Tony-winning legend Patti LuPone portrays Avis Amberg, wife of a studio executive who comes to inherit the studio in Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood.” This is the latest project in which LuPone has worked with Ryan Murphy, following “Pose,” “American Horror Story” and “Glee.”
LuPone recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz about what she latched onto to play Avis, what “Hollywood” offers during this time and the whirlwind experience of the Tony Awards. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Patti, I have to imagine that when Ryan first came to you with this… how did he describe Avis to you when he came to you with it?
Patti LuPone: Well, he started by saying she was a silent film actress who did not transition to the talkies because she was too ethnic. She married a studio mogul before he was a studio mogul. It was like a one-night stand. He got her pregnant. They got married. He became a studio mogul. So she became a studio mogul’s wife. So there was innate power in that, and then when she inherits the studio, she is conflicted about making this particular movie and she ends up making all the right decisions. What he said basically was she inherits the studio and she makes movies for gays, minorities and women.
GD: Which sounds like, of course, the perfect package. As you started to read the scripts what did you latch onto with Avis?
PL: Well, you know, my career hasn’t been the easiest in the world and when I started out when I was a kid and I’d go out to California for pilot season, I was roundly rejected because of my looks. Probably my personality as well (laughs). But more often it was my looks and I would come back to New York City and go, “Well, this is where I belong because I look as gritty as the streets.” That’s, of course, changed. I don’t know when it changed, but when I was a kid, it was still the very pert, blonde, perky nose, nonthreatening ethnic face American girl, which is not me. So it was real depressing. Every time I’d get to L.A., I would fall into this huge funk because I was rejected, constantly rejected. So there was that. There was the idea that a woman could have power that was empowering to me as an actress. And wearing those glorious costumes! (Laughs.) Because onstage, more often than not, I am put in glorious costumes, from “Evita” to “Anything Goes” to “Sunset Boulevard” to “War Paint.” I am dressed to the nines. But when I do television or film, I look like this old hag. Not in a Ryan Murphy show!
GD: You use that term, old hag, and Avis this is so completely the opposite of that. Not just in her bearing and her clothes and stuff, but she’s also a sexually mature and active woman. I have to imagine that that was also enticing to play.
PL: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s like when women get to a certain age who thinks they don’t have sexual desires? Who’s that person? And who thinks that they can’t perform well in bed? Who is that person? So the fact that Ryan gave me sex scenes, I went, “Finally!” and “Give me more!”
GD:m I think one of the most interesting things about Avis’s journey is that she does have these moments. She does have that moment where she starts to get a taste of the power and then that power is suddenly almost taken away from her. and you have that great scene with Rob Reiner and I think every scene between you and Rob, you two had such great chemistry together. I have to imagine that that scene where she tells him, “I can’t go back to what it was before,” were those some of the most fun scenes to play?
PL: Absolutely. All the scenes that I had with Rob, I was thrilled was my husband. I’ve been such a fan of his and a fan of his politics. But he’s so easy to work with and he’s great to work with. But that particular scene resonated for me because I think that’s true of a lot of women that are working mothers that might feel in some way diminished. There seems to be a lot of talk about working mothers and not so much talk about working fathers, how, perhaps we shouldn’t do what we’re doing or we can’t possibly do it well. And that’s ridiculous, quite frankly.
GD: What’s also really interesting is also those scenes with Samara Weaving as your daughter where you two just hurl the most vicious insults at each other. And when I spoke to her a couple of weeks ago, she said that you two just kind of laughed constantly and that that made it easier to then be horrible to each other. Was that the atmosphere on the set?
PL: Yes. It’s an incredibly copacetic company of actors. Everybody liked each other, even if we did or didn’t work together. And in Samara’s case, this is a very unique young woman. I remember I was in the makeup chair getting made up and this ethereal blonde wafted in the room and came straight to me with this gigantic smile on her face and was incredibly present and said, “Hi, I’m Sam. I’m playing your daughter.” And I looked at her and I was moved that she even bothered to introduce herself to me and then I thought, what a poised woman she is at her age. So I fell in love with her and when we were sitting on this set, I would pump her to find out who this girl was. And she’s got the most interesting background. She’s just this regular girl and she’s very funny. It was wonderful to just sit around and talk. The day that it was, Rob, Samara and me, just to be in the presence of those two was really, really delightful. And she’s enough of an actress to know I don’t mean it (laughs).
GD: I look at this cast and you have really these two ends of the spectrum. You have a lot of these younger actors but then you also have these veterans, many of whom come from the theater. Having that group of theater actors, did that make it a happier set? Did that change the way you worked as opposed to other projects you’ve done?
PL: You know what? I think there is a little bit of that. It could have been because we were seasoned, there was less self-indulgence, do I want to say? We just got to get on with it, because that’s what we’re used to doing onstage. And I don’t know whether it influenced anybody except that when the theater actors were working together, it was fast. We were prepared. We knew the intention of the scene and we were fast in the delivery of it. One of the moments that people talk about to me, because I’m primarily a stage actor, is the scene with Holland [Taylor], Joe [Mantello] and Harriet Harris as Eleanor Roosevelt. There are four theater actors acting in a scene together, which is unheard of. Ryan is such a champion of actors. He loves them. He trusts them and he puts together these amazing casts. And in this particular case, there were four veteran stage actors in a really crucial scene and we had a ball. Actually, we didn’t even think about it. It was like, “OK, this is our scene. Let’s just do it.” And as I said earlier, it was efficient. It was fast. There was just no stuff around it. No kind of distraction around it. This was what we were supposed to do. This is what we did.
GD: I think one of my favorite scenes is, is a scene in, I think it’s the last episode, with you and Jeremy Pope, when he just tells you he’s going to bring his boyfriend, Rock Hudson, to the Oscars. And it’s such a quiet scene, but you two seem so connected in that moment. What was it like working with Jeremy, who’s kind of this up and coming actor who got two Tony nominations in one year?
PL: Well, he’s an extraordinary talent. And I had seen him onstage in “Ain’t Too Proud” and I went backstage because I was blown away by the talent on that stage. So I had to go back and pay my respects to this cast in “Ain’t Too Proud.” So I met Jeremy there and he is just this really loving and forthcoming individual and we connected, as we all did. But when you’re working with one actor as opposed to the group, there has to be even more of a connection. He was powerful in that scene and all I had to do was listen and be affected. And the interesting thing for me in that particular scene is we’re used to this now. We’re used to seeing homosexual love on display and it was hard for me to go back to a time when this would have been completely taboo. Even people would have been arrested if they had shown that kind of affection in such a public place. And it’s still the case of Russia. So it was hard for me to put myself in a position where I didn’t know. Well, I guess didn’t know the consequences, except I knew the consequences. I’m trying to explain how to say this. Whereas right now, three quarters of my friends are gay and in partnerships or in marriages and you see this love connection open and complete. Back in 1946, when this was so not the case, so not acceptable, to realize the consequences was hard for me because, as I said, it’s very present in society today. But he was so powerful in his delivery. I could cry right now, actually. I had to prevent myself from crying in the scene because of the LGBTQ community and what they go through. You know, I did “Pose.” When I did “Pose” for Ryan, when I was on the set, every day a transgender woman was murdered. So there’s a lot at stake for these people. And as I said, I could start to cry. He was deeply, deeply moving in that scene. It was hard for me to not cry and have to deliver the information that, “You will be ruined and Rock will never work again. You realize that?” It’s a beautiful scene.
GD: And that’s one of the things that I think is so powerful about this series, is because it is what Ryan has termed faction, imagine how far we might have come if we had had those role models earlier than we did. Maybe we would have not gone through what we went through in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s with the AIDS crisis and things like that. This show seems to speak to a lot of those different levels. Why do you think this show is so necessary right now?
PL: Well, I think it’s escapism and then within that, the subliminal effect of the stories, the minorities’ stories is very powerful. It’s Hollywood. Who doesn’t dream of being a movie star in Hollywood? Who doesn’t dream of being an actor? I mean, everybody thinks they’re an actor. You know what I mean? It’s true. And I think that it has a happy ending and right now we’re mired in confusion and despair. I know I am. I’m lost. I don’t know what to do with my time. I don’t know when I’m ever going to work again. There’s financial considerations. And here’s something that gives hope and it’s an inspiration, and again, escape. So what better combination, hope, inspiration and escape in this time we’re in right now? Not that it wouldn’t work if we weren’t in this time. But I think it’s especially potent now.
GD: I asked this same question to Joe Mantello. You’ve had a long career and you’ve had a lot of experience with awards and the last episode, of course, is kind of focused on that Oscars. And I was wondering, has your relationship or your view on awards changed over the course of your career?
PL: What I’ve always wished awards were were celebration of the nominees as the honorees, as opposed to a competition, because you can’t compare arts. You can’t compare set design. You can’t compare stories. And I wish that it was a celebration of talents as opposed to a competition. But I’ve always felt that. Having said that, if I’m nominated, of course I want to win (laughs). When people say it’s an honor just to be nominated, yes, it is. But in the back of your mind, you want to bring the trophy home. I have the same anxiety the night of or leading up to it. And it’s especially tough for live theater because you’re nominated in the middle of April for the Tonys. You have the entire month of May where you have to perform at peak for the Tony voters and then comes the night and it’s like, you’re exhausted. Especially if you’re in a musical because you have to do a Thursday rehearsal, or a Saturday. I can’t remember. And then on Sunday, the day most of us have matinees, you have to get early, get into your uniform and the slap and do the camera rehearsal with the orchestra and then go do a matinee and then get out of costume and get into red carpet, get out of carpet, get into costume to do the number on the show, get out of the costume, get back into red carpet. It’s exhausting. And then lose! (Laughs.) You might win but more often than not, you lose!
GD: Oh, God, that’s so funny. I’m wondering, because I remember when you won your Tony for “Gypsy,” that was one of the funniest opening lines of an acceptance speech that I’ve ever heard where you basically said, I’m paraphrasing, “I’m happy to be a woman who makes her living on the Broadway stage and every 30 years or so, pick up one of these.” Did you have that line in your back pocket in case you won?
PL: Yes. Oh, yes. Also, the one that my dresser gave me, Pat White, was the one who gave me, “I got a shot every night. I don’t know what’s in it but I’m giving the performance of my life.” That was Pat White’s line, my dresser, the president of the Wardrobe Union. But people thought it was a shot (imitates drinking). But I’m talking about a shot (imitates injecting) and it was just a joke.
GD: That was going to be my very next question, because I’ve always wondered that! Like a shot or an actual shot.
PL: An actual shot! You know, like you’re getting like a B-12 or some sort of illicit drug to give the performance of your life! You know, we wanted to make it funny because, we just did. The same thing when I won with “Evita.” “Evita” was the most difficult role to come down the pike in a decade. Let’s just say a decade. It was, I think, longer than that. And if you win, then it’s an affirmation that you achieved something for the most difficult role. I thought if I lost, they don’t realize how difficult this role is. This role is almost impossible to play. With “Gypsy,” with my history with Arthur Laurents and doing it at Ravinia and then doing it in City Center and then doing on Broadway and getting the bad review from Ben Brantley, it was sort of like, wait a minute. I had won everything up to that point. So if I had lost, it would have been devastating (laughs). So we wanted to make it amusing. You have to have words prepared. And I do because I’m not a great speaker. I interpret. I’m an interpreter. I’m a storyteller. I need the words. I can’t improvise words like some people can. So it was essential that I had something (laughs).
GD: It’s just one of my favorite Tony moments ever.
PL: And that first line was written by Jeffrey Richman, who has been a writer and executive producer on “Modern Family.” He’s one of my oldest friends in the world. And he gave me that first line ‘cause we tried to figure out how long’s it been since “Evita” to this and it was 29 years.
GD: And then, of course, you capped it off by yelling at the conductor. “Don’t play me off! It’s been 29 years.”