'People call me a role model, but sometimes I'm a mess' - Oscar winning Idina Menzel
Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30
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, 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 bullsh*t 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.
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."
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."
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?'
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': "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."
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".
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."