“He Wasn’t Interested in Making This Character Likeable”: ‘The Detour’s Natalie Zea on Playing the Anti-Sitcom Mom

You probably know her from her roles on hour-long dramas like The Shield, Justified, and The Following. But Natalie Zea’s latest role, as Robin Parker in Jason Jones and Samantha Bee’s very funny new TBS sitcom The Detour, is a welcome departure for the veteran TV actress. Its first season — the show has already been picked up for a second — traces the Parker family’s increasingly disastrous road trip from upstate New York to a vacation in Florida. Jones and Bee, who are married with two children, loosely based The Detour on their own family trips; Jones plays Robin’s husband, Nate (Jones and Bee both serve as executive producers). We spoke to Zea about playing Jones’s fictional wife, roles for women on TV vs. in film, and why she wanted to do a comedy series post-Justified.

How did you get involved with the show? Was Robin always going to be played by someone other than Samantha Bee herself?

I don’t know, I feel like maybe they just flipped a coin and Jason got heads. I could be wrong, but my understanding is that they sort of went in with both Full Frontal and The Detour as kind of a package deal, so obviously Sam was gonna be busy doing [Full Frontal].

Was it weird to play Jason’s wife when his actual wife created the series with him?

No, not really, surprisingly. I very quickly forgot that it was sort of based on them and I adopted this character as my own, separate from Samantha. I think Sam is a lot more level-headed — not that Robin’s not level-headed, but I think Sam’s a bit more savvy.

Did you know either of them, or both as a couple, before you came on board?

No. I knew of them, of course, but we had never met, there was no real connection — which is why I was really surprised when I got the call that they were interested in me. I was trying to find the six degrees connection and there wasn’t one. It was just kismet.

You’re better known for your roles on TV dramas. Were you looking to do a comedy?

I was, I was very much looking to do a comedy.

Why?

Because it’s more fun. I wish I had a more complex answer than that, but I don’t.

Did it take time to feel like the four of you had that chemistry as a foursome? Right from the beginning, you’re a very believable family.

I remember we did a table read — which we promptly stopped doing once we started rolling, only because we shoot the show at such a breakneck speed, there was no time for it. But we did do one for the pilot, and I feel like it happened right away, even before we started reading the script. We were just sitting around shooting the shit with the kids for a good 15, 20 minutes beforehand and it just felt like, Oh, I think this is gonna work.

Did you have to test with the kids before they were cast?

No, I didn’t have to do shit [laughing].

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One of my favorite aspects of this show is that every member of the family is really funny — everyone gets to say funny lines, there’s not one person who’s the voice of reason or the sensible one. And of course, that person is usually the mom. Were you surprised at how different this character is to so many sitcom moms?

She is unique. There’s something very fresh about the way they’ve written this character, because that trope still is out there. I feel like we are in a golden age of television, that’s all good and well, but we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to the sitcom mom. I have for a while had a bit of a personal stigma attached to playing a mom on television. I felt as though once I took that leap I was gonna be limited. Once this came along it didn’t feel like there were gonna be any of those trappings. It felt good and it felt different and it felt like something that was not only gonna be challenging, but it was gonna be a lot of fun.

I think you’re right that people talk about this golden age of television, but for women — not just women over 40, even women over 25, it still feels a bit limited.

Well, yes and no. I feel like that’s definitely happening in cinema. The movies in general are a big fucking mess, and I don’t particularly want to go anywhere near it, because what’s happening in TV right now is so exciting. Again, we have some work to do. I do feel like there’s a lot of progress being made for female characters in TV. It’s taking a second, but it is slowly happening, and if it keeps going this way it’s gonna be really exciting. I think a lot more opportunities are gonna open up for us.

I love the relationship between Nate and Robin — they really feel like equals, in that they both take care of the kids, they both do the driving on the road trip, and they both get to screw up; if anything, it seems like Robin is the one who’s a little less stable, we see that she’s got a bit of a drinking problem.

Jason told me in the very first phone conversation we had, when I was considering whether or not to do this — and this sold me on the idea completely — he said that he wasn’t interested in making this character likeable. He felt like there were plenty of likeable female characters on TV, and there’s nothing realistic about that, and that we shouldn’t be so hung up on that because who cares. And I’ve been saying that for years, so I felt like he was a kindred spirit, and I was sold.

The kids, Ashley Gerasimovich and Liam Carroll, are also really funny young actors. What is it like to work with them, particularly with this profane material?

They’re way more mature and professional than me or Jason. They sort of act as the adults on set, and we have to like, mind our Ps and Qs because we know they’ll call us on our shit if we’re not careful. They’re so sweet, and they’re not like, gross child actor-y at all, they still have their innocence, in a sense, unlike a lot of kids that get into this business. But they’re also really smart. They’re this great combination of very professional and still very childlike.

You just had your first child yourself, in the fall.

I did, yes.

Is this show making parenthood look scary to you?

This show isn’t making parenthood look scary — the world is. But this show is actually paying my mortgage, so this show can keep going as long as it needs to.