‘Euphoria’s’ Drug-Dealing Villain Martha Kelly on Working With Zendaya and Laurie’s Eerie Voice

‘Euphoria’s’ Drug-Dealing Villain Martha Kelly on Working With Zendaya and Laurie’s Eerie Voice

February 13, 2022

SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers for Season 2 of “Euphoria.”

If Martha Kelly were to go full-on, TV-show-level Big Bad, her villain origin story would start with her phone’s GPS malfunctioning.

“I think if I were to flip out and become a psychopath, it would be because my Google Maps or whatever told me to get off on an exit that stumbled me into some road work that was bringing traffic to a standstill. That would be the thing that turned me into a monster,” the “Euphoria” actor told Variety in her signature, dead-pan voice.

The stand-up comedian and “Baskets” breakout star had been a fan of “Euphoria” prior to being handpicked by the showrunner, creator, writer and executive producer Sam Levinson for the role of drug-dealing, middle-aged loner Laurie, one woman you absolutely wouldn’t want to mess with. Kelly’s Laurie may or may not spend all day on a massage chair — either to ease into an opiate-fueled high or to give-off Dr. Evil vibes. (No one, including Kelly, really knows.)

Kelly remembered seeing posts about “Euphoria” on Twitter — mostly about Zendaya — and seeing stills of the show, and thinking that the show’s artwork and cinematography looked awesome. “My manager called and said that I should watch it,” Kelly said. “I would not have probably gravitated to it because I’m 53, and it’s a show about teenagers, but the writing and acting are so good and it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching a bunch of kids going through all the stuff they deal with on that show.

“And, I recognize that not every teenager has sex or uses drugs or has family drama or is violent,” Kelly added. “But every teenager does go through vulnerability and change and fear and excitement and fun, and I think ‘Euphoria’ is at its best when it captures that realistically and really well.”

Kelly was stunned — and terrified — when Levinson approached her with the opportunity to play Laurie, but she knew she had to take it, despite exposing herself to criticism by some of the most diehard TV show fans out there.

On this Sunday night’s “Euphoria,” Laurie won’t be making an appearance, but that doesn’t mean she’s through with Rue yet. Kelly opened up to Variety about which “Euphoria” scenes she dreaded filming the most, when she felt like she was in her element on set and what’s made her crack up recently.

As someone who has been open about struggling with addiction — and now standing at 18-plus years sober — did you find any  “Euphoria” to be particularly provocative, or even triggering when watching as a fan prior to coming on the show?

So far I have not found it triggering in regard to any of that stuff, because I felt like it was pretty clear to me in Season 1 — and even more so now — that you are not rooting for Rue to do drugs. When I first watched Season 1, I thought that she hadn’t relapsed until that season finale, which is so heartbreaking and so well-done. It’s such a great episode. But, when I rewatched Season 1, I realized that Rue had been relapsing since she had gotten out of rehab and was off-and-on trying to be sober. But at no point did it seem like, “Hey, Rue is having a great time when she’s high.” It just looked like she was struggling and that she was suffering. Maybe in that one episode with her and Jules when they are on Ecstasy together, it looks pretty and fun, but, they come out of that magical fantasy high state and you start to see what is really going on. Sam wrote it in a way and shot it in a way that does not romanticize drugs — at least, not for me, anyway.

What did you first think of Laurie when you read the script?

When I first read the scripts, I was heartbroken, because I didn’t know if I could do it and I really wanted to be on the show. But it’s difficult to want to play a character that hurts kids. There is that scene where Rue is getting into the tub, and Laurie injects her with morphine — and in the script, it is even creepier, because Laurie is helping her undress and get in the tub, and it is approaching this gross pedophilia vibe. Initially, I was just like, “I can’t do this.”

But then I met with Sam and he was so lovely about it. I spoke with him and decided not to ask him to change anything, because I feel very strongly that I’m more of a comedian than an actor, so I would never tell a writer or a director if they could change something for me because I feel so lucky to have been invited in the first place. If I accept a part it’s because I want to do it, and I like the people I am working with, so I do not want to intrude with my own self-centered discomfort. I was happy when Sam told me we were going to shoot the bathroom scene slightly out of focus, and that some stuff was altered because of that pause we took in filming due to the pandemic.

How did you craft the character of Laurie?

Sam crafted the character entirely and helped direct me in those scenes. My No. 1 goal as a non-trained actor is just to memorize my lines. I do think that one of the reasons everyone thinks my character is so scary is because she is this mild-mannered, charming, almost vulnerable-seeming person even though she is a sociopath in real life. In the few true crime documentaries I’ve seen about people, it seems like the ones that do more psychological damage and abuse in the aftermath are the type that seems harmless and likable — unlike, let’s say, a cult leader like Jim Jones.

The people who get manipulated covertly for years end up not trusting themselves, so I guess I was kind of thinking about that type of awful person when portraying Laurie.

How did you get Laurie’s voice right? You bring out this steeliness and disingenuous “nice Midwestern lady-ness” that ups the eeriness of her character.

I was so nervous that day, because I was dreading the bathroom scene, and I didn’t know how chaotic the kitchen scene would be with all the nudity. I was dreading messing up the scene and I think my nervousness made a lot of Laurie’s scariness come out when she tried to make herself seem like she innocently stumbled into being a drug dealer. The first time I do a scene, I do my best to do it the way I think it is represented in a script, and then every take after I just listen to what the director says.

What has it been like to be in a cast that is primarily made up of very young, gifted actors?

It is very intimidating, because they are exceptionally gifted. They are beyond top-level young actors — they are next level. I’m just a comedian who sometimes gets to do fun acting jobs on the side, so I’m not like them at all, and it’s definitely intimidating. But on the flip-side, everyone was welcoming, and Zendaya was just very easygoing and lovely about my nervousness working with her and with some of the other folks on set.

I was struck by how hard they all work and how professional they are at that age. When I was in my 20s, I quit jobs whenever I felt like it. If they asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, so I would just be like, “Well, I guess this is my last day, and I’m off to the next dumb job!” I had zero focus, and I feel like I wasn’t very passionate about anything in my 20s. They’re pretty impressive, and it has made such an impression on me — especially Zendaya, who is in almost every scene and never complained, never looked or acted like she was tired or flustered, or anything like that. I’m in awe, still.

It’s always fascinating to me when I interview people like you who are ridiculously talented, and you get self-deprecating.

Honestly, I don’t know many people could work with someone like Zendaya and not feel self-conscious or nervous — or with any of the other actors on “Euphoria,” for that matter. If I was a high school athlete but then I wind up at the Olympics, and it’s like, “Wait, this isn’t the kind of athlete I am!” That is what it is like to act with these folks. But, again, no one was treating me differently. It’s all just stuff inside of me that made me feel that way— all in my head. I want to personally thank every single “Euphoria” fan who has said something nice about Laurie, because I was so scared that everyone was going to hate me for being such a villain to Rue and the reception has, instead, been really sweet.

Since you are a comedian, I’d like to know what some of your favorite comedy is on TV, and what material have you recently heard that has made you crack up?

I’m watching “The Kominsky Method” on Netflix, because my friend Sarah Baker is on it, and it’s lovely. I’m also a huge fan of “Hacks” on HBO Max. I love a comedian from Chicago named Maggie Winters, and I also love Meg Stalter. They make really amazing videos on social media and I think they’re both hilarious. Right now we’re in a golden age and time for comedy. There’s a lot of great stuff out there.

What is next for you, career-wise? What types of characters would you like to play next, or what do you want to do on-screen?

It was really great to get to do “Euphoria,” and of course, I would jump at the opportunity to do any more of it. Outside of that, I am really drawn to comedy; I’m more comfortable doing that. My least nerve-racking moments shooting “Euphoria” were whenever one of the other crew members or Sam or Zendaya laughed at one of Laurie’s lines or the way I would say it — and I would feel like, “OK, I guess I’m not totally ruining this shot.”

As a comedian, if I don’t get laughs, I just always feel like I’m ruining everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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