The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Eden Sher (“The Middle”)

If there’s any question as to whether actress Eden Sher possesses any of the delightful awkwardness of Sue Heck, her character on “The Middle,” it was answered at the precise moment I picked up the phone when she called me for our interview. At first, there is silence, which is quickly followed by an odd muffled sound which can only be described as a high-pitched grunt. Then, a breathless Sher suddenly announces herself and explains apologetically that she’d taken a sip of water the moment before the call connected and was struggling to hurriedly swallow it without choking. (“I’m, like, ‘No, no, I’m not a mute!’”) With her throat no longer parched, Sher discussed the experience of playing one of TV’s geekiest, gawkiest teenagers, getting her big break on “Weeds,” and sharing a tender yet awkward moment with Ryan Hansen on “Party Down.”

Bullz-Eye: With your performance on “The Middle,” you’re quickly developing a reputation as one of the most fearless comediennes on television.

Eden Sher: Wow, thank you! I appreciate that. I’ll try to limit the growth of my head after a compliment like that. [Laughs.] When people say that, though, I’m not sure how to take it, because it doesn’t seem…I feel like if you’re not going big, if there’s any sort of fear in the way or if there’s any thought process that gets in the way of being funny, you’re not going to be funny. So I don’t really consider it to be a special thing. I’m just doing my job!

BE: Well, you’re certainly not afraid to “Sue it up” as far as your appearance goes, but you also seem to be game for any and all physical comedy gags.

ES: Yes! Yes, I am, because I say the sweatier I am, the more bruised I am, the dirtier I get, the funnier it probably will be! [Laughs.] Because, I mean, you know the scene when I’m practicing to be the mascot, with the cardboard box on my head? I have realized this: falling or hitting something or physically hurting yourself is always funny. In real life or TV. Always is.

BE: So do you have any formal training as far as physical comedy goes?

ES: Uh, you mean aside from being clumsy and accidentally hurting myself? [Laughs.] No! I mean, I’ve taken acting classes forever, but I’ve actually never even taken a class that’s strictly comedy. I’ve taken improv classes before, but not a comedy class, per se. Do they offer physical comedy classes? Is that actually something they do?

BE: Not being an actor myself, let’s say, “Sure, they do!”

ES: [Laughs.] Well, either way, I’ve never actually taken one.

BE: DeAnn Heline has confirmed that it was actually you who went careening across the countertop in “The Test” last season, but did you do the swing set face-plant in this year’s season premiere (“The Last Whiff of Summer”)?

ES: That was not. I tried to do it, and I just…it was too dangerous. But it did take awhile, because it’s actually the stunt girl you see walking to do it, too, and it was quite an ordeal having to help her master my walk. [Laughs.] I had to show her how to walk like Sue! But I will say, because this is something you don’t even see my face for, that the mascot face-plant…? That was me in the suit. That was actually me.

BE: Is that a regular occurrence? How much of what we see the mascot doing is you inside the suit?

ES: Anytime I’m doing anything physical other than standing, it’s me. All of the dancing stuff, that’s all me.

BE: Regarding to the physical transformation, what’s involved in the process of turning Eden Sher into Sue Heck?

ES: Well, first of all, I appreciate you noting that there is actually a transformation required! But it’s actually helped me to retain my anonymity a lot, because either people aren’t expecting it, or…I usually get, “You know, you look a lot like that girl on that show? Have you seen it?” It’s not actually that extensive of a process, because it’s mostly a case of coming in with dirty hair…oh, but I’m revealing too much. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, what happens is that I usually don’t wash my hair, because they have to flatten it out and make it a little stringy-ish. Or stringier than it usually is, anyway. And then they don’t put any makeup on me. They kind of fill in my eyebrows to make ‘em a little bushier. And then they just put the braces in, and that’s pretty much it.

BE: You’ve obviously revealed, if perhaps unintentionally, that there’s a bit of Sue in you at all times, but do you have any sort of Sue mindset that you try to get into before filming?

ES: That’s a good question, but…I think I actually think much less about it than people give me credit for. It sort of was a revelation during Season 1, when I was getting too act-y about it and I would kind of try to justify every single step of the way. There was a turn I had to do – I think it was in Episode 8 – where I had to flip from extreme sadness to extreme jubilation, as Sue often does, and I was having a lot of trouble executing the joke because I was trying to justify it in my head. I was, like, “I don’t understand how someone could be that sad and then go straight into being exuberant. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not real. I can’t do that. I can’t do it!” The director was, like, “You are thinking about this way too much. There is no justification. There is no actor justification. There is no, like, intellectual justification for why someone would be that way, because there is no justification for why someone would ever be that way. That’s just how she is. That’s just how it’s going to be. If she’s sad one second and then exuberant, that’s how Sue is, and…just accept it.” And I was, like, “Oh, my God, this is a lesson for life!” [Laughs.] Sometimes you can’t rationalize something. It just is. And since then, I don’t think about getting into Sue or why she does the things she does. I just sort of let it be and let it go.

BE: Yet at this point, now that you’ve been doing the character for so long, you probably know her well enough at this point that you actually could rationalize why she does the things she does.

ES: Totally. It was weird when, last year, I realized that…it just sort of clicked. I really kind of got the character. Like I said, I still don’t really do anything, but there’s definitely now a distinct difference between when I’m acting as Sue and when I’m just being myself. A lot of Sue has come to light just through acting it out, not through thinking about it.

BE: How did you find your way onto the show in the first place? Was it a standard audition situation, or did they know you from your earlier work on ABC’s “Sons and Daughters”?

ES: I don’t think they did. It was a very standard audition. I actually didn’t even meet with the producers until, like, four auditions in or something. I had a bunch of pre-reads, so I kept going back under the impression that these were callbacks, but they 100% were not callbacks. They were also bringing new people in that they hadn’t seen. So I was getting increasingly insulted, but my manager was, like, “No, just keep going back, they want to see you.” And I was, like, “No! They don’t want to see me, because they still want to see more girls. They want to see other girls, and I don’t even think they like me, because they’re still bringing back other people. So, no, I’m not going back!” And finally my manager said, “Okay, this one is a real callback, it’s with the producers, would you just go?” And I went…and they seemed to hate me! [Laughs.]

I was going, “I’m not doing this right, they don’t like me, this is stupid, I’m never gonna get this job…” Plus, all the other girls were, like, 12 years old, and I was 17 years old at the time. But my manager said, “They like you! Just keep going back!” And finally the number of 12-year-old girls started to dwindle, and by the time of the actual screen test, it was between me and two 11-year-olds. And at that point, I was, like, “Okay, if they want a younger girl, they’re gonna go for the younger girl,” so I sort went in there going, “All right! This is me! Let’s see what we can do!” And I left the screen test feeling like, “Okay, well, I bombed that one. Oh, well.” And then I got the call about an hour later, saying, “You got it! They loved you!” And I cheered. [Laughs.] “All right! I did it!”

BE: Your onscreen parents were both well-established sitcom figures: Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond” and Neil Flynn from “Scrubs.” Did you find it intimidating to be paired with them? Or were you even a fan of those shows?

ES: Oh, yes. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show that my family watched. “Raymond,” “Seinfeld,” and, uh, “Felicity.” I’m not sure how appropriate it was that we watched “Felicity” together, but those were the shows that we watched as a family. So I went in, and I was, like, “Okay, I’m not going to be intimidated, this is gonna be just fine.” And it was the same with “Scrubs.” I loved Neil, loved The Janitor. And I tried. I really tried not to be intimidated. But if you can tell anything from this conversation thus far, you can probably tell that I’m not really what you’d call a chill person. [Laughs.] So I tried my best to be super-chill, but I doubt I was. But thankfully they were super-nice from the get-go and really warm and welcoming, so it was all good.

BE: You and Charlie McDermott and Atticus Shaffer all seem to get along well off-screen. How did you guys first start bonding?

ES: I don’t know, we just…instantly fell into that brotherly/sisterly dynamic. I think acting with someone, you automatically are putting yourself in the position to be vulnerable, and I think that’s really the key to getting close to someone fast. If you’re both in the position to embarrass yourself, then you’re both gonna be more empathetic towards each other and you’re just gonna feel closer as people. And with Charlie, we’re really close in age, and we just realized that we’re both really cool people. [Laughs.] So that helped. And Atticus…I mean, he was just a super-cool little kid!

BE: It’s got to be rough on him this season, with his voice changing.

ES: Uh, yeah. I would not have wanted to go through that onscreen. [Laughs.] But he’s handling it like a pro!

BE: Sue’s evolved over the run of “The Middle,” thankfully, but in the early episodes of the series, were you ever concerned that she was being portrayed as a complete loser a little too much?

ES: Well, I wasn’t concerned, because I was playing her, and Sue wasn’t really all that concerned about it, so it was an easy thing to not think about. [Laughs.] But I definitely got concerns from my friends and family, who were, like, “How hard is it to play this girl that’s always losing?” “It’s fine. She doesn’t care, so I don’t!”

BE: Has it ever bothered you that she might seem too clueless? Not that there’s anything wrong with being perpetually optimistic, but there are moments where it’s, like, “I know this is a comedy, but in the real world, she’d be eaten alive!”

ES: It’s never really bothered me, but I can understand that. I mean, there are certain things that Sue does where I’ve gone, “Okay, this is too naïve even for Sue. This is pushing it a little bit.” But I think you have to suspend disbelief for a little bit. Like, with the French-kissing bit, it was a little bit…I was, like, “Okay, she’s 15, she’d probably know what French kissing is.” [Laughs.] But for the joke, it sort of worked. In that sense, though, yeah, I was a little concerned that she might be being portrayed as a little too innocent. As far as the losing goes, though, no, I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s actually way easier to be optimistic than you think, even as a teenager. Because you can control it. If you’re a happy person, if you can see things through that lens, then you generally do.

BE: What would you say that you’ve brought to the character of Sue that you can specifically say, “That was my contribution”?

ES: Well, there are a few things. One of the lines that they’ve sort of written in regularly now…it was the first time I just felt so good about the way I’d delivered something, but the line was written simply as Sue asking, “Really?” And…I don’t know, but I just decided to say it in a really funny way. And a few episodes later, they wrote in the script in italics or whatever, “In classic Sue style, ‘Really?’” And I was, like, “What?” They said, “Yeah, the way you said it before, that was just perfect.” That’s just something I kind of do in real life, so that was great.

Also, Sue’s victory dance? I am proud to take credit for that dance. Only because it seems so ridiculous that you’d be, like, “Wow, who made that up? I can’t imagine how they would’ve choreographed that…” And I’m proud to say that no one did, because I do that in real life! [Laughs.] We were thinking what would be the best way for Sue to be super-excited, since she’s already super-excited all the time, anyway, and I was, like, “Well, I don’t know, but this is what I do when I’m super-excited.” And I launched into the dance, and they were just, like, “Done. You got it. We’re going with that.”

BE: Were you disappointed that Sue’s most recent boyfriend, Matt (Moisés Arias), only lasted for a few episodes before moving away, or did the whole idea of a romantically-successful Sue comprise the integrity of the character?

ES: I was a little disappointed, mainly because Moises is, like, the coolest guy. So, yeah, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to work with him for longer, but, no, I don’t think it compromised the integrity of the character. [Laughs.] But at the same time, it…well, it was what it was, but I did sort of think it got played out. Which unfortunately happens in TV.

BE: But they’ve been very good about not overusing the characters of Sue’s friends, Brad and Carly, thankfully.

ES: Yes! In fact, I’m actually on set right now and just finished filming a scene with Brock (Ciarelli), who plays Brad. It’s nice that they’ve let Brad in particular be more of a character rather than a caricature, which I’m super pleased about.

BE: Actually, my AV Club review of “The Hose,” I made particular note of how pleasant it was to see Brad turn up without the recurring “Sue doesn’t realize he’s gay” gag.

ES: Yes! Oh, my God, I totally, totally agree. In fact, I…well, I read the script, but I tend to forget about scenes that I’m in, let alone the ones I’m not in, so when I watch the episode, it seems like new. [Laughs.] But when I saw that episode…well, for one thing, it was odd to actually watch that scene and not be in it, because I’m usually the one filming with Blaine (Saunders, who plays Carly) and Brock. But it was just such a perfect Brad scene, with him talking about all the different ways he was available to chat and nothing to do with anything about him being gay or whatever. It was just perfect. I love that direction.

BE: You may not be able to speak to this if it’s already in the cards, but do you think the “Sue doesn’t realize he’s gay” joke is played out? Not that it hasn’t been funny, but at this point, it seems like we’ve really got to be on the cusp of Sue going, “Oh, my God, you’re gay!”

ES: Yeah, I think it’s something that…it’s a scene that will probably continue in some fashion, but I agree that the latent gay jokes are kind of played out, just because…well, I mean, they’re in 10th grade, they’re not complete idiots…someone’s got to say something. It can’t just be flying under the radar anymore. [Laughs.]

BE: Did you feel the transition of the show as it kind of started to phase out the parent-workplace stories and started to focus in more specifically on the family?

ES: I didn’t think about it until… [Starts to laugh.] It was last season, when I realized that I had not had a day off in, like, months. From January to April, I just didn’t have a day off at all. And I was talking to some of the writers, and I was, like, “Yeah, what happened to the Elhert days?” There were days that would be just a Patty (Heaton) day, and they’d film at Elhert’s and I’d get to sleep ‘til 9 AM. What happened to that? And they explained it to me. They said, “We felt that the family stories were way stronger, and we’d much rather give you an A-line story than use the time to get Bob and Elhert onscreen. We’d rather give you or Charlie or Atticus your own A-line story and not go there. We realize where the gold is.” [Laughs.] So I was, like, “Ohhhhhhh, okay! I’ll take it! I may not get a day off, but that’s a major compliment, so okay!”

BE: As the father of a daughter, I’ve particularly enjoyed the way the Mike and Sue relationship has been evolving over the course of the show’s run.

ES: Oh, my God, I am such a baby: I cry every time Sue has a storyline with Mike. I cry when I read the episode, I cry after I’m done filming the scene, I cry when I watch the episode. [Laughs.] So I’m so happy that you also appreciate that relationship, because it’s my favorite relationship on the show!

BE: Watching Sue and Mike in the car as he attempts to teach her how to drive, that’s just so spot-on with the relationship between my daughter and I.

ES: Oh, really? [Laughs.] The freak-out. Oh, that was a fun time.

BE: One thing that’s interesting, however, is how their relationship veers somewhat dramatically at times, from Mike being completely oblivious as Sue is trying desperately to express her love for him to…well, to bring it back to “The Hose,” when she’s freaking out about the size of his paycheck, he’s very aware of how she feels and we see the sensitive side of him that doesn’t come out very often.

ES: Yes! I agree. But I think it’s pretty reflective of a normal father/daughter relationship in that way. Sometimes his sensitivity will sort of shine through, like when he saves the cat. But not always. [Laughs.]

BE: A couple of obligatory questions. First, who have been your favorite guest stars?”

ES: Oh, my God, I mean, there’s no question: Whoopi, Whoopi, Whoopi. [Laughs.] Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi “Movie Star” Goldberg. She is a godly woman. Whoopi Godberg…? She was fantastic, and I think she had a really good time working on the show, too. It was a good opportunity for her, and then the actual experience of it for both of us was, I think, a positive one. I can only speak for myself, but we emailed a little bit after, and she seemed to enjoy it herself, so… I was certainly super-pleased, anyway!

BE: How has Norm MacDonald been to work with on the show? He would seem to be the complete antithesis of a family-sitcom guy, but I know he’s got that history with DeAnn and Eileen ( they were all writers on “Roseanne”).

ES: Yes, he… [Starts to laugh.] That’s a good observation. He is awesome. An awesome human being. I talked with him a lot, mostly about…oh, what is his name? Wittgenstein! We were talking about what is real, what is true, and we talked about that for a long time. But that is a very astute observation about him not being, like, a real family-sitcom type. He’s a little bit of a loose cannon, but in the best way possible.

BE: This may coincide at least partially with your Whoopi answer, but do you have particular favorite episodes that were Sue-centric?

ES: Yeah, (“The Guidance Counselor”) definitely is one of them. And also the one in Season 1 where I got to kung-fu fight. That was mighty fun.

BE: Which is funny, because I just revisited that episode in conjunction with Brooke Shields coming back on the show.

ES: Oh, yeah, that was Brooke’s first episode! Yeah, Brooke’s another one where it’s just, like, “Oh, my God, you are such a chill person. Why are you so perfect? You need to leave!” [Laughs.]

BE: Now for a few flashbacks to your pre-“Middle” career. To start off, I’m curious what this credit of “Caterpillar Girl” is all about.

ES: [Laughs.] Oh, my God! Okay. Funny story, actually. That was my first job ever, and it was a short film that I did, but the director is a TV director now who’s pretty well known. Her name is Jamie Babbitt, and she directed a few episodes of ‘The Middle’!

BE: Now, I guess the question is, did she recognize you when she walked onto the set? Or did she already know that you were on the show?

ES: I doubt she would’ve…if she hadn’t known my name, she might not have recognized me, because I was, like, nine or ten when I did the thing. But I was going, “Jamie Babbitt? Why do I know that name?” So I Googled her and saw that one of her first projects was “Stuck,” and I just started freaking out, going, “Oh, my God! I was in ‘Stuck’! That’s Jamie from when I was nine!” And when we were at the table read, she sort of stuck her hand out and introduced herself, and I was, like, “No, Jamie, I don’t know if you remember me, but I did ‘Stuck’!” And she said, “Oh, my God, of course you did! Of course you did! I remember you! Yes!” And I don’t know if she was trying to play it cool or if she actually didn’t remember, but it was still sweet that she remembered me eventually. [Laughs.] And it was great. I was, like, “This is so crazy!” And she was, like, “Yeah, it is…but that’s the industry!”

BE: It’s funny to look back at “Weeds” and see that there are two future ABC sitcom stars in there: you and Allie Grant (of “Suburgatory”).

ES: Oh, I know! And we’re on the same night!

BE: What was the experience of “Weeds” like for you, given that it was a high-profile show and a pretty early role in your career?

ES: Yeah, it was a, uh, pretty different experience. [Laughs.] All sets are different, but I think that one…I was particularly green, and everyone else comparatively had worked so much more. It was very easy to get inundated. I had a great time, it was definitely a learning experience, but I was far less comfortable then than I am here now and likely will be on future jobs.

BE: Now if we could just get Alexander Gould to show up as your boyfriend on “The Middle.”

ES: Oh, my God, I love Alexander Gould, and I would love for him to be on this show.

BE: I know “Sons and Daughters” was at least partially improvised, but did that extend to you and the other younger members of the cast?

ES: Yeah, it was actually pretty… [Hesitates.] Well, I don’t want to say it was wholly improvised, because there was an outline, but the actual words that people were saying changed from take to take, and that did apply to all actors. Of course, for the really little ones, it didn’t, because they could barely speak at all. [Laughs.] But, no, I was able to…it was sort of weird, actually, because “Weeds” I had booked right after “Sons and Daughters,” and I really did not understand the role of the script supervisor. Because this woman kept coming up to me, correcting me, and that’s a pretty word-perfect show. As most are. People think a lot of shows are improvised that really are not. But I remember that I’d be corrected on one little word, and I actually turned to someone and was, like, “Who the hell is this person? All I missed was one word!” And they’re, like, “That’s the continuity person, the script supervisor!” “But continuity…doesn’t that mean that they make sure you pick someone up with the same hand, or you lead with the right foot rather than the left?” “No, they correct you on the lines.” I had never experienced that! I’d only ever experienced improvisation! Which is crazy, when you think about it.

BE: I’d think “Sons and Daughters” would’ve been both a great training ground as well as an incredibly intimidating experience.

ES: Well, no, actually. If I did it now, it would be very intimidating, but because I’d never experienced anything outside of that, I didn’t even question it. I wasn’t scared. Also, Fred Goss and Nick Holly are two amazing people, and they did this really intelligent thing, which was, before we started filming, to have a weekly cast meeting / improv session where we would just sort of…it was sort of just talking, but we sort of built our characters from the ground up that way. We would do scenes and we would improv, and then they would go, “Okay, now do it but have this end goal.” And we’d do it again, and…it was enlightening. It was a little mini improv course, and it was very helpful.

BE: I presume it served you well on “Party Down.”

ES: Well, yes, but that’s one of those shows that’s shockingly more scripted than you think. They do love to play around. It’s much looser than, say, here on “The Middle.” But it’s definitely a scripted show. And I say that because I think the writers deserve a little bit more…not that people don’t respect them, but people just assume that the actors are coming up with a lot more jokes than they really are. [Laughs.]

BE: You and Ryan Hansen got to share a tender moment, as it were.

ES: Yes, we did…and it was so awkward. [Laughs.] Because he was way older than me. And also married. And I was 17 and had a boy friend at the time. And we were both just, like, “Oooooookay, let’s do this!”

BE: I may be the only one who feels this way, but Sue’s obsession with teen pop stars on “The Middle” could almost be a callback to your one-off appearance on “The Middleman.”

ES: [Bursts out laughing.] Oh, my God! Did you see that episode?

BE: I have the complete-series set, I’ll have you know.

ES: Oh, my God. Yes, that was…wow, I sort of forgot about all of my past jobs! [Laughs.] This is so refreshing! I get to talk about something other than what I’m doing right now! Yeah, that was fun. That was super-fun.

BE: I’m curious how you ended up on an episode of Sonny with a Chance. Not that there’s anything wrong with the series, but given the shows you’d done up to that point, it just seems like an odd choice to do a Disney ‘tween-com.

ES: Yes. It does, except for – a moment of honesty here – when someone offers you a role, unless you’re super-busy, you generally don’t turn it down. [Laughs.] This is why I ended up doing an episode of a Disney Channel show this summer, too. It was sort of the same thing, where I was offered the role. I didn’t have to audition or anything, and I just thought, “Okay, this’ll be a few days of filming, I know the people that I’m working with…it’ll be fun!” And…I will leave the story at that. That’s what I thought going into it, and…done with story.

BE: That’s quite all right. And all I will add is that I have talked to at least one other person who did an episode of “Sonny with a Chance” (Bobby Slayton), and he did not leave his story at that, so it’s possible that you had a similar experience to his.

ES: [Laughs.] I would just like to say that, as a rule, the people were so nice. They were such lovely people working on that show, and just to be sure it comes across in print, I am being completely sincere.

BE: Lastly, there’s a credit on your IMDb page for “ImagiGARY,” which Charlie McDermott has both written and directing. If you could offer any details about that project whatsoever, that’d be great.

ES: Yes! I am down to promote this, because it was such an amazing experience. Yeah, Charlie and another one of my best friends, Nate Hartley, wrote this movie. I was involved in the process of them writing it for the last two years, and with every new draft, I was, like, “Okay, I call this role!” And Charlie wanted to direct it himself and wanted to film it in Pennsylvania. It’s this awesome coming-of-age story about a kid – played by Charlie – and his first week of college, just experiencing crazy loneliness, so he re-imagines his old imaginary friend from childhood. And I play the amazing, sure-to-be-critically-acclaimed role of Drunk Girl. [Laughs.]

BE: Wow! That was only listed as “rumored” by IMDb!

ES: [Laughs.] That should not be rumored, because that is fact! And is it also on there that I produced it?

BE: It is. In fact, I was just going to ask you what the experience was like to work behind the camera for a change.

ES: You know, it wasn’t quite as involved as…like, I actually wrote and directed a short film myself in April, and that was pretty stressful. I think Charlie took the brunt of the stress on this. But I was definitely able to help with some of decisions, and I was giving a lot of notes. It’s a lot of note-giving. That’s what producing is. [Laughs.] It’s interesting, though. And watching Charlie…it’s so stressful! I think I’d like to do more behind the camera eventually, but it is a far more stressful position than being an actor, I will say that!

BE: Well, I think that’s about it, except to reiterate that it’s really been great watching you evolve along with your character on “The Middle” over the course of the show’s run to date, and I’ll say it again: you really are a fearless comedienne.

ES: Oh, man, thank you so much! And thank you for this awesome interview! Seriously, these were great questions.

BE: That’s what I get for reviewing the show every week on the AV Club: I’ve actually ended up knowing what I’m talking about.

ES: You really do know what you’re talking about, though. It’s only when I have a really good interview that I realize that there’s really a difference between good interviews and bad interviews. [Laughs.] I try to be really forgiving of those people asking questions, because I know it’s hard, but not until I have a really awesome interview do I go, “Wow, there’s such a difference between someone who knows what they’re talking about and someone who doesn’t!”

BE: Well, I’ll take your praise if you’ll take mine.

ES: Absolutely. Mutual respect! [Laughs.]