Illeana Douglas puts herself together in 'Easy to Assemble'
In 2008, the actress Illeana Douglas, known for her roles in Allison Anders' “Grace of My Heart,” Gus Van Sant's “To Die For” and Martin Scorsese's “Cape Fear,” among many other parts, created a Web series for IKEA, the Swedish furniture maker and lifestyle retailer. In “Easy to Assemble,” she plays herself as an actor-in-recovery-from-acting who goes to work at IKEA. The title, of course, has meanings beyond that of putting together a bookcase: It’s also about the process of putting oneself together (there is perhaps some irony in the “easy”) and, in a meta way, the process of making the series itself. I should say that it's a comedy.
“It has this sort of vaudeville sense of 'grab some actors, grab some directors, put 'em all together and they're easy to assemble,'“ Douglas told me not long before the series' third season began in October. (When lined up, its 17 constituent webisodes will form a 90-minute movie.) We were having coffee in the cafeteria of the Burbank IKEA, where the first two seasons were filmed, largely during store hours, while customers milled in the background.
“It was just at the point that the stock market collapsed,” Douglas remembered, “and people were in a little bit of free fall in terms of independent films -- I had three movies that just vaporized -- and so I thought, well, we'll do this thing; it'll be fun. I had no idea that it would grab hold of me and become so much fun that I would want to to do it exclusively."
The current season, which is titled “Finding North,” is set in Sweden (doubled by Big Bear Lake, Calif.), where Illeana has gone to accept an award as “Co-Worker of the Year.” That is also the title of the series’ second season, which pitted her against fellow employee and manipulative frenemy Justine Bateman (a brilliant Justine Bateman). (Those seasons are linked by the three-episode “Flying Solo,” which takes place on the flight to Stockholm.) You need to see the second season to understand the third, but the entire run of the show is ever-present on the Web, most comprehensively on MyDamnChannel.com, an executive producer of “Flying Solo,” and a dedicated YouTube channel.
Did IKEA give her any sort of instruction?
“Well, they're Swedish,” she said. “The Swedish culture and the IKEA culture is to not really critique. The first season we got one note, which was, 'We don't sell ice cream; it's actually frozen yogurt.'" When the second season began, with what was clearly the aftermath of a sexual encounter, in a bedroom ultimately revealed to be on the showroom floor, “their only concern was that there might be a safety issue because we were blocking the aisles.” And when Douglas needed an office in which to set a scene, she was told that there were no offices. “I go, 'Well, how do you know where the manager is?' 'He's in the corner.'"
The first two seasons largely concern the rivalry between Illeana and Justine, hired by IKEA, says Manager Erik (the wonderful Eric Lange), “to bring some show-biz sparkle to the store.” Illeana is a good-hearted person for whom everything is hard; Justine -- who hosts an in-store talk show called “40 and Bitter” -- the one to whom power comes easy.
“My character -- as I am in real life -- is in this bizarro, IKEA-like world," said Douglas. "She's terrified but keeps going somehow. And that is juxtaposed with Justine, who is doing the classic showbiz thing and knows how to handle fame.”
Justine to Illeana, who had hoped being named Co-Worker of the Year would make her popular: “I hope you're not basing your whole self-esteem on one stupid prize.”
Illeana: “Not all of it.”
Douglas, who began in stand-up comedy and dreamed of writing for "Saturday Night Live" before movies became her living, built “Easy to Assemble” as a kind of sequel to her 2007 web series “Supermarket of the Stars.” There, too, she played herself working a straight job.
“I think that as an actor you have to have an innate ability, like a caribou looking for moss on a tundra, to be thinking where your next job is coming from,” Douglas told me. “Supermarket” came out of the idea that “actors will always find a place to act, and maybe we'll be acting in supermarkets next. And when I met with IKEA, it was like a revelation because I was, like, 'Oooh, they have their own sets!' Eureka! I found my studio!"
Among the better-known actors who have appeared in "Easy to Assemble" are Jeff Goldblum, Jane Lynch, Tim Meadows, Patricia Heaton, Robert Patrick, David Henrie, Cheri Oteri, Wallace Langham, Ray Wise, Corey Feldman, Tom Arnold and Kevin Pollock. Ed Begley Jr. plays the ghost of a legendarily impractical IKEA designer who is also Illeana's spirit guide, I'd guess you call him. And this season Craig Bierko appears as Justine’s insane, untalented brother Jebediah Bateman.
But most of the work is shouldered by a talented regular cast, including Lange's Manager Erik, who stands in for Sweden; Michael Irpino as ardent employee Lance Krapp; and Rob Mailhouse as Illeana's crush, Paul, a member of the “40 and Bitter” house band. In blonde wigs, Douglas, Mailhouse and Todd Spahr also portray the “almost great” '70s Swedish pop band Spärhusen, who loom large in the mythology of the show and have their own three-part mocku-rockumentary, “Triumph of Spärhusen."
The backstage intrigue of Season 2 has given way this season to something uncanny, as Illeana bicycles through a kind of enchanted forest on the way to receiving her award -- there are “Wizard of Oz” references. (Her co-workers are off on their own missions -- tracking down Spärhusen, brainstorming a Swedish buddy cop film called “48 Hours of Daylight,” falling in love.) Along the way she experiences a symbolic death and rebirth at the hands of Nøkken, a Swedish water spirit who “lures women to the water and then makes love to them and then kills them. You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with selling furniture?”
Maybe nothing, but it’s a lovely, mysterious passage, electric with life. “Easy to Assemble” is not a perfect thing. The corners don't always match, the have-barn-mount-show spirit doesn’t always work for the better. But I love it: It’s honest and sweet and original and, especially this year, it’s shot through with a feeling of ripening possibility that defines equally its main character and the person who made her.
"Something about this --- the Swedish culture -- opened a door in me," said Douglas. "What I always write about is a sense of being lost and looking for love and for a family. And, lo and behold, I kind of found it within this environment.”
[For the record, 3:52 p.m. Nov. 28: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described "My Damn Channel" as a "a producing partner" of "Easy to Assemble" "since 'Flying Solo.'" It was an executive producer of "Flying Solo" (season 2.5), but not of the current third season, "Finding North," of which it is a distributor.]
-- Robert Lloyd
Photo: Illeana Douglas plays with the merchandise at the IKEA store in Burbank. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times