Interview

Interview

Exclusive: Ellen Greene on 'Little Shop of Horrors,' The Creation of Audrey, and Bryan Fuller’s 'Hannibal'

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If you’re a horror fan (or a DVD collector) you probably know all about the infamous “original ending” of the 1986 musical adaptation Little Shop of Horrors. Previously released as a bonus feature on a DVD release before being pulled from circulation, that DVD has long been one of the most sought-after out-of-print titles in collector’s circles. Well, those DVDs about to lose their value on October 9 when Warner Bros. finally releases Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut on Blu-ray with that original ending in tact and in full, glorious color. The release is a film and musical lover’s dream come true and Little Shop of Horrors truly stands the test of time.

FEARnet recently sat down with Audrey herself, Ellen Greene, to talk about the lasting appeal of the film, what it was like working with geniuses, and her upcoming role on NBC’s Hannibal.

FEARNET: I grew with Little Shop of Horrors. It’s one of the films that I remember watching over and over as a kid.

ELLEN GREENE: Yeah, to me, it’s a unique gem. It’s a classic. It’s a category unto itself. We built the show in four weeks on love and creativity and no money. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were kids, and it was just such a glorious time. Howard had the first act mounted in one week. He was the most amazing director to work with. He’s so creative and so wonderful with me. There were times where, if I let my self open and I just follow and I don’t start thinking about it too much (like the voice), it just fell out. I had no decision about that.

FEARNET: Was that the start of the character? Was that voice what she really grew from?

EG: I wanted her to be round, like a ripe peach just ready to fall off that tree. I had her in high heels so she would be walking on the edge, just like the humor and the seriousness does. Once I had her makeup I said, “I need to be blonde to soften her.” And Howard met me at a wig place and he said, “Ellen, I don’t know.” It was a long wig. I said, “I’m going to cut it. Let me just do it and you’ll see.” Then I cut the wig and they weren’t sure. They didn’t know if they liked it. I said, “Let me finish it and when I finish her, then you’ll see.” And I remember when I brought the dress in, I said, “And this she would say is ‘good taste’.” Because he thought, “What, a cocktail dress?” I just felt it was right.

FEARNET: So this was really a labor of love for you all.

EG: It was the most creative… no money, nothing but just love. It was so wonderful. I remember the first time I ever sang “Somewhere That’s Green.” Alan got a piano and Howard was sitting at the table and the three of us ended up crying like we grew up together. It was just a magical time.

FEARNET: What was it like working with Frank Oz?

EG: Imagine the success of all that I just mentioned and then Frank Oz – who I knew for a very long time prior to this because I had been dating Marty Robinson (who developed the plant) and I was friends with Jim Henson and I loved Grover. I remember a lunch with him on the set of Sesame Street, sitting down with Frank and saying, “You understand this world. You understand it. It’s a land, but Grover has so much heart, he’s so real, but he’s a little larger than life. But he’s real. He’s never making fun of anything.” And I said, “You can do it. And then with your expertise on top, it’s the perfect fit.”

FEARNET: How about the rest of the crew. Were they equally as great to work with?

EG: Everyone Frank hired in London was such a professional. He’s a genius when it comes to detail. The people he chooses; he has such an eye on quality. And he takes it really seriously. The “Suddenly Seymour” set was exquisite. The first time I walked on, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, there was real grass growing out of the cracks in the cement. It was enormous. It wasn’t like they had to make it that way. It just was. And Robert Paynter’s lighting was divine! The first shot where I go to the cabinet and you see the reflection and there are flowers and the black eye. I mean, he was amazing. The camera crew used to give me dinners at night in the camera room because when I work I tend to lose weight and we filmed, for my part, nine months.

FEARNET: You filmed for nine months? That’s a very long time to be shooting, no?

EG: Well, I was there for nine months. We filmed for, I think, seven months. And then Rick stayed one more month. They tested it during the summer and they didn’t want us to die so we came back for two weeks of reshoots in September. But Frank was able to accomplish what is very rare to accomplish. To make it as good (or maybe even better because it’s cinematic). Plus being exciting. Plus being a truly touching and funny film. It’s beautiful. It’s amazingly ingenious when it comes to the puppets, but it’s magical. And it’s a musical. Now, all that put together says that it’s not going to work, but it did. And I am, through the years, realizing that and wanting to honor Howard so much that I’ve always been proud to talk about Little Shop of Horrors. I want them never to forget the genius of both of the directors. And Alan Menken’s music.

FEARNET: Why do you think Little Shop of Horrors has really stood the test of time so well?

EG: The soundtrack alone is amazing. What’s happened with this film because it was so unique and so beautiful and touching – people want to go to films and be moved and be excited and to laugh – and that it’s in a land that’s out of their daily lives, a different place, but these people are real in that land. People can go to it and enjoy. That’s why I think it’s endured the test of time.

FEARNET: Do you think the enduring love of your character is just as strong?

EG: People come up to me and they don’t just say hi… they hug me. I adore that they love Audrey. I mean, I have little girls writing me all the time that they played the part and they don’t know how to say goodbye to it and they’re crying and I say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because I really and truly care about Audrey.

FEARNET: How did you end up landing the role?

EG: I didn’t want it at first. At first I read Little Shop… and it was Skid Row, Skid Row, Skid Row, and I said that I didn’t want to do a camp musical because there were other things in it – there was an S&M number – and I just don’t like camp. But I was on line, personally, for unemployment and I’m listening to “Somewhere That’s Green,” and this doesn’t often happen, but I automatically memorized it. It made me cry and it touched my heart. The entire part of Audrey came from that number. My entire character came from that. In the first act you see my child-like heart, my dreams, and that was brilliant of Howard and Alan to give me that. The second act, you see the woman. The songs are the inner woman and the one that you hear speaking is the one she shows to the world. But the songs are what’s inside of her. And there’s so much depth to this sweet character. I put a lot of me in here. That she sees the good even in people that are unkind to her. And she’s not a masochist, but she truly can see the good in them. And what’s wonderful is the idea that just a sweet clerk would be something she would aspire to but he would never love her and he feels the same thing. It’s just such a wonderful thing about mismatches because a lot of people don’t feel good enough.

FEARNET: It’s funny that you say that people come up and hug you because it seems like, to me, that Audrey is the kind of character that needs a hug. That’s all she needs to feel good and validated. And if she gets that, it’s enough for her.

EG: Well, I’m a kind of visceral actress and when I feel you feel me feeling. There’s a word in Judasim that my family always told me... Now, I’ve been told that in German it means “screaming,” but my family always told me that it means “you sing with your heart.” And when I feel a character this closely, you feel that. Also, she’s a man’s delight! (Laughs) Most men love her. She definitely is a woman with a woman’s body.

FEARNET: You have so many songs in the film and “Suddenly Seymour” is a classic, but do you have a personal favorite?

EG: I suppose “Somewhere That’s Green.” I love it. It says so much and it’s such a three-act play. Ok, so, Howard wrote this script and sent it to me and I think this is prior to when I had the part. He sent it to me and he said, “Ellen, I want you to read it. I gave you a present in it. Something just for you.” And when I read it, I knew what he was talking about. Howard and I were always obsessed with the Lesley Caron or Cyd Charisse where they go through a door and there’s another world. It happened in musicals all the time and we loved that. So when he wrote “Somewhere That’s Green” – normally it would be that I was on my trashcan and I was able to control the whole song – but when he wrote it he had me going through the door because it was something that we both shared. You can tell that I love, love Howard very much. And I love Frank too.

FEARNET: Would Frank ever give you direction in his famous character voices like Grover or Cookie Monster?

EG: Oh, no. (Laughs) Frank is actually a very serious guy. Most comedians are. When you deal with comedy, it’s very serious because, to be funny, it has to be anchored in truth. Now there are comics and that’s different. We’re more similar in that our characters come from a real place. So he gets into the character and the character is kind of sweet and funny, but he’s not funny. He’s through a character. It’s a very different thing. Frank is quality. He’s a genius. He’s complicated. He’s deep. He’s got a huge heart. He’s got an amazing eye. He’s serious. He’s very sensitive. He’s private. He’s newly married and he looks twenty years younger! (Laughs) All his films are amazing, but this one… when everybody sees what he created with his real ending, they’re going to be blown away. This is stunning.

FEARNET: You mention the ending, do you think Frank considers this his real ending? Do you think that this is the way he always intended the film to be seen?

EG: Well, the thing is, it’s what Howard wrote. Frank directed it a little differently than Howard directed the play. The play was sillier. The play had Audreyisms and while the film had some Audreyisms in it, Frank wanted me to be more of a heroine. A classic heroine. So it’s a little bit darker and a little different. And also because it’s cinema and it’s also Frank. You have another director’s take. It’s Howard’s script and it’s what Howard wanted and it’s really what Frank wanted, but the audience didn’t want me to die and they didn’t want Seymour to die. I think they’re both wonderful. Howard showed me this on his tiny computer in black and white. But this is the real ending, the real film. And to see it in black and white is like seeing me come out in a slip. You don’t want to see that. You want to see me come out fully dressed. To have it back like this, in color and finished, I’m sure it’s just going to blow everyone away.

FEARNET: This was back before the true advent of CGI like we see it used today. Tell me how it was to work with Audrey II.

EG: I mean, Howard and Frank are geniuses. They had me learn how to walk for this role. When you walk naturally, you walk forward and you rock back. You have no idea that you do that. So Frank showed it to me and he said, “When we shoot the human with the big plant it won’t work that fast so we’re going to have to shoot 12 frames-per-second. What you need to do is watch the monitor and learn to walk only forward so when it’s sped up, it will look natural.” I mean, there were so many aspects to this. There are pictures of my viewpoint when I was working with the vines and the plant of how many people were behind me and all around me and behind the wall. There were tons of gifted puppeteers in their own right. Frank attracts talent because people know they’re going to take care of them. He stands for quality so he attracts quality. It’s not just a gift to work for him, but you also just know that he’s going to pull it off. He can make an inanimate object animate. It could be a sock and you’re still going to feel for it. It’s going to have life. It really is amazing. And then there was Brian Henson in the plant (and also Anthony Asbury, but Brian was there mostly when I worked) and it’s so physical.

FEARNET: Frank kind of has this tendency in his films to have these really sweet, funny films and then hit you with this very dark ending. In particular, What About Bob? gets so dark in the end. And I think that’s one of the things that people love about his films.

EG: He’s not afraid. He’s got such a complex, deep emotional wealth in his body and mind that he can pull so many different ideas out. When I tell you about the detail… My bedroom had this antique wallpaper that they flew in from New York. Everything on the set was amazing. The costumes. I had to keep all my measurements and the way we knew the dresses were right were when they were just tight and I couldn’t breath. I rarely sat because of my costumes. Everybody from Billy Murray to Steve Martin to Rick to the sound crew… they were all so great.

FEARNET: So, very quickly, I’d love to know if we’re going to see you on Bunheads again next season?

EG: I don’t know, but you’re going to see me on NBC’s Hannibal. I’ll be flying out to film on set with Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. I’m very excited that he put me in it. He wants to make it a recurring part and I’m very excited because Bryan Fuller wrote something for me.

FEARNET: That’s fantastic. Well, I hope we get to see you on Bunheads as well. Fans were very excited to see you show up there.

EG: Well, that would be great too. And maybe Sutton Foster and I can sing, yes? (Laughs) 

You can see Ellen Greene as “Audrey” in Little Shop of Horrors when the Director’s Cut Blu-ray hits stores on October 9.

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