Sarah Baker has a long resumé, but unless you were a fan of NBC’s short-lived Matthew Perry grief-group comedy Go On, you probably don’t recognize her. That should change after her indelible performance in the most recent episode of Louie as Vanessa, the confident, funny waitress who seems a perfect match for the show’s hero, except that he doesn’t want to go out with her because she’s fat. As Vanessa, Baker delivers a long, intimate, searing one-take speech to Louie about what it’s like to be a “fat girl” and about his own double standards. It’s one of the most expansive and heart-felt explorations of this usually taboo set of issues that I’ve ever seen on TV. Baker got on the phone to speak with us about the role, the bluntness of the word fat, and why cat ladies never have turtles instead.
Slate: How did this part come about? Do you know Louis C.K.?
Sarah Baker: No, I don’t know Louis at all. I just got a notice for an audition from my agent. I’m a huge fan of the show so I was instantly like, “Whatever I can do, I will do it on this show.” Louis is pretty guarded with his material so there wasn’t any script attached, it just said, “Waitress at the Comedy Cellar,” something like, “friendly, funny, comfortable in her own skin.” That was it. He has these incredible, award-winning actresses do parts on the show, so I just assumed it would be a tiny part.
Slate: So was your last speech entirely scripted?
Baker: I auditioned with that last scene. And it pretty much stayed the same from the audition to when we shot.
Slate: Did any of the other scenes in the episode change? Your performance has a very spontaneous feel.
Baker: There were parts of it that were not specifically scripted. But the structure was all there, and definitely the last speech was word for word what he had written, so just little things were made up. For instance, there was a part that said, “Louie and Vanessa walk around New York and enjoy it together.” I, just as myself, found a penny and showed it to him and was like, “Hey, see a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck. Ha ha, I have good luck now.” And he was like, “What?” I said, “It’s a thing, it’s a common rhyme. Now I have good luck.” And he says, “OK, I’ve never heard of that, but do that in this next take.” And of course he made up his funny rhyme after that.
Slate: What do you think about that last speech?
Baker: It’s interesting. I think especially because a lot of people don’t know me as an actress, a lot of people will think, “That’s what that girl thinks about life.”
Slate: Is it?
Baker: Well, she says, “The meanest thing you can say to a fat girl is that she’s not fat.” I don’t go around calling myself a fat girl. It doesn’t feel fun to me. But I think for Vanessa, what it means is, “Look, if you’re fat it’s not that big of a deal.” Having someone say, “Oh, you’re not fat,” the reason they’re saying it is because, to them, saying that you’re fat is like saying you’re a horrible person, you’re unworthy of anything. And I think she takes offense to that. “Yeah, I’m overweight, but who cares? That doesn’t mean I’m not a great, fun, funny person,” because clearly she is a fun, funny, confident person. So I think that’s what she takes issue with, this idea that being overweight is this horrible thing that we have to lie about and pretend doesn’t exist.
And as someone who’s a huge fan of this show and watches it all the time, we see this character of Louie struggle to make meaningful, lasting connections with people, and here’s this woman who seems to pretty much have it together. She’s got a good job, she’s funny, she’s friendly, she’s kind, and she’s reaching out to him with nothing but love and affection. And he can’t take it. He just can’t quite go there with her, and that’s really sad. My favorite moment in the whole thing is when I essentially point to the camera and say, “Look, if you were over there, looking at us, what you’d see is that we’re a perfect match.” I think that’s exactly right. They are a perfect match, and you see they have chemistry throughout the episode. The weight is one part of it, but it’s also that Louie is just the type of person who can’t quite get it together and make it happen with somebody that’s uncomplicated and nice and fun and normal. And I think that’s what we see with him time and time again. He’s a beautiful, sweet, kind person but he just can’t make things work with people the way he wants to. And that’s the brilliance of Louis and his writing. He’s playing a character who doesn’t get it, but he gets it.
Slate: Was there any point in that scene where you thought this speech is too much? Because Vanessa does seem like she has it together and she’s very comfortable in her own skin. Would she really think of being fat as the defining thing about her?
Baker: I think for her it’s the defining thing about her through the eyes of other people. I don’t think she feels that way about herself. And I think it’s just a moment, a moment where it all comes to a head, and she’s like, “This is such bullshit, and I know you’re a good person.” I think that’s why she can say these things to him, because she knows he’s a decent guy and that he’s better than that. But even he can’t quite get over it. I think most of the time Vanessa probably does rise above it and doesn’t care. But they’ve been talking, they’ve spent a whole day together by the time this comes up, and I think she feels the vulnerability in him that we all feel when we watch the show. And I think she feels she can be open and honest with him. I don’t think she walks around feeling that way all the time. It’s sort of the same thing as in Hollywood: A lot of times I play a fat woman with cats who has no boyfriends. And in real life, I’m allergic to cats and I’ve had a boyfriend since college. There are varied experiences of overweight women throughout the country, there’s not just one experience. But I think this story has a lot of truth to it, and will resonate with a lot of people, a lot of men and women.
Slate: Do you mind playing a cat lady who has no boyfriend, as you did on Go On?
Baker: No, it was fun! I’ve played some very funny and nice ladies—though I have thought, “I don’t think all these women have cats, right? Maybe some of them have a dog or a turtle?” But I don’t mind. I can play a cat lady. I can’t put my foot down and refuse to play anything but playing the perfect, well-adjusted woman, because those people aren’t as fun or funny.
Slate: When I was writing about the episode, I wrote something like, “Louie doesn’t go out with her because she’s fat.” And as I wrote it, I almost wanted to put in parentheticals, “Once you have seen the episode, you will know it would be more disrespectful to refer to her any other way,” because it just sounded so rude. Fat is such a loaded term. Do you feel that way when you’re talking about it?
Baker: Yes! Yes, I do. There’s just such a stigma to that word, it feels so harsh and so blunt. And it’s not how I want to define myself. I think you’re right that within the context of this episode, he tried to create a character who was open about it. He never wanted Vanessa to be some sad, pitiable girl. She’s a cool girl, and if it doesn’t work out with Louie, onto the next, you know? She’s not someone who doesn’t have boyfriends. But I don’t think most women would openly describe themselves that way, though I see the point in her doing that. Do I go around saying, “Hey, I’m fat!”? No, definitely not. But then sometimes I think why can’t you just say that? Why do you have to be like, “I’m overweight” or “heavy” or “plus-sized”? It’s all saying the same thing. Like any word that has a lot of history and emotion attached to it, there’s definitely some power in trying to take that back.
Slate: Does this come up often, as an actress? When Super Fun Night, the Rebel Wilson show, premiered this past fall, even though the show is very explicitly and often about her weight, a lot of reviews tip-toed around it. They didn’t want to be mean so they didn’t address what she was talking about.
Baker: I’ve always made a point of playing parts where weight has nothing to do with it, and not just weight but looks. It’s about being funny and being interesting, and I think there are a lot more interesting things to play than being overweight. That being said, if I’m going to do something that addresses it, I want to do something like Louie, which is an incredible, artistic, and beautiful show, where it’s written so well and has such an interesting take on it. Am I now going to play all these roles where I talk about being overweight? Good lord, I hope not! I think that’s something I’ve very consciously tried to stay away from, because I know that’s not all I have to offer, regardless of anyone’s opinion.
Slate: Well, I think it’s really the stand-out episode of the season so far, and you’re great in it.
Baker: Yeah! Hopefully people don’t just think, “She’s fat.” Hopefully people think, “Sarah Baker’s probably really cool and men are sometimes idiots.”