I’m sorry about making Kristin Chenoweth cry. It wasn’t on purpose, I swear. I mean, I knew that asking her about John Spencer, her recently deceased co-star on The West Wing, might be emotional, but I didn’t expect the choking back of tears. Sorry!
She’s so bubbly otherwise, too. Chenoweth is a tiny woman with seemingly boundless energy; her role as the wacky matriarch of a clan of ultra-positive RV-ing Christians actually seems sort of like what I had expected her to be in real life. And she did have that impossibly huge, megawatt smile going on most of the time in this interview.
Until I made her cry.
Q: Did you come up with a back story for this family?
Chenoweth: I love the twist at the end; you can’t judge a book by its cover. Because clearly Mary Jo is smart, she’s sells beauty products and musical car horns. But I think for me, what I decided, and Jeff was on board with this, is that we were the Monroes at one point. In our own way, our sweet southern way, we’d gotten a little bit out of the loop and we wanted to get back to family. So I strongly recommend if anybody has a dysfunctional family, definitely get trapped in a little car, or bus, and go driving across country. It’s great therapy.
Q: What do you think of all the modern appliances?
Chenoweth: I still can’t open applications in a Blackberry. As far as I go is email and a cell phone. I’d love to get more electronically whatever that word is, savvy, but it’s never going to happen. I still write letters.
Q: Did you know there was going to be a musical theme?
Chenoweth: I had no idea. I had no idea I was going to have to sing or yodel or anything like that. Or play the tambourine on my boobs, or anything like that.
Q: That was funny.
Chenoweth: Thank you! They were there, and they were in the way. But he was like, when I auditioned for the role, you guys, I went in there and he said, ‘man, I hope you’re good, because you’re perfect for this part. I was like, I’m so nervous, can I read like this? I started sweating. And he knew I was stage person, but he wasn’t really familiar with- that I could really sing. The first day, at the reading, he said “can you sing in any way? Like can you yodel?” And I was like, “where have you been? Yes, that’s what I can do!” And Jeff was like, and I can play the guitar, and the banjo, and I can also play the harmonica. So that’s how never ending song of love was born. And Barry kept saying, “I don’t know how you guys”…it’s like we knew each other before, Jeff and I, but we didn’t. It just was a great casting…Barry must have known something; he got lucky, because both of us could sing and play instruments.
Q: When he found out, did he want to put in more musical numbers?
Chenoweth: Never ending song of love was the first scene we shot. I think once he saw that, he was like, “ah, there we go.” And route 66 was born. We knew we were going to have to learn that, and then Cheryl sang little GTO, which was, I love her, she’s my dear friend, but she should never sing. She’s a base. She’s a base.
Q: How do you make faith a part of your life in this industry?
Chenoweth: It’s very very hard, because the minute you say I’m a Christian or have faith, everyone gets scared. I’m not like Tom Cruise scientology faith, like kind of wacky, I don’t mind saying that, but I do have faith and I do pray and it was part of my childhood and I’m really glad I have it, because it’s what’s kind of sustained me. But do I meet people at Starbucks and say they’re going to hell? No.
Q: Is there pressure from the Christian community to accept roles?
Chenoweth: Yes! Yes! Every decision I make I always weigh it very carefully. And I – playing Annette Bening’s lesbian lover in Running With Scissors was an important decision for me to make, and I knew that doing an FHM cover would bring certain backlash from the Christian community. But I don’t live my life in judgment and I don’t think anyone should. My best friend is gay, that’s not what I’m about at all, I don’t try to walk any sort of line, I guess I’m somewhat of a dichotomy, because I do like to perform and act and sing, but I’m a person of faith, that’s a major aspect of who I am, but I’m also in this industry, and there are certain business decisions I make. Would I do Playboy? Probably not. But do I judge people who do? No. And scene.
Q: Was the family values theme something that really appealed to you?
Chenoweth: Yeah. Because I do think that families don’t take…when I was growing up, and probably y’all too, we took family vacations. It doesn’t seem…and maybe I’m living in a plastic bubble, but it doesn’t seem like families do that as much anymore. And that’s when I love to see the Monroes- their trip to Maui was cancelled and they’re going in an RV, I think the Gorneckies are there to remind them that being together is a good thing, and maybe not so much the singing, but going through experiences together, that really appealed to me. I love this movie because I love that my niece and nephew are going to be able to go with their mom and dad, and they’re all going to be able to enjoy it. That’s what I like about it.
Q: Was it hard to keep a straight face with Robin Williams?
Chenoweth: I deserve an Academy Award. That’s what I think. He’s so funny, and of course you know this, but when he goes off, and of course it’s not going to be in the movie because it’s too dirty and Barry can’t keep it in, but it makes you laugh and makes you better and makes you more relaxed, and it starts with him. He made us better, I think. I hope I get to work with him again. Maybe there will be a sequel. Ski camp.
Q: Is it odd to perform and not to sing?
Chenoweth: It’s weird, I didn’t get cast in any of the movies I did…this year I didn’t sing at all, I don’t think. Yeah. No singing. But this one was weird, it just popped up, it happened afterwards I think, that’s what’s so weird. But when he first said, “I had an idea for a song,” I thought, “oh, that’s why I’m here.” But he watched recently- Barry watched the DVD I did with the New York Philharmonic of an opera called Candide, and he said “If I had known, I would have never been able to give you a note.” He said, “I just didn’t realize.” He was very kind, but he had no idea. And he didn’t know about Jeff either, isn’t that weird? Jeff’s like, “I play the guitar, and here’s my banjo, and here’s my…” it was so weird, he was like Ms. America.
Q: Do you prefer theater or film?
Chenoweth: It’s so hard to say. Certainly theater, I’m so there. I’m probably never more comfortable then I am when I’m onstage, which I should probably get into therapy and find out why that is. I do…I am enjoying making movies and doing West Wing and I like that experience a lot. It’s just different. It’s just a different animal. But I’ve been doing a lot of concert work and that fulfills…when I’m doing a lot of this kind of work it fulfills that need to be used in that way. Two weeks ago I premiered a new opera with Placido Domingo, which was the thrill of a lifetime, so I’m still doing a lot of different kinds of music.
Q: Do you see yourself as a comedic actress?
Chenoweth: It certainly seems like other people do. I never think about, ‘how funny can I make this’? It just seems like it works out that way. There are certain beats I look for, like wouldn’t it be funny if…and luckily I work with directors who have allowed me to do that. Certainly in the theater I’m considered more of a comedian, but when I did “Wicked” it was very much walking the line of dramatic and…dramedy, I hate that word, but drama and comedy. Comedy is…we all know that it’s the hardest thing, I think, and the people that make it look easy are genius, and that’s my whole goal. I never want people to think, look how hard she’s working. I hate that. So in running with scissors though, it’s a very dramatic role. I just hope that I can keep it interesting, it helps life too.
Q: What’s harder for you- straight theater or musicals?
Chenoweth: To me it’s all the same. In musicals we sing because we can’t speak anymore. We break into song. But basically it’s just a chance for us to show off onstage. I’ve done two Broadway plays, and it’s funny, a lot of the older people are like, oh, I thought you were going to sing. And that’s all right, you know, I’ll take that. To me it’s all the same, because it’s all coming from the same real place…singing, acting, TV.
Q: When will the first West Wing without John Spencer air?
Chenoweth: It airs tomorrow night. My character will be the one to tell the country basically the news. You know what? We knew he had had heath problems a few years ago, but since I came on the show a year and a half ago he became my main person on it, and they developed this budding romance or whatever it was between us, and he also was very supportive of me outside of the West Wing. So we had a very close bond. When he passed away, it’s funny, I said, “Leave it to John to die on hiatus,” because he died the day after we wrapped for Christmas. There isn’t a day when any of us don’t miss him. I have a hard time different from probably Allison. But he was my main guy. I just…when he died it seemed like the natural progression for our show, it wasn’t going to go off the air; it seemed like the right thing to do, in a way? You know? We all miss him, every day we miss him. He loved being an actor. He was all about just being a working actor. And he’d say, “Kristin, ever day without a cigarette is hell on earth.”
Q: What’s happening with the election?
Chenoweth: It’s coming up in the next…I’m going to take a drink on that.
Q: Will you be going back to Broadway?
Chenoweth: Yeah, I did a brief showing of “The Apple Tree” last year, it was a really great success and I’d love to revive it, I don’t see it in a long run, but I can certainly see it at the Roundabout or something. We’re trying to work that out, but Mel Brooks keeps talking to me about “Young Frankenstein,” he’s just got to finish it, and I’ll come do it.
Q: Would you go back for “Wicked”?
Chenoweth: Yeah, I would, I just did my Disney hall concert in LA, I asked Alanis Morisette to sing for good with me. I’d love to do it with her; she would be brilliant, absolutely brilliant. That would be fun.
Q: Can you see it going to the screen? Would you be in it?
Chenoweth: Sure. You’d have to pay me not to. If I have a new house in the hills that I’m not going to do “Wicked”…but yeah I’d love to absolutely.
Q: Have they talked to you about coming back?
Chenoweth: Yeah, we did when we did my deal. But here’s the thing, I have to wait five years from opening night, for rights reasons or something. But I hope universal does end up doing it. But whether I’m in it or not, because I could be sixty five…I could play Madame Morrible when it comes out, but it really speaks to a young audience, and I would love to see the Broadway musical. Because let’s face it, with Producers and with Rent, we want to exceed that. We want to have another Chicago, and I’d like to see Wicked be that musical.
Q: How often do you rehearse your voice?
Chenoweth: I vocalize every day. In the shower, I’m sure Jimmy Smits is really sick of hearing me vocalize in my trailer, ours is right next to each other. He says he’s not, I think he’s being kind. Yeah, I have to, because we have concert dates in the middle of West Wing or in the middle of RV, you can’t just pull it out of your butt, you got to work on it, you know what I mean? And I guess for this last thing I did in Washington I rehearsed…I’d had the music for five months. And I’ll be making my Met debut in a couple of years, and I’m starting to work on that now, so.
Q: Will you sing country?
Chenoweth: If it doesn’t kill my teacher? I grew up in Oklahoma, and I grew up with the influence of Dolly Parton, Eureka, and Garth, and basically the rest of…it just came naturally, probably because I heard it my whole life. It was getting rid of it, when I went to college my voice teacher was like ‘You have an amazing voice, but you must stop yodeling. You must get serious.’ It wasn’t until college when she really opened up my voice to teach me how to really, really sing. On the first day of school she said, I’m going to ask one freshman to sing, and I could feel it was going to be me, I don’t know why. So I sang New York New York, so inappropriate, and at the end of it everybody’s clapping, I was so happy, I had my little dance in the middle of it, and she goes, “I can’t wait to teach you how to sing.” And I was devastated, but now I know what she meant.