Bridget Everett has range. She rose to fame on the back of her raucous New York City cabaret shows; but her leading turn on HBO’s “Somebody Somewhere”—a series that draws inspiration from her own life—shows off her ability to shine in quiet, poignant moments. Her path to becoming No. 1 on the call sheet was littered with insecurity and survival jobs—but with the support of her creative network, Everett harnessed her unique perspective to win over TV audiences.
You studied vocal performance in college. How did you transition into a career in cabaret?
When I was going to school at Arizona State, I studied classically. I love singing that way, but it was very challenging. If I was around smoke or if I was drinking, it really affected the quality of my voice. So I started going to karaoke bars and singing. I was singing rock and getting up on top of the bar, going crazy. I was like, Man, this is it. But you can’t really make a living doing karaoke. Then I moved to New York and I started seeing Murray Hill shows, Kiki and Herb shows, characters that I didn’t know existed. And I was like, This is what I want to do. This is mecca. A friend asked me to sing on their show at the Starlight Lounge, which is a small gay bar in the East Village. It slowly evolved, but it took a very long time, because I didn’t know that cabaret existed. I grew up in Kansas, and it wasn’t happening in Arizona.
What factors expanded your opportunities to perform?
I was making a lot of friends; I was going to shows; I was immersing myself in that world. I loved going to see the drag shows, and then I would go out with [the drag queens]. If there was a karaoke bar, I would sing. Then, eventually, friends would be like, “Why don’t you be a guest on my show? I think you have a great voice. Let me give you a shot.” Then another person gave me a shot; and along the way, [I was] saying yes to every single opportunity, every single club, every single after-hours party, every single place that I could sing. Even though I was waiting tables full time, I just didn’t say no to anything for 15 years.
“What I learned was, the more I poured myself into it—whether that was acting, writing, looking at all the little details, all the production side of things—it only made it better.”
In hindsight, was there anything that you wish you’d said no to?
A lot of after hours, after dark things that I did. Thank God there weren’t video cameras on cell phones [at the time]. I was getting to know my limits and exploring my creative expression, and sometimes you go too far. Sometimes you get a little wild. I remember Murray Hill [who also stars on “Somebody Somewhere”] sitting me down after a show one night and being like, “Alright, Bridget, you don’t need to pull the razor out onstage.” I won’t tell you what happened, but [I was] trying to figure out where the guardrails [were]. At that time, specifically in gay clubs, you could really do anything, and people ate it up and wanted more and encouraged you. The drag artists and the gay community helped shape me; they helped give me the courage to go for it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I wish I would have taken a chance on myself earlier. I didn’t really start going for it until I was in my mid-30s, because I wasn’t a Broadway singer; I wasn’t a TV person. I felt like my physique prohibited me from being on Broadway or on TV because I didn’t see a lot of what looked like me in any of those spaces. The best thing that my friend said to me a long time ago was, “Do you.” You have to find the thing that makes you unique or different or special and lean into it. Define it and go for it.
What was the breakthrough moment that made your career take off?
I was doing this show at Joe’s Pub as part of the Public Theater’s season called “Rock Bottom.” It was a collaboration with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Matt Ray and Ad-Rock. I’d been waiting tables for 25 years. I was doing it to keep my health insurance, but I also still needed the money. But there was a point where my [restaurant] manager was like, “Are you sure you want to come back?” And I said, “I don’t,” and I didn’t. From that moment, everything changed in my life. Everything opened up. I started getting more opportunities. Quitting waiting tables was a really monumental moment for me. I was constantly, along the way, holding onto safety nets and not taking the plunge; and every time I’ve taken a big plunge, it’s been a huge breakthrough.
Credit: Sandy Morris/HBO
What do the best people you’ve collaborated with have in common?
You have to surround yourself with people who want the best for you. That may seem like such a simple thing, but I’ve worked with people who were either competitive or insecure. [My best collaborators have] all wanted the best for me, and once you start listening to them and trusting that, things only get better. They believe in me—why can’t I?
What has been the biggest surprise of your transition from stage to screen?
When we were doing Season 1 [of “Somebody Somewhere”], it was a trial by fire, learning as you go. But Carolyn Strauss, who is one of the executive producers on the show, and HBO [were saying,] “We want more you.” What I learned was, the more I poured myself into it—whether that was acting, writing, looking at all the little details, the production side of things—it only made it better. So the more we’ve gone along, the more I’ve poured myself into it—more of my style of humor and more of my voice—I feel like I’ve gotten better at the job. The show is getting deeper and richer because we all put our full selves into it, and that’s the best way to get the best product. It may seem like you’re doing something that is too specific, but I find that the more specific you can be, the broader the appeal might turn out to be.
Have you ever been surprised by how audiences have reacted to one of your shows or characters?
Absolutely. Specifically, doing shows, I have this tendency—at least in the early days—to really zero in on somebody who I think is not “getting it.” You ask them a question, and a lot of times their responses would be wildly surprising. The audience surprises me as much as I surprise them.
What’s your dream role or project?
I have a character—her name is Boozy Banger, and she has triplets played by Cole Escola, Amy Sedaris, and Jennifer Coolidge. Nobody saw it coming, but it’s a show that we all need. The message is: I haven’t dreamt it up yet, but I know it’s out there, and I’ve got to try to let it come to me in the time it comes.
What performance should every actor see and why?
There’s a clip from this documentary called “Let the Good Times Roll” [with] Little Richard. It’s a 17-minute clip, and it transformed my entire creative thinking process. There’s something so lawless and energized about him. It’s him at his peak, and you see the wide influence that he’s had over all different kinds of performance, whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, drag, punk rock, theater… He is explosive and undeniable. [Google it and] watch the whole thing, listen to him, take it in, and live your life.