Drew Barrymore plays adorable zombie in Santa Clarita Diet

Drew Barrymore makes a comeback by playing a woman who craves human flesh in Netflix's new dark comedy

Drew Barrymore plays a flesh-eating mother, Sheila, in Santa Clarita Diet.
Drew Barrymore plays a flesh-eating mother, Sheila, in Santa Clarita Diet.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Being adorable can be a liability, according to Drew Barrymore, who says she struggles to get directors to consider her for darker, edgier roles.

When you meet her in person, you can kind of see why. At a press event in New York last week, the 41-year-old brims with the same sunny, goofball charm that made her the queen of romantic comedies in the 1990s and 2000s, when she starred in hits such as The Wedding Singer (1998), 50 First Dates (2004) and He's Just Not That Into You (2009).

Her latest project, Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet, is a comedy too, but darker. She plays Sheila, a mother and real estate agent in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, who suddenly finds herself with no pulse and an inexplicable craving for human flesh.

Creator Victor Fresco wanted Sheila to be likable even when she gives in to these appetites and has blood dripping down her face.

She is going through an awakening and I was excited about playing a woman who was becoming empowered, losing weight... finding a new confidence and finding that when your life does fall apart, you don't ditch everything in it.

DREW BARRYMORE on identifying with her role in Santa Clarita Diet

Barrymore tells The Straits Times: "He wanted her to be someone you would love and root for. So I felt a responsibility - I didn't want to be too much of an a*****e, too excited, too annoying or too cuckoo."

And she pulls it off, Fresco believes, noting that few other performers could make a killer zombie quite as lovable.

"Drew has an inherent quality that you adore and that you root for," says the 59-year-old, who has worked on sitcoms such as Mad About You (1992-1999).

"I think that comes from a joy and happiness that she brings to life and to a set, and that comes across on screen. You want somebody like that to succeed and you get behind them."

The actress was also completely unselfconscious, say Fresco and Timothy Olyphant, the actor who plays Joel, Sheila's husband and the father of their teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson).

Fresco says other actresses who read for the part were worried about things such as how old it made them look. "They looked at it with concern. They said things like, 'It says I have a 16-year-old daughter - could she be 12?'"

Not only did Barrymore not care about this, Olyphant says she was also more than happy to "make an a** of herself" when tackling the physical comedy of Sheila's bungled first attempts at being a zombie.

"She is a truly authentic human being and she is willing to embarrass herself every day - that's what the job calls for and it is more rare than you would think," says the 48-year-old actor, who appeared in TV western Justified (2010-2015).

Yet Barrymore admits that being likable can be "a total liability" when she goes after darker roles, such as the 2009 drama, Grey Gardens, in which her portrayal of a reclusive socialite won her the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Movie.

"When I begged the director of Grey Gardens, he was, like, 'I won't meet you - I'm sorry, you are the epitome of everything I don't want.' He wanted a real thespian, someone real dramatic, very capable.

"But I literally would not take no for an answer and showed up with thick, annotated binders of my research and what I would do. Luckily, he picked me at the end of the day - it was one of the highlights of my professional career."

Santa Clarita Diet marks something of a comeback for her professionally.

"I felt lucky because I hadn't been working in years - I was a mom who was raising her kids. I had sort of stepped aside and put everything on the back burner and did two movies in eight years. I wasn't participating in a lot of aspects (of the industry)," says Barrymore, whose last films, the comedies Miss You Already (2015) and Blended (2014), did poorly at the box office.

Making the new show also helped her through a difficult time during her divorce from art consultant and third husband Will Kopelman, the 38-year-old father of her daughters - Olive, four, and Frankie, two.

She says: "I was just at a low point and I read the script and it made me laugh and feel something and it took me out of my own world, which wasn't super pleasant at the time. And I thought that maybe other people want to be taken out of their unpleasant times and be transported into something that's cool and different."

Barrymore - a former child star (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982) who overcame a troubled youth - with stints in rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse in her early teens - identifies with how Sheila does not let a life-altering setback defeat her.

"She is going through an awakening and I was excited about playing a woman who was becoming empowered, losing weight... finding a new confidence and finding that when your life does fall apart, you don't ditch everything in it," says the actress, who dropped 9kg to portray the effects of Sheila's all-protein diet and newfound confidence.

"You have to become you, take all the wonderful things in it and just find these new roads. It was a total metaphor for my life."

Indeed, Fresco observes that Barrymore, like her Santa Clarita Diet character, is remarkably resilient. "Both are strong. Drew has overcome a lot of tough times and brings a relentless optimism, which I think is also true of the Sheila character."

With Joel's unflagging support of his wife, the show is also a portrait of a loving marriage in which a couple solve their problems together and this was important to Barrymore.

"We're a show about how you make things work and I love that Victor was, like, 'I don't want to see a couple fighting.' Neither do I. I like seeing that people can become a team through adversity. I liked this family and family is everything to me in my daily life," she says.

"I also just need to laugh, but I don't want empty laughs - I want comedy that comes out of an emotional thing that's based in your backyard and everyday issues because that's what we're all going through."

•Santa Clarita Diet is streaming on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Sinking her teeth into zombie role'. Print Edition | Subscribe