Megan Mullally probably wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know she was a musician. The actress, arguably best known for her role as the shamelessly self-involved socialite Karen Walker on NBC’s soon-to-return sitcom Will & Grace, has appeared in a number of Broadway musicals (Grease, How to Succeed in Business, Young Frankenstein) and, in 2007, released a jazzy collection of covers with Supreme Music Program. More recently, though, Mullally has focused her efforts on her latest project, Nancy And Beth, a duo she formed in 2011 with fellow musician Stephanie Hunt. The two will release their self-titled debut on April 7.
Not unlike Mullally’s work with Supreme Music Program, she and Hunt handpick existing tracks on which to put their own spin. For instance, Wynona Carr’s 1956 hallmark “Please, Mr. Jailer” retains its blues origins, but Mullally and Hunt crank up the urgency with tinkling piano keys and their own high-pitched harmonies. Rufus Wainwright’s arena-filling “Vibrate,” meanwhile, sounds noticeably gentler coming from Nancy And Beth. But all bets are off when the two utter phrases like “I love the way she suck me” on Gucci Mane’s graphic opus “I Don’t Love Her.”
Paste caught up with Mullally over the phone, where she opened up about her musical connection to Hunt, which she likens to her relationship with Will & Grace co-star Sean Hayes, and why it shouldn’t matter that they are 30 years apart in age and completely nude on their album cover. She also gladly brought us up to speed on what we can expect from the forthcoming Will & Grace reboot, and what’s next for Karen (no doubt a lot of tone-deaf tales about vacations with “Donnie and Melania”).
Paste: You’ve done music before, mainly on Broadway and in Supreme Music Program, but you continue to be best known for your acting. How is Nancy And Beth different from what you’ve done in the past?
Megan Mullally: It’s a tough one because nobody knows that I sing. So when I have a band they’re like, “What’s…happening…?” Selling a band predicated on nothing is always an interesting proposition, and of course the fact of the matter is that I really started out in music before I ever acted, and I’ve done a ton of singing. I’ve done three Broadway musicals and tons of concerts and all kinds of things, but nobody knows that, except the people in New York. My shows in New York always sell out in about two minutes, other than that, we’re screwed. I have this band I love. I love the whole feel of the band because every song is completely choreographed and it’s very celebratory. There’s not another band I could think of to compare it to off the top of my head. I think Stephanie [Hunt] and I just have a lot of fun together in a kind of childlike way, and that translates when you see the band live. I think you can hear it in the music, too, in the recordings. For example, the music video we did [for “Please Mr. Jailer”]. That was really fun. It was my first time directing anything, and it was really easy and all came together very simply.
I don’t know, this band is different; it has a different feeling. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. That’s not to say that we don’t do the occasional ballad here and there, but it’s certainly not a comedy band in any way, shape or form, but there’s a lot of humor. I think there’s some wit in some of the choreography. There’s a wittiness build into the songs that we choose, without that being a conscious decision; that’s just something that happens. Stephanie and I just listen to music together and we just get really excited about certain songs and those are the songs that end up in the repertoire.
Paste: Given the record’s performative, lighthearted vibe—not to mention your background—I thought some reviewers and commentators might classify it as a comedy record. But I like the distinction that you made in how there are comedic aspects, but it’s not a comedy record.
Mullally: Yeah, nobody’s said that to me so far, but who knows how people will perceive it. It’s definitely not that, it’s just that there’s humor and there’s a feeling of celebration in most of the songs. Live there’s more of that because of the choreography.
Paste: How did you and Stephanie end up whittling down those tracks?
Mullally: First of all, I call Stephanie “The Human Xanax” because it is literally impossible to get worked up about anything when she’s around. She’s just naturally so chill; I’ve never known anybody like that. She’s not an irritating new-age kind of person, she just happens to have this natural ability. She’s just a positive person. She doesn’t have a lot of anxiety herself so it doesn’t engender that in other people. When she and I get together it’s like two kids; like two little girls having a tea party or something. Or maybe something more feminist than a tea party.
But we honestly have similar tastes, and even though Stephanie’s 30 years younger than I am there doesn’t seem to be any genre or any era of music that she’s not familiar with. It’s very interesting. Like, she actually knows more about music from certain periods than I do. I know more maybe ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s music, but she definitely knows more ‘50s music than I do.
So we get together and listen to a bunch of stuff and when we both freak out over a song, that’s when it becomes a contender. It’s just a feeling we have. So, whatever the nature of my friendship with Stephanie is, a lot of the band is coming very much from a pure, childlike place. When we are excited about something it’s not in a way like rubbing our hands together saying, “This’ll get ‘em!” It’s coming from a very intuitive, non-analytical place of genuinely being excited about things. She’s a real savant at harmonies, so she does all of the harmonies and I sing the melodies. We can do a whole show where we almost never look at each other during the whole song, because that’s the way we’re choreographed, and sense what each other’s doing the whole time. It’s a strange thing. I have that with [Will & Grace actor] Sean Hayes, too.
Paste: I particularly enjoyed hearing you guys sing Gucci Mane’s “I Don’t Love Her.” I’m just trying to imagine you guys both freaking out over that. Was that something she had to bring to you or were you familiar with his work beforehand?
Mullally: Y’know, I stumbled upon that song. I was looking for something else and I clicked on that and I started listening to and I thought, “Oh my God, this could be amazing!” It’s so wrong. It’s like the furthest from “right” that one could possibly get in terms of a male/female dynamic.
Paste: Yeah, it’s super-raunchy. But it’s almost like you’re reclaiming ownership over those misogynistic lyrics. Not unlike how women took back the word “pussy” after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape leak.
Mullally: Oh, yeah. I mean, we discovered it pre-Access Hollywood, but I think the idea, just the fact of two women singing that song, just that in and of itself, is enough to really make you sit down and think long and hard about where we are as a culture. That song was really fun to record because we did all those asides. I don’t know how you listened to it, but I noticed that you don’t get all of the asides unless you listen on like a really good stereo system or headphones. I played it on my record player and could only hear part of it. I only heard half of those little things we say between lyrics because I didn’t have all the channels; I don’t have a good enough stereo, so I have to listen to it in my car or on earbuds to hear it all.
Paste: The album art is quite eye-catching, with you and Stephanie fully nude except for some graphics. What was the decision making behind that?
Mullally: Well, there wasn’t really a decision, per se, as with so many other aspects between Stephanie and I where the band is concerned. We love to take selfies. We have a jillion selfies in all different environments, normally in a mirror. So originally our idea was to use one of those, or there was a photographer who went on the road when we were opening for Nick [Offerman] a couple years ago who took some pictures. We hadn’t made the record yet or anything, but we were just thinking ahead. Then one day I was in some kind of relaxed state and that image, that exact image of the front cover and the back cover, just came into my head out of nowhere. I mean, Nick hasn’t seen me naked—I’m not a person who’s constantly flinging my clothes aside and strutting about. I’m very much the opposite, and so is Stephanie. I had that idea, the front cover and the back cover, and I just couldn’t shake it. I told Stephanie, “Let’s be naked.” Like, “Hear me out—us standing there in the most neutral way possible, but we’re naked.” And she was like “…Alright!” I think there was a minute of like, “So like, totally naked?” I was like “Yeah, totally naked,” and she was like “Umm yes, I think that’s good.” And it’s not meant to be in any way salacious.
Paste: Yeah, it does not look like it’s meant to be provocative or overtly sexual.
Mullally: Yeah, and it’s funny because I think it’s being taken that way. I mean there’s something enigmatic about it.
Paste: I think it’s magnetic, but I personally did not read it as sexual.
Mullally: Oh, good! And I think then when you see the back cover there’s a little more humor there, and you understand that we’re not taking ourselves seriously. But yeah, I just thought, “Here are two women.” Because I think that one of the main elements of the band that makes it interesting to an audience is the fact that there is this 30-year age difference between the two of us, and yet it doesn’t mean anything or matter, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that because of the whole way that we think about age in our culture. There needs to be some change there.
Paste: I couldn’t agree more. Even in my field, you hit 30 and suddenly there are people doing exactly what you do, but seven years younger. Then you start to wonder whether or not you’ll be pushed out because of music’s—and pop culture in general—obsession with youth.
Mullally: Yeah, I think we all—women and men—need to look at this. The relationship between Stephanie and I is that we’re friends. We share a creative connection, so that’s there and that’s a part of it, that’s a big part of it. But we’re friends and we would be friends even if we didn’t have a band and our age difference never really enters into it. Just the same that Nick is 11 years younger than me, and that never comes into play either.
Paste: Well, all I’ll say is that no one accused the Red Hot Chili Peppers of being sexual or homoerotic when they all wore socks on their penises. It just came off like, “Oh they’re being funny goofballs because they’re funny goofballs; they’re boys in a band.”
Mullally: [Laughs] Right, I forgot about that!
Paste: So, while I’ve got you, I’d love to catch up quickly about the forthcoming Will & Grace reboot. I sure wish that show was on Netflix or something so I could binge the entire thing before it returns this fall.
Mullally: I know, I need to watch it too. I wish it would [be added to Netflix]. Somebody the other day was talking about Stan dying, and I was like, “Stan died?” And they were like, “Yeah, Stan died!” And then I was like, “Huh.” And they’re like, “And then he came back,” and I was like, “He did?!” Like, I don’t really remember!
Paste: That’s the thing, I don’t remember either. What do you think the objective will be in filming these episodes?
Mullally: I think we’re shooting them to make 10 really funny episodes. I think that was a secret of the show’s success originally. I mean, the show was very topical, but primarily it was just funny, especially in the dynamic between the various characters, and I think that’s what they’re going for this time. I don’t really know yet, I haven’t heard any of the episode ideas or anything like that or if they’re planning to cast any of the guest stars that were on in the past or anything. I mean, there’ll be one or two people who will come back. I think they’re just trying to make it really funny and keep the characters however the characters have evolved in the 11 years that have gone by, how they’ve evolved as people. And then obviously we’re living in this crazy time and I’m sure that will—I mean you can’t not reference it, it’s everywhere. But I don’t think that the show is going to be political in the way that the election video was.
: Makes sense. I could see Grace being the type who would be reciting everything the New York Times writes, and her character would be overtly liberal, and then Karen’s character would her political foil, but in this blatantly hypocritical way.
Mullally: Oh, I’m sure Karen’s had, like, 93 abortions, and yet she’s vacationing with Donnie and Melania. And probably Rosaria’s not in the country legally. I know, I think that’s a great place to come from comedically; that Karen is conservative on paper but she breaks the rule at every turn.
Paste: What do you envision Karen Walker having been doing for the last decade? Would you be surprised that she’s even still alive after all the pills and the booze?
Mullally: Yeah, Karen will never die. Max Mutchnick, one of the creators of the show, has always maintained that Karen is a bat who balls up and hangs from a rafter and sleeps during the day and that she’ll live forever. I think Karen’s very well-preserved. She’s one of those people that defy all the rules: She’s always drunk but she never appears to be drunk, and she’s on tons of opioids, but you’d never know it and it doesn’t seem to adversely affect her in any way. She’s one of the bad guys where you think, “Aren’t the meek supposed to inherit the Earth? Why are these horrible people bossing us around?!” She’s one of the horrible people.
Check out Nancy And Beth’s upcoming tour dates here.