BWW Feature: At Home With Anita Gillette
There are those who think that a Lifetime Achievement Award is a sign that people expect you to retire. Maybe it is, but that's not what Anita Gillette has in mind. A few weeks into the shelter in place order, there was supposed to be a MAC Awards celebration, with Anita collecting their special honor; the award recipients were named during a Facebook Live event while Anita and the rest of the honorees watched from home. In the weeks since, the artists of the community have been trying to figure out what to do next, what their role in society is, and how to keep moving.
Staying in motion has never been a problem for Anita Gillette. The sexy, scrappy, savvy siren has been in the business for a long time, and, along the way, she learned the important lessons. Stay strong. Do the work. Laugh. Evolve with the time. And keep moving. So that's what Anita Gillette does.
It's working for her.
This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced in its entirety.
Anita Gillette! Congratulations on your recent MAC Award for Lifetime Achievement. I hope that when the world goes back to a new normal, you will get a chance to make your acceptance speech.
Thank you for mentioning the LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD! It's from Manhattan
Association of Cabaret. I certainly didn't expect something like this. I've only been doing CABARET (not the show) since 2010 and my first NY gig was 2012. And I hope I get to actually make an acceptance speech. Tina Fey was going to present my award, too! Who knows, now, WHEN or IF this will ever happen.
You've been doing cabaret for a while now and are, in fact, a multiple award-winning artist; but before you started doing club work, you had some trepidation about making the leap to the nightclub stage - how has the journey been, compared to what you thought it would be?
I think I was so afraid to do cabaret because you can't hide behind a character someone else has written. Barry Kleinbort (my director) scared me when he told me, "They want to really get to know YOU." And I said, "How much do they want to know?" I try to keep it funny. That's always my go-to vibe. If they laugh, you're in. That goes for plays as well, but when you are talking about yourself, it can get very nerve-wracking. I don't want it to be a shrink session, but it's almost like that. I've had a colorful history; my mother's family was very funny and always up for a laugh. I rely on those stories to get me through. My mother (Irish descent) always knew how to make people laugh. My father had this deep dark Germanic view of life and
worried all the time. I think I inherited this "worry gene" as I call it, and I've been trying to keep it out of my thinking as long as I can remember. Ask my kids-I don't always succeed! But now I'm enjoying it. A lot! I have Barry and Paul Greenwood, my MD, and we enjoy the process of putting a show together.
You are an actor who is always working - what is keeping you centered during this imposed downtime?
What's keeping me centered? CENTERED!!!??? Are you kidding?! This horrible pandemic is the most difficult crisis to navigate. I tried to make a routine for myself. Try to get up at a certain time, go to bed at a certain time, and watch the new man in my life, Andrew Cuomo. OMG! I fell in love with him. Don't tell David! LOL! He speaks with empathy, human insight, inspiration, and intelligence. Oh, how I wish he were our country's leader. And I binge watch NCIS starting with season 1 and 24 episodes per season, and now I'm up to Season 11 !!! I love the science of how they find the killer-you know I was a medical secretary and worked for the Army in a scientific laboratory, right?
How's the new grandbaby? Are you Facetiming and ZOOMing with the kids and grandkids?
I don't get to see her enough. She doesn't like ZOOM. My other grandkids and kids zoom me sometimes. Mother's Day was full of zooms. But I talk to my English beau of 17 years twice a day as well. He was in London when this happened. He had just gone back and was booked to come back to NY on April 6. It's hell. Depresses me to go through this without him. He has a ticket to arrive late June but we don't really know when we will see each other.
Your career has seen you play all sorts of characters - in your early years you went from Lili in Carnival to Sally Bowles in Cabaret. The business is notorious for trying to pigeonhole actors, but that never happened to you. What was your secret to avoiding typecasting?
How did I not get pigeonholed? I think I did early on. I was one of a handful of cute sweet ingenue sopranos who worked all the time. It started changing when Hal Prince cast me as the replacement for the original Sally Bowles. Larry Kert and I went into the show at the same time. It changed my career. I wanted (and always did) to act, but they only saw me as a SINGER. If you were just a singer, especially a soprano, you couldn't act! So they thought. Rex Harrison made it great for actors to be allowed to sing, but certainly SOPRANOS were not actors! So I went to Joe Papp and begged him to let me AUDITION for a straight play. He did and I got the job. RICH AND FAMOUS. I played 5 different women. With good actors-Ron Liebman and William Atherton (Bill became one of my best friends). I got rave reviews and that did it. I had to stop singing for a while, but it worked. I will be eternally grateful to Joe Papp and to John Guare for this wonderful opportunity.
Anita, you've been in the business for a long time and had the opportunity to see it change over the years. What is a faded show business practice from the past that you think we could stand to see come back? Conversely, what is one way that show business in 2020 would have been helpful to artists in past decades?
I knew things were changing in the business when, in the late '90s, I took the role of Parthy in a touring company of SHOWBOAT. First day of rehearsal, I heard the word "track" and I didna know what it meant. It meant you had to hit mike #22 on the last syllable of a certain lyric and hit mike #23 on the last word of a phrase of dialogue. Susan Stroman had the show choreographed so that everyone had a "track" and could be replaced in an instant if necessary. So there was no originality, no innovation I could bring on my own during rehearsal. I had to do whatever the TRACK called for. I tried to accommodate, but after I had the role down, I took some liberties and stuck with it. Pat Harrington did too. Months after my 9-month run, I went to take over for Cloris Leachman for two weeks and I found she didn't listen to any of it. She did exactly as she damn well pleased. Dean Jones told me he was glad I stuck to my original direction because he had no idea most of the time just what Cloris would do on any night. From one extreme to another. What that did, I think, was make it difficult for kids to become STARS. They wanted to not have to deal with stars. The stars were the directors. The good thing I think about the new track idea was that chorus kids now got sick days and PERSONAL days. I never heard of such a thing. I remember when I started in the chorus we had nothing like that. Once, when I understudied and was in the chorus of CARNIVAL, I was 5 minutes late for half-hour and I was DOCKED and sent home. But that discipline has lasted me my entire life.
I hate how the price of tickets keeps so many from seeing a lot of Broadway. SCALPERSstarted it! I also miss melodies. The bang bang bang of songs and the repetitive choruses annoy me. I love some of the modern composers - Joe Iconis, David Yazbek, but so many shows don't register with me the way the old ones do. I also have problems with directors who change old shows to fit their ideas. I think some of their ideas are irreverent. And I revere so many musicals from my past. It was distracting to have a screen upstaging the dancers in WEST SIDE STORY, for instance. But then, they will all say what an old woman I am I guess. And I am.
There is a lot of bias in show business, like misogyny and ageism - what do you think we can do to continue to evolve in a manner that will provide equality for all the artists who deserve to work?
Misogyny... of course I've experienced that. Any female from my generation knows about that. I used to thank my husband for LETTING me work. Turned over my salary and he handled the money, then got jealous when I started making more than he did. I was a bit embarrassed by it. He was a scientist. Scientists are still called eggheads and don't get the respect or the money they should have. Dr. Gillette was a real brain and I had a great deal of respect for him. He was part of the team that solved the immune barrier problem, thus allowing transplants from one person to another. That's why I used to have Petri dishes of mouse ears in my fridge. He was always transplanting tissue from one strain of mouse to another after treating them with different chemicals and compounds. I have never been raped or been in a situation I couldn't get out of. Mostly, I made them laugh, and only once, when I first came to NY, did I have to knee a guy in the balls and I have good aim! I made Jule Styne laugh when he tried to unzip my dress once and I was wearing a nursing bra. I told him if he didn't stop, I'd squirt him with breast milk, and started laughing. We both laughed ourselves silly. I understand the METOO movement. I just don't understand why Rose McGowan went BACK into the same hotel again after she had reportedly been raped by Harvey Weinstein. I know him, of course, from the film SHALL WE DANCE. He flirted with all the young girls, but nobody reported anything else. I'm sure he got what he deserved, however.
As far as ageism, it sucks. Especially in Hollywood. When you're over 35, you're too old! LOL! At least in theatre you can become a character woman. I still get told I'm too young looking for80. I have to put on a gray wig, and I still have to audition for everything on film. Speaking of film, the best result from an audition was when I got MOONSTRUCK and the role of Miss Mona. I was doing a soap, Search For Tomorrow, and I borrowed an outfit from wardrobe for the audition. Dynasty was on then and I had an outfit a la Joan Collins. Complete with a little fascinator hat on my head and a lot of cleavage. I walked in and Norman Jewison said, "You've got the job!" He was kidding, of course, but that piece of wardrobe helped me get it I'm sure. I remember when Theoni Aldredge designed my angora sweater cut low with pushup bra and tight skirt, I said to Norman, "This is gonna make me look FAT on film." And he said, "Honey, I want you to look like an overripe cannoli!" And I understood everything! What a great director. I was so happy to do that small but important role in a classic like that.
Anita some actors frown on it if they are especially remembered for a particular role, but you always embrace it when people want to talk to you about Mona The Mistress - why is that?
I would never frown at being remembered for Mona! I'm happy to be REMEMBERED! And what better for being remembered than as an overripe cannoli in a classic film like MOONSTRUCK?
So, how does it feel to be a lifetime achievement award winner who is so beloved by an entire community of artists?
I am grateful, humbled, and proud to have received this award.
Photos in this story are from the personal collection of Anita Gillette unless otherwise noted.
Top and Bottom photos of Anita Gillette by Stephen Mosher