Camryn Manheim Interview

Carmyn ManheimCamryn Manheim interviewed by Chet Cooper

Camryn Manheim, whose role as Ellenor Frutt on ABC's The Practice, recently earned her an Emmy nomination, has just signed a contract with Broadway Books to write a manuscript called "Wake Up, I'm Fat", which is based on her one woman show in New York. Manheim, who stands 5'10" and weighs more than 200 pounds has received strong reviews for her autobiographical play which is sure to be a hit as a book as well. One reviewer, Gloria Cahill described the show as such, "Manheim candidly relays a series of deeply personal stories that include a near-fatal addiction to speed and the harrowing process of overcoming that addiction. Another story points an accusing finger at the academic environment that turned a blind eye to her college drug addiction, choosing instead to praise its slenderizing side effects. In a more comic vein, she describes her quest for a boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend, by recounting a hilarious odyssey through the personal ads, which eventually threw her into a brief encounter with the Canadian Marlboro Man!

Manheim has turned what to many has been a negative into a positive, despite American culture's seemingly unflappable prejudice toward people who are overweight. For Camryn there is little discomfort left. It's a question that she describes as the major conflict of my life as an adult [and] it is how I define myself. Almost everything I do is related to being fat. So on one hand, I can say that being fat is the thing I hate most about myself, but on the other hand, I know that it defines me and is an important part of who I am, and I really like who I am. Manheim points to one turning point in her career that helped her deal with the problems she faced both personally and professionally dealing with her weight. For years, I was trying to get an agent and every time I'd walk in, they'd say, God, you remind me of a young Kathy Bates. I didn't know who she was, this was pre-Misery, pre-Frankie and Johnny, pre all of that. After about the seventh time of someone telling me I reminded them of a young Kathy Bates, I decided to find out who this woman was. I bought a ticket to see her in the Road to Mecca and she truly changed my life. It was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had in the theatre. I was sitting front row mezzanine and its got these rails.....and I felt like I was on a roller coaster, I was holding on so tight, I had to pry my hands off of it at the end of the play, it was amazing.

Like Bates, Camryn's figure hasn't kept her from winning a lead role on a hit television show or movie roles and it certainly hasn't hurt her love life. Of late her name has been connected with that of Broadway dancer and actor Gregory Hines (profiled in 1997 volume IV of ABILITY Magazine). Manheim has even done nude scenes in her 1994 role in the Road to Wellville, which also starred Anthony Hopkins, Bridgett Fonda and Matthew Broderick. The New York Times has labeled her "Up and Coming" and People magazine did a profile of her called "WINNERS".

ABILITY recently sat down with Camryn to talk to her about her career and her activism in the deaf community.

Chet Cooper: How did you learn to sign?

Camryn Manheim: I learned how to sign because when I was growing up in California in order to get into college you needed two semesters of language to get into a University of California school. In high school I failed French, German and Spanish every time I took it. I come from a Jewish family. Both of my parents are professors and everyone in my family has some fabulous degree of something or another and I couldn't get into college because I didn't know a language. So I went to a community college. Oh my God what a scandal I was shunned from the Jewish community. So here I am at a community college thinking about taking Japanese or Hindu or something. I went to the language board to inquire about sign language. I learned that sign language has always been taught in the humanities and not as a language. Apparently though this community college, Cabrillo in Santa Cruz, had hired a very well respected sign language instructor and no one was taking the class. So there was a one-time offer only, sign language as a language but for one semester only! I needed two semesters so I took both beginning and intermediate classes at the same time. My intermediate class was at nine o'clock in the morning and my beginning class was at two o'clock. It was ridiculous but I made it through the classes and went right on to university. I had learned the alphabet and certainly a hand full of signs, perhaps fifty words. I then went on to get my degree in theatre and kind of forgot all about it.

Then a couple years later I was walking down the street and I saw a man get hit by a car. The police came and the man was lying on his back, eyes wide open, with the police standing over him screaming at him "What is your name?" It dawned on me that this man was deaf so I walked over and signed, "Are you deaf?" He lifted his hand off the ground and signed "Yes". He spelled his name and address and gave me his phone number. They called his family who was also deaf. So it was the blind leading the blind, no pun intended. It was really weird like the cops almost summoned me. They told me I had to go to the hospital with them. And I'm worried they are going to find the pot I have with me in my bag! They kept prodding me with - it's your duty as a citizen. So I went to the hospital and spent seven hours with him and his family trying to help him through this traumatic event. I learned more sign language through that seven hours then I did in the subsequent years I studied it. After that I thought this was really silly because if I continued my studies I could have been more help to this man. So I went back and learned more. But I didn't do it for any other reason then to help someone who got hit by a car?

CC: So now you walk the streets? (jokingly)

CM: CM: Yes I walk the streets like a regular Superwoman....No I graduated college and went to NYU for a graduate program and studied some sign language while I was there. And all this time I had almost no contact with anyone in the deaf community. It was really interesting when I actually met a deaf person because I couldn't understand what they were saying. I had learned the technical side which is so much different then the casual real world side of sign language. That was really frustrating. But I got really excited with it and I started to going to all the plays, which had interpreters, and I took seminars and classes. All this time I was getting better and better and better. I began to become more familiar with people in the deaf community, especially in theatre. I worked as a job trainer for deaf people and also as an interpreter at a hospital. I placed over a thousand deaf people in jobs throughout my career working for the deaf. It was different then though. Interpreting is now a career. The ADA thankfully has ensured the right for deaf people to have interpreters in any environment and that has really changed those working in that capacity. It so happened that I also come from a long line of political activists. My brother works for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) my parents have been arrested for civil disobedience numerous times and I have as well. One of my earliest memories is of my father carrying me in one arm with a picket sign in the other. I haven't had iceberg lettuce since I was seven and we boycotted grapes and so on. So it was natural for me to want to get involved with deaf activism. I wanted to lend my support in some way. I did that by donating my time to all the rallys I could, like a gay rights rally or as an interpreter for political campaigns. I was actually Jerry Browns interpreter in New York during his presidential bid. I always think of that movie Six Degrees of Separation and think about all the people in like Calcutta that I can be linked to just from working with him. I had no brush with celebrities yet so I am totally naive. And around me is like Matthew Modine and Carly Simon. I signed for Jerry and Matthew and then Carly came up and sang "Your so Vain" which is a tune I had grown up with. It is kind of ironic that I'm signing for this song which deaf people can't even hear. But I knew the song and it was easy to do. Then two days later we were doing another rally and Carly is there again. So this time I approached her and asked for what song she was going to do in advance and she told me it was a new one she had never done before. So I asked her the theme of it and she put her hand on my shoulder and came close to my ear and sang me the whole song. To this day I have no idea what that song was about I couldn't stop thinking "Carly Simon is breathing in my ear!" I then went on stage and dizzily interpreted it for everyone else. It was all just so exciting for me.

CC: What is your involvement today with sign language and the deaf movement?

CM: One of the things I did when I was in New York, which has a wonderful deaf community, is I have worked on making Broadway more accessible to deaf people. There is one Broadway show every month which gets interpreted. I went to Julliard to study how to interpret for the theatre. Then I realized if I spent all my time interpreting on the side of the stage I would never make it to the center so I cut it down and that is when my career took off.

CC: Had you always had the intent to be on Broadway? Were there other types of acting you wanted to do when you started?

CM: Well I thought in school that I'd end up in some regional theatre or in a touring company. My dream was to work in Ashland Oregon and work for the community theatre there. That was my acting dream. That changed when I got to New York and saw all of the opportunities out there. I wanted to be on Broadway and actually haven't made it there yet but I intend to soon. It never occurred to me that I'd be on a television show or in feature films but when those came into play my dreams changed along the way.

CC: How did you land your role on The Practice?

CM: I had written my one woman show called "Wake Up I'm Fat" which is about growing up fat in America which is no picnic. It is comic and tragic portrait of what it's like to be a woman today. Years ago women of my size were considered royalty. If you were a large woman it meant you didn't have to work in the fields all day and you were rich and incredibly desirable. I don't know what happened but it wasn't my choice and I don't like it frankly. I wrote the play and the main head of casting at 20th Century Fox came and saw the play and he introduced me to David Kelly. I had already played lawyers before on New York Undercover and Law and Order and he had seen me do the lawyer thing. They had first thought I was too conservative until they learned I had a tattoo and rode a motorcycle. I knew going in they weren't sure I was right for the part so I felt a lot of pressure. Knowing that they first thought I was a bit conservative I decided to be totally crazy. It turned out to be the worst meeting I'd ever had. David is so shy so he doesn't help you out much in an interview. I was half way out of the chair and I noticed he had a cribbage board next to his couch. My father was a mathematician and loved cribbage. When I mentioned it his eyes lit up for the first time. He said, "You don't want to go there with me." I shot back, I have a degree in math and I am a tournament bridge player so I don't think you want to go there with me. You know David I could continue to have this meeting with you and try to impress you which I'm doing unsuccessfully and I could beat the crap out of you at cribbage at the same time. Then he said, I don't think you understand I play the computer. And I said, I don't think you understand I play for money. So why don't we just screw this audition right now and I'll play you for the part. If I lose you'll never see me again not for Chicago Hope, Picket Fences or Ally McBeal. But if I win I walk out with the script. And he said, "You have a better chance of getting the part with an audition." And I said, "OK now I smell your fear." I'm challenging him to a duel and he's telling me he doesn't have a script right now but he'd promise to give me one. Then three weeks later he sent me one. I auditioned and got the part. I sent him a cribbage board and a note, which said "I challenge you to a duel you big fat wimp." He doesn't play me until thirteen episodes later. I made an announcement in front of everyone that he hadn't played me and that he was scared so he said, "OK I'll play you." We went into my dressing room and played. We opened the door and stepped outside and didn't say anything. The next day a memo is sent around to the entire cast which said "Cribbage is no longer allowed to be played on the entire set and is illegal in the state of California."
So that's how I got the job on The Practice. But that isn't representative of my early career. I came out of school in 1987. This is pre Rosanne or Kathy Bates or Rosie. There were just no fat women on TV and when they were it was just real self-deprecating. I had no role models. So it was difficult coming out of the gate. If it wasn't for New York Theatre and certain amazing directors such as Tony Kushner and Mark Brokaw who gave me my first jobs and encouragement who saw past that I was a 20-year-old big girl. Nobody else knew what to do with me because big women are old. I tell a story in my play that when I was in school I never played anyone younger than fifty. No one saw a big woman as a viable young person. But somehow the directors at the time I started on acting in New York found the roles to put me in the forefront. It was a life altering experience. The confidence I built from working with great directors and writers gave me the balls to write my own show, which really brought me into the public eye intensely.



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