There are not many people busier than Jennifer Lopez, but Michelle Buteau is certainly making a run at that title. In addition to co-starring with Lopez in the new romantic comedy “Marry Me,” Buteau just wrapped filming the third season of BET’s “First Wives Club,” hosted her third season of Netflix’s “The Circle” and is gearing up to star in an eight-episode series based on her book of essays titled “Survival of the Thickest” for Netflix. While conducting this phone interview with Variety, she’s simultaneously cooking cacio e pepe.
Flashback to November 2019: Buteau was on the set of “Marry Me” with teething twins at home (Hazel and Otis, now 3 years old), all while writing her book.
“I was joyfully overwhelmed,” she recalls.
After years of working toward a breakthrough, “Marry Me” marked the moment in Buteau’s career where “when it rains it pours,” and she fully embraced the deluge. “Especially in comedy, when you try to go into acting and hosting, you’re going to do a bunch of stuff for free for a lot of years,” she says. “So, now you’re making money, you need to show up and show out.”
In the movie, Buteau plays Melissa, the longtime assistant to Lopez’s pop star character Kat.
“When I read the script, I just loved the character because she’s sassy and she tells it like it is, and she’s not a fan of Charlie (Owen Wilson) from the jump, because she’s like ‘Why would you date a nerd?’” she says, with a chuckle. “I felt like I could find so many funny moments with it.”
In some moments, “Marry Me” felt like art imitating life. For example, “Jennifer does have a blinged out water bottle,” Buteau says, referencing the bejeweled Swell bottle her character carries around for Kat. “I picked up the real one instead of the [prop] one.”
The actor was thorough about her research for the role, hitting up Lopez’s real-life assistant to help make their dynamic feel authentic. “I’m just like, ‘How do you hold it? Do you just sometimes put it near their face, so they know it’s there? How close do you get?’ It’s very interesting. It’s a whole new world,” Buteau says.
But working with Lopez wasn’t just about being blinded by the bling. Buteau describes the multi-hyphenate superstar as a “powerhouse” and a “Puerto Rican badass.” Having Lopez as number one on the call sheet was not only inspiring, but indicative of the type of projects Buteau wants to make moving forward.
“I want to work with strong, dynamic women who are diverse and get it done and change lives,” she declares.
It’s no secret that Buteau loves J.Lo. The comedian opened her 2020 Netflix special “Welcome to Buteaupia” with a bit about working with the icon and having to pretend like she didn’t already know everything about her — like the fact that they share the same July 24th birthday.
While Buteau hasn’t heard Lopez’s take on the joke, “Marry Me” producers found it hilarious. “They love that it’s exposure for the movie too,” she laughs.
In particular, Buteau is a longtime fan of Lopez’s rom-com work, though it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite. “That’s like asking me my favorite Prince song or my favorite child,” she sighs, listing off “Maid in Manhattan,” “The Wedding Planner” and “Monster in Law” as standouts. For Wilson’s films, the choice was easier. “’Wedding Crashers!’ it’s a classic. I just would’ve added the diversity, hello!” she quips.
In crafting her Netflix rom-com series, Buteau has kept certain attributes from those movies in mind.
“[Those movies are] about finding your own voice and sticking up for yourself, because it’s very easy, especially as women, to get lost in the sauce and do everything for everyone else, and optics, and to make your parents proud and happy,” she explains. “But to go and take a chance on yourself with a new career, and a person that doesn’t look like the person that you thought you’d end up with, to love yourself, those are the qualities that I want to infuse in my show.”
“Survival of the Thickest” centers Mavis Beaumont, a Black, plus-size woman navigating life after she finds herself newly single. After the show’s pickup, Buteau revealed that the character is named for her late grandmother, Mavis. The idea came after she booked New York City’s Sony Hall as the location to film her standup special, with production coinciding with Mavis’ birthday — March 1.
“She’s no longer with us, so I’m like, ‘What a great way to celebrate all the things,’” Buteau says, recounting the coincidental timing. “She’s always on my mind. I have pictures of her everywhere. She was a real spitfire.”
The dominos fell into place from there. She wanted the character to have to have “a strong name, a name that people around the world could say easily.” Plus, the initials MB have special significance to her family — her father’s name is Michel Buteau, her mother is Marie — so Mavis Beaumont simply made sense.
“We had a lot of different names, but I was like, ‘This is It,’” she comments. “It’s so nice when you just have that aha moment — and then I cried and I got chills.”
The series’ storylines come from the essays Buteau wrote for “Survival of the Thickest.”
“I definitely dive into ‘Game of Heaux,’ with a dollop of ‘Tooth Be Told,’ because figuring out health insurance in your 20s is a thing, and living in a country where health insurance is a luxury is also something we don’t explore enough,” she shares. “It was really fun picking these wild moments that I wrote about and building a whole different world around it. It will be interesting taking all the things I’ve learned the last 35 years or whatever it is, and making the show.”
As much as the series is an ode to her experience “growing up thick and Catholic in the Northeast,” it’s also a love letter to New York and all its diversity.
“I watch ‘Friends’ all the time and I’m like, ‘You live in New York City and there’s not one Puerto Rican friend?’” she says. “This [show] is going to be all the things I ever wanted on TV and so much more. Mavis will definitely be exploring what it’s like to be body positive, and sex positive, and own your sexuality without apologizing for it. Figuring out that you can be religious, but also like other things as well. Just defining your own happiness, which a lot of us don’t do.”
With so many ties to her personal life, the question is — when will Mavis meet her match? Buteau and husband Gijs van der Most celebrated their 11-year wedding anniversary in July and are parents to those 3-year-old twins. So, will her soulmate show up in the first season or will she draw the drama out over the course of the show’s run like “How I Met Your Mother?”
According to Buteau, “We’ll just have to see…”
Next up is Season 3 of “First Wives Club” on BET, which will feature “new friendships, friendships ending and sex.” Then, Buteau is headed to film the second season of Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown.”
In addition to all her on-camera gigs, Buteau is also back on stage working out new material. When she performed during the New York Comedy Festival, the comedian promoted the set with the hashtag #BitchGottaBabysitter. It’s a solid quip, but she confirms that it’s not the working title for the follow-up to her Netflix stand-up special: “We’re still figuring out who she is and what her name will be.”
Buteau has relished reclaiming the mic after the pandemic shutdowns.
“It has been wildly inspiring to see people’s faces — usually their eyes — in the audience,” she says. “I love when you could tell laughter feeds someone’s soul. Any standup comedian will tell you this too — it’s so different once you get on stage and people know you. It’s a completely different experience.”
She continues: “That has been such a real game-changer, because then, especially in this era, people are definitely way more open-minded to hearing some real ass shit. Pardon my French. We’ve all been through stuff — we’re still going through it. Doing stand-up and watching people giggle so hard is like Halle Berry in ‘Monsters Ball’ having sex with Billy Bob [Thornton]. Everyone’s like, ‘Make me feel good!’”
“Marry Me” is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.