Felicia Day: A rising star for the Internet geek
By Monica Hesse,
This is a story about Felicia Day.
Right now, 30 percent-ish of you are squealing with besotted fan-girldom and fan-boydom.
The other 70 percent of you do not know what a Felicia Day is.
“That’s probably more like 90 percent,” she says. “Whenever I go to a meeting at a studio lot, it’s always the IT guy or the assistant or the accountant who knows me. And then the executives look at me, like, ‘I don’t know why I’m meeting with you.’ ”
Here is an explanation.
Day, 32, is the creator and star of “The Guild,” an online series whose episodes have scored 150 million views since its 2007 inception. She’s won two best actress “Streamys” for her twitchy, flustered performance as gamer Cyd Sherman. In January, the Hollywood Reporter named her one of the industry’s top 50 digital power players, a list that included George Lucas and the chief executive of Twitter.
Here is another explanation. If you are a geek — a proud, noble, reclaiming-the-word geek — then Felicia Day is your deity.
A few months ago, YouTube announced that it would launch 100 new original-content channels. The selected producers would get a cash influx to help them ramp up quality; YouTube would amass artistic credibility. Deepak Chopra got a channel. Shaquille O’Neal, Amy Poehler and Madonna-affiliated outfits got channels.
Day got a channel.
She named it Geek & Sundry. Its slate of shows — six new, original programs, created by or developed by or starring her — debuts this week.
“It’s this sort of grand experiment, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.
What will happen with Day is intrinsically tied to what will happen on the Internet, at a potential watershed moment in the future of online content.
“Remember that movie ‘Three Men and a Baby’?” Joss Whedon writes in an e-mail. The creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” cast Day in that show as the slayer Vi, and in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” his Web opus. “Felicia is the baby, the three guys raising her are Preston Sturges, Gordon Gekko and Rain Man. Her mind works faster than mine ever will and her mouth works faster than that. She’s funny, savvy, focused and encyclopedic to the point of scary. And, sidebar, the baby grows up to be really hot.”
Professionally, “Felicia’s career will go where she decides it will,” he writes. “Plus, she’ll probably rule Asia and invent a new color. I fear her.”
Day is early for breakfast. She likes being 15 minutes early; it helps prevent the awkwardness that comes with meeting strangers. You can case the joint. Peruse the menu without having to make simultaneous chatter. Order extra croissants for later, if you want, without looking like a pig.
I know that she is 15 minutes early, because I am also 15 minutes early — for the same reasons. She darts into the Santa Monica, Calif., bakery just ahead of me — red hair; green sweater; skittish, quick steps.
“You’re early, too!” She wrinkles her nose, slightly thrown by being out-earlied. She looks like an elf, more “Lord of the Rings” than Keebler. She has the sort of awkward/cool vulnerability that invites immediate intimacy.
This is what made her famous online.
Day’s alter ego, Cyd, is the introverted emotional center of “The Guild,” anchoring every show with an entry in her video diary. “I play with real people,” she insists in one episode, explaining that she doesn’t need to meet them in person because she can hear their voices over her computer. “It’s good enough for the blind.”
The history of the show has become an insider legend. After studying violin performance in college, Day moved to Los Angeles, getting the “Buffy” arc and not much else you’d remember. What she was doing more than anything was bunkering in her apartment playing World of Warcraft. She tried writing a TV pilot about a group of gamers, but she couldn’t sell it. Someone in her support group (women struggling in Hollywood) suggested that she produce the show herself and put it on the Internet. She did, and it became a template for how Web content could make money: Sponsorships were struck with Microsoft and Sprint.
“The Guild” — five seasons so far — is weird, it is wonderful, it is unapologetically dorky and not in a stereotypically “Big Bang Theory”/Steve Urkel kind of way, but as an honest, complex portrayal of online existence.
Her new channel, Geek & Sundry, builds on the brand. There’s a show where Wil Wheaton (Wesley from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) teaches people how to play strategy-based board games. There’s a fantasy book club and a particularly inspired program in which professional filmmakers make movies based on rambling stories told by 5-year-olds. In “The Flog,” Felicia’s personal video diary, she travels around Los Angeles, learning to sculpt ice, play country music and other offbeat, oddnik activities. After this breakfast interview, she has to run off and be fitted for a powdered wig.
“Now I understand what exhaustion is,” she says of her 24/7 working schedule. “It’s not just a code word for heroin addiction. People don’t teach you how to handle the workload that comes from a little bit of success, and it’s something I’d never had to handle, because I’d been rejected for so long.”
After years of being ignored by old-school Hollywood, Day’s success with “The Guild” triggered an avalanche of possibilities. “Suddenly, these offers were flooding in from everywhere. Television. Huge opportunities. I wasn’t ready for that. I hadn’t defined what I loved enough to be able to handle that.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Where do I want my life to go?’ ” Did she want the chance to become a mainstream actor the traditional way, or did she want to try something experimental with the Web? “With mainstream acting, I already knew how that path would end.”
She doesn’t elaborate, but you can imagine: The daffy colleague with too many sweater sets. The cloying neighbor with too many parakeets. Six degrees from Zooey Deschanel, just north of Alyson Hannigan, but not quite either one. Television often communicates in broad brush strokes and quick shorthand — however Day would be typecast, it wouldn’t be as “star.”
But that’s exactly what she’s become online.
“What Felicia’s accomplished has been extraordinary,” says Drew Baldwin, a co-founder of Tubefilter.com, a site dedicated to covering Web series and online television. “Her fans are completely portable. They go wherever she goes. She’s become an icon for this group.”
On television, Day might have been the nutty neighbor. “For online video?” Baldwin says, “She’s Audrey Hepburn.”
Filming ‘The Flog’
“Do we have a clapboard?” Felicia asks a production assistant type. “Or should I just clap my hands?”
On the day before the Oscars, as the rest of Los Angeles girds itself for street closures and E! launches its pre-pre-red-carpet coverage, Felicia and a small crew are filming an episode of “The Flog” at a West Hollywood bungalow the size of an Altoids tin. Equipment’s on the porch, hair and makeup’s in the yard and all the living room furniture has been squished against one wall to make room for a camera.
“My favorite ‘Mister Rogers’ episodes were always the ones where Mr. Rogers would go into the community,” Felicia explains to Tom Lenk, her guest in this episode. “Wait. Am I subliminally ripping off ‘Mister Rogers’? This will be like ‘Mister Rogers’ with 25 percent more cussing.”
Tom and Felicia are old friends; they met during her “Buffy” run. The bungalow is his house, and in this episode they’re going to perform some music that he wrote in college. It is a piano/violin duet. It is called “Serenade to Carrie Fisher.”
The cover of the sheet music features a dot-matrixed image of Fisher. She’s middle-aged, looking remarkably less like Princess Leia than Janet Reno. Felicia and Tom start off the episode chatting about how this composition came to be and then run into a snag.
“How should I pull out the violin?” Felicia wonders. Should it be hidden off-camera? Should she pretend like she just happened to bring it along?
“You know what you should do?” Tom gets excited.
The funniest part in the movie “Mary Poppins,” Tom insists, is the scene where Julie Andrews rummages in her carpetbag, pulls something out and says, “Ah ha ha ha ha. Good!”
Felicia, Tom says, should say that when she pulls out her violin.
“Ah ha ha ha ha?”
“Ah ha ha ha ha! Good!”
“Ah ha — No. No. I don’t think so.”
Tom sighs. Too bad. “Five ‘Mary Poppins fans just got really excited.”
“You really think — five?”
“I know.” He knows it’s dumb.
“If only five people would get it, we should do it! The fewer people who get it, the better.”
It defies all conventional laws of popularity, which is exactly the point. Nothing is watered down for mass-market appeal. There is no glory in the tepid smiles of the thousands. It is better to have the uproarious laughter of the hundreds. Her jokes are shout-outs to the people who never get shout-outs, and in reaching out to them, she’s discovered the inner dork in millions.
The Geek & Sundry channel is the same kind of niche humor but with a little more money and infrastructure behind it. The next day, everyone’s slated to go to YouTube’s studios to shoot more footage in front of a green screen. The call time is 9 a.m., Felicia reminds everyone, and they’ll probably go to 9 p.m.
“Does this mean I should cancel my thing?” Tom asks.
Everyone is silent for a moment. Everyone has briefly forgotten that the Oscars are the next day. Felicia mentally goes over the schedule. If they start on time, maybe Tom can leave early enough to watch the biggest annual event in the industry. She suggests that to Tom.
He mulls it over.
Future of Web series
At its core, what Geek & Sundry represents is the future of Web series and the efforts of its producers to figure out just what we’re looking for when we go searching online. In the early days of original content online, there was an assumption that the best of it would be good enough for television. That rule no longer holds up. The best Web content is strong enough for your TV, but it’s made for your laptop.
“It’s not just a ‘phenomenon’ when someone online is getting an audience every week that’s bigger than a television show,” Day says. “People don’t understand that maybe [television] is not the goal anymore.”
The goal, she says, is to harness and exploit the natural strengths of the Web: its communal nature, its fanatic/frenetic devotion, its exasperated baloney detector and its thirst for authenticity.
“The Internet is not best for passive consumption — it’s not like sitting down and watching a movie. It’s about sharing how you feel about the video and experiencing how other people experience it. It’s a circular thing. . . . People assume that you’re trapped in this web on the Internet — that it’s a place of isolation, when really you’re connecting with your authentic self.”
A few weeks ago, Day decided to integrate several of her social-networking profiles to make them easier to manage. Followers on Twitter immediately got snarky and suspicious, assuming that she’d hired a publicist to coordinate her online identity.
Day was horrified. “I would never let somebody say that they’re me. That would be the ultimate betrayal of what I stand for.
“I’m here on the Web,” she says, “because I don’t want to be a cliche.”