‘Frozen 2’ star Idina Menzel talks work, family and embracing every day
Tony Award winner Idina Menzel’s professional career is busier than ever. She reprises her role as the voice of Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen 2,” and stars in “Uncut Gems,” a drama/comedy, which opens Christmas Day.
“Adam Sandler plays a jeweler who gets rappers and athletes all this crazy bling,” she says. “He’s a gambler and an adrenaline junkie, and he makes a lot of bad decisions. I play his wife, but he also has a girlfriend. It’s a two-hour crazy roller-coaster ride.”
But in Los Angeles, where she lives with second husband, Aaron Lohr, and her 10-year-old son, Walker, she’s often more focused on the busy, everyday details of family life.
“I’m the basketball mom, and I need to get the jerseys made for our first game,” Menzel says. “Our coach left, and the new one wants a new team name. Then I have to make sure someone is picking up my son from school because I’m at a photo shoot and he has practice at 3 p.m. His father (Menzel’s ex-husband, actor Taye Diggs) is flying in, and I have to see if his plane is delayed. Walker is supposed to hang with Dad tonight. If not, I have to make sure someone is home to get him.”
Menzel should probably be exhausted, but she sounds energized. She’s embracing her hectic life and knows the importance of being true to herself. “I’m not afraid to make mistakes because I found that mistakes endear us to other people,” she says. “They make us seem human. So I try to lay it all out there and not edit myself too much and aim to be as authentic as I can.”
The singer/songwriter/actress also wants her days to be jam-packed because she knows what it’s like not to be busy. “I’ve had lots of ups and downs,” she says. “I have to keep working hard.”
Driven to succeed
Now 48, Menzel got her professional start in “Rent,” a 1996 Broadway rock musical that won a Tony Award and earned Menzel her first Tony Award nomination. Her successful Broadway career has also included a 2004 Tony Award for playing Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in “Wicked.”
But she really got her start at age 6. “My parents entered me in a talent show when we were staying at a resort,” she says. “I sang ‘The Way We Were,’ and people said, ‘She needs to get lessons.’ I always knew in my heart that I wanted to sing and perform.”
Her parents, a salesman and a therapist, arranged for her to have the lessons but refused to let her be a child star. “My mom didn’t believe in running me to auditions and exposing me to that kind of rejection as a little girl,” she says. “She wanted me to have a regular childhood and be in school plays. I remember fighting with her and saying, ‘I’m missing out on ‘Annie,’ I’m getting too tall. They’re not going to let me be in it.’ My mom stuck to her guns.”
In 1993, she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and she remembers how passionate she was about succeeding in her career: “The 20-year-old in me was so ambitious and worked so hard and pounded the pavement and struggled to pay the rent and wanted to get an acting job and a record deal.”
From 2010 to 2013, she appeared in 12 episodes of the TV show “Glee” as Shelby Corcoran, Lea Michele’s character’s biological mother. But what truly changed Menzel’s life was voicing Elsa, the young queen who accidentally turns her kingdom into nonstop winter, in Disney’s 2013 smash hit “Frozen.”
She became an icon for millions of fans. Singing the Oscar-winning song ‘Let It Go’ at the 2014 Academy Awards supercharged her career. (Ironically, her name recognition was bolstered by John Travolta fumbling her introduction, calling her Adele Dazeem.)
Menzel is nothing but grateful for the movie’s success. “ ‘Frozen’ has only been a gift in my life,” she says. “It allows me to be a role model, but it also reminds me of what I want to be in my own life. When you’re a role model, you have to practice what you preach. I can stand up onstage and somehow personify confidence or self-esteem. But if I’m not feeling it, if I’m having a bad day myself, I need to listen to the music and the words of the character I play and remind myself, ‘Don’t be afraid to find that feeling, that thing inside, that makes me so special.’ We all feel it, whether we’re 12 or 48. We still need to be reminded. Every time I get onstage and sing these songs, I’m connected to young people. As agonizing as it probably is for many parents because they’ve heard’ Let It Go’ so many times, I’m really grateful for it.”
What can we expect in “Frozen 2”? “These sisters, Elsa and Anna, have unconditional love for each other and their family,” Menzel says. “Elsa is going on this journey to find out who she is and what her purpose is. Her sister will come with her friends to help Elsa figure that out.”
It’s a journey Menzel herself has taken. “My identity was always wrapped in who I was as a singer,” she says. She remembers times when she was sick with laryngitis or other conditions that prevented her from singing and, “All of a sudden I had no confidence in who I was. What could I offer the world if I’m not singing?” She now realizes that, “I’m a great mom, friend, wife and daughter. I’m a good actress. I don’t always have to sing. We as women are so many things. We don’t need to label ourselves.”
Motherhood changed Menzel’s perspective. “That’s when I learned to put my family first,” she says. “It’s actually a relief not to be the center of attention. You get to focus on this little boy who needs you. If my son is sick the night before I have to perform and I want to snuggle next to him when he has a fever, I might get sick. I might not be able to hit the high note that day. That’s a compromise I’m willing to make. Then I get onstage, lower my expectations and actually hit that note even better because I took the pressure off. In this business you can be so self-absorbed. That’s why you’ve got to have real friends and family around you, telling you you’re being a pain in the (butt). For me, being a parent really helped me get outside myself and see what was important in the world.”
Since becoming a parent, Menzel’s views about celebrating the holidays have changed, too. “Thanksgiving was always a complicated time for me,” she explains. “My parents announced on Thanksgiving morning they were separating. What were they thinking? I was 15 years old. After that, the holidays were weird for me. Which parent was I going to be with? It caused a lot of stress. It wasn’t until I had my son that I could really create my own joyful time. My husband, Aaron, has this huge extended family. It really helps me keep in touch with everyone and bring them together over the holidays. Before then, I shied away from the memories from my past. Now I’m the one who does the Christmas tree. I collect ornaments throughout the year on my travels. It’s a very eclectic tree that really embodies what we are as a family. Even though I’m a Jewish girl, I grew up being envious of Christmas. My husband celebrates Christmas, so now I get to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.”
Menzel recently passed a holiday milestone. “Two days ago, Walker asked me to look him in the eye and tell him the truth,” she says. “He wanted to know, ‘Is Santa real or not?’ Some kids were saying some stuff at school, and I had to come clean on that because I don’t lie to my kid. It was really a bittersweet moment.”
Figuring it out
Menzel shares parenting responsibilities with ex-husband Diggs. They divorced in 2014 after 11 years of marriage. In 2017, Menzel married Lohr, a former actor and now a mental health therapist. They met while working together on the 2005 film version of Rent.
“We’re still figuring it out,” Menzel says about co-parenting, “but I think we’re doing pretty well. We all get along. Someone has Christmas Eve and someone has Christmas Day. We’re all going to have some tumult. Parents divorcing is the one (Walker) has, and that’s what I had. I never wanted that for him. But I know it’s more important that our children see us as strong, happy, satisfied, fulfilled women. That’s more of a gift to show him the kind of woman he’ll want to be with when he’s older.”
It’s still a challenging road for Menzel personally and professionally, but she’s learning to embrace it all.
“As an actor, you’re always pushing yourself to keep trying things that challenge you,” she says. “Deep down I feel good about where I am. I have my family and people around me that love and support me. That little 12-year-old who went to see ‘Annie’ and ‘Dreamgirls’ with her parents at Christmastime had a dream of being on Broadway and using her voice to connect with people. That came true. I need to take that in and enjoy it.”