The actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis may be best known for a character without a name. For over a decade now, she has played the love interest of the character played by Charlie Day, her real-life husband, on FX's It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (It's an understatement to say that on the show, Charlie's love is unrequited. Numerous restraining orders are involved.) In a recurring gag, Ellis’s character is never named. She's known only as "the Waitress."
But if Ellis plays something of a hot mess on Sunny, she has stepped into the opposite sort of role on The Grinder, the Fox sitcom which, despite its zeitgeisty name, has nothing to do with gay hookup apps. Rob Lowe plays a TV actor who once portrayed a hotshot lawyer nicknamed "The Grinder"; Fred Savage portrays his long-suffering brother, a real (if less charismatic) lawyer; Ellis plays Savage’s quippy wife.
The show is very funny, in no small part thanks to the fantastic chemistry among the cast (Ellis had worked with Savage on Sunny, for which he directed several episodes); it has just returned to the airwaves/Internet for the second part of its first season (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m., if you're old school about it). Fast Company caught up with Ellis to learn more about the evolution of her craft, actors she admires, and how being a professional open to growth may mean a continual sense of feeling inadequate.
Fast Company: What have you learned about your craft lately?
Mary Elizabeth Ellis: I did a play last year called Trevor. Laurie Metcalf was in the show, and working with her was a game-changer. She just doesn’t act. I feel like that’s what you always learned in school: "Don’t act, just be yourself." She’s just brilliant at that. It was a reminder that you learn certain things and then you link, "Oh, I’ve got this," and then you realize, "I never had this at all, but now I’ve got this," and I’m sure eventually it will come to, "I never knew anything, it was ‘fake it 'til you make it’ all along."
How did you learn from Laurie?
I’d just stare sometimes. She’d go, "Now you have a line." And I’d say, "Oh, sorry, I was just in a master class for a second there . . . just watching you." I just saw her on stage in Misery, and she’s playing a psychopath, but she’s never playing the crazy. That’s often a downfall for an actor: playing the idea of something.
If you could go back and tell your younger self something, what would it be?
I guess I would go back and tell my younger self, 'Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.' Then again, I think people said that to me all the time when I was learning to act. It’s something that’s really scary and hard to do. It isn’t, I guess, what people tell you in business a lot. I don’t think people are like, "You go into that board meeting and be vulnerable! People will love you, because they’ll see themselves in you!" That’s one thing that’s really hard for actors, because this is also a business, and you have to protect yourself with the business aspects of it, but so much of what we do as actors is to remain really vulnerable.
So when you were younger, you weren’t quite ready to take the advice?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a way to speed it up. But I think that’s one reason to look at Lena Dunham. How does someone that young have a grasp on being able to both live her life completely and also look at it in a critical enough way to tell the stories? There’s a courageous vulnerability there that I don’t have the guts to fully embrace, and I don’t know if I ever will. To say, 'This is really all of me. Here’s my entire soul on a platter. Now . . . criticize.'
What’s a moment in your career where you felt like you were growing?
When I booked Perfect Couples, a show I did on NBC for a while. At my audition, I was supposed to freak out at a party, while singing that song, "And I am telling you and you and you, you’re gonna love me!" I felt like, no one does this unhinged, laughing/crying craziness the way that I do it. I felt this was one thing that was really in my wheelhouse. And that’s one reason I love playing this part on The Grinder. The character isn’t crazy at all. She helps everyone else bring the crazy down. I love doing this show so much, because it’s different from any character I’ve ever played, and it’s fun to find that part of myself.
You talked about "faking it 'til you make it" before. What advice do you have to anyone who has a new role, and feels like they’re performing a part?
I still struggle with that doubt and fear and insecurity, so I guess my advice to people, and also to myself, is something I learned through yoga, which is that your self-worth is determined from the inside out. So tap into that part of you that knows that this is what you should be doing. Focus on that, hold onto that. I always think of a Marianne Williamson quote: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." I think sometimes people think, "Oh, I would really do this, but I don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable in my success." It’s okay to be successful. It’s good. And it raises the bar around you for others to have more success.
This interview has been condensed and edited.