Michelle Clunie is an award winning performer whose credits include the groundbreaking Showtime series "Queer as Folk", the independent film, "Leaving Barstow" (Breckenridge Film Festival, Best Supporting Actress). She has performed on stage in Neil LeBute's West Coast premiere of, "The Mercy Seat" (West Coast Backstage Best Performance of the Year), "A Comedy of Errors" (Drama-Logue Award), as well as a benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" to help end Violence against women. Michelle has also been recognized for her work in furthering Human Rights included a special proclamation in San Francisco for her work with HIV/AIDS patients.
Now, Michelle is making her playwrighting debut with "US," a new progressive 21st century love story set against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential election. "US" examines the power struggles in both politics and the bedroom. It dissects how people meet, communicate, copulate and fall in love in the age of constant media and technology. "US" plays at Theatre Row's Lion's Theatre (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue) from September 5-29. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? There are so many people who have inspired me over the years but the true source of my inspiration came from a man named Milton Katselas. He took me under his wing when I was nineteen and I became his muse. He opened me up to the world of Paddy Chayefsky, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets - all the greats. I remember he used to make me read "The Fervent Years" over and over. Right after "Queer as Folk" ended, I went to Los Angeles and stopped by his master class. I hadn't seen him for some time because I was on location for five years. We ended up doing a workshop of that sweet little scene in "Golden Boy" with a wonderful actor, Michael Pena, the one between Lorna and the boxer. It was great to be back in the theatre with him - finding moments, carving out behavior. We had a ball. All the crazy dramatic things we did together over the years, to end it on this very romantic scene was, well, beautiful. He died shorty after that. He believed in me as an artist. He encouraged my strength and my curiosity as well as my desire to pioneer. He talked to me about women who paved the way for others like Ida Lupino, the first female director. He understood that I would never be a cookie cutter actress. I would have to do it my way. He taught me to follow my heart.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? I'm working with her. Jennifer Gelfer my director and I have been looking for a project to do together since the beginning of time. I always say it is the collaboration that has been waiting to happen since 1992.
3. What made you want to write "US"? What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? This is something I have wanted to write for over twelve years. I always wanted to do a female version of "After the Fall." I wanted the "Maggie" character in that piece to be the protagonist. I always found her so much more interesting, not so dry and obsessed with herself like the "Quentin" character. Instead of taking inventory of her entire life, she is taking inventory of her relationship. That was the original inspiration and concept, it has evolved a great deal from there. I also wanted to play a bit with the microcosm (Us) and the Macrocosm ( US) as well as set it in 2008. I shifted the "Maggie" character from a singer to an actress wanting to become a writer and I shifted "Quentin's" character from a lawyer to a politician which as a device enabled me to talk about and weave in the politics of that year. I sometimes think this is my way of standing up for the "Maggies" of the world, for the "Maggie" in "After the Fall". She doesn't have to self-destruct...she can grow. My "Maggie" is a fighter. I have a god-daughter and I often read her bedtime stories. I actually change the stories as I am reading them aloud. I make the princess stronger. I make the Heroines save themselves instead of waiting for a prince. I turn them into stories about strong women who overcome and change and take charge of their lives and help the world. Pretty soon she will start reading and I know it sounds crazy but I have this deep seated desire to correct all the fairytales and stories about women before she can read. I want to her grow up without any propaganda about her strength or power. I guess in that way my god-daughter, Olivia, has inspired me to turn all the negative fairytales and myths about these archetypal women into real, modern stories with truly happy endings. "Maggie" doesn't have to destroy herself...she simply has to stand up for herself. That is on the micro level...on the macro level...I want audiences to walk away with the feeling we can change, that people can change...I want them to feel optimistic.
4. What do you identify most with about your character "Maggie"? Her passion for the best of America, for the progressive movement. Her ability to laugh and smile in the face of adversity. Her sexuality. The way she loves and wants so badly to believe in her partner. Her undeniably optimistic outlook. Her desire to write. Her desire to have a love that is real and lasting. Her wonder at the world and curiosity. Her searching to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
5. What excites you most about having your playwrighting debut here in NYC? Everything. New York. Theatre Row. Taking the subway down to the rehearsal hall. Knowing that when faced with a cushy offer to do my play in Los Angeles I said, "No, It's a New York Love story...it has to have it's first production in New York!" Also I am having a love affair with the city. For the first time I am living in New York, unencumbered, with a play in production. It's a good time.
6. What do you get from playwrighting that you do not get from performing? Well, they are such different beasts. As an actor you have to find your way into the personal. You have to understand the writers concept and the directors before you can then add yours. You have to find the melody before you can riff on it. With writing, I am creating the melody. I feel with writing I can really dig into myself as an artist. I have really fallen in love with writing. It's a very personal endeavor that then becomes very public...I never realized how ballsy you have to be to write. You are really throwing yourself out there as opposed to acting where you can always hide behind someone else's creation, character, story but with writing...you can't hide. You are saying this is me, this comes from my heart, my imagination.
7. I first came to know you on Showtimes' "Queer As Folk." Looking back, what initially attracted you to the show? What do you miss most about the show? I want to go places where others are afraid to go and make them safe. I have a pioneering spirit. I get very, very bored - to say the least - if I do something that feels easy to me or has been done. It has to feel new to me, revolutionary to me. When I got the script for QAF I thought it was incredible and something I wanted to be part of. I had a great deal of confidence when I walked in the room and met the producers. I felt as though there wasn't an actress around ballsy enough to play "Melanie" except for me. I grabbed my co-stars hand and walked into the final network audition and looked at thirty executives and said something like, "We have great chemistry, we're your Mel and Linz." I loved the boldness of that character...loved...loved loved. I loved that she cared more about her partner than she did her hair. I loved that she cursed and drank and road motorcycles. I loved that she wasn't perfect. I loved that QAF went into some risky storylines and painted everyone as complicated. It wasn't about how slick can we be, it was about how human can we be. And isn't that what a good piece of art does? How much humanity can we share so that everyone experiencing it feels a little less alone. I also adored that she loved with her full heart and never took crap from anyone.
8. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer and playwright? I have learned that you have to push yourself past your comfort zone in order to grow. There were times when I wanted to give up, when I thought I was going to lose my mind with eight hour rehearsals and rewrites at night. I have fallen asleep many times with the script in my hand, eye drops on my chest and my glasses literally still on my face. I have fallen asleep in cabs and dragged myself upstairs. I have stayed up until 4am going over moments with my director. I walked into the bathroom two weeks into rehearsal and looked at my director and said, "I can’t do this." She looked at me and said, "Well, you’re gonna have to push me off a cliff to get me to give up." She gave me the strength, she pushed me past my comfort zone. In that moment she gave me a gift. We walked out of the bathroom, went back into the rehearsal room and did our first run through and a play was born. I felt the play underneath me for the first time...it took flight. Afterward we looked at each other and she said, "Ya wrote a play kid." We call it the day we gave birth. I could go into all the finer moments of which there are many but the biggest lesson for me is that if you want to expand, if you want to grow - you have to be prepared to be uncomfortable and push yourself beyond what you thought you could do. It is a great adventure to ask more from yourself.
9. What's the best advice you've ever received? I ran into the wonderful Judith Light backstage at a charity event. We hugged and I said, "Judith, I wrote my first play and it's getting produced - I'm scared to death!" She looked me right in the eyes and said with that great smile, filled with so much humanity, "That's the best place in the world to be as an artist! That's perfect!" I have enormous love for her. It gets no better than the lovely, supportive, talented, classy Judith Light. I would LOVE to work with her and Jan Maxwell... and...and...
10. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? A really sweet guy who is funny, who likes to travel and loves that I am an artist. Someone with good values who I can trust. A man who will have my back and who understands the power of partnership. A great lover. Someone who is interested in the world and helping others...who has a passion, something he really cares about in his life. A strong...secure man. Someone who is worth dreaming about.
11. Favorite way to spend your day off? Listening to music, sitting around with friends laughing, talking. Working out.
12. Favorite way to stay in shape? Hiking/yoga.
13. Favorite skin care product? Moisturizers of all kinds...lots and lots of moisturizer.
14. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I'll take the US, it'll always be my favorite superpower ;)