February 2012

Twist of Fate

Art imitates reality, as KATHARINE MCPHEE shoots for stardom playing an actress who shoots for stardom  by ERIC ESTRIN / photographs by WALTER CHIN / styling by ANASTASIA MARANO

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It wasn’t the skyrocket to fame on American Idol that prepared singer-dancer-actress Katharine McPhee for her part in the new NBC series Smash, as a Broadway neophyte who wants to chart the same course. It was all the knocking on doors that followed. “I’ve spent the last five years auditioning for roles—things I got, things I didn’t get. Idol was a wonderful stepping-stone for me, but I think most of the growing I did as an actor has come in the aftermath.”

If she sounds “Over It,” to quote the title of her hit single, it may be due to casting directors who see her only as an Idol talent. “If you come from a reality show, there’s a certain label they want to put on you. It’s kind of a cliché—‘Oh, now she wants to be an actor.’ I was pursuing acting long before I was on that show.” But screen success came later, with guest spots on TV episodes and parts in films like The House Bunny and Shark Night 3D, even as she was recording three albums, including her eponymous debut that was, well, a smash, debuting at number two on the Billboard charts.

Now McPhee is leaping into the groundbreaking series NBC is counting on to help lift it from the ratings cellar. Media buyers have pegged the scripted show, which re-creates an Idol-esque competition, as TV’s best new pilot, pushing its ad rates toward the top of the heap for new dramas. Exec produced by Steven Spielberg and a team of veterans with deep theatrical experience, Smash follows in the footsteps of A Chorus Line, Company and Black Swan, here revolving around the mounting of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Boasting an ensemble cast that includes Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, the show includes at least one original song each week. McPhee’s fresh-faced Karen Cartwright must compete against a Broadway veteran played by Megan Hilty (who actually is an experienced Great White Way thespian, having played the leads in Wicked and 9 to 5: The Musical). Uma Thurman will be brought in to join the competition later in the season.

McPhee, whose father produced for television, is excited to be an actress playing an actress who wants to portray an actress, but it took her a while to get a feel for the icon at the show’s center. “I’ll never be Marilyn Monroe,” she says. “She was tortured by her public and by her image, so I don’t really relate to that. I’ll never have that Angelina Jolie life—unless I do something truly scandalous in the future, which I don’t think would ever happen.”


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HAIR: David Glover / Kramer + Kramer
MANICURE: Jackie Saulsbery / Kramer + Kramer