Kaitlin Olson Is So Much More Than Just Funny

by Anna Klassen
Hannah Burton/Bustle

The actor who plays Sweet Dee in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is nothing like the vain, insecure, and self-centered character she delivers on the FX show. In fact, Kaitlin Olson is quite the opposite. Sure, she's funny as hell, but she's also sweet, smart, and generous. While promoting her new show, FOX's The Mick, Olson stopped by Bustle's Los Angeles digs on a blustery, but sunny December afternoon for a rooftop photoshoot and chat. I invite Kaitlin into our office and she immediately notices Oliver, Bustle's unofficial french bulldog mascot, gnawing on a bone. She kneels down and gives him a friendly tug behind the ears. "I have a Frenchie at home," she says with delight.

But The Mick's title character Mickey — brash, unapologetic, negligent, and nasty — would likely offer no such canine courtesies. Mickey avoids responsibility and pleasantries at all costs, yet, if Olson's not Sweet Dee, she's certainly not Mickey, either.

"I don't think I'm anything like either of these characters," Olson says as we settle into a secluded corner of the office. "Mickey literally does not care what anyone thinks about her. She's extremely confident and that's the opposite of Dee. Dee is cripplingly insecure. Everything she does is based off insecurity and a deep desire to be accepted by these guys."

Designer: Alyssa Foote

Olson's been sharing the spotlight with the Always Sunny guys — Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Danny DeVito, and her husband, Rob McElhenney — for a dozen years now. One of the only women on the irreverent half-hour comedy, and — in my opinion — the unsung hero of the series, Olson is overdue at a chance to shine solo. And with The Mick, she does. Not only is she the clear protagonist of the series, she also helps with casting, gives notes on the scripts, and even "coaches the kids while we're acting."

Created by two longtime Sunny writers — John and Dave Chernin — The Mick follows foul-mouthed Mickey as she's forced to take care of her sister's three spoiled children in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut. Unlike other family shows that may keep kids and extreme danger in separate quadrants, The Mick pushes boundaries with each episode, delivering two children with bloody faces by the end of Episode 1.

"I don't want to play a perfect character. For me that's boring," she says. But unlike her other dysfunctional character, Dee, who never evolves (do any of the gang?) Mickey will have small, significant moments of growth. "You'll see glimpses of heart here and there. You need to see her love the kids in her own way... [even if] she strongly dislikes two of them."

Another adjustment in jumping from FX to FOX is that Olson is working with a significantly different cast of characters. Mickey is surrounded by kids of different ages and genders, whereas Dee lives in a world of four grown men in a constant state of arrested development. It's clear Olson's Sunny costars have become her off-screen family over the years, and she assures me she never felt left out on set.

"It's not really a boys club, there's just all men in the cast. I've been part of boys clubs before that were extremely exclusive, but these guys could not be more complimentary of my acting. They just really always made me feel like I was part of the team. Yes, I'm the only woman on it, but we have such similar senses of humor, and I just felt like I was hanging out with my friends."

With a dozen years of playing the twin sister of Dennis under her belt, Olson's Dee has been put through the wringer time and time again. She's been addicted to crack, had a stint as an awful high school teacher, had a heart attack, posed as her male counterpart, "Cole," to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles, and in the upcoming 12th season, Olson reveals: "Sweet Dee spends an entire day stuck in a water slide."

Though Dee has seemingly more lives than the cat she lost inside the walls of her apartment, it's never too much absurdity for the actor to take on. "I always got so excited when I got to do ridiculous things. You read every script going, 'I hope I get to do something really dumb.' I never felt like it was too much — I always wanted more."

Designer: Alyssa Foote

Fans of Olson know her most often as Dee, and those who meet her for the first time usually have preconceived notions about her personality.

"Every time Rob and I are at a bar, as soon as people get a certain level of drunk they are just trying to buy us shots. They scream: 'You're a bird!' at me," she says, laughing. "Look, I love to drink, but I'm not going to do shots with strangers all night long. People think that I'm totally insane or nasty. I'm a little insane, but I'm not nasty."

Before she was accosted at bars with her co-star-turned-husband, Olson was living a dramatically different life. Growing up on a small farm in Oregon, Olson was far from the confident and self-realized woman she is today.

"It was just my brother and myself playing in the woods and in the creek, and coming back to for dinner when my mom would whistle. It's a much different life than my kids are leading now," the mother of two says. "I walked through life very afraid that people would be mad at me or not like me. I was shy and insecure, and yet I always knew I would move to [Los Angeles] and act. I don't know how those things can live together at the same time, but I never had any doubt that it would work out."

With one successful show under her belt and another (fingers crossed) debuting Jan. 1 on FOX, Olson's personal fortitude as a performer and a person has evolved greatly since her childhood. "I've developed more of a confidence. It's been a gradual growth for me. I'm more willing to try more things and take bigger risks and be willing to look stupid," she says.

And yet, there are certain things — outside of her work ethic and obvious comedic sensibilities — she wishes she was recognized for more often. "I'm a really good mom, maybe that's what I want people to know," the University of Oregon grad says. (She has two boys, ages 4 and 6, with McElhenney, to whom she's been married to since 2008.)

"My house is really crazy and fun, and Rob and I are joking and laughing, but ultimately Rob and I are a family with two little kids. I don't think that I let that out enough, because there's part of me that thinks nobody wants to hear about your kids. Nobody wants to see pictures of your kids. They just want you to be funny and be a puppet for them," she admits. "I don't talk about that very often, but it's a big part of my life. I love what I do and I love making people laugh, but I also really love bedtime with my kids."

It's a struggle some actors face: Fans accept them as one thing on TV or film, but perhaps aren't as willing to acknowledge their favorite stars are fully-formed individuals, with outside interests and private lives that may contradict their on screen image. As she is raising two boys, the idea that perfection is a myth is something Olson feels is important to instill into her children.

"I spent my whole life trying to be perfect. In this career you can get very wrapped up in: You've got to be the smartest, and the funniest, and the cutest, and... it will drive you crazy. So that's what I want to pass on to [my kids]," she says. "There's no such thing as perfect. Mistakes are wonderful. You should be doing things that make you happy. People will either like you or not like you, and it doesn't really matter."

Olson's attitude is one to admire. While she can get down and dirty on screen as Sweet Dee and Mickey, she wants the world to know, and rightfully so, that she's so much more than just funny. Olson is as multifaceted and ever-growing as Sweet Dee is stagnant, and that's a beautiful thing.