Alicia Witt Interview

Actress Alicia Witt adds a musical angle to her hilarious breakup recovery role in 'Playing Mona Lisa'

Actress Alicia Witt adds a musical angle to her hilarious breakup recovery role in 'Playing Mona Lisa'

If Alicia Witt were a struggling actress looking for work, she could get a shampoo or conditioner commercial just by walking into an audition and running her fingers through her auburn tresses. The way her hair cascades back down across her cheeks is the kind of thing that makes a guy lose his concentration -- which adds an interesting challenge to conducting an interview since running her fingers through her hair is something Witt does fairly frequently.

Nevermind that she's also beautiful and just exudes intelligence -- which comes as no surprise since she was reading Shakespeare at age 4 and passed her GED when she was only 14 so she could leave school and pursue acting.

As you may know, Witt is not a struggling actress. In fact, she's been working steadily in film and TV since she was 9 years old (remember the uncanny little girl with the phosphorescent eyes in David Lynch's lavish "Dune" adaptation?) and she has a deliberately eclectic taste in projects. She worked for Lynch again in "Twin Peaks," and her other credits include the controversial (the abortion satire "Citizen Ruth"), the cheesy ("Urban Legends") and the comically extreme (she can currently be seen as a trashy former porn star in John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented").

Yet there's something very everygirl about Witt too, which is why she fits so well into a role like Claire Goldstein, the deer-in-the-headlights heroine of the breakup-recovery screwball comedy "Playing Mona Lisa." Poor Claire is swept up in marriage proposal euphoria one night, then dumped in the morning after her boyfriend sobers up, setting off a Murphy's Law domino effect in her life that has a Woody Allen ring to it.

Hounded by her busybody family wanting to chicken-soup her heart and a vivacious best friend (Brooke Langton) trying to fix her up with men, Claire also loses her apartment in an earthquake, forcing her to move back in with her flaky folks (Marlo Thomas and Elliott Gould) and bear bitter witness to her blissful sister's wedding preparations.

The humorously gifted Witt turns Claire's exasperation into sympathy and comedy, plus she gets to show off her other great talent: playing the piano. In the story, Claire is a talented student at San Francisco's Conservatory of Music. In real life, playing classical piano was another area of prodigy for Witt as a child and she plays a handful of classical pieces in the film with such grace and majesty that the music almost distracts from the laughs.

Since she is often quizzed in interviews about her wunderkind background, I decided to start our conversation by going off on a musical tangent.

Q: You bought a piano a couple years ago when you moved into your house. What do you look for in a good piano?

A: I think it's different depending on what you like. But I look for is a touch that isn't terribly firm. There's some pianos you play and your fingers don't really sink into the keys. But I like when you play a loud, passionate section, like some of the pieces I play in this movie -- Chopin, for instance -- your fingers really sink in and you can just make the room really sing with noise. I like a really singing tone, a rich, full tone.

Q: What kind of piano did you buy then?

A: A Steinway. A medium baby grand -- not the tiniest one. It's a five-foot-seven. It's been fantastic. Pianos tend to get better as they age, the more you play them. They grow into their sound. Every tuning (this one) gets a little better and when I open up the lid, it just fills the whole room with sound.

Q: Do you have time to play?

A: I've been playing a lot recently on this keyboard that I got. I got a Yamaha S-80. I'm trying to learn how to use Digital Performer because I compose my own stuff. I've been writing songs with words. I've been playing more on the keyboard because I can transpose it to sheet music on the computer.

Q: It prints out what you play?

A: Digital Performer prints out what you play.

Q: Wow! I had no idea.

A: You can actually put down 16 tracks if you want to. It's very complicated!

Q: That is very cool stuff!

A: [Nodding emphatically] Very cool.

Q: So are you angling toward being an actress-slash-singer? Are you going to put out an album?

A: Well, I'd like to. I love singing. I just did a musical in L.A. called "The Gift." It was my first stage experience.

Q: Really? After all this time. How did it compare to film and TV? Was it hard to do the same thing every night?

A: No. Every night it took on a different texture -- just ever so slightly different. It was incredible. It was interesting how people I knew in the audience effected my performance. It would effect the qualities that my character would take on. My personality definitely changes relative to what character I'm playing. I noticed in this experience, because I went through the rehearsal process and then playing the same character night after night, I definitely went through a great withdrawl after it was over. I felt a great loss. I was playing Electra, a $4,000 a night call girl. She's very elegant and very knowing in the ways of sex. I kind of miss playing that character.

Q: So you got to sing and you got to vamp.

A: It was really fun!

Q: Kind of like playing Cherish in "Cecil B. Demented?"

A: Yeah. [Laughs.] Cherish was a blast. I didn't have to worry about how I looked in that movie. As the film progressed, all the makeup and hair just got crazier and crazier. The makeup was literally just nuts. (At times) I was wearing exactly what Divine had in "Pink Flamingos." The same person who designed (the make-up) in that movie designed this one.

Q: Compare making a movie with a rookie director like ("Mona Lisa's") Matthew Huffman to making a movie with an experienced director who is a total vanguard like John Waters.

A: John Waters has certainly gotten to a place in his life where he doesn't do anything he doesn't want to do. He's always been that way, but at this point, he's greatly respected for it. At the beginning of his career, people thought he was out of his mind. He said once that Cecil B. Demented was what he would have become if his parents hadn't been so supportive in his endeavors.

Q: So, on to this movie! Did the "Playing Mona Lisa" people approach you because they knew you could play piano? Or did you read the script and think, this is perfect for me!

A: Well, it was actually written for a ballerina. When they approached me with the script and I read it and liked it, my comment was that I wanted to do it if they would change it to a pianist. I wanted to do a movie about being really good at something, yet being socially awkward and not as advanced in your personal life as you are in your creative life. They were open to that and they changed it, but it's pretty much the same story.

Q: It's just changed to a form of artistic expression you could more easily portray.

A: Exactly. But all of those art-based fields are similar in that they're all hard to make a living in and they all require an intense amount of training and discipline.

Q: Did you then become something of a consultant about the piano elements of the story?

A: Yeah. I told them a lot about the whole piano competition arena. I used to compete. I trained heavily from the age of about 7 to 14. I went to national piano competitions and did that whole circuit. Then I played professionally to support myself when I moved out to L.A.

Q: That was your job to fall back on? No waitressing?

A: Yep! It was something I always wanted to incorporate into my life professionally, but I wanted to do acting more. You have to really concentrate on piano or acting. You can't do both. So I was very happy this opportunity came along to mix the two. It's probably the role I'm closest to of all the roles I've played. I completely identify with Claire. She's someone I used to be.

Q: You've been doing a lot of comedy the last couple years. Do you want to do a romantic tragedy or a period piece or another kind of drama?

A: I'd love to. [Nodding] I'd love to. My goal is to just keep playing roles that are different from the roles I've played before.

Q: To avoid typecasting? To not be cast as "the redhead?"

A: [Chuckles] Well, I have to be cast as the redhead, I guess. But aside from that, the more obvious typecasting I try to stay away from. Like in the past year I've played an attorney, a call girl, an ex-porno star, an entertainment executive -- on "The Sopranos." The whole trick is to completely avoid stereotyping because the truth is, I'm nothing like any of these characters. I'm completely different.

Q: Was your hair ever a problem?

A: It was a little maddening to me when I started my career. I was a teenager and I would go out for the high school movies or girl-next-door type parts, and they would always say, "Oh, you know, we went with the blonde."

Q: I'd be willing to bet some of the directors of mindless teen-candy movies were kind of intimidated by you. I'm sure you never quite came across as the typical teenage girl.

A: I didn't fit in. I was really determined, really focused -- very adult-like. And yet, I'd never been to a prom, I had never had the whole high school experience. I think I was kind of an anomaly. I don't think they knew where to put me.

Q: How do you feel about being an internet babe?

A: Those are interesting to look at now and again. It's interesting to see what people come up with and what they say that isn't true. I read on one site that I collect wigs and I like to wear kabuki makeup. I've never worn kabuki makeup in my life, and I own three wigs, which I've worn on occasion for fun -- just to surprise people.

Q: There's a couple sites out there that have video captures of you nude from the sex scene in "Sopranos." That's got to drive you crazy.

A: I was just offered a movie where they said, specifically, that I was going to have to be topless, in a scene more explicit than the one in "The Sopranos." I had to pass on it. It was a great movie, too. Oh well.

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