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Actress Patti LuPone Is Now Starring In 'Hollywood' Show On Netflix

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Patti LuPone has been keeping busy during her lockdown. There was an appearance on Rosie O'Donnell's variety show...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTI LUPONE: (Singing) Life is such a great adventure. Learn to live it as you go. No one in the world can censure what we do here below.

SHAPIRO: ...A number in Stephen Sondheim's 90th birthday celebration...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUPONE: (Singing) Anyone can whistle. That's what they say. Easy. Anyone can whistle.

SHAPIRO: ...And now she's starring in the new Ryan Murphy show "Hollywood" on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOLLYWOOD")

LUPONE: (As Avis Amberg) I was in pictures - silent films - good ones, too. But then came the talkies. I had one screen test, and they told me there wasn't a place in talkies for ethnics. A little Jew-y (ph) was the word they used. I politely informed them that Jews built this town and was shown the door.

SHAPIRO: She plays a larger-than-life diva who becomes a studio boss. And LuPone is doing all this while she was supposed to have been on Broadway starring in a revival of the show "Company."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

LUPONE: (Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh.

SHAPIRO: And Patti LuPone joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and thanks for fitting us into your busy schedule.

LUPONE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You seem to be making the most of this new reality. What's your secret?

LUPONE: I have none. I really don't. I'm trying to figure it out just like everybody else.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's talk about this show "Hollywood" on Netflix, which you star in. The show imagines what might have happened if Hollywood just after World War II had been a more inclusive place. And your character creates spaces for people who, in the real world, were excluded by the Hollywood studio system. And so I wonder, was there somebody early in your career who played that kind of role in your life who opened doors that might otherwise have been closed to you?

LUPONE: Not when I was a professional. I didn't have those kind of connections. But at Juilliard, in the drama division, I was - you know, I'm a rebellious person. Nothing's changed. And I think I was quite rebellious at school as well. But they couldn't throw me out because they didn't like my personality, so they threw every role in my direction so that I would fail as an actor. And my champion was Marian Seldes.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

LUPONE: And if there was ever a problem, Marian was the one that came to my defense. So you know, they did something for me that they didn't do for the rest of the actors. They pigeonholed the rest of the actors into ensemble, you know, leading lady, soubrette, ingenue, et cetera. And with me, because they threw all those different roles in my direction, they created one actor in versatility.

SHAPIRO: For those who aren't familiar, Marian Seldes was the legendary actress. She died in 2014. What do you think it was that she saw in you that made her stick her neck out to create space for you? I mean, did she identify...

LUPONE: Well...

SHAPIRO: ...In her - what was it?

LUPONE: Without boasting, she has said she recognized my talent. You know, I've known, Ari, all my life that I had talent - all my life. It's a God-given gift, and the gift is to be given away. And you know, I'm sure I got in my own way at school, and Marian was there to remind me why I was there and run interference with teachers and me.

SHAPIRO: Was it ever difficult for you to own that and say, I have talent, and I deserve to be here? Was that a process for you?

LUPONE: No, I've - I always knew that I had talent, and I didn't understand why I wasn't getting better roles at school. And John Houseman once said to me I was too short to play a leading lady while I was playing a leading lady (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LUPONE: So...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LUPONE: ...It was just a - John had a vision of leading ladies, which were tall blondes with high cheekbones. So you know, there was a lot of, I guess you might say, prejudice...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LUPONE: ...At school.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like the bullying and verbal abuse that's all throughout this show "Hollywood" is something that you remember from your early days and perhaps identify with.

LUPONE: Totally.

SHAPIRO: In the first episode of this show, you engage in more explicit sex scenes than I think I have seen in your entire career.

LUPONE: I know.

SHAPIRO: These scenes are with...

LUPONE: What's wrong with that?

SHAPIRO: ...A very young man who your character has hired for the afternoon.

LUPONE: Right.

SHAPIRO: Did anyone have to twist your arm?

LUPONE: Not a bit.

(LAUGHTER)

LUPONE: Not one bit. I said - when Ryan said, you have a sex scene, I went, finally.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Ryan Murphy, the creator - yeah.

LUPONE: No. I mean, I've had sex scenes before, and I was naked onstage in "The Robber Bridegroom." But it's just fun to do, and I don't have inhibitions that way. I'm - I think I'm a fairly free individual, and I'm certainly a fearless actor. If a director wanted me to do something, I'd - I really want to do it if it - especially if it's out in left field.

SHAPIRO: It's also an interesting way of conveying who this character is that she just hires this man, she tells him what she wants and she gets it from him.

LUPONE: Right. It's the only - it's probably the only place she has control. She's married to a man that doesn't pay her much attention that she knows is having an - having affairs. And you know, she's probably the original desperate housewife.

SHAPIRO: Isn't Ryan Murphy, the show's creator - is somebody who you've worked with before on "Pose" and on "American Horror Story." And he often comes back to the same actors for project after project. What characterizes a Ryan Murphy project as distinct from all the other projects that you do?

LUPONE: I think the variety of roles he trusts you to interpret. Do you know what I mean? He's not pigeonholing any of us. He's going, OK, you're going to do this now; you're going to do that. He's very generous, and he loves actors. And I think he loves women. Thank God he loves women. That's exciting - somebody that trusts your talent and trusts your abilities. It allows us to really exercise and stretch as actors.

SHAPIRO: Because, also, you learn to trust each other, and I'm sure you have a shorthand for what each other wants.

LUPONE: Well, now I will if I work with these actors again. Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LUPONE: And I hope I do. I mean, I hope "Hollywood" comes back for a second season, and I hope that I get to work with these guys again.

SHAPIRO: Now, as I mentioned, you were supposed to have been on Broadway right now playing Joanne in the revival of "Company." You were in previews when Broadway shut down because of the pandemic. Is the cast staying in touch? How's everybody holding up?

LUPONE: Well, we're doing Zoom meetings (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Oh, really? What happens on those meetings? Are you rehearsing or just chatting and - I don't know - sipping cocktails?

LUPONE: Yes, chatting and sipping cocktails. We did two readings. But because we really don't know when we're coming back - you know, there's an expression - don't leave it in the dressing room. And in this particular case, let's not leave it on Zoom where - you know, performances have a - has - have a peak. And then on the other side, you're limp. And so we can't necessarily leave it on Zoom. We meet just to stay in touch with each other and keep that ensemble intimacy fresh. And if we do go back - when we do go back, I beg your pardon - you know we'll be back in rehearsal for at least three weeks before we start up again.

SHAPIRO: What advice are you giving younger performers who, you know, might've been on the brink of a leap forward in their career, might not have a financial cushion to fall back on? When they turn to you, what do you say to them?

LUPONE: Well, nobody's asked me, and I would say I don't know. I think we're all in the same boat in this respect. It's a financial peril for everybody. And I would - I'm trying to stay disciplined. I'm trying to stay focused. I'm trying to stay positive. I'm trying to say, we will go back to work. I'm trying to decipher everything I hear on the news. It's a very, very, very confusing time. I guess I would say to them to try to stay positive. I don't - you know, I don't know what else to say.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Patti LuPone, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.

LUPONE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: She stars in the new show "Hollywood" on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.