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Drew Barrymore as zombie mum? Her wild role in ‘Santa Clarita Diet’ gave her a new lease of life

The Hollywood star makes her TV lead debut as an undead mother of two in a part that she believes rejuvenated her after her painful real-life divorce

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 3:53pm

Drew Barrymore is chaperoning a children’s Disney princess-themed play date at her Los Angeles home when the subject of vomit comes up.

Fake vomit, to be clear.

It was a Friday afternoon and Barrymore is childlike in her enthusiastic description of the artificial puke she became intimately acquainted with during production of Santa Clarita Diet.

“Oh my god, you should have smelled it,” she says. “It smelled worse than vomit. Like something in the mixture was spoiled. It was so disgusting, but also so cool and fun. I wanted more of it on me!”

She realises this is an odd thing to say. But not any more bizarre than the fact that her first lead TV series role is in a quirky comedy in which she plays a suburban wife and mother who becomes a zombie.

Barrymore, 41, has been a Hollywood mainstay since she was a youngster, coming from a storied theatrical family and rising to fame at seven with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Over the past 18 years, she’s become synonymous with bouncy, girl-power characters (Charlie’s Angels, Whip It, Going the Distance). Santa Clarita Diet is in that vein – only with a bit more flesh and blood.

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In the new Netflix comedy, Barrymore stars with Timothy Olyphant (in his follow-up TV role to FX’s Justified) as Sheila and Joel, real estate agents who live in the easygoing California suburb and whose lives are upended when Sheila dies – after a torrential gag-fest (hence, the barf talk) – and is reborn as a zombie. The series, the brainchild of Victor Fresco (My Name is Earl, Better Off Ted), tackles issues such as the strength of love, narcissism and self-empowerment.

Fresco wasn’t sure Barrymore would be open to the idea.

“The hard thing, frankly, is getting an actress of a certain age to read a script that has a 16-year-old daughter in it,” says Fresco. “A lot of actresses don’t want to play a mother to kids, let alone kids that are 16. Drew embraced that.”

“In my opinion,” Barrymore says, “I only get better. If I have to age to do that, bring it on. I would never want to go back to my younger self – not because things weren’t great but I just would never want to give up what I know now. In Hollywood, it’s the same. It’s like, I don’t care what people think about getting older.”

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Barrymore wasn’t particularly interested in an job. Her time these days is split between her production company and a cosmetics line, Flower Beauty – she also has a brand of wines. But she began to see the role as an opportunity to rejuvenate her life following a divorce from her husband of four years, Will Kopelman, last summer.

“When I started the show,” she says, “my life was falling apart. And I know it sounds melodramatic, but I felt like my dreams were dying. It was a really hard time for me. This show gave me and my children this wonderful adventure. The schedule was great; we were able to take road trips every weekend. It’s like I got back to believing in things again. I felt like someone had dimmed my light. And by the end of the show, I felt so bright; like I was burning at full mass. Sheila gave me a lot more than just a job.”

“My guilty pleasure for my kids is I buy them those awesome dresses in a bag for like US$10.99,” Barrymore said moving into another room to escape some of the noise. “They have this big chest full of them and they invite their friends over and go through it and play dress-up. It’s the cutest thing ever. And all my mom friends come over and we chat while the kids play.”

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Barrymore’s character Sheila, on the other hand, chips some meat off a frozen corpse and tosses it into a blender to make a smoothie for her ladies’ power walk. The once-mousy real estate agent – who doesn’t exhibit the typical pallor of the undead, making it easy for her metamorphoses to go undetected by her neighbours – comes to relish her new zombie identity; it gives her more confidence and energy.

“I realised I could really parallel my life with her,” says Barrymore. “I started the show and I was like, ‘Victor, I’ve gained 20 pounds and I’m going through hell in my personal life’. So we sort of made this plan of how Sheila would go from Cro-Magnon to erect human through the course of the show.”

Barrymore went on a strict but “very healthy” diet and lost the 20 pounds by the end of the series.

The series also offered a recharge in another form.

“I liked making a show where a husband and wife excel and become stronger partners through crazy adversity,” she says. “I liked seeing a couple that worked well together. That was real optimistic to me. I was happy seeing a functioning couple. I was like, this is good. I don’t want to watch couples fight. I’m not in the mood for it. They are faced with an insane situation and instead of going into a dark place, they kind of use it as momentum to get stronger and better. It was just really fun.”

There is plenty of blood and gore and dislocated appendages – enough to require Barrymore to take after-work showers, using shaving cream to get the residue off before heading home to her kids.

“She’s a rare one,” Olyphant says. “There’s just something very refreshing about being around her. She shows up and she’s completely willing to make an ass out of herself, and that’s what the job calls for.”

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Fresco takes it back to the vomit scene from the first episode. Barrymore was drenched in smelly liquid for hours on a cold stage to film a scene.

“People would have to leave the set for air because they just couldn’t stand the smell,” Fresco recalls. “Drew never complained. She sat there in the uncomfortable position and just took it all in. That’s when I realised I loved Drew Barrymore.”

“I would laugh so hard because I couldn’t believe I was on a job where I couldn’t go home without showering because I’m covered in blood, guts and vomit,” says Barrymore. “It’s nice to have some lightness in a project. I can’t take the heavy stuff anymore. It doesn’t mean it has to lack depth. And, hello, I’m a mum, I deal with weird liquids all the time.”