1. You made the move from beauty queen contestant to actress. What was that change like? Are there any big similarities? Differences?
I did compete in some pageants, but not that many—I was always a drama geek at heart. The biggest advantages to that were that it helped pay for my college degree and made me financially independent when I moved to New York. Also, I spent about 90% of my time as an HIV/AIDS acitivst…once you open your eyes to what’s going on in the world beyond your own ambitions, it makes you a far, far better and more aware artist.
2. While you have been on the Broadway stage several times, you might be most known for portraying Vivienne in the hit musical Legally Blonde. What was it like working on such a well loved show?
Legally Blonde was fun. By far the lightest piece of material I’d ever worked on, and I had a blast. But Vivienne was a deceptive character to work on…everyone thinks of her as a snotty bitch, but if you don’t build integrity, ambition, a conscience and a work ethic into her from the beginning, the end of the show doesn’t work. The audience has to see that she has the raw materials to come through for Elle because she thinks what’s happened to her is unfair—even though she doesn’t really like Elle.
Great. Crazy. At the time, there was a huge debate over whether putting a show on TV meant that people wouldn’t come to see it in person…which I thought was crazy. If Madonna puts out a concert DVD, it doesn’t mean people stop coming to her concerts. In fact, it makes some people want the live experience more. The thing about it was that our audience was pretty young, and they didn’t necessarily drive the family vacation budget. But I think that’s one of the biggest reasons the show has done gangbusters business on tour. And I loved the way they filmed it; obviously it was very different from the typical stationary-camera approach, but if there’s one thing MTV knows, it’s their audience. I watched it and thought it looked like the MTV Video Music Awards, which felt like a big success aesthetically.
Putting a new show together is always a roller coaster. With this one, it’s been a lot of research and a lot of pushing the envelope. I’ve said a couple of times recently that there have been those people who told me that all that mattered was that I looked hot and sang well; to me, that’s what matters in a concert. When you’re playing a character as iconic as the Hatter, there’s got to be a lot of creativity and risk. I’ve tried some things that I know probably looked stupid, but one of the great freedoms has been that the Hatter can look that way.
It looked like a cool opportunity to do something that had never been done before. I like those kinds of challenges, and they don’t come along every day. When I went in for my audition, I was hopping around like a frog and catching invisible spiders in the air. I was really excited to use my body in weird ways, against the grain of what women usually are asked to do in the musical theater. So many times, we’re just asked to be pretty and polished…this seemed dangerous and raw and exciting. More like Sally Bowles, another character I loved playing. It just looked like so much fun.
There were times I had the best time of my life; there were times I wanted to quit the business. Our New York previews, in particular, were very difficult and frustrating. We got handed an almost entirely new script three weeks before we started performances. There were some decisions I didn’t agree with. But in any show, ultimately, the words on the page are sacrosanct, and it’s the actor’s responsibility to try to make them work without commenting to the audience. On the plus side, I’m always pleased when something I think will never work ends up working after all—and usually, the only way to find out is to completely commit to it and jump off the cliff.
Well, I was only on set for one day, but I loved it. I like TV…it’s fast and there’s a certain kind of freedom that comes from having a lot of takes. That said, they had a very specific look in mind for the character I played. So I went in to my audition looking pretty glamorous, but I went on camera thinking “wow, I’m probably the only actor in the history of Gossip Girl to be wearing basically no makeup.” And the cast—I met Leighton and Ed Westwick—seemed really nice.
One is a fictionalized memoir in the vein of “The Nanny Diaries”…although not about being a nanny, of course. One is a nonfiction analysis of women, beauty, aging, and identity, among other things. It looks like I’m in the process of selling that one. The third is a proposal I’ve been working on for a young adult novel set at a boarding school in New Hampshire. So they’re all over the map. And then the articles that have been published are mostly commentary—on the AIDS movement, on what we expect from people who ask us to view them as role models, on my time as Miss America and how that organization is run.