Bette Midler: Working on 'The Politician' Was "Like School for Me"

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Bette Midler

The actress embraces her inner political animal on Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series and minces no words about the suggestion of touring again or the government’s response to the pandemic.

When Netflix released The Politician in 2019, one of the marquee names in Ryan Murphy's cast of heavy hitters sat on the bench until the season finale. Bette Midler, in a rare TV turn, was a guest in that episode — setting up a season two arc that finds her scheming political strategist at the center of the show's June 19 return. Calling The Hollywood Reporter from her home outside New York City, the Emmy-winning actress and singer talked about being the series' designated boomer, getting character inspiration from Bob Iger's longtime right hand, and the prospect of touring again after COVID-19.

How have you been keeping busy?

In the crush of the pandemic, all the nonprofits got blindsided. Everybody has a spring event and a fall event. These fundraisers are how they make almost the entire budget for the year. We [The New York Restoration Project, which creates green spaces for under-resourced communities] ended up doing this little virtual show to thank all the board members and donors for really saving us from the brink. I had never done anything virtual in my life, and it was a huge learning curve. Now I feel like no one's coming back ever, and all the greenscreens and ring lights are gone.

The Politician is back, but you and Judith Light first appeared in the last episode of the first season.

We were new blood, the 11 o'clock spot in the first season. The energy that we bring is so different from the energy that you had for the episodes before. It's a different school of acting, like we came in from another soundstage. Generationally, the styles are so different.

And it made for a gradual entry into series work.

I hadn't worked on the streets of New York in a long time — and I have never done it in the winter, so that was a revelation. I was wearing a hot water bottle under my outfit. To be in the middle of Tribeca at rush hour was really … I'm old, too. Don't forget. I'm old, and I'm wearing sensible shoes.

Stop it.

I was wearing sensible shoes, I insisted on it. Really, it was exciting and exhilarating, but it was also tiring. I had never done anything like that. I had a little show in 2000 — a sitcom [Bette] that I didn't understand, either — but I had never actually done episodic. I didn't realize that you'd see a new director every week. It was like school for me, dipping my toe into yet another world.

I'm kind of surprised you'd never worked with Judith before. Did you know one another?

No, I knew her reputation — and I did see her in Other Desert Cities [on Broadway], but I always thought of her as in a different league. She is very funny and quite wicked, actually. We became a little cabal ourselves: the boomers against the millennials.

I consider you to be politically active. What research did you do?

I went to see Corey Johnson at the New York City Council and got a nice long tour of City Hall. I spoke with a couple of chiefs of staff. Oh! I spoke to Zenia Mucha, who used to be George Pataki's chief of staff and ran Bob Iger's office for years.

Oh, wow. I was not expecting that.

She is fabulous. I mean, she's a tremendous character. Someone should do a show just around her.

It's a weird time to ask, but do you think about touring again?

You know the old expression "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak"? I still have interest, but I don't know whether I am strong enough anymore. And it's a very hard question to answer, because you don't know whether the audience will be there for you.

I'd go.

A lot of my friends have called and said, "You know, it's weird, but I think I'm retired." It's not like you announce it or anything, the parade just sort of goes by. I know we're all in a holding pattern — paddling around our ponds, learning and catching our breath — but, when this is all over, there will be a shakeout. I don't know whether it will include my cohort.

You don't think your fans will come out?

You just don't know if they have, not just the energy to get into the car, but the money to buy a ticket. The schools, arenas, theaters and all places where people gather have a very steep climb ahead of them. Of course, if we had some leadership it wouldn't be quite so bad — but we have none.

Fair.

It feels like it's on purpose, like they're trying to clean out the country. But who's going to take the place of all those who have met their maker? It doesn't make sense to me. But none of it has made sense for the last three years.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.