She sat down with a group of journalists in New York to talk about her early roots in Atlanta, getting into the manic energy to play Delysia, and her return trip to the Oscars this Sunday. [A journalist introduces himself as being from Atlanta.] My sister and my mom are in Atlanta. And I lived there for a while, I lived in Virginia Highlands. I worked at the Lenox Mall in the Gap. I wanted to work in the stockroom, but I was just too peppy. I tried, they were like “No you have to be at the front of the store. You are the only person who will literally talk to everyone who comes in the store.”
I moved to Colorado and started working in theatre. From there I moved to Minnesota and worked in dinner theatre. I was a dancer, so we did musicals. I worked there for three years, when I was cast in Drop Dead Gorgeous. And that gave me the chutzpah to move to Los Angeles. So obviously you don’t have the fake the energy to do this role. I’m a little bit older now, so there’s some pushing at times.
How do you keep the energy level up in this. Your character doesn’t stop.
Not intentionally. I’m sure somewhere in the back of my brain that’s why I’m responding, because I’m feeling something while I’m reading this, whether it’s joy or some sort of simpatico relationship. That’s usually how I choose it—what do I feel when I read that, and is that something I want to explore?
What is the story with the relationship with Nick, the club owner in the film?
He’s kind of brutal, and I think she sort of likes that. What I love about her is that her whole world is a stage, and every day is a performance. With him it’s that violent, passionate relationship. He just overpowers her, and she can play the damsel in distress and manipulate him with her feminine wiles and her ways. As much as it hurts her, I do think she really enjoys some part of playing all the roles with all of those men. I think there’s deeper reasons for that, and that’s explained a little bit in the film. You see glimpses of what’s really happening, and why she’s doing what she’s doing.
Could you use a Miss Pettigrew in your life? Are you anything like Delysia, with three men and money trouble and all that?
No, I’m such a practical person. Well, for the most part. Maybe she could clean my closet, because I’m messy. I sort of nitpick and worry about little things. You get a bed set at Bed, Bath & Beyond and wake up in the middle of the night going “I should have gotten the patterned one.” For like an hour, debating patterned sheets. If somebody could just make me stop doing that, I think I could accomplish a lot more in my life.
Do you identify with Delysia’s ambition and drive to become a star?
To a certain degree. I can understand her reasons for wanting it. I don’t even know that she wants to be a star. What she wants is security, she wants stability. That I definitely can relate to, that feeling of wanting some sort of certainty, and some control over your destiny.
How does it feel now, then, that you’ve kind of made it?
Well, as Delysia would have learned, there’s no such thing as stability and security. I think sometimes when you get what you want, you realize that maybe what you wanted isn’t what you needed. I think that’s what Miss Pettigrew showed her. I always consider, is this really making me happy? I don’t think any one thing can make us happy. Singularly focusing on career cannot make us happy. What I’m trying to do is achieve balance in my life, and I’m doing a pretty good job. I fall short sometimes.
Does it make you happy to be on the cover of Vanity Fair?
Yes. It was so much fun. I love Annie Leibowitz. I’ve always loved Annie Leibowitz. As long as they’ve had that Hollywood cover, that’s sort of been, for me, that was always “Oh, that would be so much fun.” And it was. And I was really happy—I have so much respect for all the girls that I was on there with. Emily Blunt and I worked on a film together, so she’s like a sister to me. That was really special, to get to do that with her. I think the world of the other two girls as well. It was a really fun shoot.
Your scenes with Frances in the movie are so fast-paced. Did you have to do a lot of rehearsal, or did you just shoot a lot and hope you got it?
We did not have a ton of rehearsal time. So it was such a relief at the table read and in the time we did have to rehearse to find out that we were really on the same page. It was almost too easy. What was important for Frances and I was to create a relationship between these two women, and understand how they would be friends and what they have in common. They are really similar as far as their struggle for survival. There must have been a lot of marks to hit on those scenes.Yeah, it was very technical, but I don’t know why it didn’t seem hard. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve worked onstage, but it didn’t seem difficult. Also the director created such a permissive environment—there was no wrong idea, so you got to try a lot of different things. Everything moved very quickly. It’s such a blur, really.
What was it like working with Frances? Lee Pace mentioned how good she is on film, and how aware of the camera she is.
She’s amazing. You can learn so much. I go in there going “I know that you know more than I do, and I want to learn from you.” What she has is a sense of professionalism. They’re on time, they’re the first person on set. There’s no ego involved. They’re there for the work, they’re 100% there. When I’m working with someone, I always want to be the first person on set, I don’t want to keep anyone waiting. But I could never beat Frances to the set! I am leaving right when they ask me, I grab my diamonds and run, and I’m like “How is it that you continue to beat me to set?” And she looked at me and says “I never leave.” Then of course, I couldn’t leave set! She doesn’t leave, I can’t leave. She just creates this wonderful environment, she’s funny and free and open. The talent is unquestionable, I could go on and on about that, but the things that I take away are the professionalism and the joy of the craft.
Can you talk about working with Lee? He spoke very highly of you.
Yes, he’s very charming, didn’t you find, ladies? I think it’s that old Hollywood thing he has. He’s so tall and solid. He’s really good, a very good actor. I immediately felt that relationship between Michael and Delysia. That he was the person who made her knees weak, who made her feel the most whole and the most genuine.
He said that all he had to do was fall in love with you.
Not yet. We will see. I was told yesterday that the director said yes, there is going to be a sequel. I have not heard that. I’m the kind of person that until ink is dried and it’s posted on a banner saying “Hear ye, hear ye,” I don’t ever…
Are you singing all three songs at the Oscars?
No, I’m singing one. I didn’t want to be greedy. Kristen Chenoweth is singing my other song, which is nerve-wracking and flattering at the same time.
Has there been a downside to the success you’ve had lately?
I’m homesick. I’m really homesick. I try to make the most of it, but you never know how long of a run you get. I’m really trying to make the most of it, and I love working.
Do you deal with paparazzi and all that?
I don’t. If you go to an even there’s usually some, but I don’t go to that many events. They don’t follow me home, they don’t follow me out to dinner. They don’t follow me down the street, thank goodness, because I walk out in my PJ’s. I have a puppy where you if don’t take her out first thing in the morning, and I mean first thing in the morning, you’re picking up stuff in the house.
Can you tell us about working with Meryl Streep in Doubt and Julie & Julia?
It’s amazing. I’ve been really fortunate. At one point in my life I really wanted female mentors, and working with Frances and working with Meryl, following by example, I feel like I’ve gotten that wish.