For more than 25 years, Cady Huffman has been entertaining Broadway audiences as the big-belting, leggy standout in shows like La Cage aux Folles, Steel Pier and a Tony-nominated turn in The Will Rogers Follies. Of course, Huffman is best known for her Tony-winning performance as blonde bombshell Ulla opposite Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. Now, she is back on the boards after a 10-year absence in Douglas Carter Beane’s moving new burlesque drama The Nance. In this world premiere from Lincoln Center Theater set in the 1930s, Huffman plays as a tough, Communist stripper named Sylvie. We caught up with the honest and funny Tony winner to discuss her stage reunion with Lane, her experiences (good and bad) with The Producers and baring more than just her heart in The Nance.
Did The Nance interest you because you’d be reuniting with Nathan Lane, or was that just a happy coincidence?
The Nance intrigued me because of the script. I read it and I really wanted to do it. Nathan being in it was a bonus, but I had to audition and go to callbacks and all that. It wasn’t just, “Cady, do you wanna do this?”
Let’s brag on Nathan. What are you telling people about his performance in this play?
It really is a tour de force. I just think he is so great in it. What I love about the show for each of us is the chance to show our personalities on stage and off stage as the character. He bravely brings a story to life that he’s never been able to tell as a performer.
You’re such a "broad" in this show. Did you have any hesitation in showing off your body as Sylvie?
Never. I am who I am. I was like, “Well, this Sylvie is a middle-aged woman. I am a middle-aged woman. So, who cares?” And watching Lena Dunham on Girls, I’m like, “Well, what do I think is so special about me?” I’m an actor. I tell a story. My body is part of that. So, I felt empowered by Lena, and I felt empowered by age. I think I’m old enough to be like, “Let’s just get out there and show it!”
Douglas Carter Beane draws interesting parallels between 1937 and 2013. Does it feel like you’re telling a contemporary story?
I feel like all stories are contemporary. There’s always a human truth in a story well told. But I do think [Beane] has tapped into a very real story here of old and new—old thinking, new thinking—the politics, certainly. I love the juxtaposition of life and the burlesque, and the burlesque was such a reflection of the politics of the time and a way for artists and comedians to express their feelings about it.
Sylvie is so passionate. What cause are you passionate about?
I have a few things that I advocate for. Certainly, one is keeping the arts in schools. I advocate for animals. I advocate for an organization called CANY (Creative Alternatives of New York), which uses drama therapy to help people who have had severe trauma. I volunteer for them and I help put up their gala every year.
Let's talk about The Producers. What’s your favorite memory of that experience?
Geez, I gotta tell you, that first year was awesome. As you ask me that question, I have these images of different things popping into my head, but of course, Tony night. It was crazy, and it was a wonderful surprise when I won. We were up all night, just looking at each other like, “Oh my god. We did this.” It was fantastic. And then to learn later that other people were like, “That was the most boring Tonys I’ve ever watched.” Because we thought, “This is the best Tonys ever!” I guess perspective, huh?
Were there any hard feelings about not joining Nathan and Matthew in the Producers film? [Huffman's role was played by Uma Thurman.]
Um, how shall I answer this? I have not seen the movie, just because I get asked questions like this, and I cannot afford to have a negative opinion about it. Of course I would’ve loved to have been in it, but again, I don’t know why I wasn’t.
You won a Tony and got a Tony nomination for playing sexy blondes [in The Producers and The Will Rogers Follies]. Is there any downside to being known for that type of role?
There are definitely always going to be non-creative people who see you as only one thing. And everybody wants to know how to use you before they see what you can do. But those characters are wonderful; they brought me a lot of success and good things, so how can I complain? And actually I think Sylvie is very much what Ziegfeld’s Favorite [in Will Rogers] might have become. Ulla certainly jumped me into a category of being an actress more than just a musical performer, which was great. So, I have no complaints about those two characters, and I loved them both.
You’re a frequent judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef— how did that come about? Are you an avid foodie? Do you cook?
When I was doing The Producers, a friend of mine was producing [Iron Chef]. Foodies can be a bit serious, so he said, “Cady, you’re sort of a celebrity. Would you come on as a personality, and maybe explain the food in laymen’s terms?” And I was like, “Free meals! Yeah, absolutely.” So, I went on, and it stuck. I did 10 seasons, and as I continued, my palate improved and I realized I really do have something to say about it; I can actually discern and critique food. I have started cooking a lot more since I got divorced.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in the city?
I live in Brooklyn, so I mostly eat in Brooklyn. There’s a little Mediterranean place called Olea that I really like.
Any roles you're dying to play?
I love doing new things. It’s very difficult for me to turn down anything that I get to create, because I love it so much. There are big roles that I want to do, like Mame and eventually Mama Rose, but I think I want to do her in about 10 years.
We need a Mame revival.
Yeah, I always wanted to do it with Julie White, who’s one of my best friends. We can flip-flop Mame and Vera, like the boys did in True West!
Don't miss Cady Huffman's return to Broadway in The Nance, now playing at the Lyceum Theatre.