New TBS sitcom Miracle Workers has a funny baseline: God is a moron, Heaven is a corporation, and the afterlife kind of sucks. But it really clicks into the top tier of weird comedy thanks to a cast with plenty of experience in the arena. Geraldine Viswanathan’s Eliza is our gateway in, she stealing scenes from Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and God (Steve Buscemi) like she’s been on the A-list for eons. But this is her first American TV show. In fact, it’s one of her first Stateside projects after years of comedy writing and performing in Australia.
Crushing a breakout role in Blockers as the confident, sexually-empowered jock daughter of John Cena and Sarayu Rao, Viswanathan has been storming the scene. With a killer comedy, an oddball cable show, and now an indie hit (Minhal Baig’s Hala) making waves from Sundance, Viswanathan is here to stay. She chatted with Paste about ratty underwear, Tommy Wiseau, and doing your own horseback stunts. [Editor’s note: The following interview had been lightly edited for clarity and length.]
Paste: Tell me about how you got the role of Eliza.
Geraldine Viswanathan: I read the first two episodes and was deeply impressed, then I went in and read for Laura [played in the series by Sasha Compère], and then they brought me back as Eliza. Then I had a chemistry read with Daniel [Radcliffe] and that was that.
Paste: How was that?
Geraldine Viswanathan: It was really nerve-wracking. It was early in the morning—a Sunday, I think. And I was so nervous. I haven’t told anyone this before, but someone gave me some advice about overcoming nerves: [Y]ou tell someone a secret that makes you feel more comfortable around them. So I decided to pretend to tell Daniel a secret. And the secret was that I was wearing my most disgusting, most full-of-holes pair of underwear. And I pictured myself telling him like, “Hey, I’m wearing my grossest undies right now.”
Paste: It’s laundry day.
Viswanathan: It kind of helped! It made it feel a little more silly and I felt more relaxed.
Paste: He was playing one of the more nervous characters on TV, so I imagine you needed all the help you could get.
Viswanathan: Exactly. It’s so important for Eliza to be extremely confident, but sometimes you just have to pull that out of somewhere deep inside, even when I’m freaking out.
Paste: Speaking of that confidence, we later find out that some of that confidence comes from a different form she had when she was alive on Earth. Did you know that backstory when you first read the scripts?
Viswanathan: No, I didn’t. I think I found that out in one of the first conversations with [creator Simon Rich]. He was like, “By the way, she was a warrior princess who was a real badass.”
Paste: And now you’re ready for Game of Thrones! Wait, didn’t you hurt yourself riding a horse?
Viswanathan: I did. Here’s the story. Initially the thing was me throwing spears and kicking butt, but then I was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I rode in on a horse?” Because I’m a horse rider. I’ve been riding since I was two [and] grew up a competitive horse rider, so I can ride a horse. And they were like, “Oh, that’s awesome, we should totally put that in.”
Then on the day, it was all going well. We did the take like six times; I gallop in and I jump off. We did an extra take just for safety and that one, when I jumped off, I just lost my balance and rolled my ankle and then landed on a rolled ankle. It got really messed up. And then I was on crutches for the rest of shooting. Towards the end I’m sitting down a lot and—secret’s out—I was very much injured.
Paste: How much more shooting was left?
Viswanathan: There were like two weeks left. It wasn’t great. I was feeling so cool and then really ate shit very quickly.
Paste: Have you thought about doing more stand-up now that you’re Stateside more often?
Viswanathan: Yeah, I have! I’ve been living in New York and I’ve seen a tiny bit, but I’ve been feeling a bit lazy, or comfortable in not doing it anymore. It’s definitely a less intense way to live life. But I’m still thinking about it. I think I’d like to. I’m gonna try if I can get back on the horse.
Paste: Your career has a lot of crazy comedies with social messages, like Blockers, your stand-up set from Nailed It! where you tell a very funny story about dating white men, or Nippers of Dead Bird Bay where you play a refugee with no lines. Does this style of comedy inform your career?
Viswanathan: How are you finding these?! [Laughs] Well, the Nippers thing was because I was friends with Sam Campbell and he was like, “Hey, we need some brown people to be refugees” and I said, “Sure, whatever.” He’s a bit embarrassed by it now.
Paste: And then a much more serious story in Hala.
Viswanathan: Couldn’t be more different! Went straight on to shooting that after a movie called The Package, which is about a guy that gets his dick cut off. That was quite an adjustment, going from that to a really quiet coming-of-age story with a very specific tone.
Paste: You’ve done dramatic shorts and TV work, but how was working with a writer/director’s pet project?
Viswanathan: It felt so intimate, and like we were holding something quite delicate. It was also just very emotionally intense. I can’t imagine how bizarre it must have been for Minhal to see me play, at least, a part of herself in the movie. It was very challenging in the best way. We shot it very quickly, too. It was a wild ride.
Paste: Have you converted anyone to Newcastle slang during one of your shoots?
Viswanathan: Pretty much everyone does their Australian accent for me. Which I, uh, humor them and tell them that it’s a good one. “Oh yeah, wow! Oh my God—so good!” I tell people about schoolies being a thing…
Paste: I had to look up what a “nipper” was.
Viswanathan: Classic Australian thing. I was never a nipper, I was so uncool. I was way too unfit to be a nipper.
Paste: You were too busy on the horses! How was getting back with some Australians on Bad Education?
Viswanathan: Yeah, that was really fun! There’s always this kind of instant warmness when it’s a fellow Australian. Hugh [Jackman] was so, so sweet. And his wife’s family is from Newcastle so they really knew about my hometown!
Paste: Is meeting Hugh like meeting one of the people on the Australian Mt. Rushmore?
Viswanathan: Totally! The first thing he said to me was something about how he put security on his kid’s laptop. Like a parent control, because she was getting into some weird stuff online.
Paste: Wait… weird stuff?
Viswanathan: Well, you know. Probably porn. But Hugh immediately opened up about this very vulnerable thing and I was just like, “I love you.”
Paste: So you didn’t have to do the nasty underwear trick with him?
Viswanathan: I don’t think I did, actually. I threw those out. They were really bad.
Paste: So you’ve got Bad Education on the way. Are you looking for more projects?
Viswanathan: I’m looking for more projects. I had a very intense 2017 and then 2018 was a little more chill, but this year I’m excited to work hard and find things that I think are exciting. Been reading a lot of interesting scripts.
Paste: I might have one for you. I know you love The Room. Tommy Wiseau has a new movie on the way called Big Shark. Have you seen the trailer and will you make a cameo?
Viswanathan: [Gasps] The trailer is out?
Paste: They released the trailer because they don’t have the money to finish the movie and they’re trying to get support. So you could get in there.
Viswanathan: Oooh. This is really good to know. I’m gonna make some calls after this. That would be a dream.
Miracle Workers airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TBS. Read our review here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.