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Plymouth native turns lifelong dream into a 'happy ending'

Eliza Coupe (far right) with her cast mates in a scene from “Happy Endings.” (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
June 13, 2012
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Many little girls have the dream of growing up and becoming an actress someday. Few get to fulfill that dream and have a 'happy ending,' too. Not so, though, for Eliza Coupe, a little girl from Plymouth who not only has become an actress, but a bona fide star, as well. Her true happy ending is something she has aspired to since she was six years old. She currently plays a lead role as Jane on the award winning, critically acclaimed T.V. hit comedy "Happy Endings." The show was picked up just a few weeks ago for its third season. Readers may also recognize the lovely young woman as Denise, the recurring character she played for two seasons on "Scrubs." Born and raised in Plymouth, the daughter of Kate and Ernie Coupe, she graduated from Plymouth Regional High School in 1999. She credits the school's theatre group for pushing her to reach for her dream.

"Before I even got to PRHS, I was in awe of the theater kids. I was obsessed, really," Coupe explains. "When I was in grade school and middle school, I looked at those kids in the plays like they were movie stars, celebrities…I really did. I was determined and terrified at the same time to be part of it. Both my brothers (Thom and Sam) went to prep schools, and I went and looked at a few when I was in the eighth grade, but none of them had a theatre program like PRHS. So upon graduating middle school, I went to PRHS and immediately signed up for Acting 101 with 'Bunk' (Sarah Bunkley, renowned drama teacher) and, little did I know, that woman would be the most influential and supportive person in my development as an actor. She truly is one of the major reasons I am where I am today." Eliza's mother, Kate, agrees with that assessment and also reaches back in her memories of Eliza growing up, when the youngster first showed signs of having "the acting bug."

"As a young child," says Kate, "Eliza was very active, and she continually made faces and mimicked voices of either family members, TV cartoon characters, actors and different people she encountered. When she was four or five, she told us she was going to run away from home, and she left our house in Plymouth with her backpack (we lived in a very safe neighborhood). After 15 minutes, the front doorbell rang. When we opened the door, there was this very short, bent over old witch-looking woman with a scarf on her head covering a black wig. She had a long red skirt on, and was carrying a cane. She asked us in a gruff, creaky and serious voice if we knew a girl named Eliza. At that moment, we realized how funny and creative she could be, and that one day she would make a great actor." In high school, both Eliza and her parents credit 'Bunk' and her husband Rich, for supporting Eliza (both teach Theatre Arts).

"Bunk told us she had talent, and she was very strict and supportive of Eliza all through high school. Rich also thought Eliza was talented, capable and witty. The successful tradition of Sarah Bunkley's theatre program gave Eliza confidence, knowing that she could thrive in a highly recognized and reputable high school theater program," commented Kate.

Eliza said she was constantly late for school, and Bunk began picking her up in the morning to assure she was not late. The lateness led to detentions, which led to hold-ups for play rehearsals.

"I wish I could go back in time and savor those precious little moments. At the time, I sure didn't think it was 'precious' being driven by a teacher to school, but now I'm filled with tears, how truly special that really was," said Eliza, noting she was "not the popular girl. Not the prom queen." She was also diagnosed with some learning disabilities: dyslexia and AHDH/anxiety, which she has overcome to be an actress. She said this could also be a reason she's successful in comedy.

"I made it a joke," she said. "I think I really honed my skills through the sheer avoidance of being made fun of. I made fun of myself before anyone could make fun of me. I'd rather people think I'm crazy and funny than stupid and incompetent." Eliza decided to move on from high school to a college, again with her parents' and Bunk's encouragement.

"Bunk encouraged me not to just up and move to New York or Los Angeles," Eliza said. "She said to me something like 'There are plenty of stupid actors out there — be an educated one who's well-rounded instead.'"

She graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a degree in theatre. "Her talents are not just limited to comedy; she can also play a more serious character," Kate commented. "I think if Eliza was given the opportunity to be in a movie with a substantial role, she would be very successful." Says Eliza, "I met my (now) husband (Randall Whittinghill) at Cal Arts. We've been together since I was 19. His passion was more in the directing, coaching side of the acting field. And that is where he is now (coaching Eliza and many other notable TV and film stars). He's incredible, the absolute best. I have worked with many talented people, but he's special." "It's not a picnic working with your husband," adds Eliza "It's more like a war-zone. My fake marriage to Damon Wayans, Jr. (on 'Happy Endings') is similar to my real marriage in the sense we truly love each other, and are buddies. I pull from my real marriage while discovering my character, Jane."

Eliza says she loves the relationship between Brad and Jane on the show, but she also likes Wayans as a person, too.

"We have so much fun together, and we are solid buddies," she says. Likewise, she loved her role as Denise on "Scrubs."

"I learned so much from that experience that had I not done 'Scrubs,' I would not have been prepared for 'Happy Endings,'" she said. "Learning from comedy vets like the actors on 'Scrubs' was the best TV comedy education I could ever have attained. When it was over, though, I was ready to move on, but it was sad to part ways with them." For those wondering how many hours are spent memorizing lines, rehearsing, filming, etc. for 'Endings' episodes, Eliza has great self-confidence.

"It's so second nature to me now to learn lines for one episode that I can look at a whole scene right before I shoot it, and have it locked in," she said. "However, I always rehearse the entire script with my acting coach (her husband, who has been coaching her entire career) on Sundays, and then I get up three to four hours before I have to be on-set. I write out all the lines until they are in my head. The scripts change constantly through the day, so I could be handed a whole change of text that I have never seen before and be expected to shoot in 20 minutes time. It's now very easy to memorize in five minutes." With 22 episodes in one season, it takes five days to film just one episode, working 12-17 hours a day. Shooting starts on Mondays and goes on until 5 a.m. Saturday mornings. "We work three weeks on and one off while in production. The hours are grueling, and the writers need to catch up at that time. We have two weeks for winter holiday and four months off during the summer before diving back into the eight months of insanity again," adds Eliza.

This season's filming wrapped on April 11.On May 12 in New York City, it was announced that the show had been renewed for its third season. Eliza says she is "extremely" close to her family, and tries to visit them, as well as Bunk, who lives close to her family, at least twice a year.

After a brief visit to her family in Plymouth just a few weeks ago, she flew to New York City to present at the Comedy Central Awards, and then flew back to LA. After that round, she's packed and off for a stint to China to promote her independent romantic comedy film, "Shanghai Calling," in which she stars opposite Daniel Henney and Bill Paxton. The film was directed by Daniel Hsia, who just won the award for best director at The Asian Pacific Film Festival in Los Angeles, Calif. The film was shot entirely in Shanghai, China, and Eliza had to learn Mandarin for the film.

"It was three hours a day for eight weeks," she said. "By the end of the film, English didn't even sound like English. It's a beautiful film, and I am very proud of myself and my co-stars' work in it. It was truly one of the best experiences of my life, and I look forward to going back to Asia next month to promote 'Shanghai Calling' as much as possible!" Her brother Thom now lives in LA with Eliza and her husband. He started taking Improv classes at The Upright Citizens Brigade, and quickly became recognized for his natural acting ability. He is also taking writing classes in hopes to write both fiction and screenplays. He is currently a head director of training at LA Fitness in order to supplement his income while pursuing his true passion and talent of writing and acting. He and Eliza are working on a TV pilot script together, and also a live two person comedy show that they hope to get on it's feet before the end of the summer.

Eliza's older brother, Sam, lives in New York City, and is the senior manager of ABC News digital video operations. When Eliza moved to New York after college, her brother Sam was her guiding light.

"He gave me about 200 bucks and got me a job selling Ronny Brook Milk all over the city at various farmers markets," she explains. "He also worked the farmers markets when he first moved to the city, so he had an 'in'. It was a grueling job, but it forced me to learn the city. My brother Sam has always been there for me; he has always helped me out, and not just by tossing me 200 bucks, no — I mean, he is someone who I know I can always turn to if I need anything. Both my brothers are like that; I feel like I have two of the most incredible brothers any sister could ever want. They are my best friends. In fact, I would say that my parents, my brothers and my husband are my best friends in the whole world. I am very fortunate to have them. They keep me grounded and sane, and I do my best to do the same for them. If I could get Sam and my parents out to LA, I would be in complete heaven!" She is not without a base of fans and friends here in New Hampshire, of course.

Kate adds, "We are very thankful to all the local fans, and feel fortunate that they support a local actor. Living in a small town, we all support one another. Now, though, we are better known as Eliza Coupe's parents, not Kate and Ernie. When folks find out she's our daughter (and on TV!), we feel like celebrities. It's great fun to be part of her success. We have encouraged her and all of our children to find a passion and go for it. If we had listened to any 'naysayers' who thought we were crazy, Eliza and her brothers would never have blossomed into the wonderful and amazing adults they have become." And New Hampshirites, also, could not be more proud of our 'Eliza,' either. It is a sure thing we will be seeing even bigger and more projects on the near horizon for her. At any rate, we will always be able to say "Ah, we knew her when!"

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