Alanna Ubach is one of those actors who seemingly has been in everything. Her latest role as the wine-guzzling, disheveled mom of Cassie and Lexi in “Euphoria” has brought her back into the consciousness of pop culture, but actually — she’s always been there already.
This was apparent when a meme went viral recently showing side-by-side pics: One of her in “Euphoria” paired with a photo from "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit," her second-ever film where she played the brassy and belty Maria. Millennials and Gen Z’ers alike dropped their jaws in shock that it was the same person, maybe not fully understanding how time and aging works.
Ahead of Sunday's "Euphoria" finale, TODAY had the opportunity to reflect with Ubach on her expansive career, and dig into her work on the HBO series that has left fans of the show wanting more.
'You always have to look at the parents'
After beginning to audition for roles at just 13 years old, Ubach said she didn't land anything until she was 16. At first, she was always cast as the bubbly, sarcastic best friend. “I think it was because I was really short,” she told TODAY. “When you’re short, a brunette and you’re an actor in the ‘90s, you’re going to be playing the best friend for years.”
Being the best friend paid off and soon progressed to other huge hits, most notably “Legally Blonde” and its sequel where she played one of Reese Witherspoon's sassy sorority sidekicks. After that, she said her agent tried making the most money by placing her in a litany of pilots that never took off.
“‘Waiting’ is really the one movie where I stopped being the best friend,” she said. “It was like oh, she’s not that. She’s a very weird lady that is always sort of on her own. ‘Waiting’ sort of established, OK, she’s actually a character actor.”
Then came “Meet the Fockers,” she lent her effervescent voice to Mamá Imelda in the Disney Pixar hit “Coco,” and then she landed “Euphoria.”
“This was a small role in season one,” Ubach said. “She was the drunk mom with really funny dialogue. A mother asking a girl straight out of rehab if she met any hot guys there? This is hysterical. I knew a lot of those mothers growing up. Linda Morales. Denise Validez’s mom Irma next door. These women love to be loved and they want to be loved by everyone, especially the kids because it makes them feel so young. So she’s sort of like the Amy Poehler character in ‘Mean Girls’ without the comedy, right?”
“You’re always only as happy as your saddest or most-depressed child.”
ALANNA UBACH ON SUZE HOWARD
This season, however, that comedy was downplayed a bit and audiences learned more about her character, as well as other "Euphoria" parents. The suppressed sexuality of Nate’s dad was explored one episode, while the gut-wrenching realities of Rue’s mom trying to help her daughter as she struggled with addiction was showcased in another. Nate’s mom — played by Paula Marshall — also had more eye-opening moments with her son, and we saw Ubach really try to deal with one heartbroken daughter and another introverted child struggling to be seen.
“In order to really discover who these kids are behind closed doors — when they’re not at school or the person that they want to aspire to be on social media — you’re going to have to go backstage and backstage is home,” Ubach said of the parents being featured more in season two. “Home is where the family is that have defined you. It’s what they always say: The person that affects you the most, the person that pushes your buttons the most is the person who installed them."
“You always have to look at the parents," she added. "What makes them feel like they have to pretend to be this person? Well, it all starts at home. This is what’s going on and these are the secrets, the lies and the dysfunction. The mom is a drunk. She’s probably clinically depressed and not medicated and so she self-medicates through the wine.”
Ubach reflects on the bond between her character and Cassie — her oldest daughter — as something that while in many ways is dysfunctional, is also unbreakable. She points out that instead of turning to friends when she needed to get an abortion in season one, she turned to her mom and her mom was there.
“It's interesting when Cassie does finally get up and leave. I let her go because I know she’s going to be back.”
“You’re always only as happy as your saddest or most-depressed child,” Ubach — who has a five-year-old son with her husband of eight years — explained. “We sort of espouse each other in a way. She needs me more than she knows. There’s a codependency where Cassie and her mom are sort of joined at the hip. I never went to my parents. They were immigrants. So anytime I had a problem, I’d always go to a friend. So that was interesting. I was like, Oh, wow, she trusts her mom more than she knows.”
"It's interesting when Cassie does finally get up and leave," she added, referring to the end of episode six. "I let her go because I know she’s going to be back.”
'You’re bound to become certifiable'
This mother-daughter bond exists off screen and behind the scenes on set as well. Despite viral rumblings of a toxic work environment, Ubach stressed the opposite, adding “you become their parent when hanging out with them 14 hours a day.”
“No one is a complainer or a diva on set," she said. "They’re so acutely aware of the fact that what we’re making is very groundbreaking and very serious work. They’re in it to win it."
Ubach knows all their boyfriends and girlfriends, and tries to give them as much advice as she can when and if they need it. To Sydney Sweeney — who plays Cassie — Ubach has made sure she understands the ins-and-outs of being a first-time home buyer. To Maude Apatow — who plays Lexi — they spent one day prank calling Apatow’s friends, with Ubach pretending to have found her phone as a gaggle of strangers via hilarious vocal impressions.
But when it comes to imparting career advice from her own experiences it can be challenging because times have changed so much since when Ubach first got her start at 16.
“I see them as huge stars,” she said. “I didn’t even scratch that surface when I was their age. I was still struggling — still playing the friend with a couple of lines here and there. Granted, I was in big productions, successful things, but I was never the lead. As a character actor, you tell them to save your money. I don’t care how much money you’re making now, and I always remind them that they’re making 30% off of their paycheck.”
"They’re very focused and very mature for their age," she added. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that they were raised by the internet. I was not. If I wanted to find any kind of information, I’d have to go to the library. I would have had a nervous breakdown if I was a teenager on social media. To not be emotionally mature enough to handle what anyone says in the real world. I’m 46 and I can barely handle what anyone is saying about me on the internet. I don’t even look at it anymore. Part of being an actor is being hypersensitive. Throw social media into the picture and you’re bound to become certifiable.”
“We hear that there was a first draft and then there was a rewrite and then Mindy Kaling jumped on board to start writing it and I guess Reese hasn’t read that draft yet,” she explained. “So I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’m just like, oh my gosh, let’s just do it! We got to get it over with! We’re going to be 80 by the time we decide to do ‘Legally Blonde 3’ which might not be such a bad idea.”
“Legally Gray” perhaps?
After hearing this, Ubach lets out her signature, howling laugh before adding: “I love it.”