David Krumholtz has been gracing movie and TV screens for 22 years, playing all sorts of roles, from nebbishy crime-solving mathematician (Numb3rs) to intern-killing psychotic (ER). But little did he know that one of the toughest roles he’d play is a 76-year-old Jewish grandmother named Gigi Rotblum.
“The makeup was something that I had to learn to accept. The first two days in, maybe three days in, the novelty totally wore off and I really, really got sick of it,” he told Co.Create about the daily transformation he underwent to become Gigi for the show Gigi Does It, which debuts on IFC on Thursday, October 1 at 10:30 pm Eastern. He’d undergo a four-and-a-half hour process that required the addition of makeup and prosthetics in order to transform him into Gigi.
“I mean you’re on a set of however many people and everyone’s eating cheeseburgers or whatever, gum, and you can’t eat. You can’t put anything more than a little piece of bread in your mouth, or you’re the only one in a group of people that has pounds of flesh stuck to your face,” he said. “It’s maddening. It drives you a little crazy, especially if you’ve been up for six hours before anybody even got to work, you know in the middle of the night. There’s something just so unnatural and barbaric about having to wake up at two in the morning and go to work. I’m not going to lie, there were some bad days where I just wanted to tear it off my face and go home.”
Who was the sadistic producer who made Krumholtz go through all this? None other than Krumholtz himself; he created the show along with co-star Ricky Mabe. How did the 37-year-old character actor find this torturous, but utterly enjoyable, role of a lifetime?
Krumholtz first became Gigi when Mabe asked him to do a grandmother for a website called Weather From. Essentially if it’s cloudy and warm, Gigi would say so, then talk about how one son married a nice Jewish girl and the other went to Haiti to “find himself.”
“I don’t think he knew that I did, but I always had it in my grab bag, if you will, but I never really advertised it. I think he just assumed I could do it because I’m grandma-ish. I guess I’m less young man than I am old woman,” said Krumholtz. “I could have gotten really pissed. I could have taken it the wrong way, but instead I jumped at the opportunity because I knew it was a fun character, and that there was a lot to explore there.”
In the popular videos and on the IFC series, Gigi is a gassy, curse-spitting, blunt woman who lives in Boca Raton and doesn’t care what people think of her. The series takes the character further by having her inherit six million dollars from her cheapskate husband, allowing her to hire an assistant (played by Mabe) and vow to live life to its fullest.
The source material for Gigi was Krumholtz’s fraternal grandmother, Martha Thaler, a woman who just loved making her son crazy. “She took a lot of joy in other people’s discomfort, specifically my father’s. She just liked to mess with him a lot, and in sometimes cruel ways. I mean everything from juvenile farting on him to as complex as like locking him out of his house, his apartment, and sort of forcing him to go get a key made and change the locks. She was really mischievous. For me she was incredibly sweet. She never really messed with me.”
But she wasn’t just mischievous to Krumholtz’s dad; she saved her best for the public at large. “She was also the kind of grandma that would expose a boob. I saw her pubic region a number of times. She just thought that was the funniest thing in the world. She, in public, would be very forward. She was the boss of every restaurant. She’d walk in and act like she owned the place. That was true of all her interactions with a lot of people. She didn’t mince words about people. She was extremely judgmental.”
“A lot of this generation of women, come from that sort of more demure, almost ‘Mad Men’ archetype of women era,” he continued. “They come from a place where they’ve always been sort of subjected to an overbearing male chauvinist environment in the workplace and at home. I think they get to a certain age where they just realize that they haven’t really lived or they haven’t really been able to express themselves, and what better time to get away with it than when they’re old and everyone’s willing to give them a pass.”
The show is a hybrid of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-style improvisation with “Bad Grandpa”-style interactions with people in the real world. Gigi poses nude in front of an art class, or plays Rummikub with ladies in a senior community, or goes speed dating. The people are told that Gigi is shooting a reality show about how she’s spending her windfall, but, said Krumholtz, “It’s very clear [what’s really going on] because first of all, people aren’t that naïve. I am a man playing a woman. If I was a woman in prosthetic makeup, I’d probably get away with it easier, but most of the people who do figure it out either before or during while they’re on camera, they play along because of the spirit of the character and they’re so immersed in it.”
But some scenes are just simple random interactions with people on the street. Since the show is on an IFC budget, some of those scenes had to be done in a “guerilla” style, according to Krumholtz. For example, in the pilot, Gigi and her assistant Ricky comb a tough neighborhood searching for her lost gun.
“We showed up to a corner on the street in the middle of a bad neighborhood. It was across the street from a park full of drug addicts, frankly. The first person, the very first person we went up to, was a crackhead prostitute, and I’m not joking, who was completely deranged and propositioned me in my makeup. A female crackhead prostitute. She asked me to come back to her apartment. She probably wanted to rob me, so that was weird. That was really funny.”
To make sure he keeps the illusion of Gigi intact, Krumholtz can’t interact with the crew in his showrunner role while he’s in character. “One of the things I kind of did to make it seem more real was I established with the people we were trying to fool or convince that the director and I didn’t get along,” he said. “He would tell me to do stuff and I’d always be like, “Oh please, this guy, I don’t like him, he’s very demonstrative.’ They would be convinced, ‘Oh wow she doesn’t like the director.’ Meanwhile the director knew the whole time that it was a ruse and he played along. It was elaborate to say the least.”
Being in charge is something that Krumholtz, who’s been acting onscreen since 1993, relishes. “You get to the point where you feel like you’re not necessarily getting the opportunities to do the work you feel you can do, so you’ve got to sort of do it yourself,” he said. “It’s important for me to have a voice, to be a creator if you will, but at the same time, I do just enjoy being an actor. It’s a lot less work. So really and truly, I don’t have any designs on any one particular thing. More than anything, the only rule that I apply to my career is just not to cover the same ground too many times.”
He still loves to take character roles, but if “Gigi Does It” gets a second year, he’ll be more than willing to don the prosthetics again, not matter how much it drives him nuts. “I prefer to be a character actor, journeyman type. It’s nice to have a home and ‘Gigi’ is home, but it’s a home under silicone and it’s kind of horrible.”