Frozen 2 Star Idina Menzel on Doing a 180 From Elsa in The Gritty Drama Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is different than anything Idina Menzel has previously done, and that is why the singer/actress, who is best known for her roles on Broadway in Wicked and both Frozen movies, was pleased that brothers Benny and Josh Safdie were interested in her for the non-singing role of Adam Sandler’s long-suffering wife in their critically acclaimed film.
“They had seen a straight play I’ve been doing and they felt like I was right for the role, and I was excited to be invited into their creative process, and to be opposite Adam,” Menzel tellsin this one-on-one interview. “Unfortunately, it takes knocking down a couple of walls for people to see you beyond someone that sings. It’s nice for people to really appreciate that I’m an actress, and that I can be compelling without actually singing a song.”
Uncut Gems is the story of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
When we meet Howard’s wife Dinah, she has had enough of the ups and downs caused by his gambling, his cheating, and his being an absentee father to their children, and is only waiting for the Passover holiday to be over before breaking the news to the kids.
“Howard is such a dreamer, and that probably was really a wonderful thing about him when they were younger, and I think that she probably was dreaming alongside him until she was disappointed and let down too many times,” Menzel says. “So, the movie finds her in a place where she’s pretty much done and ready to move on with her life in a new way, not take his crap anymore.”
For all his wicked ways, there are moments that Howard does appreciate the home and family that Dinah has created for him, or maybe he finally realizes it is one more thing he is about to lose, and he wants to be a winner more than anything.
So, there is an instant when it looks as if Dinah may take him back and give him that victory, which is compelling to watch as the two actors go head-to-head in that moment.
“He’s such a great actor and has so many moments within his moments, there’s so much going on,” Menzel points out. “It’s never one thing. It’s never one dimensional, and so, I just tried to stay with him. I felt within all of those moments, there were times where maybe she was persuaded for a split second and then changed her mind, or maybe she knew the whole time what she was going to say. She is the truth serum of the film, and she does seem to say what the audience needs to hear at the right times.”
Sandler is getting some of the best reviews of his career for Uncut Gems, including being named Best Actor by several critics’ groups with hopes for an Oscar nomination yet to come when they are announced on Jan. 13.
“I was incredibly impressed with Adam,” Menzel says. “I thought that he was just so riveting in this film. I think that it’s unfortunate that people tend to seem surprised when comedians do such a great job, because so often comedians are such great actors because they’re such fearless artists in their life and that lends itself to being a great actor. I’m just so happy for him that he’s getting these accolades. He’s an incredibly generous person and actor, and I really had the time of my life hanging out with him on the set.”
How did you establish your relationship? Did you have conversations, go out to dinner? What was that like?
We didn’t have a lot of time. We did a lot of preparation on our own. We had not really met each other beforehand, not a lot of rehearsal, and yet the Safdie brothers did a lot of preparation, a lot of backstory work with us on the characters, but once you get on set, they create this incredibly nuanced, very detailed environment, very organized, chaotic set where you really feel you are given permission to take a lot of risks and make mistakes, and just go for stuff with each other.
This is really dark and raw, and sometimes hard to watch as Howard spins himself into one situation after another. What do you think it is about the movie that is getting it so much acclaim?
I think it’s Adam. I think it’s a tribute or testament to his ability to take this person that is completely, utterly fallible and human, and makes many despicable decisions and still remains lovable. I think it’s this roller coaster of a ride to watch. It’s sort of an accident you can’t take your eyes off of.
Do you think this also speaks to people who may not have compulsive gamblers in their family, but family members who are addicted to something?
To that adrenaline rush, is what it really is. Like I said before, it is this dreamer in him, this desperate passion to want to win and to be loved, and I think we can all identify with that.
On the lighter side, you have Frozen 2. Do you think the timing was just right for the franchise with its story about two sisters who love each other and want the best for each other instead of being competitive like the stepsisters in Cinderella?
Exactly. It’s a celebration of this sisterhood and this unconditional love, and also of finding the love for oneself in celebrating who you are and what makes you special and unique in the world. That’s inherent in both films, and the fact that they’re not reliant on Prince Charming to come in and save the day.
So, the climate is changing for the better, I hope. The movie is resonating on an exponential level, and it seems to be evolving or growing with the zeitgeist. That’s probably the reason I’m most proud of being involved with the film is that it’s breaking the rules — Disney rules, societal rules — when it comes to what’s expected from a film with young women.
Could you see a Frozen 3?
I can see a Frozen 3. I can see a Frozen 3, 4, and 5, it’s whether they want to make them. I’m happy to be involved.
It looks like everything is settled at the end of 2, but you never know. They could find something, because who knew that there would be a Frozen 2?
Exactly. What I find so commendable is that the creative team waited a really long time to make sure that they had the right story and weren’t exploiting it just for a sequel. They really waited until they had the right ideas and formed them and took their time with that, and I believe that that’s why it’s equally as good.
You also have a Christmas album, Christmas A Season of Love, which is actually your second. Is Christmas music some of your favorite?
Yeah. I think as a singer when you’re younger, you always want to sing the music. I grew up in a Jewish household, so we didn’t celebrate Christmas until I was older and married a man that did and was able to adopt it as my own holiday. Some of the greatest melodies and the greatest songs are in Christmas music, and I had just written a song as well, an original song with a friend of mine called, “At This Table,” which was about inclusivity, acceptance and welcoming people with different views from one’s own.
It felt like a really good holiday song, so that set me on this path of curating music for a holiday album, and it just was this culmination of all the events of Frozen coming out, and music, and this need to have that kind of joy and music to bring people together. It just felt like the right time.
It includes several duets. Is that something that you were looking for?
The right songs lend themselves to a great duet partner, and it’s fun for me to get in the studio with different people that I’m inspired by. Like I said, I wanted the album to feel like it was for everyone, so I tried to pick different kinds of music and have different personalities on the album. Even my husband’s [Aaron Lohr] on the album, which is one of my favorite moments.
Do you know what’s next? Do you know what the next step is going to be?
The next step will definitely be go home and decorate a tree, hang out with my family, and do nothing. I’ve been out promoting Frozen 2, Uncut Gems, and the holiday album, so I’ve been a little bit busy. I’m looking forward to a little down time at home, and then in February or March, I start shooting Cinderella, which is a film for Sony with Camila Cabello and Billy Porter, so I’m really excited about that. I’m going to play the evil stepmom who’s probably not going to be so evil.
We were talking about how for Frozen the timing was right, and breaking the Disney mold where the princess doesn’t need to be rescued. Is this Cinderella going to be a more modern version?
What I’m gathering, and they’re still making some choices, but it definitely feels like a modern musical retelling of Cinderella, maybe in the vein of Moulin Rouge, where there’s a lot of cool arrangements of cover tunes to help tell the story. I think there will be a of couple original songs, as well.
Uncut Gems goes from its current limited run to opening in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.