The character of Hope couldn’t be further away from the goody-goody nature of Bernadette.
“I’ve always been a super shy, weirdly nerdy kid. I couldn’t express myself well at school,” Melissa Rauch shares. She’s reminiscing about what in her childhood led her to comedy. “The [first] time I remember getting a laugh, and realizing what that was, was when I watched Three’s Company with my parents. My dad said that I needed to go to bed and I started imitating Don Knotts. He started laughing hysterically, and it ended up pushing my bedtime back.
“I started doing that every night. I’d mimic what I saw on TV, and the laughter was the best thing in the world. From there, I started memorizing standup sets I saw on TV, and I’d get in trouble from time to time. I did a HBO Whoopi Goldberg set that was very inappropriate for a seven-year-old to do in school. It was sort of my way to express myself, because I couldn’t really do so otherwise.”
Although it’s unusual to think of a seven-year-old white girl from New Jersey performing Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway for all her classmates, it is not exactly a surprise when you consider who’s saying it. Rauch can easily be described as a character actor, and is best known for her regular role on TV’s The Big Bang Theory. On the show, she plays Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, a character defined by her high-pitched voice (Rauch has said this voice is modeled for her own voice, and not at all like Rauch’s actual voice), sweet-but-nerdy demeanor, and lucrative job at a pharmaceutical company. However, The Big Bang Theory isn’t what brings me to interview Rauch; instead, it’s the new Duplass brothers–produced comedy The Bronze, a film she both stars in and co-wrote with her husband, Winston Rauch.
The film takes place at a low point in a former Olympic bronze medalist’s life. Years after her 15 minutes of fame, Rauch’s character Hope finds herself still reaping the benefits of celebrity status in a small-town Ohio. She sports her Olympic tracksuit and continues to collect the spoils that come with fame, be it through inheriting free meals and clothing from the local malls, or free weed from the resident stoner. Her status becomes threatened as a new talent (Haley Lu Richardson) rises in the town, and her comfortable lifestyle gets disrupted when she finds herself stuck training the rising star.
“The idea really came out when I started having a little success on TV. I was on this VH1 talking-head show years ago. I went back to my hometown in New Jersey, to our local mall. The guy at Wetzel’s Pretzels gave me a free pretzel, because he liked the show. I was so excited! [Winston and I] ate that pretzel like it was the best-tasting thing in the world.”
She giggles as she recounts this, and her reaction feels genuine, although I’m certain she’s explained the film’s inspiration to hundreds of other journalists. It’s endearing that she’s so engaged with us: the mark of a good performer. “About four months later, the show was canceled. I was out of work. I was at the unemployment office, and back to waiting tables. We went back to the mall and the same manager didn’t give me a pretzel. He kind of ignored me. I was in such a dark place, feeling really worried about my next job. Not getting that pretzel highlighted how bad I was feeling about myself. It just got us talking about how fickle fame is, and [the concept of] celebrity in a small town, especially. The idea just grew from that.”
Hope couldn’t be further away from the goody-goody nature of Bernadette. Furthermore, she’s quite unlike most women on the screen. She’s loud and abrasive, and has a quick wit that gravitates towards raunchy humor. She’s not interesting in sparing anyone’s feelings. Frankly, she’s also bit of a bully. It makes for a very complex protagonist, and a colorful script.
Rauch responds to a question concerning the hard R-rating that comes with the type of humor that fills the film. “We honestly did not set out to do that; it just happened along the way. It’s funny: When we originally came up with idea for this character, we really had no intention of profanity in our minds at all. When we started thinking about her, we knew she was stuck and bitter. We had a full outline of what her journey was going to be, but it was really once we started plugging in the dialogue and thinking about what she was experiencing in life” the profane humor started to form.
You can hear Rauch begin to perk up. “She’s a woman who’s been cut off from her passion because of this injury, and she’s no longer able to do what she loves to do. And on top of that, she was told to act a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and eat a certain way, and now that’s not able to do any of that anymore, she’s just like ‘I’m going to rebel against everything; I’m going to eat whatever the eff I want.’” I find myself laughing at Rauch as she jokes about how she can’t even say a curse word in an interview, which makes her so unlike Hope.
“There are so many male antiheroes, but there’s not a ton of female antiheroes. I think that’s because there’s a lot of pressure for female character to be likable, and there’s a lot of pressure for women to be likable.” You get the feeling that this is a very real struggle for Rauch because, well, she’s quite likable. “If you think of some of the great movies in the past few years, like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, it’s a very tonally different movie, but such a greatly layered and complex character that those are the roles I’m drawn to. It’s what I want to write!
“Some of my favorites are like Bette Davis in All about Eve. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. There was no pressure at that time—which is shocking when you think about women’s rights then. There wasn’t any pressure on her to be likable. She’s bitter. She’s angry. She’s allowed to be. That’s the story she’s telling. We didn’t want to water this down, and make [Hope] more palatable. She’s not likable because she doesn’t like herself right now. She likes the former version of herself. She has this façade of narcissism, and really being pleased with her current self. Her bangs are from 10 years ago, from when she felt her best. Watching herself in those moments when she really did love herself, it’s her trying to gain that pleasure back.”
It’s not just Hope’s psychological state that’s fleshed out in the Rauches’ script. Gary Cole’s character, Hope’s father Stan, tends to a fish for much of the film. When asked about this, Rauch seems very pleased. “We really wanted Stan to have an outlet, a friend, because [Hope] is awful to him, constantly beating him down. We wanted him to have someone who he feels he can connect with, like he’s parenting properly. It was really to give Stan another layer of his struggle that he’s going through. It was important when we were writing that, even though this is very much Hope’s journey, all the characters have something that they are struggling in dealing with, and see exactly where they are coming from.”
Rauch concludes the interview by stressing how important it was for both her and her husband in putting character psychology first. “We knew we could go the broad comedy route with this, but it was important to us to just tell the story and crank up the comedy in certain places. It wasn’t important to us to have a joke a minute.
“Really, it’s about telling the story and letting the comedy or the drama just be dictated by what’s true to that.” | Cait Lore