“You have to do your best to fulfill the role, not fulfill yourself” – Bernadette Peters
Musical theater legend Bernadette Peters is back on Broadway filling some similarly big shoes, having taken over from Bette Midler in the title role of Hello Dolly! Though ticket sales with Peters have been slower than the sales with Midler, that’s nothing for producers to worry about — Hello Dolly! is still grossing over one million dollars per week with Peters in the title role. In an in-depth interview with Vulture, Peters speaks about returning to Broadway, reflects on her approach to stage acting, and explains why she is still trying to improve her craft.
Stars with the reputation and experience that Peters has rarely step into a Broadway production as a replacement. However, Peters believes that it will no longer be uncommon. She says, “I do think there’s going to be less and less resistance to doing it, because roles like Dolly are classic, and they’re roles that can be played by actresses my age — which there aren’t necessarily a lot of. But really it’s not about taking over from another performer as much as it is that you’re taking on a role. It’s like if you were doing Shakespeare: You play Hamlet because you want to play Hamlet. It doesn’t matter who else has done it. The real question I’m asking when I decide to do something is whether or not I want to experience a character’s journey.”
Even though Peters has near-universal acclaim as a performer, even as she approaches her 70th birthday she still strives to improve. She reveals, “Well, I’m still learning. I’m always reading books on acting. I just read Sandy Meisner’s book. I never stop picking new things up. Sometimes it’s just little practical things. It could be something as simple as where I could be looking in a scene. Like, if we’re in a scene, and I’m talking to you, and a television is behind you, I can look at that television and it doesn’t mean that I’ve left the conversation — things like that. Or with Meisner, I wanted to know what the hell that famous exercise is about… the one where you say, ‘I’m fine today’ and your partner says ‘I’m fine today’ and you don’t change the line until something happens. It makes you stay in the moment. That’s the stuff I find interesting to read about.”
That’s not a concern that she felt when she was a child actress. She continues, “There was a big shift in thinking as I got older, oh yeah. As a child you’re free, you’re free, you’re free, and then, suddenly, you become self-conscious about what you’re doing… The hard part is that over time you get more and more self-conscious and it can be harder to access that potency. But hopefully you also realize that the way to be comfortable onstage is to get out of your own way. It’s difficult to do, but it’s also what acting is all about.”
When asked if there is a role that she felt was her breakout role, she says that she doesn’t think of roles in that sense. She points out that a role shouldn’t be about an actor. She says, “I remember hearing another actor once, talking about getting a certain role, and saying, ‘If this role doesn’t do it for me then nothing will.’ And even then I went, ‘That’s not the way think about it.’ You have to do your best to fulfill the role, not fulfill yourself. It’s all got to be a matter of putting the character onstage, as alive as that character can be. It can’t be about anything else.”
Though Peters has also acted on film and television (including her role on the acclaimed Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle), it’s undeniable that her best work has been on the stage. Peters admits she finds performing live exhilarating, saying, “For each audience, the show is happening for the first time that night. So as a performer, you have to bring it like you’re doing it for the first time that night, too. You and the audience have to take that trip together. “