Last Wednesday, when all of Duke was a-stirring for the UNC game, Parks and Recreation star Retta Sirleaf slipped onto campus to join in the Blue Devil hype for one of the most nail-biting and intense basketball games of the year. However, Retta isn't just a die-hard Cameron Crazie. She's also an alumna of the class of '92. As part of her homecoming before the big game, Retta stopped by Bostock for a small lunch with a few student artstigators to talk about her success in the television industry. The basis of this lunch was a kumbaya-type gathering where students had a question and answer session with Retta. Amazing right?
Here's the breakdown of the discussion of the lunch.
How did your undergraduate career translate into a career in the comedy and television?
Retta Sirleaf: I was premed so...(laughs)...but I did a black theatre group and I sang in the black mass choir. I was a math and science girl, but the medical schools wanted more well-rounded students, so I said okay, well, I'll do sociology: "the science of people." I was always funny...but when I'm doing stand up it [my sociology background] gave me the sense of getting the vibe from people. I was always focusing on that one person who wasn't going to laugh, and that was the person at the end of the show who came up to me and said, "You were so f****** funny!" Well you could crack a smile at the very least! I think my sociology helped me grasp these experiences quicker.
I remember when Chris Rock's Bring the Pain came out and I was obsessed. That was a great sociological test. He did a lot of negative black material. I would watch it with black Duke students and they would die. White Duke students were afraid to laugh because he's talking s*** about black people. You could tell they kind of thought it was funny but were afraid to laugh and might even tell the jokes themselves––they better not. NC Central students were amused, but were like "really brah?" UNC white students, f****** clueless [makes over-their heads gesture]. They ask, "This is funny?" I was a sociology major, I could tell how it was affecting people. It taught me, you're gonna make a decision about what you talk about in stand-up. You have to be okay about this group of people not being okay with it and another group being completely clueless. If that's what you have to do then that's what you have to do.
Why did you end up doing stand up, and as a results, how did you make the transition from a stand-up comedian to a TV actress?
RS: When I started stand up, the sitcoms were all lead by comics. I didn't know any better. Roseanne, Brett Butler, Tim Allen, Seinfeld, all these comics were getting shows and I thought that was the path you were supposed to take. So I had a friend here who was organizing an event and asked me to stand-up. I decided to do it, so I called my younger brother––because he's funny––and he was just telling me stupid stories and so I just ended up telling his stupid stories about how his friend fell on the ice and other stupid stuff. During my set, I specifically remember saying: joke number one and then tell the story and then joke number two. I guess that was just sort of my shtick. Another friend, she had a job an outlet mall over towards Raleigh and they were trying to programming and she also asked me to do stand-up. There I tried to do the whole joke number one-thing and it was like "crickets...crickets" and I was like, "Shoot me in the face." It was a nightmare.
Would you continue to do stand-up comedy forever?
RETTA: I did not want to be a comic. That was not my jam. That was not my groove. I wanted to be on TV and perform with people. I loved doing the plays in high school and the few plays I did in college. I had auditioned for a movie with Steve Carrell but I didn't get the part––Wanda Sykes got the part––but the casting director really liked me because I killed it in the audition and so they called and were like "Are you available?" I kept getting calls from my acting director asking "Are you available on this day?" during my acting class...you can't interrupt your acting class unless it's for a job. So at the end of the day, my agent says "Whatshername loved your audition and wants you to have a scene in this movie. It is for this big movie and by the way your scene is with Anthony Hopkins." I was like, "YOU BURIED THE LEAD!" And I was pretty paranoid before filming the scene. I remember him coming up and being like, "Hey, I'm Tony." And I'm like, "Oh really? it's Tony?! Aren't you Sir Anthony?"
How did you develop your character Donna Meagle on Parks and Recreation?
RS: So when I first got hired, I was a glorified extra. My character wasn't even really in the script. They actually created a scene for me to audition. They told me, in a couple of episodes they might have this happen. But I had no written dialogue in the pilot. Then I remember Amy [Poehler] improvised a scene. I wasn't an improv-er. There was a board and there was a leaf pinned to it and so she as Leslie, was showing the camera men the office and she was like "This is Donna...so Donna, where'd this leaf come from?" I said, "From outside." She thought it was hilarious and I was still throwing up inside. Like I said we got to improv a little bit, and by season three, I became a series regular. By then, the writers know who you are and a lot of the characteristics you find of the characters on the show are parts of you. The only reason Donna sings on the show is because I sing. The episode where Leslie gets Donna the robe that says "He can get it." that is something I always say. The writers would always hear me say about somebody hot all the time, "girl, he can get it." You shape the character in how you perform, but the writers decide what you do in the show.
What was the dynamic on set?
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RS: We are very lucky because we all really do get along. The actors, we get along with our crew and we are really close to our crew. This makes this harder to leave this show. There are shows where the leads don't speak unless they're shooting because the leads don't like each other. This group is not like that. The first person on the call sheet will dictate the vibe of that show. Amy is very protective of all of us but she also doesn't f*** around. She's like "get to the point, what do you want? Don't dance around, don't sing around, tell me what you need so we can help you." We once had this one English guy––cute, he can get it––directing and he was doing like 15 or 20 takes, and no one's gonna be obnoxious, and I remember he would say, "okay, one more?" and Amy would say, "Okay...one more?" "One more." "J-just one more?" So we do the one more and he's like "Okay one more" and Amy says, "Uh, I think we got it." I'm so lucky to have been a part of such a cool cast.
How can you create your Duke experience to put you on the right track to succeed in the industry?
RS: I think the first thing is knowing what you want to do. I don't think I knew I wanted to be an actor because all my life it was medicine, medicine, medicine. I knew I was fun and liked to do plays and would do that as extra-curricular, but it wasn't until I graduated that I was bold enough to say I'm not married, I don't have kids, I'm going to drive cross country and try it. It's not like I have anything to lose at that point––except my car. They came and took that shit.
Join the programming department here so that you can bring however you want to campus. Watch open mikes and get inspired by the other comics. When I see someone either just perform in a way I've never seen, or tell a joke that comes from an angle that I never saw coming, then I want to go home and write. I want to be that person who's imaginative and creative. As a comic, you always have to write. My advice is to always carry a notebook. Anything you think is funny, write it down. Don't try to remember it, you will forget. Now I'll just type it in my phone. I used to sleep with a notepad on the floor and when I would dream about something funny, I would just write on the floor and when I woke up I couldn't read anything on the notepad. Half the time, I had a good bit.
They talk about networking and nothing makes me crazier than trying to schmooze people. I feel awkward when it happens and it has happened. Surround yourself with creative people whether it's acting class or something else. There, everyone is one the same level, and people pop. Most of the time creative people hire who they know to cast in their own productions.
Afterwards, Recess had the chance to speak personally with Retta. She told us a little bit more about her time here at Duke and her comedic acting.
The Chronicle: What will you miss the most about working on Parks? What will you miss the most about playing your character Donna Meagle?
Retta Sirleaf: I will miss the friends I made. The cast and the crew were pretty close. I hope that I get to work with everyone again.
I will miss having the two hours every morning with our hair and makeup team before going to set. I loved sitting, chatting and laughing with our team while they turned me into the Pawnee diva.
I'll also miss getting to be the mysterious enigma that is Donna Meagle. I'll miss getting to surprise her co-workers (and the audience) with her new adventures and with new information that no one saw coming. And I'll miss getting to say all the smart-a** s*** that she got away with.
TC: You’re a big live-tweeter, especially for TV shows. Is there a show that resonates the most with your life? If you could make a TV show your real-world life for one day, which show would you choose?
RS: I don't know that any of the shows I watch exactly resonate with my actual life. I watch shows for escapism. And I love a variety of shows. The Good Wife, Scandal, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries, Empire all bring me much enjoyment. But as for actually wanting to spend a real life day in one, I don't think that would work for me because all of them are dangerous to some degree. If I could spend a day in a show it would probably be Downton Abbey — if I got to be upstairs! I'd get to have a lady in waiting, wear fabulous flapper clothing and I'd want to sit next to Lady Mary and the The Dowager Countess of Grantham because I wouldn't want to miss any of the gossip or snide remarks.
TC: You haven’t been to a Duke-UNC game since you graduated. What was it like for you to come back for the Duke-UNC game in Cameron on Feb. 18?
RS: It was crazy to be back in that building with all that energy. It felt like I was right back in undergrad: screaming at the top of my lungs, clapping my hands harder and harder because that somehow helped the team, and leaving exhausted as if I had played full regulation plus overtime.
TC: Is there anything about Duke you’ve missed? What have you been most surprised to discover during your recent visit?
RS: I guess I miss the friendships I had at Duke. It was such a charmed part of my life. I had a great time with friends and got to experience camaraderie with the student body that was heightened by back-to-back national championships. I really feel like the best four years to be at Duke were my four years there.
TC: If you could say one thing to your Duke-self, what would it be?
RS: I would tell myself to take more advantage of what Duke had to offer. As much as I felt my life was enriched during my time at Duke, I know there was so much more available that I could/would have enjoyed. I've always regretted not studying abroad. I would've auditioned for more productions, and I would've attended more sporting events. I only saw one fencing match, one or two lacrosse matches and no soccer. I have a blast watching all sports now.
The series finale of Parks and Recreation aired this past Tuesday. If you missed it, catch on hulu.com or nbc.com. A special thanks to Christina Holder at the Alumni Center for organizing this event and a special thanks to the #artstigators for their vibrant questions during the discussion.