We’ll always love Jessica Lange’s Julie in ‘Tootsie,’ but it was time for her to get an update! In the new Broadway production, Lilli Cooper takes on a more ‘independent’ Julie.
Move over Jessica Lange & Dustin Hoffman! There’s a new dynamic duo in town! Well, at the Marquis Theater in NYC, really. The Broadway adaptation of the beloved 1982 film Tootsie has opened to rave reviews and Lilli Cooper, who plays Julie in the production, spoke to HL about the much-needed updates to the original storyline. “If we just lifted the film and put it on stage, it would be incredibly problematic today, and we all knew that,” she said in an EXCLUSIVE interview with HollywoodLife. “We did not want that to happen. We wanted to shift it in a way that actually made a statement and was powerful. It’s not only hilarious, but you walk out of the theater thinking and you laugh until you cry, and then you actually cry because there’s some really emotional, beautiful moments in it about these real people.”
HL: Tell me a little bit about your portrayal of Julie, who was originally played by Jessica Lange.
Lilli Cooper: My Julia is very different from Jessica Lange’s Julie. She was a single mom in the movie and she was dating the director in the movie. We knew that we wanted a Julie that was way more independent, incredibly passionate about what she does, and that’s really what she focuses her life on. The cool thing about that is that we found this mirror between Michael and Julie. They’re both these strong, passionate actors that love what they do, and will sacrifice things for their jobs. That’s what I think they see in each other that makes them connect so quickly.
HL: Did you get to have a say in what your Julie was going to be like?
LC: Absolutely. Our entire creative team was so open to having conversations and being communicative. Robert Horn, our amazing book writer, often talks about how he really wrote these characters based on us, and we helped create them. Which is so cool, because you get to play this character on stage everyday who feels so connected to who are.
HL: And you’re opposite the incredibly charming Santino Fontana! How did you create a strong, on-stage chemistry for these roles?
LC: We’ve known each other for several years, and I think that really helps. He’s such a generous actor and he makes every space feel safe, which I think really allowed us to just get closer and to develop our relationship and our characters relationship. One of the things I’m most proud of is people often come and see the show, and they always talk about the chemistry and how great and believable and true and honest it is. I feel really proud of that. It’s really real and authentic. We’re basically falling in love every night, and it’s really easy to fall in love with Santino, because he’s a very lovable person!
HL: What similarities did you find you had with Julie that helped you get into character?
LC: I think the whole ‘telling of a story within a story’ is really meta, because we’re playing actors in a Broadway show, and we are actors in a Broadway show, so there are so many parallels where Santino and I will be in our dressing room talking about a scene and trying to make it work, and that scene will literally be about our characters talking about a scene and trying to make it work. So, it feels very true to ourselves. I’d say one difference, though is that Julie has this sort of profound excitement and joy and optimism when it comes to what she does. I think me, Lilli, is a little bit darker than Julie is. She brings light to my day, which I really love. She just loves what she does so much. Which I do, too, but the joy that she experiences I think really sort of invades me in a great way.
HL: I love that. Other than Julie obviously being modernized into a strong, independent woman, how else has the show been adapted from the film to fit into 2019?
LC: I think that we’re really aware of the fact that it takes place in 2019, which is a very different time from 1982 — politically, socially, in so many ways. We wanted to take that into account. One of the biggest shifts, I think, is that Julie is not at all dependent on any of the men or people in her life. She’s a completely independent woman and she’s really strong and really smart about how she deals with the people in her life, particularly the men in her life, and Michael actually learns from Julie, as opposed to the other way around. Julie is the one that opens Michael’s eyes as to how to behave like a decent human being and hat’s a really nice shift. Julie is the one to hold the mirror up to his face to say, “Look at what you’ve done. You need to accept that.”
HL: You literally came off the stage of ‘SpongeBob’ as Sandy and into this role is Julie. Was it hard changing from one character right into the other?
LC: That’s so funny. Stylistically, they’re just polar opposites. I think one thing that helped was the environment of the show itself often it mirrors the show — so the cast of SpongeBob is a cast of wacky, wackadoo characters and you’re surrounded by all of these nutsos that I love and are my best friends and will be my best friends for the rest of my life. Then going into Tootsie, it was just so grounded and I’m in a room full of veterans, I knew I had to step up my game, because everyone else in the show is really good and knows what they’re doing, and I couldn’t goof around like I did with my SpongeBob cast. Although the “Tootsie” cast is hilarious and we all love doing bits with each other, which is great. This cast is literally a masterclass in comedy.
HL: Do Julie and Sandy the Squirrel have anything in common?
LC: Julie is sort of similar to Sandy, actually. Weirdly I have found a lot of similarities in them. I truly find Julie to be the heart of the show, and in order for there to be wacky, ridiculous characters, there really needs to also be character that ground you in your emotions and in reality, and I feel like Julie really is that character.
HL: Have you connected with Jessica, Dustin or Bill Murray about ‘Tootsie?’
LC: No. We haven’t really been in communication with them. I would love to meet them at some point, if they would come to the show!
HL: What would you say the overall theme of Broadway’s ‘Tootsie’ is?
LC: I think the overall theme is devotion to what you do and what you love, and the sacrifice and willingness to lose things for what you love. Julie does it. Julie has a whole song about what she sacrificed to have this career, and Michael makes this terrible choice and sacrifices basically his entire life for this career.
HL: As an actor yourself, you can relate to that, I’m sure.
LC: Absolutely. My dad has been an actor my whole life, and he traveled a lot when I was a kid. There were a lot of times when I didn’t really see him. I have been traveling so much since I graduated from school, and I’ve been lucky to have a relationship with my boyfriend for four years, but I will go months and months without seeing him, being out of town. It can be a struggle sacrificing relationships that you have with people. I feel like I’ve lost tight connections that I’ve had with people just simply because we’ve been in different cities, different states and have grown apart. I think there’s a lot to sacrifice for what we do, and that’s something that we all relate to.
HL: Why should people come see ‘Tootsie?’
LC: We are marketing it as a Comedy Musical, and it absolutely is. I love the fact that they’re calling it a comedy musical, as opposed to a musical comedy! It’s very specific, and it’s real and makes a lot of sense. I think what’s also important to remember is that there’s some real, genuine heart to this story and to the show. I think it creeps up on you and gets to you in a great way.