Tara Lynne Barr wants to talk politics. The 22-year-old actor stars in the Hulu series Casual, a dramatic comedy that is an undeniable gem from the site's growing roster of original content. The show follows the dysfunctional dating lives of Valerie, a workaholic therapist, and her emotionally-detached, entrepreneurial brother Alex, who find themselves living under the same roof after Valerie gets divorced. Barr plays Valerie's daughter Laura, a clever and strong-willed teenager. Casual just finished its third season, and like many contemporary shows, it hasn't shied away from getting a bit political this year. When Barr joins me on the phone, it's clear that she won't either.
There's a natural lead into political talk, other than the country's current state of affairs. In the most recent season, Laura discovers a passion for environmental activism. This interest starts when she gets a canvassing job to save up for the removal of an ill-fated emoji tattoo from earlier in the series. When she finds out the signatures are part of a corrupt, corporate scam, she quits and starts interning for an environmental non-profit instead. "I think Laura just has a really keen sense of right and wrong," Barr says. "She and I are similar in that way. I’m a libra and we seek justice everywhere, we’re such diplomats that we want everything to be peaceful and good." She continues, "I think Laura is passionate about these issues because it’s unfair. She’s looking around and seeing people who know what's going on and continue to do things that are harmful to the environment."
Barr also notes that in a metaphorical sense, Laura's passion for cleaning up the environment mirrors her character growth this season. "I think she is looking at her life and she’s seeing all this destructive behavior that she’s done, and yes she was able to control what she did but there’s a deeper sense of — what is the real root of why I do these things?" Barr says. "There’s like this huge question to Laura whether or not their family is sort of inclined to do these self-destructive things because it’s in their blood rather than something that was learned. So I think this idea of poisonous people, people polluting and poisoning the atmosphere without thinking of the consequences, I think these are things that are thrown around in Laura’s head."
Casual is a family portrait, and Valerie, Alex, and Laura make an unconventional unit. The series has an all star cast — Michaela Watkins plays Valerie to charming-yet-messy perfection, and Tom Dewy was meant to play the strange cocktail of blustering confidence and insecurity that is Alex. Barr's portrayal of Laura is just as noteworthy, especially as she confronts her parental figures' flaws. This season presented some complicated moments, and Barr captures them well.
In a poignant episode, Laura witnesses a different type of family at a friend's birthday party. A night that is ruined when she is caught stealing a religious figurine. "She sees this guy’s family and there’s so much warmth there and there’s a lot of love between him and his family members," Barr says. "And just thinking the juxtaposition between that image and Laura going home that night to an empty house. I don’t know if it necessarily justifies her stealing the figurine but I think if I was in Laura’s position I would feel compelled to take, I wouldn’t call it a souvenir, but almost like a small reminder of this great night."
The show loves to explore ambiguous emotional territory, and its these moments that make it such a genius character study. Laura is complex; she's both compelling and infuriating, but it's often when she makes mistakes she's most relatable.
In order to tackle some of this season's storylines, the show brought on some impressive guest directors, including Carrie Brownstein, Lake Bell, and Gillian Robespierre. "They kind of all direct in different ways, in different voices, they all have their own different perspectives on things, they all have ways of communicating notes to actors and to the crew," Barr says. "I think that’s just so useful and valuable as an actor, but I also just think they did great f*cking work on the episodes."
"I’m looking forward to the next few decades of women kicking ass in Hollywood."
Barr is particularly excited to talk about Brownstein, who writes and stars in IFC's Portlandia and is a legend in her own right. Brownstein directed a unique episode where Valerie and Alex explore their hometown; in nearly every scene featuring the siblings walking and talking. "I think Carrie took it and ran with that idea and worked closely and well with our camera crew and our gaffer to make an episode that’s not only really affecting, but also really beautiful. I think Carrie did a kickass job in melding those two aspects together, the visual and the substance of it." Brownstein definitely succeeded in this vision; the episode is stunning, and it is one of the most emotional of the season.
The cast and crew of Casual are fortunate to have such a strong directing team on board. Barr recognizes how valuable the experience is, and hopes to continue to work with female directors in the future. "I feel like this season spoiled me so much, it’s like, 'OK what cool female do we have directing us for the next two weeks'?" Barr said. "I want to be a part of this wave of super talented female directors that’s coming, because it’s a comin'. So I’m looking forward to the next few decades of women kicking ass in Hollywood."
No doubt that her fans are too.