Kristen Johnston is best known for her six years on the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, playing alien-in-human-form Sally Solomon, sent to study human behavior on Earth. Johnston won two Emmys for that role, and has guest-starred on TV shows including ER, Bored to Death and Sex and the City. She’s also an accomplished stage actress, having appeared in more than 50 stage productions, and the author of a forthcoming memoir, Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster. Johnston’s latest project is the TV Land sitcom The Exes, in which she plays divorce lawyer Holly Franklin, who rents out the apartment across the hall from her to three recently divorced men, played by Donald Faison (Scrubs), Wayne Knight (Seinfeld) and David Alan Basche. Here she talks about her new show, the legacy of 3rd Rock and how she feels about jokes at the expense of her six-foot height.
What drew you to the role of Holly on The Exes?
I think mostly I just thought she wasn’t a freak, for once. Of course, I end up making her a freak, because that’s me. She was just sort of a normal person that I really related to. And she wasn’t some wacked-out party or girl or whatever, like stuff I’ve been playing recently. She was just a woman trying to live a life in New York City. And I related to that. It just was the simplicity of it I really liked. I think it’s just a really old-school sitcom, but that’s what I like to do. It’s not going to reinvent the wheel, but I think it’s special in its own way. It gets really good. You’ve gotta believe me. The first episode I wasn’t as crazy about because they kept saying to me, “Be nicer. You’ve got to be warmer.” They’re so nervous about it getting picked up. And I kept saying, “Look, you hired me. I’m not nice.” So when they tested it, the head of the network called me and said, “Well, you were right.” The audience was like, “We like her, but where is she?” From Episode 2 on, I had sort of carte blanche to do whatever I want. And it gets really funny. And that’s the bummer about having people judge it on the first episode. Look, 3rd Rock sucked the first episode. Pilots just by their nature aren’t great. You’re setting up all the hoo-ha.
Were you looking to return to a regular series, or was it this particular role that drew you back?
It was kind of the combination of it. I definitely was over it for a while and sort of turned everything down -- not that I was offered a million things, but I was offered some stuff after 3rd Rock. But I was so happy in New York and just doing my thing. And then I did an episode of The New Adventures of Old Christine, and I loved it. I just realized -- oh my God -- how much I missed the sitcom. So that sort of changed my head around a little bit towards it. Because I’m not really a huge fan of sitcoms in general. I see a couch and a kid and I kind of wanna change the channel. But this is a couch and a couple grown men, so it was different. It was the exact right thing at the exact right time.