When the Kimmel Center shut down this spring, on March 12, Kristin Chenoweth had been about to bring her For the Girls concert tour to the Philadelphia venue. It was scheduled for March 13.
“I was devastated. Philly is one of my favorite places to play,” said the Tony- and Emmy-winning singer and actress, whose appearance has been rescheduled for next June at Verizon Hall. Chenoweth, though, can be heard now, in Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which premiered Oct. 22 on HBO Max.
The actress who originated the role of Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked is the voice of Daisy, a mouse who plays a pivotal role in the live-action film, which stars Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and Octavia Spencer as the woman who’s determined to stop witches from turning all the world’s children into mice. Originally set to open in U.S. theaters earlier this month, it’s instead being used to promote the WarnerMedia-owned streaming service, just as Disney+ used the release of Hamilton in July.
Chenoweth also costars with Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey in Holidate, a romantic comedy that premieres Wednesday on Netflix.
Speaking by Zoom from Vancouver, where she’s filming an as-yet-untitled musical comedy series for Apple TV+ with Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, Chenoweth talked about working from closets on two coasts, why it’s OK for children to be a little scared, and what she did to make Zemeckis laugh during filming.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Any regrets about not getting the opportunity to play a wicked witch in “The Witches”? Or did you already scratch that particular itch playing Maleficent in “The Descendants”?
The Descendants scratched that itch. And one thing about Glinda [in Wicked] that I don’t know that people really remember is that she wasn’t so nice. So “wicked” could really apply to her, too. And [this was] getting to play a mouse. Living in New York, I had a few in some apartments. And let’s just say we weren’t friends.
How did you record your part?
My boyfriend and I deadened my closet for sound with towels and blankets. And the studio sent us a mic and a computer and another iPad so they could have another view and so the animators and CGI artists could watch and maybe be inspired by me and some things I do, and so Zemeckis can direct and we can talk. And we did it. I did my whole role in my closet in New York City.
What was it like to be directed by the man who directed “Forrest Gump” while you’re playing a mouse from your closet?
I was nervous. I’m being really honest. And there was an ad-lib I did and I know it made him laugh. There’s a scene where we’re running. [And I shouted] “Run, Forrest, run!” Just because I had to do it once.
Laughter is an easy way to get people to relax, especially me. I’ve had to work with many, many people that I admire, from Carol Burnett to Julie Andrews, to Dolly [Parton] and Reba [McEntire]. It can be intimidating, but laughter breaks it.
You’ve done voice work before, but for animation. Was this any different?
Well, every role is different, but I’ve never recorded anything in my closet. Usually I’m inspired by my shoes. I don’t go in my closet to work, but I guess we’re getting used to things, aren’t we? I just did a song, a single with the country music star Ty Herndon called “Orphans of God.” And I sang it in my closet in L.A.
What’s it like working in Vancouver?
Canada has got it down. It’s very safe. We have COVID tests every other day whether we work or not. And we are masked up when we go to set, with hair and makeup ready. And it’s a period piece for me. So let’s just say I can’t have anything messing it up and I wear, like, a cone. The first day I wore it, I said, “I feel like I’ve been spayed!”
Where do you stand on stories for children, like Roald Dahl’s “The Witches,” that even some adults find frightening?
The idea of temptation, and courage, is all over this film. And then of course, love and safety. But I don’t think it’s fair for us not to prepare our kids, our young generation, for what life has to bring now. This is a great opportunity for parents to say, “See, you can be lured in by a key piece of candy and later as an adult, I can be lured in by bad business partners, or this or that.” It’s life. We will just soften ourselves to death where no one can handle anything if we don’t [tell scary stories]. But I think we do it very carefully and very wisely here.
You and Chris Rock, who narrates the film, both have distinctive, easily recognized voices. Is that a way of being seen even if you’re not on camera?
Before I was ever seen, I was heard. As a child, no one took me seriously. Having a voice that was mature, that didn’t match my look, I realized that, excuse me, there was power in that.
I’m an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Oklahoma City University, and I’m teaching by Zoom. I just keep telling them the things that make you different and odd and unique, like [being] this little girl, that’s the thing that’s helped me. Now, has it also hurt me at times? You bet. But there’s one of me. And there’s one Chris Rock.
You also have a new Food Network show, “Candy Land,” a confectionery competition premiering Nov. 15. I spoke with you years ago on the set of “Pushing Daisies,” and I got the impression you weren’t much of a baker.
I probably said that because I played a waitress who worked in a pie shop. When the Food Network called me about hosting, I went, “I’m not a host, I’m an actor.” They said, “But this is the concept. It’s Candy Land, from your childhood game. And the set is going to be three-dimensional.” It sort of felt like Broadway. It also felt like a variety show, which I loved.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when it’s safe for everyone to gather again?
Hug my parents. My mom is at risk, so I have to be careful. For Christmas, I will go to Oklahoma, where they are. But I have to quarantine, and I have to get the COVID test. My dad recently had emergency back surgery. So with all that, I just can’t put them at risk. There’s so much we don’t know. So as soon as I can hug them, I just want to hug them.