Patti LuPone’s been busy. Between starring in the new Ryan Murphy Netflix show Hollywood, performing in Zoom concerts, giving no-holds-barred interviews in her signature outspoken fashion and giving us regular video updates from her basement, there’s no question that 2020 – coronavirus be damned— has already been Patti LuPone’s year.
But to many of us, EVERY year is Patti’s year. My love for the legendary diva spans decades of seeing her perform in countless shows and settings, including an evening almost 10 years ago when I got to see her sing at a Barnes and Noble in New York City to promote her deliciously honest memoir. Watching LuPone in that intimate setting solidified my love and admiration for this woman and was an evening I’ll never forget (partly because I was also seated right next to the late, great Zoe Caldwell— but that’s a story for another day.)
So you can imagine how thrilled and honored I was to get a chance to talk to her briefly in the midst of her busy quarantine schedule. Patti filled me in on the challenges of trying to stay productive while stuck at home, chatted about the current state of the arts in general and theatre in particular, filled me in on how she prepared to play a female studio executive in 1947 Hollywood, and, yes, gave me some insight into those basement videos that have turned her into a full-blown Twitter legend.
TZ: I know you’re getting this question a lot probably, but how’s your quarantine going today?
PL: It’s— well, today, you know, I’m working, which is great. I’m working, you know, I’m doing press for Hollywood, so I feel engaged. But it’s difficult. I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult.
TZ: Yeah, I find that it’s different every day, too.
PL: Yes. Every day is different. Every day is different.
TZ: But it seems almost like… correct me if this sounds crazy, but it seems like you’ve been almost busier now than you’ve been any other time recently. I don’t know if it just seems that way. Do you feel that way?
PL: No, it is! I feel like— my expression is, there’s something to be said about being overexposed in quarantine! (laughs)
TZ: Yeah, what’s funny is, I joked with a friend of mine recently that I feel like I’m going through this quarantine one Patti LuPone interview at a time.
TZ: Like, you’re kind of just holding our hands and taking us from one day to another. I don’t know, it gives me something to look forward to every day, so I appreciate that.
PL: (laughs) Oh, you’re sweet Tom, thank you. But you know, I just did this reading for the Actor’s Fund of David Mamet’s “November”, and it’s like… I thought, my god, I just finished Hollywood, and now we’re doing a play, and I just finished the Sondheim benefit…
TZ: It feels like the Coronavirus has given us a Patti renaissance of some kind.
PL: I think you’re right!
TZ: I’m into it. If there’s one silver lining, that’s the one I’ll take, honestly.
PL: Oh, you sweetheart, thank you.
TZ: Speaking of “November”, which you were hilarious in, by the way…
PL: Oh, thank you.
TZ: I wanted to ask you, regarding that, how do you feel about Zoom plays, and this new thing that theatre companies are trying to do?
PL: Well, they’re difficult. I don’t think it’s going to replace live theatre, but until we know how to bring back live theatre safely, if this is how we get ideas to the public then that’s what it has to be. They’ll perfect it, because we were the first one on Jeffrey Richards’ “Best of Broadway”— we were the first one, and we had technical difficulties… that’s the other problem, is everybody’s bandwidth or whatever it’s called, we had a lot of technical difficulties, and as you could see different lighting, etc. etc., but as I said, if you can get the ideas out there, if we can still create a version of an idea, then I think it’s necessary. I think people— you know, the thing that’s distressed me enormously in this present broken dysfunctional administration, is I have not heard the words “art” or “culture” once. And that is an essential inherent part of our existence. That is an inherent right of human nature. And, as you can see, what’s happening… so much of it is happening on the internet now. And I think, to your first question, “how is quarantine treating me”… I think I am my work, and if I’m not creating then I lose my mooring. So… (sigh) you know, it’s difficult. But when you turn the internet on and you see the Corps de Ballet of Paris, or you see the New York City Ballet, or Juilliard— we just did this Juilliard Bolero— everybody is trying to continue to create.
TZ: It’s difficult too, because with “November”, you guys did such a great job with it, but it’s one of those things where because of technical difficulties, with lag and everything, getting that Mamet pacing can be challenging.
TZ: It’s just not the same as seeing it live.
PL: No, right. Exactly.
TZ: In terms of Broadway closing down, I know that obviously we don’t know when Company is coming back yet, correct?
PL: No. No.
TZ: And I was supposed to see it the weekend that you guys closed, so…
PL: Oh no!
TZ: I can only imagine how it felt for you guys, but I wanted to ask you, what was it like performing in the weeks and days leading up to the closure?
PL: Well, we didn’t know, really. I mean, there were rumors on the streets… not that we were closing. COVID-19 was in the atmosphere, and then we found out that an usher at the Booth, which is right next door to us, tested positive, so there was a little anxiety, and then we heard that half the cast of Moulin Rouge across the boulevard, across Eighth Avenue, was infected, and then we heard that Broadway was going to shut down for a day or so. And then our producer, Chris Harper, came in and said that we’d be shut down for a couple of weeks. Which is now, what, my 51st day in quarantine? With no end in sight. But we— I don’t think we brought any of that onstage, and I don’t think the audience brought any of that into the building. Everybody just was doing their job and the audience was enjoying it. When they actually said we were shutting down, nobody wasn’t surprised. Everybody was in shock. I mean, the difference is… Wow, Broadway? Shut down? Broadway, dark?
TZ: Yeah, it’s unprecedented.
PL: Yeah, I think the other time it happened was 9/11 but it only shut down, I think, for a couple of days. As you said, it’s unprecedented.
TZ: And now with the, I guess, “hiatus” of the show, what are you doing to stay connected to the material? Are you doing anything to stay connected to it?
PL: (deadpan) Nope. (laughs)
TZ: You don’t feel the need to crack the script open, or go through the songs or anything…
PL: (laugh) I don’t know when I’m going back! I don’t know when I’m going back— I don’t wanna— you know, there’s an expression, “to leave it in the dressing room”? We were doing these Zoom meetings where we were running lines, and I actually backed away from them. I said, “this is not healthy. We can’t do this, don’t wanna leave it on the internet.” And so, it’s kind of dangerous— we’ve been gone for such a long time now that we are gonna have to go back into rehearsal, and when that happens I’ll go back to the script. I actually thought about, you know, I did another Zoom meeting with the graduating class of a director friend of mine from the university of North Carolina, and he had professional script writers on, and the guy actually said, “if you’re doing a musical you should sing through the score at 8 o’clock”, and I went, “oh shit, maybe that’s what I should be doing”… but of course, I’m not. (laugh)
TZ: Are you singing at all? Are you keeping the voice going?
PL: No. I’m trying to figure it out!
TZ: Well, but that’s true, I think that’s true of all of us—
PL: Yes! People say, “are you giving or is anybody giving you advice?” I went, “nobody’s giving anybody advice.”
TZ: No one knows!
PL: We’re just trying to figure it out! Exactly! It’s so crazy, I wake up in the morning and I go, I’m slowly making progress with some sort of structure. I will eventually sing. But what I have to do is figure out how to start the day. That’s my problem. If I can’t figure out, if I can’t do something constructive immediately, the day is gone. And so, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. And I’ve written down structure in my notes, and what to do, you know… stretch, sing through my concerts, sing through Company… you think I’ve done it? I’ve worked out and stretched, but you think I’ve sung? It’s really really hard.
TZ: And I find, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I find that if I don’t take a shower right when I get out of bed, I’ll take a shower at 6 PM.
PL: That’s right.
TZ: Like, it’s either right away or never.
PL: That’s right, or maybe never.
TZ: I want to talk to you about Hollywood, obviously. First of all, what a part.
TZ: What a role.
PL: My first really big role in film. You know what I mean? A juicy role in film. Yeah.
TZ: And it starts out with this strength that she has and pivots to such vulnerability near the end… it was amazing to watch you do that.
PL: Oh, thank you.
TZ: Did you watch or read anything specific to prepare for it?
PL: I read Irene Selznick’s— Ryan told me that it was very, very, very loosely based on Irene Selznick, and the only thing it was based on was the fact that she was the daughter of Louis B. Mayer and married to David O. Selznick, and so she was at the very very beginning of Hollywood. And the book is pretty fantastic, “A Private View”. And then, you know, I’m like everybody else in this country— I’m obsessed with Hollywood. I’m obsessed with the silver screen. I wanted to be a movie star. I knew that I would end up on the Broadway stage, but I wanted to be a rocker and I wanted to be a movie star. And when I finally got to Los Angeles, what happened was, you know, being in those costumes and working at Sunset and Gower studios in Hollywood, shooting a thing about Hollywood, and being right across the road from the Hollywood sign… I became obsessed with old Hollywood. And so, my friend came out, she wanted to see where Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding lived, where Montgomery Clift crashed his car. And so we found the address, and it said “Beverly Estate Drive”, and we wound up the road and we went, “well, no wonder he crashed the car, it’s a very windy road.” And then we just happened onto what’s left of Pickfair, and so I started to unearth— I found Louis B. Mayer’s original beach house in Santa Monica, which is still standing. And so you start to see old Hollywood. We left the ArcLight in Hollywood and I didn’t make a left hand turn when I was supposed to, and I started just to climb back up the Hollywood hill, and we went, “oh my god, that’s an old apartment building that actors used to live in.” And so, it’s there. You have to unearth it, though. And it was kind of great doing that. Kind of, you know, finding things that were still there that were… we shot at Paramount, we got in the van to go back to Sunset Gower, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign, and it had to have been an original sign, in Hollywood, that said “Hollywood Dream Apartments”. So it’s there! You just have to look for it, and it’s pretty magical.
TZ: It is kind of funny how Hollywood… it almost feels like the history is so rich, but like you said, you kind of have to really dig for it because there’s, like, this facade put on top of it now.
PL: Yeah, because it’s not about making movies anymore. Yeah, it’s less about making movies. That was the industry that drove that city. Now it could be any number of things that drive that city. And there was a time when they weren’t making movies in California anymore because of tax purposes, they were getting tax breaks someplace else… You know, moviemaking is coming back to New York. It should be treasured, because, I don’t know if it’s an American “invention”, but it’s something that was brought to the forefront by America, by the immigrants, by all the immigrants that came from Eastern Europe. The Polish Jews that came to America, half of them stayed in New York and formed the theatre, you know, the Yiddish theatre and beyond, and the other half went and created Hollywood.
TZ: Hearing you talk about this, I just want to see you do Sunset Boulevard again.
PL: (laughs) Did you see me in Sunset?
TZ: Unfortunately not in real life.
PL: Oh, you just mean like the basement tapes?
TZ: Oh, no, I just mean I want you to do it again!
PL: Oh. Not… yeah. Well. (laughs) That’s absolutely never gonna happen.
TZ: I know that there’s a history with it, but I’m just saying, for me you are Sunset Boulevard. So. Whatever.
PL: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
TZ: That all being said, I have to ask you this… you’ve mentioned there was a sex scene with Dylan McDermott that was cut, right?
TZ: What are the details, please?
PL: Well, it was a little rough. (laugh)
TZ: In what way? Was it a little too risqué?
PL: No, not risqué at all, it was… because they changed the plot point, they had to reshoot stuff. That’s where I was originally introduced to Jack, not the first scene that we see, but they rewrote. And they could’ve kept it in, but they didn’t. I mean, I don’t know, listen, I’m not an editor, I can’t say they could’ve kept it in, but it was because we had a relationship, because it was established at the beginning that I was an old customer of Ernie’s, it was familiar sex. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like I never met him before— we were old sexual partners. And it was the same thing that happened with David Cornswet, I didn’t know Dylan, but both of them were really sensitive and responsible actors. And all of those things are work. It’s kind of a fun idea to think about, but then it’s work. You know, you get there and you have to worry about camera angles and you have to worry about everything else, and so it is what it is. It’s nothing sexy. Too bad. (laughs)
TZ: Although David Corenswet did give you a little striptease, which, I’m sure that wasn’t too bad a day on set. I mean, that’s a good scene.
PL: (laugh) Yeah.
TZ: But that’s interesting that you say all of that was cut, because there is a sense of history between you and Dylan McDermott’s character even though that scene was cut.
TZ: Did you read Scotty Bowers’ book, by the way?
PL: No, and I have yet to see the documentary. No, I didn’t, no. It’s too bad that he died before we, you know, because he probably would’ve been a lot of help.
TZ: I want to talk to you real quick about your social media ascendance, which happened I think fairly recently.
TZ: What made you decide to join Twitter and how did you get so good at it?
PL: Well, I don’t even know that I’m good at it, but—
TZ: You are.
PL: I do know, it started with the concert work, you know, I do a lot of concert work, and my producer on the concert work said “you have to be on a social platform to tell people where you are, where you’re gonna be singing”, and I went “okay”. I stayed away from it because I don’t— that’s one of the mysteries that we’re lacking now in Hollywood, everybody knows everything about everybody. It’s so boring. You know, as opposed to mystery, as opposed to… those movies stars were mysterious, because they were untouchable. And so now they’re not. Movie stars are not movie stars anymore, which is such a drag. So I resisted it. And also, who’s got time to do it? I want to live my life, I don’t want to report on it. So she convinced me, and so we advertised the gigs I’m gonna do, but then… there are certain things that all of a sudden I think I need to tell somebody. (laugh) Like the basement tapes.
TZ: Which are so good, too.
TZ: And I love, by the way, that you don’t follow anyone. It just tickles me. I know that for you it’s probably not a power play, but it feels like a delicious power play.
PL: (laugh) You know, I think it’s all about… I don’t have time to live my life, let alone report on it, you know what I mean? Especially now, as we start from the very beginning, I can’t figure out how to live my life, so I can’t follow anybody else! I can’t just… well, you know what I’m saying.
TZ: Well, thank you so much for getting us through it. Honestly Patti, the best part of all of this is getting to watch you do your thing.
PL: Oh, thank you Tom, what a compliment, thank you so much.
TZ: I guess I don’t have time for any more questions, which is sad because I could talk to you forever.
PL: Oh you sweetheart. I could talk to you forever to. You’re a very good interviewer.
TZ: Thank you! This is my first time, believe it or not.
PL: Oh! Well, you’re good at it!
TZ: Thank you, I appreciate that!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tom Zohar is an actor, graphic designer, sometimes-playwright and theatre enthusiast living in San Diego. As specified in this article, this is indeed his first time interviewing a celebrity, and yes, Patti LuPone really did tell him he was good at it.