role call

Kathy Najimy Answers Every Question We Have About Sister Act

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Touchstone/Kobal/Shutterstock

Sister Mary Patrick can’t control herself. She has a humble megawatt smile to match her fidgety enthusiasm that never, ever wanes. She is, in her mother’s words, “pure sunshine,” without a trace of cynicism in her surprisingly operatic bones, a quality Kathy Najimy capitalized on from her first audition, back when she was doing a two-woman stage show in San Francisco. Whoopi Goldberg may be the force that rocketed Sister Act to blockbuster renown, but without the lively supporting ensemble — namely Najimy, Mary Wickes as the stern choir leader Sister Mary Lazarus, and Wendy McKenna as the mousy Sister Mary Robert — the movie wouldn’t sing the way it does.

Najimy has had other great credits in the intervening 30 years — Hocus Pocus, Veronica’s Closet, Rat Race, King of the Hill, Veep — but Sister Act remains her signature role. The third-highest-grossing movie of 1992, it has since spawned a sequel (with another reportedly on the way) and an Alan Menken–penned Broadway musical. In honor of Sister Mary Patrick’s unforgettable zeal, Najimy called up Vulture to talk about the inspiration she took from Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, her long friendship with Goldberg, and sneaking backstage in a bunny costume to meet her idol Bette Midler.

Where were you in your life and career when Sister Act came your way?
I remember it like it was yesterday because it really was such an interesting time in my life. I wrote and performed in a two-woman feminist comedy show called The Kathy & Mo Show. It was very popular; we ended up having two HBO shows and a long off-Broadway run, which was interesting because it was very radical for those days — even for nowadays — to have two women talking about reproductive rights and homosexuality and equal rights. So I was doing The Kathy & Mo Show in San Francisco. We were doing eight shows a week, so we were exhausted, but it was fulfilling because we wrote it. I saw something on Entertainment Tonight, and it was Mary Hart. Remember Mary Hart?

Yeah, of course.
She was talking about Soapdish, which I was in. She said my name, and I was really excited. Then the next announcement was about this musical that Touchstone was doing called Sister Act with a bunch of singing nuns. I didn’t have any big-time agents then because I was just doing a play, but I made some calls and said, “I really feel like I need to audition for this.” They said, “Okay, you can come to the first audition tomorrow at noon in L.A.” We didn’t have a lot of dough then. We were making good money for two women onstage, but still. I woke up and took a cab to the airport and flew to Los Angeles. At first, they just had us do a few improvs and read a little bit from the script. Then I would fly back to San Francisco, do The Kathy & Mo Show, get a call that says “We need you for a callback for singing,” and fly back. I did that probably eight times.

Wow. And you were specifically auditioning for Mary Patrick?
Yes, but they didn’t have any idea in their heads what the characters looked like. I’ve been very lucky in my career — every part I’ve ever gotten, no part has ever had a specific description of how the person looked. I gleaned from her lines that she was overly positive. And also, full disclosure, because I had seen Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight, I dropped a big dose of Mary Hart into that, just, “Oh, I love everything, I really do!” That became my mantra. I was taking whatever tiny bit of savings I had from Kathy & Mo and flying myself there. But then they started flying me out toward the end. I sang a song called “Where the Boys Are,” by Connie Francis. Lisa Mordente was the brilliant choreographer, and she kept adding things for me to do. It kept working out, knock on wood. Then I met with Marc Shaiman, and I sang a big, belt-y song at his apartment in Hollywood. He said, “Do you have anything else?” I said, “Well, I do this funny thing to make my friends laugh: I do this opera voice.” So I went to the 17th callback, whatever it is, because they kept grouping the three nuns that would be with Whoopi together.

Was it you and the other actresses who ended up getting cast, or were you doing it with different combinations of women?
Different combinations. Mary Wickes, I’m sure, didn’t even have to audition because she’s a legend. She’s one of the greatest humans — one of the most authentic, just says whatever the fuck she wants. She was my role model. Oh my God, I miss her.

Did they pair you with anyone interesting during these auditions? Anybody we would know now?
Well, yes, but I hesitate to say them because I wouldn’t like it if someone said, “Yeah, Kathy Najimy auditioned but didn’t get that.”

I get it. As movie lovers, we love the different calculations of what a movie might look like had someone else been cast. 
Here’s what I can tell you: a good singer, known but not as well known as her wildly, wildly, wildly famous sister who’s not with us anymore, but one of the greatest singers of all time. Can you make any kind of a guess?

Okay, let me think. 
And her sister was huge with the gay community, a huge legend.

Did they sing together?
They might have in their lives. The one who’s not with us anymore is older.

I want to be able to guess this.
Put it in the article and see what you get back.

Somebody will be able to pick up on it, yes. 
She’s a great singer. I think they were also pairing us based on how we looked together, and I think there was something about Mary Wickes, Wendy Makkena, and me that really worked for them.

Anyway, I went back and I did the opera voice. After I think my sixth trip from San Francisco on my own dime, I somehow knew it would be worth it. Plus I forgot to even mention this to you: I had known Whoopi since the very, very beginning of her career. She moved to San Diego with her great daughter, Alex.

So you knew her before Soapdish, even. 
I knew her before any movie we had ever done together. I knew her from the improv scene. She was doing this brilliant show with a man named Don Victor at a little theater. There was this place where we all gathered for coffee called the Big Kitchen, and she had just arrived from New York. She did a great play, Mother Courage, but she certainly wasn’t the Whoopi she was about to be. But Whoopi was not a part of any of these auditions, so she had no idea I was involved.

So you didn’t know Whoopi would be the lead of the film?
I did not.

Had you read a complete script?
I think I had just seen some sides, and I made a very, very big choice for Mary Patrick — with Mary Hart’s help. Then I got the call. We had to close the play down. I think only four shows were left.

I assume you were going to earn more money from Sister Act than from the play.
Yeah. I mean, we didn’t get paid a lot for the first Sister Act. And the play was of my loins. It was about what I believe as a feminist. It remains the biggest reflection of who I am. The Disney movies were cute and fun, but The Kathy & Mo Show is what made me well known as authentically who I am.

One of my favorite quirks about Mary Patrick is the gleeful chuckle she lets out after almost everything she says. Do you remember that consciously coming to you?
I think that came right away. Again, Mary Hart would just be so positive and gleeful about everything, so I just made a big decision and stuck with it. She really was happy to be a nun, thrilled with everything. It was really fun to play. She barely had a concern: Yes, let’s go up in a plane! Yes, let’s go to the casino! There’s only a handful of those people who are just so positive about everything. It’s not me!

You mentioned singing during the auditions. What was the prep for the musical numbers like? 
We had music rehearsals and decided where we would go in terms of both the acting and the singing. I think between Wendy and Mary and Whoopi and I, there was so much difference. Mary Wickes’s singing in that is one of my favorite things ever. Sometimes we’d be singing and she would say, “Get the oil can!” And Whoopi — who, as far as I know, was not a singer — studied and sang great. We were gleeful at Whoopi’s singing voice. Do you know who that role was supposed to go to?

Bette Midler, right?

You can picture Bette in the role, but to think about somebody with a voice as powerful as hers doesn’t seem quite right compared to Whoopi’s rawer delivery. 
Bette Midler is a complete genius. I’m me because of Bette Midler. Growing up, I was a crazy sycophant fan. I have many stories about breaking in backstage and doing singing telegrams for her.

Singing telegrams?
Oh, I did all kinds of things to try to meet her.

So you made it backstage as a singing telegram?
Oh, yeah. I worked at Live Wire Singing Telegrams in San Diego to make money. I wasn’t the body type for the bellhop outfit, but there was a big furry bunny outfit that my then-boyfriend Greg had made for Alice in Wonderland. I was doing singing telegrams as a big, white, furry bunny, and I was obsessed with Bette Midler from the time I was 15. I took the $200 I had and flew to New York in the ’70s with my best gay friend to find where she lived. I’ve run backstage past guards to meet her at concerts. Then I started getting a few jobs and moved to New York and went to see Beaches, and in it, Bette plays a big, white, furry singing-telegram bunny. So that was inspired by me, which freaked me out. Me and my friends were screaming in the movie theater. We couldn’t believe it! I had to watch the movie a second time because I couldn’t see or speak for the whole rest of the movie.

That is incredible, and of course it all comes full circle with Hocus Pocus just a few years later. It’s kismet.
Exactly. It was kismet. But none of us on Sister Act were pressured into being big Broadway singers because we were nuns, not Beyoncé. I can only speak for myself, but it was my real voice and Whoopi’s real voice. We had lots of music rehearsals. They were always lots of fun. I remember once I was doing a scene and Maggie Smith pulled up an apple box and sat and watched the scene and laughed, so I could hear her laughing.

Because you need that sort of feedback on a comedy.
And she didn’t have to do that.

That’s interesting because I think Maggie Smith has a reputation for being a pretty serious person. 
She is a serious person, but I think she thought I was funny and wanted to let me know.

I read about some pranks you and the women would do in Reno when you were dressed in the nun habits. What do you remember about those pranks?
There were so many. Wendy was so much fun and a close friend of mine. We were in our hotel room in Reno, and we ordered fries and I think wine. When the adorable room-service guy came in, I picked up the remote and really quickly changed the channel to a porn channel. We were there in our nuns’ outfits.

That’s great.
And then I remember Whoopi and I, once between scenes, sat down at the blackjack table in our outfits. People didn’t know what to think, but we really were serious about the fun of the gambling, and we weren’t going to let the habits get in our way.

What stands out to you about Sister Act 2?
The greatest thing about the second one was the kids. We loved those kids. They were so much fun and so talented. It was mind-blowing.

You had a young Lauryn Hill in there!
And that was, of course, before Lauryn Hill was Lauryn Hill. I loved having lunch with her because she was so deep and introspective and so smart. We were talking one day, and she was drawing something. She goes, “It’s just a logo. I’m starting this band with a couple of these guys.” And it turned out to be the Fugees. She has the soul of an 80-year-old, and the other kids were so much fun, too. Whoopi’s daughter, Alex, was in it. At the time, I was living in New York, so I was staying in a hotel that had a pool, and the kids would come over on their day off and swim in the pool. They were so talented. When we got those kids, the music really went to a different level.

The second movie has different writers, a different director, a different cinematographer, and a different setting. What is gained and what is lost by that turnover?
Hmmm, I think what is gained is we had the perspective of teenagers and kids in their early 20s, which I thought offered us a new story line. People have asked me before which was my favorite, and I’m not even being actressy or cagey: I loved stuff about the first one, but I just was in awe during the second one. The kids were so open and eager and not like Hollywood kids. I loved both experiences, I really did. And I’m not a person who says that a lot. I’m a complainer.

To the extent that you can assess it with hindsight, what did this period do for your career? You have two Sister Act movies and Hocus Pocus in a two-year span. What kind of offers came next?
I think The Kathy & Mo Show was the first thing that showed whatever versatility I had and also that I was a serious writer and a person with a strong point of view — which isn’t necessarily a great thing in Hollywood, but it means way more to me than any kind of fame. My political core is what I’m most close to. I would never weaken that. I don’t know that those roles really informed what I did after that because right away I did a three-episode arc on Chicago Hope where I played a surgeon who was bipolar. I went into some really serious roles and then bounced back to comedy. But those were the vehicles where I got the most known.

More From This Series

See All
In the 1991 comedy set backstage at a fictional soap opera, Najimy plays the show’s overwhelmed costume designer. “I originally had only three scenes in Soapdish, but eventually they put me in nine scenes and let me mug away,” she told Entertainment Weekly when the movie came out. Tony-nominated actress Lisa Mordente appeared on Broadway and in shows like Welcome Back, Kotter before choreographing Sister Act and Burt Reynolds’ The End. Composer Marc Shaiman has worked extensively with Bette Midler, and his other credits include Saturday Night Live, When Harry Met Sally, Mary Poppins Returns, multiple Academy Award ceremonies, and Broadway’s Hairspray.
Kathy Najimy Answers Every Question We Have About Sister Act