‘Hacks’ Star Megan Stalter on ‘Hi Gay’ and His Origin Story

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(Tonje Thilesen / For the Time)

Megan Stalter was looking at an old spinning wheel in her mother’s guest bedroom in Ohio last June when, suddenly, inspiration struck. It was Pride month, when companies released bland and often flimsy statements of support for the LGBTQ community.

A thought came to mind: wouldn’t it be fun if a store with a local aesthetic (think Cracker Barrel) did a Pride ad?

Stalter had a few minutes to kill before her mom picked her up for shopping, so in one take she recorded a video that quickly went viral. In a pair of braids and her signature winged eyeliner, the comedian posed stiffly in front of the spinning wheel and launched into an awkward sales pitch for a fictional establishment called Cecily’s Butter Shop.

“Hi gay! Happy Pride Month! This month we’re doing some deals,” she said with a forced smile, taking advantage of the discounts available to everyone “if you can prove that you’re queer.” “We’ve been making butter since 1945. And we’ve been accepting everyone for” – she trailed off – “the last four months.

Bossy, clumsy, prone to malapropisms and anxious tics, the butter shop clerk displayed the characteristics of what quickly became a comedic archetype: the character of Megan Stalter.

“I love playing people who are kind of in their own world, but there’s something endearing about them,” the 31-year-old actress said in a recent video chat from her home in Los Angeles. . “Someone whose house is on fire but has a smile on their face. And they say, ‘It’s okay!’ when this is not the case.

Stalter’s profile rose rapidly during the early days of the pandemic, when she performed nightly on Instagram Live from her Brooklyn apartment and shared an impressive number of ‘frontal comedy’ videos or sketches. of solo characters recorded on a smartphone. In addition to “Hi Gay!”, probably his biggest hit to date, there’s “woman who doesn’t realize she has joined a cult,” “woman who accidentally says “you too” after someone tells her to have a good flight,” “influencer mom who keeps getting interrupted,” and many more. She embodied a new generation of DIY comedy stars, like Cole Escola and Ziwe Fumudoh, who distributed their own content on social media when traditional venues were closed.

Increasingly, however, Stalter brought his adorably unhinged alter egos to projects filmed outside of his living quarters.

This month, she’s reprising her breakout role as Kayla, a clueless Hollywood assistant brimming with confidence but utterly lacking in self-awareness, in the HBO Max comedy “Hacks,” and recently performed at the comedy festival. Netflix Is a Joke. She will also appear in Peacock’s reboot of “Queer as Folk,” premiering next month, and will soon film “Cora Bora,” an indie comedy about a millennial in an open relationship.

“Each year since I decided to really pursue what I wanted to do in life has been better than the next,” Stalter said. “My life is already better than I could expect. My dreams are already coming true. And I feel so lucky. Because how often does that happen?

With seafoam green eyeshadow and Gloria Steinem-esque streaks framing her face, Stalter shares a flamboyant sense of style with the characters she plays, if not their brash entitlement. She is, deep down, “deeply Midwestern — very Ohio,” according to her friend “Saturday Night Live” star Aidy Bryant. “It’s something that I connected with her on, because I felt the same way. I was from Arizona and I had no idea what was going on: ‘How do I navigate this thing We have similar approaches when it comes to trying to retain who we are growing up while succeeding in this business.

The eldest of four children, Stalter grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Unlike Kayla, a baby of showbiz nepotism, she was neither wealthy nor well-connected; his mother was a nurse and his father a tattoo artist. They were divorced and Stalter spent a lot of time caring for his younger siblings.

But Stalter was surrounded by funny women and, from an early age, felt a strong need to be on stage.

“When I fell asleep at night as a kid, I always imagined I was on the ‘E! True Hollywood Story,” she said. “Superstar,” the film starring Molly Shannon as a chaotic, fame-seeking Catholic schoolgirl, Mary Katherine Gallagher, “changed her life.” Stalter once struggled to set up a dance routine when her Catholic elementary school held a talent show and loved making age-inappropriate home movies with his many cousins ​​using the family camcorder.

“There was something inside of me that always thought I was special. Even when I was really bad. And I don’t know where that came from,” Stalter added. “Probably my mom loves me too much. or something like that.”

Megan Stalter stands on a hotel balcony, waving and holding a small dog in her other arm.

“When I fell asleep at night as a kid, I always imagined I was on the ‘E! True Hollywood Story,'” said Stalter, pictured here at the London Hotel.

(Tonje Thilesen / For the Time)

Although she was usually relegated to supporting roles in high school drama—”Nun Number Five,” as she put it—Stalter showed a knack for offstage improvisation. She and her boyfriend worked at her stepfather’s telemarketing company and played a game where they earned points by incorporating unexpected phrases (e.g. “Do you want waffles?”) into their sales calls. (That boyfriend was gay, but Stalter didn’t care: “We never kissed open-mouthed, but we were, like, the power couple at the drama club.”)

After high school, she took courses in nursing and community college education and spent time in Peru as a missionary because, she said, “I loved God and I loved the people”. (Although she went to Catholic school, Stalter and her family attended a “pretty wild” Pentecostal church; she now says she considers herself spiritual but no longer attends church.) She returned from a long trip abroad with a realization: “What God wants me to do is what I really want to do. So why not take an improv course?”

She soon moved to Chicago to pursue acting — “the best decision of my life,” she said — and stayed for seven years, making ends meet as a nanny and performing in her spare time. During this time, which she likens to “acting school,” Stalter also realized she was bisexual when she hooked up with a woman who had also dated her terrible ex-boyfriend and the friendship turned into a short-lived romance. “We both thought we were straight, and then she started texting me like, ‘Oh, that was kind of like a date.’ That’s when I I’m like, “I’m really curious about this.”

By 2019, Stalter had moved to New York and was making a name for himself on the alternative comedy scene with his surreal stand-up act. Then COVID happened, clubs closed, her housemates fled town — and she exploded on social media. “It was really strange to feel that people were finally looking at my stuff, but then to feel more alone than ever,” she said.

Comedian Mae Martin was one of many fascinated by Stalter’s nightly improv marathons on Instagram Live during the height of the lockdown. “And it’s like, (a) why does this woman have all these wigs and accessories in her apartment and (b) why is she for two hours straight just dancing and screaming and talking to people. people? I had never seen anything like it,” Martin said.

Martin and Stalter struck up a friendship online, then met in person months later in Los Angeles. Martin was struck by Stalter’s warmth and hilarity — traits that comedians don’t necessarily exhibit offstage. Martin recalled how one night they were pranking on the phone and Stalter, who had called a hotel to warn them that people should be kept away from the pool because she and her husband had just been there. love, befriended the woman who answered the phone.

Meg Stalter in Season 2 of "hacks."

Meg Stalter in season 2 of “Hacks”.

(Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

“She ended up talking to this woman for 45 minutes and then sent her a fettuccine Alfredo on Uber Eats,” Martin said. “At the end of the phone call, they were like, ‘I love you, girl!’

Paul W. Downs, who co-created “Hacks” and plays Kayla’s beleaguered boss, a talent manager named Jimmy, was also impressed with Stalter’s ability to connect with so many people during a time of isolation. . “I think some performers were like, ‘I’ll wait until I can shoot again,’ but she just had no ego about it and was never ‘too good’ to just make videos. face-to-face,” he said.

Along with co-creators Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello, Downs had developed the character of Kayla based on a real person they had met in the industry. “One of the defining qualities of this person is that she was incredibly sure of herself and, oddly, at the same time nervous and inept,” he said.

Downs first saw Stalter perform at Little Joy in Echo Park shortly before the pandemic hit, and describes his act as “alt in every sense of the word.” It’s a direct thread and an open channel, and I don’t know if she even knows where she’s going.

He also felt like there was something about the tortured syntax and stuttering cadence of his characters that was just right for Kayla.

Stalter eventually got the call to audition for “Hacks,” which would be his first major television role. At that time, a friend who was working on the show sent her a screenshot of a section of the script comparing Kayla to Megan Stalter. “And then I felt there was a lot of pressure to get the part,” she said. Stalter put herself on tape, in her brother’s “awful” New York apartment, as dogs barked in the background. It worked.

The tension between Jimmy and Kayla, whose father runs the agency where she works, was a highlight of the Emmy-winning show’s first season. This season, as stand-up legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and rising writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) hit the road for a cross-country tour, Kayla comes under scrutiny from HR for trying to seduce Jimmy on a work trip to Las Vegas. But their odd couple relationship develops more nuance in future episodes – a reflection, perhaps, of the sympathy Stalter brings to a character who could easily be a broad caricature of rights and privileges. She kind of made the character of Megan Stalter, well, more like Megan Stalter.

“If you’re doing what you really want to do, if you have a good heart and good intentions and know what’s real and what’s important – your friends and family and the ability to create things that mean something to you – then things just keep getting better.”

A woman poses for a portrait against a green fabric background.

(Tonje Thilesen / For the Time)

“Hacks”

Or: HBO Max
When: Anytime
Evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)



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