Going Coastal

Valley stage stalwart Michelle Gardner is getting her act together and taking it to L.A.

Michelle Gardner arrives bearing Danish. She shows up for what she calls her "farewell interview" clutching a four-foot-long cheese-and-blueberry concoction from Karsh's, the kosher bakery her parents have owned for decades. She's come to talk about Blown Sideways Through Life, the new one-woman show she's starring in, as well as her pending departure from Phoenix. After a decade of local stage celebrity, Gardner is headed for Hollywood, where she hopes to work in film and television. With her newly svelte figure and short hair, she's a dead ringer for film star Janeane Garofalo. But because actors hate being compared to one another, I decide not to mention this.

New Times:What will you do in L.A.?

Taking off: Michelle Gardner is flying off to L.A.
Taking off: Michelle Gardner is flying off to L.A.

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Continues through May 20 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-252-8497.

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Michelle Gardner: Struggle! But hopefully not for long. I have an agent. People keep asking, "Why are you moving to L.A. just before the actors' strike? That's dumb." But it's not like I'm gonna arrive in L.A. and Steven Spielberg will call and say "Michelle! We've been waiting for you!" Everyone will be out of work, not just me.

NT: What if you fall on your face and end up waiting tables?

MG:That's a chance I have to take. I've done as much as I can here. I love Arizona; theaters here have given me incredible opportunities. But for 10 years we've all been hearing, "Theater is growing, just you wait, it's gonna be great, there'll be more theaters than you can work at." Nothing's changed. There's still only four Equity houses here. I'm a union actor, I can only work at four companies here, period. It's time to see what else I can do.

NT: You've recently made the transition from supporting player to lead actor, from musicals to dramatic roles.

MG: One reason I was able to make the transition is because directors were willing to consider me for both. And, let's face it, I lost a ton of weight. I changed physically, and the roles I got changed. I could sit and complain about society's attitudes about fat people, but the fact is I'm not selling out by losing weight. I'm healthier. Losing weight is a good thing. I feel better, and I get more work. My director on Twilight of the Golds said, "I'd like you to lose 15 more pounds," and I said, "Okay!" Some of my actress friends were outraged. It's not like I was being asked to shoot heroin or get a breast implant. Losing weight was a good health choice; I got more work out of it. It's like I'm sticking to my diet, and someone's paying me for it.

NT: At least you didn't have to audition for this new show.

MG: Yes, I did! And I worked my ass off for that audition. And people were saying, "I can't believe they asked you to audition!" But why should they hand me the role? I've never done a one-woman show before, and (director) Victoria Holloway doesn't know me. It was good business sense for Actors Theatre to see other people. I appreciate that more than what usually happens here, where a role gets handed to an actor under the table, without the director first finding out who else is out there. I know they wanted Kathy Fitzgerald for Blown Sideways. Who wouldn't? But she got cast in The Producers (on Broadway). Good for her! But better for me!

NT: You don't seem hung up about being considered second, after another actor, or being asked to audition for roles.

MG: Well, I'm trying to come off as good as possible because you're recording this. (Laughs) No, really. I can't complain because I've been treated so well by theater companies in this town. If I don't get a part, I give myself 24 hours to feel sorry for myself. Then I go to the next audition. You can't sit around bitching.

NT: You do a lot of bitching in Blown Sideways Through Life.

MG:It's a great show. I'm playing Claudia, this woman who's had 64 jobs. She's cleaned toilets, waited tables, been a receptionist in a whorehouse. And she's pissed off about it. It'll be interesting to see how much of the language we keep. I have one speech where every other word is "fuck." Which I love. It's, "You fucking cocksucker, I'd like to kick you to death in front of your dog, you fucking bastard!" And I'm thinking, "That's so great!" But I don't know how audiences here are going to go for that. In New York, they'd love it. It's rude and offensive, but it's very clever. And I get it. She's an actor who's mad because she can't make a living at what she loves. Been there!

NT: Sometimes you work for your parents.

MG: Yes. Many times! I've done everything for them but bake. I've worked the counter. I've boxed up doughnuts. I know how to decorate wedding cakes! Believe me, if my family didn't live here with an established business, it would be much more difficult to pursue an acting career. They're very supportive. My grandparents, too. They have come to literally everything I've ever been in.

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