Exclusive Interview with 'I Don't Know How She Does It' Actress Busy Philipps on Motherhood, Movies and Playgroup Politics

Busy Philipps in
Busy Philipps in "I Don't Know How She Does It"/Photo by Craig Blankenhorn ©2011 The Weinstein Company

It's ten o'clock AM and Busy Philipps is having a life-imitates-art moment. As Philipps describes trying to cram an entire workday into the brief window when her three-year-old daughter is at school, her real-life lament could easily double as dialogue in the script for her most recent project, "I Don't Know How She Does It," which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as a woefully overextended working mom.

Another way to look at it is that Busy is just living up to her name. Best known for her role as the terminally single woman pining after Justin Long's bartender in "He's Just Not That Into You," Philipps has made a habit of working on zeitgeist-y projects aiming to capture the most of-the-moment female archetypes: TV's "Cougar Town" and  "I don't Know How She Does It."

In the latter, which is based on the bestselling novel by Allison Pearson, Philipps plays a Type-A supermom who organizes school bake sales as if she were running a Fortune 500 company and acts as a foil to Sarah Jessica Parker's frazzled working mom struggling to stay afloat at work and at home. Philipps identified strongly with the film's premise -- that the feminist-era fairy tale that women can have it all hasn't exactly panned out as promised.

Over the course of a lively conversation, Philipps opens up about her own experiences -- in life and on screen -- of trying to solve the eternal maternal riddle of how to survive motherhood with a career and vice versa.

Signature: What aspect of the story resonated most with you?

Busy Philipps: It’s difficult learning to balance and my life has certainly been a trial by fire. I've messed up every day for the past three years since I had my daughter, and especially in the past two years since I started working. So every day I figure out how to do it better the next day. I definitely loved the script, especially since I had personally had experiences with mean judgmental non-working moms. So I was excited to play my character.

SIG: Give us some insights into your character.

BP: I play a woman named Wendy Best, who puts this mirror up to Sarah Jessica Parker's character and illuminates the worst things she feels about herself as a mother. Which is a horrible feeling. It’s that weird thing that happens where women become very judgmental of decisions other women are making. It’s sad to me we can’t be in a place where we can acknowledge we're all doing our best and respect the decisions other women make and even offer to help out.

SIG: Was it fun or interesting to play one of those perfectionist supermoms?

BP: I’m just so not that woman. I certainly know women who had children, quit their jobs, and still have full-time nannies. That’s who these women are: Even to the detriment of their own relationship with their kids, they want to appear perfect Martha Stewart moms.

SIG: You could probably make a whole comedy about what it's like to be that kind of mother.

BP: It’s hard to find the balance and find time and that’s what I love about this movie: Sarah Jessica Parker's pulled in all these different directions and she’s trying to hold together a relationship with a man that’s maybe not the most exciting thing. Maybe Pierce Brosnan is a little more exciting but only because he’s new and shiny. It’s hard to find a way to be good to your husband, be good to your kid, and be good to yourself.

SIG: Was it refreshing to take an alternative approach to a traditional rom-com narrative, in which a woman's sole obsession is to find the right guy and get married?

BP: This was certainly a lot of fun. Aline Brosch McKenna is one of my favorite writers, with all due respect to my husband (Marc Silverstein) who makes a living writing romantic comedies. But to be able to tell this story, which is a romantic comedy but from a different perspective, was really fun. We were also given a lot of room in the interview portion in which Aline and director Doug McGrath and occasionally Harvey Weinstein would interview us on camera about the character’s point of view on certain subjects. Some of it was written out and other stuff was freestyle improv. You don’t really get that experience much on these comedies. That stuff ended up in the movie as the segments when the characters speak to the camera.

SIG: I imagine this was a very family-friendly set. Did you bring your kids to work?

BP: The movie was filming in New York and I shoot a show in Los Angeles, so for me it wasn’t even worth it to bring my kids because it would have messed up their sleeping schedule. It was also cold and flu season so I don’t think Sarah Jessica was bringing her kids around because you just don’t want your kids to be exposed to that.

SIG: Did you two commiserate about your own struggles to balance work and life?

BP: Definitely. I shared with her how I only worked a couple days during the first year of my daughter’s life. I shot the pilot for "Cougar Town" and then it got picked up and I started to shoot the series after her first birthday. I had been part of a mommy playgroup for the first year of her life and then I was working so much on the show, I stopped getting the e-mails and stopped being included in the group. TV shows only shoot seven months out of the year, so I had this moment when the show was done shooting when I felt so alone. Then I sent out this big mea culpa e-mail saying, "I know I let the ball drop and I was overwhelmed with the show. But I’d really like to get back into things." And really only three of the fifteen women e-mailed me back. I had a really hard time. I had to go to therapy. I was really devastated by it. I felt incredibly hurt. Like, 'You’re mad at me for working. Don’t take it out on my kid.' I guess I missed all those months of important bonding.You have to be able to talk to other mothers. It is so vital. Just so you know you’re not crazy. The short version of the story is: I got kicked out of my playgroup. But it was about so much more than that.

SIG: "Cougar Town" has a whole different take on what it means to be a mom and have a social life.

BP: Absolutely! On our show Christa Miller and Courteney Cox are both moms. Christa Miller’s viewpoint is hilarious: She’s a stay-at-home mom who gave up her career and has a nanny and drinks wine all the time.

SIG: The wine is just basic survival.

BP: You got that right!