The adult comedy The Happytime Murders is set in the underbelly of Los Angeles, where puppets and humans co-exist. From director Brian Henson, the film follows two clashing detectives – a human named Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and a puppet named Phil Philips (played by puppeteer Bill Barretta) – who are forced to work together to solve the mystery of who is brutally murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang puppet show.
On October 12, 2017, Collider (along with a handful of other online outlets) was invited to the Santa Clarita, Calif. set, where we got to talk with Elizabeth Banks, who plays femme fatale Jenny, the only human member of The Happytime Gang. During the interview, she spoke about what she loves about her character, Jenny’s previous romance with Phil, human-puppet love, feeling emotionally connected to the puppets, film noir reference points, why Jenny and Edwards hate each other, how the puppets allow for the opportunity to explore what it’s like to be a part of a marginalized community, what’s most surprised her about working with the puppets/puppeteers, and what makes the puppets bigger divas on set.
Question: Who do you play in this?
ELIZABETH BANKS: Jenny is a bit of a femme fatale, and she was the only human member of The Happytime Gang. She was in love with a young Phil, when he was just a beat cop and the first puppet ever to be admitted to the LAPD. They had a romantical thing. And then, it cuts to 12 years later and The Happytime Gang has been disbanded. We are being hunted and murdered, one by one, and no one really knows why.
What was the actual Happytime Gang show about?
BANKS: I liken it to like The Electric Company meets like The Simpsons. It was not animated, and it was not The Muppet Show. It was on five days a week, three times a day, and it was just something people loved, like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It was a ridiculous set with human and puppet interactions. All of the puppets were amazing! Bumblypants is my favorite puppet.
Do we see human-puppet love in this?
BANKS: Oh, yeah! You really do! It’s very soft and tender love. It’s soft, sensual, felt-like love. It feels a lot like a velvety tablecloth.
What was it about this movie that drew you to it?
BANKS: I just really love this character that I play. She’s like a stripper with a heart of gold. I love that we’re playing with noir and that whole sensibility, like Chinatown, but with puppets. I just felt like this was a great twist on classic storytelling, and this character has some great twists. I’m not actually interested in playing a stripper, in real life, because then I would have to take it really seriously, and it’s really hard. Pole dancing is really hard. My body is still very sore, and I did a bad job at it, in this movie. That might be why I’m sore.
Is it weird to be in an R-rated movie with puppets?
BANKS: The amazing thing about working with puppets is that you really feel connected to them. They’re real actors. They’re great performers. They are really and truly hilariously funny. They have great bits that they’ve all been perfecting over the many, many, many, many years that they’ve been doing this art form. They have a great rapport. They are always are in character. Their puppet is just an extension of themselves, as an actor, so you have real emotional moments with these puppets. It’s amazing! It’s thrilling and really fascinating.
What were the film noir templates for you?
BANKS: Chinatown is the closest one. It’s also got a little Dick Tracy in it, which I find interesting. It’s very colorful, in that way. It’s also not of any age. It’s got a little bit of the ‘70s vibe in it, as well. I find it really interesting that you’re not sure if it’s 2018, 1997, 1984, or 1977. It’s this total mix of eras, which I think is a great choice.
Who is the funniest person on set?
BANKS: Me, obviously. Phil is pretty funny. Goofer is hilarious. He’s really funny. Everyone is funny. Obviously, Melissa [McCarthy] is funny. You expect me to say that, but really, it’s Goofer.
Sometimes actors can get frustrated with the temperament of other actors. What’s it been like to work with the puppeteers?
BANKS: Honestly, to me, it’s their show. I’m just here to be an asset to them. They run the show, not us humans. I came into it with that attitude, just to be supportive of the puppets and the puppeteers.