'Frozen made me a role model for young girls. But I'm not, I'm a mess' - Idina Menzel's honest interview
Published 10/09/2016 | 12:39
Does the star of one of the biggest films of all time still have to fight for roles? She does if she’s 45, says Idina Menzel
Idina Menzel will always remember performing Let it Go at the Oscars in 2014 – but not for the reasons you might expect. The anthem from Frozen, for which Menzel voiced the lead character Elsa, won the award for best original song that night and went on to imprint itself on the memory of even the 10 people left in the world who haven’t yet seen the film.
Menzel, a veteran of Broadway who will reprise the role of Elsa for the sequel (of which more later) says that at the height of the hysteria surrounding the Disney animation, she felt as if she was leading a double life. “It was such a strange dichotomy,” she tells me on a hot Friday evening in late July. “There was this thing of having worked so hard my whole life and finally having this huge song. To be at the Oscars, and to have all the glamour of that…”
She pauses for a moment. “And then to come home and have to go to mediation with my ex, figuring out which days he was visiting our son and where we were going, and the sadness, and the regret. It was…”
Not a great time, I suggest? She laughs. “I mean, it was rich. It was rich, it was full.”
Just as Frozen was becoming the biggest animated movie ever released, Menzel’s decade-long marriage to the actor Taye Diggs, with whom she starred in Rent, was in its death throes. She was also doing eight shows a week in the Broadway production If/Then, earning her a third Tony nomination, but making life somewhat hectic.
“My career is what makes me feel confident,” she says. “To feel self-sufficient and like I don’t need a man to support me and all that kind of stuff makes me feel good about myself. It’s just, you know…” Another pause. “Everyone talks about me being a role model for young girls and that’s not always the truth in my day-to-day personal life. I’m not constantly practising what I preach.
"I’m a little uncomfortable carrying that banner. I’m not always ‘Oh, I feel so great about myself today. I’m a powerful, confident woman, and I’m not going to care what anyone else thinks of me!’,” Menzel begins to laugh. “I mean it’s all bullshit really. I can be a mess. The older I get, I get wiser about some things, and yet I get more fragile and vulnerable about others.”
This is a relief to hear, given that the 45-year-old is something of a go-to actress for producers looking for a feisty female lead: be it Elsa letting it go; Elphaba defying gravity in Wicked; or Maureen protesting her way through Rent. It was the original 1996 Broadway production of Rent that gave Menzel – the daughter of a pyjama salesman and a psychotherapist – her first professional role, after a Long Island childhood spent singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Next, she’s taking on Bette Midler’s part for an American television remake of the 1988 weepie Beaches – so no pressure there, then. Today Menzel is not promoting a role. She is promoting herself, in the form of her new album, Idina.
It is her fifth record in 20 years but her first prominent release since Frozen catapulted her into the stratosphere. (There was a Christmas album in 2014, including some original songs, but one senses it wasn’t quite as much a labour of love as this eponymous release).
I ask if it’s a deliberate attempt to strike out alone after her successes in ensembles on Broadway or unseen in Frozen. “I don’t know if it’s breaking out,” she says, and something about her tone suggests that the sudden Elsa effect might be both a blessing and a curse for an actress who has been slogging away for more than two decades. “It’s just me. It’s a new beginning. It’s an album where I explore a lot of things that have been going on in my life. It’s been a turbulent couple of years, with some great stuff and not so great stuff, so a lot of people will feel like they get to know me on a first-name basis.”
The first single, I See You, is an empowering ballad for the “hopeless”, “the almost forgotten” and “those who got lost along the way”. Queen of Swords is a pop tune that wouldn’t be out of place on a Taylor Swift album (the two performed Let it Go on Swift’s tour last year, with Swift dressing as Olaf, the snowman from Frozen, and Menzel dressing as Elsa).
There is a song called Perfect Story, which features the lyrics “I’m sorry I didn’t give you the textbook happy ending”, and is clearly an apology to her seven-year old son for getting divorced from his father. “I have a lot of guilt about that,” she tells me. “I come from divorced parents and I said I wouldn’t ever do it.”
Nobody ever wants to get divorced, I say. “Yeah, I’ll always be hard on myself I guess. I want to do the right thing by my son, and that means balancing my work and my quality time with him. I know he needs to grow up seeing a really happy, confident mother, then he’ll be drawn to those kinds of women.”
Playing the part of the happy, confident mother appears to be the role of her life, but it is actually her vulnerability that makes Menzel such an endearing performer, and that sets her rendition of Let it Go apart from the countless cover versions that have since sprung up on YouTube or in X Factor auditions.
She says she has spent a lot of time beating herself up, surrounding herself with judgmental people. “I wish I could put on more of a front and a façade and not be quite so transparent,” she says. “But it’s exhausting trying to be someone else.”
I ask her what her voice means to her, and she is quick to reply. “I think my voice means too much to me, or has meant too much to me in the past.” It has defined who she is, she says, ever since she was a little girl, when her ability to sing set her apart from her peers, made her somehow other. “So much so that when I screwed up or missed a note, everything about me would crumble. I felt I wasn’t going to be appreciated or liked.”
Does she ever get depressed by her work? “Yeah. When I get sick and I get laryngitis, or when I perform and don’t do that great, I do get really depressed. Or if I read something shitty that someone wrote about me. But when you have a child you realise that none of it matters.
"I’m pretty disciplined. I really take care of my voice. But what do you do when you have a show and your kid wakes up with a fever in the middle of the night before? You go on stage, you think you’re never going to get through this, and that’s when you say to yourself, ‘Well, you weren’t going to not sleep next to your sick son, were you?’ Are you going to be mad at yourself because your voice is scratchy? No. You’re just going to change the melody a little and people will care because you’ve made them feel something, not because you've hit a certain note.”
In Frozen, Menzel had to portray a tormented ice queen. In person, she could hardly be warmer – she’s the kind of woman you could imagine pouring your heart out to in a late-night drinking session. She says she still loves performing Let it Go, despite the painful memories that it evokes for her. “I won’t ever look a gift horse in the mouth,” she says. “I just feel bad that some parents may be sick of me because of it.”
We discuss her appearance at the Democratic National Convention this summer, where she performed a moving rendition of the Burt Bacharach number What the World Needs Now with other stars of Broadway in memory of the victims of the Orlando shooting (“It was so… it was just very powerful”).
She has sung for Barack Obama. Would she sing for Donald Trump? She screams with laughter. “No I would not. I try not to be too political but I can’t help it. I wouldn’t.” She tells me that recently an older acquaintance “unfriended” her on Facebook “because he saw me at the Democratic convention. He told my father. I was like, ‘Well, what can I do, daddy?’ ”
She’s hopeful that Hillary Clinton will be America’s next president but, she says, “I’m a little scared. Did you guys think that Brexit would actually happen? Now that has happened, it’s like, wait, we had better not take this for granted.”
She doesn’t hold back when discussing ageism and sexism in Hollywood. She says that Broadway “has always had amazing roles for women. But I live in LA now, more than I do New York, and you definitely feel that age is an issue here”. She played the green-skinned witch Elphaba in the original 2003 stage production of Wicked, but it seems she will not star in the big screen version – it is rumoured that in Stephen Daldry’s 2019 film, the part will go instead to Lea Michele, who played Menzel’s daughter in Glee.
While Menzel has not officially been ruled out of the film, she says the producers “kind of allude to the fact that they think I’m too old. I just tell them to CGI it! I mean, I will be green. Just Benjamin Button me a little bit.
“They just kind of look at me and give me a hug and kiss and say ‘We love you!’. And I think: ‘You’re not going to give me that role are you, shithead?’ ” She laughs, but says that the whole issue makes her feel “a sort of sadness. I have a hard time with ageing on certain days, but it’s more a sadness that I would love to play the role that I originated. Elphaba’s my girl.”
One role Menzel will be reprising is that of Elsa, in the much anticipated sequel to Frozen, expected for release in 2018. I ask if the character will get a girlfriend in the film – the subject of feverish wishful thinking on social media. “Oh yeah, ahahahaha, err,” says Menzel. For the first time during our conversation, she clams up. “That’s up to Disney. They’re writing the script.”
I try this instead: would she like Elsa to have a girlfriend? “I think it would be a great thing,” she beams. “I mean maybe. Yeah. That’s all I’m going to say.” Before Frozen 2, she has plans to take her new album on tour, but first she is filming Beaches. “It could be career suicide I guess,” she says, “but it’s a great role and I’m getting to put some of my own music into the movie so it was an offer I couldn’t turn down.”
Since her break-up from Diggs, she has a new boyfriend, Aaron Lohr, with whom she also starred in Rent, and they have recently moved in together. She looks forward to the simple things, like picking up her son from school. “I think I’ve stopped apologising for myself,” she says. “I’m owning all these experiences I’ve had, all the relationships, all the mediums I’ve worked in, all the mistakes and the accolades.
"I’ve realised they all make up a life and that’s going to come out in the way I sing. And there’s a peace that comes with understanding that, rather than fighting it all the time.”
Idina is released by Warner Music on September 23