‘Smash’ duo: Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty
“We become really good friends at some point, but then end up falling out,” Katharine McPhee said about her and Megan Hilty’s characters—dueling actresses in a TV series, “Smash,” about the creation of a new Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.
“But that is what I love,” interjected Megan, who was seated beside Katharine in this joint interview. The show is, well, a smash. The two actresses have been getting good reviews, although some critics, like the producer characters casting the show, have been vocally taking sides on who is the better performer.
“We have these really beautiful moments,” continued Megan, who has Broadway experience like her character, Ivy Lynn.
Katharine—who was first runner-up in “American Idol” season 5—does not have Broadway credits yet, something she shares with her character, Karen Cartwright.
“Smash,” which was conceived by executive producer Steven Spielberg, also stars Jack Davenport, Christian Borle, Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
So much of the show is built around the competition between your characters. Do you laugh about it?
Katharine (K): We do. The two of us are really goofy.
Megan (M): We like to make each other and everybody else laugh. I actually taught Katharine what I call terrible singing. We like to make up little songs and …
K: Basically, we sing on the set all the time as badly as we possibly can. We have a really good banter about real life and relationships.
Each of you took a different journey to get to this show. Can you talk about that?
K: It really was a long journey from before “American Idol” to where I am now. The struggles that I have had post-“Idol” helped mold the character that I play now.
M: We both bring a lot of who we are to these characters.
K: I have not had any Broadway experience, but I did go to college for theater. I love theater so I am kind of getting to live my dream of being on Broadway one day.
M: This role is a dream come true for me in many ways. Like my character, I eat, sleep, and breathe Broadway. I get to represent the Broadway community on television. That is such an honor. It is thrilling that both of these worlds exist in one. I love watching how our characters work together and do not work together. We both bring very different things to the table.
Katharine, as in “American Idol,” your character comes close to winning the role but somebody else gets it.
K: Here is the thing. Even though I did not win, I am still referred to as the girl who came from “American Idol.” That is fine, so I do not buy into the whole had-you-won-it-would-have-been-different bit. It could very well have been the same. For some people, it is a rocket ship—an absolute great launch to the moon. Mine was an interesting series of hills, valleys and mountains. All the disappointments and struggles that I have had in the last four or five years as an actress, and all the roles that I have gone out for, prepared me for something like this.
Katharine, did Steven Spielberg see you in the audition?
K: I met with him. I was very excited and bubbly. I probably talked too much! He was lovely. He listened to me talk. He has been developing this show for a long time. One of the reasons he met with me was that he probably saw Karen in me. Meeting Mr. Spielberg was one of those amazing moments.
When was the first time you saw a Marilyn Monroe movie?
M: I grew up thinking that it was a bit cliché for blondes to love Marilyn, so I resisted her for a while. Then I read a biography of Arthur Miller in college. I read about their tumultuous marriage and specifically about the film that he wrote for her, “The Misfits.” I was intrigued and I watched it. I immediately fell in love with her. I could not get enough of her story. That movie is still one of my all-time favorites.
K: I didn’t watch a movie of Marilyn when I was a kid. I watched films like “The Sound of Music” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” My parents jumped over Marilyn’s era. I grew up knowing who Marilyn Monroe was but it was not until I had this opportunity that I started seeing her movies and reading about her.
What is the essential thing about Monroe that you brought to your audition and in the show’s numbers?
K: In my first audition, it was my character singing the iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” I felt quite comfortable singing that because she had a very fast vibrato and it is very breathy. When I started in the series, I put a lot of pressure on myself to really feel like Marilyn. But it does not have to be an exact impersonation of her. Getting her essence is what I have been obsessing about. Internally, I have been nervous about it.
M: I find it terrifying because there is no right way to do it. Neither of us will be a perfect Marilyn. But we both had to be okay with what we bring to the role while paying homage to who she was, her essence, as well as staying true to ourselves through the performance so that it stays grounded in reality. If you only mimic someone, there is no truth in it. You will have to strike a balance between paying homage to Marilyn and bringing yourself to it. In that way, it can be honest, moving, funny and touching. Otherwise, it is just somebody dancing around in a wig and a dress.