Tracie Thoms as Joanne Jefferson; Idina Menzel as Maureen Johnson
(photo by Phil Bray)
MD = Michael Dequina; Q = Other press
IM = Idina Menzel; TT = Tracie Thoms
Q: They say you were a Renthead for years.
TT: I've been a Renthead since '97. I saw them perform on the Tonys, when they won the Tony [for Best Musical]. I was like, "Wow, that seems really interesting," but I couldn't really figure out what it was all about. And I heard some of the music, and I was like, "Umm, I'm not really sure"--because I'd listen to a lot of soul music, old school music. The first song, "Rent," is a hard-edged song, so I was like, "I don't know; I guess I need to see it." And then my then college boyfriend took me. He thought he was being really cool; he said, "I'm going to take you to see a Broadway show, baby."
TT: He took me to see Rent; we got on a train and went to see Rent. I was like, "OK, I'll see Rent and see what all the hoopla is about." Usually when something is hyped like that, when I actually experience it, I'm like, "Oh well, the hype was too much." But I was completely blown away. I saw the original cast, and it became my mission in life to be part of Rent in any way, whether it be bus-and-truck [tour], whether it be the fourteenth homeless woman in the ensemble on Broadway. I didn't care. I'd gotten into Juilliard, and the week I started Juilliard was my final callback for one of the rounds of auditions for Rent, and if I got into Rent, I wouldn't have gone to Juilliard. I was like, "Well, I could go to school, but I need Rent!" You know? [laughs] Luckily they didn't cast me [then].
Q: As a fan of the original incarnation of Rent, did you have any guilt about taking [original stage Joanne] Fredi [Walker]'s place?
TT: I did. It was really difficult at first. When I got the role, I didn't know they were casting the original cast; they did it all in the same week. So the day before I got the call, they released in Variety that they were casting a lot of the original cast members, and I hadn't read it. So the next day, all of sudden I get this call, "Hey, it turns out you're a frontrunner for the role of Joanne." I'm like, "That's ridiculous"--because clearly they were going to cast a big pop star or something like that; Beyoncé was going to be in there or something. [laughs] I had put it out of my mind; I had auditioned a month before that. So then when I got it, I was like, "That's exciting," and [the caller] said, "Oh, there's going to be a lot of the original cast in it." And I was like, "Oh"--because to me, even now though I've done it in the film, Fredi is Joanne. When I think of Joanne, I think of Fredi.
Q: Why didn't she do it?
TT: I think she and [director] Chris [Columbus] had a meeting, and I think they kind of came to a mutual understanding because she was one of the older members of the cast.
Q: Jesse [L. Martin] said that they were devastated that they weren't in it, Daphne [Rubin-Vega, the original stage Mimi] and Fredi.
TT: Well, they probably would be. I haven't talked to Fredi, but in one interview, what she said was they had a mutual agreement that she had aged out of it because I think she was in her 30s when they did it the first time.
Q: Idina, were you surprised to actually be in the movie, or did you expect Christina Aguilera to be singing your part?
IM: I didn't think Christina was set to do the movie; I thought it would be Brittany Murphy.
IM: I was completely surprised, and I actually told my agent--can I curse in here?
IM: [laughs] I was like, "Tell Chris Columbus he does not need to waste my fucking time with a pity meeting. Like, I know I'm over 30. Whatever. Don't waste my time; I don't want to get my hopes up. I'm busy; I'm doing well in my life."--because Spike Lee did that [when he was set to do the film]. He had us all come in, and then he wasn't going to hire any of us. I love Spike Lee, and he put me in one of his movies once, so I'm not starting to--anyway. [laughs] So, yes, I was completely surprised. And then soon I can't believe how egotistical I was. Then I get the job, and then I'm asking Chris Columbus questions like how we're going to do it and what's going on. We had some arrogance about it--not arrogance, but I was desperate to work and wanted to be doing great things, but I was not desperate to screw up this movie.
Q: And you had finished [doing the Broadway musical] Wicked by this time.
IM: No, I was in Wicked; I was in my dressing room, actually, talking on the phones.
Q: Were you surprised that Chris was the guy to get the job to direct? Having seen his previous work, did you think he would soften it up?
IM: I didn't know that much about it. I tend, being an actor, to want people to believe me in lots of things and not base it on what I've done before, so I'm not going to do that to a director because we all have our talents, and we all get typecast. I just wanted to make sure that he understood [Rent], his experience with it, where he's coming from, and that he had Jonathan [Larson's] vision in mind. We kept him on his toes until the last day of the shoot. Every day, it was like, "Why is this happening? There should be more homeless people here, don't you think?" [laughs]
Q: Did [the returning cast members] feel that Rent was your baby in a way?
IM: Yeah. We feel, and I felt from back then, a kinship with Jonathan when he was alive, and then when he passed, even more so. We feel a connection, and we feel like we need to sort of be his vehicles for his work. That sounds so overly corny, but it's the truth. This man is gone, and all of a sudden five months later he wins the Pulitzer Prize, and you're standing on stage in a circle, and the producers come up, and they're like, "We just want to let you know Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize today." Here we are getting all these opportunities, and we're doing these wonderful things, and his parents are standing right there. So it's changed our lives, and I've been saying a lot about him because it's worth repeating that I thought it was a once in a lifetime thing the first time [Rent] came around. So for this to happen again, I kind of don't know what I'd do.
Q: How was it at home for you, with you and [real-life husband] Taye [Diggs] both coming back to do the movie? Was that fun?
IM: Yeah. We don't get to see each other all the time because we're working in different places, so to be in the same city on the same set was fun, and to be in the same movie where we met, and to be in costumes where we were flirting with each other was kind of nostalgic. [laughs] Yeah, it was great.
Q: So you met Taye at first on Rent.
Q: Did you know that this was the guy for you?
IM: Not at first. I thought he was really cute though.
IM: He's the kind of guy that becomes friends with the girl first, and snuggles, and then gets you to answer all his questions about ex-boyfriends, so when you're finally married, you want to kill yourself for telling him all your private stuff. [laughs]
Q: Tracie, I just heard you just became a regular cast member of [the CBS series] Cold Case.
TT: Yes, I did! Two days ago.
Q: Did you get any tips from Jesse on doing a cop show?
TT: I did. Actually, when I got the offer to do the [initial story] arc, I called Jesse, who's on set. I'm like "Jesse, I need to talk to you about this." He calls me back and said, "OK, Detective Thoms, what's going on? What's going on?" And I'm like, "Tell me what to do, I don't want to be a detective!" [laughs] He's so much fun. He asked me about my character and the background, and I told him that I would be calling him to get advice from him. Actually, the first person I met from the [Rent] cast was Jesse. Right after I got Rent, I got an episode of Law & Order, and both of my scenes were with Jesse. I hadn't met him yet, and he didn't know that I was Joanne. So I sat trying to figure out how I was going to tell him, and I was sitting in the makeup trailer at all times. He'd come by, and he'd say, "Hi, I'm Jesse," and I'm like, "Yeah, I know." [laughs] We were in the cold, and Dennis [Farina] was standing there, and finally we were doing the final rehearsal [for the scene]. [The crew] is like, "OK, speed," and I'm like, "Hey Jesse, it looks like we're gonna be spending a lot of time together." And he's like, "We are?" I'm like, "Yeah. I'm Joanne." [imitates Jesse gasping] "ACTION!"
So we did the scene, and then afterward, it was like, "Cut!" And he's just like, "OH MY GOD!" and spinning me around, "I got to get Idina to meet you!" [IM laughs] It was so great. I actually got to work with him on a cop show and see how that dynamic works between the two of them. I had no idea that a year later I would be playing my own detective on a different show. I've always kind of wanted to play a cop.
Q: Were you a cop on Law & Order, or were you a murder victim...?
TT: No, I was on this episode with Daniel Sunjata. I was his girlfriend who was lying for him, and finally they bring me into interrogation. "We know he's lying, and if we could prove that you're lying, you're going to jail." And I'm like, "Uh... well, what happened was..."
Q: And you also did Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?
TT: No, I only did one. Just regular Law & Order.
Q: How long was your arc for Cold Case?
TT: Four episodes.
IM: It was four episodes, and now they want her to stay.
TT: I haven't gotten the fourth episode yet. They start airing November 20, the week we open Rent, so it's kind of a big week for me. I've done three of the episodes, and before the fourth one, I got the letter saying they wanted to go ahead and pick me up for a series regular.
Q: And the ratings are coming up.
TT: The ratings are really good. It's a great show; it's a great ensemble. I love doing ensemble work, which is one of the reasons why I always gravitated toward Rent--it's such an ensemble show, and everybody had their moment, and everybody got to support each other. And again, here I am, I keep repeating--I have this pattern in my life of being the new girl all the time. [laughs] I did Wonderfalls last year, and I was a replacement on that as well. I'm always coming in like, "Hi, I'm new." [laughs]
Q: Idina--Wicked the movie. Have they mentioned that at all?
IM: Wicked the movie? My producer from Wicked came to see this play that I'm in right now at the Public called See What I Wanna See--it's a musical; it's [playing] until December 4. [laughs] I didn't want you to write that comment and not have that [information] be there. [laughs] He came to dinner, and I was just giving him a really hard time about the movie. He doesn't need to make that movie right now because [the stage production] is making a shitload of money, and the time to make those movies are when it dies down a little. I'm sure the theatrical production of Rent is starting to boom again. Not that it wasn't. Anyway, I think Reese Witherspoon really wants to play Glinda, and I was like, "OK. Just hypothetically speaking, let's just say Rent comes out, and then this next movie, and I'm actually a big enough name to garner being on screen with Reese Witherspoon. How many years until you make this movie?" And Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel Wicked, he just came up with a new one called Son of a Witch, which is about the baby that [my character] has. So it's like, "If you don't do that one, by the time I'm 50, it'll be an old green lady!" [laughs] But he's holding on; it'll be a couple of years off.
Q: What are you looking for at the moment?
IM: I would love to be like the Julie Andrews or the Barbra Streisand of today. I would love to do musicals and movies, then stage, then do it all. I feel like there used to be some kind of taboo about that in the music industry. If you could act, and you were on a TV show, you shouldn't do rock-'n-roll. But I do all those things, and I'm starting to feel like the industry is allowing us to do all of our things.
Q: Are you doing an album?
IM: I just got signed to Warner Bros., who is putting out Rent.
Q: So what kind of stuff will you be doing for your album?
IM: I think it will be sophisticated pop. [laughs] I don't know yet. I don't know exactly. Once I finish this play, I'm going to [work on it].
Q: Sophisticated pop?
IM: Something that celebrates being a vocalist as opposed to my old album where I used to be more about funky production.
Q: Will you be writing for it again?
IM: I'm going to do some writing, but I'm also going to get some great songs and not put so much pressure on myself because then you could be in the studio forever as the record label says, "No hit; no hit; no hit." So I'm like, you know what? You bring me a couple of great songs, and then I can go off on my own and play the game that way.
Q: When you're a hit in a big hit Broadway production, why don't you stay in?
IM: Because then I'd go insane!
IM: Putting that green makeup on every day--you don't understand; I had my own special shower, and I'd steam. A two-show day, you know what that's like? I don't leave it on and go out to dinner in green.
IM: I'd wash it off, and then my vocal preparations are crazy. I'm very anal about that; I do a half-hour warm-up before every show, so I have to do that in green makeup. And then the smoke onstage. It's just a lot, and it sucks because it's the most wonderful thing to be able to get up on stage and do what I do, and yet half the time you're [exhausted]. I know there's all these young girls out there that are dying to do [the part], and if I have a cold, or it's that time of the month, and I'm like, "Please! I just want to sit at home!"
Q: How long did you do Wicked?
IM: On Broadway I did it for a year and three months, and then before that we were in San Francisco for a couple of months, and then before that for two years I did lots of readings. It was like a four-year investment.
Q: In coming from San Francisco to Broadway there were a lot of changes made.
IM: They really helped my character actually. They had a hard time figuring out how to make the witch be lovable and yet not too earnest.
Q: How about Rent? How long did you do the original show?
IM: That was like a year and a half of time: the three months Off-Broadway, and then we moved [to Broadway], and then a year, and then I went and did a record. Then I really screwed up my life because I thought I was just supposed to be a rock-'n-roll singer, and I went and made an album, and then I got dropped, and I had to start all over again. I turned down all of these great television and film things thinking I was just a songwriter. Young and stupid. Now I'll just anything and everything I can get. [laughs]
Q: So what would your advice be to kids who have a hit when they are 22 years old in a show?
IM: Just do whatever makes them happy. I didn't accept that I was really a good actress back then; I thought of myself as a singer. And so I was afraid, I think. And I realize that I'm really a good actress, and so just because I was born with a voice doesn't mean that I have to do that all the time. I can touch people in other ways. So whatever they love, whatever fulfills them.
Q: Does the theater feel like a fundamental base for you that you can go off from?
IM: Yeah, I feel no matter how burned out I get that it's got to be my base. It's the only place that's ever, after I got dropped from my record label, opened their arms and put me back in a show. As hard as The New York Times can be on me for being in a successful, moneymaking show or whatever, the people in the industry are always welcoming to me. And I love the communal aspect of being in a cast. Songwriting is very solitary; you are the producer, you and nobody else, and you're neurotic, and you can make yourself crazy. With an ensemble, you can bounce off of each other and be supported. I just love being in New York with all those people and my friends. And so I feel like that's the hand that feeds me. And that's why I went back to the Public to do this little play--just because I wanted to work with new people. I don't know what the next one will be.
Tracie Thoms at the press junket
(photo by Michael Dequina)
Idina Menzel at the press junket
(photo by Michael Dequina)
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Rent: Idina Menzel & Tracie Thoms/© Michael Dequina
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