Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sits down with actress Idina Menzel to discuss her character in Skintight and what inspires her as an artist.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide you wanted to be a performer, and did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you?
Idina Menzel: I was born in NYU Hospital in New York City, and I grew up on Long Island. I wanted to be a performer ever since I can remember. I've been singing and acting and running around putting on shows in my living room since I was a little girl. I went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and majored in theatre. I've often cited that my two biggest influences were my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pincus, and my music teacher, Mr. Roper. Mr. Roper was the first person who really saw something special in me, and Mrs. Pincus instilled creativity in all of us. One day, there was this beautiful blizzard happening outside our classroom window, and she got so excited and said, “Children, pick up your pencils and paper and run to the window and write a poem about what you see!” I actually remember the title of the poem I wrote -- "The White Ghost" -- which was a bit redundant, but that was what my poem was about.
TS: Why did you choose to do Joshua Harmon’s play Skintight and the role of Jodi?
IM: I have to say the first things that appealed to me were the creative team and the opportunity to finally work at the Roundabout Theatre Company. I have always wanted to. I love having the chance to work with playwright Josh Harmon and director Daniel Aukin. They're both incredible artists, and I wanted to collaborate with them. Josh’s script is wonderfully written, and it is just a gift. It's funny how certain roles come to you at just the right time in your life when you need to confront certain things in yourself.
TS: Will you tell us about some of those things that you and the character of Jodi are confronting in common?
IM: I'm in my mid-40s and I'm getting older and I'm constantly assessing how important beauty and youth are to my happiness. I identify with Jodi as a mother, a fierce advocate for her son. I identify with her loneliness and her desire to be closer to family, and I identify with her frustration with American culture putting so much emphasis on being young and beautiful. I want to be a role model for my son, and yet, I can't hide who I am and pretend I haven’t gotten caught up in these skewed American values.
TS: How will you prepare to play this role? It sounds like Jodi's close to you, but not exactly you. Will you give us a sense of what your process is?
IM: I hope Jodi’s a bit more self-absorbed than I am. Then again, my friends might say, “It's a really good fit!” The preparation I do is in breaking down all the language and trying to get all the juice out of every word, nuance and punctuation mark because Josh is very specific about that. The more I study the text, the more subtleties I discover and I realize how informative his language is. It keeps fueling me and answering questions about my character. For me, it’s always about the text, the language. My preparation is getting inside of the text because Jodi doesn't let anyone get a word in edgewise – she never comes up for air -- she just talks and talks and talks. I try not to glide over anything and make sure I give every word its due.
TS: I want to ask you about this intense argument that goes down between Jodi and her father, Elliot, about the difference between lust and love -- how do you relate to that?
IM: I think that I would normally completely side with Jodi’s perspective in the argument and yet, I can totally see where Elliot is coming from. He has a very unique relationship to his lovers. There are many different incarnations of love, and I get it. I think whatever makes people feel the most alive is what they should cling to. I would hope that people feel like they're entitled to all of it. But being physically attracted to someone and having that kind of relationship is important and, for me personally, it's okay if someone really wants that kind of sexual passion 24/7. It's really important to some people. We all need to live our lives passionately. So, I get that part of his argument. But it isn’t what Jodi wants or needs at this juncture in her life.
TS: What do you make of Jodi’s relationship to Elliot? Do you think he's been a good father?
IM: I'm still trying to figure that out actually. I think Jodi probably doesn't think he was a very good father.
TS: It must be hard on a child – no matter what their age -- to have an extremely famous father.
IM: I think part of Jodi’s psychology could be that she is overprotective of her mother, since her mother was rejected by her father. I was a child of divorce, so I'm well aware of how it feels when you're stuck in the middle. You live your life with this desire that one day your parents will get back together. It permeates everything. And even though objectively you realize that's never going to happen -- there is this little girl part that’s in me and in Jodi, too -- that hoped that it still might happen.
TS: Let's talk about Jodi's relationship to her son, Benjamin. What's going on there? He seems like a very bright young man to me.
IM: Yes, he is extremely bright. It also seems like he needs to escape from his life – that perhaps Jodi has pushed him in certain directions and she’s just been hovering and controlling, and he's at the point where he’s got to find his own independence. I'm still trying to understand the dynamic between them; obviously she's crazy in love with her son but there is a distance between them.
TS: Do you have any ideas about Jodi's understanding of Trey, her father's boyfriend?
IM: I love how Josh has written him. I'm not quite sure of his real intention, you know? I don't know what his secrets are. Is he innocent or is he really out for the money? Does he have an agenda or is he blissfully ignorant? I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I don't know if Josh will ever reveal to me what was within his heart when he wrote the role of Trey.
TS: I want to ask you about another theme that is in the writing and one I think will be resonant for our audience, and that is how American culture treats women once they mature past 40. You’ve discussed it earlier, but I’m wondering if you think things are going to change with the “Me Too” movement?
IM: It’s one of the many things that I love about the play. I don't know exactly how it will affect show business, but I would hope that the “Me Too” movement will allow more women writers, directors, and producers to tell stories about women my age and older and that those stories will be of interest to people and that audiences will seek them out. And perhaps women will feel more at ease expressing their opinions without fear of losing a job.
TS: I once heard a female friend of mine who was over 40 say, “It's like I'm invisible. They don't see me anymore!” Do you think that's true for Jodi?
IM: For Jodi it is true, for sure. I don't feel like that in my own life, but it is certainly true for Jodi. I definitely think she's been traded in. Some women get traded in for the trophy wife and I guess for a trophy boyfriend in the case of Elliot.
TS: I think a lot of people over 40 are going to relate to what you called Jodi’s “loneliness.”
IM: It's funny you should say that because a lot of the characters I’ve played have been role models for young women, like in Frozen and in Wicked. I'm often looked at as a role model for empowering young women, and here I am, a woman in my mid-40s, and I'm still wrestling with some of the same things that I'm out there pontificating about. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, but I always try to be transparent and explain to these young women that it's a journey -- that you have to keep striving to find those things about yourself that make you unique -- and that there are going to be days when you just don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. None of us have it all figured out, and we struggle, and we don't always feel beautiful and beloved.
TS: How do you like to collaborate with a director? What do you look for? What's important to you?
IM: I like to feel appreciated and comfortable and that it is okay for me to fail and ask stupid questions. I like to collaborate. I like guidance. I want someone to say, “That doesn’t work – let’s try it another way.” If there is mutual trust, that allows everyone to do their best work in the rehearsal room.
TS: What inspires you as an artist?
IM: Oh, God, that's a hard one. I think it's a constant searching for who I am, what kind of person I want to be, what I want to say in the world and what kind of mark I want to make. My love for my husband and my family are inspiring. I'm always striving to figure out where I fit in the world and how I can use my creativity and my voice to connect with people.
TS: What advice would you offer to a young person who says, “I want to be an actor?”
IM: I would say, “Work hard, get training, find teachers or coaches who you love, and then figure out that thing that makes you idiosyncratic and special and celebrate it. Be yourself. Try not to be like anybody else, try not to copy another actor or try to fit into some type you think they want – just be you.”