What did you think when you got the role of someone who talks to God?
I really didn't think too much into it. I think I had an advantage in the sense that I wasn't raised religiously. My own personal connection with God was not in a religious sense, so I wasn't really thinking in that way when I got the role and when I started doing it. I just thought it was really cool, something different and funny. I liked the humor of it, I've always enjoyed a sense of humor in God and in religion and in spirituality. It's something that is not shown very often-everything seems to be so serious. That was something I really liked about the writing of the show. That was the first attraction. I just played it as naturally as I could. I tried not to make God this big deal in Joan's life. She treats God like a friend: she's nice to him some days, and other days mean, and then cries when she needs help. She's a teenager. She shouldn't know any different and that's the irony of the whole situation.
It sounds like, based on your background, you bring a fresh perspective to the role.
I think any time you have too much education in one certain field, that can sometimes play against you. In this particular case, also the notion of Jeanne d'Arc--I didn't want to apply this savior aspect to Joan either. I wanted her to have missteps and make mistakes. I wanted her to not be perfect and be insecure and be scared and have self-doubt. And at the same time, through all those things and through hardships, find some sort of balance in her life.
When you're playing Joan, do you draw from any spiritual experiences in your life?
At first, I had none. I wasn't using it in a spiritual way. But I didn't even see God in the show as being very spiritual, I see him or her, it, as being something that is just relevant and very important in her life. But later on, as the season continued, really strange things started to happen, coincidences. I don't know if they just started to happen or if I was just noticing them because of the show. Big things too, though--like the fact that Jason Ritter's father died the day we started the episode called "Death Be Not Whatever," which is all about Joan dealing with the death of this young kid and how everyone in the whole family deals with death. That's odd. There's a couple other things that are personal to some of our other castmates that I can't get into. Just basically about how life affects you and the decisions that you make, how they affect you positively and negatively.
What you were saying about treating God like a friend--being nice to him sometimes, or even complaining to him--have you been hearing from fans that this appeals to people? That you can talk back to God?
Oh yeah, I think so. I think that people are definitely interested in the idea that Joan has conversations with God. I think that's appealing to anybody. I know we have a few people who've taken offense when Joan says, "No wonder people hate you." Or I have a line in an episode where I say, "People wait their whole life to talk to you... and if they only knew." And I call him a jerk. Joan is not very smart. But I think that's fine. People in real life cuss God out when they're angry. That's all real. And I'm so glad that Barbara Hall and the writers are not afraid to put that kind of stuff in the show. To not be scared to make it real--what is a person's relationship with God really like, not what it's supposed to be. What does a person say when they're desperate and in hard times?
Who's your favorite God on the show? The cute guy? The little girl?
I think I've bumped up a new one into my top favorites. They don't show him a lot, but it's the Nigerian doctor God that was in the finale. I really like him. He's actually just about to do an episode again with me that my dad's in as well. That's probably going to be the heaviest episode of this year. But there's something very solid about him and soft, and I like that quality. Very stable, soft, straightforward. Juliet, the little girl God, is the cutest little thing. I think Kris Lemche, the first God that appeared--without the natural and real quality he brought to a character such as God, which is really hard to do and not get sucked up in this whole holier-than-thou thing--he's the one who really made the scenes work. He just got this real easygoing, James Dean, little-bit-of-sex-appeal with just a real loving, strong quality and he brings all of that into this character. I think that that's what originally made everyone fall in love with the idea. He was so well-casted and really opened the floodgates to the show. If they had gotten someone who was a little too narcissistic, or a little too into the notion of God, it wouldn't have worked.
Your mother on the show, played by Mary Steenburgen, is considering converting to Catholicism. Can you give us any hints as to how this might affect the family on the show?
Well, we already see that it's affecting Will, definitely. And we've seen in the last episode that the family had a little talk at the table about it, because she asked Joan to pick up books at a bookstore and I was upset because they were all about God. The last episode of last season left everyone really in a backwards funk, with Will seeing a woman that he thought was dead and talking with her. And Helen having these visions of God, and Joan thinking that everything she's seeing is a hallucination. Everyone gets turned around.
Are you hearing specifically from teens about their spiritual journeys?
It's kind of unfortunate because a lot of teens just watch "The OC." That's fine. It's really hard for teenagers to get into anything that's not strictly image- or material-based. But the ones that do [watch], I don't think they fully grasp the whole concept of God in the show. I think they're more into Adam and Joan, that's their big thing, and Luke and Grace. But obviously the idea of God in the show affects them.
In TV shows today there are a lot of teen girls who are fighting demons--or, like you, talking to God, or having supernatural powers, like in Charmed. What do you think it is about teen girls and the supernatural?
Maybe the idea of portraying the strong feminine, because each one has a strong female. I just think that girls kick ass and people want to see them in crazy, powerful positions like that. That's why Buffy had such a huge following. Everyone wanted to see this pretty blonde girl kick the crap out of evil demons every week. But Joan isn't out kicking anyone's butt, she's not saving the day. She's not chasing down demons, she's not chasing down God, she's not performing any magic tricks, there's no CGI on our show. There was only one last year. Our show is less about a girl who is doing miracles and more about the domino effect of this girl's life, and how everyone else is affected. Our show seems to be a questioning show as opposed to an action sort of fairy tale.
If you could ask God--or your concept a higher power--one question, what would it be?
I would ask God why he put George Bush in office for four years to screw up our country. I probably would ask that because the election is so close.
To me, if there is a divine being, I don't understand why our country has had to go through everything that it's gone through in the last four years. If we're supposedly a free country, why were we given 9/11, and why were we given a president that doesn't seem to respect the rest of the world's wishes? Or doesn't seem to care about anyone but himself and his corporate buddies? That would be my long-winded question, and I'd like to see what God has to say about that.