San Francisco Chronicle June 2003    Ultimate DVD    UGO     Newday

Ellen Muth of Dead Like Me
Exclusive Season One interview by Adam Swiderski, senior editor

Ellen Muth makes a pretty good dead person, and we mean that in the least creepy way possible. She's the star of the new Showtime series Dead Like Me, and her character, George (short for Georgia) Lass, is dead. Expired. Kaput. Except, not quite. Thanks to a strange coincidence, she's drafted into being a reaper and escorting the souls of the dead to their eternal whatever. Of course, she also has to deal with the drudgery of everyday life at the same time, all while living…or, well, you get the idea…on her own for the first time.

It's an interesting concept, and Showtime has found an interesting actor to fill the lead role. We discovered that when we spoke with Ellen during the show's first season run about being young and undead, doing the robot and what NEVER to ask Mandy Patinkin.

UGO: I guess the first question is, are you ready for the international mega-superstardom that's going to come with being the lead in your own show?

Ellen Muth: (Laughing) Don't say that! I don't believe that.


EM: Uh-uh. Just don't believe that. I don't even know what to say when people ask me that, because I kind of think they're doing it just to flatter me [We'd never think of such a thing! - Ed.], so I just kind of say, "Oh, that's just silly."

UGO: You've been interested in acting from a very early age, which kind of makes you very different from George, who has no direction in life whatsoever. How do you go about capturing that directionless aspect given that your life experience has been very different?

EM: What's funny is, um, you know, I was the one who decided I wanted to be an actress, and my parents were totally against it. I actually got into the whole thing on my own; like, my dad had a friend who was an actor, and I got a (something) Report book from him and just sent out pictures and stuff like that. And my dad paid for everything, but he said, "You know, you have to pay me back everything I spent to get you into this if you start making money." And my mom was afraid it was going to ruin my self-esteem. (In what we can only assume is her "mom" voice) "Eric, that job is impossible to get into. That's just one-in-a-million, like the lottery." And so, anyway, I got into the business and within, like, 5 months, I got that movie Dolores Claiborne, which is a Stephen King movie.
And I guess the way I differ from George is that I have something that interests me, and some direction, and feel like…the way I do relate to her, though, is that I have low self-esteem, and so does George, even though I'm not sure if she realizes it. But I still feel like I haven't accomplished anything, and she feels that way, too, like she never accomplished anything in her life. And I still feel like I haven't made it anywhere, I haven't done anything, and I'll never get anywhere in life, and I'm going to be a failure my whole life. And I know in the rational part of my mind that it's not true…I kind of know that…but George, really, didn't do much when she was alive, because she didn't know what she wanted to do. But what she's so hard on herself about is the fact that, at 18…I think, like, a lot of jobs that are the type of jobs that are very demanding, you KNOW that you want to do them, like, when you're five years old, like being a brain surgeon, or being an actress, or being a singer, and you stick with it the rest of your life. But George just happens to be one of those people who doesn't know what she wants to do. And half the people I know in life are in their 30s and still don't know what they want to do. And I know a lot of people who have finished college, and say, (In what we can only assume is her "out-of-college" voice) "I'm out of college and I still don't know what I want to do. Do you know how bad that is?" And I'm, like, that's not bad at all! That's the majority of people.

UGO: So how do you tap into that in this show without playing into the stereotypical Hollywood image of the slacker?

EM: Well, the clichéd, stereotypical Hollywood slacker is the type you'd see hanging around, who doesn't really wash their hair that often, and kind of wears grungy clothes. And George is grubby, but that's not her fault (laughs), because she doesn't have any money. But she tries, because, like, she refuses to take money from dead people, and that, to me, is a big thing. She goes to work to a job which she absolutely hates just to avoid doing something she feels is morally wrong. Callum's character, Mason…he's not a slacker, because he's actually a hard worker when he does his reaping job, but I mean, he has no problem with morals. He has no morals, really (laughs). He has no problem taking money from the dead or doing anything that we, as living human beings, would see as being wrong, and George does work for her money. And in the beginning, she doesn't want to take people's souls, and I think that's something. She does more work avoiding the situation because she creates all these loopholes so she doesn't have to take their soul, and that actually is more complicated than taking their soul.

UGO: Which brings up an interesting point. Watching the pilot, it seemed to have a pretty heavy theme of predestination, in terms of when it's your time, it's your time, and if you stay longer than you should, that's bad…things like that. Do you believe in that kind of fate?

EM: Well, I'm asked that question a lot [Drat! - Ed.], and I really don't have much of an answer for it, only because I've thought about death my whole life. Like, it's always been my number one concern in life…one of my parents dying. I used to go to bed at night fearing one of them was going to die. My dad has acid reflux disease, so he would always wake up choking, and I would always think that he was dying, because he was a smoker, also, so I would think, "Oh, my God, he has lung cancer! He's going to die right now!" And so I would go to bed horrified, but I mainly thought about myself and what would happen to me if someone died, not where they would go and what would happen to them if they died.
I have thought about things such as, with suicide for example…I have a feeling that what you experience after you die is sort of tied to the place you were in your mind when you died. People who have tried to commit suicide, I've read this, and who have come very close to death and were dead for maybe half a second, but then were revived, experience…not necessarily ghosts, but just very black, horribly gruesome and just terrible feelings and places that they never want to go again. And they don't want to try to kill themselves again because they realize Earth is a better place to be than there. And then other people who have been in a stable place in their minds have seen wizards [Kick ass! - Ed.] or lights…so I kind of believe it's where you are in your head when you die.

UGO: But what about that idea that people are given only a certain amount of time, and that's it? That's a big part of the pilot…

EM: I don't necessarily…I'm not sure what I think about that. It is a lot like that Alanis Morissette song, you know, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that, I really haven't put that much thought into, because there really isn't an answer for it. But yeah, I guess it's true that, if you're going to die, you're going to die. And a lot of times, we do it to ourselves through smoking, or whatever it is that you do. But something made you do it in the first place, and you knew it would kill you, so…

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