It’s hard to know where to start with Portia de Rossi: Do we get straight into the gay marriage chatter or let the newlywed talk up her character on ABC’s upcoming comedy Better Off Ted? Since she agreed to sit down to talk Ted, SheKnows decided to start there.
Di Rossi stars in Better Off Ted, set to premiere March 18. The show revolves around the often disturbing and absurd offices of Veridian Dynamics — a massive conglomerate that’s leading the charge in creating the seemingly impossible, be that a weaponized pumpkin or cowless meat.
At the heart of it all is the title character, Ted, played by Jay Harrington. As Head of Research and Development, Ted gets the job done, but sometimes struggles with his company’s lack of humanity and his own morality.
His boss played by de Rossi, Vice President Veronica, on the other hand, has no qualms about their efforts.
“Veronica is my favorite character I’ve ever played, bar none,” Portia de Rossi says. “I’m really attracted to strong women — let me rephrase that! — strong female characters. And I just love her sensibility. I love how cold and uncaring she appears to be and how focused she is.”
A familiar ally
Some may immediately recognize a similarity to de Rossi’s character Nelle from Ally McBeal. The actress doesn’t shy away from the parallel, but does make one big distinction.”It has a similarity in that she’s very strong, very determined, but Veronica is funnier than Nelle,” de Rossi maintains. “The dialogue is crisper, wittier and funnier. I’m Australian, and I grew up watching the BBC and admiring comedians like John Cleese: I get a sense of that kind of absurdist, hyper-real humor in my character, and that’s what I really enjoy playing in this.”
One might assume her work as Nelle made landing this new role a cinch, but Portia says that wasn’t the case at all.
“When I first met Victor (Fresco, executive producer), I was very excited about the script and was talking about Ally McBeal, assuming that he had seen it: He hadn’t!” de Rossi recalls with a laugh. “So he made me audition and I had to convince him that I could play this character well. I kind of threw myself at him, saying, ‘I played this character, Nelle Porter, who has similar qualities in that she was very work-driven, strong, insensitive and slightly chilly.'”
If de Rossi had little trouble stepping into Veronica’s shoes, however, Veronica’s hallways posed a bit more of a stretch. It’s not like this beauty has ever had a desk job!
“I actually think that’s part of what’s so interesting about this show for all of us,” she considers. “We’re actors. We don’t really know what it’s like to work in an office place. I don’t think anyone’s really had a job like that, where we all live in cubicles.”
Arrested Development movie?
Her new character may rank as her fave, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to leave Arrested Development fans hanging. Crushed by the Fox show’s 2006 cancellation, a very vocal group has been tracking the chances of seeing a movie made — and chances are finally looking good.
“I enjoyed making Arrested Development and would love to do the movie,” de Rossi promises. “It’s not scheduled to shoot yet and I don’t think it’s fully green-lit, but I know the cast (including Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter and narrator Ron Howard) is all on board. Everyone has moved on and are all very busy, so we just have to figure out when we can all do it, but it will be soon, and it is definitely happening, according to (show creator) Mitch Hurwitz. I’m excited about it.”
Playing it straight
As one of comedies hottest beauties, de Rossi has made a career of playing the straight-man – or should we say, straight woman.
“There aren’t too many outwardly gay actors playing straight on network television. It’s important to be one of them, and I’m proud to do it,” de Rossi says.
“It’s so important to live an honest, open life and I didn’t really realize that until I started doing it. I guess you grow up thinking that you have to please everybody. You think that being gay is not going to please some people, and maybe some networks and executive producers. But I just have to do my own thing.”
She’s been openly out since she started dating her now wife, Ellen DeGeneres, whose own career took a nosedive after she came out on TV in 1997, only to rebound completely with her daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of hers,” de Rossi raves. “She’s just exceptionally brilliant as a comedian and an actress. She’s amazing, so anything that I do, I need her stamp of approval, or else I just don’t think it’s good. She was a big Arrested Development fan and she loves Better Off Ted. She loves my character and all the characters in it. She thinks it’s going to be something that people are going to want to watch. That means a lot to me, because I admire her talent so much.”
That said, de Rossi, who is working the press circuit for Ted, is nervous about being a guest on her wife’s show.
“It just seems like a very awkward kind of interview,” she cringes. “She’ll make it flawless and I’m excited to talk about the show. I’m happy to go on her show and talk about it. I just hope she doesn’t ask any personal questions. That’s off limits!”
These two funny women have remained completely open about their relationship from the start, even sharing wedding photos with the public when they tied the knot in August 2008.
“Marriage is a different way of being together. It completely changed my life,” de Rossi marvels. “There’s a peace to it and a sense of togetherness that we just didn’t have before. And I didn’t even realize it would change as much as it has, but it’s so lovely.”
“I’ll tell you what was really lovely,” she continues. “It was just the ability to get married legally, and to have my family – my mother especially – not snigger when I say the word ‘wife’, because she is my wife. It’s legal and it’s real. There’s that formality to it that makes it very valid and very lovely. We’re very much a partnership and a team. I guess it’s not surprising, but the emotions that went with that as a gay woman kind of surprised me.”
Those feelings quickly translate from the personal to the political, especially when considering California’s Prop 8, the controversial 2008 measure that changed the state Constitution to include the phrase, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
“Everyday of our lives is a protest against the passing of Prop 8: We’re a happily married couple,” she continues. “It was devastating actually when it passed. I’m keeping updated on what’s happening. I just hope that the American people will all decide that they don’t want discrimination written into their constitution. I’m hoping that not just California will change its mind, but the entire country; and that gay marriage will be legalized and that this whole thing will be in the past. It will be just a very dark part of history.”
In the meantime, she’ll continue enjoying life with Ellen, while diving into her new show, Better Off Ted. Catch the premiere on ABC March 18.