we could actually make money off of these low-budget films.
I believe Jill Sprecher was a temp herself, and she decided to write about her story. She was in the middle of this crazy situation, in an office where things started disappearing and no one would admit that they were the thief. Everyone started getting really paranoid and looking at each other suspiciously and she thought, I have to write about this. And then Clockwatchers was born. Isn’t that funny?
You’re also very recognized for your work in Legally Blonde. That was a box office success and spawned a sequel, with another one on the way. But it maintains a cult status, not too dissimilar from Clockwatchers, among its fans. How do you find yourself becoming part of these cultural objects that people really latch onto?
It’s very thrilling because when you’re in it, you have a very hard time studying it from an overview. You do your job, everyone is wrapped, and you think, well, that was a lot of fun and I hope everyone else enjoys watching it as much as I did doing it. You can only hope that it catches on. I like to say I’ve kissed a lot of frogs, as far as projects are concerned. I’ve done many pilots where you think, oh, this is just gonna move mountains. And that rarely happens. So when something like Legally Blonde, or Euphoria, or Clockwatchers catches on, it’s amazing. There’s nothing better than that feeling.
What were your original motivations for becoming an actor?
My father loved to gamble, so he would fly us to Vegas on the weekends. If he won at craps, he would then buy tickets to dinner shows. I remember him handing the maître d’ a one hundred dollar bill, and we’d be sitting at the center table, eating our prime rib and watching shows like Captain and Tennille, Charo, Wayne Newton, Donny and Marie Osmond. I remember asking my parents if [the performers] went to the bathroom. My mom and dad started laughing, “Of course they go pee and poo, Alanna! These are real people, they rehearse, and they get paid to perform!” I couldn’t understand it, but I wanted to be a part of it.
I wanted to be the smell of cigarette smoke and prime rib and the unity of everyone laughing or clapping at the same time, to be a part of the lights and the velvet curtains. I asked for a stage that Christmas from Santa, and my parents were immigrants so they were very tickled by the fact that I wanted to be a performer. They built a stage and put it in the garage, and I started handing out flyers at the dinner table. My family would show up on Friday night and I would perform. I signed with my first manager at 15, and my dad told her to be selective.
Your list of credits runs very long, and the roles you’ve played, from naive boy crazy office temp to a wino mom, are all quite different. What do you look for in a role or project?
My father died when I was very 19 and my mother just died last year. Since his death, mortality and borrowed time is always on my mind. The characters I responded to were those I thought I would be able to hide inside, and would be a love letter to someone I lost or someone I really missed. Grieving and loss tend to be in all of those characters I portray; I seem to be more passionate about characters that remind me of people I miss. Grief doesn’t let up. It’s like that D-minor chord always playing in your ear—the only time it disappears is when I lose myself in whatever character I’m attached to.
Euphoria could certainly be classified as a meditation on grief and the human response to it, but something similar could also be said about The Flight Attendant. You play a woman named Carol, whom her colleagues have deigned “Black Market Carol” due to her shady side hustle of selling freebie plane tickets. How did you become involved in this show and is Carol based on anyone you know?
I originally tried out for Rosie Perez’s role and I think they remembered me from that audition. So I was offered the role of Carol, which is very rare—I am rarely offered roles. Carol is based on my ballet teacher when I was growing up. She was very particular and a perfectionist, sophisticated and off-kilter, super lonely and scared the shit out of me. She was always on a diet pill high, and she had an even higher bouffant. I thought, Yeah, that’s Carol. And it’s always fun pretending to hate Kaley Cuoco, who is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet.
You play a mother of two in Euphoria, and while some may question if she’s a good mom or showing one of her daughters preferential treatment in season two, it seems fair to say she’s at least trying. Your character, Suze Howard, has a moment from the final episodes that has become a meme. When you found out that your fictional daughter would be staging a play where she puts her other sister on blast, what did you think?
I reacted the way my mom would have. My mom was an anything-goes kind of woman. She loved the arts. I remember doing a one-woman show and doing a caricature of her that was the bitchiest character in the show. My mother cracked up and was so proud. I thought, wow, that’s the way to react to anything in life. So I was paying homage to my mother’s reaction: she just eats everything up, no matter how personal or painful it is.
You’ve lent your very recognizable voice to many animated series and films, recently the Pixar film Coco. What’s your favorite part of doing voiceovers?
Oh, you can be naked and create a character. It’s a very easy process. And it is very rewarding when you watch it and know that you could actually share that with your child. I have a four-year-old son who still doesn't understand what I do for a living, but when I show him a cartoon character and I say, mom is the voice behind that, he recognizes it.
You’ve had such a long career in different mediums, but do you have any regrets?
I do regret opening up a vending machine business while I was filming Hung. I wanted to invest in something that would give me a profit without me being present. A laundromat seemed too complicated. I saved all of my money and I invested in vending machines sprinkled throughout Southern California. I would get calls in the middle of the night when I had a 5:00 A.M call time, saying, “We need more Diet Cokes. Alanna, could you please come down and reload? We also need Snickers bars.” It was a nightmare. [Laughs.] I gave them away to a vending machine mechanic named Rudy; Hung was being filmed in Detroit and I had to go out of town. So I gave him the keys to all of the machines. I didn’t even sell them.
What is your proudest moment as an actor?
Euphoria is one of the most fulfilling, because I had a punk rock sister growing up. She was 11 years older than me, and I grew up watching films like Foxes, The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane, Sid and Nancy, Christiane F., Over the Edge. These were movies that left rocks in people’s shoes. As a kid, I thought, I wanna be an alien on one of those planets one day, because they were spooky and they were poignant, and they were very far away from the safe suburban life I knew growing up. Euphoria is closest to that. These are sociopolitical movies, they’re not meant to be warm and fuzzy.