Even in her first interview — which I conducted just as she was stepping off West 19th Street (a tiny slot at Dance Theater Workshop) on to Broadway and The Big Time beyond that — Whoopi Goldberg did not have the look of a deer in the headlights of blinding stardom. It was the look of a woman confident in her art, smart in the ways of the world.
That's still there, I noted 20 years later, sitting across from her on a huge white sofa in her endlessly oblong SoHo loft. Between us was a soft gray ball of a housecat she never introduces. It might be dead — that, or a cat that knows its place in the presence of a star.
Star status, the actress insists, is the only thing that is really different about her. "You have to understand that who you are doesn't necessarily change because your fortune changes," she says. "You're still the same person. If you're not someone who's comfortable around a lot of people, that doesn't switch. You only learn to manage it better. It's still the same thing. I don't think I belong here. I don't really quite feel I fit.
Time for a reality check, so she's marking a double decade in the sun by returning to Square One (the Lyceum, where she played before) and reprising 88 times the show that started it all in 1984, Whoopi Goldberg. Given the fact she's now on a first-name basis with the world, that handle has been halved to Whoopi and writ large on the theatre's marquee in her signature dreadlocks.
Whoopi is, and always was, an actress who can crisscross comedy and drama with the greatest of ease. ("Otherwise, you're a stand-up, and a stand-up is responsible for back-to-back laughs. I don't want to work that hard.") Her show — a cluster of character studies — is a prism through which her ragtag parade of dysfunctionals reflect life truths: Fontaine, a male junkie who on a drug bender in Amsterdam stumbles into the attic of Anne Frank — a re-altering right turn; a beach-ball airhead labeled "Surfer Chick"; a Rastafarian bartender and her Old Raisin, her wealthy, wizened, wheelchair-bound hubby.
New to the mix is a menopausal Texas matron named Lurleen, whom critics embraced warmly like the old friends above. Fontaine has also been brought up to 2004 speed, so he borders on new. "He's the hardest to do, the Cronkite, the most current. He's the reporter so he has to be up on everything that's going on. These days, he muses that he no longer has to buy illegal drugs to get high. He can get the stuff they advertise on television right over the counter."
Only one character from the original Goldberg clown car didn't stand the test of time: the white-envying black girl who flings about a white blouse on her head, pretending it's her "long, luxurious blonde hair."
"She has to be done as an encore, not in the heart of the show, so I call her the mint-on-the-pillow piece. You can't do her without explanation. You say, 'One of the great things that has happened in 20 years is that this is no longer an issue. There was no Queen Latifah back then. That little girl couldn't open a magazine and see Naomi Campbell. Well, now she can — that little girl and many others.'"
None other than Mike Nichols helped her hone these sketches into theatre pieces and produced the show the first time around, just as he has this time. And if the reviews in Philadelphia, where the show tried out, are a barometer, you can too go home again: "It's not necessarily the story line that remains with you," said The Inquirer, "it's Goldberg herself — her enormous talent, which bounces off theatre walls and knocks you willy-nilly; her timing, a mysterious cadence somewhere in her mental reserves; her natural ability as a storyteller; her charm, which informs even her most uncomfortable characters."
Twenty years ago, Whoopi called herself "a medium, something from which these people spring." (Prophetically, six years later, she would win her Oscar as a storefront medium linking the late Patrick Swayze with the live Demi Moore in "Ghost.") "These characters are very much people living in my head, and it's the job of the actor to keep them that way. Actors are schizophrenics essentially, which is how we can produce these vastly different people. If I had not lucked out and gotten into theatre, I could be in Bellevue."
One can't help but wonder what career might have evolved if Whoopi had stuck with the character-sketching. "It doesn't work that way," she shoots down. "The characters, once they come into being, are like people who are growing up. They demand to come back, and they come back in the guise of other characters. You think you're doing somebody new, and it's not somebody new. They reveal themselves that way. It's not a finite process. It's one where the material changes but not necessarily the characters."
Yes, fame has beaten her up a bit, but "other people weren't Out There as much as I was. You can't walk out with a name like Whoopi Goldberg and not get a couple of hits. You can't have the life that I've had — which is somewhat individual — and not know that you can't please everybody. You get a bit beat up by that. I've had — have — a great life. If I were to go today, there wouldn't be very many things I'd look back on and say, 'I regret this.' There are very, very few regrets — very few — but the ones that I have are gigantic."