Netflix’s original dramedy Grace and Frankie was meant to showcase its legendary stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, but episode after episode, comedian and actress June Diane Raphael indisputably walks away with the funniest moments. Playing Brianna Hanson, the daughter of Fonda’s Grace and Martin Sheen’s Robert, the Long Island-born actress delivers sharp doses of reality to the flailing friends and family who surround her.
In reality, Raphael has popped up on TV shows including Parks and Recreation (as the wickedly vapid Tynnyfer), Happy Endings, New Girl, The Muppets, and the upcoming Netflix original comedy Lady Dynamite, premiering on the streaming service May 20. SPIN called up Raphael in Los Angeles to delve into the new season of Grace and Frankie, and our talk quickly turned into a recent Real Housewives news rundown (she’s a huge fan and occasional podcast guest on the matter) and a discussion of how terrifying it is to see a lifeless Muppet on a hook. Read that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.
I thought we could start by you telling me if you remember the first album you ever bought.
I believe it was Paula Abdul’s… I don’t know what the album was called, but it had “Opposites Attract.” [Ed. note: Forever Your Girl]
This was during the age of, “Oh, let’s all get together in sixth grade and seventh grade and just put a dance together with our girlfriends to ‘Opposites Attract.'” That was an afternoon. Looking back, I’m like, “Who were these dances for?” They were for no one but ourselves. I’m remembering the choreography — it was so literal. It was two steps forward, two steps back, we’d come together, and we’d walk together, ’cause… opposites attract.
A big thing I remember in middle school was going to the local CD place and hanging out there for hours and then choreographing routines. This was also during New Kids on the Block. I took a strange stance ’cause everybody was in love with Joey McIntyre and I was like, “Not me. I’ll take Jon [Knight] who nobody wants.” Nobody wanted him. But again, I think what I thought was maybe I had a shot. And of course, he turned out to be gay, which all lines up quite perfectly.
Did you ever see them in concert when you were a kid?
No, I never saw them in concert [then]. I did see them rather recently, though, when they went on tour with… I forget who it was…
Was it Backstreet Boys?
Yes! Backstreet Boys. I saw them at Staples Center recently with a group of friends.
Was it depressing?
You know, look. [Laughs.] The moves, the choreography, I definitely felt like, “Oh, these are middle-aged men who are a little bit huffing and puffing around the stage.” But despite that, I thought it was thrilling, and I went with a real superfan, and he was like, “I’m telling you, some of their new music is really good.” I was like, “You’re insane.” But, I gotta tell ya, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Do you remember the most recent thing you downloaded?
I haven’t listened to it yet, but I was just on Twitter before I got on the phone, and I’m seeing that Dolly Parton has… I mean, is this an old song? It’s called “Mama.”
Good for Dolly Parton.
Yeah, this is for her upcoming album, Pure & Simple with Dolly’s Biggest Hits. I was just about to download this. But it’s funny, I’m not really that into new music. I’m someone who’s very into the old stuff. I remember the first real CD I bought, which was a huge step, was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I must’ve been in high school. I was like, “Oh, this is music. I don’t know what I’ve been up to, but this is music.” That’s really where my heart is.
Even like Edith Piaf, The Voice of the Sparrow, I got into some stuff in high school that was really amazing and I still listen to. In my car, I’m always on either the ’70s station on Sirius or the ’60s station. That’s pretty much where I live. [Also] the rub of growing up on Long Island is you’re just automatically a Billy Joel fan. You have no choice in the matter. And I definitely am.
Have you seen him in concert before?
I’ve seen Billy Joel in concert more than anyone else. A million times it feels like. He was the first real date I went on postpartum. After having my baby, I was like, “I’ve gotta go see Billy,” and I went still wearing diapers from the hospital. I don’t really do any real sports fandom stuff, but Billy to me, I’m just like, “Oh, I blindly follow.” I love knowing all the words. I love “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” going into the plight of the Long Island fisherman. It just all feels very right to me. Also, my parents had a small summer bungalow out on Long Island, close to Riverhead — and I don’t even know if this is true or not — but we were told that the land right past our backyard, Billy Joel owned.
Do you have any other artists like that that you’ve been listening to for a long time that you feel similarly unapologetic about?
So many female artists for me were such a huge part of kind of a feminist awakening, like Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. I remember this really cool girl in ninth grade introducing me to that music and I was like, “Oh, wait, what’s this? What are these angry feelings? What’s all this now?” Really, it was a huge part of a real worldview coming together. I actually don’t know if they’re making music right now, but I will always love that music and I don’t care if it’s good or not.
Meghan Trainor has a new record coming out. Do you feel any one way about her?
I love “All About That Bass.” I don’t know her new song, but I think anything that is promoting — what’s that term? I’m gonna totally butcher it, but whatever — pro-body, body-loving lyrics for women, like… hats off, especially for young girls. It’s not necessarily music for me, but f**k yeah I’m glad it’s out there.
This season of Grace and Frankie has been so fantastic and it’s been such a treat watching Brianna serve as a bridge between the audience and the narrative. She’s a voice for people watching at home. Is she at all inspired by the way that you live your own life?
I don’t think so. I would be so scared of her, and of what she might say to me. [Laughs.] I think I’m much more diplomatic and caring about what people think. I don’t think that’s anything that she cares about. I totally think it’s refreshing and it’s so much fun to play, but it’s definitely not who I am.
If Brianna were in charge of picking somebody to write a song for the commercial for the lube she’s developed this season with Frankie, who would she choose?
I don’t know if you’ve seen, but Netflix has put out has a fake version of the commercial for the lube. You have to see it, because it feels like [Tomlin’s] Frankie Bergstein was the creative director. The music is very Enya, but I think if I were to do it, it would be Kate Bush or something like that. I think that would be kind of cool. You have to see the commercial they put out. It’s a bunch of women with long, gray hair twirling around in slow motion.
If your character and Brooklyn [Decker] and Lily and Jane all went to karaoke, and they put you in charge of picking a song for everybody to sing, what are you choosing?
I might choose “I Like Big Butts” [“Baby Got Back”] just for the joy of seeing Jane and Lily doing that with us.
What if one of you had to rap Lil’ Kim’s verse on “Lady Marmalade”?
Definitely Lily, because she has some spoken-word experience. I don’t know if it’s in the show yet, but she definitely has been onstage doing some poetry jam stuff.
Later this month, you costar in Maria Bamford’s new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. What about the show made you interested in participating?
I’m only in four episodes so I don’t want to overstate my presence in the show, but I would have literally done three lines in the show because I’m a huge fan of Maria’s and I think she’s just so wonderful. I think I read a script that Pam Brady and Maria had written together and Mitch Hurwitz was also working on it. I was blown away by how funny it was.
It’s rare for me to laugh out loud. Working in comedy, you get really desensitized, even if I think something’s really funny… I watch things with my sisters, and I’m like, “That was really funny.” And they’re like, “You didn’t laugh once.” Reading that script, I was laughing my little ass off.
You also did The Muppets this year. How do you get past the fact that it’s just people with their hands inside of felt?
God, it’s so hard to explain. They shoot on a raised platform, so you’re six feet above the ground and then for the Muppets, the puppeteers put their hands up. So it’s not like you’re seeing the people. You’re really not. But the great thing about it was that these puppeteers know the voices of these Muppets and they’re [always] in character. So if I would start a scene and mess up and need to take it back from the top, a million Muppets would be like, [mimicking Muppet voices] “Oh, that’s okay June. We can take it back. No worries.” [Laughs.] It’s like, “What’s happening right now?”
It was disturbing, though, to walk around the set and see like the extra Muppets, like a Miss Piggy just hanging up on the wall after having done a scene with her. I was like, “Oh, I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.”
I was hoping before I let you go that we could talk a little bit about Housewives if you are open to that?
I’m always open.
Do you have a favorite franchise?
What if I said D.C.?
That would throw me for a loop.
[Laughs]. Look, I am in the middle of New York, and I’m loving it. But the O.C. holds a really special place in my heart. It’s the flagship show, obviously, but it’s also what I really imagine when I imagine housewives: the blonde hair and the sequins on the shirts. Everything about them is so put together with no style at all. So much effort and none of it’s really working. To me, it’s the most satisfying, visually, to watch. And [longest-running O.C. Housewives cast member] Vicki Gunvalson, I’m obsessed with. I’d follow her to the end of the earth.
Which piece of original Housewives music is your favorite?
Countess Luann’s song.
“Money Can’t Buy You Class”?
I feel like it’s the follow-up to “Money Can’t Buy You Class.” It’s where she’s talk-singing.
Is it “Chic, C’est la Vie”?
Yes! Thank you. [Laughs.] The craziest, saddest thing I’ve ever heard. I have a memory of her doing it live on Watch What Happens Live, just like, “Oh, you’re not singing at all.” It was insane. Her music career is fascinating and that’s what I love about these ladies. They’re getting up there in age and they’re like, “Oh, you don’t think I can be a pop star? Watch.” It’s unbelievable that we get to watch this.
My Housewives song of choice is probably — and I’ve put a great deal of thought into this…
Is it the Danielle Staub duet?
…Yes, it is.
Casey Wilson and I have sung that on stage together. We’ve serenaded each other. It’s actually really nice.