It’s hard to play a living legend onscreen, especially when that legend is the incomparable Liza Minnelli.
But that’s exactly what Broadway star and Smash actress Krysta Rodriguez was tasked to do in Netflix’s new limited series Halston, in which she plays Minnelli, who was real-life best friends with the famous fashion designer.
After a recent screening of Halston, Rodriguez spoke with NewNowNext about preparing to play Minnelli, recreating those classic Liza With a Z dance numbers, and how “I Gotcha” changed her life forever.
Hi Krysta! How did you work on playing Liza as a real, more nuanced person, and not the caricature that she sometimes becomes when people imitate her?
I think it was actually really easy for me to let go of that imitation because when you go back to the source and when she was the age that she is in this show, which is starting at 19 and going to 27, she wasn’t that. She hadn’t yet become the copy of the copy of the copy of Liza. She was completely still earnest and wide-eyed, and she was pretty scrappy and she hadn’t come into this person who she would become. So I just tried to strip that all away and focus on the relationship with her and Halston, which was very easy to do with Ewan [McGregor], who is one of the most generous and unbelievable scene partners I’ve ever gotten to work with. I did work with a vocal coach, a movement coach, and an acting coach. It was one of those situations when I was waiting to hear if I had the part, it’s like when you wager with God: If you just let me survive, this I’ll go to church every Sunday. It was like, If you just let me get this part, I will go to Liza school all day, every day. I really did. I made a wager. I spent all my time just immersing in her. It was more about her motives and who she was as a person and a friend than what we have seen over and over again. And I hope that that comes across. I didn’t want to be Kristen Wiig playing Liza Minnelli.
What was it like singing “Liza With a Z” and then re-creating the “I Gotcha” number from the Liza With a Z special?
“Liza With a Z” was my first day on set. It was the first thing I did in this whole show, which some people would think was sort of intimidating, but I’m a theater broad, so it was actually where I lived. It was the most comfortable that I could have been, but it is very nerve-wracking to recreate that. To prepare for it, I wore out my copy of the DVD and watched it ad nauseam. And then what I loved about this version of it was that it’s not the version you see in Liza With a Z, the special, where she has won an Oscar and is fully Liza.
She first sang that song when she was 19 years old on The Ed Sullivan Show, so she had been perfecting it for over a decade. When you first see it, she’s kind of gawky, she’s trying out the jokes, but they’re not always landing and it’s much more earnest, an open-faced child saying nobody knows my name. Which is funny because by the time she’s doing it in the special, and she’s the biggest star in the world, you almost don’t get that feeling that no one knows her name. So it was really fun to find the middle ground. Where is she at this moment? She’s probably 20, 21 when she meets Halston in the club, in our version of the show, and where would she be in the process of that? Has she added the joke about, “That’s my hair,” about her hat? Yeah, she’s added it, but maybe it’s not as sharp as it is when she does it later on.
Dan [Minahan, Halston director] and I went through it a lot and tried to calibrate where she would be doing this in some smoky nightclub in the Village, so that was where I started. And then if I could have chosen any number to do of Liza’s, it would have been “I Gotcha,” and I got to do it! I didn’t know that. I knew “Liza With a Z” and “Bonjour, Paris!” were going to be in the show, and then Dan came up to me one day and was like, “I think we’re going to get to do ’I Gotcha.'”
When I was in high school, I woke up every morning and watched “I Gotcha” on YouTube before I started my day. I couldn’t stop watching. Once I encountered that performance, it changed my life because I had never seen anything so perverse, so out of place, look so beautiful. She has so much abandon; there’s nothing perfect about her, and yet it’s the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen. So when they said I was going to get to do it, I just dropped dead. I couldn’t believe it. And that was actually my last day of shooting. So I started it with “Liza With a Z” and ended it with “I Gotcha.” It was a beautiful experience, all in all.
Halston is streaming now on Netflix.