Hollywood, Netflix’s new Ryan Murphy limited series, is big on wish-fulfillment. It imagines an alternate history of the Golden Age of Tinseltown, one in which women, people of color, and queer people have much more agency than they did in reality. It goes super literal with said fulfillment by setting much of the action at a gas station that doubles as an escort service. But perhaps the biggest wish Hollywood readily grants is getting Broadway royalty Patti Lupone delivering razor-sharp dialogue in killer fashion on screens everywhere. Who among us isn’t wishing for that?
As Avis, the Tony-winner goes from would-be star bruised by the industry’s cruel standards to the de facto head of a studio. And who better than Patti Lupone to be barking out orders from behind a giant desk? From her imminently quotable opinions on politics and impromptu quarantine home tours—which she describes as “spontaneous combustion”—to lighting up stage and screen, Lupone never fails to give us everything we want. She talks to ELLE.com about her new series, sensuality, and sending you (yes, you) a check.
Avis is unapologetic about claiming what she wants. Did you have a lot of input into how her character was built?
So Ryan Murphy called you like, you’re going to play this amazing, very sexually liberated character, and you were sold.
Why not? You know what I mean? I was so thrilled when Ryan said there’ll be sex scenes and I went, “Finally.” Women get cast as mothers or grandmothers at my age. Oh no, we’ve still got sexual desire. We’re still desirable. Why not? So I’m so thrilled. There was a sex scene, I’m sorry to say, that was cut out that I had with Dylan [McDermott]. It was very exciting!
Much of your stage presence has been highlighted by sex appeal from Anything Goes’ Reno Sweeney to even Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett or the alluring Joanne from Company. These are sexy characters.
I’m a sensual person. Stage is feminine and it’s easier for us because of the aesthetic distance—the distance from the stage to the audience—to be able to play something like that. It’s much crueler on camera to think that someone my age still wants to have sex or is a sexual being and then to see it. I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I thought it was shot beautifully, but you don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end because I’m not looking in the lens going, well, how are you going to shoot this? Which I probably should have done, but I trusted these guys and I thought they shot it beautifully.
I saw this woman in Rome who was not a beauty. She wasn’t ugly, she was actually very attractive. She looked so Roman, she was in a black dress, she had little pumps on, she was teetering on on the cobblestone. She was incredibly sensual. That’s who she was. And I think that’s who we are. We’re sensual. And not in this country. [It’s] sort of taboo to be flaunting a sexuality. We’re such a puritanical country.
Do you feel there’s an inherent power in recognizing your own sensuality that people, men particularly, are afraid of in this country?
I think men are just afraid. I don’t know whether it’s the sensuality of women or if they’re just cowardly.
The series it tries to deconstruct a lot of the mythology we’ve built up around sex and power by placing events in an alternate universe, where women and people of color and queer people have more power than they really did. What’s the takeaway here, since we can’t fix the past?
People already have [fixed the past]. I think women of color have embraced that and they didn’t need a television show to tell them that. We have incredibly powerful women that just went, “this is the way it is.” Women got sick and tired of being treated the way they were treated and they took control of their own lives. And then, it depends on who’s in power, how that’s going to translate. I mean, look at Harvey Weinstein, look at how that translated. Look at the women that brought him down.
I’ve never had that experience. I’ve never had the casting couch experience. So I don’t know what it is to be in a situation where my career depended on a blow job. The fact that these women were compromised by this man called it out at an incredible risk, it is incredibly powerful. I have called out certain things and I’ve gotten raked over the coals for it. These women got raked over the coals for it, but what I called out wasn’t half of what they called out for. And they’re winning.
Has the way you’ve chosen to speak your mind changed over the course of your career? Do you feel more at liberty to say what you think?
Well, I’ve always said whatever I thought. And I was punished for it. But there’s no denying talent and I know that I have talent. I know it’s God-given, it’s not something I created. I have a responsibility to it and they can’t deny talent. They can say you’re a flaming asshole, but they can’t deny talent. And someone’s going to want it, you know what I’m saying? Someone is going to want to hire you because you’re talented.
Do I regret anything I’ve said? I can’t even remember what I said to regret it. But could I have handled it differently? Yeah, if I was diplomatic, but that’s not in the cards for me this lifetime. I am who I am and that’s who I’ve always been. I didn’t all of a sudden get outraged and speak up. This is my DNA.
It feels authentic. Whether it’s politics or about the arts, it’s not you putting on a character or a show.
No, not at all. I’m a human being. I live in this country. I live in this world. I am outraged. And I don’t know how to use my public voice any other way than being outraged as a citizen in this country. I don’t feel as though I have more of a right, but the right I feel is because I am a citizen of this country and I pay fucking taxes. The fact that this asshole has put his name on my money, do you know what I mean? That money came from the citizens of this country. So I want my name on there too, while you’re at it, asshole.
I would kill for a check signed by Patti Lupone.
That’s when I call up my Congressman and my Senator and go, “Look, his name’s on it, I want my name on it.”