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Tony Nominee Lilli Cooper on Bringing Herself to the Stage in ‘Tootsie’

May 20, 2019 by Suzy Evans
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Lilli Cooper (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

When Lilli Cooper saw Jessica Lange in the audience at “SpongeBob SquarePants,” she knew it as a sign that she’d play Julie Nichols in “Tootsie” on Broadway. Lange originated the role in the 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman as out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey who dresses up as a woman he names Dorothy Michaels to get a role, and Cooper had just watched the film, as she was auditioning for the part in the Broadway musical.

“I thought I was hallucinating,” says Cooper, who was onstage starring as Sandy Cheeks in the Nickelodeon musical at the time.

Cooper landed the part and now has earned her first Tony Award nomination for playing the co-star and complicated love interest of the cross-dressing Michael. The role has been updated and modernized for the stage, and Cooper has helped develop the character, who has more strength and agency than the 1980s counterpart did. Julie becomes more of a driving force in Michael’s life onstage, rather than Michael being the influence on Julie. The musical, which is directed by Scott Ellis and written by David Yazbek and Robert Horn, is nominated for 11 Tony Awards.

“It’s been really collaborative,” Cooper says of the process. “I also feel like she is very close to who I am. It’s very meta to be playing an actor in a show. When I auditioned, the breakdown described this strong, confident woman who is starring in a Broadway show, and my mom was like, ‘Well, that’s just you. You don’t really have to work very hard. Just go in and do it.’”

Sitting backstage at the Marquis Theater in Cooper’s dressing room, as a portrait of her cocker spaniel Dublin dressed as Dorothy Michaels looks on, we chatted with Cooper about growing up in a theatrical family, relating to her character, and why “Tootsie” is a love letter to actors.

You mentioned that you relate to Julie as an actor, and the song she sings is about her love of the craft. How do you identify with her and that song?
I connect so deeply to that song. It’s my absolute favorite song in the show. My favorite part about it is the beginning, which talks about how she was the girl in the bubble at school, and she’s this sort of insecure, quiet girl until she discovers theater. And I could not relate to that more. I mean I was incredibly shy as a kid, and I think it came as a surprise to my parents — even though I’m in a very theatrical family — that I was going to be a performer.

I remember as a kid, my dad would always be like, “Introduce yourself.” And I would hate it when he would have me do that because I just hated meeting strangers. And so I just connected a lot to the lyrics of this song, and that was actually my audition song. And so it felt so right. It felt like I was just sort of fitting into this hole they needed to fill in the show. And I feel very, very connected to her. She’s really sort of a strong, independent woman, and she doesn’t really let anything get in the way of what she wants, and there are qualities in her that I really admire, that I sort of want to take on myself. So I feel like I’ve learned from her.

Lilli Cooper in “Tootsie” on Broadway. (Photographed by Matthew Murphy)

You grew up in a theatrical family. When did you kind of know that you wanted to be an actor?
I started dancing when I was five, and I was always a dancer. And the shift into theater was when I was cyber-bullied in junior high. And I decided to transfer middle schools, because I just really couldn’t go to that school anymore. And I decided that year that I would go to PPAS, Professional Performing Arts School, which I think, looking back on it, was a really bold choice.

And I sort of can’t believe that this shy little bullied kid was all of a sudden like, “You know what? I think musical theater is what I want to do.” And it absolutely was. And it saved my life in a way. That’s sort of when I made the shift, and I really fell in love with it. I didn’t have a voice until I discovered my voice. And that was in the theater.

Did you enjoy growing up around the theater?
One of my earliest and favorite memories is when my dad (Chuck Cooper) was in “The Life” on Broadway in 1997. After school I would walk to the theater and I would do my homework underneath his station, and I would take naps in his dressing room. And I was there during a show a lot of times. I would sit with the stage manager, and I vividly remember having a prop handoff, where one of the dressers let me hand off a scarf or something to somebody onstage. It was just so magical. Even from that early age, I looked up to this world, and thought it was so incredible. And I wanted to be a part of it. But I just needed the time to find my place in it.

You were just on Broadway in “SpongeBob.” What has it been like going from that show, in which you played a cartoon, to portraying someone more similar to yourself onstage?
They’re definitely two totally different shows, but I have actually found some similar through-lines in my characters. Sandy and Julie are both these strong women who have been able to teach the men in their lives. I feel really lucky to have been able to play both of those roles. But in another sense, it has been a complete shift, because I often describe this show as my first grown-up show.

I started on Broadway when I was 16, and we were all teenagers [in “Spring Awakening”]. “SpongeBob” was a very youthful show, a lot of Broadway debuts. So going from that straight into this, which is a room full of veterans, it was a little bit intimidating. So I felt I sort of had to step up my game a bit. But being in the room with all these people was not only just such a gift, but it was sort of a learning experience. I think of everybody’s performance as a master class in comedy.

Santino Fontana and Lilli Cooper in “Tootsie” on Broadway. (Photographed by Matthew Murphy)

What has it been like working on this role with the “Tootsie” creative team?
The creative team and the producers and everyone involved are so aware of the social climate that we’re in today and how we need to represent the world today onstage. So inevitably, we needed to update the story, and these characters and their relationships with one another. I would find myself in the rehearsal room a little bit intimidated, but then I would find moments where I realized maybe I was the only woman in the room. Or maybe I was the only person of color in the room. I needed to put aside any insecurities that I had, and acknowledge the value that I had in that room. And I did feel very valuable in that way and I was very much listened to. And I think all the women in this production were very much listened to. I’m very grateful for that.

You’ve had a lot of celebrities come see the show. Who have you been most excited to meet?
I have a guest book. And both Tina Fey and Sean Hayes were here back-to-back, and signed my guest book next to each other. So that was incredible. I mean, comedy legends and they loved the show. She joked about how she didn’t want to wear her glasses because she didn’t want to look like Dorothy Michaels.

And there were some awesome people at opening. I didn’t really get to meet many of them because it was just so hectic. I met Victor Garber. He came back to say hi. Carol Burnett’s a huge fan of the show. Tyra Banks was here. Bryan Cranston was here.

What are you looking forward to with the show, as you continue to run it?
I’m looking forward to more fabulous people coming to see it. I love when actors come to see the show, because it’s a love letter to acting. It’s about actors. So we can really tell when there are people who truly understand it in the audience. And it’s not that if you aren’t an actor you won’t get it. It’s not alienating in any way. But it’s such a specific sort of story that I think is just really relatable to performers. So I hope that as many performers can come and see it as possible.

Get tickets to “Tootsie” on Broadway.