Stage icon talks Hollywood, her basement videos and why ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ will never be the same
By Chris Azzopardi
In Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the wife becomes the boss, the “black screenwriter” is simply a screenwriter, and the gay leading man is just himself. Naturally, it stars Broadway icon Patti LuPone, who, in conversations like the one we had recently, thrives on brazen authenticity.
In the seven-episode Netflix series, LuPone portrays Avis Amberg, the wife of a studio head whose work is relegated to the kitchen. But not for long, thanks to Murphy’s 1940s corrective where power dynamics shift in favor of the underdogs and outsiders in this alternate reality, a fantasy depiction of Tinseltown’s Golden Age reimagined as diverse, inclusive and unabashedly queer.
That LuPone, 71, portrays a grand Hollywood dame and housewife-turned-studio head – in, of course, only the most glam fur-fringed couture – should be no surprise given how she’s been commanding the stage through a variety of extravagant personas for a half-century. In 1979, as Eva Perón, she won her first Tony for Evita; her second win came in 2008, for her portrayal of Rose in Gypsy. She’s also been nominated for roles in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, War Paint, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Anything Goes.
On Broadway is where she was throwing back martinis in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, as Joanne, until the pandemic lockdown forced theaters to shut down.
Now quarantined in rural Connecticut with her husband, Matthew Johnston, and son Josh, LuPone has been doling out delicious bits on social media. In one video she posted to Twitter, she channeled Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, making a dramatic entrance from her basement steps (when Glenn Close got the role for the Broadway run of the show in 1994, LuPone said she reacted by trashing a dressing room). Other at-home videos of LuPone involve her giving aptly chaotic, hungover tours of her treasure-filled basement.
When we connect via phone, I tell LuPone that she might actually be happy that, for once, this conversation is occurring between phone lines, not on Zoom. “You’re right,” she says, roaring with laughter. “It really is the Brady Bunch.”
Do you have any more basement videos in the works?
My problem right now is focus and structure. If I don’t do something in the morning, I’m in bed till 4:30 in the afternoon. So my kid – we’ve come up with a couple more. We just have to get down to it. We have to get up in the morning and go, “OK, now we’re gonna do the video.” We have two plans. So we’ll see.
The problem, Chris, is it has to be spontaneous. It’s the only way it’s funny. The day after my birthday when I was so hungover I went, half-asleep, (slurring, drowsy) “Let’s … go … make … a … video, I’m … re–a–dy.” (Laughs.)
If it weren’t for COVID, you’d be throwing back martinis on Broadway in Company. So I’m happy to hear you’re still throwing back martinis – or something!
Well, last night we had frozen strawberry daiquiris, but that was really the first time, because I was texting with a friend of mine and she said, “Go have a daiquiri,” and I went, “You know what? That sounds like a good idea.” And we seem to have all the fixings for it! So my kid made daiquiris for my husband, himself and me. Then I had red wine, which wasn’t too smart. What I’m drinking a lot of right now is red wine. And I’m just trying … you know it’s really easy to let yourself go!
Have you completely let yourself go?
No! No! I’m holding it together. I have to! (Laughs.) Years ago a friend of mine, when he was on unemployment, I said, “What are you doing, Tony?” He said I’m preparing for my comeback! So, Chris, I’m prepping my comeback!
You made me teary when you recently sang “Anyone Can Whistle” for Stephen Sondheim’s virtual 90th birthday party. Do you like performing virtually?
What was difficult about it was the technical aspect. My kid was filming it and I had one AirPod in and I’m going, “I can’t really hear,” and then my kid said, “You’re pitchy,” and I was like, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN I’M PITCHY. I’m NEVER pitchy!”
There’s always the fear that you know, you’re gonna sound like shit. And Stephen’s thanking everybody who partook, and I wrote him back and I said, “The rub is that we all wish we could’ve done better.” It’s true. I’m sure everybody thought, “Damn if only I was in costume and makeup and on the stage at the Philharmonic with a full orchestra behind me.”
You were singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Company, which Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald performed during that same birthday celebration. What did you think of their version?
(Explodes into a thunderous, dragged out a cackle.) When it was over, I went, “I’ll never be able to sing ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ again!”
Yeah? Because they set the bar?
No. I don’t think they set the bar – I think they trashed the number!
They set the bar for trashing the number?
Yeah, exactly! That’s what I think! I mean, I say that with great humor, but I’m not going to be able to sing it without thinking of them doing it. (Laughs.) This is all joke, by the way! This is all humor!
Let’s talk about Hollywood. Does it feel good to be part of a project that’s beaming with hopefulness in a time when hope seems harder and harder to find?
Yes, yes, yes. And I hope that is translated across the board. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I mean, I’m having a hard time. We all are. I’m not unique. And my problem is, I don’t know who to believe anymore. I’m so confused about what everybody’s saying. It’s just … I just … ahh. And you can’t stick your head in the sand because any minute now we’ll be “hi Hitler”-ing (President Trump). So I’m just really confused. I’m confused, I’m lost.
So how do you keep your mind straight? By drinking strawberry daiquiris?
(Laughs.) How do I keep my mind straight? That’s the question! Because my problem has been structure, and I’m the kind of person that goes, “OK, you have to be on the set or you have to be at the theater – OK, great. I know what my schedule is.” But without a schedule, I’m lost. I’m going, “I don’t know what to do.” I guess I am my work.
For structure, what’s the first thing you do in the morning?
I started working out remotely with my trainer. Just to do something, just to feel like something is done. And then as soon as the weather gets really nice I’m gonna walk up our road, which is part of a mountain, and walk back down. And I have shows coming up, unless they’re going to be canceled, in January. I haven’t done them in a while, so what I started to do, because the weather still isn’t that great where I am right now, I’m listening to the shows that I have to sing in January, just to remember them. I haven’t sung them in a while. Then I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something in the day and it hasn’t been – this is our lives! And our lives are being wasted! Not that work is the only thing, but if we can’t figure out what to do in the time that we have been given, that’s pathetic! It’s a blessing, really!
If you were running Hollywood right now, what changes would you make?
I would listen to the artists, I would listen to the writers. And I would not greenlight pictures because of statistics. I would ignore the statistics, and I would greenlight films and television shows that I thought were going to be beneficial for education and for parents as opposed to, “Well, that was a big hit; let’s make 9,000 more of those Marvel comics.”
Would you let them make another Mamma Mia! movie?
(Deliberates, speaks flatly, deadpans.) No.
We don’t need a third?
I hate ABBA. I have always hated ABBA. I will not go see Mamma Mia! because I hate ABBA. And I’ve hated ABBA since I was a kid because I’m a closet rocker; when ABBA came out, I went, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.” My favorite band is The Band, and so if you’re a rocker, and if you’re a rocker and The Band is your favorite band and ABBA comes along, there’s no way. And so I don’t support ABBA at all.
So you haven’t even seen the Mamma Mia! movies?
No. Can’t support ABBA!
Is Hollywood the gayest thing you’ve ever been a part of?
Is it? Let me think.
Consider that pool party scene – all those naked men, penises hanging out.
Yeah! And the thing that was kind of distressing to me when I was shooting it was: Why am I going home?! Why is Avis going home?!
Yeah. Why doesn’t Avis get to go to the party?
(Feigns weeping.) Why couldn’t she just sit there and ogle the penises? No. I go home early.
Didn’t you talk to Ryan about that?
Trust me, I thought about that. But no, I didn’t. That was in the script and I went, “OK, I gotta leave the party.” But I’m trying to think – is that the gayest thing? Maybe it is. I’m trying to think of anything I’ve done. I can’t remember anything that I do and that I’ve done. Maybe. I don’t know.
That party that Avis doesn’t get to go to – have you ever gone to an industry party like that in your life?
No. I mean, I’ve gone to pool parties with tons of Broadway dancers who were gay, but they kept their clothes on.
That seems less fun.
Well, their bodies were incredible to look at, but they were all clothed. Well, barely clothed! Everybody had a speedo on!
If someone decides to reimagine your life in 70 years, what parts of it would you ask that they keep factually intact and which parts would you allow them to reimagine?
All of it! I think they should keep it all factually intact! It’s been a rebellious life. And it’s been interesting. I hope it’s not over – the rebellion part, and the interesting part. No – they don’t have to reimagine anything. It’s been a lot of fun.
You’ve turned down diva roles in the past, like one that Ryan offered you on Glee. Avis does have some diva qualities, though. What about her divaness made you say yes to playing her?
I hadn’t read any scripts when Ryan pitched it to me. All Ryan said was that I was going to be the wife of a studio head and I would inherit the studio and make movies for gays, minorities, and women. That’s all he told me. But Ryan is such a champion, and I’m not offered a lot of roles, and I’m not going to turn down Ryan or a role that he offers me. He expanded the role for me in the process, and of course, it’s the most stunning era for women. Every time I would go to a costume fitting I was reeling with delight because the stuff was stunning. You feel so glamorous in that time period. I felt really, really glamorous, and I’m just thrilled.
I’ll tell you, even though I knew from a very early age that I was born for the Broadway musical stage, I was one of those kids who wanted to go to Hollywood and be a movie star. Who doesn’t? If you’re in the business, who doesn’t want to be a movie star, especially when you go to a movie theater and see your idols up on the silver screen? When I was 12, I saw Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson with Tommy Kirk and marched out of that movie theater determined to go to Hollywood and be his leading lady. At 12!
To be challenging the patriarchy as Avis does – was that cathartic for you?
Yeah, I think so. Any time a woman gets to push back on any kind of male authority, it’s cathartic. Push back and succeed. But I seem to have done that all my life, just in life, and then in my career. But I’ve always kind of pushed back because authority needs to be explained to me. I need to understand, “Why do you have authority? If it’s something you want me to do as a human being, I’ll do it; but if you are authoritarian about it, I need to understand why.
When in your career have you felt slighted or like you didn’t get what you deserved because you’re a woman?
Hmm. A lot of times. I would say the majority of my career – not necessarily on the musical stage. You know, I think I got what I deserve as far as roles are concerned. I think I’ve had a varied career. But in the development of them, I think that I’ve been stifled because I was a woman. The opinion that you have is not valued because you’re a woman. That kind of stuff. I’ve always questioned authority and I’ve always spoken up for what I perceived as injustice. Always. I think it’s just in my DNA. That’s just how I thought. And it has nothing to do with being a woman or a man – it has to do with me being Patti.
It was different to watch you have that rough sex scene with actor David Corenswet because I was like, “Oh, wait – we don’t typically see this.” We don’t get to see a woman over 50 go at it in full view like you two do.
Did you relish that moment because for whatever stupid reason it’s still so rare to see that onscreen?
Yep, are you kidding? Gimme more Gina, as they say! I had a sex scene with Dylan McDermott that was rougher but that was cut! Yeah. That was sad. (Laughs.)
What advice did the intimacy coach give you? How does that even work?
He was a great guy. And he was always there to make us comfortable. I don’t know what other intimacy coaches do, but I don’t think I need an intimacy coach. I think I know what I’m doing. I’m certainly not uncomfortable, and if I was uncomfortable, I would talk to the director or the actor I was working with. As long as the coaches don’t interfere with acting, I’m fine with them. But if they start to interpret for us, then I’m not happy.
As we near the upcoming presidential election, I was curious: What advice do you have for LGBTQ people who struggle with the fact that some of their family members are still voting for Trump?
Oh, I’m having a real hard time with that, Chris. I don’t have family members necessarily that I discuss it with, so I don’t know if they do. But I have close friends and I actually had to cut one loose. It’s heartbreaking. But I’m thinking of my own mental health and I’m not going to get into an argument with anybody about that Piece. Of. Shit. I’m just not. I can’t. I have very dear friends; they’re Republicans; it’s really hard. It’s really hard to talk to people. I don’t even want to talk to these people.