Kristin Chenoweth: Funny Girl
by Paul Fischer
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Bubbly and funny Kristin Chenoweth may be best known as one of Broadway’s hottest performers, but she has certainly made inroads into Hollywood of late. The Tony Award-winning actress, whose latest Broadway hit was Wicked, can be currently seen in what might be the last season of TV’s idiosyncratic Pushing Daisies, and hits the big screen this holiday season as Reese Witherspoon’s needy sister in the often farcical holiday comedy, Four Christmases, starring Vince Vaughn. In this exclusive interview, Chenoweth talked comedy, music and the future of both Pushing Daisies and the possible Wicked movie, with Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: What was the particular attraction of doing a comedy like Four Christmases? Was it just the idea of working with people like Vince and Reese, or was it the overall project?
Kristin Chenoweth: I guess it was like a combination of those, because I knew that it was to play Reese’s sister, and I really wanted to work with her, as I’ve admired her for a long time. And at the same time, it was a part that I haven’t really played on film yet, sort of a sister who’s a little bit envious, and passive-aggressive and such a fun character to play. So those were the two main things that—you know, the reasons that I wanted to do it.
PF: What about the look of this girl? I mean, she seems a little bit kind of almost sexed up, if you will.
KC: Totally. I think what she’s trying to do is prove more than prove to anybody else, but maybe prove to herself that she still has it. I mean life didn’t turn out quite the way she thought it would. And she has these kids, and this kind of husband that doesn’t say much. And—you know, one could say, “Did she settle?” Does she feel that she settled? And, you know, here was her sister, Kate, who was kind of like, the dork, growing up. And now things have reversed a little bit. So she wants to kind of say, “Hey. I’ve still got it going on.” [laughs]
PF: When you look at yourself in the mirror dressed up like that, and—you know, looking very sexy, do you find that—does that make you laugh?
KC: Yeah, it did. It made me laugh so hard. And also, when Vince and Reese come home for the first time and meet us, and—you know, my character’s meeting him, there’s a moment of desperation that she has when she meets him of, “Please find me attractive.” And again, I don’t think it was to hurt her sister, necessarily, as much as to prove to herself that she still can get men to like her. And, you know, I think when you’re wrapped up in your looks growing up so much, that it’s hard when you start to realize that there’s more to life than just the outside package. But Courtney’s still trying. And, you know, it was such a different character from who I am as a person. And, you know, that’s one of the things that’s so delicious about playing sort of a character that isn’t like you. You know, you live vicariously through these people.
PF: Now, Vince is not known necessarily for sticking to a script.
KC: Yes. [laughs]
PF: And it seems to me that maybe 90% of what he had to say was improvised. How did you play off him?
KC: Well, I mean, you’re not wrong. A lot of it was. What’s so great about what he does, and why he’s such a genius, is everything comes from—anything that comes out of his improv is also so about his character. It has to be about how the characters interact. It’s never just funny for funny’s sake. And, you know, all of us—all the actors that I worked with—we all improv’d a lot. And that’s actually very fun to do. And even if they didn’t use some of it, it’s very fun to just play and have that be part of the process. And, you know, here you have Vince, who’s just a master at it. It’s actually quite—I learned a lot. I do have a background in improv. But I learned a lot working with him. And it sharpened my skills in a way, that hadn’t been sharpened like that in many years. So it was fun.
PF: How do you keep a straight face during some of that stuff? Particularly watching—I mean, that pageant sequence I thought was just unbelievable.
KC: Oh, me too. I just was dying. It was—again, you know, it’s like—I’m not acting. I’m just laughing my butt off. And hopefully the camera’s not catching me do it. But when he plays Joseph, and Reese is up there playing Mary, and she’s sweating to death out of nerves and he’s relishing in it—oh, I just—I thought it was hilarious.
PF: Now, do you see yourself as a character actress, or a character actress in a lead actress’s body?
KC: I’ve been called both. It’s interesting, that’s a really good question. I think the kind of funky thing with me is that I could kind of look like a leading person, but I’m really a character actress. I view myself as a character actress.
PF: Are those parts easier to find than the kind of leading ladies, if you will, on screen, anyway? I know you play them on stage.
KC: You know what’s hard, Paul? Is finding a character actress that’s the lead. You know, those are the parts that are hard to find. I like the leading roles, but I’m always attracted to the more—the more complicated character. The one that has some funny things about her. And, you know, I always look at parts like Madeline Kahn did. And I’ve been compared to her so many times, but I think the reason why, is that she was—she could have played the lead. But you never wanted to see Madeleine Kahn play the lead. You wanted her to be Madeline Kahn. And the parts that are available to a very funny, quirky character actress in a leading role are few and far between.
PF: In fact, you named your dog after Madeline Kahn, didn’t you?
KC: I sure did. I sure did. [laughs] And she’s got just as much personality as the real one.
PF: When you decided to do Pushing Daisies, was part of it security in doing a television show for a period of time? Or would you really want to do something like that?
KC: Well, you know, for me the security would be to stay on Broadway, because that’s more secure for me. But when it wasn’t really about leaving the stage and going to TV, or going to TV because I wanted to take a break from the theater. It was really about the part. And I was doing a show called The Apple Tree on Broadway at the time. And him and the producers and Barry Sonnenfeld had come see the show. And I’d read the pilot, and I said, “I love this show. It’s the most unique thing I’ve ever seen. But, you know, Olive is only in two scenes. [laughs] And I’d rather stay and do Young Frankenstein on Broadway, if that’s going to be the kind of role.” I said, you know, “It’s not like I have to have a bigger part. But I just have to have—there has to be some weight to it.” And then Bryan told me where all he saw the character going. And that’s when I knew that I wanted to be a part—I knew the show was going to make it—be a—be a hit no matter what. And by that, I just mean quality work. I knew it was going to be quality. But when I found out how the role of Olive would be integral into the love triangle, that’s what excited me.
PF: It’s ironic, I suppose, that you would have done Young Frankenstein, given the fact that you were going to play the same role as Madeline Kahn did in the movie.
KC: I know. You know, when Mel Brooks talked to me about doing Young Frankenstein— many years ago, by the way—but he said, “You’ve got to do it. You just have to do this part.” And I thought he meant the Teri Garr part. I just assumed. And he said, “No. You’re just twisted enough to play Madeline Kahn’s part.” And I took it as a compliment, of course. [laughs]
PF: I also found it rather curious that—well, curious and rather funny, that in 2006, you were named one of the 100 sexiest women in the world. Do you ever see yourself in that role?
KC: Oh, God, no. I have always felt—and this is what always gets people. I have played these roles where, you know, I’m very confident and sure of myself. And, you know, if you look at Wicked, you see Glinda, who was the pretty one. Who was the one that fit in, that was popular. And if you look at Courtney, she was that character. Whatever. I never felt that way. I always felt—you know, I was the kid on my block listening to—you know, Judy Garland and Édith Piaf and—you know, Count Basie. [laughs] And everybody else was listening to Madonna. And by the way, I was enjoying her as well. But, you know, my musical influences were very different for a girl growing up in Oklahoma. So—I don’t know if—I think that all those influences had to do with why I’m the musician that I’ve become. And also, the actress. Because like you said, I have really—I do love playing very different parts. And very different parts for me. Because in some way, I’m still just that little kind of dorky girl from Oklahoma who was the shortest person in her class. Who wanted to be a ballerina, but knew she was never going to be tall enough. And—you know, I’m just still that little girl they called “Shortie.”
PF: Did you ever expect for that little girl growing up in Oklahoma to find herself on the Broadway stage?
PF: And how surprised are you that that happened?
KC: I prayed. I prayed. But I never thought it would happen.
PF: And you’ve become very successful. I mean, you’re a star on the Broadway stage. Is that something that still surprises you?
KC: Yeah, it is. I still, whenever I have an opening night on Broadway, I still—you know, “Do you remember the first time that you ever had dreams?” And then my parents would take me to the tours, the Broadway tours that would come through town. And I thought, “If I could just be in the chorus. If I could just be in the chorus of a Broadway show, I’ll have made it.” What I didn’t realize is that—it used to upset me so bad about being so petite—was that the thing that held me back from being a ballerina was the thing that would help me later in life. And no, I was never going to be in the chorus, because I was too, if you will, unique. And in a way, it worked for me. In a way.
PF: Now, Universal obviously owns the screen rights to Wicked. Do you think that A, that movie will ever be made, and B, that you’ll be in it?
KC: Well, will it ever be made? Yes, I do think it will be made. I think—you know, there’s some sort of thing going on right now where everyone’s hearing that there’s going to be a movie. You know, there will be a movie. But I believe—and I could be wrong, but I believe it will be years before we see it as a movie, because—you know, Universal will really want to make sure that they suck it dry, so to speak in all the theaters. And if you look at movies like Chicago and Phantom of the Opera those were 20, 25 years after the fact. And I could see, definitely, me playing Madame Morrible at that point. [laughs] But I hope they really do it soon, so that I’m young enough to play Glinda.
PF: What’s the future of Pushing Daisies? Have you heard anything? I mean, the rumor is that this is the last year.
KC: Well, it’s driving me crazy. We wrapped Friday morning at five A.M. And we didn’t know whether to say goodbye or, “I’ll see you after Christmas.” You know, we literally do not know.
PF: So there’s no finale? I mean, if you don’t come back, there’s no finale?
KC: No. No, we shot our 13th episode, and it’s—you know, it’s not a conclusion episode by any means, Paul. And all I can tell you, is if ABC knows anything, they’re not saying. So they have to make an announcement, I would think, rather soon, so that our writers can go back to work.
PF: Now, you’ve got another movie coming out where you play a prostitute. Is that right?
KC: That’s correct, yes. It’s an indie movie.
PF: That’s definitely not typecasting.
KC: It’s a different role, again, for me. It’s very dramatic. It’s a very, very sweet story about a Catholic girl who grows up, and through all of her hardships, you see why she became a prostitute, and then what happens—what happens to her. Does—you know, she’s contemplating suicide. And the story touched me, as a religious—as a spiritual person, it touched me that person—no matter whether you believe in—whether you have a belief in a higher power or not, what happens when someone really grapples with these thoughts. And it’s just a wonderful story. I’m so proud of it. And I just can’t wait for it to come out.
QUESTION: Finally, do you sing in Rapunzel?
KC: I don’t. But you never know what’s going to happen. I know that Tinkerbell, this animated movie I just did—and I have three more sequels to do of that—they’re talking to me about singing in that. So, you know, whenever it fits, I’m never opposed to it. Unless it just seems gratuitous—extra, or not fitting. Then I’m obviously not wanting to do it. But, we’ll see!
PF: Will we see you on stage again any time soon?
KC: Well, you know, I’ve been offered some things. And again, I have to wait to see if Pushing Daisies goes. But if not, I could see me definitely going back to New York for a bit. I need to get my fix, you know?
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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