By Angela Barbuti
Debra Monk has a résumé most actresses can only dream of—with roles on Glee, NYPD Blue and Grey’s Anatomy—and those are just her television credits. The 63-year-old has just opened on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof along with Scarlett Johansson, a production that runs until March. A self-proclaimed late bloomer in the industry, Monk represents a true New York success story. After stints waiting tables and working as a secretary, she finally made a name for herself and eventually won both a Tony and Emmy for her work.
How did you get started as an actress?
I had never even seen a play; my family didn’t have that kind of money. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. After graduating from high school, I became a secretary and didn’t know what I was going to do. I hated working as a secretary, so I thought I should go to college. Somebody suggested I get grant money, so I did. I went to Frostburg State, a small liberal arts college, but was already two years behind everybody. We all had to take speech class, no matter what our major was. The man who taught the speech also taught theater. I did a speech in his class, and he said I should audition for his play. I said, “I’ve never even seen a play.”
You were in your first play in college. How did that lead you to pursue a career in theater?
I was just enthralled with it. My family was all blue-collar, so the idea of working and having fun was something I never experienced as a child. You went to work because it paid the bills. My teacher told me to go to graduate school, so I went to Southern Methodist University, which is really where I got my training. Then I came to New York and for four years worked as a waitress and a secretary. While I was waitressing, I met up with a gal named Cass Morgan, and we started writing. I didn’t have an agent, and was paying off all of my student loans. I was very frustrated. We began writing this piece, which eventually became Pump Boys and Dinettes. We did it Off Broadway and then on Broadway. We are thrilled that Pump Boys is going to be revived on Broadway after 25 years. John Doyle is directing it; it opens April 10.
What is this new role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof like for you?
It’s one of the greatest roles and plays ever written, I think. I have the privilege to say Tennessee Williams’ words and listen to them every night. It’s something I will never forget. I’m thrilled, honored and thankful every single day.
How did you prepare for it?
I read the play over and over again. I can never read it too much, to hear things in the language. Then it’s really about getting together with the director and the company and seeing where we’re going as a collaborative group.
How is working with Scarlett?
The best. She is totally the best. She’s a great girl, and so talented. She’s a good person—generous and fun. We’re really, really lucky to be with her. And the whole company is like that. It’s a truly fabulous time—every minute of it.
What is your favorite Broadway song to sing onstage?
I have to say “Everybody’s Girl,” because it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. It’s an incredible number by John Kander and Fred Ebb. I still sing it a lot—at benefits and things. It’s a timeless, funny, great song. And I’m thrilled every time I get to sing it.
You won an unexpected Tony Award in 1993 for Redwood Curtain.
Our show closed early, and the papers were writing who they thought would win—and I wasn’t even listed as a possibility. It was a big surprise for me, and everybody, that I won that year.
You also won an Emmy for NYPD Blue. Where do you keep your awards?
They’re in my office.
You guest-starred on Glee. What was that like?
Yes, in the very first season, Victor Garber and I played the parents of Will. This was before it became a monster hit. It was really fun and fabulous to be there. Everyone was great on the set and worked really, really hard. I don’t know if they had even started airing it when we shot that.
You’ve been on television, Broadway and in film. Which do you like best?
I like them all. It’s all fun. My heart is in Broadway, and always has been, which is why I live here in New York. Sometimes television and film help pay the bills, which is great. I had a great time doing NYPD Blue and Grey’s Anatomy. I loved being on those shows with all those great people.
Any funny stories from you career?
I shot a movie called Milwaukee, Minnesota, which, believe me, you can’t even find. I think it showed for one night in New York. We were shooting an ice-fishing scene way up in Canada. I had to get back to L.A. to shoot NYPD Blue. It was a very low-budget movie, and in order to get me back, they sent a cargo plane. They dropped me off at this airport. I meet this pilot, and we get in this two-seater cargo plane. He said, “You have to help me fly it.” It was so scary, and yet so thrilling. He is an incredible pilot, and during 9/11, I got a call from him asking if I was okay.
For tickets, and to learn more about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, please visit www.catonahottinroofbroadway.com
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