STAGE TO SCREENS: Sutton Foster Talks About "Bunheads," a TV Series That Keeps Her On Her Toes

By Kenneth Jones
June 25, 2012

Two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster stars as a rootless dancer who settles into a new life in "Bunheads," the ABC Family comedy-drama (with music and dance). She sent a dispatch from California, where the series is shot.



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Sutton Foster, who won the Best Actress Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, exited the latter Broadway musical in the spring to begin shooting the new ABC Family series "Bunheads," the ten-episode first season of which is now airing at 9 PM (ET) on Mondays.

In "Bunheads," Foster plays Michelle Simms, a Las Vegas show dancer — no, not an exotic dancer — with roots on Broadway and in classical ballet, who finds herself at a crossroads. In her 30s now, Michelle looks in the mirror to see nothing but squandered potential, an unfocused career and no mate to call her own. Don't even mention the shabby motel-like apartment complex she lives in. Enter Hubbell Flowers (played by Alan Ruck), a passionate stage-door Johnny who sees her inner light and, over dinner, offers her a new life. Fresh from rejection for a job in the musical Chicago, Michelle drunkenly accepts his marriage proposal and is whisked off to his coastal California town of Paradise.

A fish out of water in a town that doesn't have a movie theatre — but has enough colorful characters to populate a Hollywood screwball comedy — Michelle bumps up against Hubbell's salty, quirky, Buddhist mother Fanny (played by "Gilmore Girls" alumna Kelly Bishop), and locals including Fanny's oddball pals (hello, Ellen Greene!), Hubbell's romantic rival (Stacey Oristano) and four teen girls (Kaitlyn Jenkins, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain and Emma Dumont) who are dance students in Fanny's dance studio. (For the uninitiated, the title refers to women and girls in classical ballet who pull their long hair into a tight bun.)

Foster on "Bunheads."
photo by Adam Taylor

The pilot episode showed Michelle bonding with the girls, introducing issues unique to each of them. It also had what seems to be the primary adult relationship in the series — Michelle and Fanny, each struggling with issues of identity and potential. When Hubbell is unexpectedly killed at the end of the first episode, the characters' lives are turned upside-down.

Owing to her busy schedule, Foster — who is working 10-to-12-hour days on the set in Los Angeles — answered Playbill.com's questions via email.

"Gilmore Girls" was not part of my viewing habit, but I have friends who say the series was life-changing for its warmth and humor — and how well creator Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote scenes of women talking to women (one of the strengths of "Bunheads"!). I gather that you were a fan of the series. What about it excited you?
Sutton Foster: "Gilmore" is one of my favorite shows of all time. I loved the rapid-fire dialogue and the complex relationships. "Bunheads" has that similar tone but with all new circumstances and characters. Saying Amy's dialogue and working with her and the writers is surreal. I also loved the fact that "Bunheads" revolves around dance and teaching — two things I know well and am passionate about.

How did you and Amy find each other, and what were the early conversations about "Bunheads" like?
SF: She had seen me in Anything Goes and we took a meeting. I was like a super-freak fan of her — I was so excited. She had been working on the pilot of "Bunheads" and thought I might be right for Michelle. I had no idea because at the time of our meeting ABC Family hadn't picked up the pilot, so she couldn't talk to me about it. About two weeks later she called my agent and asked if I'd come and read for the network. I flew out to L.A. on my day off — read for everyone — [and] they offered me the part and I cried. I shot the pilot in November and was so nervous but felt safe under Amy's hand.

Kelly Bishop and Sutton Foster
Photo by Andrew Eccles
Classical dance class seems to be ubiquitous in the lives of many girls. Were toe shoes and tutus in your past, or were you more pop, tap and show tunes? Did you ever dance en pointe?
SF: I started ballet at age four and took classes until I was 20 or so. I never danced en pointe. When we started production I started taking ballet again. I take [lessons] privately almost every day now. It's so challenging and frustrating but exciting.

Was there one influential teacher, like Fanny Flowers, in your own formative years? Who was he/she?
SF: I had two. Diane Clements from Augusta West Dance Academy in Augusta, Georgia, and Juliana Perpenelli from Juliana's Academy of Dance in Michigan!

I like that Michelle Simms is a work-in-progress. There's something rootless about her. Did that appeal to you?
SF: Absolutely. I think, like Michelle, I've struggled to find roots of my own. Growing up, my father was transferred a lot. We moved every three years. I spent my early 20s on tour — traveling city to city living out of a suitcase. Even moving out here to L.A. for the show has been uprooting. So I recognize that in Michelle and in myself, big-time.

I love the well of sadness and focuslessness in Michelle's personal life, compared to how she lights up when she's with the girls. There is almost a maternal light to her when she is around those kids. Do you sense this in Michelle, too?
SF: I love that you noticed that. I think Michelle is lost and she is desperately trying to find a place or a way that she can matter. I think she sees herself in the girls. Her own lost youth? Her own misguided path? I think she'd like to impart some of her own life experience onto them — those girls could become "roots" for her.

Foster in the pilot episode
photo by Eric McCandless

I love that Michelle's performance background has a path — classical training, Broadway work, Vegas. All different disciplines, which means the series' dance vocabulary can be diverse (and it means Michelle has a few years of history!). Will we get to see Sutton Foster do an eight-minute tap dance, like in Anything Goes? More importantly, will we see and hear Michelle sing in the series? Give us a scoop? Or a tease?
SF: There is definitely some singing and dancing down the line!

I was surprised that the series has such a frisky comic tone, at times a touch daffy and absurd (particularly the Paradise world that surrounds Michelle). What's it like navigating that and finding a balance? She is a fish out of water, really — someone earthbound surrounded by sprites.
SF: It's a ball. I love the crazy world that Amy has created and it's fun encountering all these oddballs. It affords a lot of fun and discovery and, at times, horror for Michelle!

How well did you know Kelly Bishop before this experience? There's great tension and chemistry between Michelle and Fanny.
SF: We did Anything Goes together — she came in after Jessica Walter and we became friends on that. We have become friends and I adore her, and she is such an amazing partner to work with!

Broadway's Ellen Greene and Valarie Pettiford were in the second episode. Can you sneak us some other names in upcoming episodes?
SF: Hehe. You'll just have to keep watching!

Foster with castmates Emma Dumont and Julia Goldani Telles
Photo by Adam Taylor
TV shoots are notorious for the waiting-around-before-filming. Broadway shows require stamina, but so do 10-hours days at the studio. What's that like?
SF: There is a lot of waiting but there are also a lot of lines to memorize! It's definitely a different pace, but like anything there is a rhythm…and once you get into that groove it's really OK.

Every actor builds professional muscles and skills with each new project. What are you learning at "Bunheads"?
SF: I'm learning to just leap into the work. There isn't time to get in your own way or get scared, and every day is a brand new challenge. I'm doing things I have never done before almost every day, and that is exciting.

I know you're a Georgia and Michigan girl (and NYC of course). Is there a sense of culture shock to being in California? What do you do there that you haven't done in New York? (Besides drive!) Is there amazing Mexican food in your life? Shasta soda? Disneyland?
SF: Right now it's pretty much all about work. But I am really enjoying the change of pace. I was in need of a change and this just came at the right time.

Stacey Orisanto and Sutton Foster on "Bunheads."
photo by Adam Taylor

Nature is right outside your door. The ocean. The mountains. Has there been time to experience it? Have you hiked? Do you find that you — how do I put it? — breathe differently there?
SF: I will say that I love the vibe out here — the sunshine. I have a backyard where I live, and my dog Linus can play there. I love having a car and I guess it's just nice having a different lifestyle. Although I do miss New York.

How many episodes of the show are planned, and how far along are you in the shooting? Are you sticking around L.A. for awhile, after the filming?
SF: We are shooting Episode 8 right now. So far we are only shooting 10 episodes and we should hopefully know soon if we are picked up for more.

When are you back in NYC? And (selfish question for theatre fans) are there windows in your TV schedule that allow for theatre or concert engagements?
SF: I do have several concert dates set for the fall! It'll be nice to sing again.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

Watch the Playbill Video Cue & A with Foster, filmed in 2010: