The surprise hit of the season has been Chuck, NBC’s comedy about an employee of an electronic store who unwittingly becomes a government spy. Chuck Bartowski gets his orders from General Beckman, a no-nonsense general calling the shots from our nation’s capital.
Beckman is played by Bonita Friedericy, a talented character actress who recently talked to us about sharing screen time with the Candyman, having a husband who excels at playing creepy guys and what it was like being in a Bobcat Goldthwait movie about bestiality.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
That’s an interesting question. I’m originally from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginians are fiercely independent, shall we say? I actually even have, it looks like a little credit card that’s my birth certificate – you can carry it around with you wherever you go and it’s from the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We moved out here when I was five and I call Los Angeles home.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
Have I decided that yet?
Perhaps we are assuming too much –
(Laughs.) No. Let me think, I come from a kind of odd family where there were a lot of puppets and playacting that occurred. For some reason, we put on little plays when I was a little kid, which I think my brother wanted to do. And my brother, he was gay – he passed away – but he would always play like the witches and things like that. We would do like Hansel and Gretel and he’d play the witch and my sister would always play the princes and I had to play the little princesses. And everybody would yell at me because I would pick my nose and basically not behave because I didn’t understand what was going on.
And then, when I was 10 years old, my brother did the play Fiddler on the Roof at his high school and they needed a little girl, so he brought me with him and I did my first play. And I continued doing theatre from that moment on.
I think I decided I actually wanted to make a living at it about nine years ago. That’s when I started doing TV and film.
How tough was it to break into the business when you decided to pursue it nine years ago?
Well, it’s funny, I think because I started older, it’s hard when you are a middle-aged woman just because there aren’t a whole lot of parts out there. However, I was very determined and I was older because I started at about 36. Pretty quickly I was making more than I was making doing theatre, which isn’t saying much.
I still think I’m trying to break in to the business, I have to say. (Laughs.) It’s not easy.
You’ve had guest spots on a wide variety of popular television shows. Do you enjoy the variety of your work or is it tough to constantly be bouncing around to different sets?
You know, it’s interesting. For years, I was a substitute teacher because it would supplement my theatre earnings, and it kind of does remind me of being a sub. It is kind of funky to pop around because you don’t quite belong and your job really is to know your lines, not bother anyone and be fun to work with. I do like the variety, I have to say. I’m a character actor and I think being able to play a general one week and a horrible mother the next week and then a secretary on Drew Carey or something, that I really like a lot. I like the variety.
My husband is an actor, too and we talk about it sometimes because he’s been on a number of series. And I think the idea of being able to go to the same job and getting to work with actors that you get to see on a regular basis and writers and things like that and developing a character more deeply has its own merits too. I just sort of figure you do whatever comes your way.
So do you get treated pretty well when you show up to the different sets?
Like I said, it is kind of like substitute teaching and I think there’s probably nothing more painful than going from one East LA middle school classroom to a Central school and being faced with anywhere from 30 to 50 children per class who really don’t want you there.
So do you think it’s tougher to win over the classroom full of kids?
Who could potentially hurt you physically and also where you have no books because the teachers have locked everything to keep them from you because they don’t trust you.
It actually prepared me very well to go from set to set. It depends on the set, I have to say. If you’re on a show that’s not doing very well it can be really intimidating. Years ago, I worked on Payne, which was a John Larroquette show. It was Faulty Towers, they were trying a remake of it and it wasn’t doing very well and it was really terrifying because nobody was happy and if you crossed your eyes the wrong way, you got the feeling you’d be fired. So stuff like that, it’s not so good. But ones where the show is doing really well – and I have to say, Chuck is just a wonderful set and a lot of that is because of Zachary Levi, he’s a really nice guy and he’s very fun to be with.
Speaking of Chuck, you play General Beckman on the show.
General Chuckles Beckman. (Laughs)
How was the character explained to you initially and will we be seeing more of General Beckman in future episodes besides just your cameos on the television screen at the Buy More?
You mean the Charlie of Charlie’s Angels? You know, I really don’t know what they have in mind with that, quite frankly. I’m sort of curious myself. I mean, every so often I run into a writer and they were pitching around at one point having Beckman getting married and having an assassination attempt on her and there’s been murmurings of back stories and things like that and I have to say, it’s developing a little bit. So I’m kind of curious because there’s this whole storyline now that they’re rebuilding the computer that got blown up that Chuck represents now and the basic riff is that as soon as the new computer is up and running, she’s going to have the Adam Baldwin character do Chuck in.
We don’t think Chuck will die though. It wouldn’t be very good for the show.
Hey, it’s going to be called Beckman after that. (Laughs.)
So it will just be a spin-off about the adventures of General Beckman?
Well, I think so. Don’t you think? You can just have like a blog with her where she just comes up on the screen for the entire hour.
And Tony Todd could be your wacky sidekick.
Particularly since he’s 6’5″ and I’m 5’3″, which is frankly why he’s always leaning on my desk because they can’t fit us in the same frame. I’m usually sitting on five cushions. I think they conceived Beckman as being a little bit bigger than I am because we try different things, we try to have me walking around my chair and stuff like that, but the chair’s twice my size, so I always end up sitting in it. It’s kind of funny.
And I love Tony Todd, but I think it’s hysterical – when I stand next to him, I come up to his waist. You know, he actually is the Candyman. People come up to him constantly when we’re working and get this “in awe” expression and say, “Oh my God, you’re the Candyman,” which I’ve never seen, but I guess you say his name three times in the mirror and he comes and gets you.
So even though it’s a small part right now, do you enjoy playing General Beckman?
I actually really like this part a lot. I like the fact that she sort of has a weird wryness to her. I really do call her Chuckles Beckman because her response to just about everything is to not register it and then shoot some mortars out there.
And frankly, I just want to stay in the show. Because, I don’t know if you realize this – I don’t think anyone knows this, I’m not the original Beckman. In the pilot, that’s another woman. They don’t show a whole lot of her, but we kind of look similar and actually I was at the premiere screening of it at McG’s and a number of people came up and said they liked my work and I kind of said, “Nope, wasn’t me.”
What I think is kind of interesting is the gal who was in the pilot, her name is Wendy Makkena, she actually – I played my husband’s wife on the show The Nine, he left me after several episodes and in the unaired episodes, he started dating and the woman he started dating on the show is Wendy Makkena. It was actually down to the two of us for Beckman and they couldn’t make up their minds and eventually went with Wendy and then, I don’t know what happened but after the pilot, they called me up and had me come.
So is that your way of getting her back for stealing your husband away?
I think so. (Laughs.) Actually John loves her. I’ve never met her, but he liked working with her very much. So I was just minding my Ps and Qs for a couple episodes just to make sure I would keep coming back.
You mentioned your husband John Billingsley, who is known for playing Dr. Phlox on Enterprise, and we know you even appeared on an episode of the show. What was it like working with him on that show and what sort of encounters does he have with Star Trek fans?
That’s so much a part of our life. We really enjoy it. Star Trek fans are actually some of the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet. It’s a part of why they’re attracted to Star Trek. I don’t know if you realize what goes on, I guess particularly in the original Star Trek – you had Uhura, a black woman with a major role, you had George Takei and you had Chekov. I think with all of the different aliens and things like that, this whole idea of acceptance and to be different is acceptable and it’s the kind of world we’re striving to have – that speaks very loudly to a lot of Star Trek fans. They’re very kind people and very accepting people and we love going to the conventions and getting to talk to them. My husband is a very, very nice man and he’s very, very generous.
That being said, working with him, we just like scream at each other, hit each other, throw tantrums, basically work out all of our marital problems on the set – no, actually we really like working with each other. We also did a terrible Christmas movie, the 12 Dogs of Christmas together.
We would also just like to say that your husband plays a creepy guy very well.
Doesn’t he? Did you see Cold Case? I loved him. It sort of bothered me, but in a really good way. I’m his biggest fan, by the way.
But I was sitting next to him when we were watching and it was like I didn’t want to be sitting next to him. He’s kind of sexy creepy too, I think. We joke about the fact that he’s played quite a few serial killers, child molesters – there’s an old NYPD Blue that he did where he is a child molester and god, it’s just so frightening, it’s just so good.
“You were a really good child molester” has got to be a weird compliment to give to your husband.
Yeah, it is, but what are you going to do?
How often do the two of you get recognized in public?
He does. Me no. It’s funny because he has different groups of people who recognize him for different work and you can usually figure out which are the Star Trek fans because I see them glancing at him from the side and they just sort of stand there transfixed. And I’ll go, “Yeah, it is.” He also has a lot of fans because he was in the Denzel Washington movie Out of Time. Me, I am not usually recognized. I’m perfectly happy not getting recognized, quite frankly. When I was younger, people used to think I was Carol Kane, and that was kind of interesting.
That’s got to be bizarre to be mistakenly recognized as someone else.
What’s kind of bizarre that I’ve noticed is people don’t know what I’ve been on and it happens with John sometimes too. The people will come up to me and say, “God, I feel like I know you” or “Where did we meet?”
It’s that funny thing where you kind of eventually go, “Well, maybe from a TV show.”
And they’ll go, “Oh, oh yeah, that’s right.”
But it’s kind of funny at first when people just sort of feel like they know you and you don’t want to go, “No, not really, from TV,” so you kind of pretend like, “Well, where did you grow up?”
You were in Sleeping Dogs Lie, which Bobcat Goldthwait wrote and directed. What can you tell us about this film and what was it like working with Bob Goldthwait?
It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, I have to say. You know, he’s actually not like his persona that he puts out there at all. He’s a really, really shy, very sweet, very quiet man.
I played the mother and I actually ended up wrestling another woman in my underwear for Elvis’ delectation at the end of the movie, which I’m very proud of.
What is the movie about?
Bestiality. It’s about a girl who has sort of a strange experience with her dog when she’s bored one day in college in her dorm. And then you flash forward to about five years later when she’s in love with a guy and he wants to get married to her and he wants them to have no secrets between the two of them and her having to deal with this because it was just a stupid thing that she did.
It’s funny because people get freaked out by the first three seconds of the movie or 20 seconds of the movie are the flashback with her dog and they don’t show anything, but you get the point. And people get completely nonplussed and shocked, but actually the rest of the movie is about her dealing with it and it’s screamingly funny and it’s really touching. And I was just so happy to be in a movie about bestiality.
I was also in Fart: The Movie. Bobcat told me one of the reasons why they cast me in Sleeping Dogs Lie was because they noticed I’d been in Fart: The Movie and that made him really happy. It’s all interconnected.
You were the first recipient of the Natalie Schafer Award for Comedy Acting. Please tell us about the award and what it meant to win it.
There were a total of 10 of us. The last recipient was Kirsten Vangsness, who is Garcia, she’s the techno gal with the glasses on Cold Case, she’s a friend of mine.
Natalie Schafer, that’s Lovey Howell from Gilligan’s Island. She was a character actress and she created this award before she died. It was in her will that a lump sum of money would go to emerging comic character actresses to help them with their careers and every year there would be a different recipient. They ran out of money after 10 years.
Yes, but it’s interesting – Natalie Schafer had a lover who was 20 years her junior. She died when she was like 90, and he was the one to make sure how the award was transferred and given and all of that stuff. It was interesting talking to him.
So how were you selected to win this award?
It’s the LA Drama Critics Circle critics. There were like 10 of them or 12 of them – they were the ones who were given the task of deciding who receives the award. I guess, there was a very lovely gentleman named Tom McCulloh, who has since passed on, who is a critic, who saw me when I was 18 years old in a play I had done with my college professor and his wife at a small theatre, and he had always been a champion of mine.
So I think he nominated me and I had just done a lot of theatre for years and so they all put their heads together and had decided that I had earned that award. And they gave it to me at the LA Drama Critics Circle awards. They gave me a big check, which was really helpful. That was one of the things that enabled me to think about taking a dive and to try to make a career in TV and film. It was enough of a chunk of money that I thought, “I can stop teaching part-time and just try and hang in there and get TV work.”
One of the things I did – I didn’t know how you got TV and film work. I hadn’t had an agent before. I’m really lame; I’m actually like a big chicken. I didn’t know how you did any of these things. I used to call my sister on the phone every day because she’s really smart and we’d try to figure out how you get ahead in TV and film. And she said, “There’s got to be a way to meet casting directors.” And a friend of mine told me about casting workshops. So I took about 400 of those, I think, over the course of two or three years and I did showcases and stuff like that just to meet people. And I needed to kind of have a little stake money there to be able to do that.
So do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
Yeah, John and I, if anyone ever wants to sit down over coffee and ask us, which they do quite a bit, because John did pretty much the same thing. He came down like 12 years ago from Seattle. He was a theatre actor up there and he started a theatre company called Bookends, which is what brought Cider House Rules down to that area. But, when he came down here, he was trying to figure out what to do to and he did pretty much what I did. We both just started taking these casting workshops and meeting casting directors and talking to them and seeing them again and making sure you do really good work.
And, I don’t think people do them anymore, but for a while, the acting showcases were pretty big. I did one in particular where I thought it was a pretty good showcase and picked out scenes that were really good for me and tried to get really strong partners and then I could invite all of the casting directors that I met to come see me in those and then I could use all of those contacts to talk an agent into taking me on. And then I could go back and tell the agent, “Look, I met so and so, I think there’s a part in such and such, could you try to get me in?” And sort of tried to make a triangle working there.
Then, never be scared to leave an agent or a manager. When I first started, everyone told me you weren’t supposed to change agents, like you’d never get another one or you’d get a bad reputation, and it’s so not true. It was very hard for me at first, but I think I’ve had three managers and four agents and it’s only gotten better each time that I’ve changed.
What goals do you have set for yourself? Where would you like to see your career go?
Don’t we all want to be Meryl Streep? She’s so good. Or Philip Seymour Hoffman? He’s so good. You know, it’s funny – one of the goals I had set for myself was to be able to make a living at this and that I have achieved. It’s funny, I was talking to an actress that lives down the street from me – I didn’t realize she was an actress and she didn’t realize I was an actress, she was walking her dog and I was walking around.
We started talking and she was saying, “Oh my god, I create projects for myself, I’m producing a movie that I wrote. You’ve got to just think of the parts you want to play” and stuff like that. I did when I was younger, I don’t so much anymore. My goals kind of extend more I think to being involved in projects that are entertaining to people and it’s not necessarily what I’m doing – it’s not about me, it’s just that the project is working for people.
It’s really hard with TV and theatre and film to know what kind of difference it’s making, particularly in the world right now. You’re not being a doctor, you’re not a nurse. You’re there to either help people escape for a while or to inform them or to make them feel not so alone, things like that. And that is very important to me, so being involved in something that serves that purpose makes me happy and is a goal.
I also – I’m feeling lazy, but I like directing theatre and I haven’t done that in a while. I do want to direct a piece in the next few years; I just have to find a piece I want to work on.
What do you do to unwind when you are not working?
That’s an interesting question. I play with my husband. We go doodle around, we go on trips. I like to read. Actually, a friend of mine is training to become a Pilates instructor, so she talked me into being her guinea pig because I actually used to dance when I was younger and Pilates uses a lot of that. So she can try things out on me and even if I don’t know what I’m doing, I can tell her what works and doesn’t work. And actually, I’m getting really interested in it. Pilates is great. Joseph Pilates was a very smart man.
What would you do for a living if you never got into acting?
That’s an interesting question too. I have a feeling the answer’s supposed to be, “Oh, acting is the only thing I could do.” It’s probably the only thing that saved me as a human being, was acting, because I got to play all of these different parts I couldn’t in my own personal life. But I probably would be either a nurse or a teacher, although I was a really bad middle school teacher – because I was teaching full-time while doing theatre.
I would do theatre at night and teach during the day and I taught every subject under the sun although I was completely improperly credentialed for any of it because this is LA. My sister mentioned to me at one point that she really wouldn’t want me teaching any of my nephews.
I thought about that for a while and I thought, “You know, that’s probably really true. I should either just go back to school and become a full-time teacher or totally make my living as an actor.” And obviously I was too lazy to go back to school, so I took the road of less resistance. But I think teachers are fabulous.
But I think I would probably be a nurse. Actually, my mom and I, we call each other the young junior medics because we can diagnose on a dime, I actually do read the Health section of the newspaper.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I noticed that’s what you ask people in your interviews. Well, nobody knows anything about me. I don’t know. Probably that I’m part Indonesian. I don’t know if that matters, but I always think it’s kind of interesting. I don’t have a fake leg or a glass eye. I think most people realize I’m not 21 years old.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, December 2007.