Mary Lynn Rajskub's career is something of an anomaly. For all intents and purposes, she's a comedienne who excels in dry humor, with standup and sketches that draw from her real-life experiences with her parents, and now, her husband and child. Despite that though, her biggest role to date is opposite Kiefer Sutherland on the decidedly humorless 24. When Chloe O'Brian first debuted as Jack Bauer's personal assistant way back in 24's third season (read: 2001) viewers didn't know what to make of Rajskub and Chloe. She's standoffish to a point of implying social deficiency, but in her own way, oddly endearing. Come season four's major cast overhaul, she's the only original era cast member to remain full-time alongside Kiefer and from there, Chloe as Jack's sidekick has become an indispensable part of the 24 brand. She is the one character you can safely bet a grip on to survive a season. She's the only character you can expect to show up in any tertiary material from a proposed movie, to an SNL skit, to yes, this year's "limited event" return to TV, four years after the series finale, 24: Live Another Day.
With Live Another Day's rating success creating rumors of more Jack Bauer adventures to come, we hopped on the phone with Mary Lynn to talk the show's future, Chloe's dark turn during the new season, the Beygency, and what she's up to when she's not hacking for Jack.
Since 24 proper ended [in 2010], you’ve been doing more comedy roles. Was it hard to flip back into the “Chloe” character after a few years away from the role?
Yeah, I mean it was pretty shocking that they even announced that it was coming back.
Yeah, I was on the road doing stand-up comedy. Like you said, it was four years. I think I spent the first two years of that four years in the back of my mind. Moving on with my life, but in the back of my mind it was always the movie that they talked about. After a while, I was like, “Okay. This is over and it’s really over. They’re not gonna get it together.” And then they come back with the idea to do twelve [episodes], and it’s announced everywhere. And I’m like, is it real? They called me back for it and I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess I’ll be dropping everything and moving my family.” The disenfranchised version of my character was really exciting but it was a complete, complete surprise. A great surprise, but it was like, “Oh wow.”
At this point does it feel like you’re as essential to the brand as Kiefer Sutherland? People have come to expect that relationship between you two at this point. What would 24 even be without Chloe?
I definitely think so. Again, surprising is the word for me and 24. Because it’s something that people associate me with. A lot of people–and I know the statistics from doing stand-up–the majority of my audience knows me from 24, and when they come to see me do comedy they don’t know what to expect. They didn’t know that I did comedy. It’s this weird thing where that’s why I’m able to headline as a comedian, because I have a lot of fans, but most of those fans only know me from 24. In my life, 24 is the first drama that I’ve ever done. It’s very funny and a fun process to watch people. It’s always a couple where one of them is like, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen her smile. I don’t know if she can be funny.” The other person is convincing them, “I don’t know, I think it’ll be good.” Then the first five to ten minutes, I can tell they’re staring at me like, “What is Chloe doing right now? Why is she talking like this? Why is she doing this?” It’s been really fun.
Since you come from a comedy background, what led you to taking a role on 24 to begin with?
I really tried not to go in on it. I got called in as an audition, and my agent said, “This is a really good show,” and I was just like, “Yeah, well, you know, I don’t really do dramas.” I had a few auditions for dramas that didn’t go very well. She talked me into going, and I watched three episodes of 24 the night before. I went in and the creator had seen me in this movie called Punch-Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The creator of 24 met me in the hall and said, “You’re great, I’m writing a part for you.” This was an incredibly validating experience as an actor to have someone say that. I didn’t believe him. Then he followed through with it. I thought, “I’m just this year’s computer-geeky person and they just need me for this new season.” I signed on for four episodes, then four more episodes, and it kept going like that.
Now, looking at Live Another Day, it’s like, my character was supposed to die. I was told that Chloe was going to be killed, and as we were filming it–up until the night we were filming–they didn’t show me as badly injured as I should have been, the way it was scripted. Then I got another call where they said, “Okay, well, you’re not going to die now.” It was 2001 and we’re going on fifteen years of my relationship with this show, and they’re still telling me that my character is gonna die. Then it’s not. It’s completely open-ended.
It’s funny that you say that, because I hadn’t read that before, but just being a fan and watching it, I kind of got the sense that it was headed towards a darker ending for you and then it didn’t.
Yeah, and I think that came out organically as we were shooting it. You could tell in the story line that Chloe was going to be bad. Then it didn’t happen. [Laughs.]
It’s still a much darker season for your character than she’s used to. What was that like as far as the performance goes, and adding in that layer of a tragic backstory this year?
That was really challenging, but it also made it great because it was like a whole new thing. A whole new layer that I got to play around with.
Did it validate your return in the first place?
Yeah, for sure. 24 is a huge part of my life and it’s a huge deal that they brought it back. There was no way I was going to say no. But going into it, there’s trepidation of, like, “Okay, what is gonna happen?” The fact that I had this whole other layer to play like that is awesome. One thing I realized during shooting is that Chloe has always found a sarcastic remark or something ironic even in the most serious of situations, and this time around she has been through so much, personally and professionally, that there was no room for her to do that. That was a weird part for me.
Did you miss not being able to incorporate that comedic element that she usually brings?
For sure. Yeah. But, on the other hand, that’s the evolving of that character. I think she found herself sort of. I don’t know how you would describe it, it’s like playing with fire. I feel like she’s grown up, she’s dealing with circumstances in the way that Jack does. Instead of being like, “Oh, I just work here,” she is making decisions and suffering the consequences of them for better or worse, which is kind of what Jack does. He doesn’t have time to be a sarcastic person in the office. Time and time again, there’s a bad choice to make and a worse choice to make, and which is it going to be? I think for her, there’s a lot of personal pain, a lot of tragedy, and then she’s like, “Well F you, I’m going to go do this now.” She’s paying the price for that.
How was it getting back together with Kiefer after so much time off? Did you not miss a beat after working closely for years or did you have to get back into the groove of things?
It was funny because we’re all acclimating to London. The first sequence of scenes that I did with him, I was being tortured. But there was once scene where we were sitting in the car and I was looking for software and it started disappearing, and he was like, “Dammit, Chloe!” When they said cut we just both started laughing. [Laughs.] I was just like, “I remember this!”
You were also a part of one of SNL’s most viral clips: “The Beygency” skit.
That was so much fun! Kiefer is so funny, and it’s weird because for somebody that’s so dedicated to what he does and passionate about what he does, he also has this shy thing. He told a story about when he hosted SNL years ago, and you could tell he loved it, but he’s almost like nervous to do comedy or admit that he wants to do it. We were joking around on the set, and people were like, “You guys should host!” One day I asked my rep about the sketch, and I text Kiefer, and he’s like, “Yeah, figure that out for us. You’re the comedy person.” I was like, “Me?!” That was funny, he was like, “I’d do it with you,” and we both were really excited about it. I think we both wanted to do something live during the show, but the way it worked out ended up great because we were in the middle of shooting. We would not have been able to go there for rehearsal, so it ended up being really quick and really funny, and a great way to do that.
It was a fun cameo.
It was perfect. We’re really happy that it worked out. I think the other way probably wouldn’t have worked out.
Where do you stand on that skit – are you a big Beyoncé fan or would the Beygency come after you?
Oh, the Beygency would totally come after me. I’m more like Kiefer in my musical taste. I listen to a lot more ‘70s music than Beyoncé.
So, what’s coming up next for you?
I’m doing a bunch of stand-up. Hopefully 24 will come back, I haven’t heard anything yet. People don’t believe that, but I’m sure there are conversations happening about it that I don’t know about. [Laughs.] I’m developing a sitcom and doing stand-up.
What about the sitcom? Is it top secret?
It’s super-preliminary. Not that it’s top secret, but it’s not far enough along. We’re not there yet.
Are you looking at a network or something more explicit on a cable channel?
We’re looking at networks, and it’s coming from our stand-up. A lot of stuff in my stand-up is personal stuff, and it’s based on my life, which is where the best stuff comes from. I talk about getting pregnant by accident because my husband’s like a rebound relationship and he’s nine years younger than me. I had given up on men and was like, “Oh, he’s a rebound guy.” Three months into it, we found out I was pregnant so we decided to keep the kid but we were both people who were not only not ready for it, but very nontraditional in terms of my whole trajectory which is to do everything opposite of my parents.
The sitcom premise is kind of based on my real experiences. I have the best friend who reads my tarot cards and is all witchy, and I’m like, “Oh my god, I can’t talk to you anymore. I have a kid now.” We’re different. They’re like, “Are you coming to the party at the graveyard? It’s an absinthe party.” I’m like, “Uhh, I’ll probably be home with my baby… I’m probably going to choose to stay home with that little, human life that it’s my job to keep alive. I probably won’t make it to that graveyard drinking party.” My friend is like, “You should bring your baby!” [Laughs.] The colliding of those two worlds and then having to admit, “Oh, my mom was right about that…” You probably shouldn’t keep your baby up until one or two in the morning, you’re not going out at night, and all of those things that you don’t want to admit.
Is it kind of like Louie in terms of execution? Autobiographical?
I’m kind of going for a broader, more network thing. It’s kind of like a personal challenge because my background is so alternative. I love Louie, but it’s pretty dark. Talking about it, it might end up having those elements, but for now I’m trying to keep it light and easy-breezy. That’s been what I’ve been trying to do with my stand up. I’ve been real dark and real weird, you know? It’s kind of getting old for me so I’m trying to keep it easy-breezy. We’ll see. It’s pretty preliminary. You can talk to me a year from now and say, “Remember when we talked?” and compare to how it actually turns out.
How many times have you gotten “Dammit, Chloe!” on the street this year, compared to when 24 was on hiatus before?
That’s a great question. It’s actually a lot. It’s funny because we were gone for so long, but nobody forgot it. People were always watching and rewatching the DVDs. This time around has been really exciting. I think it’s better and bigger. It totally has a renewed spirit to it, and I’ve heard many, many, many “Dammit, Chloe!”s.
Did you get them in London, too?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely, but they’re more polite about it. They’re like, “Uh, excuse me? Might I say ‘Dammit, Chloe!’ to you?” [Laughs.] “Don’t mean to bother you!” They’re very polite.
Frazier Tharpe is staff writer at Complex. He tweets here.