Patti LuPone on ‘Penny Dreadful’, How She’ll End Her Stellar Career and (Yes) Those Damn Cell Phones
Death is rarely permanent on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and Patti LuPone is taking full advantage of that. Last season, the two-time Tony winner did a dazzling guest stint as the Cut-Wife, a centuries-old white witch who was burned alive by a lynch mob. When the Victorian-era horror hit returns for Season 3 on Sunday, May 1, LuPone will be a regular. Her role: The Cut-Wife’s distant relative Florence Seward, a pre-Freudian “mental doctor” who tries to cure deranged heroine Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). LuPone gave us the dish on this curious new character and cut loose on everything from Donald Trump to rude theater goers to what she hopes will be her final job in show biz. There is absolutely no one like her. But isn’t that what makes a legend?
How did you manage to turn one episode of Penny Dreadful that ended in death into such an awesome full-time gig?
The show’s creator, John Logan, and I have a candor with each other that is great. We first met on The Miraculous Year, an HBO pilot about Broadway that went nowhere, but we remained friends. After I played the Cut-Wife, John and I started talking via email about my character and Vanessa Ives and I made some observations about their relationship—strictly as an audience member. Three weeks later John wrote me back and said, “I thought about what you said and I have created a new role on the show and it’s going to be played by…you!” And I burst into tears. I thought, “Wow, why didn’t I do this earlier in my career?” [Laughs] I’m basically intimidated by everybody and everything.
Whoa. What? You’re Patti Badass LuPone. What do you mean you’re “intimidated by everybody and everything?”
It’s true. I swear! When I was putting out my ideas, I said to John, “I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds with you.” Because I never do that sort of thing. But John is just so open and embracing, I somehow felt it was okay. I still can’t believe I got to go back to work for him. He’s so scary smart. You need a dictionary just to have dinner with him. And then you come away thinking, “I can’t believe how dumb I am!” But I love that feeling! I’m so lucky. And shooting the series in Ireland is the most incredible thing. I had never been there before and just fell in love with the place and the people. Irishmen are so easy to talk with and laugh with. [Laughs] If Donald Trump is elected, I am definitely moving there.
So fill us in on this new character of yours. Everyone on Penny Dreadful has dark, staggering secrets. What’s Florence hiding?
Dr. Seward is a terrific part and I would have been a fool to turn it down. She’s a tough New Yorker who had some trauma in her life back in America and was acquitted and vindicated. Her back story is mysterious but it’s clear she escaped to London for a new beginning. Seward could also be in tune with her ancestral powers, though she claims she doesn’t know or care about her connection to the Cut-Wife.
Lucifer and Dracula are obsessed with Vanessa’s soul. How soon until Dr. Seward realizes her client’s problems aren’t so easily diagnosed?
At first the doctor is all about psychology. She thinks Vanessa Ives is a bona fide schizophrenic but then she starts to believe there are other powers in play.
At least she puts the poor dear in a posh padded cell.
Are you kidding me? [Laughs] All you need is a little gold and some chandeliers and it could be a Beverly Hills bedroom.
What’s up with Dr. Seward’s look?
If I had a choice between this and my first look on the show, I’d stick with the Cut-Wife. Florence is kind of in the middle of ugly and cute but I was full-out ugly as the Cut-Wife. I’d rather go the distance. But that’s all John Logan. He wanted this new character to be quite severe.
You and Eva Green seem to get along like cheese and crackers.
[Gasps] Oh, my God! I would walk to the ends of the earth to work with Eva! She is beautiful and talented and balls out when it comes to courage. She has no filter, no safety net. To act with her is a transcendent experience.
Why does it always seem surprising to see you in a dramatic role? You’ve done just as many dramas as musicals.
More! Certainly on Broadway I’ve done more plays than musicals. Drama is what I was trained for. I had a voice since I was quite young and knew instinctively that I would end up on the musical stage. I always wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roller but I just didn’t have a rock voice. Even when I sing rock, it comes out sounding Broadway, so that was never going to happen. When I went to Julliard, I fell out of love with musicals and in love with classical theater. And I became connected to David Mamet, which cemented my desire to be either a comedic or a dramatic actress, rather than a musical person. But that wasn’t going to happen. Singing was my destiny.
You’ve done several recurring TV roles but isn’t Penny Dreadful your first time as a regular since Life Goes On?
And that was over 20 years ago. It took a long time for people in the business to accept the fact that I could do television. But that’s true with a lot of New York actresses. They thought we were too big for the camera. That’s all changed. I’m all about television now. In fact, I want to end my career in a big fat hit situation comedy. [Laughs] That’s all I ask.
You want TV to be your swan song? Not Broadway? But aren’t you headed there in a new musical with Christine Ebersole?
Yes, War Paint. I’ve been with this show forever. It’ll be four years by the time it hits Broadway. The music and lyrics are by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the gentlemen who brought us Grey Gardens. Doug Wright wrote the book, which is based on the rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two titans of the cosmetic industry. I love it a lot. We’ll see what happens.
Are you planning another memoir? Your first one ended with Gypsy.
I chose to end it with a Broadway hit, but if I continue my life story with a second book it would have to start out with back-to-back Broadway flops—Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the Mamet play The Anarchist. [Laughs] Gee, that really gives me something to look forward to, doesn’t it?
What’s the longest you’ve gone without a job?
It’s true. It happened right after Evita and I was freaking out. I went into that show as a refreshing casting choice because I was a Julliard graduate, and I left the show with people seeing me as a blond Fascist tap dancer, and there was no room for one of those in anything anyone was producing. People didn’t know what to do with me. One time I got raked over the coals by [New York Times critic] Frank Rich for being a Broadway musical person daring to do a play. Can you imagine? But I never let it defeat me or stop me because, frankly, I prefer doing plays over musicals. It’s easier. You don’t have to worry about your voice.
Is it an American thing? No one in England is telling Imelda Staunton she can’t be Mama Rose.
We do suffer in America from a lack of imagination. The people who run the business aren’t showmen anymore. There are no Alexander Cohens or David Merricks, no Irving Thalbergs or Jack Warners. If there were, things would be different. I wish we had those guys back, chomping on their cigars, trusting their stars, trusting their directors, trusting vision! Maybe that’s why most of the great work now is happening on cable TV. John Logan says Showtime does not interfere with him. They’re smart enough to hire the best people for the job and let them do it. What a concept!
Do you have dream roles that have been unattainable?
Here’s how it works with me: If there was a part I desperately wanted and I auditioned for it, I probably wouldn’t get it. That’s what always happens. My career has been built on surprises, on crazy things that come out of the blue, on people who are willing to go out on a limb. And I much prefer that. One of the reasons we’re in these Donald Trump doldrums is we don’t want people to think. We’re stupefying Americans by not allowing them to think for themselves. Why are the big movie studios making nothing but superhero cartoons? Where are the human stories? We aren’t elevating the audience anymore. It’s all about the lowest common denominator, and that’s terrible. God, I really want to thank you for listening to me and for your support. I’m so grateful because…[Laughs] I am a controversial figure.
Yeah, I know. And I’m damn grateful my cell phone didn’t accidentally go off during this chat.
I will always fight that battle.
Thank God you do because behavior in the theater these days has gone off the rails.
There are a lot of people who are as angry about the cell phone problem as I am, but they’re just not as loud about it. I wish they would be more vocal. But a lot of actors have stopped the show. Melissa McCarthy just did an anti-texting promo for movie theaters. The more people speak up about it, the more likely things will change. But it shouldn’t be up to the actors to fight this battle. It should be up to house management and the theater owners.
Funny how the behavior gets worse as the prices go up.
Yes! What’s that about? Why would you spend that kind of money and then be on your phone? When I pay for theater tickets, I’m at attention! I pay way too much money to sit there and think about something else, unless the play stinks and then I’m thinking, “Why did I spend this much money?” But I certainly am not going to disrupt a performance. Maybe it’s just all rich people going to the theater these days and they just don’t care. But it has to stop. This is a social issue. There are no public manners anymore, no consideration for anyone else.
There’s also an entire generation of young people who were raised in the cell phone age. They know nothing else.
I don’t accept that excuse. I don’t think they give a crap what the rest of us think. My husband, Matt, and I have one child who is 25 and he has grown up in the computer age and is extremely polite. And it’s not that we as parents were always going, “Put the phone down!” Our son makes wise, mature decisions on his own. He knows that dinnertime is not phone time. He knows how to distinguish when certain behavior is appropriate and when it’s not. And, sadly, he is rare. But this new cluelessness is not just happening with the younger ones today. It’s happening with adults, too. They can be just as bad.
Wasn’t it an adult whose cell phone you snatched as you exited the stage at Lincoln Center?
That was a riot. She was a very well-dressed, very pretty, late 30s-early 40s woman. I don’t know what the hell her deal was. Up until I took her phone away, she was texting in full light. At the Mitzi Newhouse Theater it’s so intimate that the light from the stage spills right into the audience and the actors can see everything. And get this: The man she was with—her husband or boyfriend—was trying to watch the play intently. So she was being rude to him and to us. I’m, like, “There’s something really wrong with this picture.” She started texting from the top of the show and continued all the way to the end of the first act and we actors all figured she was so damn bored she’d leave at intermission and never return. But she came back for part 2 and continued texting! It’s utter madness what goes on! [Laughs] And you wonder why I want to do television?
Penny Dreadful, Season premiere, Sunday, May 1, 10/9c, Showtime