Cheryl Hines, costar of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, her friend from high school, and two ABILITY staffers are at a Beverly Hills restaurant, trying to eat their lunch in peace. However, a wrecking machine is munching away at the roof of a building across the street. Although it’s loud and annoying, Hines maintains her focus and her sense of humor as she speaks passionately about her film and TV projects, as well as her ongoing volunteer work for United Cerebral Palsy (UCP.)
Here she talks with editor-in-chief, Chet Cooper, managing editor, Pamela K. Johnson, and her gay friend, Paul Beckett, who is not to be confused with her straight husband, Paul Young. Got it? Good. Now let us proceed.
Chet Cooper: How did you get involved with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP)?
Cheryl Hines: Well, my nephew was born with cerebral palsy about four years ago, and my family was in a state of shock. We had never heard of cerebral palsy. Or perhaps we’d heard of it, but it was never part of our lives, and we didn’t know what to do.
Cooper: How early was he diagnosed?
Hines: He was about a year-and-a-half old. For much of that time, he was in the hospital, and there were weeks when he was fighting for his life.
Pamela K. Johnson: What were the symptoms?
Hines: Respiratory problems, mostly, I think. There seemed to be a myriad of difficulties. He was born three months premature, and weighed only two pounds. When I found out the diagnosis, I literally looked in the phone book, found United Cerebral Palsy and asked if I could come in.
Cooper: This is in LA?
Hines: This is in LA, but my nephew—and much of my family—lives in Florida. So when I called, I talked to Dr. Ron Cohen (executive director, UCP Los Angeles). He said, “Come down and you can ask me whatever you want.” And I sat in his office and we talked for a while. He said, “I know that you and your family probably feel like this has never happened to anyone else, and you’re going through this alone, but you’re not.” That’s what UCP does: help people find the proper resources forwhat’s the word…?
Hines: Yes, coping. It’s certainly helpful, because you do feel like, if other families have figured out a way to embrace this, then we certainly can follow that lead. They also help you find different sorts of therapy. So eventually my brother and sister-in-law took my nephew, Michael, to the UCP in Orlando, and it really changed everyone’s life.
Michael started getting therapy and growing stronger. He’s had a g-tube in his stomach since he was born; he still does. However, now he can eat baby food, he can drink from a bottle, a water bottle or a sippy cup, and he’s much happier. The first few years of his life he was crying what seemed like 24 hours a day. He was inconsolable, and it was difficult for everybody. Of course, as a parent, all you want to do is console your child and make him feel better, and it was very difficult because they didn’t know how to help. So UCP certainly enlightened us that way.
Cooper: William H. Macy is also a major supporter of UCP. He’s a great actor. You two did a movie together…
Hines: We did this film called Bart Got a Room.
Cooper: As in The Simpsons?
Hines: It’s not The Simpsons, but that name, yes. Bill and I play a couple who have been divorced, and our son is looking for a date to the prom. It was the first time I’ve worked with him, and it was a great experience. We shot it in Florida.
Johnson: Do you try and do as much as you can in Florida?
Hines: I do. Of course there’s my family, but I also go to Orlando every year for UCP’s big gala. Last year they auctioned off an opportunity for someone to play poker with me, which ended up just being a cocktail party.
Johnson: You started off seeking information on how to help your family, and now you’re at all the major UCP events. That’s what one of the folks at UCP in D.C. said: “She’s at all the major events, she’s at this gala, she’s at that gala.”
Cooper: She plays poker.
Johnson: “She did the entertainment…” So what made you get so involved.
Hines: Well, I was certainly taken with Ron Cohen .
Cooper: Was he married at the time? (laughter)
Johnson: Is he a hottie?
Hines: He’s hot. (laughs) Oh, dear! What I mean is that he was very warm, and invited me to get as involved with UCP as I wanted to be. I was certainly open to staying involved, because I suppose any time a celebrity is affiliated with a cause, it seems to elevate the visibility. So I started getting involved, and fell in love with the team in Washington DC. I love them so much. I go to DC every year.
Cooper: Go on the Hill and talk to our leaders?
Hines: Yes. Beckett came with me one time.
Paul Beckett: We were high school friends in Florida.
Johnson: You’re a TV person, too, right? I know I’ve seen you.
Beckett: Well, I do what I can. I do commercials.
Johnson: I know I’ve seen you a lot.
Beckett: In Washington, we had dinner and she spoke to Congressmen and women.
Hines: Right, I talk to different policymakers about the rights and needs of people with disabilities to make sure that money is allocated in the right way, and to try to inspire people to make changes.
Cooper: How do you know to whom you should talk? Does UCP facilitate this?
Hines: Oh, yeah. Believe me, they are very involved in the political aspect of disabilities and the changes that we’re trying to make. So they know exactly whom to talk to and who are the swing votes and the minority whips. I learn a lot.
Johnson: So from you making that first inquiry to now, four years later, how did you become so deeply involved?
Hines: Well, you know, between Dr. Cohen reaching out to me personally, and UCP helping my nephew and my family in a way that I could never imagine, it came naturally. I’m very close to my family, I’m close to my nephew, my brothers, my sister, and all the people that I’ve met along the way I find to be interesting, intelligent people. I like to hang out with them and get to know them. So it’s just been a natural progression for me.
Cooper: Was this the first advocacy work you’d done for a cause?
Hines: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Cooper: So most of your life you’ve been self-centered?
Hines: Very self-centered. (laughter) And now I don’t think about myself at all… You know, there is a light bulb that goes off when your life is touched by something such as a disability. I’m sure the onset of different extreme medical conditions makes you think about the world differently. Makes you see things differently. You notice when there’s wheelchair access and when there’s not. When I go to a concert, I look around and think about how challenging this must be for someone who’s in a wheelchair, trying to make their way through the crowd. I also think about what the family is going through, and what they have to navigate through.
When it’s a personal journey, I think people probably tend to get more involved, and because I was in a situation where it wasn’t my child and I was one step—I guess “removed” is the best word I can find—I could actually spend more time and energy on advocating issues, whereas I think probably a lot of the parents that are really submerged in the everyday —
Cooper: They’re changing diapers…
Hines: That’s a nice way of putting it. I don’t know if that’s exactly the case, but yes. They’re needed in an immediate way. So while my brother and sister-in-law are filling out health forms and insurance claims and making hospital visits and making sure they have the right equipment and going to therapy
Johnson: You’re on the Hill…
Cooper: And luckily, as you said, you have the celebrity status that opens doors.
Hines: That’s what my friends in DC say when we go to different Congressmen’s offices and they have a fire going and we sit down in their office. They say, “We never get to sit by the fire!” So it’s nice. It probably does help.
Johnson: Can we talk a little bit about the film? You just directed your first feature.
Hines: I just directed a film called Serious Moonlight, which was written by (the late) Adrienne Shelly. It stars Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell and Justin Long. It was a pretty amazing process. We shot it in three weeks. It was very intense.
Johnson: Had you directed anything before then?
Hines: I’d directed television before, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. (laughs) I learned quickly! It was very, very challenging and very, very rewarding.
Cooper: Who’s behind that film?
Hines: It was produced by Michael Roiff and Andy Ostroy, who was married to Adrienne, and really wanted to produce this film that she had written. And Michel Roiff was one of the producers of Waitress, the movie that I was in with Adrienne. That’s how it got started. They raised the money privately. When we finish the film, we’ll hopefully sell it to a huge studio. It was a pretty amazing experience.
Johnson: What’s the plot?
Hines: A man is trying to leave his wife, and she basically takes him hostage and says, “No, you’re not.” It’s a bit of a dark comedy with a little romance. Very little.
Johnson: This is your final season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
Hines: I don’t know, perhaps.
Johnson: They’re still kind of figuring that out?
Hines: You never know. Last time I talked to Larry, he said he was thinking about doing another season, but he’s not sure.
Johnson: What have been the highlights of that run?
Hines: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” changed my life. Suddenly I was on a critically acclaimed television show with Larry David, one of the most successful men in television.
Beckett: And you were nominated for an Emmy twice.
Hines: I was nominated twice. I mean, it opened doors for other projects and a film career, and it just clearly changed my life.
Cooper: One of the things I’ve always tried to figure out is the way the show is ad-libbed.
Cooper: How do you do that? The show is always so wonderfully done.
Hines: Larry writes the story outline, so we know what’s gonna happen. We just don’t know what the dialogue is going to be. It’s improvised, but we know that the episode will be about, say, Larry accidentally killing somebody’s dog or something.
Johnson: And you know what the point of a particular scene is…
Hines: Mm-hmm. Right. So before we shoot, we might have—I don’t know, maybe five sentences saying, “These four people are going to sit down for lunch. One of them will be talking about how awful their life is, and the other three will notice the building behind them being demolished.” (laughter)
Johnson: To what extent do you think that your background in improv helped you secure that role?
Hines: I’m sure if I didn’t have a background in improv, I wouldn’t have gotten that part. Because, like we talked about, the show is completely improvised, so it can be a little daunting for an actor who doesn’t improvise to walk into a room where they don’t know anything about who the character is or what the situation is and then have to begin a scene. So I was studying at the Groundlings Theater and performing there at the time when I got this part. I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten it if not for that.
Beckett: Have you ever been there, the Groundlings?
Johnson: I have not.
Beckett: It’s neat. It’s on Melrose, a red brick building at Fairfax.
Hines: Oh, it’s so fun. You guys would love it.
Cooper: I don’t tell too many people this, but most of the time in my day, I go around unscripted.
Hines: Not Paul. He gets up and he writes a script of his entire day. We’re on page 15. (laughter)
Beckett: I like to be prepared. But Groundlings is a fun show. A lot of people have come out of there, Will Farrell, Peewee Herman, Phil Hartman.
Hines: Kathy Griffith.
Johnson: Cheryl Hines.
Cooper: What did you think about that episode where Larry uses a handicapped stall? What was your take when you saw that that was going to be part of the plot?
Hines: Well, what I love about Larry is that he has fun and makes fun of everybody, from himself to someone who can’t hear to—nobody’s safe. I thought it was funny. I think probably we’ve all had moments of going into the wrong stall, being desperate and doing the politically incorrect thing. I think it’s fun when Larry does that. And Larry has been—I don’t think if he would mind me saying this, but when we cast the show, any time that there is someone with any type of disability, he likes to find actors that are really in a wheelchair or hearing impaired or whatever it is. I think he has a great deal of respect for people, regardless of what you see on television. (laughs)
Cooper: Yeah, he does play himself as a very self-centered person. It’s interesting, that oftentimes there isn’t much there to like about him.
Hines: No, no.
Cooper: I just wonder how you stay with him.
Hines: Well, by the last season, I finally left him.
Beckett: Yeah, in the last episode she left. Are you guys separated or divorced?
Hines: Well, so far, we’re just separated.
Cooper: Is that the one where he kept calling the restaurant and saying, “Can you tell the hostess—”?
Hines: Mm-hmm. What were your thoughts on the episode about the bathroom stall? Did you find it offensive?
Cooper: Well, I’ve got a dark sense of humor, so I like things that bring attention to issues.
Johnson: What’s coming up for you?
Hines: I am editing, and in post-production on the movie I directed, Serious Moonlight. We’ll see what happens with that. I have a movie coming out in March called The Grand. It’s about poker players.
Johnson: Are you a big poker player?
Hines: Yeah. I love poker. (laughs) So that’s exciting. I’m in an animated film called Space Chimps. I worked on that this morning. That’ll come out in April, I think. Jeff Daniels is in it, Kristin Chenoweth, Andy Samberg. I’m producing a television show called Hollywood Residential that airs this month. I’m the star. It’s very funny. It’s a sitcom about this crew that goes into different celebrities’ homes and remodels something, and usually something goes horribly wrong.
Beckett: Paula Abdul is in it.
Hines: It’s going to be a different celebrity each week, yeah.
Johnson: So you’re basically going into a different celebrity’s house and wrecking it?
Johnson: That’s cool. Now, your husband’s name is Paul also?
Hines: It is, yeah.
Johnson: When you said, “This is my friend Paul,” I was like, “Hmm.”
Beckett: Because one time I forgot to say I was Cheryl’s friend, and when we walked away they went, “Does Cheryl know her husband’s gay?” (laughter)
Johnson: Did you guys meet at Groundlings?
Hines: We met in high school, actually.”
Johnson: I meant the other Paul.
Hines: Oh, my Paul. The straight Paul. We were both on the board of directors at the Groundlings. He’s a manager and a producer, and he’s more of the business/creative sort, whereas I just fall in the creative category.
Johnson: And your daughter is Catherine Rose?
Hines: Yeah. Catherine Rose. She’s gonna turn four in March.
Johnson: So your nephew and your daughter were born how far apart?
Cooper: Three thousand miles.
Hines: (laughter) Within one year, my sister had twins, my brother and sister-in-law had Michael, and I had Catherine, so there were four kids born within one year in my family.
Cooper:Do you know what kind of therapy Michael gets?
Hines: I know that they’ve done therapy where they’re trying to teach him how to swallow. He’s also talking. He says, “Mom, Dad, more, yes, no and Paul.”
Beckett: He’s referring to her husband.
Johnson: So he’s not talking to you? Beckett: He calls me Elmo. (laughter)
Cooper: What kind of mobility does he have?
Hines: He struggles with his upper and lower-body strength. He’s in a wheelchair. He can transfer objects, he can reach and he is learning to maneuver his hands and arms. But he has a ways to go in that department.
Cooper: There’s a lot of different assistive technologies that allow people to navigate a power chair. Just the slightest little movement can allow them to do things.
Hines: It’s my understanding that those types of devices are so pricey that when you’re talking about a four-year-old who’s going to grow out of something—
Cooper: If they actually want to do something in that area, R.J. Cooper is the guy to see. His whole life has been devoted to creating unique devices for kids’ mobility And he understands cost. He’s doing this because his heart’s there, even though it’s his business.
Hines: I know that, at every turn, it’s been a fight for my sister-in-law and brother to get the insurance company to cover the costs of all kinds of devices. It doesn’t come cheaply.
Cooper: No, it’s a big issue, and I’m sure that’s one of the things that you talk about on the Hill.
Hines: We do, yeah. What’s very interesting about my family is that my sister has a doctorate in education. She teaches at the University of Central Florida, and she hand-makes devices for Michael. So for his birthday, we chipped in and got him a little—I guess they are electrical cars for little toddlers? And she spent a lot of time making a harness for him so he can sit up in it, and his brother, Griffin, can help him drive. But the two of them together in that little car are so cute. But to my knowledge, they don’t mass-produce something like that.
Cooper: This is what R.J Cooper does.
Hines: I’ll have to take a look at that. I went to the United Cerebral Palsy conference, and they had some different people exhibiting their products. It was very interesting. There was a great keyboard that was specially for children. It had different images like Spongebob Squarepants, done by the artist who does that cartoon character. So now if you’re a kid who has a hard time speaking, and you’re at school and want to talk to Spongebob, you can press a button that says, “Come play with me,” and it’s Spongebob’s voice saying that. Suddenly you’re, like, the cool kid.
Cooper: There’s so much going on with assistive technology, for example, text-to-speech, voice recognition. So that’s all going to benefit people with different disabilities, your nephew included. Kids are already benefiting from some of that, as you said, where you push a button and Spongebob speaks.
Hines: It really is going to take the mainstreaming of some of these devices for them to be affordable enough for people with different challenges. I think we’re moving in that direction.
Paul, my other Paul, and I have a friend—
Beckett: We call him “straight Paul.”
Hines: Straight Paul has a friend who has ALS, and so that’s been very hard. His name is Scott Lew. He’s an amazing person. He’s been living with ALS for probably four years, and it’s been interesting to watch what’s happening to him physically.
Cooper: What’s the name of the movie?
Hines: Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas. He wrote and directed it.
Johnson: So doubling back to your nephew, what life are you envisioning for him?
Hines: A happy life. I think that’s really what it’s all about, finding your happiness and helping families find their happiness and what works for each person and each family. I envision for Michael, just what my sister is doing by individualizing a toy for him, helping him play with the other kids. I want him to enjoy his family and his cousins and his brother and not be the one sitting in the corner. Nobody wants that. So we keep exploring new technologies and therapies to maximize his abilities.