is having a moment, and not in the way her Mean Girls character Janis Ian, the mouthy high school sidekick, had moments opposite Lindsay Lohan. Lately, it seems as though critical praise attaches itself to each project she slips under her belt. One look at her year thus far suggests that Caplan is on the precipice of gracefully starting the next decade of her career. With recent meaty character turns in the widely acclaimed Bachelorette and indie flick 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom, the 30-year-old actress finds herself successfully doing what many 30-year-old actresses only hope to accomplish.
A completely conscious effort on her part, Caplan has not only branched out from what made her memorable in the first place (those characters capable of biting one-liners), but has managed to tap into the vulnerable underbelly of the sarcastic, deadpan characters she’s so comfortable with.
“I’m very proud of Mean Girls, and yeah, maybe it set the precedent for my career, but it was also so long ago,” she says. “I think, if anything, if you set any sort of precedent, you want to try and get as far away as possible.
“I really don’t want to repeat myself,” she adds. “The sarcastic girl in high school in Mean Girls is much different than the sarcastic girl at age 30. Those are completely different characters. While some of their characteristics might mirror each other, I think where I’m at in my life and where these characters are at in their lives give them the unique colors that make it worthwhile.”
It’s this attitude that has allowed Caplan to transcend the “woman at 30” stereotypes. By taking on complex characters, she has transformed into one of the most surprising and sophisticated modern character actors of her generation. The inherent need to try something different has proven a cornerstone for this new turn in her career.
Caplan started the year off right with the Sundance debut of Bachelorette, an honest but brash comedy documenting a night gone to hell in a hand basket for three of the most unstable bridesmaids alive. Though boasting strong performances from Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher, it’s Caplan’s turn as Gena that steals each scene as the erratic child-like, coke-snorting, bridesmaid who’s desperately trying to escape her impending adulthood by stewing in her formative years. In one scene, the actress delivers an awkward, cringe-inducing monologue about rating blow jobs on a scale from 1 to 10. “So many people have said, ‘Oh my God, that was risky,’” Caplan recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Really? What? Okay?’”
Gena could have easily been one-note, but Caplan finds the reality in her characters, as unapologetically flawed as they may be. “I love all the characters I play, and I really don’t see the point in judging those characters,” she says. “It’s your job as an actor to find something that you could relate to, or something that explains their behavior. I personally wouldn’t be friends with that person, but I understand lots of people look for reasons to explain their behavior, explain maybe why they’re not succeeding in the way that they feel they should. For this girl, she really had no tools to process any of it. If anything, I feel bad for her.”
In her latest film, 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom, Caplan plays Lassie, an emotionally distressed woman who has to deal with her deadbeat father getting out of rehab just after learning that her fiancé is gay. After getting drunk and crashing her bike into a bewildered Frankie (Charlie Hunnam), she unknowingly becomes the subject of a sex tape scandal when her one night stand’s brother, Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), captures their failed yet comical tryst. Throughout the film, the sex tape gets into the wrong hands, and the brothers hilariously try to stop the tape from getting in the hands of unsavory characters, including a charming and insightful Ron Perlman who makes his own turn of sorts as a cross-dressing computer hacker.
Although the character of Lassie takes a back seat to the subversive hijinks of the two brothers, Caplan anchors the bizarre world of writer/director Jordan Roberts (who based Bruce on his late brother and Ron Perlman’s character on his other cross-dressing sibling). “One should never play a comedy for laughs,” Caplan says. “You play it for the real moments.”
Caplan calls the experience “a nice reciprocity between creative energy,” but her role as Lassie also proved to be a challenging departure from the roles most movie-going audiences are familiar with. She’s introduced as a yammering, stammering mess who shows her range of emotions at the top of her first scene opposite Hunnam. “It’s weirdly cathartic to play someone who’s having a very unhinged moment. I knew I had that one scene to hopefully sustain me through the rest of the movie. Maybe it would have been too much if there was another total freak-out scene.”
In the end, the risk pays off for Caplan. “I was really excited about it, to be honest, because there were elements of her that were very unlike characters I’ve played a lot. There’s an inherent sweetness to her that is sort of unfamiliar territory for me, but the what really attracted me to it was all of her meltdown stuff. I knew it was going to be an epic challenge for me to freak out and cry that much.”
These recent roles have helped Caplan stand out amidst the pool of thirtysomething actresses in Hollywood. “I turned 30 at the exact right time,” she says. “I have no idea what the [next decade] will be like for me, but I know that the characters will be extremely different. I’ve graduated from playing the troubled twentysomething, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what a troubled thirtysomething looks like.”
Considering the projects already coming down the pike—including her role as Virginia Johnson in the upcoming Showtime series, Masters of Sex—it’s seems that we’ll get to see soon enough.