The actor: Penelope Ann Miller, who began her career on Broadway in the ’80s, then became a Hollywood “It Girl” in the early ’90s, thanks to hits like The Freshman and Kindergarten Cop. Miller migrated to character parts and television roles over the past decade. She’ll soon be seen in the new TNT series Men Of A Certain Age, and can currently be seen in the motocross melodrama Free Style.
Free Style (2009)—“Jeanette”
Penelope Ann Miller: I play a single mother for the first time. Wait… no. Is it the first time? I shouldn’t say that. Anyway, I play Corbin Bleu and Madison Pettis’ mother, so it’s the first time I’ve had interracial children! And at one point, Madison asks the question, “Are we black or are we white?” And Corbin says, “We’re wack.” So I think that’ll be maybe a new hip way to say you’re both. [Laughs.] It was a lot of fun, and they’re great, great kids, so I was thrilled. I like that it’s not just your typical mom role; I like that she struggles with trying to protect her kids, but that she’s also a little bit less enthused about his motocross racing. I think she worries about the dangers, but also about him becoming successful at it, and him making a living doing it. He’s had to kind of grow up really fast and help take care of the family and be the man of the house, and I think there’s always that guilt a single mother has when she puts her son in that position. I just like that it was realistic, and that it was about people struggling, which a lot of people are these days.
AVC: Do your own maternal instincts kick in when you’re doing a scene?
PAM: Oh yeah, always. I have an 8-year-old and now a 6-month-old, and I love being a mom. I love children, so I think I would’ve been able to play that regardless of my own experience. I played mothers before I had children. I just want to be loving and nurturing and supporting, and it doesn’t hurt when the kids you’re working with are really good people. Both Madison and Corbin are, so I was very fortunate. They were so great to my 8-year-old. I became a cool mom to my kids.
AVC: Are your kids fans of High School Musical?
PAM: Well, my 6-month-old doesn’t really know what it is yet, but my 8-year-old is definitely a fan, so she couldn’t have been more excited that I was working with Corbin Bleu. And he’s great in the movie. I think this is his chance to really shine as a leading man, and have a love story and show his acting skills, beyond being a great dancer and singer and a cute, funny guy.
A Minute With Stan Hooper (2003-04)—“Molly Hooper”
PAM: Well, it was Norm MacDonald, and a very funny concept, and there were very good actors in it. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. It could have been a neat show if it had held together, but there you go. Showbiz, right?
AVC: Is Norm MacDonald more a personality or an actor?
PAM: Well, he’s so used to being a stand-up comic that I think there’s a little of both. I think from maybe doing Saturday Night Live and working with an ensemble, there’s definitely a part of him that is used to collaboration, but then there’s also that part of him that is definitely the stand-up comic. But I think he cared about the show, and wanted it to be good, and he’s a funny guy. For me, it’s fun to work with people that are funny.
Forever Lulu (2000)—“Claire Clifton”
PAM: I guess right now the first thing that would come to mind is the passing of Patrick Swayze, and how sad that is. He left us too soon, and he was very talented. It was an interesting movie. Definitely very quirky. But I really liked getting to know Melanie Griffith and Patrick, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with them.
The Relic (1997)—“Dr. Margo Green”
PAM: Scary movie.
AVC: The monster killed humans and ate their hypothalamuses.
PAM: Yeah, the hypothalamus! [Laughs.] It had a lot of things in it that were definitely out there. It had a big monster chasing me in a museum. I guess it was my first lead in a real scary action-horror film. So that was a new adventure for me. Working with all the special effects and the monster licking me. You know that scene where he licks me? [Laughs.] The big ol’ tongue comes out? And I’m running in the little tight cocktail dress through the back rooms of the museum and jumping into a vat of God-knows-what kind of liquid to hide. Definitely a lot of firsts for me on that one. But it was a good scary movie.
The Shadow (1994)—“Margo Lane”
PAM: Well, I love the period. I love the ’30s, I love the costumes, and my hair and my makeup, and it really reminded me of the sort of classic movies of the ’30s and ’40s, where there was fun banter. I’m working with the great-looking leading man, Alec Baldwin, who was also very funny. I just loved the style, the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, it was really cool. Ian McKellen played my father… good acting all around. Peter Boyle was in it, who’s also unfortunately passed. He was a great actor.
AVC: That one was pitched to be a blockbuster, and didn’t do so well. Why do you think that was?
PAM: You know, it’s so hard to tell the rhyme or reason, and why certain movies make it and some don’t. A lot of it’s timing, a lot of it’s how they promote it… I don’t know. I think it could have been, I really do. I think it’s a fun film to watch, so I don’t know why it didn’t catch on. It could be a lot of variables that I, unfortunately, don’t have any control over.
Carlito’s Way (1993)—“Gail”
PAM: Definitely one of my favorite films that I’ve done. Once again, working with amazing, amazing talent all across the board. Al Pacino, of course, Sean Penn, Brian De Palma, a great script by David Koepp. That movie’s just got great style. Again, it’s a period movie, the ’70s, and I thought it was a great role, too. I thought I got to really show my ability as an actress, and got to work with amazing actors who raised the bar, and I think the movie really turned out great.
AVC: When you’re working with someone like De Palma, who’s such a stylist, do you have any sense of what it’s going to look like when you’re actually in the scene?
PAM: Well, you can see the sets, you can see the costumes, you can sort of see how he’s filming it. He kind of edits it already in his head, so he really is very specific about what he wants and how he’s filming it. But it’s always exciting when you actually see it put together. He has the vision, and you see a part of it when you’re in it, but then when you can sit outside of it and watch it is when it has the full impact. It’s always great to work with a director who has a real clear vision. I just worked with Rob Reiner this past summer on a movie called Flipped, set in the early ’60s, and he also—like De Palma—has a very clear vision of what he’s shooting, and how he’s shooting it, and what he wants, so you just don’t waste a lot of time. And you really trust them, because you know they know what they want, and they know when they’re happy they’ve got it, because when they’re not, they keep going.
Other People’s Money (1991)—“Kate Sullivan”
PAM: Once again, it was a really clever script. It had been a play. Norman Jewison, I was really excited to be able to work with him, and Danny DeVito, who I was always a fan of from Taxi. We had really fun chemistry. I loved the style there, which also hearkened back to some of that old-fashioned banter from films in the ’30s and ’40s. It had that dynamic between the male and the female roles. And of course Gregory Peck was in it, who’s not only a great actor, but a real, a true gentleman in every sense of the word, so that was incredible. You know, at the time, I think I felt like I was too young to be in a role like that, so there was more insecurity with that role than with any other role I’ve played. My confidence grew as I was filming it, but it was the first time I’d ever had that feeling of, “Am I doing right by this woman and this role and this film?” But a lot of people I’ve run into since then have loved the film and are happy with what I did.
AVC: That movie’s kind of prescient. It might be more relevant coming out today than when it did.
PAM: Yeah, probably. That too, with the timing thing.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)—“Joyce Palmieri”/“Rachel Crisp”
PAM: That ended up being a big hit, so that’s great. Ivan Reitman was a great director to work with, and Arnold was a riot. He was a funny prankster, and someone who was really easy to work with. I didn’t expect it. I think initially, I kind of thought, “Am I doing the right thing for my career to be in this movie?” I just had done theater, and I had just come off of working with Robert De Niro on Awakenings, and I just was like… Arnold Schwarzenegger? He’s, like, the barbarian movies and stuff. [Laughs.] But I think he did a really good job in this film. It was funny, but it also had the suspense, and it just really turned out well.
AVC: Now, do you get to call him Arnold, or Governor?
PAM: Arnold. I know him from the acting days, so I think I can call him Arnold.
PAM: I had just come from working with Marlon Brando, who had worked with De Niro. And Bruno Kirby, who unfortunately has since passed on, which is tragic, because he was too young and so talented. But I think coming from The Freshman and going into Awakenings, two totally different types of movies, but with amazing actors, I was kind of on a roll. It was just a very exciting time in my career. I remember auditioning for Robert De Niro for another film and not getting the part, and after the audition, being devastated, because he didn’t look up from reading the lines with me, and I thought he didn’t like me. Then I found out later from Bruno Kirby that he’s extremely shy, and I felt sorry for him, so when I went in to meet him and Penny Marshall, I was maybe overcompensating. Also, I had just come from working with Marlon and Bruno, so there was that connection, and I think maybe that helped. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful film, very touching. Obviously, it’s a real story that happened, and I was just so incredibly beside myself to work with Robert De Niro, who’s wonderful in the film, and a wonderful actor to play opposite. I just felt really lucky.
AVC: Was it difficult navigating De Niro’s energy vs. Robin Williams’ energy?
PAM: Well, it’s funny, because yeah, they’re two very different actors, and very different personalities. There’s Robin Williams, who’s making jokes with the extras and the crew, and there’s De Niro, who’s kind of in the corner in character, being this shy guy who barely can get a word out. And certainly Robin’s not hard-pressed to find words to throw out. It was funny, but what I found interesting is that De Niro really enjoyed Robin’s personality, and I think he found him really funny. It was an interesting dynamic between those two. I thought Robin Williams’ performance in that movie was great, because he really held back from what you usually see him do, and I think it showed his ability as an actor to escape into a role. If you looked at the character he was portraying in real life, Oliver Sacks, he was almost identical to him. People don’t know that, because he’s not a familiar person to the public, but it was amazing, what he did. Both performances were pretty remarkable.
AVC: When you’re on a set, are you more like Williams or De Niro?
PAM: I like to joke around, I like to have fun; I think it depends on the vibe of the set, and if I think people will get my humor. Like right now, I’m working with Ray Romano, so a lot of the time, we can joke around and have that banter together. It just kind of depends on the set, and who you’re working with, if there’s actors you have that kind of natural chemistry with. I would say probably because Robin Williams was on Awakenings and doing all kinds of that stuff, I was a little less boisterous, and maybe more involved in my work. Also, I think it depends if you’re on a comedy or a drama. Probably on Carlito’s Way, I was maybe a little more serious than I would be on a movie like The Freshman or something. I’m not as shy as De Niro, but I’m not a stand-up comic, either, so I’m not constantly throwing out the jokes.
The Freshman (1990)—“Tina Sabatini”
PAM: The Freshman, that’s another one of my favorites. I loved the opportunity to work with Marlon Brando and to play his daughter. I was doing Our Town on Broadway, and I was playing the ultimate WASP, and then I get hired as an Italian-American princess, so I was just thrilled not to be stereotyped. I remember when I came in to read for that, I dyed my hair, because I was wearing a wig in the play, so I could afford to do it. I made my hair darker, and I wore a leather skirt and a black top, and it was just such an antithesis to the role I was playing on Broadway. And I love doing comedy, and it was a funny part, and I’d worked with Matthew Broderick twice before, in the play Biloxi Blues and the movie Biloxi Blues, so we already had a natural rapport. Everybody was really having a blast, so when you get it all, when you have everything that works from beginning to end, and the end result is great, it’s just so rewarding.
AVC: Do you have any crazy Brando stories?
PAM: He played a trick on the producers and said he was flying to Tahiti, and he did a sound effect of an airplane, so they really thought he was going. He said he was going with Frank Sinatra, who was still alive at the time. I think the producers always freaked out, because there was always the fear that Marlon would leave and never come back. He knew that, so he liked to rib them, and so he made them think for almost 24 hours that he was gone, and then I think he called the next day and started laughing. He was a real prankster, and he loved playing silly games. But he loved actors, he loved the crew… he really liked people. People think of him as such a recluse, but he actually was very interested in everyone. He would ask me questions about what kind of books I liked, what kind of music, what my love life was like. He was very interested and curious, and he was a funny guy. People don’t realize that about him.
Big Top Pee-wee (1988)—“Winnie”
PAM: That was a really funny part. Paul Reubens is a great guy; I just ran into him recently. A sweetheart. It was fun, I like doing those kind of campy comedies where I get to be really out there. Winnie the schoolteacher, stabbing the tree. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel like you’re stronger in comedy or drama?
PAM: A lot of people, funnily enough, think of me as a dramatic actress. I think maybe because… I mean, Kindergarten Cop was a comedy, but I wasn’t funny in it, and Carlito’s Way, a lot of people remember that, and that of course was a serious role. Relic was a serious role. I think people may remember me more from dramatic roles. But maybe I have done more comedy, I don’t know. I love being able to do both. Like in this movie Flipped, with Rob Reiner, even though it’s a comedy/love story, but it has dramatic components, and I’m probably not the funny person in that movie. The Ray Romano series I’m in, I maybe get to be a little bit of both, but that show isn’t a sitcom. It’s called Men Of A Certain Age, and it comes on in December on TNT, and that’s more of a dramedy, so it’s very different than what people expect Ray to be doing. He’s serious a lot of the time. So yeah, when I can do both, that’s the ultimate for me, being dramatic and funny.
The Popcorn Kid (1987)—“Gwen Stottlemeyer”
PAM: Popcorn Kid is the first TV series I ever did. That was right after I’d done the play Biloxi Blues. I think we only did six episodes, for CBS. It was Bruce Norris, and Faith Ford. Ed Asner did an episode. It was based on a kid who works the concession stand in a movie theater, and I played Gwen, the nerdy girl who’s in love with the guy, but he’s in love with the blonde bimbo cheerleader played by Faith Ford. [Laughs.] It was cute. I think ultimately maybe it was a good thing it didn’t go very long, because then right after that, I did Adventures In Babysitting, which was also a fun character-y, comedic role, and then I did the movie of Biloxi Blues with Mike Nichols and Matthew Broderick again, and Christopher Walken. So my movie career really took off after that. I think maybe it was a blessing in disguise.