Skyrockets in flight

With friend Jane Lynch aboard, Chicago filmmaker takes off in 'Afternoon Delight'

Jill Soloway bought longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan Jane Lynch a lap dance when they were in Las Vegas years ago for Jill's mom's wedding.

Lynch, now a star on the Fox show "Glee," deemed the experience "very embarrassing" but said she loved watching Soloway sit down with the strippers during their break and quiz them about their lives.

"She was talking to them, asking, 'Why do you do this? Is it good money?'" Lynch said over the phone from Los Angeles. "They all opened (up). She has no judgment. She's just curious and she has an open heart, and so people just confide in her."

Lynch knew that Soloway's probing nature had reaped concrete rewards when she read the script for "Afternoon Delight," Soloway's feature-film directorial debut about a well-off LA-area housewife who, after her husband buys her a lap dance, hires the stripper as her children's nanny, ostensibly to "rescue" her.

That could be the premise of a broad comedy, but Soloway, an Annoyance Theater alumnus and veteran of such TV series as "Six Feet Under" and "Dirty Sexy Money," attempts a trickier balancing act as she uses humor to ask serious questions about women's sexuality, the challenge of maintaining passion in a marriage and even the role of religion in all of this.

Soloway, 47, doesn't mind admitting that her protagonist Rachel's questions, as well as those of the supporting characters, are also her own.

"I kind of have zero imagination," said Soloway, a married mother of two who lives in the hip-leaning, upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake (where "Afternoon Delight" takes place) and professes fascination with the sex-for-money world. "I'm not able to concoct a tale about mummies or mermaids or outer space or anything. The only thing I'm really capable of doing is taking things that actually happened to me or people I know and slightly disguising them. I'm very limited." She laughed.

For someone so "limited," though, Soloway has achieved quite a lot. In 1990, she and her older sister Faith, who had worked with Lynch at the Second City, created "The Real Live Brady Bunch" with the Metraform Theatre Company on the North Side. These weekly restagings of old "Brady Bunch" episodes featured Lynch as mom, Carol Brady, and, when the surprise hit made it to New York, "Conan" sidekick Andy Richter played dad, Mike Brady.

What has happened with Soloway since then? Here's how she puts it, all in one breath:

"We did 'The Brady Bunch.' I got some agents. They taught me how to write a spec script. I wrote a spec script. I got a job on a (crummy) sitcom. I got really frustrated. I wrote an essay. I started an essay series. The essay got the attention of ('Six Feet Under' creator) Alan Ball. I wrote on 'Six Feet Under.' I finished on 'Six Feet Under.' I tried to replicate the 'Six Feet Under' experience on 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Dirty Sexy Money.' I couldn't do it, so I went back to cable, and then when I was back in cable, I made my way up to a showrunner on 'The United States of Tara' and 'How To Make It in America,' but I still felt really jealous of the people who had their own shows, and I really wanted to have my own show, and I knew that if I didn't direct a movie, I wouldn't have my own show, so I directed a movie."

In fact, Soloway couldn't make it to Chicago this weekend for her movie's opening because she's shooting a pilot for a new series for Amazon, which is getting into original programming a la Netflix. But that's not to say that "Afternoon Delight" exists just as a calling card for the TV world.

Soloway had long wanted to direct a movie, saying that for about 10 years she was hawking another screenplay, "Tricycle," which had a similar structure to "Afternoon Delight" in that it portrayed the relationship of two women, in this case a wife and "the other woman." But that project never gained traction, whereas when she began pitching "Afternoon Delight," it took off quickly, teaching Soloway a practical lesson.

"If you feel like you're pushing a boulder uphill, and you look behind you and there's nobody helping you, you probably have the wrong project," she said with a laugh. "It's a sign, yeah, because ('Afternoon Delight'), the second I started talking about it, the second I started writing it, there was air under it."

Soloway cast Kathryn Hahn ("We're the Millers," "Parks and Recreation") as Rachel, who shakes up her family's life in an unconventional way; Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother," "Happythankyoumoreplease") as her relatively patient husband, Jeff; and Juno Temple ("Killer Joe," "The Dark Night Rises") as the sweet-dispositioned stripper, McKenna.

For the role of Rachel's self-absorbed therapist, Lenore, Soloway turned to old pal Lynch, who said she signed on without even having read the script on the condition that her part be filmed over a weekend so as not to conflict with her "Glee" schedule. When she did read the script, Lynch said, "it was Jill all over. It was full of her sensibility, and she's so good at writing dialogue and so good at going from the inside-out of characters, which is the way I work too."

Her character, she added, is a variation on one she had created in the late '80s with Soloway.

"We did these silly little videos before there was an Internet, just with a video camera, where I played this pretentious, serious kind of feminist woman who had had a nervous breakthrough, and she lived to tell the tale," Lynch said. "I went on to do monologues using that character, so when (Soloway) called me, she said, 'Dr. Lenore is kind of like that woman, grown up a little more, a lesbian and a psychiatrist now.'"

Soloway and Lynch had gone many years without working together until 2011, when Lynch enlisted her and Faith Soloway as head writers when Lynch hosted the Emmy Awards.

"That was loony tunes," Soloway said. "That was so fun, so crazy. They're in a whole other world there, you know. (With 'Afternoon Delight') I was having hundreds of people ramping up to something that felt like the creation of art, whereas on the Emmys it was all these hundreds of people ramping up to one big celebratory night about fame.'"

Soloway certainly feels less at home writing jokes for celebrity presenters than delving into how "momness" and sexiness appear to be antithetical or, in a theme she said she didn't realize she was exploring until late in the process, showing how getting in touch with Jewish traditions can reap dividends in the bedroom. (Soloway co-founded the Los Angeles-area group East Side Jews that puts a comedic-theatrical spin on Jewish rituals.)

"I didn't mean for it to be that Jewish of a movie, but I guess the Jewish God came and tapped me on the shoulder while I was in the shower one morning and made me do his bidding," she said, laughing, adding that her natural inclination is to explore serious issues from a humorous angle.

"I'm totally interested in comedy, I think above everything, but I definitely notice that the whole thing that I'm doing with my comedy is to start these kinds of conversations," she said.

As for where these conversation starters take place, Soloway said she doesn't care the size of the screen as long as she can continue telling her stories.

"The only thing that seems different for TV is that with the story I'm telling right now, I might be able to make it a 10-hour story or a 50-hour story, and with movies it has to be a two-hour story," she said. "To me, the bigger question of what kind of content causes people to leave their house and sit in large air-conditioned rooms together, I don't know if that's my thing. It might be. I would love it to be."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

CHICAGO

More