BWW Interviews: BUNHEADS Sutton Foster on Braving the Small Screen and Why She'll Always Come Back to Broadway
Two time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster is set to star in ABC Family's new series BUNHEADS, premiering Monday, June 11th at 9:00pm ET/PT. BUNHEADS is the tale of a Las Vegas showgirl who impulsively marries a man, moves to his sleepy coastal town, and takes an uneasy role at her new mother-in-law's dance school.
Executive-produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino ("Gilmore Girls") and headlined by Foster, BUNHEADS also stars Broadway vet Kelly Bishop as Fanny Flowers. Additional cast members include Kaitlyn Jenkins, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain and Emma Dumont.
Sutton Foster earned her Tony Awards for her lead performances in 2002's Thoroughly Modern Millie and 2011's Anything Goes. Her other Broadway credits include Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein and Shrek the Musical.
The actress took time out from her busy filming schedule on the LA set of BUNHEADS to chat about why she chose to take on a TV role at this point in her career. "There were a couple of reasons," she begins. "Amy Sherman-Palladino being one of my favorite writers. Also, the show is based around dance and its affording me a lot of opportunities to do some pretty cool stuff. Already we've shot one song and dance routine and I know there's more down the pike. But the thing that I’m most excited about is really the character and the writing. And being really able to showcase my comedic stuff. She’s just a really awesome character who is a dancer, so I’m sure as the series grows and grows they’ll be throwing lots and lots of stuff at me. I always say I’ll try anything once, so they’ve already thrown a bunch of stuff my way. I’m sure a lot more is coming. I don’t think theater fans will be disappointed!"
Sutton shared the series of events which led up to her joining the cast of the new ABC Family series. "I had a meeting (with Amy) last year. I don’t think the pilot had been picked up by ABC Family at that point, but she had me in my mind for the show but she wasn’t allowed to mention it yet," she explains. "But then two weeks later my agent called and said 'Amy’s written this pilot and she wants you to star in it' and I was like, 'What is it? I’ll do it!' and she said, 'Well don’t you think you should read the script first?' and I was like, ‘Oh alright, send me the script.' But I had already made up my mind. I mean it could have been about anything and I would have been like, 'Yes, I want to work with this woman.' But then I read it and I was like, 'Oh my God,' and then it seemed like a no-brainer. So it really didn’t take much convincing."
Taking on a lead role in a TV series was a big step for the Broadway star, but so far she is thrilled with the results. "I have to say that I’m loving it. I really am. I’m having the time of my life," gushed the actress. "I think it’s because it feels like the right role, the right writer, the right project and the right timing. I’ve been living in New York for about fifteen years. I absolutely love the theater, it's my home and what I had always wanted to do. But I was coming to a point where I just wanted a new challenge and this came across my path and it's just been already an incredible experience. I’m learning every single day something new and it’s exciting at 37 years old to be learning so much. It’s a whole new challenge, a whole new chapter of my life. Kind of cool."
Foster revealed that she has always been a big fan of 'Gilmore Girls'. "It was my favorite," she confesses. "This is before I even met Amy or worked on 'Bunheads'. It’s my favorite show of all time and I watched every single episode and own all the DVD’s. I think Amy has a very specific voice unlike anyone else on TV and 'Bunheads' is her voice again. A whole new set of characters, a whole new town, a whole new face. You got that rapid fire dialogue and wit and the humor that Gilmore had. It’s exciting. And it's exciting to hear Amy’s writing again. 'Gilmore Girl' fans are going to love it."
When asked about the show's unusal title' Bunheads', Sutton explains, "A bunhead is someone who spends a lot of their life with their hair in a bun, meaning it would be someone who is dedicated their life and their time to the art of ballet. Ballet is an incredibly difficult, beautiful artform that takes a lot of training, of a lot of time and a lot of hard work...When I was in New York I lived near Alvin Ailey dance studio and I’d often see a bunch of girls walking down the street with their hair in a bun and I’m like ‘Oh, they're ballet dancers.’ It's like a symbol. You can go, 'Ah, I know what they are!'
In the series, Foster will once again work side by side with her 'Anything Goes' co-star, Broadway vet Kelly Bishop. She treasures the relationship she has with one of her theater idols. "When she came into 'Anything Goes', I freaked out because I was such a fan of hers," she exlains. "She’s just such an awesome lady- she’s Sheila from Chorus Line – she’s awesome! Our relationship on the show is very specific and we’re like sparring partners, but off-set she’s very motherly actually and is always making sure I’m okay and taking care of me. She’s just a wonderful woman. I’ll do a scene and I’m like, 'I can’t believe I’m acting with Kelly'. We’re just like a real team, she’s a great scene partner and a great adversary in the show. She’s just really great. I can’t say enough about her."
In order to make her portrayal of a seasoned ballet teacher believable to viewers, the actress maintains a strict ballet training regimen. "I started dancing at four years old and then was in class until I was twenty or so and then primarily I was dancing just in shows that I was doing but not really studying and training," says Foster. "Because my character is trained at ABT, I take ballet everyday. I have this incredible teacher who comes to the studio and I have a ballet barre in my dressing room and she kicks my ass! So I’m studying ballet everyday and really training so people see me as a ballet dancer and no one’s really seen me as that. I haven’t seen that. So I’m really excited."
Foster feels a close bond with the young actresses who portray her dance students in the series. "The girls are in their teens, 16, 17,... I go back to when I was 17 years old and I was starting out. But they are far better dancers than I ever was. They are the most beautiful ballet dancers. They're extraordinary and they’re doing things on the show that are so exciting. There are no body doubles coming in to dance for them – they are the real deal and they’re really great young women. It’s exciting to see them have this opportunity and I think it’s going to be a great thing for them in their lives." She continues, "Michelle, my character, definitely sees herself in them and wants to impart to them ways to do things better than she did because I think Michelle lost her way. When you meet my character, she’s very lost so she wants to impart some better judgement on to these young kids so that maybe they won’t make the same mistakes she did."
Foster is among a recent group of Broadway stars who have made the transition from stage to TV. Among those who have offered her advice is ex-husband and 'Smash' star Christian Borle. "We’re very good friends, and he’s the one who gave me the most advice," she reveals. "He was saying that you just have to keep moving forward because there’s so much material. As soon as you finish a scene you have to let it go and move on to the next one. With the theater you get a scene and you do it over and over and over again. With TV everything moves so quickly. You spend three hours on a scene and then it has to go away because you have to make room for a whole new scene, a whole new moment. In many ways it’s a blessing because you can’t get in your own way. You have to act fast, you have to go. There’s 40 people in the room staring at you with cameras so you can’t get scared and you can’t go, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do it,’ you have to just do it. And in a way that’s been a real blessing for me as an actress. I say ‘Ok, I’m just going to dive in and do it.' It’s been scary and fun at the same time."
Because 'Bunheads' creator Sherman-Palladino is well-known for her rapid fire dialogue, learning new pages of script everyday has been one of the biggest challenges for the actress. "It was the thing I was probably the most scared about because I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’, shared Foster. "I also want to do her writing justice as well so that means you need to know it, you can’t just look at it that morning, it’s impossible. So whenever we get a new script I’m daunted but it’s my job. I’m just constantly working. And I love to work, I’m a bit of a workaholic, so I’m always working on the script, working on memorizing. I grab anybody I can when I’m off-set and run lines. My best friend is here in LA and she just had 8-week old twins, so I spend a lot of time here with her and the babies and she runs lines with me. I want to do the best I can in really honoring Amy and her writing."
Broadway enthusiasts will be happy to learn that the Tony-award winning star will most definitely be returning to the Great White Way in the future. Assures Foster, "[Bunheads] is a nice change of pace for me. It's a totally different lifestyle, a nice change of pace and it's fun." Yet quickly adds, "I love New York and I will be back. I’m not going to be gone forever."
Photo courtesy of ABC Family