Martha Kelly is exactly like the woman she plays on HBO’s buzzy, bad-trip teen drama Euphoria, minus the drug dealing, kidnapping, and child endangerment. That’s because, as Kelly readily admits, she’s not really acting. As with Kelly’s past roles on FX’s Baskets, in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, or in Spider-Man: Homecoming, her Euphoria character, Laurie, speaks with the same dry, deadpan cadence that the real Martha Kelly does. It’s a soft-spoken timidity that makes her delivery all the funnier—or in Laurie’s case, even more terrifying.
Kelly was once just a stand-up comic living and working in Austin (she was crowned the city’s “Funniest Person” back in 2000), until Zach Galifianakis asked her to join him on a new show he’d created about a volatile rodeo clown. Galifianakis wanted Kelly to play his character’s impassive assistant and doormat friend, and basically react to him just like she did in real life. “Without Zach and [cocreator] Jon Krisel putting me in Baskets, no one would have come to me saying, ‘Would you please be an actor?’” Kelly says. But Kelly made such an indelible impression, she’s repeatedly been asked to be just that.
Euphoria creator Sam Levinson cast Kelly for the show’s second season as the drug kingpin Laurie, whose disarming, Midwestern-mom sweetness hides some disturbing tendencies. On Saturday, September 3, Kelly will be recognized for that performance at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, where she’s up for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Kelly talked to Texas Monthly over Zoom, from her apartment in Los Angeles—where she finally relocated in 2019, after years of being asked to come act—about the surreality of being nominated for, essentially, playing herself, as well as how she’s preparing for the night of Hollywood glamour that she never wanted. [Warning: mild spoilers for Euphoria’s second season ahead.]
Texas Monthly: I just wanted to get it on the record that you felt like maybe we shouldn’t talk to you, because you’re officially too big for Texas?
Martha Kelly: [Laughs.] No, it’s that I didn’t want to pretend to be a Texan when I’ve lived in L.A. most of the past four years. I did live in Austin off and on for eleven years. But also I grew up in Torrance, California, which is like twenty-five miles south of L.A.
TM: But then you moved to Austin to “make it.”
MK: I originally moved to Austin to enjoy drinking without guilt. I hadn’t been doing stand-up that long before I moved, and I was starting to show up at parties in L.A. where there would be somebody you didn’t want to look bad in front of, in case they might put you on a show. I just wanted to enjoy being drunk. I visited Austin, and people were partying to party, not to network. So that’s why I moved there the first time. I moved back when I had been sober for a few years, because I wanted to get away from L.A. Me and Tig [Notaro] had done a comedy tour, then pitched it as a show to Comedy Central, but they didn’t buy it. So I was like, “Fine, I’m not going to have a TV career. I’ll just move to Austin and do stand-up, and live in a city I love that’s smaller and cheaper to live in.”
TM: Well, it was.
MK: In 2008, I had a pretty good-sized one bedroom apartment for like seven hundred dollars a month that was right off MoPac, kind of in the center of town.
TM: Probably goes for $1.2 million now.
TM: I noticed you still have “ATX” in your Instagram handle.
MK: I’m not great at social media, or even email. My Hotmail is still from 2004.
TM: Also, you don’t have a publicist?
MK: I wouldn’t want to spend a single dollar on something I don’t need. My impression is that publicists get you invited to events where you can be seen—red carpets and stuff. And I don’t ever feel like I belong in that situation. But maybe they do other stuff? I don’t actually know.
TM: They also talk to people like me so you don’t have to. They’re the ones who break into interviews and tell me we need to wrap it up.
MK: I think most people who interview me just decide to wrap it up themselves.
TM: I have to imagine that, when you become a TV actor, there has to be some part of you that fantasizes about getting an Emmy nomination.
MK: Yes. I have been imagining award acceptance speeches since high school. But I definitely don’t feel like I’m anywhere near the level of acting as the other women in this category. I don’t think I’m going to win, and I also don’t think I should win, because they are all, like, real actors. I’m a comedian who’s been really lucky. I don’t mean that in a negative way. But Sam Levinson offered me that part, and he didn’t ask me to do any acting outside of what I normally do. I don’t play any roles where you have to, like, cry or express intense emotions.
TM: How does it feel to have your natural persona be deemed Emmy-worthy?
MK: Well, it’s really lovely. But also I feel like it’s because Euphoria is a really big show. And the character of a mild-mannered, seemingly nice predator is really scary, so I think that makes it stand out.
TM: Was there ever an impulse to make Laurie somehow separate from yourself?
MK: I absolutely don’t ever think about that stuff. I’m doing this funny short tomorrow, and the things I’m doing to prepare—like I do for any acting job—are to memorize my lines and live a healthy lifestyle. I go to bed early, I know my lines, and I pay attention to what the director wants. I try to be a good coworker. I don’t think about creating a character, because I don’t play people that behave that differently than me..
TM: To play someone like Laurie, do you have to find something you can relate to or empathize with?
MK: No, I despise the character. [Laughs.] And I almost didn’t do it because of that. People who hurt kids, that’s the worst thing you can do. So, no, she’s unequivocally a villain who deserves to come to a bad end. I don’t think she has a conscience. And you can’t redeem someone who’s incapable of guilt or empathy. You may as well try to rehabilitate a shark or a hurricane.
TM: Is Euphoria as stressful to make as it is to watch?
MK: I was really nervous around Sam and Zendaya. And they both were really easygoing. I messed up my lines a couple of times, and they were like, “Hey, no one cares. Don’t worry about it.” That was the atmosphere. But there was the first day, where Laurie’s sitting in the recliner and the teenagers are in the kitchen being beaten up by her boyfriend. And just hearing the actors crying out in pain was really upsetting. I knew it was fake, but they’re good actors. That was not fun.
TM: Did it help that you spent a lot of your scenes in a massage chair?
MK: [Laughs.] That was actually a weird, old, real-and-working but bad massage chair. I don’t know why anyone ever bought those. It felt like little fists in your back. Not enjoyable. But it’s supposed to be funny.
TM: Are the kids who are into Euphoria turning up to your stand-up shows?
MK: Yeah. Not in large numbers. But it’s incredibly sweet. They really are the nicest fans. They want [Laurie] to come back. Whereas I’m like, it would be great if she gets hit by a train off-screen and we just find out she’s dead. [Laughs.]
TM: I assume Laurie’s returning for season three?
MK: I really don’t know. I’ve heard Sam is working on another show, and then he’s writing season three. So I’ll probably find out in a month or two.
TM: Are you attending the Emmys?
MK: Yes, although I auditioned for something last week, and I was like, “Please, can I get this so that I’m not here for the Emmys?” But I don’t think I’m getting that job, so most likely I will attend. My category is in the Creative Arts ceremonies, which is the weekend before the televised one, so . . .
TM: So you don’t have to work the red carpet.
MK: They will have a red carpet, and I will campaign with my manager to be told that it’s okay not to do it. [Laughs.] Although, these really great costume designers in Albuquerque are making a dress for me, and I love the dress, so I should probably go. But red carpets are really stressful, because it’s like you’re a regular person, then all of a sudden you’re walking a model runway. Can I just sneak in a side door? Why am I on this?
TM: You said you’d fantasized about giving an acceptance speech. Are you preparing one, just in case?
MK: No. When I was younger, the awards speeches I envisioned were about people I was mad at from high school—the P.E. teacher who failed me and a couple of bullies. But as a stand-up comic, you only ever want to say stuff that’s funny when you’re in a microphone situation. And there’s just no way to do a cool, funny acceptance speech.
TM: I know you don’t really think of yourself as an actor, but does this validation change that at all?
MK: No, but it makes me a little optimistic about getting more work. Sometimes I think that if I get enough work to have a little extra money, maybe I’ll hire an acting coach. But I don’t have the budget for an acting teacher or a publicist.
I’m just working on my stand-up so that I can have a new hour of material and do a special. I just want to get enough acting jobs to continue to live in my apartment.
TM: Still, for the rest of your life, you will be “the Emmy-nominated Martha Kelly.” How do you plan to exploit that?
MK: I wish I knew how to monetize it. [Laughs.] I’ve no idea. I should just try to enjoy it. You know, when I was younger, any opportunity felt like, “My whole life is going to be determined by this one thing.” The first time I did stand-up on TV was on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2002, and I couldn’t enjoy it, because I felt, “This has to be the best set of my life so that I become a successful comedian. If it isn’t, it’s the end.” And the truth is, it wasn’t either of those things.
So I just try to enjoy any good stuff that happens. I really just want HBO and Sam and Euphoria fans to know how much sweetness they’ve brought to my life. My last day on Euphoria was a week after my dad passed away. And then, when it started coming out, I was still grieving—still am, because it wasn’t that long ago. And to have this flood of sweetness come in when you’re hurting was something I wouldn’t have expected. And I’m really grateful for that. So I just want them to know how much I appreciate it. I really appreciate all of it.