There’s No Time for Small Talk in Middle Age

“It really is the most unexpected thing that you can meet some of your best friends in your 30s. I thought that ship had sailed," Jessica St. Clair said of her friendship with fellow actor June Diane Raphael.

An illustration of two blonde women dressed in blue sitting on chairs with a microphone hanging between them. The background is black, and blue flowery shapes and squiggles that look like speech bubbles surround them
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she speaks with the actors Jessica St. Clair and June Diane Raphael, who co-host The Deep Dive, a podcast that explores their friendship and adult womanhood. They discuss how they found close female friends despite feeling set up to compete by the entertainment industry, how they’ve called on the other’s “superpowers” when life has gotten hard, and why they’re over small talk.

The Friends:

June Diane Raphael, 41, an actor, comedian, and screenwriter who currently co-stars on Grace and Frankie, co-founded The Jane Club co-working space, and co-hosts The Deep Dive podcast

Jessica St. Clair, 44, an actor and writer who co-created and co-starred on Playing House, currently appears on Avenue 5, and co-hosts The Deep Dive podcast

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Tell me about how you met and your first impressions of each other.

Jessica St. Clair: June, I first saw you at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, during your two-person show with Casey Wilson called Rode Hard and Put Away Wet. You would think it was about sexy girls, but really they were acting out a scene from Les Mis and dancing to “Gloria.” It was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. I could see that you and Casey were best girlfriends—that spoke to me. I became obsessed with you two. You think that you stalked me, but I really laid the groundwork to stalk you.

June Diane Raphael: At that time very few women were performing improv. The form to me always felt very male. But a couple of women at UCB were unbelievable improvisers and lovely, supportive people and Jessica was one of them. Casey and I considered her one of the elder statesmen of the theater.

Jessica: Please delete the word elder, but that’s true. I had been here longer than you guys. I had to clean the bathroom to get my stage time and you two just rolled in from NYU and took the stage.

June: Totally didn’t put in the years of hard labor that others did. Casey and I took Jessica out to dinner in the East Village and peppered her with questions. We did not feel like her peers. I was after a mentorship.

Jessica: What am I, Shonda Rhimes?

June: I was like, “Oh, if we could only get an audience.”

Jessica: [At UCB], there were so few women that we rarely could get onstage with more than one or two others, and there would be eight or nine men. So we were set up to see each other as competition, which is one of my biggest regrets. I wish I could go back and say, “Just so you know, you’re stronger together.”

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Maya Rudolph—all the girls ahead of us—showed us that we could band together and create amazing content. But at the beginning of our career, we didn’t feel like we had that kind of agency.

June: Later, when we came out to L.A., a lot of us were feeling lost in our careers. Our [group of] girlfriends, [including] Jessica, Lennon [Parham], Danielle Schneider, have always had the ability to create for themselves, and for each other too. We just had the instinct to do it all together, whether that was working together or supporting each other. We were vying for the same jobs—still are.

Two blonde women stand shoulder to shoulder, smiling. One is wearing a white jacket and a tan top, the other is wearing a black dress.
Jessica St. Clair (left) and June Diane Raphael (right) Kevork Djansezian / Getty

Jessica: You and I especially. We always joke: I take your leftovers and you take mine. When one of us is not available, they just ring the other.

When we moved out here, a lot of us left behind our high-school and our childhood best friends. It was the first time I didn’t have my group of girls and I was a mess. I was crying all the time. At one point my husband said, “We may need to move back home. I don't think you can exist without your girlfriends.” It was like I was deprived of water, quite frankly.

Then June texted me and said, “Some of us get together and watch The Real Housewives. Would you like to come?” I hate The Real Housewives, but I said, “OMG, can't wait, big fan.” I’ll never forget driving there; I was so nervous. I thought, I’m sure these girls don’t need another friend. So I had my hair blown out and I showed up.

Eventually [after going for a while] I said, “Can we please stop watching this awful show?” and cut to the real meat of the nights, which was conversation. That is how our little group got started. It was such a gift. It really is the most unexpected thing that you can meet some of your best friends in your 30s. I thought that ship had sailed.

Beck: This might be a little stereotypical, but my perception is that Hollywood can be very competitive and not always super authentic. What was your experience trying to make friends in that environment?

June: I’ve always had the good fortune of working with women. At UCB it definitely felt like, This is so very male-centric. But I had Casey. So [from] early on in my career I was handling both success and failure with a female friend. I’m not saying that we didn’t feel competition or fear that one of us would skyrocket and leave the other. There’s such a poverty-stricken mentality to the industry. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough. A giant pool of talent is competing for a small number of resources. But I do really resist this idea that actresses are cutthroat. My experience has been Jessica and I bonding when we were testing for the same network TV show. We were always surrounded by smart, funny, kind women.

But really, I would take it all the way back and say: I always saw my mother with a gaggle of girlfriends.

Jessica: Oh, me too.

June: I always knew how important those relationships were. I would sit at my window and watch my mom sit for hours and talk in the car with a woman who was dropping her off from some prayer group. I just knew that that’s where the real stuff was.

Beck: For a lot of people, friendship tends to recede into the background in middle age as careers pick up, as people get married and have kids. Is that something you’ve experienced? Have you deliberately fought against that?

June: Life gets full, for sure. It can get harder to invest in the same way, just because of bandwidth. But I definitely feel that my relationships have deepened and that, especially in motherhood, I have absolutely needed my friends to survive.

Jessica: My mother always says, “Everyone’s going to get their turn to be the one who needs help.” When one of us is having a hard time, we pool our money and I buy a very expensive piece of gold jewelry for them to wear as a talisman. We all are wearing something on our bodies that was given to us by our friends to literally ward away evil spirits, to say “We’re with you.” I just love that about us. When the shit hits the fan, you really realize who you’ve got around you. I know not everybody has the experience of going, “Wow. I have an abundance of support.” But that’s what we have and we’ve needed it unfortunately. Because life gets really real, especially in the 40s of it all.

I wanted to tell a story; it’s one of the most beautiful things June ever did for me. My husband was in an understaffed hospital [with cancer], he wasn’t getting his medications in time, and it was becoming a life-or-death scenario. Then I get a text from June. It was 10:45 p.m. She says, “I’m coming to you. I am going to pretend to be Dan’s sister. And I'm going to start raising hell.” Because unfortunately, sometimes in a medical situation, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Now, I said, “That’s insane. You have a newborn, please just give me your skills.” So then she was live-texting me. “You’re going to say this. You’re going to wait 15 minutes. Then you're going to get louder. And by time five, you're going to go full Shirley MacLaine.” And goddammit, did I not get him through the night?

June: You’ve got to advocate.

Jessica: Every one of our girlfriends has a superpower. I go to June for something very specific. And I think you come to me for something very specific.

Beck: And what are those things?

Jessica: When I need to summon my inner shit-kicker. Someone who’s going to go bananas until they get the right thing. Somebody who is not going to apologize for being powerful or strong or outspoken, someone who is going to ask for their needs to be met. I go to June.

When I need somebody who is going to tell me that it’s going to be okay, but isn’t going to lie to me. When I was about two months into treatment for breast cancer, June summoned me to the Four Seasons, which is what she used as her Starbucks in her mid-30s.

June: Ordered very little, but sat there for hours.

Jessica: You were drinking only sparkling water, because we didn’t really have any money back then. And you said, “I’m not worried you’re going to die.” That was the first time somebody had said that to me. Now, June doesn’t have a medical degree, but I believed her. I believe that she believed I was going to be okay. And then I asked you, June, because I knew you had been through this with both your mother and father passing, “Have you ever been at the edge of a cliff, looking over and thinking, ‘I’m not going to survive this?’” And you said, “I have. I have been there.” That was so comforting to me, to know that you’d been there and you’d survived. And you were happy now. That takes a lot of vulnerability to share that with somebody. A lot of people disappear when the going gets rough.

June: When Jess first came to L.A. and I would host book clubs and all manner of get-togethers, Jess was always like, “I won’t be watching anything that’s sad. I won’t be reading anything that’s sad. In my free time, I will only be in the light.” Now I go to Jess with the dark, heavy stuff that most people can’t sit with. That most people are scared of. It’s such a 180 from when I first met her.

I called Jess recently to tell her about this past trauma I had in a work situation and how I was so nervous to see this person again. And it was so comforting to hear that she’s also felt all of those vulnerabilities, [has also thought] I don’t feel like I’m good enough. Because I look to her as such a confident, incredible artist.

Beck: On your podcast, The Deep Dive, you’ve been really open about dark times in your lives—June, the grief of losing your parents; and Jessica, your and your husband’s cancer. When you share something so intense with a friend, does that open up some hidden level of friendship that you can’t access if you haven’t gone through that?

Jessica: Yes. That’s the one gift of going through so many insane things. My earlier self would jump so quickly to, “This is how you fix it.” Or just try to push it away. Then I was forced to announce I had cancer, and then I wrote a show about it, which was even scarier. But when you go through something bad and get brave enough to share it, people come back with their vulnerabilities, and you feel less alone.

We did not know what this podcast was going to be. We thought we were going to talk about moisturizers, quite frankly. But strangers have been sharing some of the most beautiful vulnerabilities with us, and we have felt so privileged to hear their stories. This exchange of vulnerability has been the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done, honestly.

June: Same. We’re talking about birth and death and mothering and caretaking and professional aspirations and friendships and failures and the whole gamut of human experience, but through the lens of adult womanhood, which hasn’t been given its due. We see cultural representations of helicopter moms, or we get turned into Cathy cartoons. We don’t allow for this full expression of being an adult woman—the hilarity of it, the pain of it, the scars, the healing and the laughter, and the joy. In a misogynistic culture that would still have us being one thing, this podcast is about women being a whole lot of things simultaneously.

Beck: With all of us having gone through the extended trauma of the pandemic, are you observing that more people are willing to access that deeper level of friendship? Or do you think a lot of us are still resisting that?

Jessica: I am noticing that people have cut away the fluff. We were deprived of our water, of our friendships for so long. And we all went through some dark things. Even if you did not have COVID-19 or lose somebody, you were stressed to the limit, trying to work and take care of your family. Now that we’re able to see each other more, I’ve heard from lots of people. “You know what? I’m not wasting time on anybody who doesn’t fill me up. If you are draining me, I’ll cut you loose.”

That’s what happens after you go through cancer. I know that I don’t have a billion years here on this planet. I know that my time is limited and I have been stripped of my ability to bullshit. I don't know how to small talk anymore, and I love it. I recently recommended that the man who sells me my hamburgers read The Five Love Languages, and it’s transformed his relationship with his wife. She’s “acts of service.”

There is something that happens after a trauma: post-traumatic growth. If you want, you can use this time to deepen your friendships and get rid of the ones that weren’t serving you. Dead weight, baby.

Beck: If you were to name one way that this friendship has helped you to grow, what would you say?

June: It has helped me be more honest. We panic a lot about what we share on the podcast—is it too much, wanting to edit it out. I know that I wouldn’t have done it without Jessica. She’s helped me share and not be terrified of it. I have a lot of faith in this collaboration.

Jessica: You make me feel brave in all parts of my life. Brave to love and to let people love me and to share who I really am and to trust that it will be received by the people it should be received by. And for those who it isn’t received by, well, we tip our hat.

June: Blessings.

Jessica: Blessings to you and be on your way, kind sir. But to stand in my truth and just be myself has been so freeing and I would not have done it without June.

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