It was a sweltering day on the North Hills set of ABC’s upcoming sitcom “The Neighbors,” as Clara Mamet opened the door of her trailer with a toss of her long, brown hair. The 17-year-old actress wore peach-colored satin trousers, a floral blouse and a devil-may-care expression as she settled inside on a faux-leather couch. Posted over a vanity table were photographs of her friends, along with one of her famous father, the playwright-author David Mamet. “I’ve got to get a picture of Zosh,” Clara said, referring to her half-sister, Zosia Mamet, 24, who stars as the naïve Shoshanna on HBO’s Emmy-winning, “Girls.” “We’re best friends,” she said.
Clara is the latest member of her clan to join the family business — her mother is the actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and Clara herself previously wrote two one-acts in which she performed at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica in May. In “The Neighbors,” her first opportunity to appear on a major television network series, she plays Amber Weaver, the sullen, glowering eldest daughter of a human family that unwittingly moves into a neighborhood populated by aliens.
“I play an angsty teenager; it’s perfect, easy-peasy,” Clara said, during an interview, in which she came off as whip-smart, precocious, sly and slightly irreverent. “Amber’s just trying to get by, and a little grouchy that she has to hang out with aliens.”
“I don’t know if this particular teenager actually knows what her parents look like, or cares,” she added. “They haven’t had a lot of conversations other than screaming matches. She’s pretty much the surly teenager.”
Can Clara relate? “I’m definitely like that sometimes, for sure,” she said. Her father affectionately calls her Wednesday, after the subversive little girl in Charles Addams’ “The Addams Family.” “And I see other people be evil to their mothers and think, ‘God, how awful, that mom looks so nice,’ ” she said. “Then I catch myself doing it to my own mother, and I’m horrified.” She’s less prickly with her father, she said, “because he gets prickly back. … But they’re cool cats, my parents,” she said.
In fact, David Mamet, author of such legendary plays as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow,” encouraged Clara to become legally emancipated at 15 and to leave high school at 16 to pursue her career. “He was just overjoyed, so pleased with me, never been prouder,” she said. “He’s always said I don’t need school.”
Just as show business is part of the Mamet family legacy, so is Judaism. Clara knows well her father’s bold 2006 book, “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews,” which puts members of the tribe on the spot by asking, “Are you ‘In or Out?’ ” “Oh, I’m in,” said the actress, who moved from the Boston area to Los Angeles with her family when she was 7. “I grew up at a really wonderful synagogue, Ohr HaTorah, and a terrific rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who’s a great teacher.”
She said that as a child she attended temple weekly with her family and became bat mitzvah, which, she said, “was a great experience; for me, it was really a rite of passage, not just a party. I studied really hard for it, probably almost too hard. I don’t know if it was me becoming a woman, but it definitely was a big deal emotionally.”
Performing was also on her horizon. “I can’t even remember making a decision about acting; it was almost just written in the stars,” she said. She recalls standing backstage when her mother starred in her father’s play “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen Theatre, and writing down the notes her dad whispered to her during rehearsals.
Her father gave her a play a day to read when she was in seventh grade at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica — works by authors such as Arthur Miller and Terence Rattigan. His advice to her about acting was, she said, “ ‘louder, faster funnier,’ that old adage, and he likes to throw around the Jimmy Cagney sort of hit your mark and tell the truth, which I think is very true.”
But her father never gave her any of his own plays to read, which is surprising, even to Clara. “I think he’s a humble person at heart,” she said. “We are very close but we don’t talk about work, really. I had to find his plays on my own. I think he figured I’d read one or two of them eventually.”
She has now read all of them, having purchased them online on the Web site for Samuel French, where, she noted mischievously, her own name and work is listed above her father’s. Among her favorite of his plays are “Lakeboat” and “Oleanna,” as well as “November,” which will be presented at the Mark Taper Forum Sept. 26 through Nov. 4.
Clara wrote her own first produced play, “Paris,” last summer, while working as a production assistant on the set of her father’s HBO film about the renowned music producer Phil Spector. Because she wasn’t getting hired as an actress, she explained, she penned the piece as something in which she could also star.
Her inspiration? “This ass---- had broken my heart,” she said. To comfort herself, she wrote the 20-minute piece in one day, on scraps of her father’s “Spector” screenplay.
“ ‘Paris’ is a pivotal dialogue, if you will, between a daughter and her father, which takes place in the early morning in their kitchen,” she said. The father figure “is sort of a romanticized version of my dad — very smart, wise, kind of quiet, very loving and definitely acerbic. I was playing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ a little bit, in that I gave myself some advice about the breakup through his character.”
Clara co-wrote her one-act, “The Solvit Kids” — a comedy about jaded young movie stars — with Jack Quaid (“The Hunger Games”), son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, whom she had met at an acting camp.
She said she was pleasantly surprised — startled, actually — when John Ruskin, artistic director of the Ruskin Theatre group, agreed to produce both one-acts last spring. But she bristles at any suggestion that her famous parents might have had anything to do with her opportunities.
The question of nepotism came up at a recent press conference for “The Neighbors,” where the show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, insisted that Clara got the job on her own merits. In an interview in his production office, he told a reporter he didn’t even realize that Clara was David Mamet’s daughter until after he had hired her.
“Casting a network show is a crazy process, and I just didn’t put two and two together,” Fogelman said. “But I went with Clara, because she was just so funny and perfect for the part.”
After the press conference, Clara said she called her older sister, who has been subject to the same charges, to commiserate. “I said, ‘It’s a good thing we have famous parents, because we are so untalented,” Clara said. “But I don’t really care too much — people can think what they want. I can’t help who my parents are.”
She’s pleased, however, by her parents’ response to the pilot episode of “The Neighbors,” which premieres Sept. 26 on ABC. “My dad really loved it, actually — he giggled like a little girl,” Clara said. “He said the great gag was that the humans and the aliens have the same problems.”
Don’t ask her whether the human-alien relationship serves as any kind of metaphor, however. “I don’t know what a metaphor means — I’m an idiot,” she quipped. “The characters just might be aliens. But I don’t tend to read much into things,” she continued, breezily. “My major argument about Kafka was that his ‘Metamorphosis’ was just real. And what if Kafka meant [his protagonist] actually did turn into a giant cockroach? My English teacher hated me,” she added.
These days, Clara’s having a blast playing Amber Weaver, which she describes as “great fun; it’s play-pretend, make-believe.” She’s also writing a film, a comedy-drama, which she hopes to one day star in and direct. Next year, she said, she’ll move out of her parents’ home in Santa Monica; she already has her own place in Venice. And she hopes to visit Israel for the first time soon.
“It would be good to get on over to Yerushalayim,” said Clara, who has also started attending Ohr HaTorah regularly again, where she enjoys the sense of community. “It’s a less lonesome feeling,” she said.
But no, she doesn’t feel any pressure to live up to the reputation of her famous parents. “I’m going to surpass them exponentially,” she joked. “They’re going to be so jealous.”
“The Neighbors” premieres Sept. 26 on ABC.