On the Broadway stage, she’s played roles in “Swing,” “Into the Woods” and “Nine,” and won a Tony for “Gypsy.” She’s performed in several World AIDS Day concerts over the years to the delight of her gay fan base. And TV audiences will know her from roles on the short-lived “Playboy Club,” playing Elsa Schraeder on NBC’s “The Sound of Music” production and, most recently, as an abused country singer on ABC’s “Nashville.”
With such a varied and eclectic career, it’s no surprise that she’s adding comic book villain to her resume. In the dual roles of Alura, mother to Kara (Melissa Benoist) and her twin sister General Astra, Benanti is playing both sides of the good and bad coin. Tonight’s second episode of the new CBS series, “Supergirl,” shows us more of Astra’s plans and why she hates her superhero niece so much.
I’ve talked to Benanti several times over the years for her various roles and her solo album, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live at 54 Below,” and she brings the same zest and vigor to an interview that she does to all of her roles. And, to her credit, she’s also unabashedly honest, even if it’s about personal loss like her recent miscarriage with fiance Patrick Brown.
I have to say, I kind of like seeing you really evil and bad.
Laura Benanti: It’s really fun. I’ve got to say I really enjoy it.
Is that an easy switch for you to flip, or does it take some work to really get into the head space of a very evil person?
LB: It definitely takes work. The thing for me is I don’t think you can play an evil person. For me, I’m playing a person with very strong convictions and the way that she goes about her convictions is not something that I would choose in my life, but it seems that that’s the available choice to her. So, for the mom, it’s not hard to just think about something you love and feel warm feeling towards them. So that’s not that much of a stretch, but certainly playing Astra is complicated, and going back and forth is hard.
As the episodes roll out, will we see that she does have some vulnerabilities? Will we see another side to her so we understand where she's coming from and why she is who she is?
LB: I think the thing that I love about the show is that there aren’t really mustache-twirling villains. There are good guys and bad guys for sure, but a thing that they are doing, which I think is beautiful, is they’re showing the dark and the light in everyone. So without spoiling it, yeah, you’ll get to see a little bit more of why Astra has become the way that she is.
How does Astra see Supergirl and the humans? Does she find they're more formidable than she first thought?
LB: I would say that’s true, and I think she underestimates Kara as well.
How is it working with Melissa? You two have some pretty intense scenes.
LB: Oh, my God. Oh, she’s amazing. I cannot say enough good things about Melissa Benoist. She is one of the nicest human beings I have ever met in my life. Like, deeply good. She’s kind, she’s funny, she’s hardworking, she’s dedicated, she’s empathetic [and] she’s interested in other people. She knows every single person’s name on the crew. She doesn’t complain. Her hours are crazy. I just cannot say enough good things about her.
Also she's a totally available and interesting actress. I think in the hands of a lesser actress, this role would not be what you see before you. She has a jest about her and a silliness and a natural curiosity that goes beyond innocence. She's not just playing some wide-eyed dummy. She's a young woman who's coming into her own, and I think the metaphor for her choosing to step into her power at this very important time in her life at the age of 24 is a wonderful thing for young women to be…and young men.
As women, we often subjugate our powers, whatever they might be, in order to seem nice or good or make ourselves more palatable, and I am so excited that [the first episode] did so well because I want Melissa Benoist to be the biggest star in the world. I want people to be able to look up to her, and I love her. I really love her.
How much do you need to know even if the audience doesn't know right away? Do you need to know the whole story, or can you work getting pieces along the way?
LB: It makes it easier to know, but in life we don’t know. So I just try to play the reality of the situation, the truth of the situation, whatever it might be in that present moment because in life we don’t get to know what the ultimate end goal is. But it is nice when they’re like, “So this is going to happen.” I do feel a little bit relieved. Like, “OK, I know what I’m working towards now.”
“Nashville” is a show that is more grounded in reality, but can you even compare the “Supergirl” roles to that since it’s more of a hyper-reality?
LB: I don’t think they’re really comparable. One of the things I was excited about is how vastly different they are. I’ve always liked to do that in my career. I’ve always liked to play distinctly different characters, and I know it can be a little bit tricky career-wise because then people don’t associate you with something. So they’re not like, “Oh, I get you.” For me, it’s the thing that’s the most interesting and the most creative and makes my brain feel charged. So I don’t think there is a way to compare them. They’re just so vastly different, and the world is so different, and the shows are so different, but I loved being on “Nashville” and I love being on “Supergirl.”
I'm guessing we probably will not see you singing on "Supergirl." It doesn't seem like that would be a good fit.
LB: Probably not. Probably not.
Benanti is still very much a part of the Broadway community, as you can see in this video from last month outside the stage door for “Hamilton.”
I have to say, though, I really admire your honesty about what's been going on in your personal life. To spread that message that we don't need to be ashamed about what's going on in our lives, whether it is a miscarriage or being in the closet or things like that, it really spoke to me even though I'm a guy. I'm guessing you're hearing a lot of really wonderful things from people via Twitter and social media just because of all that honesty.
LB: Thank you for saying that, first of all, and I’m glad that you felt that it touched something in you. For me, it made me feel crazy, the notion that I was just supposed to pretend that nothing happened and that I was just supposed to be fine after something that was so traumatic and sad for me. And then it made me think about how often we do that with so many things. Like you said, being in the closet or just grief in general.
I feel like as a culture, we don’t really have a way to talk about it that’s meaningful to people, and I felt powerless and it felt like the only power I had was to try to translate my experience into reaching out to other people who might be feeling similarly.
I don’t normally go in a comments section unless I really am feeling like I want to hurt myself but my mom was like, “You should read the comment section of the Huffington Post’s article.”
And it was just women loving each other. It was just women sharing their experience and empathizing with each other, saying how sorry they were for each other and that they knew how it felt. Women reach out to me who I have known for a while who I thought I knew really well telling me they've had one, two, three miscarriages, and I never even knew it, and then, like you said, things that aren't even related to miscarriages.
Then, to me, it means that that difficult experience, at least something good came out of it and it made me even more empathetic than I feel like I already am because you never know what kind of a day somebody's having. If someone's cranky at you or snaps at you, you don't know what they've been through, and that's a good reminder for me that we're all just doing the best we can. We're all just humans on this earth trying to do the best we can, and all we can really do is reach out to each other.
You’re getting married very soon, right?
LB: I’m getting married November 15. I’m very excited.
I read about how Patrick proposed to you, which was very romantic. Are you two comparable in terms of being romantics or does he take the cake for being romantic?
LB: I think he wins. I think he wins. I do. He’s really, really romantic and thoughtful. I try to be, but he’s just really good at it, which is really nice.
I've talked to you over the years about pretty much everything, but what do you think is your wheelhouse? Do you have a wheelhouse?
LB: I love being in front of a live audience. For me, my dream would be a hybrid of a late-night show, a variety show and a sketch show. I think something where I can come out and tell funny jokes that I wrote, sing a little bit, interview people and then do sketch comedy would be my dream.
I'm not like, "Oh, I'm so good at everything," but I have a lot of different interests. I love doing musicals. I love doing straight plays. Even in terms of what I sing, I love singing all different kinds of music. I love musical theater. I love country music. I love folk music, and then I love doing comedy, but I also really enjoy doing drama. So I'm just really lucky in that I get to do all of those things for a living.
“Supergirl” airs Mondays at 8pm on CBS.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.