When you’re in show business for almost three decades, you learn a lot, not the least of which is how surprised you are that you’ve been doing something for that long.
That’s what happened when I spoke to Sara Rue about her current role in the TV Land comedy Impastor. When I mentioned to her that she has been an actress for 25 years, she corrected me and said “26…or 27” with a combination of shock and amazement. She was right; her first credit was in the movie Rocket Gibraltar in 1988, when she was nine years old. It’s been a quarter-century-plus of roles big and small, and memorable stints as a supporting player in Popular and a four-year stint as the star of the ABC sitcom Less Than Perfect.
And what wisdom has Rue accrued during her time in the business?
1. THE TELEVISION LANDSCAPE IS ALWAYS CHANGING
In Impastor (airing Wednesdays at 10:30 PM Eastern), Rue plays Dora Winston, the assistant to the new pastor of a small-town Lutheran church. The person who shows up to town isn’t the guy she recruited, but small-time criminal Buddy Dobbs (Michael Rosenbaum), who took the reverend’s identity after a freak accident. She found the show’s dark comedy intriguing, even if she didn’t quite connect the show with the home of Hot in Cleveland.
“I read Impastor and I just assumed it was a dark weird FX show that [my agent] was sending me, and I was like, oh, ‘I love this FX one. I really like it, it’s hilarious,’” she says. “So we had all these sorts of misunderstandings, like this mismatched conversation about what I was talking about was not what he was talking about. Then finally I was like, 'No, I like the show about the pastor,’ and he’s like, 'Oh, that’s TV Land.’”
2. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
“When I think about the earlier part of my career, especially when I was a little kid, I think the hardest part was the rejection, and the getting really close to landing certain jobs and not getting them was really hard on me,” Rue says. “I took it so personally every time, and I would love to go back and somehow try to tell that little girl that it wasn’t really about her.
“I’ve learned over the years that you just only have so much control as an actor. I think when I was younger I always thought, ‘Wow, I just wasn’t good enough or just wasn’t pretty enough or just wasn’t this,’ and the truth is I just wasn’t what they had in mind, and it wasn’t a reflection on or judgement of me most of the time, and I think it was really hard.”
The perspective not only came from so many years in the business, but from the change in priorities that marriage and children bring; Rue and her husband have a two-year-old daughter, Talulah. “I mean, I don’t think I wrapped my head around [the control issue] for a very long time, and I think that was really hard on me being a little kid, and even though people would tell me that, I just never understood it on a level that made it less painful. So I wish I could go back and make [nine-year-old me] understand that. I wish I could go back and really ingrain in myself that it’s not the end of the world, like every job, and that there are things out there that are just as important if not more so than show business.”
3. EVEN IF YOU LAND A LEAD ROLE, IT CAN END IN AN INSTANT
In 2002, 14 years into her acting career, the 23-year-old Rue finally got a lead role, as the vivacious Claude Casey in the ABC sitcom Less Than Perfect. “I had been on so many shows at the time that had been picked up for six episodes and cancelled before they even got on the air, or playing supporting roles on TV shows that only go one season. It doesn’t really advance your career very much, and you just don’t know what it means” to get a lead in a new show, she said, especially because the chance for any pilot to become a successful series is a longshot. “I just felt like every step of the way I was like I’m going to wait to get excited because I also knew that it could be taken away like that, but it was so exciting” to see the show get picked up.
4. SIZE MATTERS, EVEN WHEN IT SHOULDN’T
Being the star of even a moderately successful show, though, brings with it scrutiny that Rue didn’t expect, mainly revolving around her weight. Her size was considered “normal” by most standards… except for Hollywood’s, and the entertainment press wasn’t kind. Articles about the show often referred to Rue as “plus-sized” or “full-figured” even though she was about a size 8 at the time.
“There was a lot of backhanded complimenting happening,” she said. “They’d be like, 'Good for her, and she looks the way she looks and she’s still got a lead in the show,’ and I was like, what the fuck? I just remember being like, 'That is not a compliment at all.’ Because I wasn’t super skinny and it just didn’t occur to me that it was a big deal until people started making a big deal about it.
"I just kept saying, 'But you understand it’s normal and acceptable for a woman to not look like a standard check-the-box skinny model and be the lead of the show,’ and everybody wanted to sort of talk about it and make a big deal about it.”
5. IMPOSSIBLE STANDARDS ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO CONFORM TO
Despite being adamant that she was happy with herself, Rue did drop weight before the fourth and final season of Less Than Perfect. The weight loss, she admits, was partially influenced by the years of pressure about her weight.
“It was something personally I had always wanted to do so I did, but it did make things a little bit easier on the Hollywood side of things for me,” she says. “It’s always hard when I talk about it because I never want anybody to feel like, 'Oh, to feel comfortable they should lose weight or they should conform,’ because that’s not the message. It’s just, for me at the time it was the right thing in my life, but it wasn’t because being a little bit curvier or chubbier is a bad thing. It just stopped working for me and I wanted different things.
“I wasn’t there to be a poster child for anything. I’m an actor, and to me it shouldn’t have been about how I looked whether I was 20 pounds heavier or not,” she says. “The point was, do you like the show? Isn’t the show funny? I thought the show was really great, and I really enjoyed working on it, and I was proud of the work I was doing, and to me it didn’t matter what I weighed when I was doing it.”
6. ONCE A LEAD, NOT ALWAYS A LEAD
After Less Than Perfect, Rue was cast in the lead of some pilots that didn’t get picked up, which helped her open her mind to supporting roles again. “I was getting offered smaller things that were going to be on the air and taking those,” she says. “You’re like, 'Oh, it feels good to be in something that people like and that’s good.’ I don’t know, somehow my attitude just about it changed a little bit, just wanting to be a strong member of a really great cast is to me equally as exciting as being just the lead, whether the show be great or successful or not.”
It’s led to a more varied portfolio since that show ended in 2006. She played a tomboyish lesbian on Rules of Engagement and spent a year as the third banana to Lily Tomlin and Reba McEntire on Malibu Country. This past season, he had a guest role on Chuck Lorre’s hit Mom as Candace, the overbearing fiancée of Baxter (Matt Jones), the stoner ex of Anna Faris’ character Christy. She’ll reprise the role this season.
7. FAMILY CHANGES EVERYTHING
When we spoke, Rue was about to bring Talulah to a toddler group class. Being a mother has changed the roles she takes, as much as anything else, because she has more than herself to consider. For Impastor, for instance, her husband and daughter moved to Vancouver with her while she filmed the first season.
“Whatever the size of the role is, I just want to do good projects because I’m now asking my family to make sacrifices so that I can do these good projects,” she said. “You want them to be good, you want them to be worth it. When you look back it’s more of an effort. It’s not just me getting on a plane and going to stay in a hotel somewhere. It’s like our life for however long the shoot is, so I just feel so grateful to have that.”