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.?
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.
NT: That must be hard for them, since you're always getting raped in every show you're in.
MG: I know! West Side Story, I got raped. Man of La Mancha, I got raped. In Unidentified Human Remains, I'm a prostitute who's giving some guy a blowjob. There's language, there's nudity, but they come to see me. They want me to be happy more than anything. I could not have picked better parents; they are incredible human beings. And every time I do an interview, I say that, and no one ever prints it. I guess because it's not interesting or controversial.
NT: I'll print it.
MG: Could you also print that I'm really glad to be working with a woman director again? The last time I worked with a woman director was two years ago, in The Waiting Room.
NT: I hated that show.
MG: I know. I remember. But at least you write what you mean. I'm really looking forward to that in L.A., because the theater critics there aren't worried about offending a theater company. They say when you suck, and there is no better way to learn. Because if you get four bad reviews for a performance, you have to look at that and go, "Wait, maybe I'm really lousy in this part."
NT: I promise you, I never worry about offending a theater company.
MG: I know. You're the mean theater critic.
NT: I am. So, whose Hollywood career would you most like to have?
MG: I'm not going to tell you I don't want to be rich and famous. But I'd like to be one of those actors who makes good choices. Like, you look at Glenn Close, and you go, "Oh, she does really great work, no crap, and she's all over the place -- musicals, comedies, drama." It's very weird to sit here and talk about one day being famous, but if I were, I'd want to be one of those famous people who actually has a private life.
MG: No, really. It happens. Do you know anything about Glenn Close's husband or children? Jodie Foster said, "I'm not telling you who my kid's father is. Bye!" And she didn't get shut out. People still want to work with her.
NT: Speaking of famous actors, do you ever get compared to any of them?
MG: Are you kidding? Janeane Garofalo. Constantly. Every single day. Whatever. I just don't see it.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.