Drive-Away Dolls’s Geraldine Viswanathan wants to be your next romcom queen

Louis Chilton speaks to the star of the outrageous new comedy about making Ethan Coen ‘uncomfortable’, being an Aussie in Hollywood and the need for greater diversity in romcoms

Monday 18 March 2024 14:15 GMT
Viswanathan: ‘I have such a baby face... you can dress me up, dress me down, do whatever you want’
Viswanathan: ‘I have such a baby face... you can dress me up, dress me down, do whatever you want’ (Getty)

Geraldine Viswanathan is a minute or two late for our interview – she completely lost her car. When the 28-year-old star of Cat Person and Ethan Coen’s new film Drive-Away Dolls does appear on our video call, she’s sat in the front seat, laughing, holding her phone camera at a sort of Dutch angle to her face. “I’m in LA so it’s very, you know… A car is a second home,” she says, with a kind of throwaway pithiness.

It’s surely an apt enough vantage point as any from which to discuss Drive-Away Dolls, a riotous and pinball-paced road movie directed by half of the former sibling team behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski. In it, her character, Marian, is a bookish lesbian in the throes of a romantic dry spell. Pursued by bungling goons, she drives a rented Dodge Aries from Philadelphia to Tallahassee alongside her friend Jamie, a promiscuous free spirit (and fellow lesbian) played by Margaret Qualley. Today, at least, the car Viswanathan is sitting in is going nowhere fast.

Drive-Away Dolls is something of a breakthrough for an actor whose star is very much still rising; the deliriously enjoyable 84-minute caper sees her steal focus from such venerated names as Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Colman Domingo. It’s a sign of her formidable reputation within the industry that she was cast at short notice as a replacement in the Marvel blockbuster Thunderbolts, alongside Harrison Ford, Florence Pugh and Julia Louis-Dreyfus – how many actors could possibly fill the shoes left by The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, after all? But that’s next year’s business. For now, all eyes are on Drive-Away Dolls.

“I think I feel pretty starved for short and fun movies that are also good,” she says. “It’s being sold as a comedy-crime caper with a stacked cast and a legendary filmmaker at the helm. My dream is that people are tricked into it – and then end up coming along on this very queer journey.”

To get an immediate sense of Drive-Away Dolls’s cheekily provocative sensibility, just take a look at the film’s real title. A puckish title card before the closing credits wafts away the word “Dolls” to reveal the preferred sobriquet: Drive-Away Dy**s (censorship ours). “It was kind of an ongoing conversation while we were making the movie – because we knew it was Drive-Away Dy**s!” Viswanathan says. “And it was sort of this slow realisation that we wouldn’t be allowed to do that.” After cycling through a list of alliterative alternatives that would be more acceptable to put up on a marquee – Drive Away Dames? Drive Away Deals? – they eventually settled on Dolls.

The dolls: Margaret Qualley and Viswanathan in ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ (Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features)

Coen may be the more famous name, but the film is just as much the product of Tricia Cooke, Coen’s wife and creative collaborator of three decades. Cooke, who worked as an editor on several Coen brothers films and co-wrote Drive-Away Dolls, is a queer woman. (Their marriage is described as “non-traditional” and both have other partners.) The script itself is both darkly zany and incredibly frank when it comes to sex; dildos litter the film like tweed jackets in a Wes Anderson movie.

“The way sex is depicted in the movie… it’s really kind of silly and out there,” Viswanathan says. When it needs to be, though, the sex is sincere – and, as is now commonplace in Hollywood, involved a specialised intimacy co-ordinator to shoot. “I definitely was nervous,” Viswanathan admits. “I hadn’t really done it before.”

She’s full of praise, though, for the intimacy co-ordinator, who “would talk about the details, what kind of orgasm I would do. Because bless Ethan, I think he was pretty uncomfortable. When we filmed the sex scene, he played music so that I didn’t have to actually make the sounds, which meant I had to do the sounds in ADR – it was just delaying the humiliation!”

On screen, Viswanathan seldom gets to use her own accent – a buoyant Australian twang formed in childhood, growing up in Newcastle, New South Wales. The daughter of an Indian doctor and Swiss acting teacher, she moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, after getting narrowly rejected by Neighbours – a near-miss that nonetheless convinced her acting was a viable career option. Why is it, I ask, that so many Aussies seem to make such a success of Hollywood? “I think… we’re just chillers,” she replies. “Australians just like a good time.”

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Viswanathan definitely has this energy about her, a certain kind of sun-beamed levity. It’s probably what’s made her so suited to the almost Looney Tunes-ian Drive-Away Dolls, as well as the barmy teen comedies that preceded it, projects such as 2018’s Blockers – in which she plays the daughter of John Cena, a clownish dad trying to stop her losing her virginity – or gross-out Netflix film The Package that same year, in which she plays one of a group of teens who must transport a severed penis back to its host.

“I have such a baby face,” admits Viswanathan. “You can dress me up, dress me down, do whatever you want. I just played a college student [in 2023’s Cat Person]. I guess I haven’t played a mother yet. That’ll be scary – especially if it’s before I actually become a mother in real life. But I hope that I can play a teen forever.”

Gideon Adlon, Kathryn Newton and Viswanathan in gross-out Netflix film ‘Blockers’ (Universal)

On camera, one of the most impressive things about Viswanathan is her tonal range: in Drive-Away Dolls, she’s timid and brittle; as a student journalist in the Hugh Jackman school scandal drama Bad Education, she’s precocious and determined. In 2020’s underrated The Broken Hearts Gallery, she proved she could romcom with the best of ’em, delivering a funny turn with a soufflé-light touch opposite Stranger Things’s Dacre Montgomery.

It’s a shame that Broken Hearts was buried – dropped into a void, more or less, during the first summer of the pandemic. One only need look at the recent box office success of the Sydney Sweeney/Glen Powell romcom Anyone But You to see that there’s clearly still a mass demand for romantic comedies. “I’m here for the romcom resurgence,” Viswanathan says. “From the outside looking in, I do think it’s a bit more unusual to see a woman of colour in that role. I just finished watching [the Netflix miniseries] One Day. So I’m like, ‘Go off!’

“I definitely have an appetite for romcoms, and, you know” – she speaks more slowly, a trace of rebuke creeping into her voice – “an appetite for watching people who don’t necessarily look like Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell falling in love. I want to revamp that and just see more diversity in these stories.

Sofa, so good: Dacre Montgomery and Viswanathan in ‘The Broken Hearts Gallery’ (Sony)

“I think in many ways it does feel like a page is turned,” she adds. “But it still doesn’t feel equal. It still feels like a specific experience to be a woman of colour in this business.”

One of Viswanathan’s higher-profile projects was Cat Person, the 2023 film adapted from the viral New Yorker short story about a sexual fling that operated in a grey area of consent. Critics took a dim view of the film, in which Viswanathan played the main character’s best friend and confidante; when I bring it up, she seems bemused by the response. “I guess I expected everyone to be on the same page as me,” she says. “But it makes sense that a movie tackling that subject would be so polarising.

“I think that’s now something I understand is sort of inherent to movies that take on big subjects like Cat Person – not everyone’s going to agree. Personally, I was obsessed with the story… it’s the kind of movie that I like to watch.”

Emilia Jones as Margot and Viswanathan as Taylor in ‘Cat Person' (StudioCanal)

For Viswanathan, her biggest problem now almost seems to be rescaling her expectations. Thunderbolts is likely to raise her profile. Of the film itself, she says: “It’s all gonna be pretty practical. I’m not expecting the traditional way that Marvel movies have been made.” It is, in other words, a “different” sort of Marvel project.

“I’m pushing myself to do more conceptualising, more bigger-picture thinking,” Viswanathan adds. “Up until now it’s been like, ‘What? I got a job! Cool, let’s do it!’ Now I’m trying to force myself to dream bigger. Even [working with] Ethan Coen, that’s so obviously a dream, but I kind of didn’t even dare to dream it. It felt so reserved for the greats.

“Now that that’s sort of been smashed open, it’s like, ‘OK, the world’s your oyster. What are we thinking?’” That is, I guess, the million-dollar question.

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is out in UK cinemas now

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