Interview with Leigh Zimmerman
Leigh Zimmerman is a multi-talented actress, singer, and dancer whose career spans stage, screen, and television.
She made her film debut in Home Alone II and her Broadway debut as an original cast member in The Will Rogers Follies. Since then she has performed in films, on television, and on Broadway in five Tony Award-winning shows.
Her film work includes, Proof with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, Red Light Runners with Harvey Keitel, The Defender with Dolf Lundgren, and Submerged with Steven Seagal.
Having achieved notable success in the US, Leigh moved to England to make her West End debut playing the part of Elaine in The Seven Year Itch alongside Daryl Hannah at the Queen’s Theatre.
In April 2001 Leigh starred as Velma Kelly opposite Denise Van Outen in Chicago. Subsequent West End roles included The Girl in the Yellow Dress in Contact, Miriam in Three on a Couch, and Ulla in The Producers, which earned her an Olivier Award Nomination for Best Leading Actress.
During her run as Ulla in London from 2004 to 2006, Leigh accepted leading roles in several more highly acclaimed film and television projects.
In early 2007, Leigh returned to the US when she was asked to open the Las Vegas Company of The Producers, reprising her role as Ulla.
More recently, in 2013, Leigh won an Olivier Award for ‘Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical’ for her role as Sheila in the revival of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium.
Leigh is proud to have British and American citizenship which allows her to work all over the world. She recently took time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her career.
You had your first professional dance lesson at the age of three. Where did the passion and desire for performing come from?
I think it was a combination of things…I loved to dance, my mom was a school teacher of communications and the High School Theatre Director, and I found from an early age that I had natural talent that made me feel special. I think that when you are young, you gravitate towards the things that make you special and that you have a natural flare for, and then as you get older you make more conscious decisions about career paths.
At the age of sixteen, you won a scholarship to perform as a soloist with the Boston Ballet. Can you tell us about this?
At a young age, I found that dance was my passion and my natural gift. I danced every day after school and all weekend. At about 10 years old, I started going away for dance summer camps and special workshops. I got to the point at about 14 years old where I had outgrown my home town and surrounding areas for training and performance opportunities, so my family and I knew I would need to look further away from home if this was the career I wanted to choose. I auditioned for the summer program at Boston Ballet when I was 15 and was given a full scholarship for the summer. I was then asked to join the Junior Company and before I knew it I was dancing with the company and covering and going on for soloist roles. It was a wonderful period of time to learn how to balance school, life and career.
1991 was a major year for your career, when you made your film debut in Home Alone II with Macaulay Culkin and your Broadway debut as an original cast member in the musical ‘The Will Rogers Follies‘. Looking back – what are your favourite memories from then?
It was an incredible year and a springboard into a new career and lifestyle from ballet. When I was cast in The Will Rogers Follies, I didn’t fully appreciate that I was sitting around the piano with giants of musical theatre (Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, orchestrator Billy Byers, and Tommy Tune). I was taken under the wing of Tommy Tune as his personal discovery and my experience in my first Broadway show was a charmed one! I quickly learned that I wanted to know more than being in the chorus and the team was very nurturing for me to audition and then be cast as a lead in the show for the 1st National Tour the following year. Shortly after the show opened on Broadway, my agent sent me on my first film audition with Chris Columbus (now a very famous director of Harry Potter, etc) and we sat and had a conversation about being a woman in New York and working in a Broadway show and before I knew it I had a call that I had the offer for the role! My memories are of the rare feelings of “charmed” moments in your life and walking into the Palace Theatre on Broadway every night, knowing that I was cast in a film that I could work on during the day and be lucky enough to continue to work in the theatre at night. It was the beginning of a learning period of two very different styles of acting.
The show went on tour for 27 weeks across the United States. What are your likes and dislikes about touring?
At that age, touring was amazing! I loved my new leading role, my co-stars were people who I knew from the Broadway version of the show and they taught me how to handle the press in radio, on TV, and in the papers across the USA (where they are all very different and have different cultural views from New Yorkers). I loved the hotels and seeing different cities and we were always flown in style and stayed in beautiful places. We were well looked after, so it made the experience a fantastic one. The down side was I missed New York and after a period of time, I wondered what I might be missing back home.
You returned to Broadway in 1995 as Elaine in the long-running hit musical Crazy For You. What do you enjoy most about performing Gershwin’ songs?
Crazy For You is a show I will never forget and is a show that I think should still be running in New York and here in London. The show was a genius framework for the brilliant story-telling in Gershwin songs. The melodies and orchestrations were unparalleled and the choreographic and staging opportunities with such grand and intimate songs were endless. It was a simple “boy meets girl” story line, but it was brought to life by Gershwin!
You then originated the role of Panacea in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. What was it like creating the role and being “given the best piece of advice ever”.
As I look back at creating Panacea, I know that it was another one of those rare opportunities that taught me major lessons about my craft and about theatrical story-telling. It also taught me about comedy at the hands of the brilliant director, Jerry Zaks and appearing on stage every night with Nathan Lane. The best piece of advice was given in two parts from Jerry Zaks. The first was when Nathan and I had a bit in the show where I was following Nathan’s lead and we were “milking” laughter from the audience. This bit got longer and longer with each performance and the audience loved it. Suddenly, one day we were called into Jerry Zaks’ room and told these words that have stuck with me to this day… “Just because it’s funny, doesn’t mean it’s good”. He was telling us, in his brilliant way, that we were not serving the play and actually derailing the story for the audience in a way that was not helpful to the flow of the show. It taught me a lot about working with an audience, the text, other actors and comedy.
The other piece was when Jerry told the whole company, during our tech period in the theatre, not to comment on each other’s performance, good or bad. If it’s a good comment, an actor will think to themselves each time they say that line or sing that phrase, “So and So likes the way I do this” and then your ego is driving your acting. And if someone says they don’t like, it’s not their place or job to say that or try to fix it… that’s the director’s job! I carry both pieces of advice with me on every show.
You created the role of ‘Go-To-Hell Kitty’ in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Chicago. What can you tell us about the role and your time in the show?
I must say that this was an incredible experience and job for me. I was submerged in the world of Bob Fosse with the people who had lived in it with Bob, like Ann Reinking, Joel Grey and so many others who had worked with Bob throughout the years. It was a period of learning about myself as a risk-taker as an actor, the depth and intensity of the actor that Bob Fosse’s work demands, and the world of story telling that Bob Fosse created in all of his shows through dance, scenes, and song. My husband and I were living in an incredible loft in New York at the time with very few responsibilities except for ourselves and careers and we were absolutely living the life that we had dreamed of! I was in the show for almost 2 ½ years and it never got old because there was always something to learn in a Bob Fosse show.
What have you enjoyed most about performing on US television including The David Letterman Show, The Tonight Show and The Rosie O’Donnell show?
I was part of a small group of Broadway actors who worked as an improv group on these shows, especially David Letterman. I loved the format of showing up each day, not knowing what we would be doing, creating it as we went along in rehearsals doing sketches, dance and song, and then performing it at night in front of a live audience at 5pm. As soon as we were done filming, I would grab a bite to eat and head to my show on Broadway! It was another acting experience that taught me about improv skills and working as a small group creating topical comedy.
You made your London West End debut starring as Velma Kelly opposite Denise Van Outen in Chicago. What did you enjoy most about playing the role of Velma in this fabulous show?
By this time, Chicago had already been a huge part of my life, and I had not yet played the role of Velma. The great thing for me was that I had the history of creating the original revival on Broadway and I knew the original intentions behind the show and the role of Velma, so I was finally able to explore that fully for myself. The new ingredient was that I was now in London and not New York and I had to learn the differences in the audiences, the culture, and the more global demographic of the audience. This was particularly helpful for me to learn playing Velma, as she has so much comedy to land in her story telling.
You followed this in the West End by creating the role of The Girl in the Yellow Dress in the award-winning show Contact which was described by some as a “dance play” or a ballet and not a musical. What was it like performing in the show and would there be a place for it now?
This was the second time I would work with Susan Stroman, and that is an experience I wish all actors could have. I loved the show because you really had to tell so much of the story through dance, without words or vocals. I learned from ‘Stro’ the value of subtle movement and expression in Contact and feel that it was ahead of its time for London. I think there are places for it now that are more like Lincoln Center was for the show in New York, like the National Theatre and other theatres that allow for less “commercial” and conventional story-telling.
In 2004 you created the role of Ulla in London’s West End production of The Producers which ran for over 900 shows, and gained you an Olivier Award nomination for Best Leading Actress. You subsequently reprised the role in Las Vegas. What did you enjoy most about playing the role of Ulla and being a part of the show?
This show was a true cornerstone of my professional life because I got to work directly with the great Mel Brooks, and again with ‘Stro’. I got to learn about the genius world of Mel Brooks’ comedy, the style of comedy he is famous for, the exaggerated characters that live in a foundation of reality, and do all of the above WITH Mel! It was another opportunity for me to work with Nathan Lane and the role of Ulla was a timely role for me to have at that stage of my career. I love comedy and it was a daily exercise of exploring a larger than life character and keeping her real.
You recently portrayed the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line, which was returning to London after a gap of more than twenty-five years, and for which you won an Olivier Award. Can you describe what it felt like to be performing in this production and to win an Olivier Award?
Playing Sheila in A Chorus Line was a life changing experience on many levels. On a practical level, we were returning as a family to London after 5 years back in the US. It has been wonderful being back in London and we just love living here again. It was also my return to the London stage, and that is something I have missed for the last several years. The most incredible thing was to have the privilege as an actor to explore the world of another theatrical master, Michael Bennett. I feel so lucky to have the opportunities in my career to work as an actor in shows created by legends of the stage and screen. Michael Bennett’s work, especially in A Chorus Line, was very personal to perform, to interpret, and to research. The stories that he collected and then shaped into a show with the great Marvin Hamlisch are the stories of our life as dancers and it is a very personal and emotional story to tell each night. Sheila was a gift because we had so much in common. I felt very close to Sheila and felt it a great privilege to tell her story. To win an Olivier Award for my performance as Sheila was a great honour and a wonderful professional high. It was an unparalleled confirmation from my peers that they understood and connected with the story I was telling and that will always mean the world to me.
Apart from your stage work you have performed in numerous television and film roles alongside many esteemed actors. What have been your favourite moments as a screen actress?
I think my favourite moments were in United 93, a film I was in about 911. It was an incredible challenge and responsibility to investigate the person’s life I was portraying and it was emotionally wrenching to immerse myself in the events of 911 as I never had before. I also was still doing The Producers at the time, so I was filming this intense subject matter all day at Pinewood/Shepperton and then returning to Drury Lane each night to live in the far out comedy world of Mel Brooks. It was my greatest acting challenge yet.
You starred as the gothic siren, Irene, in the Spanish Film, La Luna En Botella (Moon In A Bottle), can you tell us about your role and the film?
I did the audition and then the entire film speaking Spanish phonetically! I had a wonderful dialect coach on set for the months that we filmed and I was able to hear the pronunciation like music so that it didn’t sound like I was a non-Spanish speaking person. I translated the text so that I knew exactly what I was saying, but I had to act the scene laying the intention over the words that were essentially gibberish to me! It was incredible because the actor I was acting opposite was French and also didn’t speak a word of Spanish! It was a fun time and I fell in love with Madrid!
You recently performed with your husband in A Love Affair From A2Z at St James Theatre, as part of the inaugural season of the London Festival of Cabaret. The theme is in the title, but can you tell us about the inspiration behind the show and the music?
Well, this month my husband and I will be married 20 years. We had performed with each other in other events and I had performed a few songs here and there in my husband’s concerts over the years, but we had never done a full show about our love affair and about people’s journey through relationships, so we figured it was high time! My husband wrote and conceived the whole show with a through-line of all of the stages of relationships and matching those stages with our favourite music and styles of music, from theatre to rock. It reflected our two styles of music in our careers, told a bit of our own story, and told the story of the journey through the stages of relationships and love. It was a great experience and we will be doing it again in the coming year.
About acting, you have said: “This is what we do for love…” Can you expand on this?
Well, as actors, we don’t always have continued success throughout our entire career, so I believe it truly is what we do for love. When you find that the performing in the arts is a calling then it gets you through the rough and low times of personal doubt and lack of work. If you love it, it will be with your forever.
And, you have also said about actors: “You should be nurturing to each other” How important is this to you?
Show business is a tough business from a lot of different angles. I feel that if we can be nurturing to each other, it makes us all better. We have to have self-confidence to be in this business, but that doesn’t mean we have to be driven by ruthless ego. We need each other, so why not nurture each other?
If you had a dream role to play, what characteristics would the role include?
She would be charismatic, intelligent, complex, flawed, kind, loving, and faced with a universal challenge that people can identify with. I find that an audience can relate and invest in someone that they can see pieces of themselves in… it is a wonderful process to communicate those qualities and I love the challenge.
Which actor and actress have you enjoyed playing alongside the most and learned the most from?
As I mentioned before, I learned so much working with Ann Reinking, Nathan Lane, and Joel Grey. In film, I have been fascinated working with Michelle Pfeiffer and Madonna, two power-house women that I have admired their success through the decades.
What would be your main message to any actress just starting out?
Never stop learning. Take classes, work scenes with friends, take care of your body, go to college, balance your life with friends and family, and eventually find a life-partner that you support and that supports you.
What does the future hold for you and when can followers of your career expect to next see you on stage?
I’m not sure you can ever see the future as an actor, but I do hope to return to the West End stage in 2014. I will be on BBC television in February and my husband and I will be performing together again this coming April! Dates, times and venues to be announced in the New Year!
And finally, any message to those that are following your career?
Thank you for following my career! Thank you for supporting my return to London and sticking with me through the years I was away from London. I appreciate that many of you are performers yourselves, so to have your support means so much to me and to know you will be there with me on the next job means we can continue to have experiences together! And make sure you follow your dreams!
Interview questions by Neil Cheesman
Photo Credit: Domenick Allen and Leigh Zimmerman (Photo by Michael Wharley)
Updated 27th November 2015