Your Bloody Mary is incredible. Tell me about how you play her. Is there anyone she is patterned after in your own life?
I blame Bart Sher. Four years ago, I left this industry forever. I said I would never come back because I was too burned out. I was finishing up the tour of Hairspray, playing the lead, which I had played for two and a half of those three years. I was tired, I was done; the dream was no longer. I had a lot of health problems. Unfortunately, I was addicted to stupid things and they had made my mind crazy. I felt I needed life, because I had lost it. It was my first big show and I had no clue. I walked away and kind of became a stagehand. I didn't fully walk away because I still loved the whole idea of theatre. I love every aspect of it and what makes it happen. It goes beyond the person that's on that stage. You've got to be able to see him, to hear him; you've got to step on some kind of set. What enhances the entire show is all or naught. I fell into that world willingly and became a stagehand for about 3 years. Then (she pauses and thinks)...I had done South Pacific twice before.
Not Bloody Mary? (incredulous)
Yes. Once for a university and the second time for a community theatre project in Vegas. I saw an ad online, and I live out of Dallas, Texas now. The announcement was for a new production company for a theatre opening in Dallas for South Pacific and they were only doing it for 3 weeks. I thought maybe I can put my foot back in and see what happens. I called and they said it was a New York production. Last season I went to New York, right before the Tonys for 2009, it was pouring rain, I had thrown myself back into this whole world again, and it was nervewracking. I auditioned for Bart, he looked at me and said, "Where have you been this whole time?"
What song did you sing?
They asked me to do "Bali Ha'i". I couldn't believe I was doing it again, and they actually liked it. Bart kept playing with me, asking me questions to find out who I was. At the time I was doing tech week at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for Catered Affair. I was freelancing as a sound engineer.
You were born in Hawaii. So you are an island girl. Is there anyone from your past, any relative, that was anything like Bloody Mary? How did you piece her together so well, because you really know who she is?
I guess it's because ...it's a way of life...who she is. Unfortunately, it's a way of life that will never change. Whether you're Vietnamese, half Polynesian - which is what I am: my father's from England and my mother's from New Zealand. If you're part Asian, or fat or skinny, it doesn't matter. It's survival of the fittest. And that's what you do. As a human being, you find a way to survive moment by moment every single day of your life. That's what she's about. At that time in WWII, everything that was happening around her and the life she had led up to that point...she had struggled to leave Viet Nam or somewhere there abouts to come to the south pacific to get closer to freedom. And ended up learning how to make...she became the first entrepreneur kind of woman; she became her own boss. On top of that, she was trying to get her daughter into the game by marrying her off to even more freedom. That's the way it still is, unfortunately. Nothing's changed. It's just a different view.
The miraculous thing is that the show still holds up.
And it will. The music is obviously timeless, as are most of the messages that are in it that can now be brought to the surface. Whereas when the show first came out, people weren't ready. Society wasn't ready for anything near to that kind of issue.
And this production is as fresh after 9 months as when you started.
Thank you, but that's our job. It's not a movie. You can't call "cut!" and then do it again. For every performer every moment has never happened before. (she laughs)
You do it beautifully!
When I first saw the show, I sent Bart (Sher) an e-mail and tried to quit. I told him "There's no way in hell I can do this show, because I'm not that good. Either I'm quitting right now or you will have to literally work very hard with me so I don't look like a friggin' Asian Chris Farley". May he rest in peace, but that's not what the show calls for. It's not Saturday Night Live. And I didn't want to screw it up. I still struggle with that every day, which I'm grateful for, because it always keeps me in check.
Why do you think playing Tracy in Hairspray wore you down?
Tracy Turnblad in that show has a total of maybe 10 to 15 minutes of down time in a 2 hour, 40 minute show. She starts the show at 100 miles per hour and ends it at 100 miles per hour. And if you really want to do your best, which every single Tracy did and probably will until the show dies out, which is probably never due to the tremendous energy behind it, they will always give their hundred million percent. Those in that role have that spark, energy and life to go the distance. And when you continue to go the distance, you get tired. (she lets out a riproaring laugh) The show is wonderful, and when I was onstage, all the pain in my body just melted away, but I'd come offstage and was just a wreck, because I didn't know how to balance the two out. But, looking back, it was the best experience in my life and I wouldn't change it.
Which is your favorite role? Tracy or Bloody Mary?
I don't really look at it in that way. It's how much I've learned. I've learned more about myself in this show (SP) than I did when I was Tracy. I was covering everything up then; I was hiding. It was too much for me and I didn't think I could handle anything. So I chose to not handle it. In this situation because of the creative team and because I spoke to Bart, there's not a day that goes by without support. I need that support and I learned that from being on this show.
Did you have a mentor growing up, someone you just adored?
I did, I did. There were...I used to be a pop singer, well, not used to be, I am an R&B singer. My emphasis was on Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin...and then when I was in high school - they put me in theatre to keep me out of trouble - I went back to the fabulous 40s, watching all the American movie classics. Seeing how these people walked and moved. The comic work of everyone on The Carol Burnett Show...watching Betty Grable and how she would dance. That's how I learned how to dance. I would record her movies on the VCR, watch it the next day and play it again and rewind and play it again and practice every single dance movement. That kind of entertainment is very rare today.
So are you telling me you loved Betty Grable?
I did. All the good of her; all the bad of her. Just the drive that she had. The fact that she got her first movie and it was illegal. She wasn't supposed to be in it, because she was lying about her age. I love the drama about her family and how her mother treated her. Growing up in Hawaii with my mother Polynesian and my father from England, it was the ultimate American dream idea for me, what she encompassed. It was the idea of becoming famous, trying to be a star, having a specific passion and sacrificing no matter what and anything to get there. She'll always be an icon.
Do you have a favorite Broadway show?
Play is Noises off, because I love watching it. It's in improv mode and it's great seeing what the actors can do, guided by it. Musically I'm a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim and I love, love Sweeney Todd. The music is so haunting and it takes people away from the whole idea of a musical being... happy, happy, joy, joy! For someone who's never been to the theatre before, it's like a horror flick in front of their face with music on it. To see people witness that for the first time is astounding.
There's no in between. You either love that show or you hate it.
I love people that go the distance. I hate things that are lukewarm. They've got to be one way or the other and go all the way.
The great thing about Keala Settle's outstanding work as an actress is that she goes all the way and never lets down. Don't miss her as Bloody Mary in Bartlett Sher's South Pacific at the Ahmanson until July 17!