'Bunheads' star Sutton Foster talks about the new series
'Bunheads' stars Broadway vet Sutton Foster as a ballet teacher in a small town.
BUNHEADS is the story of what happens when life takes a Vegas show dancer in an unexpected direction when she accepts an unusual proposal. Leaving the bright lights of Las Vegas and finding herself in a cozy small town teaching at a ballet dance studio, the life of Michelle Simms will never be the same. Fortunately the young dancers provide Michelle with a unique opportunity to explore a new life and rediscover her love of dance. Taking a few minutes to chat with press in a recent conference call, star Sutton Foster explains what drew her to this remarkable, heart-warming series and what exactly is a “Bunhead!”
Could you run through some of the things in BUNHEADS that we’re going to see that you bring to a larger television audience that people may know about from seeing you on stage?
SUTTON: There are a couple reasons I was drawn to BUNHEADS. One was Amy Sherman-Palladino being one of my favorite writers, but also that the show is based around dance, and it’s affording me a lot of opportunities to do some pretty cool stuff. I’ve already done 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 able to really showcase my comedic stuff and delving into it. She’s just a really awesome character who’s a dancer. So I’m sure as the series grows they’ll be throwing lots and lots of stuff at me, and I always say I’ll try anything once. They’ve already thrown a bunch of stuff my way, so I’m sure that a lot more will be coming. But I don’t think theater fans will be disappointed.
What is something that you get to do in BUNHEADS or that you’d like to do in BUNHEADS that most people would probably be surprised to see you do?
SUTTON: Well, there’s some cool stuff coming. I don’t want to give too much away. I started dancing when I was four years old and then was in class until I was about 20 years old or so, and then primarily was dancing just in shows that I was doing, but not really studying and training. But the one thing that I’ve done because my character is she’s a ballet dancer trained at ABT. Although, when you discover her, you find out that she’s a showgirl in Vegas. So she kind of loses her ballet way. But the one thing that I’ve done is I take ballet every day. So I have this incredible teacher, and she comes to the studio, and I have a ballet barre in my dressing room and it kicks my butt. So I’m studying ballet everyday and really training so people will see me as a ballet dancer, which no one’s seen before. Even I haven’t seen that, so I’m really excited.
What exactly is a “bunhead”?
SUTTON: A “bunhead” is someone who spends a lot of their life with their hair in a bun, meaning it would be someone who has dedicated their life and their time to the art of ballet. Ballet is an incredibly difficult, beautiful art form that takes a lot of training, a lot of time, and a lot of hard work. And so when someone is deemed a bunhead, that’s what it means. I live near Alvin Ailey Dance Studio and I’ll see a bunch of girls walking down the street with their hair in their buns, and I’m like, “Oh, they’re ballet dancers.” It’s like a symbol. You can go, “Ah,” and say, “I know what they are.” That’s a bunhead.
Did you watch GILMORE GIRLS, and if so, why should GILMORE GIRLS fans tune into BUNHEADS?
SUTTON: I did watch GILMORE GIRLS. GILMORE GIRLS was my favorite. This is before I even met Amy or worked on BUNHEADS. But it was my favorite show of all time, and I own all the DVDs. I think Amy Sherman-Palladino has a very specific voice; it’s unlike anyone else on television. And BUNHEADS has her voice again. You have a whole new set of characters, a whole new town, a whole new base, but you’ve got the rapid-fire dialogue and that wit and the humor that GILMORE had. So it’s exciting. And it’s exciting to hear Amy’s writing again on TV. I think GILMORE fans are going to love it.
Amy writes a lot of pop culture references. Have any popped up in the script yet that you’ve been stumped by and you’ve been like, “I’m going to Google that; I don’t know what that is?”
SUTTON: Yes! What’s so great is that a lot of them I’ll get, and then there’s some I’m like, “I don’t know what that means.” And when I read the script for the first time, I just — anything I don’t know, I just look up, and then I’m like, “Oh, okay. Okay.” A lot of them I know, but some of them are just so crazy. But then once you read it, you’re like, “Oh, got it. Got it.” But yeah, I think she’s just a genius.
The long, gold earrings you’re wearing in the pilot look really cool. Can you tell us a little bit about your character’s sense of style and how she dresses?
SUTTON: Sure. The thing about a dancer’s life is usually it’s about comfort, and because as dancers you’re wearing tights and you’re in like tight costumes or your feet are shoved into weird shoes — so when I was talking with Brenda — who’s our wardrobe supervisor — and we were like, “Michelle should be comfortable.” But yet, she’s a Vegas girl. She’s living in Vegas, and so those gold earrings were Vegas. So she always had a little bit of Vegas with her. But I wear a lot of flowy, comfortable tops, cute jeans. I rock a lot of TOMS. She’s pretty natural and laid back, very easy-going, but really natural.
You worked with Kelly Bishop in ANYTHING GOES and now again on BUNHEADS. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship that the two of you have?
SUTTON: Well, when she came into ANYTHING GOES, I freaked out because I’m such a fan of hers, and she’s just such an awesome lady. She’s Sheila from “A 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!”
Do you see yourself in the young actresses that you’re working with, both in their fictional roles and as young actresses as well, as young dancers?
SUTTON: I do actually. The girls are in their teens, 16 and 17, and as the character definitely and in my life too. I go back to when I was 17 years old and when I was just sort of starting out, but they are far better dancers than I ever was. They are the most beautiful, beautiful ballet dancers. They’re extraordinary. And they’re doing things on a show that are so exciting. And it’s them doing it, you know? There’s no body-doubles coming in to dance for them. They’re, like, the real deal, and they’re really great young women. It’s exciting. 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. Michelle, my character, I think she sees 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, and so she wants to impart some better judgment and wisdom into the young kids so that maybe they don’t make the same mistakes she did.
You’ve done a lot of TV work here and there, but here it’s really your first really big lead role. How are you feeling taking this step? It could be a huge shift I’m sure.
SUTTON: Yeah, I have to say that I’m loving it; I really am. I am having the time of my life, and I think it’s because it just feels like the right role, the right writer, the right project, and the right timing. I’ve been living in New York for about 15 years. I absolutely love the theater. It’s my home. It’s what I always wanted to do. But I was coming to a point where I just wanted a new challenge and something new, and this came across my path, and already it’s just been an incredible experience. And I’m learning every single day something new, and it’s exciting. It’s exciting that I’m 37 years old and I’m learning so much. And it’s really cool. It’s a whole new challenge, a whole new chapter of my life.
I know the theater community is a really tight community, and a lot of those before you have made this move. Have any of them like Matthew Morrison, Cheyenne Jackson, Kristin Chenoweth, or Megan Hilty – any of them given you advice about making this sort of a transition to from the big stage to the small screen?
SUTTON: You know who gave me advice? It’s so funny because my ex-husband, Christian Borle, is on SMASH, and we actually talked about it. We’re very good friends, and he’s the one that gave me probably the most advice — which is so weird. But he was saying — because I was asking him how SMASH was going and he was saying like, “You just got to keep moving forward because there’s so much material, and as soon as you finish a scene, you have to let it go and move on to the next one. You can’t keep holding onto it.” Like with the theater, you get a scene and you do it over and over and over and over and over again for years sometimes. And with TV, everything moves so quickly. So you might 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. And in many ways, it’s a blessing because you can’t get in your own way. You have to, like, act fast, and you have to go, and there’s 40 people in a room staring at you with cameras. So you can’t get scared, and you can’t go, “Oh, I don’t know; 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 just as, like, an actress because I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to dive in and do it.” And it’s been scary and fun at the same time.
You memorize a script for a Broadway show, and you repeat the same lines every week, eight times a week, over and over for a year, and Amy is famous for her rapid-fire, just constant dialogue. I’m curious as to if it’s intimidating and if it’s been a huge adjustment to try and grasp the new pages of the script every day?
SUTTON: It’s definitely a whole new challenge, and it was the thing that I was probably the most scared about because I thought, “How am I going to do it? How am I going to it?” Because 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. I go, “Oh gosh. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. How am I going to do it?” But it’s just about work. It’s my job. I’m just constantly working, and I love to work. So 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. And my best friend lives here in L.A., and she has eight-week-old twins and so I spend a lot of time here with her and the babies, and she runs lines with me. And it’s just part of it. I want to do the best I can at really honoring the writing, and honoring Amy, and honoring everybody in the show, so I just work, work, work, work.
Did it take much persuading when Amy offered you the role? Did you need to be convinced, or were you just kind of like, “Yes, I’ll do it,” and, “I’m ready,” or was it more of a process?
SUTTON: Amy and I met at the end of the summer last year, and I was, like, a superfan. But I didn’t know that she had a project in mind, because at that time I don’t think the pilot had been picked up by ABC Family. But she wanted to meet me because she had me in mind for the show, but she didn’t mention it because she couldn’t. But I was like, “Oh my gosh, GILMORE GIRLS!” I was just, like, freak of a fan. She probably thought I was this weirdo. And it was right before I was doing a performance of ANYTHING GOES, and I hadn’t eaten, and she was meeting someone for dinner. So she just sat there and watched me eat. I was eating chicken fingers, and we laughed because she was like, “I just sat across from you and watched you eat chicken fingers, and I couldn’t tell you why I wanted to meet you.” But then two weeks later, my agent called and said, “Amy has written this pilot, and she wants you to star in it.” And I was like, “What is it? I’ll do it.” And he’s like, “Well, read the script first.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, alright. Sure. Send me the script.” And I had already made up my mind before I even read the script. It could’ve been about — I don’t know — it could’ve been about anything and I would’ve been like, “Yes, I want to work with this woman.” But then I read it, and I was like, “Oh my gosh.” And then it just seemed like a no-brainer. So it really didn’t take much convincing.
How have you had to change your physical routine from doing Broadway to doing television?
SUTTON: Well, and I will say from going from ANYTHING GOES to the show, I was like, “Uh-oh, I’m going to get fat,” because in ANYTHING GOES I was moving so much. I was walking in New York and everything. And that’s another reason I’m taking ballet every day, and I’m trying to stay super in shape and healthy because I’m like, “I’m a dancer. I have to look like a dancer.” But the biggest change in my life is probably the hours because I wake up at, like 4:30 am. We shoot on location about half of the week. We work on a studio lot for about three days a week, and then we work up in a location spot that’s about a 45-minute drive away. And they’re like, “Okay, your pickup is at 5:45.” So that’s just different, waking up at 4:30 a.m. and being awake while it’s dark. Last night I went to bed at 8:30 because I was just tired. We’re in production for roughly three months, and my life right now is this. It’s intense, and the hours are intense, and I work 12-14 hours a day. It’s hard but different, obviously, than doing a Broadway show. A lot of people are asking me, “What’s the difference between a Broadway show and doing TV?” And I say, “Well, the hours.” It’s just when you do a show, it’s two-and-a-half hours of bam, intense. And then with this, you still work, but you have a lot of lag time where you’re waiting for them to do setups, and then it’s like you have to be on. I’ve become addicted to Coke Zero and coffee. I drink a lot of coffee. It’s just different. I have a totally different lifestyle, but it’s fun.
Psychologically as an actress is there anything that’s similar or is it just a totally different world for you working with a giant green ogre versus these cute ballet girls?
SUTTON: Oh, it’s just a totally different world. In BUNHEADS, all of our main cast, it’s all women, which is very exciting and it is fun too. The girls — they’re awesome. They are awesome, and they are so talented and so sweet but they’re also youthful and full of energy, and they are so excited about — and it’s different. I’m getting older, and I’m tired, and it’s just different energy. But they’re really, really great, great kids. They’re not even kids; they’re young women. How about that? It’s totally a different vibe, but a welcome vibe.
What type of preparation did you do to get ready for your role of Michelle on BUNHEADS that was maybe different than how you would prepare for your other roles?
SUTTON: It’s all very similar. I mean, the process is just faster, so preparation for different characters and stuff because with different roles I’ve done different things. But with this role, a lot of it was just really, really getting the script and the words in my body and in my brain so that Sutton and her were one and the same. And I’m still discovering more and more about her every day. What’s exciting about playing a character like this is that you sort of discover her at a real crossroads in her life. She’s really letting go of one life and beginning at a whole other one, and as audiences are discovering her, so am I. So a lot of it’s just about remaining really open and bringing as much of my sensibility and sense of humor to her as I can, and then just really getting inside the words.
How was it working with Alan Ruck? Were you a “Ferris Bueller” fan, and what was that like?
SUTTON: He’s awesome. He’s awesome and I am so lucky to be able to work with him. And he made my life very easy on-set, and he was just a lot of fun to play with, and we had a really, really good time. Yeah, he was a joy. “Ferris Bueller” is still one of the greatest movies of all time, and now I have a t-shirt with his face on it that says, “Save Ferris.” So I walk around, yeah, so he’s with me all the time now.
What would it have meant to you as a young performer if a show like GLEE or SMASH that were on TV?
SUTTON: When I was growing up, we didn’t have stuff like that. I was trying to think of what I used to watch as a kid. I used to watch Carol Burnett Show, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Show, you know. I guess it was sort of different. Those were more like variety shows. Well, I think it’s exciting because, you know, things like sports and law shows, doctor shows, all those type of shows get a lot of attention, but then there’s this whole other area of kids and adults that center around the arts — dancing, singing, painting, more artistic things — and to have scripted shows that are showing the lives of people who dedicate their life to dancing, singing, theater, it’s exciting. And I think it’s exciting for young people to go, “Oh wow. Look. I could do that too.” And to have that in their living rooms every week, I think it’s important. And especially as more schools and more programs get cut — art programs get cut — it’s just I think it’s more and more important to have outlets like this. Oh gosh, if I had had YouTube when I was a kid to look up stuff, oh my gosh, I would’ve been videoing myself every day and putting myself all over the video. I would’ve been obsessed. But it’s such an incredible outlet for people, and it’s exciting. It’s bringing theater — people who maybe can’t travel to New York — it’s bringing all of that stuff into the living rooms of people all over the world. It’s exciting.
What do you think about the relationship that you have with these young female fans who really look up to you as a role model, and the responsibility that you feel towards them?
SUTTON: It’s really important to me. And that was another huge factor of why this show just seemed right. I’m an adjunct faculty at Ball State University. I’ve worked with kids at NYU in New York. I’ve done a ton of master-class work with various schools and camps and programs, and it’s just really important to me, especially young women. And I do realize the responsibility of a lot of young fans and young women who look up to me. I had that when I was growing up, I looked up to actresses and people, and I always want to impart a sense of humility and a sense of dedication and responsibility and integrity and kindness. That’s really important to me to say, “Hey, look. You can have an awesome career. You can be really happy, and you don’t have to be a jerk. You can get very far and be well respected. Keep learning.” That’s so important to me. And be a real person and have real priorities and perspective, and don’t get caught up in some sense of fame or success or celebrity — or whatever any of that is — because it’s not about any of that. It’s about artistry and creativity and challenging yourself. So with BUNHEADS with the element of Michelle being sort of a mentor to young people and them sort of looking to her, that’s something that I believe in, that Sutton believes in. It’s so important to me. So it was just another factor of why this show seemed like the right fit and the right time.
What is it about BUNHEADS that you think will appeal to a fan base for MAKE IT OR BREAK IT if they want to come over to the show?
SUTTON: Well, I don’t know MAKE IT OR BREAK IT very well. The thing that I think will appeal to audiences — beyond those that tuned into MAKE IT OR BREAK IT — is that I think this show is very witty. I think it’s smart. I think it has incredible characters. I think it says something. It has a point of view, and I think it has some really great storylines that are going to make people want to tune in week after week. It also has a lot of heart, so I think viewers and audiences are going to tune in. I hope.
Tiffany Vogt blogs at The TV Addict.
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