Person to Watch: Bebe Neuwirth
Lilith moves to the Oval Office
By Terri Akman

Most fans will remember Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith Sternin-Crane, the role she reprised on three TV shows (“Cheers,” “Wings” and “Frasier”) between 1986 and 2003. But it’s a new role that has people buzzing about Neuwirth today: her portrayal of Nadine, chief of staff to Téa Leoni’s Secretary of State in CBS’s hit drama “Madam Secretary.” Already renewed for a second season, the show has been a critical and ratings success.

“People are responding to the things I think are wonderful about it – these great stories,” says Neuwirth, 56. “And it’s gentle; it’s not aggressive and harsh. It appeals to all our better natures. It’s sort of like there’s a look of relief on people’s faces when they say, ‘I love your show.’” Though she admits that some of her favorite shows, including “Gotham,” are aggressive and violent, “I’m so glad there is a place for a show like this on TV, and clearly I’m not alone.”

Neuwirth’s latest role is chief of staff Nadine Tolliver

Neuwirth’s latest role is chief of staff Nadine Tolliver

Madam Secretary focuses on Leoni’s character, newly appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, who returns to public life at the request of the president after the suspicious death of her predecessor. Nadine, played by Neuwirth, is a no-nonsense character who cares deeply for her job and her country.

“She’s so much smarter than I am,” says Neuwirth. “That happens to me a lot; I get cast in parts of really brilliant women. I like her depth. There’s an awful lot to Nadine we’ve seen glimpses of, and we’ll see more in the future. She has an elegance that no matter what is happening, she keeps her eye on maintaining the dignity of the office and putting the focus on the work. And she makes sure the work gets done in the most humane and dignified manner.”

When Neuwirth was deciding how to decorate her character’s office, she felt sure Nadine would have special, handmade artifacts and souvenirs from her travels throughout the world. “A piece of pottery or a weaving that somebody made, something that maintains and reminds her of the connection to the actual individual people she is working to help,” says Neuwirth. “She’s a humanitarian above all. Her aspirations are very high to help as many people on the planet as she can.”

Neuwirth’s taping schedule varies from week to week, depending on how much her character appears in a particular episode. Much of the show is shot in a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, though they travel to other locations in and around New York.

“It changes all the time,” she says. “One thing that’s fun about shooting in New York is that you get to go inside these buildings you’ve only seen from the outside. You had no idea there were all these magnificent jewels of architecture. There’s this old bank in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I’ve driven by a hundred times and seen this beautiful round cupola on the top. Then we shot inside and made believe it was Venezuela. It was this architectural gem.”

It’s almost a cliché when actors say that going to work every day is a joy and they love their coworkers as family. Neuwirth insists this is true with Madam Secretary, starting with executive producer Morgan Freeman, who she worked with on the movie “The Big Bounce” in 2004.

“They set a tone for a very open and healthy working environment,” she says of Freeman and the other executive producers. “He’s been a dancer and an actor for a very long time, working at a very high level of excellence. Yesterday I was working on set with the cast and crew, thinking how we get so carried away laughing and carrying on together. The director was actually yelling out, ‘OK, grim up and get serious,’ because we were acting out a very serious situation.”

One plus for Neuwirth is being surrounded by “theater rats:” other actors and actresses who share her background on the stage. “We have a common bond; we’re sort of all from the same tribe,” she says. “They are wonderful people who are really nice to be around at 5:30 in the morning.”

Neuwirth’s career may have been predestined at birth. “My parents say when I was born and the doctor held me up, he said, ‘She’s a dancer.’ That’s the Neuwirth lore. I asked for ballet lessons when I was 4, and I started taking them when I was 5. And I haven’t stopped taking them.”

When she was 13, she saw “Pippin” on Broadway and had her ah-ha moment. “It resonated very deeply, and I felt like I understood that choreography,” she recalls. “I felt like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to dance on Broadway.’”

She started appearing in musical productions at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where she grew up, and took singing and voice lessons. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1976, she attended Julliard in the dance division. “I wanted to be in New York City trying to get a job on Broadway,” she recalls. After just one year, she was cast in “A Chorus Line.”

“I had a great acting teacher who said, ‘Acting is living truthfully moment to moment under imaginary circumstances,’” says Neuwirth. “You can do that when you’re dancing, singing, talking and listening. So it really is all sort of the same thing. The only transition I’ve noticed from dancing or singing to what people call acting is just getting used to hearing the sound of my own voice on a stage. For someone who spent their formative years in a ballet, it’s kind of jarring.”

Audiences must not have minded – Neuwirth won Tony Awards for her roles in “Sweet Charity” (1986) and “Chicago” (1997). In Chicago she played Velma the first time around, and then 10 years later was back playing Roxie. That portrayal had personal significance, which still chokes her up when she talks about it.

“That same year I had my first hip replacement, and I stood on stage as Roxie and said, ‘I want to be a dancer in Vaudeville.’ Then Roxie lived in a world of no, ‘But now look,’ she says as she’s dancing in Vaudeville,” Neuwirth says, stifling tears. “So Roxie was saying that at the same time I was coming back from a hip replacement, finding that I was still able to dance on Broadway. It was a very deep, moving and meaningful experience.”

Neuwirth also won two Emmys for her portrayal of Lilith on the sitcom Cheers in 1991 and ’92. “I just loved her,” she says of Lilith.

“I would certainly love to play her again, but I don’t long to play her, because I feel so satisfied by what I was given to do – the writing, situations, stories and other actors I had to play with. I don’t feel there’s anything left undone. There are parts I played when I was very young that I might understand a little better now. I’d like to take another crack at Sheila in A Chorus Line. I could be Sheila’s mother.”

Neuwirth has more than 60 movie and television credits to her name. Movie roles include “Jumanji” (1995) and “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” (2003), and she recently directed the short film “Jerome’s Bouquet” (2013). But she admits to leaning toward the theater.

“I started when I was 7 on stage, and I started at heart as a dancer. That is a physical expression,” she says. “Theater is a far more physical medium than the other two, so that is where I am most at home. You have an actual relationship with your audience. They are your other collaborator. On television and film you put it on camera, and you really hope that you can connect with the audience.

“In a theater you are actually all there together creating the same event. It’s not that you get to hear the applause – that’s what everybody thinks. It’s not that, it’s the energy of the audience. You can feel people sitting in their seats, and they are giving you their attention and you’re having an energetic exchange. You don’t get to have that in television or film.”

Bebe Neuwirth at the Madam Secretary premiere in Washington DC last year

Bebe Neuwirth at the Madam Secretary premiere in Washington DC last year

Her multiple awards are proof that audiences and her peers have taken notice. Of winning two Tonys and two Emmys, she says, “It’s wonderful and also very humbling, and a little bit embarrassing. I think of it as something to urge me on to do better next time.”

When she isn’t working, Neuwirth spends her time taking ballet classes or making pottery. “There was a great art teacher at Princeton High,” she recalls. “That’s where I learned to throw pottery. Off and on – more off, sadly, than on – I have thrown pottery and worked in clay for a really long time.”

Charity work is also important to Neuwirth. “I do like to inspire people to help animals and their fellow man,” she says of her passion for the many nonprofits she supports.

She’s on the Board of Trustees of The Actors Fund, where she started the Dancers’ Resource program. “It addresses the unique challenges that professional dancers face, both emotionally, dealing with injuries and fighting their way through health insurance, paying their rent, all of the services of The Actors Fund, but then things that are specifically for the unique needs of dancers.”

She is also involved in Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit, non-political organization that helps teenagers from regions of conflict learn the skills of making peace. An animal lover, she lends support to horse rescue through Equine Advocates in Chatham.

In an age when it seems all celebrities are spreading their opinions through social media, Neuwirth has no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn accounts. “I’m pretty quiet. I’m pretty shy, and if somebody goes to a social media site that says it’s me, it’s not,” she says. “That’s more a condition of being private than anything else.”

July 2015
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