Back Stage West/Drama-Logue recently spoke with New York-based triple-threat Bebe Neuwirth, whose versatility has enabled her to bounce back and forth between stage and screen. Highly acclaimed for her recently ended long run on Broadway as Velma Kelly in Chicago, Neuwirth was accorded the 1997 Tony award for best actress in a musical, as well as a Drama Desk, an Outer Circle Critics award, and the Fred Astaire Award for best dancer on Broadway.
Currently, she can be seen in Woody Allen's Celebrity, in which she plays a call girl giving Judy Davis lessons, and in Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty. Her other film credits include Jumanji, Pinocchio, Say Anything, Malice, Green Card, Bugsy, The Associate, and the upcoming Summer of Sam, directed by Spike Lee, and Liberty Heights, with director Barry Levinson.
Bebe won her first Tony in 1986 for her portrayal of Nickie in the Broadway revival of Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity. Her other Broadway credits include A Chorus Line, Little Me, Dancin', and the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees. She's performed the title role in London's West End production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Regionally, she starred as Anita in West Side Story and held leading roles in Pal Joey and No"l Coward's In Two Suites.
Cabaret audiences saw her perform in Martin Charnin's Upstairs at O'Neal's and in the acclaimed Los Angeles run of Cabaret Verboten.
During her six memorable seasons on the hit television series Cheers, Neuwirth garnered two Emmys for her devastatingly deadpan portrayal of Dr. Lilith Sternin Crane. Her character has also made recurring appearances on Frasier.
A native of Princeton, New Jersey, Neuwirth began studying ballet at the age of five and continued with intensive training at the Princeton Ballet Company through her high school years. She then attended the dance division of the Juilliard School.
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: Until the revival of Chicago, forgive me, but I didn't realize you had a background as a dancer and as a singer and that you were such a multi-talented performer. I think this happens a lot with actors, especially those who become famous on television, as you did with Cheers. How did you make that transition into acting?
Bebe Neuwirth: There is no transition. I believe that there is no distinction, really, between dancing, singing, and talking, because I believe all of that is what we would call acting. Living truthfully, moment to moment, under imaginary circumstances is what acting is, and you can do that through dance, you can do that through song, and you can do that through speech and silences. There are silences also in dance and in song.
So I always bristle a little bit and get very defensive, especially for my fellow dancers, when people just come to conclusions about a person's acting ability because they're a dancer or because they're a singer, because that's what we do maybe even more eloquently than those people who only speak. I think of myself as a performer for hire and I work in a lot of mediums and try to do what interests me.
BSW/D-L: Is that what you consider yourself, first and foremost‹a dancer?
Neuwirth: I started dancing when I was five years old. I've not stopped dancing, because that's who I am; that's what I do. That's home. I guess that's where it starts for me‹even when I'm in a role where I'm just talking, let's say in a movie or something. It comes down to a physical level for me, because I'm a dancer first. My starting place is through dance. When I approach any character for anything‹if I'm going to dance it, sing it, or talk it‹I approach it physically.
BSW/D-L: When I think of dance, I think of discipline, and that is obviously something that you need as an actor. Does your dance experience help you with your work as an actor?
Neuwirth: Yes, I think that a dancer has a leg up, so to speak, on any of the other craftspeople. I would say that a dancer has a big head start on singers or talkers because the discipline required for a dancer's life is higher and stronger and tougher, and is even more heartbreaking than any of the other fields. You may get readers writing in to dispute me on that or say I'm a snob, but that is the truth as I know it.
It takes discipline to get to class. It takes discipline to stay in class, and I'm talking about ballet class. I'm not talking about these places where people go and just, you know, thrash themselves around. I'm talking about getting a strong, solid dance technique, and to do that takes an enormous amount of discipline.
And it's not just getting and staying in class; it's what you do when you're in class and working with the proper amount of focus and dogged determination that one needs to become a technically proficient dancer. Whether or not you can dance is something that God gives you. Whether or not you have technique, strength, and a facility for your craft‹that's something that you have to spend years developing. That's not something you get arbitrarily.
BSW/D-L: At a certain point in your career, did you make the decision to seek out training in acting?
Neuwirth: Yeah. I had been working professionally for a couple of years. My first job was on tour with A Chorus Line. Then I did Chorus Line on Broadway. Toward the end of my run and then on into another Broadway show, I started to train in an acting class. I studied for two years with Suzanne Shepard. That's the only time I've taken acting classes. She was such a brilliant teacher that her teaching has fueled me and I continue to draw from it.
BSW/D-L: Do you feel that your best work has been in Fosse's musicals, particularly Chicago?
Neuwirth: I would say that a dancer should be able to adjust to any style, but sometimes the way they're structured‹their physical body proportions‹and their particular beat inside of their bodies lends itself to a certain style better than others. I have always felt very, very comfortable in the Fosse style. It makes sense to my being. I think my best performances come in Fosse shows, because it's a style that I'm so comfortable with that I'm able to just augment and go further and give fuller, better performances in it.
So I don't want to single out any shows‹because every show has something remarkable to offer to a performer's life‹but I will say that there were some very profound circles that were completed and continued in this particular production of Chicago. I really can't tell you more than that, because that's extremely personal, and even though it doesn't have to do with my love life, it's a very, very personal thing. It's really quite spiritual.
BSW/D-L: What needs to be in a project for you to sign on to do something?
Neuwirth: Obviously the script has to be something. If it's not completely interesting as a whole, then at least my character is interesting‹or this person's directing it or a certain actor is going to be in it. It's a fascinating thing to work with different directors and figure out a whole new kind of person to play each time. I'm not going, OK, I played a psychiatrist, now I have to play an insane person. Or, now I have to play a prude and then I'll play a prostitute. It's just whatever looks interesting and fun.
I have to say that as I work more and more, one of the most important things in my work is having a good time and being able to have a laugh on the set and carry on a little bit. I really think that translates somehow. I'm not talking about screwing around and doing things that are unprofessional. I'm talking about having a really good time, and I do believe that when the cast is having fun‹they could be performing Medea‹it's something that is going come across on the stage or on the screen.
BSW/D-L: I imagine it's not always fun in this business.
Neuwirth: Yeah, there are things that are difficult, but unfortunately those challenges are things that the actor doesn't have any control over. I think they have to do with popular culture. They have to do with public opinion at large, which could be based on absolutely nothing tangibly creative. I think there is a staggering, frightening amount of arbitrary factors involved in keeping a career going and being of interest, and once a performer realizes that, one has to say, Well, look, this is something that I just cannot control. Just go about doing your work as best you can.
BSW/D-L: Did you go through any periods in your career when work was scarce?
Neuwirth: Everyone has a different threshold for pain. I have been unbelievably fortunate in my work and in getting work and keeping work and moving from job to job. As I recall, the longest I've gone without a job was about three months, and that's nothing and I know that and I appreciate that. But when I say people have different pain thresholds‹to me, I was going out of my mind. No, I have not gone through lean times. The times that you're talking about and the times that my friends go through and that when I was starting out my friends were going through‹no, I have not gone through times like that.
BSW/D-L: Have you grown to enjoy your down time between jobs?
Neuwirth: I enjoy it for about a week and then towards day five the back of my head starts itching. By day seven, the last day of the week, I go, "OK, I've got to get a job."
BSW/D-L: Are you a workaholic?
Neuwirth: I love my work. I don't really know what a workaholic is, unless a workaholic is somebody who works at something that they're not particularly happy doing and it's all-consuming. That's not me. I love my work. When I dance on a stage, when I get to perform, I couldn't be happier. When, however, I'm working in something I don't like or isn't working, I couldn't be more unhappy, because it means so much to me‹because I love the work so much.
I'm not really comfortable with that workaholic term. I don't know whether that implies there's something's wrong with working hard and working a lot. I mean, isn't the point just to be happy? If a person wants to be happy and is not hurting herself and is not hurting anybody else, then that's not a workaholic.
BSW/D-L: What would you advise actors who are starting out in their careers or who are having difficulty landing work?
Neuwirth: Get onstage as much as you possibly can. If you're an actor who doesn't sing or dance, I would say, as much as you can, be in acting class. Just do the work. Practice reading a play and figuring out the character and living in it for a while. Practice in acting class as much as you can. If you can't afford to go to acting class, get with some other people who can't afford to go to acting class and just work on scenes together. My point is to do the work as much as possible, and if you're not in a show then the only venue open to us as performers really is the classroom. I also would say to actors: Read a lot of plays, read a lot of books, read a lot of fiction, so that you get in the habit of fleshing out characters.
BSW/D-L: When you got out of school, did you just start auditioning, get an agent, and have a smooth road?
Neuwirth: I left Juilliard in June and the following April I got my first job with A Chorus Line. I went around the country on tour with that and when I came back I did the show on Broadway for a while.
When I first came back to Broadway I was understudying the parts that I played on the road. I knew I was gonna be going on as Sheila in A Chorus Line for a few weeks, so I just did a bunch of mailings to agents saying, I'm going to be doing this part. Please come see my performance. I'm seeking representation. At that time it was 1980, so the show had only been running five years and you could still get people to come and see Chorus Line. A couple of people came or responded, and one of the people wanted to work with me and I started working with them. And then I got other jobs and then these other people approached me and they were a bigger, stronger agency, and I went with them. You just have to keep mailing and sending pictures and try to be in something that people can see.
BSW/D-L: Have you always been based in New York or did you come out to L.A. for any period of time?
Neuwirth: I commuted to L.A. for a little while. That was tiring, and then I just realized that I had to be there for a couple of years during the Cheers years‹always knowing that once I was finished with that show I would come back to New York.
Los Angeles is a very, very commercial place, and I think it's completely non-nurturing to a performer. I cannot imagine starting out as a performer in Los Angeles. It is so non-conducive to the creative atmosphere in every way. I mean, the land is just not fertile; it's a desert. I don't know how an artist can thrive out there. I really don't know, and God bless those who try to do it. I really mean that, because I couldn't. It's just the wrong soil for an artist to germinate and grow.
I especially have a hard time coming up with some sort of advice for the person starting in Los Angeles. Here's my advice: Move to New York. Move to San Francisco. Move to Chicago. Go somewhere where you can start getting your chops together. Then go to New York, and then if you absolutely have to, go to Los Angeles.
BSW/D-L: In addition to getting an agent, I think another source of anxiety for actors is the audition process. Have you grown to feel more comfortable in auditions?
Neuwirth: I've done many different kinds of auditions. I've been in auditions with 400 other women dancers in a big Broadway theatre at an open call. I've been to just having a meeting with a director. Any kind of audition you can imagine, I've been in. There is nothing lovable about an audition of any kind, unless you're one of those performers who are just salespeople. They thrive at auditions, but I'll tell you something, when they get into the show and start working in the show those are usually the people who don't come through. Those are the people that you have to ask, How did they get this job? Well, they gave a great audition. Those people‹I have no idea what that experience is. I cannot address that.
All I can address is the rest of us poor suckers who have a really hard time with auditions, and all I can say is just completely focus in on your work. That's the other thing: Auditions in Los Angeles are much more hateful than the auditions in New York. There's a very different energy in auditions in L.A., and maybe I wasn't there long enough, but I went to a lot of auditions there and it was not a community that I sensed. It wasn't, "We're all in this here together and good luck to you," which is the way it is in New York. It was something very, very different in Los Angeles.
BSW/D-L: Are you speaking about between actors?
Neuwirth: Yeah. I was sort of shocked at some of the things that I've seen out there. But my advice is the same: Just completely hone in and focus, and that's where your discipline comes in. If you develop a discipline in your work, the ability to focus will bleed through into other parts of your life. Maybe you'll leave your bed unmade and your rug unvacuumed, but you have to have that ability to focus in on what you are doing. Otherwise, your energy will dissipate and you'll start wondering about what the other people are thinking of you, wondering if you have the wrong eye shadow on, wondering all these things‹meanwhile you're in the middle of a scene, and you've really screwed yourself.
So that's my advice. Focus in harder. Take all that nervous energy and just get rid of it. If you can really lock in on your work, the nervous energy does go away. BSW/D-L