This interview was conducted for a story in the Comedy/Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
When Carrie Brownstein talked to TheWrap about her job writing and acting in the IFC series “Portlandia,” she was near the tail end of a long-awaited tour by her seminal Portland-based indie rock band Sleater-Kinney. The band had been on hiatus for four years when she and Fred Armisen first launched the satiric sketch comedy series in 2011, but its return gave Brownstein one of the most unusual split personalities of any of this year’s Emmy contenders.
TheWrap: Is it hard to divide your time between “Portlandia” and Sleater-Kinney?
Carrie Brownstein: Well, I’m in “Portlandia” land right now. We’re doing a festival in Washington state this weekend, and then another festival in Spain. This is sort of the last of Sleater-Kinney, and I have turned my attention to writing Season 6 of “Portlandia.” I should still be OK playing guitar, but I do like to focus on one thing at a time, and for it to be immersive. I don’t necessarily want things to be as compacted as they are this weekend.
“Portlandia” began with a series of short videos that you and Fred Armisen made — but did you know what you were getting in for when you decided to write and star in a series?
I don’t think any of us did, and I think that kind of discovery is part of the charm of “Portlandia.” There was a clumsiness to the first season that felt important to hang onto. When clumsiness becomes more intentional and more refined, it is still able to capture the awkwardness of some of life’s moments, and that’s important for us to hold onto. I think it was to our benefit that we came together not knowing the rules. Because it doesn’t feel like a show that follows too many rules.
When you were doing the first few seasons, where there times when you thought, Maybe we bit off a little too much?
I think that kind of sink-or-swim feeling keeps the stakes high. And in all meaningful creative endeavors, finding ways of having high stakes are where you find good writing, where you get good stories, where you take risks.
After five seasons, do you ever wonder what’s left to write about?
There are times, especially when we sit down at the beginning of the season to write, when we think, What could we possibly write about this year? That’s why in Season 5 we thought we should focus on characters. Lives are labyrinthine and convoluted and there’s a lot of depth to them, much more than concepts. So we peppered these characters’ stories with topical humor or observations about contemporary life, but we really wanted to couch them in real relationships. That’s when we felt like, we’re not going to run out of ideas.
When you’re writing for yourself, do you think of your strengths and weaknesses as an actor, or do you just write what you want and then figure out how to play it?
I think more the latter. Although I think that one of the reasons we started to focus on a handful of characters is that we are focusing on our strengths. I think Fred and I have fallen into a certain kind of dynamic – we know what works. Fred can be very tangential as a performer in ways that are very brilliant and nimble, and sometimes I’m better at kind of maintaining the story and being more grounded, which makes it more effective when my characters go off the deep end.
Do you see a big divide between the “Portlandia” side of what you do, and the Sleater-Kinney side?
When I was first doing “Portlandia,” Sleater-Kinney didn’t exist anymore. Now I’m at this crossroads where there are fans who overlap. And that’s something that I really appreciative. Because for me, it is part of the same world — I’m not just slicing it in half.