You probably already know Sarah Baker from her intimate confessions about Drew Carey in The Campaign, or her grief over her cat on NBC’s short-lived sitcom Go On. And you’ll be seeing a lot more of her soon, as a fast food clerk in the Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy, and as a Christian aid worker in the Reese Witherspoon drama The Good Lie, about the lost boys of Sudan.
But mark tonight as her breakout moment, because she was unforgettable on Louie. In an episode called “So Did The Fat Lady,” she played Vanessa, a funny, cute, straight-talking waitress who’s not afraid to tell Louie (Louis C.K.) what it’s really like to date in New York as a “fat girl” (her words) in her 30s. It was a conversation-starting performance, and a fiercely honest one that will no doubt resonate for women (and some men) everywhere. Below, we talked with the actress about weight, double standards in comedy, and what it was like to “date” Louis C.K.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you have a comedy background that goes back to the L.A. improv and sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings. Did you know Louis C.K. before you got this role?
SARAH BAKER: No, I didn’t know him at all! It just came to me like the regular audition, which I was super excited about because I was already a super huge fan of the show, along with the rest of America. They basically said, “There’s no script. He doesn’t like to send out the script because he’s pretty private with his material. So just come 15 minutes early and take a look at the sides.” And then they called an hour later and they’re like, “Actually, come a half-hour early because it’s nine pages of sides.” And the only description that I had [of the role] was that she was a waitress at the Comedy Cellar. I think it said she was “friendly, funny and comfortable in her own skin.” But that’s all I knew until I got there.
Wow. Which scene was it?
It was the last scene.
The big speech?
Yeah, the big scene. It was so beautifully written. And I was kind of shocked. It was actually probably good that I had to do a cold reading. It allowed me to not be as nervous as I might’ve been. And [Louie producer Pamela] Adlon was there, and she’s the nicest person. She was like, “We’re gonna get you this part.” So she talked to me about it, and she was like, “Obviously, weight is one thing, but there are a lot of reasons that women and men feel invisible when it comes to the dating world, you know? You can feel like you’re too old or maybe you have kids already or you’re divorced. So everybody brings some baggage to the dating world.” She was like, “This is just one reason that somebody might feel invisible.”
The casting call didn’t say anything about weight?
Yeah. I mean, I know what I look like, and when it says “comfortable in your own skin,” I have a feeling that its gonna have something to do with that. And also, being familiar with the show, I was like, “Oh god, what does that mean? Does that mean I’m gonna be in underwear or something?” I was just hoping that it wasn’t like some crazy sex scene or something. So I was relieved that it wasn’t something I’d have to not tell my mom about.
Let’s just go through a couple of the scenes, if you don’t mind. So first of all, this character is so likable. She’s really funny, really straightforward. And she tries to get Louie to go out with her a couple times, but he keeps saying no until she offers him these very expensive tickets to the Rangers/Bruins game and assures him that she can’t go with him. And that’s when he finally asks her out for coffee. What do you think about this scene? Do you think that that’s kind of sad, that she’s using the tickets to bribe him to go out with her? Or do you think she’s cool because she’s doing something nice? Or is she calculating, because she’s figured out a way to make him go out with her? How do you read that scene?
It’s funny, because obviously now I’ve talked to a few reporters, and a couple of people have mentioned that scene. I don’t know what Louis C.K.’s intentions were. My intention in playing it was that it was a pure moment. That she was like, “Look, I like you. I’m gonna give you this thing with no strings attached just to show you that I genuinely like you. There’s nothing more to this.” She’s not into the comedy world. It’s not like she’s a climber in any way. It’s just a pure thing. Now, of course, when he asks her out she’s like, “Oh, great! Yeah!” But I think she knows, He should want to go out with me. So when that happens, she’s psyched, but I don’t think it was a calculated thing. And I don’t think it’s sad when somebody does something kind for someone.
I guess when I saw it, I just felt protective of her. Like, he’s being such a jerk! Don’t give him the tickets!
No, I totally get it, and you’re not alone. Other people said that too. Like, give up already! They wanted her to move on and find somebody better. That wasn’t my feeling in playing it. But I can totally see that.
When they finally do go on a date, she’s talking about dating in New York as a “fat girl,” and he has the nerve to say, “You’re not fat.” She has this great line: “You know what the meanest thing you can say to a fat girl is? You’re not fat.” How do you feel about that line?
My interpretation of it was that she’s [telling Louie], “You saying, ‘You’re not fat,’ is like saying, ‘The worst thing a woman can be is fat, so I’m not gonna call you that.” Whereas she’s kinda like, “Yeah, I’m fat. You know, I’m nice, I’m funny, I’m cute — so who cares?” You know, she asked him out, and he said no, but she didn’t really know why. And in that moment she’s like, “Oh, that is what this is all about. You think being fat is terrible.” That’s when it clicks for her, like, “Oh, you’re not as great as I thought you were.”
How do you feel personally about the word “fat”? New York magazine recently ran this piece about how nicer words, like “curvy,” aren’t any better, because if people were really accepting of all body types, then “fat” wouldn’t be a bad word. Do you think it’s better to just use the word “fat” in conversations about weight?
I don’t know. It’s definitely a complicated issue. I would never be like, “Hey, I’m fat!” or like be psyched if somebody calls me “fat” in a review. If somebody feels the need [to describe me], and the one descriptor that they want to use is that I’m overweight, chubby, fat, whatever, it’s a little bit like, Really? That’s all you took from everything that I did? That’s a drag. As for what word they use, I mean, there is something kind of silly about these euphemistic words. But I guess it feels nicer when they say those other words, so I appreciate that. When somebody says “tubby” or “fat,” you’re like, “Oh, you’re a guy, probably. That’s gross.”
I do think it’s different for guys than it is for woman. Louis C.K. addresses this well in this episode when his character and his friend [played by the comedian Robert Kelly] eat two big lunches in a row and the waitress in the second restaurant still flirts with him. He’s still accepted as this sexy guy. And your character points out the double standard generally. She says, “You can talk into the microphone and say you can’t get a date, that you’re overweight, and it’s adorable. But if I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me.” Do you think that’s true? Not just because he’s a famous comedian and she’s a regular person, but also for women in comedy, that they can’t talk about weight in the way that male comedians can?
I’m not a stand-up comedian by any means, but I do think it’s tougher for a woman to go to that territory, because it does make people go “awww,” instead of laughing. That “awwww” is a nightmare for a comedian, I would imagine. People think women shouldn’t be fat. I think it just comes back to that. Some people might see this episode and feel bad for [my character]. But some people might be like, “Oh, she’s a cool chick. He’s the one who’s got the issue.”
Speaking of that double standard, there’s an episode of Louie this season where he hooks up with a model. Some critics have pointed out that viewers seemed to accept that this might happen in Louie’s universe. But when Lena Dunham’s character hooked up with an attractive man on Girls, people seemed to think it was unrealistic.
I haven’t seen that episode of Girls, but I think that’s interesting. They’re both super New York shows, and Lena Dunham is very bare with what she’s willing to share, so I think it’s a pretty apt comparison. But it’s also a fame thing. Louie is playing a character who’s in the spotlight, whereas Lena Dunham is playing a regular girl. Not to give society too much credit, but that’s probably part of it: You see somebody on stage, and it’s kind of magical sometimes.
There was only one scene in “So Did the Fat Lady” that slightly disappointed me, and that’s the scene where Vanessa asks Louie, “What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us?” Is that really an accurate depiction of what dating is like for heavier women? You have a boyfriend in real life. Is it fair to make this vast generalization that heavy women will never be loved, simply because they’re heavy?
No, but I don’t think that’s the intention. This is a very personal conversation between two people. And at this point in the date, they’ve been together all day and they’ve been having this intense conversation. And you can tell that Vanessa is a pretty direct person. So I think maybe that’s how she feels in that moment. Or that’s how he seems to feel, and it pisses her off.
She’s thinking that that’s how he sees her, as someone who will never find love?
Right. I don’t think she’s somebody who doesn’t have boyfriends. I don’t think Louie is saying that’s how things are. But it can feel that way sometimes, especially if you’re single. Again, going back to what Pamela [Adlon] said, it’s whatever your vulnerabilities are that make you feel like, “I’m not gonna get that great love.” There’s a million different reasons that people can feel that way. And in this moment, Vanessa feels like, “Really? Am I supposed to not get all of those things just because of this? That’s crazy.”
For me, the most true thing in Vanessa’s speech is that regular guys are worse than hot guys when it comes to their treatment of heavy women. She tells Louie, “The great-looking ones, the real high-caliber studs, they flirt right back, no problem, because they know their status will never be questioned. Guys like you will never flirt with me because they get scared that maybe you should be with a girl like me…and why not?” How true do you think that is?
[Laughing] I think that’s really true! An older guy will show me [a potential date] on Match.com, and [the person] is 28 years old and gorgeous and I’m like, “Wow, you don’t know who you are.” It’s not like everybody has to be a matched set. But if you’re just looking at somebody’s picture and going, like, “When I was 28, that’s the girl I would’ve dated, and, I’m 44 now, but I still want to date that girl”? Then you have to take a look at yourself.
My favorite thing in that whole speech is when Vanessa points to the camera and says, “If you were standing over there looking at us, you would see that we are a perfect match.” Clearly, these two have some chemistry. Louie is fighting it, but when you see them together, you think, “I could see these two people together.”
How do you feel about the last scene, when Louie grabs Vanessa’s hand?
Maybe this is just me, but I think it’s sweet. She breaks through to him. Even just as two people in that scene, I felt like we both just kind of relaxed at that moment.
I had so many conflicting feelings about this final scene. Part of me felt like, “Yes! This is what is supposed to happen!” And then another part of me felt like, “Is this a little too easy? Would that guy really reach out and grab her hand?” At one point, Vanessa says something like, “I don’t need a boyfriend, I don’t need a husband, I just need someone to hold my hand.” I wonder, if she had wanted something more than that, would he still have held her hand? Does she really have to be his teacher? Is it just that he knows taking her hand is a safe move, because he’ll never have to be her boyfriend? Why isn’t she allowed to want a boyfriend?
Yeah, I totally relate to and understand all your different thoughts. Again, it’s going to be one of those things where you look at it from your own point of view, and you take from it what you will. To me, it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen in the future. It’s just about this moment, two people, together. But in a way, the line “I don’t need a boyfriend, I don’t need a husband,” you’re like, “What does that mean?”
Exactly! No girl who says that to a guy she likes ever means it. Okay, maybe some of them do, but you know what I mean.
And really, she just wants to hold hands? When I was playing it, it was like, whatever the future will be, it just doesn’t matter in that moment. But I can take a look back now and say, “Who knows?” Maybe Louis C.K. intended it [to read like] she’s more — not calculating, but maybe she thinks, “Okay, he’s going to hold my hand, and he’s gonna think that that’s not going to mean anything, but I know he’s going to fall in love with me.” I don’t know. But it’s not like they kiss or something. It’s just them holding hands, walking down the street. I think she reaches him in some way.
How much of this episode was improvised?
That last speech was totally scripted. But there were other parts that we were looser with. For one scene, it mostly got cut, but I was supposed to be at Ed Burns’ table, just being a funny, fun waitress and saying whatever to him. And then eventually, I notice that it’s Ed Burns, and it’s like, “Holy sh–, Ed Burns! I love you!” And he ends up pulling me onto his lap, and kissing me on the cheek. I think it was supposed to represent that piece in the speech where it’s like “the good-looking guys flirt right back with me.” I don’t know why they didn’t end up using it. But that was the first thing we shot. So at first I was just being a normal waitress, but then Louie was like, “Just do something fun for me.”
And that’s the only part that ended up in the scene, right?
Yeah. That was just me doing something weird because Louie was like, “Do something weird.” And he kept it in.
Was any part of you nervous to be in an episode that’s all about weight? Is there a stigma to taking a role like this to begin with?
No. Every role I’ve ever taken has never had anything do to with size. It’s never been something I’ve wanted to be cheap about. Luckily, my agents and managers have always supported that. I guess it’s weird to talk about all this stuff [with journalists]. It’s odd for me to hear that, because I’m not super well-known and because I look the way I look, there are going to be people who are like, “That’s that girl. Poor Sarah Baker.” But hopefully people are intelligent and know that this is a character I’m playing. Just because I look the way I do, I’m not Vanessa. That’s not my experience. They’re Louis C.K.’s words. You wouldn’t ask Halle Berry, “Do you feel bad representing cats in that way, when you played Catwoman?” But it’s obviously an episode that’s resonating with people. Louie is a beautiful show. I think it’s art on television. And for me, this was so worth it.
Louie airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.