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'The Idea of You' director Michael Showalter explains why he changed the book's controversial ending

Caralynn Matassa   

'The Idea of You' director Michael Showalter explains why he changed the book's controversial ending

"The Director's Chair" is a series highlighting those at the helm of the biggest projects in TV and movies.

Michael Showalter kept acting long after he realized he didn't want to do it anymore — mostly because he needed to eat.

Born to two professors, one of whom is a feminist literary critic, the New Jersey native has had one of the more unique career trajectories among filmmakers. Showalter got his start in college doing sketch comedy as a member of The State (formerly The New Group). He was joined by other future comedy stars like Michael Ian Black, Joe Lo Truglio, Thomas Lennon, and Ken Marino — many of whom went on to become Showalter's frequent collaborators.

The troupe eventually landed its own MTV sketch comedy series, "The State," which aired from 1993 to 1995. A couple of years, a few TV roles, and pulling double duty writing and starring in two feature films later, Showalter realized that he'd inadvertently fallen into a career that didn't have his heart.

He wasn't getting cast — except in things he wrote himself like"The Baxter" and his cult hit "Wet Hot American Summer" — but he also wasn't fretting about the lack of acting work. At least until it came time to pay his bills.

"I knew how I felt for a long time before I stopped doing it," Showalter tells Business Insider. "But I was continuing to make an effort to still get work as an actor entirely because I needed the money."

Fast forward roughly two decades and Showalter has found himself right where he was always meant to be.

In the last 10 years, he's directed a trio of critically acclaimed films, starting with 2015's "Hello, My Name is Doris," starring Sally Field as a woman in her 60s who becomes infatuated with her much younger coworker.

That was followed in 2017 by "The Big Sick," starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as an interracial couple suddenly faced with a challenge early in their relationship. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Nanjiani and his wife is based on their actual love story. And in 2021, he directed Jessica Chastain to her first Oscar for playing the titular televangelist in the biographical drama "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

The year after, he executive produced and directed several episodes of the Hulu series "The Dropout," about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Showalter scored a directing Emmy nomination for one of his episodes and lead Amanda Seyfried won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Holmes.

Now, Showalter is among the most booked and busy directors, with an Amazon Christmas movie, a serial killer drama, and a half-hour comedy series about an immigrant family all in development. (But who's counting?)

Next up is the new Amazon romantic dramedy "The Idea of You," which he cowrote with Jennifer Westfeldt, based on Robinne Lee's hit book of the same name. Starring Anne Hathaway as a 40-year-old single mom in a steamy May-December romance with a 24-year-old boy-bander, the film is poised to be a big hit for the streamer if its record-breaking trailer is any indication.

In an interview ahead of its release, Showalter spoke with BI about his gradual career pivot, the moment he knew acting wasn't for him, and what was behind his decision to change the book's original ending.

You've jokingly described yourself as a failed actor. Obviously, in recent years, you've moved entirely away from acting to being behind the camera. What prompted that switch?

You are not going to succeed at something that deep down you don't love and that you don't have to do. Candidly, I never really imagined that I could be a filmmaker. It's weird. It never really occurred to me.

When I went to college, I liked doing sketch comedy. I liked performing and it felt right. But as I grew older, it was a combination of I wasn't getting cast in things, but I also wasn't really needing to get cast in things.

In my free time, I noticed my actor friends who were doing really well were taking classes, having coaches help them with their auditions. It's what got them out of bed in the morning. I never felt that way. I never had those feelings…It's not to say that I would never do it again. I would never make a big proclamation about it or anything like that. But there's no part of me that's making my movies being like, man, I really wish I could be in this one. I never think about it twice.

And to be honest, I'm a somewhat private person too, and I don't particularly enjoy some of the attention that comes with acting.

Is there any one moment where you realized acting wasn't what you loved doing?

There were two moments: I was in an off-Broadway play called "The Alchemist," which is a really old play from the 17th century. And I fell out of character in the play, which essentially is an actor's nightmare because it's like the thing that makes you able to act goes away.

It would be like if you were a tennis player and all of a sudden, in the middle of a match, you forgot how to hit the ball or something like that and that really kind of freaked me out.

Then not long after that, I saw a production of "Ivanov." There were such good performances; the one that stands out is Kevin Kline, but it was a big cast and there were a lot of people in it. And I just was so enjoying watching it. I loved just watching it.

No part of me was thinking, man, I wish I was in this play. Or if I were playing so-and-so's part, this is how I would do it. And I did have the thought, I don't think this is how I should be feeling if I'm really an actor.

"The Idea of You" is full of comedy, romance, drama, and heart. I was really into the change to the book's ending. Did you know from the start that you wanted to change the ending, or did that evolve during the process?

It evolved. There was never like a, "We are definitely going to change the ending" conversation. I think it was more…we want to have a great ending.

Obviously, because it's a mainstream Hollywood movie that we want lots of people to see and enjoy, you always have to consider do we want to have the kind of more "up" ending. And there are quite a few examples where a filmmaker had the less "up" ending and then they always have to reshoot it to have an "up" ending because the audiences just demand it.

There is that moment where the movie feels like it's over. And we did discuss, gee, what if we ended the movie right here? That would be kind of interesting. But ultimately, I think we just felt like as fans of this genre — because even though this isn't exactly a romantic comedy, it's more of a romantic dramedy — I think you'd like to feel like you leave the experience of watching the movie with a sense of hope and optimism.

Anne Hathaway is always amazing, but the chemistry between her and Nicholas Galitzine is just phenomenal. I know she was always attached to play Solène, but what was the moment you knew her co-lead had to be Nicholas?

For me, it was actually when I met him the night before. I wanted to meet all the guys that we were having these chemistry tests with and have a chance to talk to them just the two of us, get to know them a little bit.

So the night before Nick came in and read, I had a Zoom call with him. And I was like, oh, it's this guy, isn't it? I was texting with Cathy Schulman, the producer, as I was having this Zoom with Nick, sort of going, oh boy, I think this is the guy.

There were some other folks that we had met with that I feel like we were also quite excited about, but when I met Nick, there was something extra. He's confident but also vulnerable. He's funny. He's obviously great looking. He can do the dramatic acting. He's an incredible musician. He's believable as a star, but there's a humility and a real-person quality to him.

It's like he checked every box and then came in the next day and had his audition with Anne and just crushed it.

Who were some of the other frontrunners for Hayes?

I'm not going to say just because I don't want to, but a bunch of great guys.

But my joke that I would say to the Amazon executives was that I knew that they wanted me to throw my hat in the ring to play the role but that I really didn't want to be distracted and I didn't want to wear two hats, that it was really important to me that I'd just be the director on this one, and that I knew that everyone would be disappointed that I wasn't going to play the part, but that I just wasn't willing to do it because it would be too much…

…I mean, yeah, learning all that boy band choreography and stuff.

It would compromise the directing if I played the role as well.

[Laughs] Yeah, I can imagine.

I don't understand why you're laughing.

No, I totally want to see that version too.

Yeah. We'll do that. One day, I'll try to convince Anne to let me reshoot the movie with me playing Hayes.

Once many years ago, when I was still a failed actor, I auditioned for a musical. I can't remember what the musical was. It may even have been for Bernie Telsey, who's the casting director of "The Idea of You."

I was in my 20s and I sang "Maria" from "West Side Story" as my audition. And everybody in the room started laughing, and I wasn't meaning to be funny. So I imagine that the same kind of thing might occur.

Speaking of you performing again one day, obviously, you've come back to acting for the "Wet Hot American Summer" prequel and sequel. You said in 2022 that it specifically wasn't on the top of your list to return to it again because it would involve you performing. Do you still feel that way?

I'm not an "I'll never" person. I love those characters. I love that world. I love the tone of that, and I'll probably always be able to click back into that. So I will always be open to anything "Wet Hot" related.

Obviously, we want to have all the people. You want to be able to have all the gang come and do it. But yeah, I hate seeing myself on camera. I hate it.

But for the greater good, you would return?

Maybe; maybe, but not likely. Maybe my character in the next one will be like "The Big Chill." It's Coop's funeral and all you see are my feet. And that would be a double. That would be a foot double. That wouldn't even be me.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

"The Idea of You" is streaming now on Prime Video.




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