If cheery people are seen as a ray of sunshine, then consider Kristin Chenoweth a blinding solar flare. The 4-foot-11 shaken soda can of fizz and energy has made a career out of playing über-luminous, larger-than-life scene-stealers—characters so bright it’s remarkable that they radiate out of such a small body.
A Broadway breakout and Tony winner 14 years ago for playing Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which she debuted the precocious and sardonic blend—backed by a brassy belt and four-octave range—that’s become her trademark, Chenoweth is the rare modern star to parlay a rabid musical theater fan base into an successful TV and film career. After more than a decade of being defined by and revered for her plucky performances and reaching almost ubiquitous status as a ceaselessly chipper TV host (American Country Awards, Oscars red carpet, Live With Kelly and Michael), Chenoweth is ready to show off a darker side—one we’ve only glimpsed at with recent roles in Pushing Daisies, Glee, and Broadway’s Promises, Promises—to shade some of that shine.
“I have a lot more dark, frankly, in me than people think,” Chenoweth tells The Daily Beast while promoting this weekend’s theatrical release of her new film, Family Weekend, in which she plays a cold, driven mother who constantly ignores her family, with disastrous effects. But are her fans, who embrace and cherish Cheno the Cheery, ready to accept it?
After all, the actress’s fans are practically conditioned to expect a certain type of character from the star. There was Glinda the Good Witch, so bubbly that she even comes and goes by bubble, in the Broadway blockbuster Wicked. She leapt to the small screen to play quirky media consultant Annabeth Schott in The West Wing. Then came quirky best friend to Nicole Kidman in Bewitched; quirky neighbor in Running With Scissors; and the quirky yet wise housewife in Four Christmases.
Not to short-sell the star’s formidable talents—with her wide eyes and warm, wry tone, Chenoweth was transfixing in each of those roles, proving why she should teach an actor’s master class on how to nail the perfect one-liner and walk away with a scene.
But it wasn’t until her next string of parts that the real breadth of her talent and range began surfacing. On Pushing Daisies, her Olive Snook was lonely, lovesick, and brokenhearted, while still positively hysterical. (Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Emmy win.) On Glee, her fast-talking, show-tune-singing man-eater could barely hide her inner pain through her witty repartee. (Two Guest Actress in a Comedy Series nominations.) And back on Broadway for Promises, Promises, Chenoweth’s startling turn from grinning second banana to introspective ingenue earned her, perhaps unjustly, the most mixed reviews of her career.
If dropping the always happy façade, erected through years of peppy roles and peppier talk-show appearances, turns some people off, that may be just fine with Chenoweth. “I definitely am that happy overall, broad strokes,” she says. “But there’s a couple of dark strokes in there, too. Yeah, I get off on being on that happy high a lot. I get excited. I get inspired a lot, and I don’t hold back. But I can also be sad. I’ve battled depression—I don’t think that’s a secret. I mean, I’m a woman.”
In Family Weekend, then, Chenoweth gets what may be her most womanly film role yet. She’s the distracted matriarch of a dysfunctional family. Her husband (Matthew Modine) is an absent and absent-minded artist; her teenage son (Eddie Hassell) pretends to be gay to make himself more interesting to his parents; her tween daughter (Joey King) pretends to be Jodie Foster’s adolescent prostitute character from Taxi Driver; and her youngest son (Robbie Tucker), when not mute, cannot tell a lie. The biggest problem child of the bunch, however, is 16-year-old Emily (Olesya Rulin), who gets so fed up by her parents’ self-involvement that she drugs them, ties them up in chairs, and keeps them under house arrest until they can work out their family issues.
Sure, Chenoweth’s delivery is as sharp as ever. But different this time is the coldness the actress—so perennially warm—gives the character, in addition to a series of flaws that aren’t adorably hapless or endearing, but instead downright unappealing. The film may not have the mass reach or win the accolades of some of her more blatantly bread-and-butter efforts, but it’s a bit of a revelatory moment as far as proving what Chenoweth is capable of doing as an actress.
“She’s dealt with anxiety and dealt with unrequited love, and things that people don’t want to see her do,” says Erin Dilly, a fellow Broadway actress who has been best friends with Chenoweth since first spotting her drowning in a fur coat 15 years ago, when they were co-stars in a Minneapolis regional production of Babes in Arms. “They want to be laughing at her because she’s so hilarious.”
That Chenoweth would be suited to a role that channels the bleaker parts of her past should come as no surprise. She’s always been an open book, whether talking candidly about her battles with depression or candidly answering criticism—from both sides—about her outspoken embrace of both her Christian faith and the gay community.
“She’s massively criticized for being a devout Christian, but she’s a Christian whose every single best friend is gay,” Dilly says. “If Kristin could be gay, she would be.” Chenoweth acknowledges the confusing tension her beliefs cause but remains unfazed by it. “It’s as important for me to talk about the Bible…as it is to talk about human rights,” she says. “It’s both who I am. In some people’s views, it’s a dichotomy. But it’s my own.”
As free as she’s been with her opinions, she’s always been the same with her emotion. Look at her zany appearance with Dave Letterman about tweeting on Ambien for proof of that. When she has an emotion, it just explodes out of her like one of those rafter-shaking high notes. For further proof, look at her gloriously batty, refreshingly nutty stint co-hosting ABC’s red carpet show before this year’s Oscars.
The whirling dervish of manic energy may not have been everybody’s favorite approach to the job—some critics, certainly, weren’t fans. But by the time the Oscars roll around, the actors have answered the same questions so many times that audiences can answer with them, and the interviewers grow more and more inane. (Giuliana Rancic did once, indeed, ask Brad Pitt if Angelina Jolie helps him find “his truth.”) It’s refreshing to see someone like Chenoweth let her fan-flag fly and gawk at Adele or ask Hugh Jackman to lift her, a much-needed power shot of energy before an endless three-hour affair.
(Of the night, Chenoweth says she remembers being very nervous, loving her dress, bonding with Bradley Cooper’s mother, and stealing an unusual moment with Anne Hathaway when their interview together was delayed. Chenoweth was mortified to make the future trophy winner wait. Hathaway said: “Actually, it’s calming. And it’s with you, so I’m happy.”)
In person, Chenoweth is nowhere close to that shot of Red Bull we saw on the red carpet and more like a soothing cup of chamomile tea. Occasionally corralling her dog, Maddie, as she mills about the interview suite, she rarely breaks eye contact, speaks calmly and deliberately, and is thoughtful and game to talk about almost anything. (Off limits: her recently ended romance with former Bachelor Jake Pavelka.)
“Really,” says Dilly. “She’s so much quieter and stiller in life than people think. She’d most like to be curled up on a couch with her godchildren, her dog, and a salad from the Olive Garden.”
An on-set injury last July kept her from completing what began as a very compelling arc on The Good Wife as a reporter. Lately she’s been starring in various drafts of a carousel of musicals that may land on Broadway: a stage version of the 1991 film Soapdish, a revival of the show On the Twentieth Century (Hugh Jackman recently joined her for a reading of that), and a Tammy Faye Bakker bio-musical that she’s been workshopping for years.
Each project offers Chenoweth a variation of that blend she explores in Family Weekend, a little bit of brooding to accompany the broad humor. At the very least, it’s a role that the star continues to play brilliantly in real life.
“My dad is sick with Alzheimer’s and I called Kristin the first night six months ago in tears because I didn’t think he could recognize me, he kept calling me the pretty girl with nice kids,” Dilly remembers. “She was really quiet, and I could hear she was crying. Then she said, ‘You know, honey, at least he thinks you’re pretty. He could’ve said you were homely and had asshole children.’ It’s a completely unique perspective in the world.”
And one the world could stand to see more of.