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Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop on Bunheads’ Demanding Dialogue and Drinking Scenes

For her nutty, brilliant ballet dramedy Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino brought back Gilmore Girls Kelly Bishop to play a whip-smart, moron-intolerant woman (yes, another one) who inherits a daughter-in-law after her son’s sudden death. Together, they run a dance studio in a sleepy coastal town (Stars Hollow by way of Venice, California). It gives us warm fuzzies to watch them bicker and occasionally come together in the same way Lorelai and Emily used to, and tonight’s finale (airing at 9 on ABC Family) is the best of both worlds. Vulture caught up with Bishop and Broadway’s Sutton Foster to talk about how they managed in Sherman-Palladino’s crazy-wonderful world of words, and what they hope to do more of in season two.

I’d first like to say I really love how much Michelle and Fanny drink on this show. Booze is the new coffee!
Bishop: Yes, that seems to be a running theme, and so far beyond anything I could manage. [Laughs] Actually, I’ve never done shots with anybody. I mean, I like to have a couple of drinks, there’s no question about that, but I would never be able to toss down as much of whatever liquor it is. Most likely bourbon. But I had a lot of fun throwing back shots and doing the dance with Sutton in the first episode.

There was also that great scene where we heard Michelle’s Fanny impression as she acted out both sides of a phone conversation. Did you guys work together on that?
Bishop: She asked for my help and I said, “Well, if I were you, I’d mock my low voice.” [Laughs] “Make yourself sound like man.” But she didn’t do that. I don’t think she’s unkind enough to do something like that, but it would have been funny.
Foster: I called her and said, “Can you help me? Because I really want to do it justice, and will you just read the lines as if you’re saying them?” I mean, I can never really do her because who can do her? I just wanted to hear her inflections. That was another one of those hard scenes where it was just me in a room, talking on the phone, there’s water dripping, eighteen things going on, no cuts, and I’m doing an impression while having a conversation with myself.

You guys have more dialogue than anyone else on television right now, including any one person on The Newsroom. Has there been any particularly dense passage or scene that tripped either of you up?
Foster: There’s one coming up in the finale where I pull out my Zombie Apocalypse Vegas Slut Bag. It’s everything you would need in every situation. I had to list about twenty things and it was part of a oner [a very continuous long shot], so it’s like three scenes in one take and no one can mess up. Amy didn’t tell me that of course because she knows I’d be like, “What? Why?” I practiced saying it really fast while driving around the city. That’s the other thing: You gotta get the words verbatim, but you also have to get it fast because of the pace of the show. By the end of it, I was sweating and my heart was pounding.

That has to be nothing compared to working with a possum.
Foster: That damn possum. His handlers said they needed to put something over my feet because if he got scared, he’d attack the sheets. So as soon as he got in bed, that’s the first thing he did. Just put it on the list of things that happens on Bunheads. Stripper poles, possums. They said the possum’s only defense was the hiss, so they had to aggravate him to get him to hiss at me. I just lied there thinking, Uh. Okay. Great.

Kelly, Amy has said that in real life you are much closer to Fanny than Emily. That’s why she had you in mind the whole time she was writing the first script. She said you were a real broad.
Bishop: Oh yes, yes, definitely. One of the reasons I get a kick of playing those stiff, repressed, wealthy women is because I don’t particularly like them. [Laughs] I like playing them because I like mocking them to a certain degree. Actually, during Gilmore Girls, I’d look at some of the stories and think, I’m Lorelai. In real life, that’s who I am. I do have a mouth — I will say. I speak up when I see things I don’t care for.

Fanny’s especially opinionated about her unconventional ballets.
Bishop: Yes, well, she really marches to her own drummer. Do the people in that town know how The Nutcracker is supposed to go anyway? She really expects everyone to respond to her the way she thinks they should, and apparently they all do.

What percentage of the pop culture references do you get?
Foster: Probably 50 percent. Some of them are from my generation. The eighties and nineties references I totally get. Some of the more political stuff — I live in puppy dogs and dream land, it’s horrible — I have to look up. Same with the more obscure, random, eighteenth century stuff. I try to Google everything, and I pull up a lot of image results so I can see what things look like. Of course, there was one time where I didn’t know something — and I knew this would happen — and I asked on set, “What does this mean?” And Amy went, “You don’t know what that means?! OH MY GOD.” It was like, “Why you gotta call me out in front of everybody?”

What was the reference?
Foster: It comes up in the next episode. I have a line where I say, “Try the veal!” It’s something comics used to say on stage. I thought maybe it was someone’s famous line.

But you knew Khaleesi’s dragons …
Foster: No, I had to look that one up too. I know, I know. I knew it was a Game of Thrones reference, but I don’t watch it! I wanted to know what the dragons looked like. They’re so little! That was actually a nod to our DP. She left us after Episode 8 to go work on Game of Thrones.

Any hopes to dance together more next season? We got a taste in the first episode, and that was it.
Foster: I think so. We’re definitely working towards that. I do a little bit more in Episode 10, and I think there’s going to be more of that stuff coming up in the future. I’ve been studying ballet. I’m actually going [for a lesson] today and I’ve been going all summer. I’m so excited because I have two blood blisters on my big toes, and I was like, “I’m a dancer!” It’s a mark of pride. It’s also disgusting.
Bishop
: Someone just asked me recently if they were going to see Michelle and Fanny dancing, and I said, “Well, I hope not too much.” [Laughs] As much as I love to dance, and I still take class, aerobics and that sort of thing, and I still move very well and all of that — I’m really not a dancer anymore. It would be kind of fun if we did like a jazz class together. Real jazz. I’m not a tap dancer at all, so that’s completely out of the question. And ballet, I understand it all too well to want to attempt it anymore at this age. The body would not want to do that.

I think the stripper pole in the studio needs to be put to use.
Foster: That would be awesome. I’ll see what I can do.

Photo: DAVID CROTTY/Patrick McMullan