Megan Hilty: The Art of the Cross Over

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There’s an art to establishing cross-over appeal in Hollywood. When an actor even slightly transitions from one genre to another, it becomes somewhat of a footnote on the trajectory of someone’s career. Considering how much pressure there is on performers to be versatile enough to move into different mediums, actress and singer Megan Hilty has seamlessly switched from one medium to the next and back again, while managing to keep a fresh perspective. The trick is thinking about longevity, and for Hilty it doesn’t exist in just one genre or the other.

While there’s a bit of luck involved, Hilty played to her strengths early on. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, the theater major scored a rather iconic role as Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked, following on the heels of Kristin Chenoweth’s performance. She stayed for a year and later reprised her role in the original Los Angeles production in 2007.

Hilty broke out in a big way by utilizing her strengths to springboard her career in a new and exciting direction in 2012 in NBC’s Smash. In the short-lived musical series, she played a competitive and misunderstood actress who possesses all the qualities of Marilyn Monroe, but doesn’t exude the wide-eyed ingénue spirit to break out in the coveted role for a fictionalized but fully realized Broadway show aptly titled Bombshell.

Now Hilty has added another line to her résumé: voice actress. In the role of China Princess in the animated film Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, Hilty not only shows off her comedic timing but also goes note to note while holding her own with other versatile talents like Lea Michele (Dorothy) and Hugh Dancy (Marshal Mallow).

Paste spoke with Hilty about the movie, the art of making transitions and her newest role yet—motherhood.

Paste: You’ve played all of these iconic roles in different mediums from Glinda in Wicked, to flirting with Marilyn in the TV series Smash, and now Legends of Oz. Is it ever intimidating?
Megan Hilty: Always. (laughs) Luckily, my first job ever was playing Glinda after Kristin Chenoweth played it, and she just set the bar so high. I really had to come to terms with the fact that I would never give that performance, and I wouldn’t do the amazing things people were expecting. I had to be really okay with what I brought to the table and so I kind of brought that to every other role since then, but it’s always daunting.

Paste: Do you pull in other people’s performances in to your research?
Hilty: Oh, absolutely. I try to do as much research as I can to see what’s done before, but I do make it a point to put my own stamp on it.

Paste: It’s a really exciting season for theater. The Tony nominations just came out. Since you just moved back to New York, is there a particular show you’re excited to see?
Hilty: I’m just so excited for all of them. I haven’t seen many of them because I’ve been living in LA ,but I just saw Bridges of Madison County last night, which didn’t get Best Musical but it was beautiful. Kelli O’Hara has a much deserved nomination. She was stunning in that role. It’s going to be a really great Tonys!

Paste: Did you see this kind of career for yourself, acting in both film and television?
Hilty: I never thought that I would even want to go into television or film. It wasn’t until I went out to Los Angeles with Wicked and started getting these little guest-starring roles that I thought, “Well, maybe I should branch out and do other things like all of my heroes have.” Maybe that’s the key to longevity in this business, is to do as many things as possible. On top of that, I always want to feel like I’m learning something new.

Paste: Who are some of your heroes who have made the transition from stage to screen?
Hilty: Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth—any of the greats that have crossed over into film and television.

Paste: Some people say that the transition from theater to film is the easiest thing in the world, and others say it’s difficult. Where do you stand on that?
Hilty: It was a little difficult only in that a lot of people feel like theater people are “too big” for the camera, like we’re going to be doing “big Broadway acting.” So many people think that and then you start to believe it, too. You go in, and at first you give these awful performances because you think, “This is my ‘small camera’ acting.” It’s a little tough, but luckily people let me in the door to do all of these guest-starring roles and then my actual first TV series I got to sing.

Paste: The premise and format of having a musical in a musical on television was the first of its kind.
Hilty: Absolutely. I would say that it’s groundbreaking to say the least. They did completely choreographed musical numbers with costumes and lights. On a weekly basis, it was crazy how quickly they were written and put together. I think a lot of people kind of took it for granted. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote that music so quickly, and it’s genius. I can’t speak highly enough about them.

Paste: The pacing for that must have been off the wall.
Hilty: We were working a one-hour, single camera show, which is already long hours but throw in learning songs, and recording them, and learning choreography and costume fittings—we had no downtime, which I thought was fantastic.

Paste: How did Legends of Oz come across your desk?
Hilty: I got a phone call one day, and it magically just came into my life. (laughs) It’s crazy because I was literally the only no-name person attached to the film. The cast is ridiculous! I was just a little theater gal trying to make it in LA.

Paste: So you jumped at the chance?
Hilty: Yeah. This came along before Smash. I’ve been working on this for about three or four years. I’ve always loved animation and voice-over work, and it was the reason why I moved back to LA in the first place with no job or anything. I thought, “I need to try and break into television and voice-over because this is what’s going to keep my career going.”

Paste: It’s funny. There seems to be a revival with Oz-centered projects. Last year it was Oz: The Great and Powerful, and now the animated Legends of Oz. Why do you think there’s such an interest now?
Hilty: The movie and books are so deeply embedded in our culture. There are such great themes that go along with these stories, and these characters are so beloved. Anytime you can tap into these stories and these characters people are going to flock towards it.

Paste: Wicked is very different from the Baum books, but did you ever feel like you were revisiting that time?
Hilty: She’s actually very similar to Glinda in the Wicked musical, but it is a whole new character as the China Doll Princess. She’s obviously not being introduced for the first time because they did that with the live-action Oz film last year, but it is in animated form.

Paste: Something that struck me about this film is that its intentions are very pure. There’s nothing sardonic or cynical about it, which is rare these days.
Hilty: People keep bringing that up, and I really appreciated that, too. They didn’t feel like they had to throw in winks to the adults or something. They didn’t have to. It really appeals to a very wide audience—you don’t have to have kids or be a kid to enjoy it, but it sure does help! (laughs)

Paste: I’ve interviewed a few voice actors, and everyone seems to have a really different experience in the booth. How was yours?
Hilty: That’s kind of the best part. It’s getting to go into the booth by yourself. I mean, you’re with a director and the producers and the engineers, but you’re in the booth by yourself and the sky is the limit. You can try anything you want, and the worst thing that can happen is something doesn’t work and they delete it. It’s not like you’re trying something and it fails in front of thousands of people. (laughs)

Paste: So it alleviates some pressure.
Hilty: Absolutely! So you can go in there and be as creative as you want to be. I was all by myself. There’s a song that I sing with Hugh Dancy and Lea Michele, and I didn’t see either of them. (laughs) We just did it all by ourselves!

Paste: You all had great musical chemistry together even though you were alone in the booth. Is it ever awkward meeting someone like Lea Michele having worked with her in this isolated experience?
Hilty: I know Lea from a long time ago. We met several times socially, so I never worked with her before. I haven’t actually seen her since we’ve been working on this film, but I think she did such a great job. She’s so perfectly cast as Dorothy.

Paste: Do you think your role as a mom to be will have any influence in what projects you take on in the future?
Hilty: You know, I don’t know. I’m going to have to play that one by ear. Motherhood is something I never thought was going to be in the picture for me—not until I met my husband. I’m sure it will. Even in some of the clothes that I’m wearing now, I’m like, “I’m going to be someone’s mom—I can’t wear this. Let’s take a step back!” (laughs)

Paste: So what’s next for you?
Hilty: I have a residency at the Café Carlyle this summer for two weeks. One is in the last week of May and the other is the first week of June. It’s going to be hilarious, because I’m going to be so pregnant singing songs like “The Man That Got Away.” We’ve got concerts booked pretty much every weekend through mid-July. My husband plays guitar and sings with me. He’s in the band, so it’s great that we get to do all this stuff together. I’m also working on a film with Warren Beatty.

Paste: How was it working on that film?
Hilty: It’s awesome. I’ve already worked on the majority of the stuff I’m going to do in the film. I just have to go back for one more day, which again, is going to be hilarious because I’m going to be very pregnant when I go back. It’s a ’50s period piece so it’ll be interesting finding wardrobe that will fit me. (laughs)

Paste: Are you allowed to say anything about it?
Hilty: You know, I don’t know much about it. They won’t even let me read the script. I will say I sing in the film, and that’s all I know.

Paste: You have put out an album called It Happens All The Time. Are you heading into the recording studio again?
Hilty: Yes. My next album is going to be a lullaby album. We’re working on it right now and trying to put the details on that together. I think we’re going to do that this summer. With my last album, a lot of parents wound up playing a lot of those songs for their kids to help them go to sleep. So we were like, “Okay maybe we can put together an album of lullabies that won’t drive parents crazy.” They’re the songs that we all know and love.

Paste: Any original lullabies?
Hilty: My husband wrote a lullaby, which I’m hoping we can put on there. It’s so beautiful.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return hits theaters on May 9.