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“People think that I’m hard and tough,” says Broadway legend Patti LuPone as we sit down at New York’s Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I wasn’t born that way. One becomes that. One acquires the skills to protect oneself.” Whatever LuPone is doing, it’s working: Over the course of a career on the Great White Way that spans 44 years, she has been nominated for seven Tonys, winning for 1979’s Evita and 2008’s Gypsy, and she could pick up a third on Sunday night. At 68, she’s nominated again, in the category of best actress in a musical, for her portrayal of cosmetics pioneer Helena Rubinstein, opposite Christine Ebersole‘s Elizabeth Arden, in War Paint, her first Broadway musical in seven years, which opened March 7 at the Nederlander Theatre and is going strong.
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our nearly 150 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Emma Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Taraji P. Henson, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Justin Timberlake, Brie Larson, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Vikander, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Isabelle Huppert, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Michael Moore, Lily Collins, Denzel Washington, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais and Claire Foy.)
LuPone, who was born and raised in New York, displayed undeniable talent from an early age. “I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roller,” she confesses, “but I knew that I had a Broadway voice. When I sang rock, it sounded like Ethel Merman singing rock.” After graduating from high school, she became a member of the first class of Juilliard’s drama division, a four-year BFA program then based in Harlem, which was overseen by the domineering veteran thesp John Houseman. “It was very difficult for me,” she says, referencing bullying and isolation that kept her from ever getting to perform on the main stage. “I cried every single night while I was at school, not knowing what the problem was.” But, while other classmates wilted under pressure, she embraced it. “I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me that I didn’t have talent or that I wasn’t going to make it.”
In fact, after graduating in 1972, LuPone elected to continue working with Houseman as part of his Acting Company, with which she made her Broadway debut in 1973. She subsequently landed her first Tony nom in 1975 for her portrayal of Rosamund in the original The Robber Bridegroom, then did plays and ultimately — reluctantly — auditioned for the part of Eva Peron, the ambitious and doomed wife of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron, in 1979’s Evita. “I didn’t want it at all,” she says, noting that the show’s score was the most challenging she had ever encountered. “But I also knew that this was something that I had to do, regardless of how I felt about the music, because it was the next step in my career in musical theater to work with [director] Hal Prince.” LuPone won the part, proved a sensation and, at 31, won her first Tony. But after 19 months with the politically controversial show, she found herself in a bizarre predicament. “There was a backlash,” she recalls. “I wasn’t offered anything.”
Thus began the first cold period in what has proven to be a career that alternates not infrequently between periods of hot and cold. “I am not anybody’s first choice,” LuPone volunteers. Nevertheless, she originated, on London’s West End, the role of Fantine in Les Miserables in 1985, two years before the show landed on Broadway, and won an Olivier Award for her efforts. She anchored the 1987 revival of Anything Goes and the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd — although she made no musicals during the 18 years in-between, and then had a seven-year gap between two other musicals, 2010’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and War Paint. And when Broadway offerings were scarce or unworthy, she found good work elsewhere, ranging from the film Driving Miss Daisy, which won the best picture Oscar winner for 1989, to the TV series Frasier, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 1998. And, in 2008, she also picked up two Grammys, one for best classical album and one for best opera recording.
War Paint, LuPone is all too aware, is a rare and special opportunity. Quality leading roles on Broadway don’t come along often for one woman in her sixties, let alone two in one show, and for those two women to adore each other, rather than feel competitive with one another, makes the difference between a positive and a negative experience. “It is two women and it’s an adversarial relationship,” LuPone says of the dynamics at the center of the show’s story. “And I said initially to the producers, ‘You can’t have two actresses up there that don’t like each other or that are competing.'” They signed Ebersole to play the other lead and LuPone found it a perfect match, since both women are at similar stages in their careers and understand and respect what the other is going through in a way that few others ever could. “I am in heaven working with her,” LuPone emphasizes.
Lest you think that LuPone, who has stopped shows to chastise one audience member who was taking a photo and to confiscate another’s cellphone, is mellowing, she makes it quite clear that she is not. In addition to objecting to the use of smartphones in the theater, she also is enraged by audience members’ littering. “They’re using the theater as a trash can,” she says with exasperation. “Every time I leave the theater and I walk through the house, I can’t believe how much junk is on the floor. You know what? Take out what you bring in! You wouldn’t do this in your house!” But there’s only one thing that would upset her enough to keep her from taking the stage at all: knowing that President and Mrs. Donald Trump were in the audience. “I would not perform and they know that. I cannot stand him. Melania, I’ve got a little bit more respect for. And Melania, if you can hear me, divorce his ass!”
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