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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Patti LuPone was mere days from the premiere of her latest Broadway production, Company, when the pandemic caused a shut down. The Tony winner, who will also appear in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Hollywood for Netflix, has since retreated to her home in Connecticut, where she’s sheltering in place with her husband and their actor son. LuPone opened up to THR about her new normal, which includes cast Zooms, nature walks and increasingly popular virtual tours of her basement.
Let’s start easy: how are you doing?
I’m doing well. My family and I are doing well. We’re not sick, we are very grateful, and we’re lucky. We live in the country, and our nearest neighbors are about an acre and a half away, so …
That qualifies as social distancing.
It’s always social distancing up in Connecticut.
When all of this hit, you were about to start Company on Broadway. Take me back to those last few days before an official decision was made.
There were rumblings on the street, and on our street we had heard that an usher at the Booth, which would’ve been right next door to us, tested positive for COVID. And then we heard that someone had tested positive at Moulin Rouge!, which was, again, on our street, across the avenue. We also heard via the grapevine that Broadway would shut down, so we were just waiting for the word. And when it came, it was not a surprise; it was something that I think all of us deemed would be essential for everybody’s health. Not just the actors’ health, but the audience’s health. So, it was not a surprise but it was disappointing, for sure, because we were so close to opening. March 11, I think, was the last day in the theater and we were going to open the 22nd, which was Sondheim’s birthday. We were opening on Sondheim’s birthday! I mean, we make plans, God laughs. And now, we are on a group chat and we actually meet [virtually] every Thursday to see each other’s faces, and occasionally run lines. But nobody knows when we’re going back, and now it’s just a waiting game.
And what will coming back look like?
Well, yeah, is anybody going to want to sit next to anybody in the theater? You know what I mean? Or are New Yorkers just that tough breed that will go, “I want to see this show come hell or high water.” Who knows? I don’t know anything. When I go to the market here, they’ve just implemented this rule where you have to be in line, and they only let, like, two people in at once. So you feel as though you’re not social distancing [as you wait in line outside]. I actually left one market today because I was in a line with, maybe, 15 people, and, I thought, you know what? I can get sick just standing here. So, I left and went to a different market, but some people are adhering to the social distancing, some people are not. I really wish everybody would. But what are we going to do?
So, what does your day look like now? What is the schedule, if there is one?
There’s no schedule. But I think we find ourselves working — it’s a valuable time as opposed to a confusing and lost time. Whoever has time, you know what I mean? And we’ve been given time and that is incredibly valuable. I’ve been running back and forth from New York to Los Angeles, and I haven’t been home as just a mother and a wife and a housewife. I haven’t been home, and so we’re purging the house, we’re cleaning the house, we’re walking in the woods, we’re riding bikes, we’re communicating with friends via Zoom or Skype or FaceTime or whatever it’s called. And cooking, reading, writing, walking, biking. It’s sort of an enforced vacation, which can be very lovely. Of course, there’s financial worries and confusion, thanks to our illustrious leader. But if I look out, I’m looking at nature, and nature is nurturing. We’re feeding the squirrels and the birds and the bear woke up yesterday and destroyed our bird feeder and emptied our garbage can. Yeah, the animal kingdom is waking up. It all feeds the soul, and I think right now, we are just looking at things to feed the soul.
What, for you, has been the easiest adjustment? And, conversely, the hardest one?
There hasn’t been any hard adjustment. And I suppose there hasn’t been any easy adjustment. It’s sort of like, this is what my life is now, make the most of it. So, I’m not looking at what is the best and what is the worst, because the comparison would be upsetting. We determine what we’re doing according to Mother Nature. It’s raining today, so my son is writing, I’m mopping the kitchen floor and I’m learning a song for Mary Ann Elliott. She wanted to hear me sing “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” so I’m learning that song. My husband basically lives up here full-time — I’m always commuting — and so this is nothing new for him, the isolation. He will go days without seeing another human. Basically, what he sees are our myriad of animals where we live in Connecticut. So, I think we are actually embracing this in a very positive way.
What have you learned about yourself during this time?
Oh, I stopped investigating myself years ago. I’m kidding. What have I learned about myself? That I wish I were a better cook — that’s what I’ve learned about myself. That I have to be more generous — I’m such a nasty New Yorker. I really am. If somebody’s not social distancing, I can’t pull a New York attitude. Let’s see, what have I learned about myself? I’m taking care of myself. I’m making sure that I remain disciplined and that I’m not losing myself in this. I think probably that’s a lesson, that I don’t lose myself in this, I don’t fall into a depression where I let myself go physically. I don’t work out, I don’t shave, I don’t look at myself in the mirror and take care of myself, physically take care of myself, emotionally take care of myself. I think that’s the lesson, how to maintain that.
Having that kind of discipline right now isn’t easy.
No, and I think it’s important. Discipline is important in times like this, as opposed to letting the confusion and chaos overtake. We didn’t create this, you know what I mean? I didn’t create it, you didn’t create it. Or maybe we did. But in the meantime, how do we combat it positively? I keep going, is this aliens going, “This is your last chance, human”? Or is it Mother Earth going, “This is your last chance, human”?
Your virtual tours of your basement seem to have brought a lot of people a lot of joy. What inspired those?
It happened on the Rosie [O’Donnell] benefit show. Somebody tweeted that they wanted to see more of my basement, and then I got an email from a friend in San Francisco, who actually said, “You have a jukebox and a pinball machine?” I had no idea that was being seen. So, it was a spontaneous move for me to go, “Let’s show them the basement.” Then it became the basement tapes, and we’re now working on another one. I’m an entertainer; that’s what I am. So, I’m entertaining myself as well as anybody else who tunes in to it.
Are we ever going to get upstairs?
Actually, there are two other rooms that are jam-packed with such interesting things. So, I haven’t finished with the basement yet. Somebody wanted to know what was in the lockers, and there were pictures that mean something to me that are very interesting. A friend of mine was in the Peace Corps in Nepal, and there are two pictures of the Himalayas — they’ve always been a majestic mystery to me. There’s also a picture of New York, a deserted street in New York that goes straight up to the Empire State Building that a still photographer took and gave to me back in the ’80s. And then there’s Troy Donahue. When I was a kid, oh, I was in love with Troy Donahue. There [was a magazine] called Teen Screen, and it would be full-page pictures of Troy Donahue and I would rip them out and put them on the floor and then get on the floor and kiss him on the lips. So, a friend of mine was on the road with him when I was doing The Old Neighborhood. And I went, “You’re on the road with Troy Donahue? Tell him that I was in love with him when I was a kid.” And he sent me two pictures, one when he was that age, when I was in love with him, and one of what he looked like now. So, I want to show those pictures. There’s just a bunch of stuff that means something to me, but I’m not unique in that. I’m showing them something that people might be able to relate to.
What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
Nobody’s actually giving advice. We’re all just giving love. Everybody’s signing off with, “Stay safe, stay healthy, stay six feet apart.” I think everybody’s trying to figure out, everybody’s trying to negotiate these waters, and nobody, at least in my circle of friends, has reached the point where they can give advice. What they’re trying to do is lift people’s spirits with humor, and everybody is reaching out. Friends of mine who I don’t talk to all the time, everybody’s reaching out to us or I’m reaching out to them. “Ae you OK? I’m just sending love.” That’s what I’m getting, and I’m sending it as well. I’m saying “I’m thinking of you, I love you, stay safe.” And, “I can’t do without you, so don’t be foolish.”
What are you watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?
I’m reading the latest translation of Madame Bovary and I’m watching Babylon Berlin and My Brilliant Friend, and the antidote to both of those, which is Grace and Frankie. But it turns out that I’m busy during the day. Busy doing what? Well, purging, like I said, understanding all of the stuff that we’ve accumulated, and where it applies in my life now. By the end of the day, I’m exhausted and I lie down, say “I just got to rest my eyes,” and I’m asleep. I’m sleeping extremely well. I go outside at night, and it’s so peaceful and quiet, you wouldn’t think there was a care in the world. That kind of dichotomy is a little scary to me. It’s a false sense of, “All’s right with the world.”
Your Netflix series Hollywood will now debut in the middle of this pandemic. Will it be received differently as a result?
Maybe everybody will watch it now because nobody can do anything else! If you have a Netflix subscription and you’ve got nothing to do, Hollywood is a terrific escape to a time gone by, a time passed. And it is revisionist history but it might lend itself extremely well to what we’re going through today. I hope people try it, I hope people enjoy it. It is escapism, so let’s escape.
What or who have become your go-to news sources during all of this?
MSNBC is really the network that I watch. I never turn on Fox News. I think Fox News is a vile, vile, vile broadcasting company, and the people on it are vile. I do not watch Fox News. My husband does to laugh, which pisses me off because he’s giving them ratings. He listens to Rush Limbaugh to laugh at the outrageousness of it. I’m going, “You’re giving him ratings!” It isn’t fine. But we watch MSNBC and CNN, and read The New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera and Reddit for the animal videos to put me in a good mood.
Have you found any comfort food in all of this?
No. I’m just trying to cook as best I can, and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I lose. We have no comfort foods except that we’re all sitting together, and that’s the comfort.
In these times is there a cause that has become particularly important to you?
Taking care of our first responders and our nurses and our doctors in the hospitals. I think that that is crucial. Oh, God, what a world, what a country. It’s a broken country. It is broken. I was talking to my kid about it, he 29 and he’s inheriting the mess we’ve created. I don’t know what to say.
Last question: what’s atop the to-do list once this is all over?
I guess relearn my lines for Company. (Laughs.) Oh my God, I had just gotten it under my belt, wouldn’t you know.
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