You may or may not remember the name, but she’s got a face we couldn’t forget if we tried … partially due to her beauty, partially due to her continued presence on our TV and movie screens. Beyond major roles in classic films like Some Kind of Wonderful, many first knew her from the cult sitcom Herman’s Head. Memorable guest turns on iconic shows like Seinfeld and Friends may have cemented Molly Hagan’s place in pop culture forever, but as you’ll learn after reading this chat, her journey is far from over. We chatted about comedy, knowing your place in Hollywood, and her new Clint Eastwood-directed film, Sully.
Paste: When you started your career and looked ahead to what your life would be, what kind of projects did you think you would be involved in?
Hagan: Growing up, TV was really important to me. It helped me through a lot of stuff, especially comedies. When I went to theater school—I had wanted to do theater, but deep down inside I just really wanted to be on TV because I loved it so much. I always wanted to do comedy, especially situation comedies.
Paste: Do you think that path has changed over the years? I feel like nowadays people start through stand-up just to get their foot into the comedy door, but so much of it is about, “Oh, I’m going to join this improv group or I’m going to train specifically for this type of thing.” Was it more directly focused on, “Oh, I want to be on a sitcom,” back then?
Hagan: I don’t really know. I know there are more single-camera comedies. There was a period of time where multi-cameras weren’t happening and now, actually, some of them are coming back because it’s much cheaper to produce. I think there’s more a sense of realism about the comedy and more of the comedy comes out of real life, which I prefer anyway. It requires better acting. In some ways, I think the comedy is more personal now, but in terms of a trajectory of a path of an actor or a stand-up, that I don’t know. I just know that the style has radically changed.
Paste: It feels almost like it’s just a totally different flavor of comedy that’s prevalent right now. I look at just that idea of being in that formulaic sitcom where there’s a laugh track and they’re encouraging you and supporting you and telling you what’s funny and what to laugh at. Personally, for me, I find that to be really comforting as a viewer just to be able to kick back, especially if it’s late at night, to go back and watch a show like Taxi. To me, it’s great stuff that’s a little less mentally taxing, which probably is an indictment on me (laughs).
Hagan: No, I understand. There is something comforting about it. I have a friend who’s just a wonderful writer who writes very intense things. He’s a well-known screen writer, but what he watches is Murder She Wrote because it’s comforting to him. He can just watch and be comforted by it rather than have to think. When I tell him, “Have you seen this? It’s so good,” and he’s like, “No, that requires way too much of my brain.” There is something very comforting about being told when to laugh or to be set up.
I do like the single-camera comedies where you’re not told to laugh because with the advent of being able to rewind and do everything you can do, if you miss something I can just go back and rewind it. In sitcoms with laugh tracks you could catch up to the joke. With single-camera comedies, sometimes stuff is happening so fast there’s actually no time to laugh. You may miss the next joke or the next thing that’s really funny because you’re laughing at something that just happened. The pauses aren’t built in, which is more like life.
Paste: I guess maybe what both of us are saying is that it’s a game of “What’s your mission?” Is it to emulate life or escape it a little while?
Hagan: I totally hear you. My favorite sitcoms right now are Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Blackish. They’re not true to life. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has outrageous characters. Andre Braugher is absolutely brilliant in that series. He’s so deadpan, and it ruins me every time he comes on screen. He just slays me. Then Blackish … Tracy, she’s killing it. She’s real, but also that character is a big character. I’m eating that stuff up like it’s ice cream. I just love it so much.
Paste: It’s interesting because we’re going to talk about a lot of the projects that people are going to remember you for. One of them, of course, is a show that was not at all true to life and did play into that old-school sitcom, but certainly took it in a very unique direction, Herman’s Head. For those who don’t remember, this was a show that was based on a similar premise to the Pixar movie Inside Out, which I never hear mentioned. Everything I’ve ever read about Inside Out is about how innovative the idea for that movie is. I’m watching previews for the movie and I’m like, “It’s Herman’s Head. Does nobody realize this?” (laughs)
Hagan: I know. It took, obviously, some of the idea, but Inside Out is a brilliant movie. Herman’s Head was really innovative, and it was super fun to do.
Paste: It was one of those weird shows that Fox was known for back in the day where they just had that leeway to take chances and just do what has become the internet and streaming media’s job now to do, which is to give opportunities for these different, unique, weird shows that can find some sort of an audience to sustain them. Herman’s Head lasted for … what was it, three or four years?
Hagan: Three years, yeah.
Paste: Herman was just a guy struggling with life, working in an office. It was a a workplace comedy, but he also had those four people playing these debating emotions inside his head that drove his personal decisions. You, of course, played the nice side of Herman. Your job was always to keep him on the straight and narrow, and that was a big character in its own way.
Hagan: Yeah. There were totally two-dimensional characters, since our point of view was driven by our two-dimensionality. You had me, sensitivity. You had lust and you had intellect, and then you had anxiety.
Paste: Did you and the other three actors playing parts of Herman’s brain actually film your cut scenes in front of the studio audience in between the “human” character’s scenes?
Hagan: Yes, we did it simultaneously. For anyone who’s ever been on a multi-camera sitcom set, there’s a live studio audience, and there are four cameras that are on wheels that flip around and there are mics that are on wheels that wheel around, and there’s all these different sets that are played on. The primary sets for Herman’s Head was his office, which was one half of the stage. Then on the other half of the stage was his brain, and then another part was his apartment. His brain took up a lot of space, and it was a very deep set. There was all the stuff in the brain from his memories and all this junk on stage.
If they were filming in the office, there’d be a scene in the office and they’d come to some sort of crisis for Herman or some sort of thing where he’d have to make a decision, and it would cut to the inside of the brain. All the sudden this fourth camera would fly over and catch us. Then we’d hear a snap and we were supposed to respond, and then the camera would whip over to the other side of the set and there’d be a snap and they’d continue. It was pretty simultaneous, and because of that it was really fun and you had to be on your toes.
Paste: That’s awesome. Herman’s Head definitely had a niche audience, but there are other projects that you’ve been involved with that were embraced by the mainstream and well-remembered to this day. Just looking through your résumé—you’ve been on Golden Girls, you were on Seinfeld, you were on Friends. Between those three shows alone, you’re on syndication forever. Probably most days of the year, you are on TV somewhere on one of those shows because all three of them are syndicated so widely and play so much. Do you ever take time to reflect on that and think, “I am on TV every freaking day?’
Hagan: When I get the chance I think about it. I’m like, “Wow, that’s wild. I’m on TV.” I am on TV a lot, yeah.
Paste: Have the benefits of appearing in a syndicated show changed over the years? We’ve all read horror stories about actors getting ripped off left and right in the old days, but have you personally felt the effects of industry changes throughout your career?
Hagan: I was not in SAG when the thing changed, so during Gilligan’s Island or something like that, I don’t think those poor people got anything. Gilligan’s Island was huge syndicated back then., I think the same with Star Trek—I’m not sure those people saw residuals on that. Something changed after that. I started working in 1984, and that stuff was already in place, so actors were protected on TV. Yes, I still get residuals on Golden Girls. It may not be much.
Paste: There’s a story that you told me in a prior interview we did a few years ago, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t just say, “Just tell the freaking story again.” Talk about the time you insulted—dare I say, pissed-off—the great Chuck Norris.
Hagan: It was my first movie, and it was called Code of Silence. I was really newly out of school. When you’re in school, especially in theater, it’s a collaborative thing and you work together and you say whatever you want to say because you’re working together. When you say something it’s about someone’s character. We got to this scene and I’m this young woman who is his best friend’s daughter. There’s nothing sexual going on.
Anyway, we’re sitting on a bed. I’ve just found out my whole family’s been wiped out and he was talking to the director, Andy Davis, about, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I should hug her or comfort her.” I’m like, “Oh, no, no you must because if you don’t, you’re an asshole.” Then all the sudden, rehearsal is over and I’m getting shuffled off to my dressing room. Production stopped, but I don’t know. I’ve never been on a film set before. How do I know? I didn’t notice that anything weird was going on.
All the sudden Andy comes up to me, my dressing room, and he goes, “Yeah, you need to apologize.” I’m like, “What?” He goes, “You need to apologize. You called him an asshole.” I’m like, “Asshole? I called him an asshole?” I’m like, “Oh, no, no, no. I was calling his character an asshole.” Andy just looked at me and he said, “Mr. Norris really identifies with his character.” So I go out and apologize to Chuck Norris. He just looked at me like I was insane. I thought he was still really nice to me.
Time goes on. The movie’s over, and I hear through the grapevine—this was after years had passed—that he still tells people this story that I called him an asshole. I went, “Oh, god,” so I write him a letter. This just keeps getting worse. I write him a letter congratulating him on his show, which was Walker, Texas Ranger. I write this really nice letter and I send it off. I share the letter with someone and they say, “That’s not the name of his show.” I said, “Yes, it’s Texas, Walker Ranger.” “No,” he says, “it’s Walker, Texas Ranger.” “What? It’s Walker Ranger,” I insist. He goes, “Haven’t you ever seen his show? He’s a Texas ranger. His name is Walker.” I’m like, “Oh, my god.”
Paste: Any feedback from him since?
Hagan: No. I feel awful. He probably doesn’t remember, but maybe he does. I don’t know, but anyway it’s just incredibly embarrassing for me and just typical of something idiotic I would do.
Paste: Okay, that was very early in your career. Did you find that to be a common attitude among the larger stars … to have to walk on eggshells around them just based on their position or their place in the movie or the project?
Hagan: I think part of the problem was that I was really young and who the fuck am I to tell anyone? I don’t think it’s necessarily that he was a star. He’s a very nice man, and he was terrific on the set. I think I had this attitude that was really not appropriate.
Hagan: I was like 20 years old talking as if I knew what the hell was going on. I was acting in a familiar way with someone I was not familiar with. That’s always, I think, really off-putting, and I’m off-put by people who act really familiarly with me who don’t know me. I don’t think it was really his problem. It was my problem. I was an idiot. I think it’s less about the word asshole and more about the familiarity with which I was treating the situation. The film was made because he was Chuck Norris, and I think that demands a certain amount of respect. I, unknowingly, did not treat it with respect.
Paste: The problem is clear, Molly… you were being an asshole! (laughs)
Hagan: I was the asshole. Exactly.
Paste: See? I bet if you had just simply sent him a note that said, “Hey, I was the asshole,” all that time ago you’d be best friends right now.
Hagan: Every time I tell the story I learn something new, and I did not realize I was the asshole until now because the last time I told you this story I didn’t have this perspective. Now, two years later, I have another perspective. “I was the asshole.”
Paste: Looking back, we’ve talked about just a few of the projects you’ve been involved in and how you’ve grown over the last couple of years. Clearly, you’re still learning new things about the business and about yourself. That’s a part of life, but is that still as big a part of your career as it was in the beginning?
Hagan: Oh, yeah. I’m actually back in acting class. Also, I just produced this interactive thing which hopefully will be out sooner than later called The Garage Sale. It’s an interactive web piece. I wrote it and I produced it and I learned a lot on that. Even though I’m 55-years-old, I’m still learning about acting. I’m still learning about the business.
It’s really exciting, and I actually keep telling people this is that I’m as excited now as I was in my 20s, and that’s pretty recent. That’s over the last three years. I also think it’s a really exciting time because you can produce so much of your own content relatively inexpensively. Yeah, I am still learning stuff, and I am still learning how to navigate personalities and how not to piss people off. I think that’s going to be ongoing for a long time, that learning.
Paste: You are a part of the film Sully, which comes out in September. Of course, it’s a rare true story that is hitting the big screen in a mainstream major way. Tom Hanks stars, Clint Eastwood directs, and I presume that you were a bit more mindful of their feelings than you were with poor Chuck Norris. (laughs)
Hagan: I will say this, Tom Hanks is truly one of the funniest individuals I’ve ever met. He is genuinely funny. And so is Clint Eastwood. It was a great time.
Paste: At this stage of the game, is there a special kind of pressure that comes from working with pros of that caliber?
Hagan: Oddly, I think this is why Clint’s movies are good. He creates an environment that is so protected. He’s very close to his crew. There’s no difference between actors and crew and anybody. There’s no hierarchy. There’s no difference. It’s everyone working together. You feel held, you feel supported, so you can do your best work. I was nervous meeting him, but after that it went away because you felt so supported. I don’t know how to describe it. Definitely, this is the largest experience I’ve ever had and, yet, it was the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had, which is really saying something about Clint Eastwood.
Paste: That’s amazing. Thank you for your time.