From “A Chorus Line” to GILMORE GIRLS, Kelly Bishop has had a dream career. Whether it is dancing across a stage or sitting across a dinner table, her confidence and grace provides an aura of nobility. In a recent conference call with press, Kelly talked of her love of dance and the appeal of working on another quasi-mother/daughter series with creator/producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also lured her to the small screen in her former successful series GILMORE GIRLS.
KELLY: Well, I love the character. I think she is so far removed from Emily Gilmore, and I really kind of want—as much as I totally enjoyed that character—this one’s a completely different kind of woman and she has the dance background, which I have, and it just seemed kind of like a nice fit.
As characters, you and Sutton are already butting heads in the pilot. They don’t really get each other. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution in the next couple of episodes? Do they start to relate a little bit better?
KELLY: Well, they seem to be trying to. They’ve been thrown together and they now are so stuck with each other, and so I think that what happens in that pilot episode is that Fanny realizes that this marriage is going to be and that there’s nothing she can do about it and that’s why she takes Michelle to the bar and she has some drinks with her, because she’s trying to figure out who she is. It’s like okay, and then she makes the comment, “I love my son. I want him to be happy, so let’s see if we can dance together.” So there is an effort, but you know what it is? They’re both very strong women and they are strong-willed women. So they’re constantly rubbing up each other the wrong way, and they are two different generations. Somebody asked me the other day about the mother-daughter thing and I said, but it isn’t really that, because I’m not her mother. We’re just two women who are in a situation and we sort of have to deal with each other. So there’s a little common ground that comes together and just about the time you think oh, isn’t that nice, then something goes wrong again. Not wrong, but there are two different opinions again. So I think that’ll probably continue to—conflict is always much more interesting than harmony.
You recently worked with Sutton Foster on stage in “Anything Goes.” Could talk about the relationship that the two of you have?
KELLY: When we did “Anything Goes,” she had been a big GILMORE GIRLS fan; she told me when I joined the company. However, in that show, our characters really did not interact at all. I mean, the only time I really talked to her was as she was passing by my dressing room on her way to her first entrance. She’s so fabulous anyway. We all know that she’s hugely talented, but she’s really a sweet, good lady anyway. So we are having so much working together; it’s ridiculous. In the pilot episode Amy even said—we shot at, we were sitting at the bar and I’m grilling her, we’re tossing back those drinks and I’m trying to figure out who she is. At one point, Amy was directing that one and she said, “The fondness that you two have for each other has started to come through here.” She said, “Cut that off and just … now,” and we are just having so much fun just playing together. I just think she’s a terrific talent, but she also brings that theatre discipline to the set, which is something that I enjoyed at … when we were doing GILMORE GIRLS. We’re ready, willing and able to get going as soon as it’s time to work, and Sutton just brings that right along with her and she’s a joy.
What does the relationship between Fanny and Boo mean to you? Is that something that maybe hits home for you?
KELLY: I think with Fanny, and I’ve noticed it when I was a dancer—there are dancers – now, p.s. Kaitlyn’s a beautiful dancer, but she doesn’t have the like the skinny, skinny body and that whole thing going and I remember dancers who—actually, her body is quite good. She has a little more weight on her, but that’s a requirement of the role. That was important that there would be one girl who was heavier and apparently, she lost weight and they went to her and said you have to put it back on again. Well, because that girl, that’s the way the character breakdown went and she was supposed to be bigger than the other girls. I remember dancers like that. They loved to dance and they were good dancers, but not even so much like with Kaitlyn, because she’s got the body, but there would be people who just didn’t have the physicality to be able to accomplish that, even when I was studying. Studying in class with these same people and I’d see how dedicated they were and how hard they worked, but let’s say their feet weren’t good. They just didn’t have good feet and they were never going to have good feet. You’d kind of look at them and you feel really badly, because you knew this person certainly was not going to be a ballerina. That kind of dancer could go on to be a jazz dancer or do some other kind of dancing, but I think that’s what Kaitlyn’s character is about. It’s like not every little dance that comes into class is perfect and has the perfect turnout and the perfect foot and the perfect extension, but she has the perfect love for it. So to me that’s always a sympathetic position. She’s a sweet girl. She’s not only sweet in life, but her character is a very sort of insecure, really sincere kid. She really wants to dance and Fanny totally recognizes that in her and appreciates it. She wants her to be realistic, but she sees what’s there. Fanny’s not a mean woman. She wants to turn out good dancers and since she loved to dance so much, she always is going to appreciate a dancer who truly loves to dance. Yes, we’ve a those couple of nice moments in scenes together. Yes, I think that’s developing.
What is it that you find particularly challenging about your role?
KELLY: It’s always challenging with Amy. Probably the very first thing that happens with Amy Sherman-Palladino is learning those words, because there are a lot of them. The challenges are really more pleasures. I’m not running into a wall or gnashing my teeth over any particular thing. It all is making sense to me and what I’m finding rather than challenge, I’m finding a real delight in being able to open up my personality in this character and being a little, oh I don’t know if zany is the right word, but a lot looser and doing things I would never have done with Emily—well, Emily Gilmore wouldn’t have done some of those things. Just some of my behavior is a little more outlandish, and that’s so much fun to sort of free that up. So we’ll see. I’m sure there are challenges down the road, but right now, I’m just grabbing on to those scripts and jumping inside, wrapping myself up in them and having a good time.
We learn a little bit about Fanny’s backstory in the pilot. Are we going to see more in the future episodes?
KELLY: I don’t know. I think so. I haven’t had any discussions with Amy about this and the same thing weirdly happened with GILMORE GIRLS. I had my ideas of where Emily came from and what her backstory was and it was so strange. Like episodes go by and then suddenly something would pop out—a little bit of exposition would pop out about Emily and her background and I’d go, “Oh my God! That’s exactly what I was thinking.” We had never discussed it. So I have some ideas that I have gleaned from what we’ve shot so far and what has been said about me that that’s my picture in my head of what’s happened, but yes, I’m sure stuff will start to come out. Right now, she’s in the process of introducing the characters, introducing the relationships, really setting up the stage as it were so that the audience has an idea and an understanding of who these people are and how they interact. Once that’s all set, I’m sure new characters will be coming in all the time. Then I think it will start to expand on exactly the backgrounds of the main characters. Certainly, we’re going to find out more and more about them, but I haven’t had any discussions about that. I’m one of those people that don’t like to open a present before it’s time. Even as a kid, I never went up and went through my stuff to see what my Christmas present was going to be. I love surprises, and it’s not a lack of curiosity, it’s actually an enjoyment in anticipating what’s going to happen. So I don’t even ask. I don’t probe.
Is there something little that you can share that you have pictured in Fanny’s back story?
KELLY: Well, I just learned that she went out of town to study. She left her home. She went out of town to study ballet when she was 16. I found that out, and with her parent’s approval. I mean, they were packing her up and sending her off to some ballet school out of town. So I know that—that she was out there and she probably never moved back home, I would think after that. She probably got into a company, I would venture to say, by 17-18, and then she was off in her dance world until she met that fellow who impregnated her, who I’m guessing was probably another dancer. I don’t even know that. In my mind, I have him as some gorgeous Russian that we had a … together and continued it offstage.
You had said Emily Gilmore and Fanny are totally very different characters, very different women, but do you think there’s any Emily Gilmore in Fanny at all?
KELLY: Oh, probably, just because of me, you know. I don’t really think. I don’t, but I know it’s my face, it’s my voice, it’s my mannerisms even though I’m not trying to do the same thing, but there is just me and you just simply can’t avoid that. I really don’t. I don’t see the backgrounds as the same; I don’t see the inner life and the desires. I don’t see anything in them that’s the same. I don’t think they’d like each other very much. I think Fanny would only like Emily if Emily would give money to the school. I think that’s the only way she’d like her.
What are some of your memorable moments you’ve had from filming BUNHEADS?
KELLY: I just saw it the other day, because I was doing some audio work on it—the second episode is really beautiful. It’s also very funny; it’s also very sad. So there is a section there, right at the end of it, when I go into the ballet school. It turns out there are a lot of people there. That was kind of wonderful. There’s an episode—I can’t remember the numbers of them now—where I need to get my ballet floor fixed and I don’t have the money for it. I do a run on how she says, “Just fix the floor” and I say, “Oh, just fix the floor.” So just pay someone and have someone come in and fix the floor and she says, “Yes.” So I start on to this ridiculous, sardonic fantasy about all the places I could get the money, you know, at the end of the rainbow and all these other things and then I freak out at the end of it. So there are a few of those where I just kind of let it fly with rage. That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever done on screen. So that’s fun.
What do you think BUNHEADS will be giving its teen viewers that other teenage shows don’t?
KELLY: There’s something that Amy had said actually in the back during GILMORE GIRLS. In creating GILMORE GIRLS, she had said, “I am so tired of seeing teenagers on television who are wearing makeup and having dangly earrings and that are looking like little hookers walking around, with these really overly sophisticated quips.” She said, “I want a show where a teenager is a teenager is a kid.” That’s where she created that Rory character in GILMORE GIRLS. I think the four ballet dancer girls also have that same thing. There’s a level of innocence. There’s a level of being allowed to be a kid and not have to be an adult. That’s going to come soon enough and that stays with you forever after you hit maybe 21. So, I think it’s that and also seeing kids their age who are really dedicated to a goal, who have a lot of discipline and who are struggling in the same ways. We haven’t seen this in all of these shows yet, but they have situations at school. They have crushes on boys. They have this competitive environment in the ballet school, but they have friendships that have developed there. So they’re really kids growing up, and I think that’s kind of a nice role-model picture for kids. I wanted to be very grownup when I was 12. I wanted to be 30. But, there are other kids that don’t particularly want to and they feel pressure, I think, to push it along. This sort of allows them to say, “Oh, that’s okay. It’s okay to be a kid; you don’t have to push it.” The girls are delightful and beautiful dancers. So I think they’re going to relate to it in a lot of ways using their own personal goals that they can identify with. I’m curious to see how they’ll react to it, but I think it’ll be good.
So as we saw in the pilot, there are some very special sets on this show, and especially with the main house and the dance studio. Do you like a favorite item, or a feature, from either of those sets?
KELLY: Well if it was in the house, it would probably take me three or four years to see every item in that house. It’s insane. It’s crazy. There are clowns in there, kind of creepy clowns. I’m kind of enjoying the clowns. Then, there’s a wall of cuckoo clocks. So, I’ve really—it’s amazing to go onto the set because there is so much stuff there that you just keep wandering around and discovering other things if you can get through the clutter. So I think it’s the clowns though, because I find them a little bizarre. I keep looking at them and thinking do they come alive at night? When they shut down the lights and we all go away, do they start dancing around in here? So that house is a trip. I think the ballet studio is amazing—what they built. It’s just beautiful and workable too. You see people dancing on that set and so it’s—you know. Of course there are pictures of me on there. There are pictures of me when I was a dancer—on the walls, in different places on the set. So that’s always interesting to see yourself 40-50 years ago on a wall. I’m always impressed with the set building. The crew knocked me out. I’m just so amazed with what they do and the illusions they accomplish is quite brilliant.
Why do you think GILMORE GIRLS fans will like the show?
KELLY: You’ve got that same pacing and the clever dialogue and the topical references and the historical references and all of the incredibly intelligent things that Amy puts into her scripts. I mean, you really have to be pretty sharp to—I felt that with GILMORE GIRLS and I think with this show too. You have to be on top of it. You have to pay attention, and the smarter you are, I think, the more you like it.
Any particular aspects of BUNHEADS that you think will appeal to GILMORE GIRLS fans?
KELLY: I think you’ve got the cleverness and the dialogue and the rapidity. You talk fast when you do Amy’s work. There’s a lot of humor and it’s that kind of humor I like. I’m not a big sitcom fan, because I don’t like having to sit and wait for an audience, especially a canned laugh, to get done before we can move on with this. The thing that’s always been so good about Amy’s work is it can be deeply funny, but you get it. Your brain says that’s funny, you guffaw and then, you have to get back to paying attention again, because we’re moving on. We’re not waiting for you. So that’s going to be appealing to all the Gilmore Girl people. There are again the topical references, there are the current events, the historical references, and there is such certain joy in her work. It’s something that I noticed I felt with GILMORE GIRLS, and it was always brought back to me whenever I would watch it with the opening credits, with the two of them sitting in the little café having a chat, and of course, having the You’ve Got a Friend being the theme music, is there’s always a sweetness; there’s an innate sweetness without it being cloying at all, because there’s too much sharp banter going on and kind of insanity for it to be icky. But there’s always an overlying sweetness and a kindness and there aren’t ever any evil people. Everybody is always doing their best to make their way through the world as well as they can. That seems to be a really solid theme that I have noticed and it’s something that I really appreciate in Amy’s writing. I think people will feel those connections without thinking it’s GILMORE GIRLS again. I hope.
Do you think you’ll be making any references to GILMORE GIRLS just to allude to it possibly on the show?
KELLY: Not yet, not yet. I don’t know why we really would. I think the closest we would come possibly is to have some— Well, we do have one actor on—forgive me, and I can’t remember his name— who did GILMORE GIRLS. So we’ll probably have other actors on that did GILMORE GIRLS, because Amy is loyal about that, and when she likes people’s work, she likes to hire them again. I think that, at this point, it would be a dangerous thing to do. It’s sitting there, you know. You’re going to see, you’re going to be reminded of certain things in a completely different environment, but things are going to remind you of GILMORE GIRLS, so I think there would be a reluctance to bring in any correlation, certainly at this point.
Your character, Fanny, runs a ballet school. Does that interest you in maybe having your own ballet school in real life?
KELLY: No. It never did. That’s something that dancers do, particularly, in the ballet world, but you know you have a short career if it’s just the physicality. It’s like any other athlete—you hit your mid-thirties, then the challenges are too great. The body has been really battered through all of those years and it’s time to start finding another road. And many, many dancers open ballet schools. A lot of them become choreographers, but the ballet school thing makes sense especially if they’ve had a successful say a Broadway career or a ballet career—they have a great starting point. I never really wanted to be a teacher. I have taught class. Part of my training at the ballet school I went to, which was a very, very serious Russian-influenced ballet school—we did have to at the end of the year, the advanced class would have to pick younger students and it couldn’t be a soloist—it’s a two to ten, I think—and create a choreographic number for them, for the presentation for the parents at the end. So that was great training, because you had to pick your music, you had to pick your dancers; you had to choreograph the number. I also at one point, like in the early ‘80’s, I was out in California and I was taking a ballet class at a school in Toluca Lake—a very good school, by the way. I was talking to the teacher. I was just taking adult classes, and I saw how tired she was and I said to her, “If it ever gets to be too much, I’d be happy to teach.” I was thinking of the adult class. She ended up giving me about the middle ranged kids, about eleven and twelve. I taught that for several months, but it’s just not my thing. I think I was a good teacher, but it’s just not my love. I’m too much of a performer. I really—a lot of actors want to direct—I don’t want to direct either. I just like acting. So it’s not ever been anything I want to do.
How much influence do you actually have over the choreography or how dance is portrayed in the show?
KELLY: None. We have a wonderful choreographer, Marguerite, and actually, she’s really quite—you’ll see in these episodes. You’ll see it in the second episode and the fifth and now, there may be others that I haven’t seen. She’s a really interesting choreographer. I mean, she demands a lot of these dancers, but the choreography is not staid or predictable to another dancer in any way. It’s really interesting and her patterns are pretty. She’s very, very good, and I don’t. What I can bring to it as an actor is the knowledge of the dance and I can every once in a while, it’ll be a thing like if I’m stepping into camera and they’re doing a step that I can say to the cameramen or the director or to the choreographer, “I think it’s better if I come in when they’re doing the passé or before they do the … rather than wait until the ….” So I can talk the talk and I understand what they’re doing. So I can bring that to the role, but I don’t have any say in the choreography or the staging. That’s not my department.
What kind of advice would you give some of the younger kids you are working with? What do they need to know to survive?
KELLY: When I was coming to the set one day—I hadn’t been around for a few days and they said, “Well, yesterday was a tough day. There were some dialogue problems.” What I kind of figured out is that they were just struggling with their lines. I don’t even know who it was exactly. I’m not saying which people, because I don’t know. They were just having trouble with their lines in remembering them. Amy’s lines can be very complicated. They are not the easiest things to learn, and I had an occasion to be sitting with the four of them. I don’t even know, as I said, who was there when that happened. I said, “You know how you would not go on stage to do a number if you didn’t know the choreography?” and they’re going “Ahah, ahah,” and I said, “You don’t go in front of a camera if you don’t know your dialogue, and so you learn your dialogues before you get there.” Somehow when I connected the choreography to the lines, it was like, “Oh, yeah, of course.” So it’s little things like that that I’m kind of … and p.s. they’re very disciplined kids—I call them kids—I don’t know even how old they are. They have a lot of discipline, because they have the ballet training and they’re beautiful dancers, so it’s not like it just kind of happened and they aren’t beginners. It’s just a whole new medium for them and I think it’s a little confusing, because with dance and even with singing, you have something which you can kind of hold onto. With dance, it’s the accomplishment of the step and you can see it in the mirror. With singing, it’s the accomplishment of the sound and you can hear it. With acting, it’s a very nebulous thing. It’s a matter of opinion. One of them asked me, and bless her heart, she said, “How do you know if it’s right?” And it’s all you can do is trust your director. When it’s right for them, they’re going to print that take and you’re going to move onto the next scene. So don’t worry about judging that yourself. Put that out there and let them worry about that. They ask me questions here and there, but they’re just—they’re so sweet and I think they’re happy. They are so happy. They’re having so much fun doing this, and I would be too if I had been a dancer at their age and had gotten an opportunity to act. I would have been thrilled. So they’re a happy bunch. I’m sure I’ll be giving advice all the time. I’ve got a big mouth.
Much like the young characters on BUNHEADS, you grew up studying dance. What did you like the best about it and what was the hardest part of that lifestyle?
KELLY: What I liked best about it was simply dancing. I just love to dance and I was actually watching a thing on the New York City Ballet School. When you want to dance, when you need to dance and you love to dance, it’s just a wonderful world. It’s terribly hard. It takes you away from any social life you have at school. I mean, I never went to an after-school dance or a prom or a football game or any of those things, and yet I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I would rather have been taking another class at the ballet school. So it’s a completely different world. It’s very focused. You kind of have tunnel vision actually. It’s just a very focused world, because it’s so very, very difficult. Ballet is really a hard discipline and it takes years and years to just properly even do a position or a step. So you get so wrapped up in that. It’s also very beautiful. It’s exactly like—I don’t know if you know that, but in “A Chorus Line,” I played a character who sang at the ballet, which was a song that was written from my life story, from my interviews, which was really very flattering to take my words and turn them into the lyrics of a song. It was about how everything is beautiful to ballet. There is a real romance to it. It’s a beautiful form of dance. We all know how pretty ballet dancers are and how beautiful it looks even if we don’t understand it. The hard part is having to dedicate yourself completely, and the good part is how much fun it is and how romantic it is. It’s just a great world if you love it. It’s true of gymnasts. I’m sure it’s true of athletes. It’s true of anyone who loves a particular thing. You just get lost in it. I wish that everyone could find their dream and follow that road, because it’s really the way to live life. So I’m very, very happy that my life worked out the way it did.
For girls nowadays, considering your background and everything you’ve been through, would you recommend to young girls to study dance; whether they do it for fun, or perhaps with professional pursuits in mind?
KELLY: Absolutely. I’ve said this for years, and it’s opening up for boys a little bit more, because there’s always been such a stigma, particularly about homosexuality, etc. Kids who learn to dance, and my fondness is for ballet, because it is so tremendously difficult, but just taking ballet lessons or it could be tap, it could be modern, it could be jazz—ballet is just a little more pure form in my humble opinion—you learn so much. You learn rhythm; you learn discipline; you learn the proper alignment of your body and the communication between your body and your mind. It’s just so much; the memory. The things with dancers is dancers don’t write things down. I mean even with musicians you have music. With a dancer, it all goes into the brain, and you look in the mirror, and you look at your teacher, and you look at yourself, and you look at your other classmates, and that’s how you learn. You also learn a little bit of French if you’re taking ballet, because it’s all in French. So right there, you’ve got five things that are very beneficial and it’s actually fun. You’re actually moving through space to music. So there’s nothing wrong with it. Usually, by the teenage years, the less-talented or less-driven dancers will start to drop out because they do. They start having crushes on boys and they do want to go to the football game and the after-school hop or whatever they do these days. So the ones who don’t have that dedication will kind of move away, but the ones who do have it, will continue on and be able to hopefully dance professionally, which is a very hard life, but a really fun life. If I had kids—I don’t have kids—but if I had kids, they all would have taken ballet. Just to get started—not to push them into it or to have them become dancers, just to get that body coordination and the strength—you get tremendous strength from dance. People can do it their whole lives. There are all sorts of fun exercises out there. You know, cardio dance classes and stuff, that everybody should do it as long as they enjoy it.
Do you have a preference for live theatre versus TV?
While BUNHEADS is not just a story about ballet, it is a fun series about those who love ballet and strive to make it a part of their lives no matter how many challenges or distractions may arise. To see more of Kelly’s delightful new series BUNHEADS, be sure to tune in Monday nights at 9:00 p.m on ABC Family Channel.
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