Massachusetts native Briga Heelan attended Natick’s Walnut Hill School for the Arts and studied for a year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before transferring to the University of Southern California. The daughter of an actress and a playwright, she originally planned to break into musical theater, but her talent for improv and comedic acting quickly landed her roles on TV shows such as Man Up, Jane by Design and Cougar Town. Currently, she can be seen on the NBC series Undateable, and she stars opposite Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) on the new comedy Ground Floor, where she plays a maintenance manager involved in an upstairs/downstairs romance with a money manager who works in the building. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: Let’s discuss your name. It’s pretty unusual.
Briga Heelan: It’s an Irish name. In fact, my last name was O’Heelahan back in the day. And Briga, I read somewhere, is some pagan Celtic goddess, which sounds great, so I really like saying that. But I was named after my grandmother’s best friend, who lives in Dublin.
I imagine people mispronounce it all the time.
They do. It’s “Bree-ga,” not “Brig-uh,” which is the most hideous-sounding thing. When mispronounced, my name goes from being quite pleasant to being just the ugliest thing you can imagine. It sounds like a medical term when you say it wrong.
No, I’m terrible at that stuff. Really bad. But I’ve always been lucky to have a roommate who’s good at that stuff. I do a lot of pointing, watching and sly commentary, but I can’t actually do much at all.
I love cleaning. A lot of people say that, but I mean it. I’m super-organized, and if there’s a chaotic room that I can make orderly, that’s a great day for me. So cleaning, organizing, and I really love doing dishes. The whole process of it. It kinda calms me down.
With a multi-cam sitcom, I had to develop a new skill set. I had done a lot of improv and a lot of theater, but this is a whole different thing. How quickly they change the writing, jokes and plotlines is really amazing. This is about absorbing it and letting it go as fast as possible, because the next day or even the next hour there’s going to be an entirely new scene or script.
LA TimesGround Floor
I read the review and I was like, “I disagree with you, but God, I never thought I’d see that anywhere.” I was bowled over by that.
He’s a sweetheart. He’s awesome. He’s definitely the musical theater heartthrob.
Pitch Perfect had me at puke. [Laughs] I love that movie. I love a cappella. I’m a musical theater nerd.
I spilled a water bottle right in my lap while wearing this very tight dress, and it was just before I was about to walk into the audition for the sexy role. It looked like I had wet myself, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.
Last pilot season, there was a show that came out called Ben and Kate. It was a great show; the people were fantastic. Dakota Johnson [daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith] got the role, and she was wonderful. But all season, every time I read a rewrite of the script, I really wanted that role.
No. Isn’t the point of being an actor playing roles I don’t think I can play? I kind of feel like it’s more important that people be surprised that I can play a role than say, “Oh, yeah. Makes sense.”
What kind of dance I can do. I just listed all the classes I took. That doesn’t mean I can actually do them. It just means I was present while someone was trying to teach them to me. I was breathing during intermediate jazz.
I don’t feel like I gave it up. I was in New York, trying to do it, and I had this strong gut instinct about it. I kept thinking, “This is not how I’m going to get cast.” I wasn’t enough of a triple threat to be in the ensemble of a musical. So I thought TV was a better fit for me, while I keep training and do the work. Hopefully, I’ll get back to it. I still take voice lessons and all of that in the hope that I will. In the meantime, live comedy is the best job. It’s the most fun in the world.
You know, I don’t. But the funny thing is, I don’t even know what happened to that baby. People always ask me, and I have no idea.
I don’t get recognized that way, but what does happen is that I find out that the person at the dry cleaner or the nail salon actually watches the show and has no idea that it’s me. [Laughs] I’m like, “Jesus, I know I’m not wearing any makeup right now, but goddamn it!”
Oh, this show Naked and Afraid that’s on Discovery. They drop a man and a woman, complete strangers, completely buck naked into a really harsh environment, like the jungle or the desert or a swamp, and they have to survive for 21 days. There’s a really small camera crew, and they only intervene if these people are about to die. It’s insane. The most amazing thing.
True story: The first time I saw myself on TV, about three years ago, I was at my aunt’s house, and I literally broke out in hives all over my body. It was absolutely horrifying. I just freaked out internally, and I remember being really quiet on the drive home. I just wasn’t used to it, because I was used to just doing the work and not seeing it from doing theater and improv. After that, I refused to watch anything I was on for about a year, and then I realized, “OK, this is your job. You need to know what you’re doing.” Now it’s fine.
Zero. I haven’t been on many, and it was like I blacked out and then woke up afterward. But it’s so unbelievably unnatural, with people yelling things at you and big cameras that are really close to your face, so I think the trick is to somehow see the fun in it and try to look genuinely like you’re enjoying yourself.
My butt. [Laughs]
I really don’t like how thin my upper lip is. I also have really big calves. I’m the person you need in the winter if you’re stuck.
I used to do my hair and makeup and clothes in order to look like an idea of something, and now I just try to look like myself.
Pretty much everyone. But I grew up loving Friends, so those three women are goddesses to me, and the fact that I’ve already gotten to meet and work with one of them is pretty awesome. Working with Courteney [Cox] on Cougar Town was pretty far up there, and I’d love to work with the other two, obviously.
I’d love to be married, almost ready to have a kid, having either done or preparing to do a part that really scares me on Broadway. I’d also like to be working on the more creative end in TV and, of course, taking Ground Floor as far as it can go. That’s a lot in three years, though.