Bunheads actress Sutton Foster on her transition from stage to screen
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Once people stopped snickering over its name, the ABC Family series Bunheads turned out to be one of the most surprisingly delightful new series of the summer. Created by Gilmore Girls architect Amy Sherman-Palladino, the comedy-drama centers on a quirky dance academy in the even quirkier small California town of Paradise, which is populated by the sort of fast-talking Characters-with-a-capital-C that should be familiar to Gilmore fans. Foremost—and chattiest—among them is interloper Michelle, a former Vegas showgirl who’s forging a new life for herself in Paradise after landing there under unusual circumstances. As Michelle, two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster heads up a cast of talented dancer-actors—including Gilmore Girls matriarch Kelly Bishop—embracing the character with a level of comfort and confidence that belies the fact that Bunheads is her first major television role. With Bunheads wrapping up for the season—the finale airs tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, following an all-day catch-up marathon—The A.V. Club spoke to Foster about transitioning her 15-year career from the Broadway stage to television, tackling Sherman-Palladino’s notoriously fast dialogue, and what she sees of herself in Michelle.
The A.V. Club: You did a couple of small guest roles before, but for all intents and purposes, Bunheads is your first major television role, and you happen to be carrying the series. Did you have any reservations about that before going in?
Sutton Foster: Well, I was such a huge fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino and of Gilmore Girls. And when I read the pilot, and the fact that it was about dance and about teaching and about young women and things that were important to me, it just felt like the right fit. I had been doing a lot of stuff in theater, and I had experience carrying a show there, but I don’t think I quite realized the amount of memorization and work that happened on a daily basis. So that, I was like, “Holy crap.” But I love it so much, and it’s such a gift to have the challenge with the dialogue and the characters—there was so much that was exciting that it wasn’t daunting. It was more like an awesome challenge, and even though I was exhausted and had, like, brainmelt, I was having the time of my life, so it’s all good.
AVC: Were you actively looking to do TV work when you read the pilot?
SF: I had sort of told myself that I was open to other things besides theater, if something else came along the pipe. I was in a production of Anything Goes in New York and Amy had seen the show, and took a general meeting with me, and we hit it off. She had been writing Bunheads at the time, and then about two weeks later called me about the show, and they flew me out to L.A. to meet with the network. I read the pilot, and then they offered me the part. Everything just changed in five days of my life. But it was just the right time and the right show, the right part.
AVC: You had to leave Anything Goes to film it, right?
SF: I did, yeah. I left the show to film a pilot, and then I left early to start filming the series.
AVC: Was that a hard decision? You’ve been in shows pretty much consistently for the last decade.
SF: Yeah. It’s definitely a huge life change. I had been living in New York for 15 years, I had never really spent time out here in L.A., and so I was sort of just taking a leap. But again, it was just the right time in my life where it felt like I could do something like that and it would be okay. If it were five years ago, it might have been a different story, but it just was at a time where I could kind of pick up and start over somewhere, and that’s what it felt like.
AVC: Kind of like Michelle, who also starts over in a new life.
SF: Totally. It was a total parallel. Brand-new town, brand-new job, and, “Is this going to be a good thing? Is this going to work?” Yeah. But it’s been really nice.
AVC: Kelly Bishop was actually in Anything Goes at the same time you were in it, toward the end, correct?
SF: Yeah, we were doing it together. Jessica Walter was the original Evangeline of the revival, and then Kelly Bishop replaced her. So we actually worked together in the show in New York for about six months, and then we ended up doing Bunheads together. I’m such a fan of Gilmore Girls that when she came in to do the show in New York, I was freaking out because I was so excited, because I was such a fan. And then now, to work with her, it’s like a dream come true. She’s the best ever. I just love her, and she’s so fun to work with. We get along so great. It’s a dream.
AVC: The scene between you and Kelly Bishop in the pilot, when you’re at the bar, that felt like the moment the show really kind of clicked into place, and we saw what this relationship between these two women was going to be. Did you have a moment like that, either reading the script or while you were filming, where you kind of felt it click into place?
SF: When I was reading the script the first time, the scene that got me was when Michelle was with the girls from the dance studio, teaching them the audition. When I read it, I started crying. [Laughs.] Because there was just something very… I don’t know; there was something earnest and familiar and true about it, something that resonated to me. That was when I felt like this could be something really special. And then when I started working with Kelly, it was like the final piece of the puzzle. Because she didn’t shoot the original pilot; she came in and replaced another actress that shot the first pilot. And when Kelly came in, she was like the final ingredient that made everything change. I was like, “Oh, okay, here we go. Now we’re going somewhere.”
AVC: Was there any adjustment or learning curve for you once you got on set? Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue is notoriously dense and fast; did it take some time to get into the rhythm of that?
SF: Yeah. I’d had the theater background for so long that I know that world inside out; I just didn’t know the pace of how a TV set works, like how a show shoots. And what was great is that I felt like I went to school. It was like a three-month crash course on how to be on a television show. And we had the best crew. Everyone knew that this was really my first big thing, and so everybody—all the crew guys, camera, the DP, everybody—was… I asked tons of questions and everybody was educating me along the way. I really learned the pace and the rhythm of how to go with the flow and how that works. Kelly, actually, gave me great advice. She was like, “Break it down. Take the script, break down the script, pull out all your scenes, and then prioritize everything. The scene that shoots tomorrow, make sure that’s the one you focus on today. And then toward the end of today, start looking at the scene that’s going to be shot the next day. And then tomorrow… Always sort of think two days ahead.” It really, really helped to not be so overwhelmed. Because once I would get a script and if I thought, “Oh, I have to learn all of this?” I would just go into lockdown because it was just too much. But if I started to break things down, then I could kind of get a handle on everything, and I would just work as hard as I could to get the words into my brain as fast as I could.
AVC: You mentioned that you were a huge Gilmore Girls fan. There are a lot of stylistic parallels between Bunheads and Gilmore Girls, and obviously Amy Sherman-Palladino has a very distinctive style of writing. It seems like it would be kind of easy to fall into a Lorelai impression with this character. What did you do to make Michelle your own?
SF: I don’t think I’ve ever once thought that I was doing Lauren Graham. Michelle’s more of a mess than Lorelai, and Lorelai is also a mother and has responsibility. Michelle is like her whacked-out younger sister or something. She’s way more lost than Lorelai. I never really thought about it.
AVC: They’re not really similar characters so much; there’s just a lot of surface-level similarities in the way they interact with people.
SF: They both talk a lot. [Laughs.] They share that in common. They both talk a lot, and they both talk really fast. And we both have brown hair. [Laughs.] And neither one of us wanted to grow. I don’t think Lorelai ever wanted to really grow up. So there’s definite similarities, but I guess I never really actively thought about it.
AVC: With live performance, the audience response is very immediate—you know right away if people like what you’re doing. But with TV and film there’s this long delay, and so many other things happen between you and the final product. Is that difficult for you, waiting to see how it’s going to turn out and how people are going to react to it?
SF: Yeah, it’s odd. We finished filming mid-July—about a month ago, I guess. It is weird to have the delay, and to also put your performance in the hands of the director and the editors. The editors are your best friends. [Laughs.] Because they can make things work that—sometimes I’ll think, “Oh, gosh, I really didn’t nail that scene.” And then you watch it and you’re like, “Oh! That’s great!” or whatever. [Laughs.] Or a scene that you really thought, “Yes!” and then you’re like, “Oh… That didn’t come off as what I thought.” It’s an interesting thing. It’s just different. There is that sense of that live validation. You’re like, “Oh, wow, the applause, laughter!” And it’s interesting to do a show like Bunheads that has a lot of comedy, and you’re like, “God, I don’t know if that’s funny or not.” Someone will be like, “Oh my God, that was really funny,” but no one’s laughing because you can’t, you have to be quiet. It’s totally different… You realize in the theater that the audience becomes a part of the play. Sometimes it becomes part of the equation. And so it’s an interesting thing to sort of imagine what that would be like.
AVC: Michelle’s career trajectory before she comes to Paradise is both very similar to and very different from yours, in that she had a lot of early success as a dancer, but unlike you she wasn’t able to parlay that into a theatrical career. What did you find to relate to in that character?
SF: Well, I definitely can relate to someone who’s searching, especially with the career path I’ve taken. But personally, I can definitely relate to someone in her 30s who’s still trying to figure a bunch of stuff out. You know, I’m single, I just moved to L.A., I’m sort of starting over. So much of what Michelle finds, I go, “Oh, I recognize that.” It’s sort of central to the life of a dancer. It’s a bit like a gypsy’s life, like we move from job to job to job to job, and we’re constantly kind of starting over or around different people or moving from town to town. You know, I toured a lot when I was in my 20s. Even living in New York—I’ve been in New York for 15 years, but I spend a lot of time out of town or in other cities doing shows. There’s a bit of a sense of a drifter, a free-floater, someone who doesn’t quite have roots. That’s me. That’s Michelle, as well. It’s scary to even think about settling down, like, what does that mean? We have a lot in common. I think I’m a little more put together than she is. At least I hope so.
AVC: I’m sure that you stick really tightly to the script as written, but have there been any suggestions or improvisations of yours that have made it into the show, or any piece of you that’s made it into Michelle?
SF: There’s definitely little things that… I’m trying to think of all the characters that I’ve played… [Laughs.]
SF: Oh, I know, I know! It’s funny because I think the writers have put in little nods to stuff throughout. Very subtle, little things like that. I think it’s funny that I’m teaching a tap class and I’m like, “Oh God!” And I think those are no accident. They pull from stuff from my background or comic sensibility or sense of humor and they make their way into Michelle-isms, which is fun. The writers are awesome. We have an incredible writing staff. But they’ve definitely been pulling from all sorts of stuff for all of us, everybody from the cast.
AVC: It’s interesting to see how Bunheads has found new ways to incorporate dance sequences into every episode. What did you know going in about how the show was going to handle dancing?
SF: I had no idea, really, how they were going to do it. What I love about the show is that it’s about these characters, about these people, and the center of focus is this dance academy. And the thing that they all share in common is that they’re all dancers, and you get to know them as characters and as young girls or as a thirtysomething or as a dancer who now teaches. And then you get to see them dance, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Holy crap!” And the dancing feels very organic, as opposed to breaking out into a musical number or something. I feel like things have been organic, or quirky—they’ve had a bit of a quirky take. But what’s exciting for me is that all of us—the six recurring characters: the four girls and me and Kelly Bishop—are all dancers, we all have a dance background, and we can all break into dance. It’s kind of neat. We have some really cool stuff coming up in the next couple of episodes, and a bunch of stuff coming up in episode 10, dance-wise. But it’s definitely a different format than other shows have taken as far as incorporating dance into a show.
AVC: There are a lot of dance-competition shows, and then there are some musical shows like Smash or Glee, but until Bunheads, there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of narrative TV about dance, which seems like it would be such a fruitful topic.
SF: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to have a show that’s really about these characters. I love that the show is more than just about ballet or more than just about a production number or something flashy. I want people to really care about these people and the characters, and then they just happen to dance as well.
AVC: You mentioned the four young dancers, Kaitlyn Jenkins, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain, and Emma Dumont. What’s your relationship been with the girls? Because they’re all new to TV, as well, right?
SF: Yeah. It’s been an adventure for all of us, but they’re awesome. They’re just great young women, and it’s been great to get to know them and work with them. I feel like we’re just getting started in so many ways, and so I hope that we have a long journey together. But they’re just wonderful and so talented and smart and sweet. It’s really been a wonderful set to be on, top to bottom. And I can’t say enough about them. They’re hard workers.
AVC: Michelle is kind of on this middle ground with them between “cool older sister” and “authority figure.” Considering you’ve been very successful as a dancer and actor, do you have anything like a mentor relationship with them, or is it more of a “we’re all in this together” thing?
SF: I don’t even know. I think at first they thought I was cool. [Laughs.] I don’t know what they think now. But the reality, honestly, is that the workload that I had at the show, I really sort of tried to maintain a—I was always working, even when I wasn’t on set, so I’ve always tried to maintain a really professional manner on set, but also having fun as well. It was just trying to keep a balance with them. Although it’s so funny, because I do want to be a good example for them. I don’t necessarily know if I want to be their mentor, or if they need me to be a mentor, but I do want to be a good example to say, “Hey look, you can work hard, you can be a good person, and you can have success. You don’t have to be an asshole. You can treat people respectfully.” And that’s important to me, but they’re already great. There’s not a bad apple in the bunch. No one that I have to be like, “Hey, what are you doing?” They’re really great kids, and we have a great time together.
AVC: You haven’t heard anything about a second season at this point, right?
SF: No, we should hear something in the next couple weeks. [After this interview was conducted, it was announced that ABC Family has picked up additional episodes of Bunheads, to air this winter. —ed.]
AVC: What are you doing in the meantime?
SF: I’m hanging out in L.A. for a little bit, and then I’m doing some concerts from now until the end of the year, just sort of bouncing all over the United States. I’ve got about eight different places I think I’m going to, starting in September. They’re basically like Broadway, American Songbook, but solo concerts. Which will be really fun because I’ll get to sing and dip my toe in that world. But I definitely want to spend more time out in Los Angeles, and hopefully be doing more Bunheads.