In Arts & Entertainment

Hollis Resnik now and back in the Rep's '93/'94 production of "The Norman Conquests" with Lee E. Ernst. (PHOTO: Mark Avery)

Actress Resnik returns to the Rep for "End of the Rainbow"

Renowned Chicago actress Hollis Resnik's impressive career has led her to an overwhelming amount of roles, whether they be on screen ("The Untouchables," "Backdraft"), on stage ("Candide," "Grey Gardens") or on national tours ("Les Miserables," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and most recently playing Mother Superior in "Sister Act"). Back in the mid-'90s, a few of those roles were at the Milwaukee Rep.

Now, almost 15 years since she last took the Rep stage in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Resnik has returned to take on the lead role of Judy Garland in "End of the Rainbow," which captures the troubled superstar's 1968 attempt at a comeback in London. OnMilwaukee sat down with the award-winning actress to talk about "Rainbow," becoming Judy and roles old, new and all-around inspiring. What drew you to "End of the Rainbow"?

Hollis Resnik: Well, I was asked. (Director Mark Clements) sent me the text, and I was intrigued. I've played a lot of real people. I've done Eva Peron and Patsy Cline and Edith Piaf and Edie Beale from "Grey Gardens." It's always an exciting challenge because you get to do a lot of research on your own because there's a lot out there when you're doing someone that has a history. And I certainly love her music. I wasn't sure I … I just accepted the challenge basically.

OMC: I would imagine it's very difficult to take on a role of a real-life person, with that sense of responsibility. How do you make it your own character while making it the real-life person?

HR: Well, I'm nothing like Judy Garland so I have to just create an essence. I can inflect and do my best vocally and singing wise, but she's really not a similar sound. So a lot is done with inflection and gestures and point-of-view, emotional intent.

You have to deal with what's in front of you. This isn't her life; this is the last three or four months of her life. So they wrote this sort of conflict time in London where she does these last couple of gigs at this smaller venue as a comeback. You have to take the information the author gives you and then whatever resources you have that you've done on your own and the resources you have as your craft as an actor, and put it all together.

OMC: What resources did you find?

HR: I've read a lot, I've watched a lot and I've listened a lot. That's basically it. I watched the videos, and then I get up on my feet and I practice. Then I listen to the music, and I sing along. That's what I have to do. And I have to learn all of the lines.

OMC: Why do you think Judy Garland is still such a powerful figure in entertainment and pop culture?

HR: She is beloved first and foremost by everybody because of "The Wizard of Oz." She is and forever will be Dorothy Gale from Kansas. On top of that, however, it was a kickoff to a career that was quite remarkable. I mean, you see this 17-year-old girl singing, and it's one of the most honest, palpable performances on the screen that anybody has ever seen from a young person.

The career from there on – yes, with the Mickey Rooney and stuff like that – she chose things that were hugely favorites, and on top of that, she has one of the most unique singing voices and singing styles to express herself in performance that nobody else has. There's no comparison. There really isn't. You watch her on TV or in the movies, and you listen to that listen to that sound … it's a very true sound; it's a very fat voice. She doesn't spin around with it. She's in the moment – the present moment – all the way.

OMC: What kind of Judy Garland are we going to probably get in "End of the Rainbow"? I mean, you were saying that this takes place near the end of her career.

HR: Yeah, it's not a happy play. It's not. She's really struggling. She has her addiction to drinking. She's not able to perform that well anymore. She's kind of bouncing off the walls, up and down – drugged, not drugged, whatever. And then she has to get out there and just … show me what you've got. I think she knows that it's not as good as it used to be. That happens. So it's not all that fun.

OMC: From your research and your preparation, was there something that really stuck out to you that you really wanted to bring across in your performance?

HR: Technically, I wish I was better at sounding like her. I mean honestly, because it's so iconic, that sound. She died at age 47, and I'm 10 years older, so my voice is very, very different now than my voice was at 47. So unfortunately, I don't have the facility that I would've had at 47 to do maybe more technically. I mean, that's just the nature of the game. You get older, and things change in a woman's voice.

So I have to cheat. The best thing I can say is that I have to cheat, and I have to rely on my physical package and emotional sensibility as opposed to great technical singing.

OMC: What is your favorite role that you've done?

HR: Well, I'm old so I've done a lot. Everybody asks me that, and I have to always say that I can't answer that question. I can give you examples of favorites, but because I have done non-musicals, musicals, leading ladies, ingénues, character roles, I can't just go, "Oh that."

When you have a body of work, you can think about really enjoyable experiences. Like doing "Arcadia" here? I could do a part like that – Lady Croom – forever because all around, from beginning to end, it was beautiful, well acted, well spoken … it was a brilliant play. And when you're all on the same page artistically, it becomes a very special artistic and familial experience. And I've had a lot of those. I could say "Candide" at the Goodman was one or "The Little Foxes" at the Court Theatre was one, but I can't say (slams hand on the table) that's it. I just can't.

OMC: What was the performance that you saw that made you want to act?

HR: That's actually a very interesting question. When I was young, I grew up in a very musical, very cultural family. We used to watch things like "Amahl and the Night Visitors" on TV, and we would watch "The Judy Garland Show." I started singing and doing community theater at a very young age. I sang in my basement to Barbra Streisand all the time.

I mean, I knew I was going to do this, but I remember in high school seeing a production of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" at the Cleveland Play House – which I'm from Cleveland. It wasn't a musical, and I just remember the performance of that woman. Her name, I believe, was Sheiliah Russell who played Jean Brodie.

I had always been inundated with music and that, and then I saw this play. I was extremely drawn to just the truth and emotional intent of this story without musical razzmatazz anywhere. And as much as I love to sing and perform, that other side of the business really captured me. I'll never forget that; that was a real eye-opener for me.

"End of the Rainbow" runs Jan. 7 through Feb. 9 at the Quadracci Powerhouse at the Milwaukee Rep. For more information, click here.


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