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Leigh Zimmerman on Getting Scolded by Madonna and Playing a Diva in London's Relative Values

Leigh Zimmerman on Getting Scolded by Madonna and Playing a Diva in London's Relative Values
Leigh Zimmerman & Patricia Hodge in 'Relative Values'
'While I have done my share of English accents, I never thought I would attempt one in a Noel Coward piece.'

Leigh Zimmerman is known for her leggy allure on both sides of the Atlantic, having starred in either the West End or on Broadway (and sometimes both) in Chicago, The Producers and The Will Rogers Follies. A 2013 Olivier recipient for her tart-tongued Sheila in A Chorus Line, Zimmerman is back in the West End in the non-singing role of Hollywood actress Miranda Frayle in Noel Coward’s Relative Values, directed by Trevor Nunn. Broadway.com spoke to the ever-engaging actress about watching Tony season from afar, self-reinvention and being directed by Madonna.

Here you are in a 1951 Noel Coward play, of all unlikely assignments for a London-based American. Did you ever think you’d end up in a Coward play?
I didn’t, and to be honest I didn’t know this play even existed before it came my way. I mean, when you think of Coward, you think of English drawing room comedy or whatever, and while I have done my share of English accents, I never thought I would attempt one in a Noel Coward piece.

And especially directed by Trevor Nunn, who might have seemed more likely to employ you in a musical.
He has been the one that I have been wanting to work with and he knew it! We talked about [this play] a year ago at the Olivier Awards and sure enough a year later it came up.

You’re an actress here playing an actress: Miranda is an English-born Hollywood diva, long-based in the U.S., who comes back to England to marry into aristocracy—though things don’t quite go according to plan!
They certainly don’t! Miranda sees herself living the rags-to-riches story that impresses people, whereas the British don’t care one bit about that. Instead of being impressed by Miranda, they think she’s appalling!

Is it daunting that Miranda is talked about so much—for 45 minutes or possibly more—before she first appears on stage?
I was extremely concerned about that at the beginning, since I’ve never played a character before where they talk about you and usually in such a terrible light.

What’s nice about your performance is that you engender sympathy for a character whom it would be very easy to lampoon.
Well, I hope there is something more to Miranda then a greedy bitch or a Hollywood brat or whatever. It’s important to me that she goes deeper than that. I think you have to admire the way she assumes that her Hollywood experience will elevate her to princess status back home and even though that’s not what happens, she proves herself a survivor after all.

It would be easy to dismiss Miranda, too, simply because of her looks.
Don’t I know it! Here I am almost six feet tall and blonde and sort of imposing in whatever I do. I learned very early on that whatever stereotypical role I might be cast in that there had to be something likable about that person because if you can’t find that aspect, then the audience writes you off from the beginning and there’s no journey.

So, she has to reinvent herself.
Yes, and we can all identify with that. She’s also looking for something to save her, and as an actress in this business, I can certainly identify with that.

In your last West End show, A Chorus Line, you played a very different kind of actress: how do you think the ever-acerbic Sheila and the glammed-up Miranda would get along?
[Laughs] I think they’d have a catfight! Sheila certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, so it probably wouldn't be long before they had a knock-down-drag-out.

Is this an easier gig than doing such a physically intense musical?
At the beginning, I found both shows equally strenuous but in very different ways. Our rehearsal time for the Coward was about a third of what we might get in musical theater, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the one holding anybody back. So I was more exhausted in that first week or two than I ever was dancing, but now it’s the reverse. As an eight-show-a-week job, this does feel easier.

Did you look at the 2000 film of this play, with Julie Andrews and Stephen Fry, before taking on the production?
I did! I love Jeanne Tripplehorn [who played Miranda in the movie] and I thought it was very interesting to watch. I also read and re-read the play so that I knew what I was dealing with. I like to see and collect and investigate and read and watch everything I possibly can when formulating a character in order to know what I like and I don’t like.

That’s fascinating since other actors tend to shy away from looking at other versions of something.
I know, but I like to look at the different ways in which the material has been presented.

Does it feel odd as a frequent Broadway presence yourself to find yourself in the U.K. during Tony season?
Not really. You know, I was part of that for 10 years and did four or five Tony Awards, including the very first one at Radio City. I remember all that very fondly and do miss it, but at the same time, I’m really committed to elevating our own Olivier Awards to make them as glamorous and wonderful as the Tonys because they deserve to be. So while I do miss Tony season, I am also very involved in its equivalent.

What was it like to be directed by Madonna in the film W.E.?
That was just incredible. I played an Upper East Side socialite who everyone was tagging on to. I had this big long speech that I had to do at a huge party, and I might have blown one or two words and she was, like, “Get your speech right!”

Good heavens!
She was very detail-oriented—very much a perfectionist. It was a little intimidating, but I rolled with it.

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