Actress, writer, and director Jennifer Westfeldt. (Carlo Allegri / Associated…)
There are two ways to survive in Hollywood: play by the rules or make up your own. Jennifer Westfeldt learned more than a decade ago that it's far more satisfying to do it her own way.
The 42-year old flitted among television, low-budget movies and theater over her career, but she has found the most success in the films she wrote for herself: playing a heterosexual girl exploring a gay relationship in "Kissing Jessica Stein" and as a woman testing whether the marriage of two strangers can be as successful as one between longtime partners in "Ira & Abby."
In her new movie "Friends With Kids,"opening Friday, she has applied her off-kilter point of view to the subject of parenthood. The actress and long-term girlfriend of "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm clearly contemplates the institution with ambivalence— she has no children of her own — yet she felt compelled to document what many of the couples she knew were going through.
"When people have kids, I'm always amazed when they talk about if there's a fire, you grab the kids. But wouldn't you miss the husband?" said Westfeldt during an afternoon interview at one of her favorite haunts in the Los Feliz neighborhood where she and Hamm reside part-time.
"Friends With Kids" is the third film in a loosely compiled trilogy of movies that question the typical life-cycle events — coupling, marriage, children — and it marks the first time that Westfeldt has produced and directed one of her own screenplays. The added responsibilities meant that the project became a two-year, round-the-clock endeavor.
"I must have been crazy to have donned so many hats," Westfeldt said. "It made good sense for me to direct it, since I was involved in every aspect anyway. But I'm not sure I'd ever do it again."
The Connecticut-born Westfeldt's screenwriting career began as a fluke, growing out of her time at a funky theater retreat in the Catskills. There, the Yale graduate met her "Jessica Stein" partner Heather Juergensen, and together the women hit upon the concept of their first film through a series of skits. They turned those skits into a three-night production held in a church basement during Westfeldt's seven-week escape to New York while she was waiting for her new sitcom, "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," alongside actors Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion, to begin production.
That experience encouraged Westfeldt, a petite blond with an endearing neurotic streak that draws comparisons to Woody Allen, to pursue writing, and over the years she found that penning her own scripts allowed her to take charge of her career in a way few actresses are usually able to manage.
"Out here in L.A. I haven't found a ton of women's roles that have gotten me too excited," said Westfeldt, who in the past few years has received a Tony nomination for her performance in 2004's "Wonderful Town" and also had significant character arcs on such TV series as"24"and "Grey's Anatomy." "I've found more interesting things to sink my teeth into in theater and in these small films. It's been my creative answer to feeding myself a little better."
Like her previous films, "Friends With Kids" grew out of Westfeldt's personal experience. She took note of the collateral damage parenthood can inflict on couples, the anger and frustration that can arise between sleep-deprived spouses as they negotiate the division of responsibilities and unrelenting demands of a new baby.
Similarly, Westfeldt's unlucky-in-love Julie watches the marriages of her peers — husbands and wives played by Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, and Kristen Wiig and Hamm — begin to disintegrate after they become parents, so she opts to have a baby with her best friend, Jason ("Parks and Recreation's" Adam Scott).
The idea is that the pair will maintain a platonic relationship, thereby avoiding the romance-killing bickering that often arrives along with a newborn, but, of course, things turn out to be messier and more complicated than either imagined, especially after Jason falls for a lithe dancer, played by Megan Fox.
Westfeldt began working on the script in 2007 between acting gigs and finished it in early 2010. Jake Kasdan ("Bad Teacher") initially was set to direct, but had to drop out when the post-production obligations on the raunchy Cameron Diaz comedy, and his own new baby, proved too great.
The actress opted to take the reins herself, and Scott, for one, was impressed by Westfeldt's cool head on set, especially given the challenges of shooting the film in just 25 days during the worst winter in New York City in more than 40 years.
"Jen constantly questions everything about her own work, which was fascinating to watch but she had it all figured out from the start," Scott said.