This year’s Sundance hasn’t wanted for rapturous standing ovations or big sales, but of all the movies to debut at the festival, Patti Cake$ may be the most endearing surprise. The scrappy story of a plus-size female rapper trying to spit her way out of stagnation in New Jersey, it sold to Fox Searchlight for a reported $10.5 million — from a first-time feature director, Geremy Jasper; with an unknown Australian star, Danielle Macdonald; and cabaret goddess Bridget Everett and Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty as its only semirecognizable faces. It’s almost impossible not to get swept up in Patti’s fantasies (of flying through the air, or killing it onstage with her rapper idol, O-Z); her confident rhymes (the refrain of one is, “My life is fuckin’ awesome!”); and the ragtag group, PBNJ, she forms with her Nana, her Indian-pharmacist best friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), and a hermitlike, black Marilyn Manson type who calls himself the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie).
“I can’t stop smiling,” a reporter friend said to me as we left our screening. “Why can’t I stop smiling?” Because the movie’s that good. We found time with Everett and Macdonald afterward to chat about being big, strong ladies in a world of Hollywood twigs, and the making of this Sundance charmer.
Bridget, I’ve been to your cabaret show and had the privilege of nuzzling my face in your cleavage.
Bridget Everett: Oh! Nice to see you again!
Anyway, about this movie, did you two meet when it was being workshopped at the Sundance Labs two and a half years ago?
Danielle Macdonald: Yeah, we’ve been attached ever since. Geremy was like, “I want you guys to do the movie” and we both thought we’d get replaced at some point for, like, names. But it didn’t happen, miraculously.
Bridget Everett: Danielle is the girl you want to sit next to on the first day of school. [Laughter] The warmth and heart that her character, Patti Cake$, has, that’s Danielle. You fall in love with her right away.
Danielle: Bridget, that’s too much!
Bridget: But it’s true!
Danielle: It’s really funny, because I met Bridget and she was really sweet and shy, and we were doing this intense scene. I thought she was this heavy, hard-hitting dramatic actress! Then I went to her show in L.A. and Bridget comes out and I’m like, “What is going on here?” And then your boob came out! My friend was like, “Oh my God, the poor woman!” [Laughs.] I was like, “No, I think that was meant to happen!”
This movie hits on what it’s like to be marginalized as a woman of a certain size. Did that resonate with you?
Danielle: I related because I’m in an industry where you don’t see many plus-size actresses, and I was like, “No, this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it.” I came out to America even though in Australia it was like, “Yeah, you’ll probably go and come back disheartened.” I love acting and I’m going to continue doing that. The script showed a girl in the same vein, who really wants something and goes for it, and that’s a really important message to send out to the world: You can do what you want to do, even when people say no.
Bridget: I like that it’s about all different kinds of women. I was also excited to be in a movie, to do something other than one little scene in something. I hadn’t done anything like it before. My character Barb’s sadness, and her being stuck, and her drinking and all that — I related to a lot of it. I loved that Geremy embraced the kind of women that we are, and the whole scope of the size and limitations.
Geremy keeps saying it’s about the big, strong women he grew up with, which is a great description. Nobody in the movie is a weakling, even thought their lives are hard.
Bridget: Yeah, even when they’re calling Patti “Dumbo.” Certainly, Barb is a mess when people say hurtful things. What I like about the movie is it’s not about those insults that are being slung. It’s about the relationships and the people and her dream.
Danielle: And dealing with life. Things happen.
Have you ever faced those kinds of insults yourselves?
Danielle: When I was in Australia, I had three different agents in three different years, and I didn’t have one audition. They were good agents; I just never had one audition that was the right stuff. Rebel Wilson created her own content, that’s how she got out there. I actually got a visa through a job that fell through, and it allowed me to move out here and start from scratch. There’s more opportunity in America for girls like me, I guess.
Hey, even the Hemsworths had to come out here!
Bridget: I’ll add that I wasn’t getting any work or auditions, anything, so I just started writing for myself and developing a personality onstage that was just sort of a beast of a woman. But that’s the only way I’ve ever gotten jobs — from people who’ve seen my show. Sometimes you have to create the thing and give people the reason to see in you what you see in yourself.
Is this your biggest role?
Danielle: This was my first time as a title role and I was in every single page of that script. I was reading it and going, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to do this,” and I have to learn to rap and how to do an accent as well?! It was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done, but it was such an amazing feeling. I don’t know how I got through it. I barely slept for three months, but I did it!
Didn’t you spend two years learning to rap for this?
Danielle: Yeah, Geremy invited me to the labs and gave me three songs and was like, “Learn these.” It was terrifying! But I got through it and Geremy was like, “I can work with this.”
Have you discovered some new rap influences through doing this?
Danielle: Seriously, Geremy sent me pretty much every rapper you can think of, plus a whole bunch of unknown ones. I always liked Biggie, but I have such a new appreciation for him. When I was practicing with my rap coach in Brooklyn where he grew up, it felt so amazing and special.
Bridget: I was late to the hip-hop/rap world.
Danielle: We still haven’t created a song!
Bridget: I started working on that again! “I’m gonna rap this pussy round every dick I can!”
Danielle: “Can, every every dick I can …” [Laughs]
Please release it with a really low-fi video.
Bridget: I need to spend more time with it, but I have pages of dumb shit to say. I already have like, five pages about dick, but you know what? You can never have too many dicks, and you can never have too many songs about dick!
Danielle: You can’t!
Bridget: Oh, I just wrote another pussy song, too! Do you know this woman Amanda Duarte? She coined the phrase “Pussy grabs back” so I wrote a song with that title and we recorded it and put it up before the march, and all the proceeds go to Planned Parenthood. It was very cathartic to sing.
What do you think of people calling this the female 8 Mile? Apt or not?
Danielle: When I first watched 8 Mile, it was amazing, it got me, I loved it. But this is a very, very different story. Ours is a lot lighter. But the one cool thing about both of them is that after you finish watching them, it lights a fire underneath you and you think, I want to go for what I want! I like that feeling at the end of a movie.
What’s it been like to watch it with an audience?
Danielle: I couldn’t get to the car to get to the screening! There was a truck stuck in the road, so we couldn’t drive, so we were just trekking through this insane snow, just freezing. It was up to my hips!
Bridget: Her mom and dad almost didn’t make it.
Danielle: I didn’t have my ticket and they were like, “You can’t get in without a ticket.” We couldn’t get in! But our producers got us in and it was great. I sat next to Bridget and we were hitting each other and cheering each other when we came on!
Did you rap along with yourselves?
Bridget: A little bit!
Danielle: [Laughs] And there was a lot of me hiding under Bridget, like, “I can’t!” It was kind of amazing to see it with an audience. There were moments where we had great memories from that day, and the audience was clapping and cheering. To see that people are enjoying it the way we got to when we filmed it, that’s an amazing feeling.
I would think the coolest thing would be watching yourself flying above the streets of New Jersey.
Danielle: That was insane — there was this truck and it had a crane on the back and it just lifted me in the air. After hours it gets really painful, but it was really fun and just a crazy thing that I would never get to do in my life.
Bridget: Movies are fun! I thought they were bullshit at first, but that’s just because I wasn’t getting any jobs. Now that I’m getting jobs I’m like, “I want to do more!”
Danielle: Maybe we’ll team up together again.
Bridget: We’ll do a buddy-cop thing.