Debra Eckloff [Interview]

Today we have a feature on a brilliant actress who fans of the improv world will probably now and love. Her name is Debra Eckloff, and is a delight! I will admit that I am not an expert in the field of improv (or any field for that matter), but through my research I have learned that Debra is a class act in a realm all of her own. And then when I got some nice words from her, I would soon realize that she is simply a gem of a human being!

I first became aware of Debra and her work with her performance in one of the most beautiful pieces of satire I have ever witnessed, the video “Ballad of Billy John” performed by Trevor Moore on his special entitled High In Church that was released in 2015, and remains a continuously watched special in my world, especially “Ballad of Billy John”. Seriously, you HAVE to check this shit out. It’s absolutely incredible.

And part of what made the video so damn great was the subject of our interview today, the great Debra Eckloff. She is a beautiful human being, and has so much to say. So let’s get to it! Ladies and gentlemen, Debra Eckloff!

I have come to learn that you have been making quite the splash in the L.A. improv world over the last few years. What drew you to the world of improv? And what do you still love about the job?

I stumbled into improv. I was signed up to take an advanced scene study class but it cancelled unexpectedly. Patrick Bristow, Improvatorium, was teaching improv next door and was willing to let me audition. I joined him for about three years. I learned most of what I know about comedy from Patrick. He’s a master. The task of creating a small comedic scene from a suggestion plays with the idea of living being a shared experience, of organic communication that is in the moment. Improv abandons preconception and planning and trusts in the connection we all have. When a scene is really working, it’s quite a charge.

In your professional opinion, how has your improv work translated to the more scripted screen roles you have done?

Improv is fundamental to how I work. When I first get the sides, I attempt to discern what I can in order to create something grounded for the audition, something that allows me to enter the world of the scene. Depending upon the script, this takes many forms. For instance, if I have some pages of the script but I don’t see what is driving the scene they want to see me do, I might write a scene that is not in the script pages I have. This enables me to have history (complete with dialogue) that I imagine to have lived. Further, if I have a lot of memorization, one way that I reach it is through improvisation. I do my best to learn the lines, of course, but I find once I start living the scene and the emotions are bubbling up, they upset the lines.

So what I do is I work on the lines, but then I get to a point where I throw them out for the sake of meaning. I let the improv loose inside of the emotions that are running underneath the lines in order to fully live them. I’m ready with the scripted lines after I’ve explored like this. Another area where I use improvisation is when I am working on my moment before. What you choose for the moment before results in your character’s mood/state of mind at the start of the scene. I also use substitution a lot in my work. I probably use substitution almost as much as I use improvisation. All this sounds rather think-y but the truth is, the better it’s working, the less think-y it is. In other words, all of this enriches the role for me and makes it an incredible emotional experience. What improvisation and substitution do for me, essentially, is they free me.

I absolutely adored your role in the video for Trevor Moore’s “The Ballad of Billy John” a part of his High In Church special. How did this role come about, and what made you want to work on this project?

Thank you. I am very proud of the video and the reception has been great. I love reading the comments from viewers. I’m grateful to Trevor Moore for a delightful, original and clever song and for including me in the project. The first thing that happened was that I auditioned for Matthew Vaughan over at CAZT. I was so green I didn’t even know that “CC” stood for Comedy Central. The audition involved going through a series of emotions for the camera, locating the highs and lows of Billy John’s wife. Prior to the shoot, I was sent an audio file of the song. I am grateful to Matt because he made me feel very comfortable both in the audition room and on set.

And how was the process of filming this amazing video alongside Ron McPherson? Was there a lot of laughter involved?

We shot the video in a sweet little residence in Laurel Canyon. I had never met Ron before but we had good chemistry right away. He’s a really nice guy. I had to nuzzle up and get some instant intimacy going and it was very easy to break the ice with him. Trevor was there all day for the filming and answered any questions I had. I improvised throughout filming because, as I was saying, I find my emotions through improvisation. Direction was tight and precise on the project.

Nicholaus Goossen was just amazing. The video had its complexities because there’s the camera, the camera in the laptop (which was filming some of the footage), the song that plays, etc. Back to your question, was there a lot of laughter involved? The comedy is grounded in reality in this case. What I mean is that the couple is not in on the joke. So, yes, laughter in between takes but real emotion had to be generated to ground the experience the couple was having. It’s hard to analyze comedy, that’s for sure…but I believe the shock of what they expect and what actually happens is anchored in their innocence. The comedy comes from somewhere around there, I believe.

In your opinion, what would you consider your dream role? What is that role that you would absolutely love to get?

Who knows, really… I have been lucky so far and I am grateful. I have played a myriad of characters and I have gotten to explore so much emotionally. I marvel at many incredible performances I’ve seen. For instance, I love the role Shelley Winters plays in Lolita, Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton, Cherry Jones’s role in Transparent. I enjoy tender roles for women as well, such as J. Smith-Cameron’s work as the mother of Daniel Holden in Rectify. I’m a little darker, though. I have played some meanies (that’s what I call them). It’s a wild place in your mind where you go to motivate and own a badass. Comedy, of course, is my other love, my first love. Ironically, I have more control over my badasses than I have over my comedic characters. I prepare for both, however I never know what’s going to happen in comedy. I have to step off a cliff.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

Who knows, really… I know I will continue to age. lol And that’s a factor in what the future holds for anybody. I know a great role is coming for me. When we meet, we will be like long lost friends. Sometimes you get a role and the memorization is like butter on warm bread. I long to meet characters that will bring me to emotions I need to traverse.

I am in two films that are headed to festivals. One is Emily, written and directed by Jean-Marc Demmer. The other is still in post, The Last Crow, written and directed by Jake Miller and Paul Cadenhead. Both experiences were wonderful.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Probably a man, but I hate to admit that.

Check out the above mentioned sketch for Trevor Moore’s “The Ballad of Billy John” right here, courtesy of Comedy Central:

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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