Friday, November 28, 2008

JUDGE REINHOLD: The Hollywood Interview

Even after a lot of interviews in the interim, this talk I had with Judge Reinhold back in October of 2003 is one of my all-time favorites. I expected to have a fairly light interview with Judge about the new National Lampoon film he was starring in, and we did talk about that, but he also opted to reveal a lot about the fairly dark period he went through in the 90s...and how he had come out of it. It was great to see him back working a lot then, as it is now. Although I haven't written about him since, every year I still get a Christmas card from he and his wife Amy. The guy is a class act.
He now has an Official Website set up at which is worth checking out.

The Return of Judge Reinhold
by Terry Keefe

You didn't have to grow up in the 80s to be a big Judge Reinhold fan, but if you went to the movies at all during that decade, you undoubtedly were. It was impossible to miss him, and also impossible not to love him, in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), in which he played the fast food job-challenged Brad Hamilton; or in Beverly Hills Cop 1 & II (1984 & 1987), where he was the scene-stealing young rookie cop Billy.who very much would like to be Dirty Harry but is stuck policing Rodeo Drive; or in Ruthless People (1986), as Ken Kessler, the audio-visual salesman at the end of his rope who kidnaps Bette Midler to hold her for ransom, only to find that her husband, played by Danny Devito, doesn't want her back. Some of his other prominent films from the period include Stripes (1981), Gremlins (1984), and Vice Versa (1988). Reinhold combined great comic timing with a lovable innocence, which was often a cover for the explosive temper lurking right beneath the surface of some of his characters. Directors seemed to use Reinhold as a secret weapon of sorts. While other actors often had more screen time, the best comedic scenes in those films often belonged to Reinhold and he could always be counted on to bring the entire film to a new level.

After his incredibly successful run in the 80s, Reinhold sort of disappeared from many people's radar screens during the 90s. It wasn't that he stopped working, it was just that a lot of the films he was in were fairly forgettable and didn't really get out to the public at large. To be fair, he also did some very prominent work during the 90s, such as The Santa Clause (1994) with Tim Allen, as well as his role as "Aaron the Close Talker" on a 1994 episode of "Seinfeld" which earned him an Emmy nomination. During our conversation with Reinhold, he reveals that there were other reasons for some of the project choices he made in the 90s, personal issues that go way back to some dark moments in his early childhood and which he felt compelled to confront and resolve during the past decade. Reinhold generously shares much of what he dealt with during those years in our interview below and we've printed the transcript of our talk largely unedited, as he tells his life story far better than we could. It is a story that is at time harrowing but also inspirational, because the young man who charmed us onscreen so many years ago has come out the other side of his inner journey not only whole, but perhaps as a better whole. A great deal of the story is extremely personal, but Reinhold didn't back away from it. "It's the narrative of my life and I want to 'own' it. And if somebody can benefit from hearing this story, then that would be great," he says.

The narrative begins on May 21, 1957 in Wilmington, Delaware, when Judge was born Edward Reinhold. He quickly obtained the nickname "Judge" from his father, inspired by the stern countenance he displayed at only two weeks old. "I looked a lot more like Winston Churchill than a most babies," recalls Reinhold with a laugh. His father was a successful lawyer and thought that his young child reminded him of a particularly difficult judge who he faced regularly in court. The nickname stuck. The family would move to Tidewater, Virginia, to a 500-acre estate with an Antebellum plantation house on it where Reinhold had the run of the place. These years of his life would have what Reinhold describes as a "Huckleberry Finn" element to them as. But there was also that far darker element to his childhood which Reinhold refers to as "out of a William Faulkner story." Reinhold's father would die when he was 19.

When I meet Judge Reinhold, it is in Pacific Palisades, where he and his gorgeous wife Amy have a home, although they spend most of their time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Besides looking great, Reinhold is brimming with energy and is rightfully excited about a number of new projects that he's involved with. First, He'll be seen on TBS this month in the aforementioned National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion, opposite Bryan Cranston ("Malcolm in the Middle"). Reinhold plays Dr. Mitch Snider, a straightlaced "anesthesiologist to the stars" from Los Angeles, who brings his wife Jill (Hallie Todd of "Lizzie Maguire") and kids to visit the family of his long-lost cousin Woodrow (Cranston), his wife Pauline (Penelope Ann Miller), and their children. Directed by Neal Israel, the film is a broad comedy which is unrelenting in its quest for laughs. There's a joke coming every other second and the film will have you in stitches. To rephrase a famous line from Spinal Tap, the filmmakers and cast start on 10, in terms of the level of comedy, and somehow actually manage to get to 11.

Reinhold is also developing a number of projects as a producer and has quickly put together an extremely engaging development slate. With his wife Amy, he has partnered with independent producer Eric Geadelmann to launch TLP Productions (the TLP standing for "Ten Little Piggies"). The first project Reinhold tells me about is the real-life story of Brother Bill Tomes, entitled Brother Bill, an ordinary man who received a call from God, put on monk-like robes made from everyday rags (in the tradition of Saint Francis), and entered the Chicago housing projects to attempt to keep the peace between rival gangs. Brother Bill literally walks into the line of fire regularly in his mission and although he's been fired upon dozens of times, he has emerged without a scratch. Along the way, he has helped broker peace treaties between the gangs which have saved hundreds of lives. Reinhold has recently received a draft of the script which he is very excited about from writer Angelo Pizzo (Hoosiers). With Eric Geadlemann and Reinhold's manager Gordon Gilbertson, Judge and Amy will also produce a currently untitled film based on the life of Ray Wallace, a logger from the Pacific Northwest who created the myth of Bigfoot when he carved a pair of wooden feet to create footprints of the legendary beast in the woods and managed to keep the hoax going for some 40 years. And with producer Justine Baddeley, who also was the casting director on the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, TLP will produce One Stupid Thing, from a script by John Lavachelli. Says Reinhold of the project, which he also plans to star in, "It's a brilliantly crafted black comedy, about a family's attempt to escape the collective anxiety of an impending terrorism attack. The father takes the family from New Jersey and displaces them horribly to this little town called Nyborg, Wyoming. Then reality catches up with them. It's really about collective anxiety. He's not a hysteric. Metaphorically, it's about how displaced we all are emotionally to some place we've never been before. In a grander sense, that's what the movie's about but it's also very funny."

Had you read the magazine version of National Lampoon much while growing up?

Judge Reinhold: Oh yeah, totally. My earliest relationship with National Lampoon was a real fond one. I also went to see Animal House five or six times and knew all the lines. In a lot of ways, that movie was tremendously helpful to my career. Because I arrived in town the same year that movie opened in '78. And it created this whole new genre of youth-oriented comedies. And a few months later I was in Stripes.

We'll get back to National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion in a minute, but what was that experience of working on Stripes like?

Well, I had done a couple of movies before that which were never released [chuckles]. So this was a huge movie. I remember walking out of my little telephone booth-sized honeywagon thing and watching Ivan Reitman orchestrate these tanks in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and helicopters and all these things. I was absolutely petrified because it was so big and I was so green and inexperienced and I was sure that in the few moments that I had, where this 40 million dollar bohemoth of a movie hinged on me, that I was going to blow it totally [laughs]. I don't know if I've utilized it, but I got a great lesson in audacity from Bill Murray, in terms of putting yourself out on a limb and seeing comedy as an act of audacity. That's what I saw every day in him.

Bryan Cranston from your new film is another guy who seems to subscribe to the school of comedy as an act of audacity. You and he are great together as the Snider cousins.

We had a lovely time together. We were real free with each other. Usually when somebody is that talented comically, they've got some kind of, you know [laughs] but I couldn't find it. He's just a lovely guy, easy to get along with, and totally free with himself. He gives himself such license to be completely ridiculous and sometimes way, way too big and that's okay! I don't work like that. I'm still too worried about looking too broad [laughs].

Of the many classic 80s comedies you did, do you have a favorite?

I think the first Beverly Hills Cop is my favorite. I think it's amazing how Marty Brest juggled tremendous violence and humor. Marty's really, really talented. Some of that violence was just really vicious. I mean, when you see Jimmy Russo shot at point-blank.

Tell us about playing Billy.

I loved the idea of playing a character in a movie who has a very tenuous relationship with reality and can very easily cross into [thinking] he's in a movie! That really interested me and that was my handle on him, a guy who sometimes has a problem differentiating between reality and his love for movies. And I thought, "What a cool thing to play!"

Let's talk about Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The cast is one of the great casts in film and many of them have gone on to stellar careers since then. What was the reaction career-wise for you and everyone else immediately after the film?

Well, Sean took off, as well he should have. But I had to wait another two years to do Beverly Hills Cop. It was a tough time because I expected more right away. Sean was so completely in character all the time, that I didn't really know there was such an intellectual force behind Jeff Spicollo [laughs]. So I really didn't know what to make of Sean. I thought there was a chance that he was a dumb surfer guy who didn't realize how funny he was. I thought there was a chance that he was a dumb surfer guy who didn't realize how funny he was. There was a chance that he might be incredibly brilliant. I really didn't know! [laughs]

[There is a bit of a long pause here.]

I went through this whole whirlwind of success in the 80s and had this amazing run of successful films. I guess I should just touch on what I did in the 90s, because a lot of people wonder. There was a lot of unresolved baggage that had to do with unresolved childhood stuff. My family situation was that my family was tyrannized by my father's misery. That's all I can really say. There was a lot of damage in our lives and I just never dealt with it. Some things that you need to do as a child to survive don't serve you as an adult. And in order to survive my childhood, I had to learn to fight back, to defend myself. Not physically, because all I did was - I was faster than him [laughs]. But like I said, my childhood had a very Huckleberry Finn element to it. I grew up on a beautiful Southern plantation farm in Tidewater, Virginia. There were some really great parallels between myself and Huckleberry Finn, and I stayed away a lot. I stayed out of my father's way. Anyway, my brother wasn't so lucky. I fought back. My brother didn't. He committed suicide in 1988. So enough to say, there was a lot to overcome, right? Well, I flew into this success, not dealing with any of this stuff. The fascinating thing was that I hadn't outgrown this irresistable urge to defend myself. I was still doing what I had learned to do, which served me a child. Anyway, what happened was that, sometimes authority figures and people who rubbed me the wrong way, or people who I had disputes with, I would have this irresistable urge to defend myself and I would be explosive. I could be a real pain the ass. And so I was carrying all this baggage. People would hire me because they believe in me and they wanted me to do well. And I feel like I always delivered. But I was a pain in the ass. They didn't need my problems. Anyway, the whole reason I launched into this, and I hope it doesn't sound too indulgent, is that I wanted to talk about what I did in the 90s. What I did in the 90s is I did this film, Over Her Dead Body, I moved to Santa Fe, and suddenly it's like my soul was afforded the peace to look at the wreckage of my past and say, " I've got to do something. I've got to turn around and confront what's been pursuing me." All through the 80s, everybody gave me license to escape whatever was plaguing me in any way possible, right? And I took advantage of all that. But it turns out that the only real way out of what was ailing me was through it. And what I mean by that is I confronted it all. In terms of the industry, for me, the 90s is like a lost decade in a lot of ways. It's like "What happened to him?" I stopped chasing after work. I just wanted to make a living and deal with what was most important. And it was scary. Because I didn't know whether I'd ruined my career and created a lot of damage. I would kind of venture out of obscurity, like I did "Seinfeld" in 1994. Every once in a while I'd emerge and then go back into whatever I was dealing with. You know, I don't regret it. I had to do it. People make jokes about therapists. These were extremely compassionate, beautiful people that taught me how to slowly step out of my own turmoil and to be able to view my life with compassion, rather than self-hatred. Because I felt like damaged goods for a long time. I believe that redemption is a very real thing. It's not a third act Hollywood gimmick. And true redemption, the real deal, that's where the rubber meet the road. That's where you turn around and face your life. I was forced to face it, because it damn near killed me. I don't want to go into beyond that, but this unresolved childhood stuff almost led to my death a couple of times. So I didn't have a choice. I had burned a lot of bridges. I pissed a lot of people off. So I didn't have a choice. I think everybody has some area in their life that's broken. I think maybe that's part of the life experience. We're given these broken parts in order to have the opportunity to deepen. I came out on the other side. How did I do that? I went from rage to peace through compassion and learning the power of forgiveness. You have to practice forgiveness. I think in my own life and in a lot of lives, the hardest process of forgiveness is towards yourself, because some of your greatest wounds are self-inflicted because of things that happened to you. So the hardest person for me to forgive with myself. But when I looked at my life with compassion, I realized it was easier to forgive myself than I ever imagined. I never knew that I could get to the other side of anything from this kind of trouble. So I was very troubled and thank God that redemption is a very real thing. So in the 90s, I didn't chase after work. I worked to support myself. I worked for travel. Sometimes I really wasn't that concerned with the content of what I did. I refer to this amongst friends, and I don't mind saying it, as my "Underground Film Period." And that doesn't necessarily mean films that were avante-garde, but instead they were films that should have been buried [laughs]. But this was a time of tremendous value and redemption for me. Santa Fe was a time of reckoning for me.

And did you marry Amy during this period?

No, and this was the beautiful thing, is that I didn't get married until I was ready. And I don't think it's any accident. About five years ago, I really feel like I came out the other side. I have to say that I believe in grace. I don't mean to sound like somebody on TV, but I believe in God's grace. I believe that I've been healed. Anyway, my point is that if I had met my wife before all that, I would have wrecked it. Because I've put a lot of people through hell. My first marriage, my wife really loved me, and I was like that Groucho Marx line "I couldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member," right? Let me put it this way, the best definition of redemption that I've heard is that you're placed in the same situation but you do something different. Then you know something's really changed. Otherwise, it's just talk. And that started happening without any effort. It was easier to me to extend grace and compassion to other people because I had learned how to have it for myself. I wasn't carrying it around anymore. And then a year later, I met my wife. And my wife is so beautiful, both physically and in her character. She has such great, deep, true character. Her gentleness has been one of my greatest teachers.

You're obviously pursuing work again now and getting lots of it. Plus you're producing some great projects.

The material is just great. And what's awesome is that this stuff seems to be finding me now. And here I am trying to incorporate this whole journey [of my life]. It's given me so much more depth and possibilities creatively. I don't know what's going to happen. I know I have a great passion for these properties. They're really great stories. And what's cool is because these projects are taking off, it really makes me feel less dependent, you know what I mean? Most importantly, this type of material, especially One Stupid Thing, this is the type of material I should have always been going after. But I was too wrapped up in myself to be able to lend myself to it. But I feel like I'm ready to do this kind of work now.

JULIE BENZ: The Hollywood Interview

We did this interview with Julie a few years back, when she was between "Angel" and "Dexter," the series which has really been her breakout hit.

Julie Benz: Far from a "Long Shot"
by Terry Keefe

Resilience. It's a word that seems to go hand-in hand with some of the best performances of actress Julie Benz, whether she's playing the seemingly indestructible vampire Darla on "Angel," or Annie Garrett, the competitive horse rider who beats every conceivable obstacle in Benz' new Hallmark Channel movie "The Long Shot: Believe in Courage." But although the two aforementioned characters might both have the proverbial steel spine, their hearts couldn't be more different. While Darla the vampire did acquit herself somewhat during the course of her most recent death on "Angel," when she sacrificed her own life after giving birth to the child she conceived with Angel (David Boreanaz) in the acclaimed episode "Lullaby," she has largely played the villain for most of the series. Benz’ new character Annie Garrett, on the other hand, has nothing but love for the world, even when life has dealt her some pretty lousy cards. Based on the true story of equestrian Amy A. Gaston, “The Long Shot” is a charming story of hope and redemption, which also allows Benz to showcase a very different on-screen persona from the one her fans may have become accustomed to on “Angel.”

When we first meet Annie Garrett in “The Long Shot,” she and her 7-year old daughter Taylor (Gage Golightly) have just been left abandoned and penniless by Annie's fiery-tempered, irresponsible husband Ross (John Livingston) in a new town where he was supposed to have a job waiting for him at a local farm. Annie also has the added responsibility of caring for her horse Tolo, who was supposed to be stabled at Ross' new job and now has nowhere to live. Fortunately, Annie is what is known as a "horse whisperer," blessed with an uncanny ability to deal with horses, who seem to love her one and all. On the eve of being evicted from a local roach motel, she finds a friendly face in Mary Lou O'Brian (four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason), a legendary horse riding champion who also owns and runs the local equestrian center Shamrock Farms with the help of barn manager Guido Levits (two-time Golden Globe winner Paul Le Mat). While working at Shamrock, Annie slowly rebuilds her life and begins training in the competitive riding sport of dressage. But in a double whammy of bad luck, she's injured in a fall from a barn, and Tolo is stricken blind. Faced with increasing debts which would be greatly helped by some prize money, Annie makes the decision to take the blind Tolo into the dressage championships.

After a long string of sci-fi and supernatural roles which have been heavy on the FX and pyrotechnics, "The Long Shot" provides Benz with a simple but charming story, grounded in reality, which gives her a great framework to develop an in-depth portrait of Annie, a character who has an inner strength which is near supernatural itself. Benz creates an Annie who radiates such a warmth and goodness that you want to help her with her troubles, even through the television. And consequently, it’s not surprising when the on-screen characters, not to mention horses, fall in love with Annie immediately.

Pittsburgh-native Julie Benz herself knows more than a little about what willpower it takes to keep your dreams alive, as she's had to test exactly how deep her own wells of strength go from the age of 3, when she started competing as a figure skater. By the age of 13, she was nationally ranked but that same year suffered some debilitating injuries. Although she would eventually skate again, the downtime afforded Benz the chance to try out a new passion, that of acting. She went on to study at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and gained her first real notoriety playing Darla, the “Angel” character who originally appeared (and was killed for the first time) on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Darla is a 400-year old vampire who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Angel for around 150 of those years. Darla was thought dead until she was brought back as a surprise on the last episode of the first season of "Angel." The series is now in its fifth and final year, despite rabid fan demands to keep the series alive, the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the first "Star Trek." And with the story arc of "Angel" coming to a close, it seems likely that we may see Darla again one last time this year. Other notable roles for Benz include Jawbreaker [1999], a memorable stint on the series "Roswell," The Brothers [2001], and the mini-series "Taken." She is currently shooting “Lakawanna Blues” for HBO, alongside a cast which includes Halle Berry, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Liev Schreiber. Venice met her at local coffee shop Abbott’s Habit in late March.

Tell us about meeting Amy A. Gaston, the real life equestrian who the Annie Garrett character is based on.

Julie Benz: I got to spend two weeks rehearsal with her, prior to the shooting of the movie. She's actually the one who trained me for the horseback riding. I describe Amy as being the type of person, that when she looks at you and smiles, you feel like you're getting a big hug from her. Amazing and effervescent. She has wonderful warmth and heart. She's a modern-day Pollyanna in that she sees the silver lining in every dark cloud and can take any bad situation and find the positive in it. We spent a lot of time together and went through a lot, actually. I was thrown off a horse during the rehearsal process. Going through that with her made me realize that she's not jaded at all. She doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody. And you don't really get to meet those kinds of people here in Hollywood. For me, the performance was about really trying to capture that sweetness and that real innocent, loving nature that she has.

Did Amy really have a lot of those "horse whispering" abilities?

Amy can whisper to anything, I think, any animal, even people. She just has a way about her, but animals especially respond to her. It's so great to see. I mean, the horses at the stable we were training at - she'd just be standing there and a horse would stick its neck out of a stall and try to nuzzle her head [laughs].

You mentioned that you were thrown badly from a horse during rehearsal.

They say you're not a real horsewoman until you've been thrown off a horse. So I guess I'm a real horsewoman now. [laughs] It was pretty scary. You don't realize at first that you're dealing with a 1200-pound beast really. I mean, horses are amazing creatures and they're really just unique personalities and very special. But they're extremely powerful. And this was a horse they were trying out to be my horse in the movie. He obviously didn't make the cut. [laughs] Throwing an actress is not the way to her heart. I've never had such a volatile co-star in my life [laughs]. It was pretty eye-opening I'd have to say. I was in a lot of pain throughout most of the filming of the movie with my back, but it gave me a tremendous amount of respect for the animal as well. When you're sitting on a horse, you have to be aware 150 percent. You can't joke around and not be listening to everything the horse is telling you at all times. I think the throw gave me that respect.

Had you done much riding before playing Annie?

Not really. I had done some basic western riding, but never dressage. I didn't even know what dressage was. When they told me the story was about horseback riding set in the world of dressage, I was like, "What?" Basic western riding is completely different. In dressage, it's all about the respect with the horse. It's all about you and the horse working together. Even when putting on the saddle, you do it in such a way that doesn't startle the horse. It's a working-together relationship. And there are so many rules [laughs]. It was overwhelming at first. Like you can only get on and off a horse on one side. And you can only get off and on a certain way.

How was working with Marsha Mason?

When they first offered me the movie, they told me it was a movie with Marsha Mason and I was so excited. I'm such a huge fan of hers. The Goodbye Girl is an all-time favorite of mine. She's wonderful to work with. She has this really amazing inner strength on the set. Sometimes if there's a lot of stuff going on on-set, it can get really overwhelming, and I can get overwhelmed as an actor. But then I would look at her, and she's so centered and so strong and able to deal with the chaos. I strive to be that way myself.

How many times have you died as the character Darla over the course of "Buffy" and "Angel?"

I think I've died four or five times. I honestly believe that they like seeing me covered in blood [laughs]. I just think they have a thing with me and blood. I've died a lot!

Each time you've died in the two series, did you think you were coming back in the future or did you think, "This is it for Darla"?

You know, I'm very shortsighted. Every time I died, they would give me this big party on the set because I honestly thought it was my last time. I would sob and hug everybody goodbye and say, "It's over!" [laughs] And then a couple of months later, I'd get a phone call to come back. Everybody's now gotten pretty jaded about me dying on the show. I don't get the big party anymore. I don't get the gifts anymore. It's like, "Yeah, we'll see you in a few months." [laughs]

Tell us about working on Jawbreaker.

It was a lot of fun. I really felt like I reverted back to high school when I was filming that movie. I'd come home and I'd be like [“Valley Girl” voice] "Omigod, you're never going to believe this!" [laughs] We shot it very fast and it was grueling but I think I really became a 15-year old again when filming it. That's one of the perks of being an actor. Characters will take over your life for a short time and you can act out, but blame it on the role [laughs]. And I was not that popular in high school so it was great for me to play the cool girl!

I can't believe you were not that popular in high school. C'mon, Julie!

I was busy! I was really busy with my figure skating and acting, so I wasn't really around much.

That makes sense. You were figure skating from the age of 3.

I always joke around that my parents were suckers because at 3, they were told I was talented. I don't think you really are at 3! [laughs] We started it as a family activity to do on the weekends, as a way to spend time together as a family. And it just grew from there. My brother and sister did it too. We all started at the same time. My brother and sister were Junior National Champions. They were ranked 10th in the world when they retired. I retired before they did. And I was ranked 13th in the country at that time. They always felt like I’d be the one to go the furthest, but I suffered two really bad injuries at 13 and then discovered acting at that point.

Was it devastating for those injuries to happen at 13?

You know, I had to be off the ice for 6 months and I had to be in a cast. But at the same time, I got to have a life. I got to be social. I did go back and skate a couple of more years. But at that point, I had already started acting and doing local theater in the Pittsburgh area where I grew up. I was doing commercials and had met my manager, Vincent Cirrincione, who is also my manager today. I think having met him really made me feel like "I can do this for a living. I can move out of skating and into acting and it can work."

Did you find that having lived through the adversity of being a competitive skater at a young age steeled you for the ups and downs of Hollywood?

I think the most important thing I learned as a competitive ice skater was that there really is no such thing as an overnight success. That it takes years of training and hard work and perseverance. For every overnight success, there is a good 10 years of experience behind that person. They just happened to pop at that time. I trained 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, 2 weeks off a year, from the age of 3 to skate. So it's almost the same with acting. You could go on a reality show and be famous overnight for your 15 minutes, but if you really want to be in it for the long haul, you have to work at it.

Susan Stroman: THE PRODUCERS Interview

We did this interview with director Susan Stroman three years ago, as The Producers was getting ready to be released theatrically. We've also interviewed Susan, along with Mel Brooks, about the stage version of "The Producers," and will be posting that interview shortly.
Susan Stroman talks The Producers

by Terry Keefe

It was a filmmaking challenge of challenges. Susan Stroman had already done the near impossible when she directed and choreographed the Broadway musical version of Mel Brook's 1968 comedy classic The Producers, turning it into an ongoing smash which won a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001, including Best Direction and Best Choreography. But Stroman was now charged with bringing The Producers back to film, this time as an adaptation of the Broadway musical. The term full circle was invented for scenarios such as this one. So was the term obstacle course. In bringing the story back to film, the imposing shadow of the 1968 version would loom even taller than it did on Broadway. It was one thing to reinvent a movie classic for the stage, which is viewed as a different medium, but a film of the same would be judged by even tougher standards. For one, the archetypes of Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom offer some pretty big shoes to fill. As does the legendary Brooks himself, despite the fact that he and Thomas Meehan wrote the screenplay for the film together, adapted from their Broadway book. At the same time, some of the elements which made the Broadway show such a success could easily have proven the undoing of a film attempt. The stage version of The Producers is a wonderful stew of musical comedy, satire, and spoof. In the same show that has the fairly traditional Broadway love song "That Face," there are also visual gags such as a future Bialystock-Bloom production entitled "She Schtups to Conquer." Without a very steady hand, the tone, something which a film audience will rarely forgive you for being uneven on, could be a very rocky road, rather than the straight line needed.

We'll beat around the bush no longer. Stroman has succeeded with flying colors in what amounts to a reimagining of the traditional musical comedy for the modern age. The Producers draws heavy inspiration from the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals in terms of its general staging, set design, and atmosphere: there are unabashedly big dance numbers such as that of Broderick and an actual chorus line of dancing girls for "I Want to be a Producer;" the New York and Broadway depicted here are the ones of old school musical fantasy: cleaner, brighter, and more joyful than the real-life versions ever were; and the office of Max Bialystock is a constant screwball comedy revolving door of characters running in and out at the least opportune moments for them and the most opportune for laughs. But simultaneously, the more ribald elements of Brooksian humor are seemlessly worked into the proceedings. That chorus line behind Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock is one composed of sex-crazed little old ladies on walkers, who want a piece of the money-starved producer in exchange for the "chequees" which fund his productions. Part of this definitely isn't your grandfather's movie musical, but part of it is. And therein lies the achievement. The script by Brooks and Meehan is particularly sharp and tight, with excellent transitions, both visual and verbal, which provide a strong spine for the film.

Reprising their Broadway roles are Lane as Bialystock, Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom, Gary Beach as flamboyant gay director Roger de Bris, and Roger Bart as his assistant, Carmen Ghia. Uma Thurman as Swedish secretary/love interest Ulla and Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind round out the principals. Lane, in particular, has the most difficult of roles and really makes it his own here. It might be sacrilege to some to say this, but his Bialystock is on par with that of Mostel's. He adds a level of sympathetic loveableness to Bialystock, along with a undercurrent of perpetual frustration which explodes in moments of Ralph Kramden-like comedic anger.

With making this new film of The Producers, you had the challenge of taking the successful Broadway musical adaptation that you had already done of the 1968 film and then bringing it back to film. Were you able to fine the right tone quickly?

Susan Stroman: When we started this, it really was to do the Broadway musical, and not so much to call back to the original film. Because the musical is a completely different genre and takes on a completely different form. So I was actually trying to be true to the Broadway musical. But actually, also, make it easy for the camera and accessible for a moviegoing audience. So it was trying to take this Broadway musical and really giving it four walls and a sky [laughs]. It was great that we were able to build the sets down at Steiner Studios. It was like the old MGM days. I had 5 sound stages. [The set for] 44th Street was built there so it was completely controllable. We were able to have playback of an orchestra of 72 pieces. So I was really feeling like a Gene Kelly running around these different sound stages. But ultimately, finding the style was easy because the film ultimately had to pay homage to films like Singin' in the Rain and Bandwagon. In that it had to be believable when someone launched into song and dance, and it had to be believable on film. And the thing is that The Producers is a musical comedy. We're not sexy and edgy like Chicago. There's no hiding it, we're definitely a musical comedy. And in fact we're a comedy musical, really. So we had to make sure that the comedy reigned supreme all the time. That it reigned supreme in the musical numbers, in the lyrics, in the staging of the scenes, and making sure that the camera was there for the comedy. But for me, it was fantastic, because it was revisiting and reinventing how to stage this musical. The camera almost became like a dancer to me. In the sense that it would partner with the actors. If a dance step took an actor 8 counts to the left, the camera had to make sure it was in the exact 8 counts and moved with them. And the whole crew ended up loving moving to the music. They had to shoot to the music and move the camera forward and backward, and left and right, according to the music. And they ultimately loved doing that. As a matter of fact, in the last days, when I was just shooting some signs, the fellows would ask me to put some music on [laughs]. Everyone got hooked and I loved that. You know, I really got into the theater because of movie musicals. From watching Fred and Ginger on television, and watching Royal Wedding or Easter Parade on television. So now, to having been able to choreograph and direct a gorilla of a musical, it's really beyond dreams realized because that's how I became who I am when I was a little girl. And I think that was probably quite true for everyone on the New York team that I worked with. Certainly all the creators, but even the crew. They thought perhaps that this was something they never had the opportunity to do. We all thought it was gone. And here we were doing this giant musical. So it was quite a joyous experience.

Something that struck me is that none of the recent crop of successful movie musicals have really gone for the traditional movie musical dance numbers that The Producers is filled with. This is the first of the new generation of movie musicals that really harkens back to some of the golden musicals you spoke about as inspiration.

Yes, and I think it has to do with the comedy too. Because I think that sometimes you have to put the camera squarely on something in order for it to be funny. Squarely on its character, or dance number, for it to be funny. I wouldn't shoot another movie like this, because you would want to be at different raking angles and underneath the dancers and such, but for this, the comedy really had to be straight-on. And that does call back to the old way of shooting.

There's nowhere to hide either in terms of disguising things with flashy cuts and angles. It's more of a challenge as a filmmaker.

That's a very good point. Because here I am doing a shot that had 20 dancing girls in it. And each girl had to be exactly the same. If one girl's hand went up late, I had to cut and reshoot again. In the theater, you can get away with someone not being totally precise, but you can't get away with it on film. And it was very important for me to be able to let the shots go on a little longer than maybe a more contemporary filmmaker would have.

I really enjoyed the lengths of some of your takes. Particularly in the "Betrayed" number that Nathan does. You cut to a few different angles, but you don't spruce it up with much other than the power of his performance. He is the special effects.

I'm very lucky that I have Nathan and Matthew, too, in that regard. Because not only do they know how to play to an audience of 1500, but they also know how to play a camera of one. They were able to use this technique. And, of course, their comic timing is fantastic. It was a wondeful love affair with the camera and those two comics. I found myself even in the editing, I have a wonderful editor named Steven Weisberg, that we would find ourselves editing to their eyebrows. When their eyebrows would go completely straight up in the air, we knew that it was time to go [laughs].

It's also unusual to see the stars doing some fairly elaborate dance routines. You saw a bit of it in Chicago, but not to the extent here. I was thinking of the sweet, old Hollywood-style dance number between Matthew and Uma during their courtship. Matthew had obviously been doing this on stage for awhile, but was Uma able to pick it up right away?

Absolutely. I was very lucky in that both Uma and Will Ferrell had the chops to do this. Uma, because she had done the Kill Bill films, actually knew how to learn and rehearse. A lot of movie stars aren't used to rehearsing. They just come in and do their thing. But for this project, Will and Uma had to have seven weeks of rehearsal. She knew how to learn. She knew that this is what she had to do to get through this song and dance number. So she and Will both went into heavy vocal and dance rehearsals. And they both have what I think makes a great musical comedy performer, that fearless quality. When I would look in their eyes, they would have delight about the idea of sliding across a desk or flipping over a couch or being thrown across a chair. There was never panic. They loved the challenge of the movement and they loved the challenge of singing and dancing. And Will was so wonderful with those darn pigeons [laughs]. [Note: The introductory scene of Will Ferrell's Nazi character has him tending pigeons on his rooftop which have the ability to do a "Sieg Heil!" salute.] He even seemed excited about conquering the pigeons. They both had the right personality and right demeanor, and they were excited to go on this roller coaster ride.

As Matthew and Nathan and Gary and Roger had been doing this on stage for so long, what was their rehearsal period like?

They did have a rehearsal period, because the choreography did change, as the sets changed. For example, on Broadway Matthew danced with six girls with pearls, but in the movie he has 20 girls with pearls. So they all had new choreography. On Broadway, Nathan dances with 20 little old ladies, but here, in Central Park, he dances with 100. And my stage was Central Park, which is the most wonderful theater set of all. So they needed rehearsal so that, when the time came to shoot, they would be comfortable on these giant sets and with this expanded scale.

Was there a learning curve for them in terms of how to play the gags for the film, which they might play differently when they're on stage and trying to hit the back row?

They adjusted. They brought it down for the camera. And they did that naturally, I have to say. Because what Nathan and Matthew and Gary and Roger all have is a unique ability to feel an audience. They know when an audience is laughing hysterically and when to go and when to stay. Unbelievable comic timing. But here, they just have the camera, which is more of a silent audience, and they acted accordingly to that.

What was the most painful cut or change that you had to make from the original Broadway book? "King of Old Broadway" was a number that has been omitted from the film.

Yes, and that was absolutely the most painful. It's on the DVD [laughs], so that's good. But I'll tell you why that was cut. In the theater, the audience watches everything in a wide shot. But in a film, of course, I have the close-up and that brings you information immediately. So when I did "King of Old Broadway" and then did that first office scene, I was repeating a little bit. I was getting the same information from Max Bialystock twice. You don't see that in the theater, but you absolutely see it when the camera is close-up. So I just made a decision that it was better to get on with it and get into our story. It was indeed painful though.

Did development on the film commence quickly after the Broadway show was clearly a success or did it require some musical films such as Chicago to hit before the studio pulled the trigger?

We were actually recording the album of the Broadway show and I was in a lounge with Nathan, Matthew and Mel Brooks. And Mel just jumped to his feet and said, "We're making the Broadway musical into a movie, and [pointed to me] you're gonna direct it [and pointed to Matthew and Nathan] and you're gonna star in it!" He was like Max Bialystock at that moment, with his wonderful line, "Worlds are turned on such thoughts." [laughs]. That was the moment and it was shortly after that when things started to fall into place with meetings and things. I think that the heart and soul of Mel as a filmmaker was coming out then. Because he was seeing these incredible performances; he was seeing his music and lyrics being loved by an audience; and he wanted to preserve it. I think he just thought that he had to produce a movie, and he wanted to get it on film. And he was my impresario on this. He had his producer's hat on it.

What was his role on the set once the script was done and shooting commenced?

He would come in periodically. He wasn't there all the time. He would come in and say to me, "Susan, you can have whatever you want. Just don't spend a penny." [laughs]. So he was my real producer on this and he was wonderful. He's a dear buddy. Because although Universal and Sony distributed, the film is really produced by the Brooksfilm Company.

So you were kind of given leeway from the studios in terms of creative freedom then?

Yes, I had two sneak previews with my director's cut. Sony and Universal both came. And they heard the applause and the laughing. When the lights came up, they just looked at me and said, "Do whatever you want." [laughs] They were so pleased and, I have to say, always supportive. I know that I was doing something that was unique to what they're used to. Getting people to sing and dance is what I do for a living, so I think that they respected that. And they were wonderful all the way through.

What was Mel's reaction to the film after he saw it for the first time?

I think that was my greatest moment. Because he hadn't seen any part in the putting together of things, and he was seeing it for the first time. He turned to me and said, "You did it" and gave me a big hug. I think it was my best moment of all during this whole process. Because he is one of those men who will throw you into the deep end of the pool and tell you to swim [laughs].

Are you working on any theatrical features next?

I hope so. I think I'm going to be a little like Max Bialystock and take a trip to Rio after this opens and take a little break [laughs]. But after that, I think I'd love to put another theater piece on film.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL: The Hollywood Interview

THEN AND NOW: The comparison between these two photos should give awkward teenagers everywhere hope.

This interview with Anthony Michael Hall, or "Mike" as he calls himself, was conducted in the summer of 2003, while he was shooting the television series of "The Dead Zone."

by Terry Keefe

Shaking hands with Anthony Michael Hall these days might be a little disconcerting for you if you've been following his USA Network series "The Dead Zone," based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. It's often a handshake with a person that triggers the visions of Hall's character Johnny Smith, a survivor of a near-fatal car accident who has been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with psychic powers that enable him to see parts of a person's future, as well as their past. The operative word here is "parts," and the visions are not always what they appear to be, more like jigsaw puzzle pieces that Johnny has to decide exactly what to do with. Since the series debuted last June with the highest ratings for a dramatic series in the history of basic cable, Hall's Johnny Smith has strode through a psychic landscape which has found him chasing serial killers and kidnappers, flashing back to the 40s to help a war veteran find his lost true love, and trying to make sense of a horrifying vision of Washington, D.C. in apocalyptic flames. Hall's performance operates on many levels and is truly the glue holding all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. He must sometimes play Johnny as reactive to the overwhelming visions that he's experiencing, but he also must keep Johnny interesting as he interprets those visions, a difficult dichotomy for an actor which Hall more than succeeds at. Part detective story, part religious parable, part hero's journey, and part thriller, "The Dead Zone" ranks amongst the most unique and entertaining television on the air today, and it's a terrific showcase for the talents of Hall who, like the character he plays, has been on a interesting journey for some time now.

You, of course, remember him from the trilogy of John Hughes high school classics from the 80s - Sixteen Candles [1984], The Breakfast Club [1985], and Weird Science [1985] - where Hall played different variations on the same geeky nerd and quickly became a household name. There are many films from that period which do not hold up very well anymore, particularly the teen-themed ones, but all three pictures that Hall did for Hughes are comedy classics. After Hall moved on to older and more leading-man type roles, Hughes cast other actors to fill Hall's shoes in some of his subsequent high school films, but the magic was never the same without Anthony Michael Hall playing the lovable and hilarious nerd. Of course, typecasting is an evil force in Hollywood and most of the other teen stars from that period have had a rough road. It seems enough to just survive teen stardom with an adult career intact, but Hall has done more than just survive. He's thrived. However, a look through his filmography reveals that it's been a long road from the gangly Geek to the smoldering psychic Johnny Smith.

His first steps away from the nerd persona would be in the film Out of Bounds in 1986 where he played a farm boy named Daryl who gets mixed up with a bad element in Los Angeles. Then he would take on the role of a high school football star in Johnny Be Good in 1988, followed by his turn as the muscular, violent bully Jim in Edward Scissorhands [1990]. But it was in Six Degrees of Separation in 1993 when he was really able to display the depth of his acting chops again. As Trey, the young gay man who gives Will Smith's character all the information he needs to infiltrate Manhattan high society, Hall was creepy, conniving, sympathetic, and altogether riveting. In short, the performance gave notice that he was truly around for the long haul as an actor. By 1999, he would do his best work yet as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates who manipulated and charmed his way around Noah Wyle's Steve Jobs in the Emmy-nominated Pirates of Silicon Valley. More great work followed in 61*, directed by Billy Crystal, where Hall played another real-life legend, left-handed pitcher Whitey Ford.

Venice spoke with Anthony Michael Hall from the set of the "The Dead Zone" in Vancouver where he was shooting 6 new episodes which will begin airing on Sunday, July 6th. During the course of our conversation, Hall will bring up the phrase "body of work" often. It's safe to say he's building a very impressive one.

Your role as Johnny Smith in "The Dead Zone" requires that you not only play Johnny but also that you sort of travel through time in his psychic visions, sometimes even playing other characters within those visions. It's a challenging part. Is there any particular aspect of the role that you've found the most challenging?

Anthony Michael Hall: Probably just making very unreal circumstances plausible and real for an audience. I think that more than any other role in my career I feel like a storyteller, I guess sort of like a writer would. It's interesting because the show sort of unfolds on two levels. There's the storytelling aspects which are linear and then once I sort of go into the vision mode, then the audience really travels with me into these vision flashes. More than any other character (that I've played) I try to give a mind, body, and spirit to the character. It has to have been my most challenging role to date. The idea of exploring a character who is an empath, who is somehow drawn to helping people, is very challenging. To not make it any type of cliche or becoming cheesy in any way, to make it real. It's also been a challenge to keep a bright side to the character, to inject some humor into the role.

What's in store for Johnny in the new group of episodes that you're shooting now?

I think the slant for this season, Season 2.5 we're calling it because technically it's still Season 2, is that the network wanted more sort of action-adventure shows. So the first one coming out of the box is kind of like Twister in a way. Not to be too heavy-handed in the references, but I'm chasing a storm, this tornado. Then we did one which is sort of inspired by the SARS epidemic. It's similar to "Law & Order" in a way, in that it's ripped from the headlines. We're not calling the epidemic SARS, but this mysterious flu virus has potentially hit my son's school. That's a real intense episode. Then there are four others that we've completed. They're kind of all over the map, but I think the scripts are really good and that the network did the right thing in the theme of the shows, in trying to keep the same audience but bring a new audience in as well.

Is there any particular reason that you think the show was so popular from the moment it hit the air?

That's a good question. I think now more than ever there's a generally greater interest in things that relate to the paranormal. Whether you go back to the success of "The X Files" or not, I think that all things supernatural really strike a chord with people, because I think now more than ever the news is very depressing. Post-Iraq, just sort of the global temperature. For that reason, the tone and the feel of the show appeals to people. And also I think the writing is excellent and we have a great ensemble.

How has the series changed the types of roles that you're being offered in Hollywood?

There are more things coming in now but I've been so tied up with the show that it's difficult to say. But just in general, I think it's a wonderful watershed role for me because of the fact that the things I did in the 80s attached me to the whole John Hughes thing. And I've had a lot of great roles in my so-called adult life, as Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicon Valley and Whitey Ford in 61*, but with this it's a breakthrough in that hopefully it'll transition me into the next half of my life as an actor in the industry.

What type of research did you do to craft your performance as Bill Gates?

I just read everything I could. There were 3 or 4 biographies that I could get my hands on and used as reference material. I also read a lot of business books on Microsoft, on the computer industry itself. I also had an acting coach, Steve Bridgewater. He was excellent and when I worked with him for about 5 or 6 weeks prior to the start of the show, we broke it down - some days we'd isolate Gates' body, other days we'd work on his voicing. I kind of approached it from all angles, playing Gates. Ultimately what happened is that I think it was the first method performance that I've given, in that after awhile I found myself doing things that were very "Gates-ian." Competitive things like getting to the set two hours before the other actors. That was a breakthrough role for me, just in terms of my preparation. It was an honor to play the richest man in the world, but I had to really get under his skin to find out what motivated him and what his backstory was.

Tell us about the experience of playing Whitey Ford in 61*.

Billy Crystal was just great to work with. He's like an almanac when it comes to Yankee baseball. What Jack Nicholson is to the Lakers, Billy is to the Yankees. We all just knew that it was such a labor of love for Billy. After awhile, it was like Billy became Joe Torre in a way and we became a team. We spent the whole summer traveling together. It was just the highlight of my life. Not just working with Billy, but also the guys who were hired to play the rest of the team. A lot of them were actually minor league baseball players or college baseball players. I also got to meet Whitey Ford.
After the premiere, HBO threw a party at one of the armories. I was standing there talking to my mother and a friend, and Whitey Ford walked over to me. He goes, "Great job. But I threw with my left and I drank with my right!" [laughs] We were drinking in the film and I must've had my drink in my left hand, so he had to correct me afterwards.

When you look through your filmography, Six Degrees of Separation really feels like the point when you crossed over from one type of films to another.

That's cool with me. I think it's about the range of work, you know? I think the great actors - whether its going back to Olivier, or in modern day, Hopkins or De Niro - people that I admire, I look up to, it's about the body of work certainly. And I've always wanted to show that diversity. I think with that, playing a gay man was really a challenge for me, being a straight guy and playing a gay man who also functioned as a sort of Svengali to Will Smith's character.

Around the time of Six Degrees of Separation you started taking a lot of off-beat character type roles that really allowed you to stretch as an actor, and I think you earned a great deal of respect as an actor as well during that period. Was it a conscious decision to take the types of roles you did?

I'd like to say that it was all conscious, that would relate to having been offered everything. But the reality is that I had to hustle and go for those parts. But I think that cultivated in me a greater desire to maintain a greater career and a face in the industry. And for my work to grow in that respect. So I think that whereas I started off with some very off-the-cuff performances as a teenager in those John Hughes films, I've certainly learned the craft over the last 15-20 years and I've worked with a number of good coaches. It's just about getting better with the work.

What was your experience like as the youngest cast member ever on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-80s?

[laughs] Forgettable. As I'm sure you've heard and read, it was a very, very competitive environment. In some ways very cutthroat. As many people will tell you about Lorne Michaels , he's a brilliant guy, but there's this sense of always trying to please Lorne because he's the creator of this show that became this phenomenon. It's competitive because you never know what the writers are thinking because they're all sort of vying to be in the cast, and the cast is looking for the help of the writers, and you just sort of have to fend for yourself. I think the people that found the most success came from a stand-up background where they had their own material and they had that competitive nature. Not to say that I'm not competitive, but I think comedians are far more competitive than actors are with each other. It's a different vibe - it's sort of a hybrid of everything - rock and roll, theater, everything rolled into one. But here's the dichotomy - the doing of the show, as was described to me by Dan Aykroyd, he said that it's going to be unbelievable when you get up there and see those three cameras beaming into your head and know that there's 350 people in the audience but you're going out to millions of people. So the dichotomy lies in the fact that despite the frustrations of the 6-day preparation and the around-the-clock rehearsing and all that, just the doing of the show is amazing. That hour and a half when you're going out live to the world. And also, I have to admit, the parties afterwards were unbelievable [laughs]. You know, I'm 17 or 18 years old and we did the show and okay, Madonna's the guest host. You look up into the crowd and there would be Sean Penn. And then at the post-parties at the Rainbow Room, I get there and I look to my right and there's Andy Warhol with Jean Michel Basquiat and I look to my left, and there's David Bowie. It was just surreal.

Of the John Hughes movies you did, which was the most fun to work on?

Well, The Breakfast Club was certainly the most prominent of the films but it was actually the two that bookended it that I had the most fun on - Sixteen Candles and Weird Science. One of the things that John was most gifted at, which is often overlooked, is that he just enabled people. With me, he was always liberating me to try something different and to go for this or that. Even if I had an idea to change a line or to come up with something. For example, the scene in the black bar in Weird Science, that was spawned from the fact that we loved Richard Pryor. We'd watch Richard Pryor movies on the weekend. And we would imitate this character called Mudball that Richard Pryor would do. And so it was really just a product of being Richard Pryor fans that John said, "Hey, why don't we create this scene where you go into a bar and do that?" That's the type of guy he was. To have a writer-director who was so empowering, who really builds you up, who made you feel strong enough to take those chances and to have fun, was a great person to begin my career with. I'll always tip my hat to John Hughes. He gave me my start in my career and I'll never overlook that.

For such a young actor, you seemed to be very aware that you were in danger of being permanently typecast. I read that you turned down roles in Ferris Bueller's Day Off [1986] and Pretty in Pink [1986] because of typecasting worries. Is that true?

It is true and it was for that reason. And I don't know what the repercussions were industry-wise but I felt that I was being true to myself in doing that. Even as a teenager, I've always thought in terms of longevity. My family's always been wonderful in terms of supporting me in that regard, in thinking of the long term. Robert Downey Jr.'s father, Robert Downey Sr., had a great line to me years ago. He was with Downey and I when we were writing a script together. He blurted out this line, "In the long haul, the short one won't make it!" [laughs] I had my mind set even at that age that I would continue to make films and hopefully be a presence in the industry for many years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: The Hollywood Interview

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Venice Magazine, when Kristin was still making her first inroads in Hollywood. She was just starting the production of Wicked.

by Terry Keefe

Kristin Chenoweth has just been through an experience that would make most performers have a nervous breakdown but she didn’t bat an eye. When we meet, she’s at the swank Renaissance Hollywood Hotel where ABC is presenting all of its newest shows and specials to the press. One of their crown jewels this winter is The Wonderful World of Disney’s production of Meredith Wilson’s "The Music Man," in which Kristin stars as Marian Paroo opposite Matthew Broderick, who plays con man Harold Hill. She recounts, “Yesterday, there was a room full of critics. There were 400 of them. And the producers of The Music Man asked me to sing, which they don’t usually do. I sang ‘Till There Was You.’ It was so fun. There’s just something about a live audience. I do great under pressure.” That shouldn’t be a surprise. Kristin has come to Hollywood via her conquering of Broadway, a place where there are no second takes if you make a mistake.

Now, how she got to Broadway - that’s a story in and of itself and it’s the stuff show biz dreams are made of. Kristin grew up in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and attended Oklahoma City University where she earned a bachelor degree in musical theater and a master’s in opera performance. Opera would give her one great opportunity in the form of a fully paid scholarship to Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, but that opportunity would lead to another very different one. Remembers Kristin, “Two weeks before the Academy of Vocal Arts program started, I moved to New York just to help my friend move into his apartment. He went to an audition [for an off-Broadway production of Animal Crackers] and I said, ‘You know, I'm just going to go to see what it's like.’ And I went and I waited 7 hours because I wasn't even a member of the union. But I was so fascinated by the process, with people coming in and out, and I signed up for the Non-Equity list.” At the very end of the day, Kristin finally got in for her audition, which she nailed so incredibly that the casting people asked her with wide eyes, “Who are you?!” Kristin replied, “I'm just here for fun. I'm from Oklahoma and I'm going to be an opera singer." They said, "Well, do you have an agent?" She said, "No, I don't have an agent." And they said, "Who would we call if we want to offer you this part?" Kristin answered, “Well, I guess my dad.” Sure enough, she got the part and her father was the one who negotiated her first contract. It would be a difficult decision to forgo the Academy of Vocal Arts to take on Broadway, but it proved fortuitous because she quickly found herself booked solid for the next two years doing all types of theater, from an off-Broadway production of The Fantastics to productions at the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Kristin would eventually make her debut on Broadway in a production of Moliere’s Scapin. Then in 1997, her role as Precious McGuire in the musical Steel Pier would earn her an award from Theatre World. And looming on the horizon was a well-intentioned but oft-harangued boy named Charlie Brown.

You may remember the character of Sally from the Peanuts comic strips by Charles Schulz. As Charlie Brown’s sarcastic little sister, she sort of served as an ongoing Greek chorus for everything her older brother did and provided some of the strip’s best laughs. But for whatever reason, the character wasn’t included in the original musical of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. When a revival of the show was planned for the 1998-99 season on Broadway, the producers decided to write Sally into the show, with Kristin creating the role. Rave reviews followed and Kristin was soon catapulted upwards faster than Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks the football away from him. She would sweep the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards as the season’s “Best Featured Actress in a Musical.” That would lead to her being cast as Miss Lily St. Regis in an acclaimed ABC television adaptation of Annie in 1999, and she would also be offered her own sitcom, “Kristin,” which would appear briefly on NBC in 2001. Somewhere in the middle of all that she found time to release a critically lauded CD entitled Let Yourself Go.

“Let yourself go” would also be good advice for her character Marian, the single librarian from "The Music Man," who can’t quite bring herself to see that the love of her life might have just stepped off the train in the form of Matthew Broderick’s Harold Hill. With her portrayal of Marian, Kristin proves her mettle in a dramatic musical role, something she had been looking to do for some time. Says Kristin, “I'm usually known for the comedic roles. This was so different. I knew I could do it. But I'm so glad the producers thought of me for this part. I also wanted to take the role because of the acting. It's a very dramatic and very intimate piece. And the love story is so strong in our version. I loved what the producers had in mind for it - they wanted to make it realistic.” And realistic it is indeed. As directed by Jeff Bleckner, the style of "The Music Man" doesn’t scrimp on the flash you want in the musical numbers, but it also feels quite real, unlike the fantasy “musical land” of many such adaptations. When Harold Hill steps off the train into Marian’s town in Iowa at the beginning of the film, you feel like you’re really there, and the characters are also very well-developed in between the songs, so that they’re much more than archetypes. The result is a delightful reinvention of The Music Man which preserves the great tunes of the original but also feels more contemporary. And Kristin is really given a chance to show all of America why she is so beloved on Broadway. Her lovely voice soars and you’ll be rooting for the lovelorn Marian from the first scene.

Had you done The Music Man in any form before, like in high school or college?

Kristin Chenoweth: Never, never. It seemed to kind of come into my life all of a sudden. I did "The Music Man" the movie and then I did it at the Hollywood Bowl. I had just come from this intimate camera thing and then to the Hollywood Bowl, which is one of the bigger places in the world [laughs]. And I'm a creature of the theatre, but the director was like "Okay Kristin, you need to bring it [motions for 'playing it bigger']." I had been [playing it smaller for the camera] for four months in the movie version, but finally I got back there, back to playing it to the last row.

Was it a hard adjustment originally to have to bring the material "down" for the small screen?

It wasn't for me. I think The Music Man is a much more intimate piece than people realize. I think Robert Preston (who played Harold Hill in the 1962 film adaptation) is amazing and I loved what he did obviously, it's classic. But I think the material stands out to be played in a much smaller way. I know that one of the things Matthew and I wanted to do was to really bring out the love story rather than just saying "Here it is!" We really wanted to make it heartfelt. I really wanted people to root for Marian to be with him. I wanted people to go, "Be with him! Give up all your beliefs and everything and go for it." And I think a lot of women, especially today, can relate to that. Being afraid to let go. I know in my own personal life I've had that issue. Trusting and being afraid to let go when you realize you really do love somebody. I also really wanted to play it that she hadn't found the right guy, that she wasn't going to settle. Instead of "poor Marian, she's the old maid." And again, I think a lot of women are picky and they don't want to settle. Why should they? Why should anyone really? They want their intellectual equal.

Did you and Matthew spend much time talking about the characters before the production began?

Oh yes. And we did six weeks of rehearsal before. You know, any time you're doing a musical, it's not like you just show up and do the scene. Half the time with musicals you spend in rehearsals just doing the numbers. For me, it was just singing a lot. There was the song "My White Knight," which wasn't in the original movie, and I wanted to really work on that a lot so it was more conversational. So it wasn't just [mimics a musical drumbeat intro] and then [sings] song! So it came from the character. My natural inclination, because I'm a Broadway person, is to really "sell it," just sell it. And I guess in that way I did have to pull back because this is a different character than Lily St. Regis [does Lily voice] who is so out there. It was a challenge for me, and I think a good transition for me to play the leading lady. It was important for me to do.

The musical is making a comeback in Hollywood. It seems like this is a good time to be you.

I'm very excited. For me, it's like "C'mon, let's have that trickle-down effect from Moulin Rouge! and Chicago just keep on going." Because it has been frustrating for a performer like me who is very unique, and who sings and dances. Even on Broadway. Because not a lot of the new stuff I'm really right for, i.e. Rent. I can do it, but I don't really see myself that way. I'm really a product of the old-fashioned musical. I love doing stylized work. I just have an affinity for it. I think there are some people who are contemporary and do great in that and I like working in it, but there's an element of "old-fashionism" in me. I have an album out which is 30s and 40s music. It just seems so logical that I would do that record because if I believed in reincarnation, that era would have been a time I lived.

Are there any particular musicals you'd love to help make into films?

Mmm-hmm! On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Because as much as I love the Barbra Streisand movie, I think there's room now with the fantasy - she goes back in time, it would be really cool to film that stuff. We could do so much with it, with the camera. I hate to even touch Oklahoma! but you know, it's 2003. It's a different time. I'd love to do Oklahoma! Pajama Game is another really fun show.

The stars of Broadway used to be the biggest stars in America. Do you ever think that maybe you were born in the wrong era?

Yeah, I do. It's kind of frustrating because I do see myself in that way. And other people do too - I get asked that a lot. I do feel sometimes, "Gee, why couldn't I have been born 50 years prior?" But there's a reason I'm here now and the way I see it, maybe these (Hollywood musicals) are going to come back. Maybe I'll get some opportunities to do some cool things for film. I'm all for people doing more musicals on television also. Because I grew up in Oklahoma and I didn't get to come to New York whenever I wanted. I never even saw a Broadway show until I was in college. My parents took me to the road touring companies of the shows and to the ballet. That was my fix. When they played The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz (on television), I was like, "Nobody mess with me, man. The Sound of Music is on. Everybody get out, I'm having my cookies and I'm watching the show!"

Besides the fact that the music is great in them, is there anything about the older musicals which you identify with personally?

Yeah, I think you can be sexy but I think it's even sexier to have an innocence about you, not to give it all up. And that's very popular of that time. Not a slam against any singers today, but it's just so all out there. That's why we have weight obsession, and 10 year olds are wearing hardly any clothes. I'm not trying to get on my soap box, but I just think the public is speaking and we do long for a more innocent time. We live in a time, as you know, when the world is completely up in arms. We really don't know what's going to happen. So things like Music Man, I think people are just going to eat it up. We have "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", "The Bachelorette," "Joe Millionaire," "Fear Factor." I mean, how many of these shows can we have? Don't we have enough reality in our lives already? How about a little fantasy? Where the stories actually make sense and hold up, you know?

Tell us about how your involvement with the role of Sally in Charlie Brown originated.

This was the revival. They had done it in like '67. They had the role of Patty in there normally, not Peppermint Patty, just Patty. Kind of like an amalgam of all the girls. And when I auditioned, I go in and sing and the director looks at me and goes, "Look, I have an idea but I can't tell you about it right now because it has to get ok'd by Charles Schulz. But I can't tell you about it until you tell me if you're going to do the job or not." [laughs] So I went home and thought about it and my intuition said, "Do this job. Doesn't matter what you play, do this job." I show up the first day of rehearsal and they give us all this paraphernalia, as part of the Schulz estate, for our characters - books, hats, etc. and when they got to me they laid down Sally and said, "You're going to play Charlie Brown's little sister Sally." Basically I got to go through all of the comic strips Charles Schulz ever wrote and pick my own material.

And Sally had some great material in those comics!

Fabulous material, little did I know. We went out of town and did three or four cities before we did New York. I had that luxury of trying things out and doing it out of town. What was so funny is that I would read a strip and think, "This is going to be a huge laugh. Huge." I'd go out there and do it and it'd be crickets. And then I'd read another strip and go, "I don't know if that's going to work." And it would be a huge laugh. By the time I was in New York, I was good to go.

Did you ever meet Charles Schulz?

I didn't. But he sent me flowers when I was nominated for the Tony Award. He called me. I was like "who's on the phone?" I couldn't believe it. He said, "I want you to know I've heard from everybody how special you are and that you really bring this character to life." And there was something in his voice that broke my heart because he was thanking me. And I was like, "Well, thank you for writing it!" And then when I won the Tony, he called me and then he passed away not long after that. And his family called and asked if I would sing at his memorial. I was in the middle of something, I can't remember what it was I was doing, but I took a day off and I got in trouble for it too. Not in trouble, but they were not happy. But I was like, "You know what? I'm going. This man is, first of all, an American icon. And he means a lot to me and I never met him." That's one of my biggest regrets in life, that I didn't get to meet him.

What did you sing at the service?

[sings briefly] “Happiness is/Two kinds of ice cream” - I would say it wasn't my best because I was very choked up. But it didn't matter because his spirit was there, you know?

Did you get any negative feedback from Broadway people when you went off to do your sitcom “Kristin?”

Not that I was doing it, but that there was an abandonment of Broadway. Which I thought was stupid because if I have a sitcom, more people will know who I am and when I come back to Broadway, more people will buy tickets. Everybody knows I'm a singer and I'm a musical theater person. Everybody. And I will always be that. That's my soul, my heart, all that stuff. And I will never abandon theater because it's just my favorite thing to do. But it's like this year I could have done Thoroughly Modern Millie or Music Man. What am I going to choose? Music Man, because more people are going to see it. And it's not just to advance my career, it's because more people out in Idaho are going to see the show than will ever see me on Broadway. There are some Broadway stars who stay strictly on the stage. But I'm an actor, why wouldn't I want to do all of it? I've just signed another deal with Universal to do another pilot. I was just asked by a journalist downstairs,"Why would you even consider doing another sitcom? Because you don't need it." And I said, "Because I like it. It's fun work! It's a challenge every week to do a new script." I want to work and I love working on TV. I do concert work everywhere, I'm doing the Kennedy Center. Jennifer Lopez does it all, why can't I do different things?

What's coming up next?

I'm going to do a new Broadway show called Wicked, it's the back story between Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West. And I play Glinda the Good, who's not really so good. She's got a lot of issues, that girl. [laughs] Of course, that makes it fun to play. So that's my next big year commitment. We'll open on Broadway next Halloween.

You seem to be on the verge of pulling off a career few have done before, with success on both Broadway and in Hollywood. Is there anyone whose career you look to for inspiration, who you’d like to emulate?

It's hard because the people I want to emulate are Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews. It's hard because it's a different time. But I do think there's a way "to do it all." Someone like Julie Andrews because not only was she given this voice from God, but one thing I really like about her is she's a really good actress. Not just The Sound of Music, but Victor/Victoria. She's so funny and she's not just a singer, she's an actor. Also in her personal life she's a real person, she's a gem. I've had the opportunity to meet her a couple of times. I did the Kennedy Center Honors for her, when they were honoring her. That was very intimidating. But she's somebody who I would like to emulate because she's done it all. I do a lot of things which are written for me. I'm not easily fit into a slot, so you can either look at that as good or bad. I'm not going to be Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Although I've played roles like that, really where I seem to shine are in shows where I got to originate the roles. That's what every actor wants really, because then they don't have to follow in anybody's footsteps.

Jerry Hall: The Hollywood Interview

This interview with Jerry Hall originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Venice Magazine, during Jerry's run as Mrs. Robinson in the play of "The Graduate".

"Ms. Hall, you are trying to seduce us!"
As a riveting Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," Jerry Hall does exactly that.

by Terry Keefe

Benjamin Braddock doesn't stand a chance against Mrs. Robinson today. It's the beginning of August in Manhattan, and under the hand of director Peter Lawrence, the National Touring production of "The Graduate" is running through the famous seduction scene between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in a large Broadway rehearsal space. As Mrs. Robinson, Jerry Hall puts the moves on the hapless Benjamin (played to jittery perfection by Rider Strong of Cabin Fever and "Boy Meets World" fame) and some legendary lines are uttered. Rider remarks nervously, "Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me." And after a good laugh and a few disarming comments to the contrary, Jerry comes back with Mrs. Robinson's infamous "Would you like me to seduce you?" Over Benjamin's protests, she proceeds to do just that, setting the groundwork for the affair that follows by letting Benjamin know she's available to him and thereafter stripping nude briefly. After that fateful encounter, Benjamin is hooked, just as the audience will be. Even in this bare rehearsal setting, Jerry Hall is a magnetic presence that you can't take your eyes off of. Incredibly poised, she creates a Mrs. Robinson of great physical power, who practically hypnotizes Benjamin with the strength of her stare. In her voice, there's an underlying current of challenge to Benjamin, as if she's saying, "I dare you to walk away from me. I know you can't." There is also a layer of sadness and decadence in the performance which achieves the difficult task of making you feel a bit sorry for Mrs. Robinson, even as she's wrecking the lives of everyone around her.

The show is, of course, based on the landmark 1967 film of the same title, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. And in turn, the film was adapted from the 1962 novel by Charles Webb. For those uninitiated as to the plot, Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college with honors and has returned to spend the summer at home with his parents. He wants a future that will be "different," although the staid upper middle-class Californian existence of his family offers exactly the opposite. Confused and naive, Benjamin embarks on an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the bored wife of his father's business partner. It's all just a fun diversion until Benjamin meets Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (played in this production by Devon Sorvari), and falls in love with her. The play opened in London in March 2000, with Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson, and was an instant hit. Jerry Hall would soon step into Mrs. Robinson's sultry shoes on the West End for a successful run of a few hundred performances. And she'll arrive this month in L.A. for a series of shows at the Wilshire Theatre.

Although "The Graduate" has become the stage role that Jerry Hall is most famous for, she's been practically living onstage these past few years, also appearing in the West End productions of "The Vagina Monologues" (as well as in the North American touring performance of that show in Austin, Texas) and "The Play What I Wrote." She also recently received raves for her 52-minute monologue in "Picasso's Women," which toured England. There were some successful prior acts in her life, of course. Hall is one of the world's most famous models, having embarked on that career at the age of 16, when she left Gonzales, Texas, to move to Paris. Along the way, she became equally famous as the wife, and then ex-wife, of Mick Jagger (who she speaks about fondly and regards as a close friend). But from the looks of things, it seems safe to say that she'll also be remembered for her acting talent. During the course of our conversation, she expresses her desire to continue acting on stage for the rest of her life and mentions Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a future dream role.

There are two things that immediately came to mind when speaking to Jerry Hall in person. The first is that she barely appears to have aged since her modeling shots from the 1970s. The second is that she makes you feel like the only person in the room, despite the fact that there are several people working in different sections of the rehearsal space during our interview. Like we said, Benjamin Braddock never stood a chance.

What were some of the biggest challenges of creating your Mrs. Robinson?

Jerry Hall: Well, you always have to have sympathy for her. But she's having inappropriate sex with a young boy who's her best friend's son. So that's horrible, that's really not good. She's an alcoholic. She's a bitch, she says bitchy things to her daughter all the time. But you have to find the sympathy too. She's an intelligent woman, she's very well-educated. She's in a loveless marriage with this boring guy because she got pregnant young and had to get married. And she's restless. In that time period, a lot of women were frustrated with just being housewives. And so instead of just giving up, she's fighting. She's fighting her own battle. So I admire her for that. And in the end, she wants her daughter to rebel, you know? She's pushing her to rebel. So she does have some redeeming qualities that you have to find.

She's so matter of fact about the negative portions of her life. Like when she asks Benjamin, "Did you know I'm an alcoholic?"

She likes to shock. She gets a perverse kick out of shocking. I mean, the whole thing with her being nude in front of him. And it's funny how even nowadays when you see somebody nude on stage, it's shocking. The audience is shocked.

What do you feel from the audience at the moment you appear nude in this show?

They're shocked! [laughs] Benjamin's so freaked out and so they're [also] laughing. It's a lovely thing for the audience to be both shocked and laughing. I think laughter is very good for people. I love comedy. Comedy's the kind of thing I'm trying to do the most.

Did you find you were a natural at comedy right from the beginning?

No. I love doing it. I find it really funny, and that's kind of contagious. If you sort of find it funny, the audience will sort of find it funny. But to do comedy, the timing has to be exact, you know? And you have to play it straight, really straight, otherwise it's not funny. You can't play it for laughs. Comedy really comes from the seriousness of it.

This is a role that was created by Kathleen Turner, onstage at least. Is there anything you did to deliberately make the role your own?

Well, I didn't try to copy her at all. She's an amazing actress. She has such strength. She delivers lines like Mae West. And she's very, very funny. But we're very different. You just make it your own. It's a big mistake to try to copy, even a tiny portion, because it throws it all off.

Did you study the film much prior to doing the show or did you choose not to look at it?

I watched it like three years ago, once, before doing the show the first time. But then I decided not to watch it again. Because it's very different. The show is actually more like the book. The book is much more helpful to get the character the way she's written in the play.

How were you cast originally?

John Reid, the original producer in London, used to be the manager of Elton John. He's a friend of mine. I had been to the Cannes Film Festival and was wearing all these jewels and things. All these pictures in magazines and in the papers. And I guess he saw that and said, "Oh, she'd be a good Mrs. Robinson." I'd been to see the play with Kathleen Turner and loved it so much. And Sacha Brooks, the other producer, was there. He said he saw me outside smoking a cigarette in-between and he thought, "She'd make a good Mrs. Robinson." So the two of them at the same time sort of thought, "Let's get Jerry in for an audition." I got an acting coach to help me and I worked on an audition. I worked really, really hard and memorized the whole thing. I went in and auditioned and they were like, "Great! You've got the part." I was really thrilled.

Were you nervous the first night in front of an audience?

Oh God, yes. On my first preview, around 100 people stood up and took pictures while I was standing there nude. It caused a riot with them trying to get them to stop. And then they [the British press] reviewed the first preview.

Which they're not supposed to do.

It was just the worst. It was like walking through fire, I was just getting through it. But we got through it. And then some of the people came back and reviewed it on the right night and they wrote some nice things. We had a huge hit and we were sold out for 6 months. So it was good.

Because you started as a model, has it been a challenge to get the press to take you seriously as an actress?

I got my best reviews on my 3rd play. Because my second was "The Vagina Monologues," and they were like, "Well, anybody can do that." They were quite nice but then when I did my 52-minute monologue (in "Picasso's Women"), they were like "Wow!" So that was nice. But look, like anything in life, acting isn't something you just get up and do. Especially theater acting. You need to practice. You need to work at it. You need to get up vocal power. It's just been an amazing learning process. But I'm totally hooked on the magic of it.

Do you have a favorite scene in the play?

I love the scene which is gearing up to the hotel bedroom scene. When I'm asking him if he's a virgin, asking him if this is his first time. Very awkward, you know [laughs].

Did you "find" Mrs. Robinson again pretty quickly after the hiatus from doing the role, between this production and the West End production, or did it take some time?

It took a while. It's kind of hard in the beginning whenever you go into rehearsal with a bunch of strangers. And you're terrible and feel awkward. And everyone's doing their bit but badly. It takes awhile to get good. A lot of bonding things are going on too, and I like that. You gear up and you start to get up to speed. It's a whole growing process. There's a very different dynamic with different actors. But I love the actors [on this production] and I love the director. Peter is beautiful. He's great, he helped me a lot. It's also always fun to come back to something that I've done and have another go at it, having had a lot of work in-between.

How many Benjamins have you been through since you started doing the show?

Three [laughs, indicates Rider Strong]. He's the third one. They're all different and they've all been very good.

Do you remember the first time you saw the film version of The Graduate?

Oh yeah, I do. I loved it. I adore Anne Bancroft. She's one of my favorite actresses. I always try to see anything that she's in. If I read in TV Guide that she's in some movie, I always make an effort to see it. That movie was such an important movie for the times. It was about young people having a voice. Of course, people can say it's dated but I don't think so. Because it's such an internal story of this boy and it's a story about love. How Benjamin and Elaine love each other and through all sorts of obstacles they manage to get together in the end. So it's like the classic fairy rescue story - the prince gets the princess from the wicked mother [laughs]. People also always like a sexual comedy, and there aren't that many of them. I always hear people tell me, "Oh God, that reminds me of when I was 17, this woman who seduced me. It was my first older woman." [laughs] So that brings out this kind of fantasy for a lot of men, there's that whole thing that people enjoy. Also, having done the play for so long, it's always amazing to me how many different things you can get out of this play [as a performer]. Using the same words you can still find new meaning. I think one of the great messages about this play is that parents shouldn't try to control their children. Let your children be who they are. Let them have a voice. And I think that's one of the hardest lessons to learn as a parent. I have teenagers and it's hard to not say something sometimes. You have to let them be who they are. That's one of the things that touches me about the play. It's fun also playing the older woman who's a seductress, you don't get many parts like that [laughs].

Have you talked to any of the principals from the film version since doing the play?

Mike Nichols came to see me in the play in London and he sent me a big box of olive oil. Because [in the show] I rub olive oil on my skin. And he wrote me a note which said, "This is to rub all over your beautiful body." He's lovely. I did another play which he came to see me in called "The Play What I Wrote." Mike Nichols took it to Broadway. They asked me to come to Broadway to do it, but I was doing another play then. But I did go do it in Belfast, Ireland, which was great. Great audience. I loved it. The audience there is kind of rowdy. They drink a lot and like to have a good time. And that play is kind of rowdy.

What would be your typical routine during the day of a performance?

Well, I sleep to 11. Because I think it's very important to be "peak" at 8 PM. You just can't do that if you wake up too early. And I do yoga every day and I meditate every day. I think the meditation's very important to keep focus. And then I spend time with my kids. I've already got my head in the part by about 3 PM. You have to save yourself a bit. You get like an athlete so you're really on, mentally and physically, at 8 PM. Then afterwards, you get this adrenaline rush and you've got to eat and chat with everyone and have a drink. But you can't stay up too late [laughs].