Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods may have first hit Broadway back in 1987, but many of the themes, ideas and lessons still resonate today. Christine Baranski turned to the Royal Wedding craze when prepping to play Cinderella’s stepmother, Meryl Streep connected to the idea of The Witch doing bad things for good reasons, and Tracey Ullman even recalled watching her very own son play Jack in a rendition of the show.
During a recent press conference in New York City, all three stars as well as producers Marc Platt and John DeLuca sat down to talk about the characters’ motives, the pressure of singing and acting, working with director Rob Marshall, favorite fairy tales and loads more. You can check it all out after the jump. Into the Woods is currently in theaters and also stars Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy and Johnny Depp.
MARC PLATT: Well, I think first of all, any musical has so many different moving parts to it that the challenge in any musical is unifying all the moving parts of it, in particular a movie musical because now you’re adding the camera and you’re adding the idea of adaptation, and what works in one medium does not necessarily always work in the other. So the challenge is to stay as true as you can to the material that you love and yet not be afraid to step outside of it and introduce elements into it that make it exist in a satisfying, exciting way cinematically.
Christine, the role of the wicked stepmother is such an iconic character type in stories. What was your take on Lapine and Sondheim’s stepmother and what did you end up bringing to the role?
CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I’ve worked with Rob, we talked about what is this particular nature of – she’s always described as the evil stepmother and the evil stepsisters, so what exactly does that mean and how is that kind of activated? And actually, I found that Cinderella is somebody who just is at the house and she just does things for us and a lot of the evil of the character – [laughter] – no really! And then she suggests that she come to the ball? It’s like, are you kidding? Look at your nails, look at your dress and it’s like, laughable! We wanted to figure out how to make these characters feel kind of resonant in the contemporary world and this particular trio of women just seem right for presenting a kind of narcissism and fashion absorption and from the brilliant clothes of Colleen [Atwood], like a little too many ruffles and the hair is just a little too high. They look like they’re trying so hard and this is their one shot and it’s like they’re getting ready for the Oscars. They’re obsessed! And, you know, they’re just comparing. There’s even a little ad lib in the carriage after we come back from the first night and obviously Cinderella’s girl, some girl was at the ball and I did an ad lib, ‘Who is that skinny girl at the ball?’ You just know that these women, they gossip, and I think they’re benow. They’re venal characters. They’re narcissistic and opportunistic and we see this. We see this when we kind of watch television or media. It’s very interesting. It’s like, ‘Hmm, these are women that, you know, it’s part of our culture,’ so I’m really happy that we did it this way. It was interesting. It was good.
PLATT: And that’s part of Christine’s genius, I mean, as well as Meryl and Tracey, is that the humor was paramount and it was always inspiring to us daily, but it was so deeply rooted in a real place and in real people. That’s something that Rob really wanted to concentrate on. He didn’t want just the laughs for the laughs’ sake. And that kind of commitment that Christine has right there in her character, she would come daily and she took it so seriously as well as our two other brilliant actresses, and that’s what made it really fulfilling for us on the day.
TRACEY ULLMAN: ‘Cause I smack him around the head?
ULLMAN: People did that in fairy stories. He was not damaged during the production. Daniel Huttlestone is fine. Rob told me to do it.
MERYL STREEP: No children were harmed.
BARANSKI: He’s getting out of the hospital.
ULLMAN: [Laughs] He’s a bit deaf in one ear.
So how did you walk that line between the smacking of the head and …
ULLMAN: John DeLuca, by the way, you were stand-in Wolf for Johnny Depp and he’s amazing. You were …
JOHN DELUCA: … and she slapped me around.
ULLMAN: I got enthusiastic one day and I was describing the scene to Rob and I did hit him ’round the head. I can never just sort of mime things. [Laughs]
DELUCA: You had a great relationship with the cow though. Tracey was the best with the cow.
ULLMAN: I really liked the cow. Some people got freaked out by the cow.
STREEP: Yeah, we were best friends going into this and then she pushed me over for the cow.
ULLMAN: Yeah, you were always falling over on those ridiculous shoes you insisted on wearing.
DELUCA: Competition, see? Here, this is what you get.
ULLMAN: You have this amazing costume and always in corsets and ringlets and they were extraordinary, and I was in this outfit that I could just roll around in the leaves and get a bit of cow dung on me and I was camera ready. ‘Brush the poo off her and turn her over!’
ULLMAN: [Laughs] Cows embroidered on my night dress. I loved that. Seriously, it was a great thing for me working with the cow. I loved the cow. She was like my dog. I loved her and everyone was scared she would walk into them and trample them. She was extraordinary and the man that trained the cows was in his own world. The whole movie was about the cows. I loved him! You know, he wouldn’t see the bigger picture in the camera and he just went, ‘Is she okay? Could you feed her some straw there? Could you maybe just give her this while she’s…’ You go, ‘It’s not just about the cow.’ [Laughter] The whole thing was a joy being in the field and it’s five o’clock in the morning and it’s misty and you’re in a barn and you’re freezing cold and you warm your hands on a cow’s jaw. That’s a great day’s work! You know, you get to laugh with everybody all day. It’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great privilege to be a part of every part of this.
Meryl, you’re obviously able to be choosy about the type of roles you take. Why did you want this one?
STREEP: What? [Laughs] Why did they want me? I was amazed when Rob said that they were putting this together and they wanted me to be The Witch because it’s just a great piece of American theater history and to imagine that we could make a film of it and that I could sing this music is really, as you say, a privilege. Absolutely. And a very high bar to come up to, and I thought, ‘Well, okay, man. Yes, I’m gonna do this!’ And I really worked very hard to bring my voice back because I used to have a good voice, and to try to do my exercises that I remember from Yale and all the things in the olden days, clearing your sinuses and all that. That’s what that sound was down the hall in the morning.
BARANSKI: We thought it was the cow. [Laughter]
STREEP: You thought it was the cow, your best friend, but it was … No, if you stand upside-down – well I’m not gonna do it, but it really is good. Gets everything flowing. But, yeah, and to serve this man, Sondheim and his beautiful music, that was sort of our, you know, grail. We really all felt that [it was] imperative to do it as well as we possibly could.
Meryl, I’ve always been a big fan of Into the Woods and one thing that I’ve always found fascinating about The Witch is that she’s the only one who never lies to get what she wants.
Do you agree with that statement and how did it impact you when crafting your character?
STREEP: Yes. And what makes a woman more attractive than never lying? That’s why, you know, we call them witches and bitches. What attracted me was the music. It was the music. That was the main thing because the music is the engine through which all these stories are told and it’s sort of a wave that you can surf, you know? When you’re an actor and there’s no music, you have to sort of bring it all yourself. I remember when I was in a Broadway – my only – Broadway musical, sometimes you’d come to the theater 10 weeks in and it’s a Tuesday and you’re hung over or whatever from the day off, and you just don’t feel like it. You just don’t feel like it. You’re up in the thing, putting on the makeup and suddenly through the box comes the overture and the sound of the music. It lifts you. And this music. I know that even Sondheim said he was just so thrilled because he’d only heard it recorded with a 16-piece orchestra in the pit of a Broadway show. Yes, he’d never heard it with a 64 piece – I mean these symphony musicians, so it’s great.
Tracey, it seems that your final scene is played kind of softly in the film. Did you film a more thorough death scene or is that always what the script was?
ULLMAN: No, that was it. That was it, you know, I fell back, the steward knocked me on that. And I loved getting to challenge the giant on behalf of my child. I was so passionate that day and then of course Meryl had to be a part of it, grabbed me from behind with some big fake nails, you know? Nearly took my eye out trying to make it about her! [Laughter] I remember being just absolutely exhausted from that. I was glad I got to lay by that tree.
STREEP: I loved how that death was because it was just like death is. You know, an accidental death is a hit on the head and she’s out. That’s it. There’s nothing. It’s just the quickness.
ULLMAN: As I’m lying there and I’m seeing [Christine] making her pathetic exit, you know, ‘I can’t.’ I love what you said as you left. You were so honest! You were no longer the wicked stepmother. You were a person who couldn’t cope with a crisis.
BARANSKI: I have no inner life. I just can’t cope. I’m just gonna go hide.
ULLMAN: Some people can and some people can’t.
ULLMAN: I know, I was a one hit wonder here in 1984. ‘They don’t know about us, baby.’ We were talking this morning and Anna [Kendrick] went, ‘You really? You had a …’ ‘Yeah. Google me, honey. I was on top of the pops with Boy George and Duran Duran and U2. I was with Stiff Records with Elvis Costello back in my day.’ Yeah, I know. I can carry a tune and I’ve loved singing all the way through my career and in my shows and things.
STREEP: She just came off of a Broadway gig.
ULLMAN: I did. I just did a Broadway gig and you came to see it.
STREEP: Band Wagon at the City Center.
ULLMAN: And we’ve harmonized in the car.
DELUCA: Didn’t you do Once Upon a Mattress once?
ULLMAN: I did. Yes, with Marc Platt. Wonderful Marc Platt. We did Once Upon a Mattress with Carol Burnett up in Vancouver and, yeah. It’s time for a comeback. Re-release.
How did each of you prepare yourselves as mothers for this performance, and did you pull from your personal experiences at all?
ULLMAN: It is about mothers this film.
DELUCA: And they all are great parents, by the way. Their children are just wonderful.
STREEP: So far. So far.
ULLMAN: Yeah, well you do feel it. I mean I’m passionate about my son. I saw him in Into the Woods. He played Jack when I first saw Into the Woods and of course like a dutiful parent I watched him every night for 10 nights because he’s a genius and he’s available. JohnMcKeown.org, just putting it out there! [Laughs] He’s marvelous, isn’t he? I remember Johnny doing this, ‘There were giants in the…’ I had great love for Daniel Huttlestone. What a boy and I think that really sends the movie soaring, “Giants in the Sky.” And we can use real kids in this film! On stage Jack’s 37, Red Riding Hood’s menopausal and you got a paper mache cow. So, you know, there was all this realism.
STREEP: I felt that everybody’s storyline has something that resonates in a modern heart. I mean, the issues that The Witch has, that the idea that people do very bad things for sometimes very good reasons, felt reasons. So she loves above everything this little blossom of a girl that she never even dreamed that she’d have and there she has this child and she wants to protect her from all the bad things in the world. That’s something that every parent understands. And, you know, she takes it to an extreme, but this is a fairy tale. But that resonates, you know? And frankly, would you let your daughter go off with Billy Magnussen? [Laughs] On that horse? That wild horse? I definitely felt in singing that song, in singing “Stay With Me,” I understood, ‘Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?’ Someone has to shield you from that. And the other thing which is that if you raise children, you forget what age they are, you know? I mean you don’t literally forget, but you treat a 13-year-old like she’s 10 and there’s a big difference in those three years and they can’t stand it. They want to be treated like they’re 17 when they’re 13. And sometimes you can’t help thinking of them as if they were 10 or 10 months old because it’s all so recent, right? So we do overprotect sometimes. Not that I do, but Christine does.
BARANSKI: Oh, I’ll just quickly say I think my character speaks to the kind of ambition or just a great need a mother has to know that her daughters will find somebody or will be okay in life. That’s very primal as they get older. You know, you should get married, you should have children. And in this case, I found myself in London because I love London, I’m always walking around London when I’m not working and I was in the gift shop at Westminster Abbey, I went in to pray and then I went into the gift shop and there’s all of these books and memorabilia about the Royal Wedding and I went, ‘Wait a minute. This is it!’ I bought a few of the Royal Wedding books and I was just paging through. Kate Middleton. I thought, ‘That’s it! That would be the ultimate, marrying the prince and look how we all …’ I was in Montreal. I got up at four in the morning to begin to watch the Royal Wedding just because it was just such a great event. That’s what the stepmother wants and that’s pretty real.
ULLMAN: But because it’s Sondheim Cinderella gets The Prince and then she realizes he’s not that great. He looks great. But, you know, maybe she doesn’t need a man in this one and I love that. That’s a really modern message to send girls out there.
DELUCA: Back to the parent-child message though, it is so important to us all. I think we were so lucky to have Rob Marshall because he is truly a nurturer in every part of his soul, and he is a great parent and I think that’s a wonderful attribute [to have] as a movie director. And a musical especially. Musicals are so complex and so huge that [they need] not only his knowledge and his artistic sense, but also his ability to parent. And I think you see it in every aspect, not only the great performances, but the crew. It was a very happy set even though it was a very difficult set, they all felt they were being taken care of.
Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Marc Platt and John DeLuca interview continued on page 2
Meryl, how did they tell you that you were going to be rapping in this movie and what was it like preparing for your big rap scene?
STREEP: I haven’t really done my real rap scene yet. [Laughs] I’m saving that up. I don’t wanna show you everything. But, yeah. I don’t know. When Steve wrote that, was he aware that he was – did they even call it a rap then?
DELUCA: It was 1987 and I think they did. I think he always called it “The Witch’s Rap.”
STREEP: Yeah, but who were his influences? [Laughs] Ice Cube or where are we now? In ’87? Who would it have been in ’87? Who would have been? Run DMC! Okay. Well, we’ll have to ask Steve. He’s not here today, but …
Meryl, I think one of The Witch’s defining moments is when she sings “Stay With Me” and then kicks Rapunzel out. What is more important to The Witch, Rapunzel or being right?
STREEP: That’s a very good question. I think she would say Rapunzel, but probably being right. I mean, the two things are conflated, I think, in the parental mind. You can get them mixed up because being right means protecting her. She also mistakes, you know. She makes a mistake a lot of women make, which is that if they look beautiful, they’re lovable. Their husband, their children, I mean, she thinks that Rapunzel won’t be ashamed of her if she gets this potion. You know, we all make that mistake thinking that how you look makes you more worthy of love.
What goes through an actor’s mind when he or she gets offered a musical and what was the motivation behind choosing to star in a musical?
ULLMAN: It’s just great to be able to sing and carry a tune, isn’t it? It opens up your horizons and gives you more opportunities to get roles, you know, because there’s so many roles in your mid-50s as an actress, it’s unbelievable. [Laughter] My cellphone’s rang 10 times now and I’m just looking for that action figure role where I get made into a little plastic person and make some money.
STREEP: It just opens up a whole new thing.
ULLMAN: Thank God I can sing. I can tap, too. In a pinch I might flash one of my boobs if you’ve got a job for me.
STREEP: Don’t! No!
ULLMAN: No, I won’t do that. I won’t! I’ll just do it in the house. I guess, you know, you get what you can get and I like singing. We can sing! Yeah!
STREEP: We’re lucky.
ULLMAN: You can really sing! Our leading lady here!
STREEP: Really, that music. That’s the thing. That’s the reason to do it.
ULLMAN: I remember seeing you in The Loman Family Picnic years ago.
STREEP: Oh my gosh!
ULLMAN: You can sing, dance and act! Triple threat!
STREEP: And [Christine’s] done Sweeney Todd. You’ve done all the Sondheim.
BARANSKI: I’ve not done Pacific Overtures, but I will.
ULLMAN: Yeah, so, you know, we’re just looking for a vehicle together.
BARANSKI: I will make a point that there’s singers who sing all the time and then like Meryl and Tracey and I, we act most of the time and then sometimes we sing, so there’s always that feeling like, ‘Whoa, whoa, gotta get in shape.’ And, whereas a singer, you just do those exercises every day like ballet barre, and so I have always found it a challenge because you never know when an opportunity will come. Suddenly, yeah, you’re offered a musical and then you kind of go on overdrive to get in shape. And I remember having done something for Steve and he said to me, I think it was after a workshop of Sunday in the Park that I did and he said, ‘You know, Christine, you should just keep working every day and keep your voice in shape every day.’
PLATT: It takes more than just a vocal instrument. What’s so great about these three ladies as well as the rest of the cast is you can sing if you have a great voice, but to connect that instrument to the text and connect it to the subtext, what lies underneath and the emotion, is indeed a rare talent, and when it’s on display you know it because you feel it. We have no filter for music, but we feel it when what’s being spoken and sung is telling a story and evidencing a character. And that’s why your performances are all so remarkable in the film because we feel that. And that’s, by the way, Steve Sondheim’s music, which I often say is calculus for actors and singers, demands that. He tells a story so specifically and [there’s] an emotion in his lyrics, so that’s not just singing, that’s acting.
That was sort of the phrase that I would be told all the time; act through song, don’t sing. Stop singing, act. Did you have conscious discussions about, say, that high C is coming. In your brain you’re thinking more about hitting the high C, but at the same time, it’s a high C because you’re saying something profound for the story. They said five weeks of rehearsals …
PLATT: Six. We just have to keep it straight.
Absolutely, yeah. Was that something that was discussed as a group in terms of prioritizing one over the other?
DELUCA: Technique is always spoken of, and these actors really dove into this with every part of their beings. And Sondheim is so tricky technically and it is a bit of a challenge for everything. To let that technique go you need to really dive into it and really study it and work and work and we really worked them to the bone actually so that when they came to put it all together, they were free enough to let that technique, you know, you’d don’t see the technique. But it was a long, hard process. Everyone had their challenges.
ULLMAN: We pre-recorded everything, but I found on the day just my bit that I did walking around the cow and in a field, I just felt I wanted to sing it live because it was too slow what we had recorded, and we had the ability to do that and it still felt – and you did your rap completely live, didn’t you? You could never have pre-recorded that. And having the technique and the strength on the day. We were all nervous about going into the recording studio and laying it down and thinking, ‘Well, this is it.’ We had the option to – and Anna Kendrick had some really difficult stuff.
I really do think all of you made your characters wholly your own. They sounded unique to each of you, but I’m curious, was there a temptation to go back in the past and listen to previous performances?
STREEP: I had seen Bernadette [Peters] do The Witch 20, maybe 30 years ago. And, you know, I remember it vividly. It just was etched in my soul. I came out, you know, everybody says, ‘Oh, Sondheim’s music is, you know, unsingable or whatever,’ that it’s too complicated, but those melodies lived in my head for, well, years after hearing the musical. I didn’t buy the album, but it was in my head. Do you know what I mean? So I think I wanted to just find my own inner Witch and I didn’t even think about copying. Usually I steal from somebody, something from somebody. Usually I steal from men because nobody notices when you steal stuff.
But anyway … to your question earlier – I remember how to meld the technique with the abandon that you need and there’s certainly that in both of the big songs that I sing, that I found myself just singing them over and over without investing because you make a lot of assumptions. You think you know this music until you really look at the sheet music and we sat with Paul Gemignani, and their little rests and always a reason for it. In Sondheim’s mind there are little sort of elisions, things that arrest you and make you really listen harder and it’s all precise and deliberately there, and so we had to be exact with all of that. So learning all that and then you just get rid of it and start to live through the music. I found it unbearable when I allow the song to meet the music, to allow the story to meet the music. I couldn’t sing it. I got so upset because with “Stay With Me,” I got so upset. And, you know, you can’t sing when you’re upset. You can’t sing when you’re crying. You get all congested and disgusting. So it was just a measure of finding a way to control the emotion, use it, funnel it, make it ride on the sound.
ULLMAN: We had our one chance to do it for this movie which is immortalizing, it’s fantastic, but people like Bernadette Peters who played this role in the past and your Kelli O’Haras and your Brian Stokes Mitchells and your Patti LuPones who go out and do eight shows a week, and your Christine Baranskis, on Broadway and they just amaze me.
STREEP: Every time.
ULLMAN: That’s incredible discipline.
For Meryl, Tracey and Christine, talk about how fairy tales influenced you when you were a child and maybe your family. Did you have favorites and did they inform these roles?
STREEP: I always liked the Three Little Pigs, but that wasn’t included. That wasn’t a fairy tale, right? I’m just saying my first reaction. I did like the Three Little Pigs. You did, too? Okay.
ULLMAN: Don’t knock a classic. They’re fabulous.
BARANSKI: Well, I loved Rumpelstiltskin.
ULLMAN: She’s all about this guy!
BARANSKI: I know. I’ve had a thing about him, but I’m hoping that Steven Sondheim will – I wish he had included Rumpelstiltskin because can you imagine the rhymes? Can you imagine what he would have done with Rumpelstiltskin? Boggles the mind.
STREEP: When my children were little, I remember we had Shelley Duvall’s entire set of Faerie Tale Theatre which is absolutely fantastic, and if you can get hold of it, it’s everything.
ULLMAN: The dancing princesses, they would go out and wear their slippers out every night.
STREEP: Yes! And Thumbelina. Carrie Fisher on a little acorn. And Chris Reeve was the handsome prince! Yeah, Bernadette Peters was Sleeping Beauty. No music, but they were oddly skewed through her sensibility. They were fantastic.
ULLMAN: Yeah, they’re good.
STREEP: But the fairy tale that really scared me was Bluebeard.
BARANSKI: That’s very dark, isn’t it?
STREEP: That’s the one where he just kills one after another of these woman, these wives, you know, that he lures up to the castle. I just think about fairy tales as stories women told their children to warn them, you know? To keep them safe, to make sure they married up, all the things that would have safeguarded them in the olden days.
ULLMAN: Don’t go into the woods alone, you’ll get eaten by a wolf.
BARANSKI: Or you’ll meet Johnny Depp!