A Quentin Tarantino movie is one of the last places you might expect to see Kate Berlant. Tarantino’s scripts are airtight, and Berlant is known for absurdist stand-up comedy and idiosyncratic improvisations. But there she is, popping up around the midway point of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to deliver her most restrained performance to date.
Berlant plays a clerk selling tickets at a Los Angeles movie theater. The year is 1969, and the theater is showing “The Wrecking Crew,” a spy spoof starring Dean Martin and Sharon Tate. At the time, Tate ― played by Margot Robbie ― was a rising star best known for “Valley of the Dolls” and her tabloid-friendly marriage to “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski. She strolls up to the ticket booth and announces that she’s in the film. Berlant’s character balks, but after being convinced, she snaps the actress’ photograph, saying, “Why don’t you stand over by the poster so people will know who you are?” It’s a subtle wisecrack with a grim undertone, considering Tate’s burgeoning it-girl status was cut short when Charles Manson’s disciples murdered her a few months after “The Wrecking Crew” opened. Now, everyone knows Sharon Tate for all the wrong reasons: less as a promising performer and more as a symbol of the counterculture’s swift demise. Tarantino told Berlant she secured the part because she was the only person who “got the joke.”
I profiled Berlant last year when she had a hilarious role in the surreal romp “Sorry to Bother You.” After seeing her in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which revolves around a semi-washed-up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman (Brad Pitt), I needed to know how her cameo came to be. So she called me to discuss all things Tarantino. We also gabbed (or should I say gagged?) about her standout appearance on “The Other Two,” the clever Comedy Central series about siblings (Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke) whose young brother (Case Walker) becomes a Bieberesque pop phenom.
I last saw you a little over a year ago, and I did not expect our next conversation to be about a Quentin Tarantino movie.
I know. You can imagine my joy. You can only imagine.
How did you land in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”?
Well, you have to pray for it your whole life. No, honestly, it’s so funny because this is truly the first job I’ve ever gotten from an audition. Everything I’ve ever done has been because someone has seen my stand-up and they asked me to do it.
Did you audition for Quentin?
No, I went in for just a standard, million-people-in-the-waiting-room kind of thing. I went in for the casting director. I did it once and they were like, “Thank you!” And I was like, “OK, I didn’t get it and that’s fine.” I’ve gotten used to the reality of just never getting things from an audition. Maybe a week went by and I got a call that I was in the final three and he was deciding between those three.
And then did you go back in after that?
No, that was it. He just watched my tape. Even though emotionally it’s huge, it’s a very small role. And it’s not like an outlandishly comedic role, necessarily. It’s kind of just a simple scene.
It was very surreal. It was kind of stressful because I had been very lucky to be booked on another job, and I was planning to leave town for three weeks for something that would have been more substantial, acting-wise. But to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie is, of course, a life dream of mine, and so I had to do the very unfortunate, rather unprofessional thing of pulling out of something else to do one scene in this movie. I had to.
Did you read the same scene for the audition?
I did the exact scene. And when I got to set, I was so amazed. He was so incredibly warm with me, and playful. He said, “Yeah, you were the only one that got the joke.” And I was like, “Oh!” He said, “Do exactly what you did in the audition.” I was like, “OK!”
Did he elaborate on what he meant about you being the only one who got the joke?
No, and I didn’t ask [Laughs]. I think it’s the attitude of it.
There’s a lot of mythology about what Quentin Tarantino is like and what his sets entail. Did he live up to the lore?
I’m actually overjoyed to say it surpassed my expectation. This was a very long shoot. It’s a huge movie with the most famous living actors, and so I had zero expectations for him to live up to some kind of personality. I just wanted to get there, do my job and that’s it — just keep my head down. But he was so fun. I will truly never recover from his kindness and his playfulness.
I was there for two days, and the first setup for my scene had this unbelievable production value with all these extras and all these vintage cars. We were in Westwood Village, which is where I used to go when I was 16 years old to see, like, “Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.” We’re there, and he was across the street from where I was in this box-office booth. He stood up before we shot and he screamed across the street, “Kate Berlant, don’t fuck this up!” My heart just, like, broke. I was like, “Oh my god.” It was so generous of him because he knows what it means for someone like me to come onto a Tarantino set for a tiny role. It was really sweet of him. And he was just laughing all day. He was having so much fun, and there was something joyful and boyish about the way he was explaining the references he was making in the script. And when we were doing my close-ups, he turned the monitor around so I could see my close-up, which is so surreal to see close-ups on celluloid in a Tarantino film.
I was so overjoyed and comforted by his attitude, and everyone on the set was in such a great mood because they were making a Tarantino movie — something people are actually going to see that has this profound cultural currency and a level of nostalgia that is in some ways so inaccessible today unless you’re doing a remake. Even for someone like me who’s coming on to do something so small, it really felt mythological.
Tarantino projects are known for a certain secrecy. Did you get the full script?
No. God no. I only had my scenes, and that was it. All I knew was that I was in a scene with Sharon Tate. All I’d heard was it was a movie set around the time of the Manson murders. That’s truly the only information I had.
Did you get the sense that he knew who you were outside of your casting?
No. When I was doing it and everything, he was remarking on it: “You’re so funny” and “Great!” But no, I don’t think so. And in fact, when I went in for my fitting, the amazing costume designer, Arianne Phillips, was incredibly sweet. She knew of my stand-up. I, of course, went onto that set happy to feel like small potatoes. I got a sense from her that he hadn’t seen my stand-up, which in some way made me feel more validated. I got it from just an audition. Of course, I have my own romantic approach to feeling like Julia Sweeney and Kathy Griffin, who had small roles [in “Pulp Fiction”]. It’s a joy.
What an interesting perspective on it, that’s it’s more validating to have nailed the audition. I assumed he’d seen you in “Sorry to Bother You” or something and plucked you out.
Let’s run with that. That’s a more sexy narrative. But no, the truth is, I just don’t know.
I assume his scripts are airtight, word for word. Did anything about the scene evolve?
I’m very improvisational. I go into every single job hoping and expecting to improvise. This is the first thing I’ve ever done where I did not even attempt to. I felt an obvious sense of reverence and a need to do what was on the page because his scripts are so tight and so musical. I really just did, word for word, what was there. Yeah, sure, maybe in retrospect I’m like, “Oh, he wouldn’t have struck me across the face if I did improv.” But I just plainly was too scared to. And I felt I just had to defer to him. If he said I was doing it, that was good enough for me.
Did you get face time with Brad and Leo?
No, I sadly didn’t see them at all. I was only on set with Margot. I even accidentally sat in her chair and she didn’t mind.
While I have you, I also want to ask about “The Other Two,” a show I adore and wish more people would watch. You were in one episode, but it became a little GIF phenomenon on Twitter. Are you aware of that?
Oh, it is literally a career-defining performance now. Yes, I am very aware of that. I am amazed and delighted by the amount of tweets and GIFs and everything that I’ve received. It’s very sweet to me.
When you are handed a script where you have to say the words “I am gagging for you, faggot,” what’s the first thought that crosses your mind?
With that, the only thing that makes it possible to conceive of is the context of this character. She’s this obnoxious woman who I think is the iconic cultural figure of a woman who treats gay men like Chihuahuas. It was a very clear parody of somebody who has that perspective on a gay person.
There’s something about the delivery of the line that seals it. It’s such a tossed-off remark. You can tell it’s not the first time she’s said those words or words like those. Did the reading feel obvious to you, or did you guys play around with different ways of nailing it?
We didn’t really play around with it too much. Not to brag, but I think we got it almost immediately. You want to make sure you’re doing it in the right way so it’s not just overtly violent. I mean, there is a violence to her utterly obliviousness and entitlement. But the whole thing was pretty quick, so you just get in there and do it.
How does it make you feel to know that Britney Spears was at the premiere of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and has therefore definitely seen your work?
Well, I guess I would ask you how does it feel to know that she walked the carpet literally moments ahead of me?
Oh, let me redraft my question then. What was it like to walk a red carpet with Britney Spears?
The type of premiere like this really does harken to the heyday of Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio, who I think is exquisite and who I’ve loved since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” is one of those iconic figures. I think he’s a remarkable actor. So to get out of the car and have Britney Spears be the first person I’m seeing and she’s an arm’s reach away is a huge honor. Did she watch the film? Who knows? But the fact that she was there is huge, and to think that Leo has in any way seen my face causes me to lose sleep at this point.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is now in theaters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.