Patti LuPone: ‘I wish the United States would just crash and burn and get it over with so we could start over’
The legendary theatrical actress has become a rising figure in American entertainment. She can be seen in theaters now in Ari Aster’s new film, ‘Beau Is Afraid,’ starring Joaquin Phoenix
“I turned around to my press agent and I went, ‘well, you’re going to be handling some stuff tomorrow.’” That’s a common ending to the stories that legendary theater actress Patti LuPone, 74, is sharing this Friday. For example, when she recalls that time in early 2017 when she was asked on a red carpet if she would sing for the newly elected President Trump. She said no without batting an eye; asked why, she added with a smile, “Because I hate that motherfucker.” The publicist did what he could, sure, but that video went viral. The prima donna encapsulated the fury of the American left. “Yeah, that did go [viral.] I was proud…that I was the first person to call him a motherfucker, because then [Robert] De Niro called him a motherfucker and somebody else [Samuel L. Jackson] called him a motherfucker. And I was the first,” she says. “I really do hate the motherfucker… Not just because he was president. He’s been an asshole in New York City for as long as he’s been a celebrity. Everybody in New York hates him. Nobody likes him in New York.”
That episode set Patti Ann LuPone’s current renaissance in motion. Not so long ago, the acting legend thought that she’d begin her retirement after 50 years on stage; now, she is more popular than ever. That’s partly because of her many viral videos that followed Trump’s comments, in which she displayed the same tough charisma. Through the videos, a new generation found the Long Island-born LuPone to be an addictive - and cantankerous - source of gossip, criticism and rants about American culture. But her current popularity also stems from the fact that recently the theatrical establishment seems to have granted her the prestige that it had denied her for years (even the demanding composer Stephen Sondheim eventually allowed her to sing his scores after years of refusing to do so; LuPone won two of her three Tony Awards for those performances, Gypsy in 2008 and Company in 2022). Her impressive resume—made up of so many successes that have sometimes undermined her credibility—seems to have coalesced into an unquestionable whole: David Mamet’s pet actress since 1976, she made the leap to musical theater with the most recognizable voice in the United States and played the starring role in the über-hit Evita (1979); portrayed Fantine in Les Misérables (1984) and she appeared briefly as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1933). By the 1990s, she had a high enough profile to fight with the industry’s leading composers, and that she did. Even today, LuPone differentiates being the most famous actress in musical theater from a regular one. “I started out as a straight actor,” she declares. “A classical actor. But I have this voice.”
But there’s more to her renaissance than that. At her age, LuPone stopped doing musicals for good (she had to reconstruct the cartilage in a shoulder and both hips) and began to prioritize film and television. She’s recently appeared in the shows Hollywood (Netflix) and American Horror Story (FX), and she graces the silver screen in Hereditary director Ari Aster’s recently released film Beau Is Afraid. International fame, she says, suits her well. " I have never understood why I don’t work over here. I’ve always felt that my career should have been in Europe because [I feel] so much more European than I am American. [her great-aunt was Madrid-born Italian soprano Adelina Patti; her parents have Italian roots]. When I was 16 years old in the apple orchard of our house on Long Island, and I didn’t have a career…I said in my head, my career is in Europe, and I was 16.”
Q. One gets the feeling that your career is on another level right now.
A. No, look at me, I’m down. Look…I got a sweatshirt on. I’m in Atlanta shooting some spin off of something. I don’t know. You know what? I’m grateful for that.
Q. How are you celebrating a 50-year career with such grace? When women get older, they don’t always become more prestigious.
A. Well, I’ve been trying to figure that out, too. I do think because it was 50 years on the stage, and I think instead of going west to Hollywood, where women become obsolete after a certain age, I think by staying on the stage, I elongated my career. And when I was doing Evita, because my applause used to dip after [co-star] Mandy [Patinkin]’s because they were so ambiguous about how they felt about Evita, I did a cabaret act at midnight so people could see who I was. And what that did was it established an alternative financial viability, which was concerts. So, when I’m not on stage or when I’m not in film or in television, I can go out on the road and sing. But I have been fortunate enough to continue to work because I think I spent so much time on the stage.
Q. In a way, not doing the Evita movie was good for you [LuPone’s opinion of Evita, the 1996 film adaptation, is famous: " I thought it was a piece of shit. “Madonna is a movie killer. She’s dead behind the eyes. She cannot act her way out of a paper bag. She should not be in film or onstage. She’s a wonderful performer for what she does, but she is not an actress.”]
A. [Half smile] Maybe. But just the fact that I’ve continued to work… I just continued to work in various different things.
Q. Your career is full of successes but also disappointments. In 1993, you were going to play the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Suddenly, he fired you very publicly and replaced you with Glenn Close. You sued him and got a million dollars out of him. With that money you built a swimming pool at your house in Connecticut, which he calls the Andrew Lloyd Weber Memorial Pool. Is that right?
A. [Loud laughter] It’s fun to be a little spiteful.
Q. Forgive me for asking, but is Weber spelled with one B? The composer hates it when his name is spelled that way.
A. In my head it’s not spelled any other way.
Q. Andrew Lloyd Webber was the commercial giant who did Evita, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. But at that time the excellent genius Stephen also found it too much for his scores.
A. I auditioned to replace Bernadette [Peters] when Bernadette left [Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s acclaimed 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Georges Seurat], and I didn’t get the part, I remember Steve [Sondheim] came down the aisle and said, I don’t want any belting…I hadn’t even opened my mouth.
Q. How was it that you finally started working with Sondheim?
A. I’d never done a Sondheim role, and the only reason I did a Sondheim role was because of this man by the name of Wells Kaufman, who was the artistic something or other with the Philharmonic in New York and then became the CEO of Ravinia [a Chicago music festival]. And…he wanted to do [several] Sondheim roles. And he knew who I was. I remember when I got the offer for the film [Sweeney Todd], I said, “Does Steve know?” And they said yes. And he said yes to me… That was my first Sondheim role, Nellie Lovett, which I never expected [it] to be. I didn’t think it would be Nellie Lovett, but that was the first one.
Q. Another Sondheim role to remember was when you played Fosca in Passion at Lincoln Center in 2005, at least because of Sondheim’s comment about your characteristic vocalization. He said only heard “monotonous mush” coming out of your mouth.
A. He was a taskmaster. And when he gave notes, he did not spare your feelings. There were many times when I was devastated by what he said to me and thought he hated me. He could be very mean personally, besides professionally.
Q. Let’s return to the present. You’ve spent the last few years starring in one of Sondheim’s most emblematic works, Company, which is directed by Marianne Elliott and one of the last projects in which the composer participated. Before he died, the composer sent you a message: “Every now and then I’m brought up short by realizing what a wonderful singer you are. That’s apart from the acting and performing and the attention to detail. In any event, I just felt I had to put it in print. Thank you for enhanceing [sic] my shows — and everyone else’s for that matter, Love, Steve.”
A. I think that was for Company [in] London [in 2018]. That was an email he sent, and I just had it printed up and put on my dressing room mirror. Because…he was a taskmaster … So, to get something like that was the biggest reward of my career, to have approval from the master...I’m getting emotional thinking about it. I really thought he hated me.
Q. Have you stopped doing musicals for good?
A. The reason I want to stop doing musicals is because my body’s broken from it. I mean, seriously broken. Two new hips and a shoulder. The hips, I must be arthritic. The shoulder was from Sweeney Todd, [from] holding a tuba [in it]. But it was also bone on bone. I was bone on bone in both hips. Bone on bone in the shoulder. I had a bone spur from bad shoes. The repetition. I chose a week of movement, and my body was broken. And I said, that’s it, no more. I mean, I did War Paint [in 2017, about the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein]. I found out I was bone on bone on my right hip right after we opened. And I went through that whole thing. I mean, there was so much pain involved.
Q. Was Company an exception?
A. I had put out in the universe that I wanted to work with Marianne Elliot after seeing Warhorse and after seeing Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and after I said, no more musicals, she called and I said, no. But then I remembered what I had put out in the universe, and I said, if I don’t work with her, she’ll never ask me again. So, I said, I will do Company. And I’m very glad that I did. So basically, I [will] not come back to musicals. I left on a high.
Q. Your hatred of the Republican Party is well known. Are you glad Trump was arrested?
A. If something sticks, yeah. Because we’re really a mess over here. We are a broken country. I don’t know if it’s going to survive. I do not know. He unleashed something. He opened up Pandora’s box. So, obviously it was always there, and he just lifted the lid. But he’s also a career criminal, and he’s got to be held accountable. He has to be. And it may not be this New York indictment. It may be the Georgia indictment, it may be the papers, the classified papers. It might be the [January 6, 2021] Insurrection. But he has got to be held accountable. Everybody does. If it was me, I’d be in jail. I can’t be here anymore. I mean, I really feel like I’m preparing to leave the country and come to Europe. I’ve got PTSD in this country from the Trump administration.
Q. Do you want to leave?
A. I fear for this country. No, I don’t fear it anymore. I don’t want to be here. I just don’t want to be here because I think it’s over. I think we are crashing. I’ve said this forever. I said I wish we would just crash and burn and get it over with so we could start over. It’s such a slow descent. Yeah, it is a slow descent.
Q. In the great histories of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise takes up three volumes while the fall takes about 17.
A. That’s what it feels like… We’re going backwards. They’re banning drag shows.
Q. That hits close to home to your community, the theater community. Why do you think they’re doing that?
A. I think it’s a distraction. I think they want to go back. They want to be a Christian country. I mean…what’s the difference between our Christian right and the Taliban? I really don’t think there’s [any difference] between our Christian right and the Taliban. And I think they want to go back to a period when the white man ruled, and the woman stayed home and there was no abortion, and we didn’t speak [about] gay[s]. And unfortunately for them, the world will keep turning, and you’re not going to get rid of homosexuality. You’re not going to get rid of drag shows. It’s not going to stop. They’re hurting trans kids. They’re hurting the trans community. Oh, don’t get me started. It’s bad. It’s bad. And it’s hard to be here. It’s really hard to be here.
Q. How did you end up making Beau Is Afraid?
A. Well, I’m not sure, except I do know that, unbeknownst to me, we had a connection. Ari [Aster] is friends with David Mamet’s daughter Clara. And I’ve been doing Mamet plays since 1976… And David wrote a play that was on Broadway called The Anarchist [in which LuPone starred in 2012 opposite Debra Winger]. And Ari came to see it. It only lasted two weeks, but Ari saw it. And he said to me that he spoke for the next week to anybody [who’d listen] about how I handled the language. I have no idea. You have to ask Ari if he’s ever seen me on stage in a musical. But he knew that I was a straight actor and knew I could handle language. So, in [our] Zoom [meeting], I asked him. I found this out in the Zoom [meeting]. And I was thrilled that Ari came to me through that vein. And I actually wrote to David when I got the part, I wrote to David [and] I said, “thank you for the role.”
Q. You’re not the only theater actor in the cast; there are also legends like Richard Kind and Nathan Lane. Has the idea of theatricality changed your acting?
A. I’m Latin, it’s very easy for us to have emotions come out of our body. I’m pure Italian, and I understood that volatile energy. I understood her disappointment and anger at him. And I knew that I was responsible for that heightened emotional delivery. Acting is simple. If you let it be simple, it’s simply do[ing] what you’re supposed to do. And I had the capability, the emotional capability to do that, to understand what he wrote and delivered.
Q. Is it difficult to make the switch to films after working so long in the theater?
A. [When] I was starting out, you couldn’t cross over. The people that were in the film world thought stage actors were too big for the camera. And I have to say that stage actors have more technique than film actors because of the discipline of the stage … So, it’s really easy … well, for me… [it’s really easy] to go from stage to film…For a film actor to go to the stage, it’s a different discipline. It’s a harder discipline to go from film because in film, it’s a totally different thing. But if you have the discipline of the stage, you can go to film easier. You just have to figure out what they mean when they say, “camera left, camera right. Hit your mark.”
Q. Have you ever been asked to tone down your expressions?
A. I have a big, expressive face. So, you just have to figure out how to… harness the emotion so that it’s not too big for the camera. But Ari never said anything to me about that. He never said, you’re too big. Nobody’s ever said that to me. You’re too big. Actually, they have. They’ve [said], “Tone it down.” I just have a big personality.
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