Culture + Style

Chelsea Handler on Netflix: ‘I’m Asking Questions, Making an Idiot of Myself’

Chelsea Handler is rebooting her career — and going global.

“Chelsea Does,” a new four-part documentary series on Netflix, will introduce Handler to a worldwide audience that may not already know her from such previous work as her standup comedy, her books and her talkshow, “Chelsea Lately.” The series will make its bow at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah.

In each episode of “Chelsea Does,” Handler navigates through a hot topic: marriage, racism, Silicon Valley and drugs. She talked about the value of forging her own path away from the E! celebrity talk show that made her a TV star, as part of a collaboration between The Autograph Collection’s “The Individualists” series and Variety.

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You’ve taken a year off and are coming back in a big way on Netflix. Why did you decide to make your return with four hour-long documentaries?

I wanted to do something challenging, I was like, “What’s the thing I have the least business doing? Documentary. So let’s do that.” Netflix was happy to oblige.

I’m asking questions, making an idiot out of myself – all those things I like to do — but in a more well-rounded way, rather than making it so centered on celebrity. It made me realize the direction I want to go in and what I want my show to be about.

You’re starting a new stage of your career, which is scary for anyone, but in showbiz it can be risky to forge your own individuality. How do you think about it in the bigger picture?

I’ve never really thought about it for very long. (I felt the E! show was) getting a little boring and a little stale. After doing that for seven years on that show, I was allowed to take a year off in my mind.

You really need to go rejuvenate, figure out what you’re interested in and what you want to do. You’ve got to make people know you’re there to show up and be a presence.

From the first episode of “Chelsea Does,” on marriage, audiences see a side of you they haven’t before – particularly when you interview your ex-boyfriend. Was it hard to meet someone you hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years?

I went into “Marriage” thinking it would be a good way to examine why people continue to get married. I thought I would just interview people, but it turned into a much more personal thing.

(Meeting my ex) was so great. You never get to talk to someone who knew you when you were 20 just to find out you’ve been exactly the same person your entire life. It was because my director pushed me in that direction. I would’ve never done that on my own.

It was surprising to learn in the Silicon Valley episode that you’re not tech-savvy, especially considering you’ve caused a stir online before. Are you a fan of social media?

I do it in my way, but I don’t want to post beauty shots. That’s so not my personality. There’s a whole team focused on my social media because apparently I have to improve. They just had to give me a tutorial on Snapchat and it’s a joke. I’m so bad. But you do feel pressure – everybody does it.

The episode on racism in the United States is also unique for how you explore pockets of the south where the division is still rampant in some senses.

People are so delusional in regards to how far we think we’ve come – we haven’t come that far at all. For me, it highlighted the things I didn’t know. I ended up reading like six books on slavery after. You think you’re a certain age and you know how something works, but when you examine a subject you realize how little you do know.

In the drugs episode, your trip to Peru where you try Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic medicinal brew from the indigenous people, really seemed to affect you. What was that like?

It was just a phantasmagoria of images of my childhood. There are memories in the recesses of your brain and it was beautiful because I was like “God, that’s my sister. I will never have those memories with another person again.”

You only experience some things like that with your siblings and it made me really want to have more patience with her. It was a really beautiful experience. I’ve been a lot nicer to her since that, but she still annoys me.

“Chelsea Lately” was a big deal for both you and the E! channel. Is there a moment you can definitely say was your big break?

Probably the big hit was when “Chelsea Lately” started after “The Chelsea Handler Show,” and my second book “Are You There, Vodka?” came out in conjunction with it. That was when everything hit. It kind of all came together – a confluence of events.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Being around really smart people is important. The older you get the more necessary it becomes. I like honest conversations and people who have opinions.

I’m interested in conflict and getting involved – so let’s all get involved. Whatever that means for you, do it. For me, that means broadening my horizons. I’m sure my audience is ready to grow up a little.

You travel a lot, but is there a space you can definitely call your “home”?

My bedroom because it’s where all of my books are. I read all the time. Since I had a year off I’ve read 74 books. I read like three at a time: one on the treadmill – that’s got to be a stupid novel – and then I have one serious one like “Madame Bovary” I’m reading now. In the morning I usually read the New York Times in the sauna.

My father put me in a state of reading. He told me “You better learn how to read because you’re going to be pretty cute, and you don’t want that to be the only thing going for you.” I don’t feel good unless I’ve read each day.

Do you have a place where you can escape?

I like New York City and staying uptown because no one stays there except for me. I love the park, and I never run into anybody I know. New York is very romantic to me, but romantic in the way that you’re just happy to be alone there. It’s so incognito.

Have you taken any recent trips that impacted your life?

I went to Spain and I bought a house and I have learned Spanish because of it. I take Spanish lessons two or three times a week. That’s impacted my life in the best way because now I have an escape, somewhere to go, somewhere for my family.

Would you say travel has shaped you?

You grow up so much by traveling, you get to see so many things and different ways of life. It makes you want to do whatever you’re doing really well. I don’t want to waste anything. I’m lucky to know what I want to do, I’m lucky to be in control.