Interview: Stockard Channing Reveals How She Fought for Rizzo's Song in GREASE

By: Apr. 03, 2015
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Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Broadway World have partnered for filmed Conversations Q&A series to recognize and celebrate the vibrant theatre community in New York City and the union actors who aspire to have a career on the stage and screen. The most recent conversation featured Broadway legend Stockard Channing, moderated by BroadwayWorld's Richard Ridge.

Below, she discusses the beginnings of her career on stage, all the way through the film that changed movie musicals forever- Grease!

We want to go back to the beginning. How did a History and Literature major become one of our greatest actresses?

When I was in college I was really lucky. There were a lot of people in the community that were making theatre and it was all extracurricular. They were all extraordinary people. There was Jimmy Woods, John Lithrow, Tommy Lee Jones, a lot of people you probably have never heard of like Doug Kenney, but he basically started National Lampoon which lead to Saturday Night Live. If you could put a big geographical map on the wall you would see the incredible influence of these young people, who influenced each other, and it was also a fantastic time when the world seemed to be able to open up to all of us.

But a lot of it was luck you don't get that all the time. I had no desire really to study American history and literature, but I will say that the one thing college taught me was how to think and how to make decisions and how to read, which was a good thing because not many other times in the rest of your life are going to teach you that. I've said this before; I ran off and joined the circus.

What was that defining moment for you when you said I want to be an actress?

I was a junior in college and there was a wonderful man called Tim Muir. He was the wunderkind of our generation at Harvard. He cast me, I don't know why, and I came out into the light and I sang Pirate Jenny and I knew something incredible for the first time in my life had happened to me. I didn't know what it was. It was crazy and mysterious. I knew that everything in my brain, in my creative side and my emotions, I somehow was able to make up this person and sing that incredible song and know what she was talking about which should have nothing to with my past experiences. It was very mysterious and it was irresistible and that was it. I was nineteen years old.

You were close to throwing in the towel when you made your Broadway debut in the musical 'Two Gentlemen of Verona,' right?

Just for the record, I was the oldest person in the company of the 'Two Gentlemen of Verona.' I was in the chorus; I was the understudy for the white maid because the entire company had to be black or Puerto Rican. I was not only the oldest; I was white. It was crazy but I had lost a job playing Sonya at the Roundabout, as it existed then. I was fired actually, and it was just the end of the world. They said that the original lead of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' was a wonderful woman called 'La Lupe'.She was extraordinary, but she was so extraordinary that she couldn't fit into a Broadway musical and they replaced her with her understudy, whose name was Diana Davila. So the job of understudy was open.

So I went and auditioned. I think they thought it was so hysterical. There was this Irish Catholic girl from the Upper East Side who had to play a part that when she was upset she would break into her native Spanish. I had a room -mate in boarding school since I was thirteen years old who taught me this Venezulian song about a young Indian boy and his bird called 'chowi'. I doubt very much if anybody in this audience could sing 'chowi' for me but I sang it for Galt MacDermot, John Guare and Joe Papp and I think they thought it was so absurd so they said, 'give it to her.'

Well you starred as 'Rizzo' in one of the most successful and popular movie musicals of all time- 'Grease'. How did you view the experience then and how do you view the film now?

At the time I had no money and I had a mortgage. When Allan cast me out of the blue it was because they had seen a movie that I had done called 'Sweet Revenge.' I played the car thief. What Bobby remembers was the fortune in the business and I played this heiress, they saw this and realized I could do other things. I was at the bottom of the barrel, bottom of the drawer maybe but I decided the only way I could do this was to look at her like she was a real person. I was so much older than she was in life, but I could not think about that so I sort of threw myself back to what I felt when I was her age over, even younger. The complexity of adolescents and hormones and sexuality and all of that other stuff. Seeing that I really was older I think that added to the isolation of Rizzo.

Dinah Manoff and I were friends, so that relationship was always there and we remained friends throughout. If you look through it you will see that kind of relationship they have. I didn't play around with the material. I was very much in love with that song, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do", and I fought for it and Pat Birch, who directed all the musical sequences, helped me. If you see the sequence it's very simply shot and Allan really indulged me and said, 'go ahead just do it.' So after lunch we shot it in this corner of the Venice High School. Jeff Conaway in the background is working on his car and this was his idea. He wanted to be there, during lunch break. We were saying we are going to shot the scene, and he said, "Well I want to be there." He went in the back and it was the most beautiful thing for him to do. He's working on his car with the hood up and she's relating to him. It was so dear of him to do it. When the movie was being cut together Allan really wanted to cut it because he thought it was a downer, maybe everyone else thought it was a downer too. It was because so much about what that character was. It got in there by the skin of its teeth. Pat Birch fought for it and the director as well. It's in there and I'm so grateful that it is.

Click here to watch the full interview.

It was one of the best moments in the show in the film. I never knew they were considering cutting it!

Allan said, "This is a bummer. It's got to be all happy," and whatever. It was a long shoot, it was beautifully shot, and it was beautifully produced. The talent putting it together, the costumes, it looks like it's a little bubble gum kind of thing, it was not. It was a massive Paramount, there was weight behind it. That was great. It got poor reviews, but look at it now.

Channing was recently seen on Broadway in Other Desert Cities directed by Joe Mantello, for which she garnered Tony and Drama Desk nominations. Receiving the Tony Award for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, she is also Tony-nominated for her roles in Pal Joey, The Lion in Winter, and John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, for which she also received an Drama League Award, Obie Award and an Olivier nomination for the London Production, and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe reprising her role for the 1993 film version.

Other stage credits include the musical version of Two Gentleman of Verona, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Little Foxes, Hapgood (Drama Desk Nomination), Woman in Mind for which she won a Drama Desk Award, The Rink, The Golden Age, They're Playing Our Song and Love Letters which she premiered off-Broadway. Channing's first major television role was in Joan River's The Girl Most Likely To. Since that breakout she has accumulated a total of 13 Emmy nominations and three Emmy Awards, including those for her television roles in "Jack", "The Matthew Shepard Story" and "The West Wing", the latter two also garnered her two SAG Awards. She can currently be seen in a recurring role on "The Good Wife."

Her first leading role on the big screen was in Mike Nichols' The Fortune opposite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson for which was was nominated for a Golden Globe. Among her other films include Sweet Revenge, The Big Bus, Practical Magic, The First Wives Club, Moll Flanders, Le divorce, Up Close & Personal, Heartburn, Where the Heart Is, Smoke (SAG nomination) and Grease, earning a People's Choice Award for her performance as bad girl Rizzo. Channing received a London Film Critics Circle Award and an AFI Best Actress nomination for The Business of Strangers. Currently Stockard Channing is on Broadway in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos


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