DIVA TALK: Chatting with Sister Act Tony Nominee Patina Miller

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Patina Miller
Patina Miller Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What a way to make a Broadway debut! For her performance as Deloris Van Cartier in the new musical Sister Act at the Broadway Theatre, Patina Miller has already received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut, an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Musical, a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Musical and a Drama League nomination for the Distinguished Performance Award. Miller, who brings a fiery zest to the role of the nun-on-the-run, was also honored with an Olivier Award nomination for her work in the London production of the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater-scored musical. The day before the Tony nominations were announced, I had the pleasure of chatting with the singing actress, who was also seen in the Public Theater's outdoor summer staging of the critically acclaimed revival of Hair. Miller spoke about her Broadway bow, director Jerry Zaks, co-star Victoria Clark and Sister Act producer Whoopi Goldberg, who created the role of nightclub singer Deloris on screen; that interview follows:

Question: Congratulations on all of your nominations so far.
Patina Miller: Oh, thanks so much. Thank you!

Question: I thought since we haven't spoken before, maybe we'll go back to the beginning. Where you were born and raised?
Miller: Okay, I was born and raised in South Carolina.

Question: How old were you when you started performing?
Miller: When I started performing in public, I was probably around 10 or 11.

Question: Were there any singers or actors that you particularly admired at that age?
Miller: I remember loving to listen to Lauryn Hill, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and around that time I had started watching the "Sister Act" movie, so Whoopi was someone I was familiar with. Question: When do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
Miller: I think that after I did my first solo in school, 'cause I was a shy girl, I didn't really like to sing in public. I sang in public in the seventh grade — in front of all my peers — and I think from there that I decided that I really want to do this.

Miller in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember what you sang?
Miller: Yeah, I sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." It's a church song.

Question: I take it that in high school you did all of the musicals…
Miller: Well, the thing about my town is they didn't really have a theatre program, so my mom put me in this program for the summer where you can go and do theatre and music, and stuff like that. I didn't really get to do it in school, but I got to do it during the summer. It was kind of nice to look forward to something — like the summer theatre arts camp kind of thing.

Question: Do you remember what some of the roles you played in the summer were?
Miller: Well, we did a lot of singing, but the one play we got to do was Annie, and I got to play Miss Hannigan. My mom saw me, and she was like, "Oh, you're really serious about this, huh?" So when she saw me doing that, I think that was when she was first like, "Okay, you're right," so from then on, she started looking up programs where I could study, and she sent me this brochure for this performing arts high school called the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, and she told me that maybe I should give it a go. I tried out the first year when I was a freshman in high school, and I didn't get it, but I tried out the following year, and I got in. And so, I left my high school and went to a performing arts boarding high school.

Question: After high school, what was your next step?
Miller: I went to Carnegie Mellon.

Question: When did you get to New York?
Miller: Well, I stayed there for four years. Right after college, I auditioned for Sister Act, the musical — the first try-out version of the show — that was in Pasadena, LA, California, and Atlanta, Georgia — it was a co-production. I did that for six months, and then I finally moved to the city in 2007.

Question: It's pretty amazing that you are making your Broadway debut as the lead in a show, which is, I think, rare. Tell me about that original Pasadena production.
Miller: It was really fun and exciting for me because this was going to be my first professional gig. I still wasn't Equity, so it was kind of like non-Equity and kind of learning the ropes. I just wanted to learn, and it was really exciting to get to work with Alan Menken, and to sing his music, and to meet [then-director] Peter Schneider at the time, and really do a show that I loved to watch the movie of as a child. It was really exciting for me for those first six months. It's where I started basically learning everything, and learning what it takes to do eight shows a week, and the discipline of it all. I had training, and they teach all that stuff, but to finally be out there and doing it was really exciting for me — and then in Atlanta, I actually got to go on as the lead. I understudied the lead in 2006, and in February of 2007, when we were in Atlanta, I actually got to go on twice. It was the scariest moment of my life, but the most exciting moment of my life because, you know, Deloris is a great character — a great role. I was hoping that maybe I would get the opportunity to do it, at some point, and to get to do it twice, that time was so amazing for me, and now to be doing it on Broadway is kind of a dream come true.

Miller in Hair.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When was it decided that you would take over the lead permanently? Was that London?
Miller: Yes, London is when I took over. I moved to New York in 2007, did Hair, did an Off-Broadway show, "All My Children," and then I got a call in the spring of 2008 from [then-director Peter Schneider] saying that he wanted me to do the London reading because I already knew it, but also because they were unsuccessful in finding someone to play the part. "You know the role already, just come out and do us a favor for two weeks." And I told my mother after I got off the phone with him, "He thinks I'm coming to fill in, but I'm coming to get the part. [Laughs.] I am going to make him see that I am the person, I am the right person for this role," and I did!

Question: What was that London experience like? Had you ever been there before?
Miller: No, it was my first time out of the country, my first time getting a passport, and just to be there in that city… and to be doing theatre was just really, really a great experience for me. The two weeks that I was there were great, but when I actually got the opportunity to go over for two years to do this show, it was just really great. I mean, I couldn't really experience all of London because I had to live like a nun. You know, it was all about the show. I did the show and then I went home. Did the show, then went home. I got to start really getting all I could from the city after our show closed last October and I stayed behind for three months, and I got to really experience the London lifestyle. It was really great.

Miller at the Tony nominee luncheon.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Does anything stand out in your mind from the London run? Any particular performance or people who you got to meet?
Miller: Oh my God, you know what, it's not often that you get to come over and lead a West End show, so my entire experience was a stand-out for me. Every night, seeing the audience reaction and having the different people come to the show, and then having Whoopi Goldberg be in the show, was just like the icing on an already fierce cake. It was just really mind-blowing. Whoopi is like an idol of mine, and I thought it was nice to be able to be there and be around her, but then to actually be able to do a show with her — be on the same level with her, basically — because we are both in this show, trying to do the same thing for the audience, so it was really good to get to work with her like that, and I learned a lot.

Question: When you were onstage with her, did you ever have one of those "pinch me" moments, where it goes through your mind, "I'm on stage with someone who was my idol"?
Miller: Uh, yeah! [Laughs.] I think the first night that we did the show together — because she was nervous out of her mind, and I was nervous, and we were all kind of helping her along the way — it dawned on me as we were doing the show—and they loved her, she knows how to work an audience — [during] one of those long holds when they're laughing at something she's just done, I was just blown away that I was actually on stage with Whoopi Goldberg.

Question: Did she have any advice for you either about the character or…
Miller: No, she very much allowed me to do my own thing. She didn't come in to try and tell me how to do the role… What she wanted me to do was to make it my own. She did it 15-16 years ago, and it was great then, but I'm doing it for the stage, so she never tried to direct me in that way. Of course, she gave me advice and we talked about the character, and my character is very different from her character. I'm a younger woman, so it's a different thing, you know. But she did tell me to just be bold, make bold choices and have fun.

Douglas Carter Beane
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I know the book for Broadway has been altered quite a lot. What was the challenge or difficulty in learning or re-learning something new?
Miller: The only challenge for me was just to be open, and I said from day one that I want this show, I believe in this show so much, I love my character, and I trust Jerry Zaks, and I trust [co-librettist] Douglas Carter Beane, and I knew that they would do the best thing for this show, so I came in with an open mind. I didn't want to re-create what I did in London. This is Broadway. I wanted to start from scratch like everyone else. Of course, I knew the songs already, but it wasn't hard to get new material because I love it, and it's so funny, and the whole process to me was really exciting — to be able to see my character in a new way. It was essentially a new Deloris, and I couldn't wait to experience that and work on that.

Question: How would you describe the Broadway Deloris vs. the London Deloris?
Miller: I think the Broadway Deloris — everything about my character is so specific ... and I don't have to try so hard because it's all in the writing, and Douglas has done a great job of giving this show an identity, a specific identity. We're in Philly. I know what my character's like. I feel like my character is more thought out — all of the characters are more fleshed out. They're real people. These are real situations. It's only comical and funny because it's real, and it's played real. And, my character has more of an arc, and you really get to see her journey throughout the show, and that's what I really love is just being able to make a complete transformation. Whereas in London — not saying anything bad about London, I had a great time, people loved it — but that arc for me wasn't quite there, and I had to work a little bit harder, sometimes too hard, to try to make it land the way that I wanted it to land. Now I get to just sit back and say the lines and do what I need to do instead of [laughs] you know, doing all this other stuff. But they are both different, and they were both really good, but this is Broadway, and they really stepped it up, and it's really exciting to be a part of it. I'm having a great time. Question: Do you find any difference between the Broadway audiences and London audiences?
Miller: Everyone says that the British audiences are more reserved or whatnot, they don't really clap, or they're not into it as much as American audiences, but I have to say, after doing the show in London for two years every night, they were on their feet. We sort of experienced maybe something different, but the audience reaction was great. There were those matinees where you got some of the older British people, who, you know, couldn't quite let their hair down, but they enjoyed it, so those were the only moments where it sort of went really quiet for two hours and thirty minutes. [Laughs.] But the New York audiences — everyone's loving it. They're getting all the jokes, but they are also getting the heart of it as well, because in the second act there are a few emotional moments, and people get those just as much as they get the funny, ha-ha moments, so it's been really nice to see how they react to all of the stuff.

Miller in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for Deloris? Is there something you look forward to doing each night?
Miller: Oh, yeah, I mean I always look forward to singing "Raise Your Voice" with the girls — that's like the start of the journey with the girls. Teaching them to sing, and that's where the bond starts, and it’s the moment at the very end of the song where they're learning — when Deloris starts to teach them how to move a little bit, and to see how they start out small, and then they just go crazy. I look for that moment every night, and it really just makes me so happy.

Question: Tell me about working with Jerry Zaks as a director.
Miller: I trusted Jerry from day one when I met him, because I've heard all these amazing things about him, and I was just so excited to finally get a director — an actor's director. I mean, he's really an actor's dream. He knows what he's talking about, and from day one, we started off, and he told me to trust him, and I said, "I trust you. I trust you whole-heartedly because I want to be the best that I can be, and I know you can help me do that." So, working with Jerry has been a dream because he just knows what he's doing, he knows how to work with me. He's helped me to create this character — this three-dimensional character, and not just ha-ha, funny—but he really has brought a performance out of me that I've been waiting to do. It's been nice to work with him every day, and he really is the best of the best. I can't say enough great things about him — I love him so much, and he's so passionate. The other thing is, it's nice when you get a director who really loves what he's doing, and loves the piece that you're working on, and from day one he's been so passionate about this show and about making it the best it can be, and he's never, ever gotten off track. He's always wanted it to be the best that it can be, and it's just so exciting to see him so happy with us, and with the show — it's just been amazing.

Question: It seems like it's quite a demanding role — vocally and physically. How do you go about maintaining your voice?
Miller: I think it's the same with anyone who is doing a show — there are some things you can do and some things you can't. I don't go out and party because that's just not me anymore. Your social life sort of goes away. [Laughs.] But your friends — they all understand — hopefully they do. I sort of live like a nun when I'm doing this kind of show. Because I've done it for two years, I know what I can do, and I know what I can't do— so I started to ease up on myself a little bit. I might go out once a week for an hour or something, but it takes discipline to know the limits of what you can do and what you can't do because ultimately it's about being there for my show every night.

Miller and Victoria Clark
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: It's such a great supporting cast, also. I'm wondering what it's been like working with Victoria Clark.
Miller: Oh my God, Vicki — I love her so much. I keep saying she's like my stage mom, you know. [Laughs.] She's my theatre mom, and she really just looks out for me and she's just so good to work with. I met her in December. I fell in love with her then, and it's only been a love fest since then. She really is just so amazing, so great to work with on stage, she's there in every moment. It's nice to be able to work with someone who works just as hard as you, and we both are really hard workers, and we're both having the times of our lives. It shows, I think, you know, in what we're doing right now, but it's just been really great to work with her, and she's a really sweet person, and I'm happy that I get to share this experience with her.

Question: How about your own mom — has she been to see the show?
Miller: Oh, my mom. She's one of my biggest fans. She got to see it opening night. She saw it in London, and she was just blown away by it in New York. It was her first Broadway show — most of my family's first Broadway show, so it was a great experience for me — opening night — to perform this role that I love in front of my family who have never seen me really do anything, and they had a great time. My mom loved it, oh yeah.

Question: Well, congratulations again, and I have a feeling that I'll probably be speaking to you tomorrow morning after the Tony nominations come out.
Miller: Oh, you think so? Well, let's keep our fingers crossed, and maybe I'll speak to you soon!

[The Broadway Theatre is located at 1681 Broadway. For tickets phone (212) 239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com. Visit SisterActtheMusical.]

Also, the 65th Annual Tony Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, air this Sunday, June 12 on CBS beginning at 8 PM ET. Enjoy!

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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