Idina Menzel: Working with Colin And Breaking Into Film
Best known for her Tony Award winning performance as Elphaba in the Broadway smash Wicked, and as Maureen, in both the original Broadway production and the film version of Rent, actress Idina Menzel is now looking to make a name for herself on the big screen. For her first major movie, the 34-year-old New York native has a small, but memorable role opposite Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek in Academy Award winner Robert Towne’s latest, Ask the Dust.
Based on novelist John Fante’s masterpiece, and set under the brutally sunny skies of Depression-era Los Angeles, Ask the Dust tells the story of Arturo Bandini (Farrell), a son of Italian immigrants who dreams of becoming a famous novelist and marrying a beautiful blonde, and Camilla Lopez (Hayek), a Mexican who longs to marry a WASP and shed her last name. As the tortured Vera Rifkin, Menzel’s physically, emotionally and psychologically scarred character crosses paths with Bandini, and unknowingly helps him evolve into the man he strives to be.
Menzel says that she got the role after Towne saw her in Wicked. “Robert saw me as this character, and he had to fight rather hard to get the studio to let me do it. So, I took my two-week vacation from the show, and I went and hung out with Colin Farrell.”
Along with the caliber of actors she would be working with, Menzel says that the opportunity to work with legendary screenwriter Towne ( Chinatown , Shampoo) was the biggest selling point for her. “Anything that Robert’s doing, I want to be involved in. I read the script and it was an amazing character. And then, I got to read the actual novel, which I fell in love with. That just give it even more colors, as an actor, that fueled my imagination.”
Hailed as one of the greatest living screenwriters, Towne wanted to put Menzel at ease about working with Farrell, since the two actors share some intimate moments together in the film. To do so, he invited them over to his house to work on the script.
“I have a coach that I work with, so I really do my homework and just try to understand every word,” says the wife of actor Taye Diggs, whom she met doing the original Broadway production of Rent. “That way, I can come to the rehearsal process and sound like I know what I’m doing. After a Sunday matinee performance of Wicked, I took off to L.A. to stay at Robert’s house with Colin for two days. When I’m doing eight shows a week on stage, I don’t drink or smoke or anything, for my voice. I got there and was so nervous about meeting Colin. We were up in Robert’s study, where we were going to break down the script. I showed up with my hair in a slicked back ponytail and, I swear to God, two hours later, I had had 12 cigarettes, Colin had made me a drink, my hair was all disheveled, and I was acting my face off. It was really funny.”
“Robert is not intimidating. He’s so sweet. His wife, Louise, and his daughters welcomed me in. They made me feel like a daughter to them.”
Admitting that she was somewhat starstruck by Farrell, Menzel says that she used her awe of the actor to help develop her character, since Vera is infatuated with Bandini. “Working with Colin was amazing. It took me a minute to get over the fact that I was working with him, but that was also good because Vera’s sort of intimidated by him and she looks up to him so much.”
Regardless of his bad boy image and all the wild tales you hear and read about Farrell, Menzel reveals that he is a gentleman, and a consummate professional, when it comes to the work. “He knows everyone’s lines. He knows his own lines, and your lines. It doesn’t matter how late he stays up the night before, he’s there on time. He was great, and he was really generous. He made me feel comfortable. But, I didn’t expect him to be better looking than I thought he would be. And, he had a lot more tattoos than I thought.”
Because everything for the stage is overly exaggerated, so that the audience members in the back of the room can have the same experience as those in the front row, Menzel had to be aware that her performance for film needed to be toned done.
“It’s not as much of a transition as you would think, but your volume definitely changes. You’re always trying to be as honest as you can and just talk to the person in front of you. Vera goes from these vulnerable places to, all of a sudden, being explosive. I just tried to understand where she was coming from, and her desperation. I didn’t worry about it too much. I’ve started to see some things that I’ve done on camera, and I’m starting to trust that my big is not theater big. I have a good sense of what’s needed. I’m not going to look like I’m crazy-eyed, just because I come from the theater. I think I have good instincts in being somewhat natural.”
Much like they did with Rent, Menzel says that she has definitely heard talk of turning Wicked into a film, which she would love to be a part of. “I think it’s doing too well, financially, right now, on the stage, so they don’t need to turn it into a film yet. They usually like to do the movie when they need a little bit more attention in New York , and then it boosts the sales again, like with Rent.”
Although she is realistic about the fact that, by the time they decide to do the film version of Wicked, she could end up being too old to even be considered, Menzel admits that she would be upset if she had to watch someone else play the role that she originated.
“That’s how I felt with Rent. They had cast other people in the film version, and then the projects would fall apart. I feel like whatever is meant to be with those things will be. You can’t push them. I let go of the idea that I’d get to play Maureen in the Rent movie, and then it came back around. But, that happens. If I don’t look right, I don’t look right. But, you’re not going to get someone who can sing it like that. I don’t care how cool the computers in the studio are now. You can get people to sound okay, but they’re going to have lower keys, and they’ll have to change the whole thing. I sound so conceited, don’t I? I guess you could find some young girl who can scream her face off, but I’d be so upset.”
Currently, Menzel has plenty to occupy her time. These days, she has been focused on recording a new album, which she promises will be a sophisticated, classy pop record, and getting herself animated for an unusual new Disney film called Enchanted, slated for 2007.