Gina Gershon: The Rhapsody Interview
by Rob Trucks | October 19, 2012
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- authors, actors, athletes, political wonks, etc. -- about their relationship with music. Today, we've got actress, musician and author Gina Gershon; listen along to this post with her specially made Gina Gershon's Kitty Licks playlist, which is fairly self-explanatory. Enjoy.
Gina Gershon is best known as an actress: Showgirls, Bound, The Insider and P.S. I Love You, along with another 60-odd movies, TV shows and plays, including Broadway musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Cabaret. In 2003's Prey for Rock & Roll, a film she coproduced as well as starred in, the Beverly Hills High graduate showed off her musical chops as the leader of an all-girl punk band; in 2007, she released her first solo album, In Search of Cleo, an eclectic collection of cabaret jazz spiced with the occasional Jew's harp. Just last week, she also became a published memoirist with the similarly titled In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind, a story about her lost cat, the mystical and sometimes mythical characters who populate Los Angeles before dawn, and how her proficiency with the Jew's harp (seriously) came to be. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Your assistant loses your cat while you're out of town. You've been through a breakup, and two people you're close to pass away. One of those is Ted Demme, who died in January 2002, so obviously the events behind this story happened a while ago. When did you decide that these experiences needed to be a book?
I never really decided that they needed to be a book. It was kind of brought to me. When I made my album, In Search of Cleo, I wanted to play the album out. And I ended up finding this cool venue in New York called The Box. They said I could use their space on their off nights. And it's such a theatrical space, I thought, "Oh, I should just tell a story. I should have dancing girls. I should have, you know, fun things happening while I'm playing the music." And then the story of Cleo popped into my head, I think because thematically it's the same idea as my album. I was just finishing it up, and I hadn't named it yet, when all of a sudden I thought, "Oh, I should tell the story of Cleo, you know, interspersed with the songs. Make it more of a one-woman show." And I just decided to call the album In Search of Cleo.
So many people came up to me afterward and kept saying, "There's no way this is a true story." You know, they're saying they like the music a lot, but the comment that always kept coming back was like, "There's no way this is a true story." I'm like, "This is a true story. I swear to God I'm not making this up." And then from that, David Kuhn, who became my book agent, said, "I like that story of your cat." He goes, "Why don't you just write it as a single story, like for the Kindle?" You know those single stories they have? Something like 5,000 words, right? But I had never done prose. I'd never written something like that, in that form. So I thought, "Oh, that's an interesting exercise. I'll just do it, just because I've never done it." And then when I did that, he asked, "Can I show this to some people?" I'm like, "Yeah, yeah." I mean, honestly, I wasn't paying attention. I was like, "Yeah, yeah, sure" [laughs]. And the next thing I know, he calls me back and he said, "You know, Gotham wants to make you a book deal. They want you to do a whole book of this. Do you think you can do it?" And the next thing I know, I had a book deal.
The book and album share a title and a theme. Do you see them as companion pieces? Does one need the other?
You know, the record I did really had nothing to do with my cat. I mean, they can complement each other, but it really has nothing to do with the story. On my album, Christian McBride played on that song "Marie," which I do talk about in the book because I talk about the Jew's harp, and that was a connecting piece. I had to integrate other stories besides the Cleo story. It's not just the Cleo story. There are memories throughout of different things that related to it.
But the audio book, me and Christian McBride play on it. I play the Jew's harp, and he plays the bass to do background music and sounds at times, which was how the original show was. It was like I had my band playing throughout as I told the story, and then we'd break into a song. In this case, I'm just telling the story on the audio with Christian and I playing strange, funny music to go along with the story. So in a weird way, the audio probably works better at the end of the day, you know what I mean?
Sure. In a certain sense that's how you conceived it.
It's totally how it was conceived. And so I wanted to keep this book, written with my voice, like I was just telling a story. Hopefully I'm successful in that.
Some people need to write in silence and other people need music to keep them company. Since much of this story has already been told on the stage with a backing band, did you listen to music while you were writing?
Well, it's a funny thing. I found myself writing in total silence, and then one day I thought, "This is so insane. I should have some sort of music." I can't have music with words, but I found certain music, like movie scores, like Bernard Herrmann's scores. Or I found, like, "Ride of the Valkyries." But most of the time I wrote in silence. When I listened to music, it was more like cool movie scores. There were never words. As soon as I hear words or lyrics, my mind goes to the words and lyrics, so I totally get distracted. I get distracted very easily, you know.
While we're on movie scores, your Uncle Jack, whom you describe as kind of a "second father," died right before all of this happened. And he was a successful composer and arranger and pianist. How did his musical ability affect your interest in music?
I think he was a big influence on me. When I was making the record, I could listen to music in my head, and I started recording it and writing it down. It was very jazz-oriented, which was weird. And he was basically a jazz musician, primarily. Then of course, he wrote movie scores and TV scores. But I think he gave me an appreciation of music. And I think some of that influence crept into music I would hear in my head. I mean, believe me, I'm nowhere near the musician he was. I can't even call myself a musician, you know. He was a real musician. He was a musician's musician. Musicians loved him. Especially jazz guys.
You do, though, say in the book that if you're a master at anything it's the Jew's harp.
[Laughs] I'm pretty good at the Jew's harp, yeah.
And you play guitar.
Believe me, there's a lot better guitar players than I am. I'm okay when I need to play it.
Let's talk about music as a language. Some English speakers are also fluent in Spanish, and some people just know how to count to 20 or order a beer. Are there other instruments besides the Jew's harp and the guitar where you would call yourself fluent?
No. In the show I played a little bit of ukulele, but that would be like the one through 10 in Spanish. I hear the music in my head, and someone else teaches me my song, but I can't write the music. I write it in my head, and then I learn how to play what I've done, weirdly enough. So I learn how to play what I have to play. When I did this movie Prey for Rock & Roll, I had to learn those songs, and when I went on tour, I had to learn all the songs. I mean, I can play chords and notes. So if I have to do it, I can do it, but I know really great guitarists, so I've gotten lazy. And so I'm like, "Hey, you play this, Leroy [Powell] or Slash or Dave [Stewart]," you know, whoever's playing. Why would I play when I can have someone amazing play? But if I have to, if I'm doing a show, if I have to perform with someone, I'll do it.
We talked about listening to music while you're writing, but you're best known as an actress. Has there ever been an occasion when you would listen to music before going onstage or before shooting a scene?
Oh, tons of times. A lot of times. Definitely. Without a doubt.
In a situation like that, are you picking music that you like to listen to, or do you listen to music for your character?
I pick the music that's appropriate for what I have to do onstage or in film. I pick more of a mood. I'll play a song to match the mood that I need to conjure up.
Can you give me an example?
Oh God, there have been so many. When I did Boeing-Boeing on Broadway, I mean, I playe, [sings], "Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano." I think it's Rosemary Clooney. I'd play lots of fun Italian music. Although, I have to say, if I'm doing a musical, like when I'm doing Bye Bye Birdie or when I was doing Cabaret, I wouldn't play music because I had so much music in my head. I just found myself not playing music. Unless I was doing a warmup, you know? If I had to really warm up, I'd probably just sing, like, Elvis Costello or The Beatles, or maybe Led Zeppelin, really just to open up my voice.
Great. That'll bring us back to the book. Another cat, a potential Cleo replacement, comes over to your house, and it's the human-cat equivalent of a one-night stand. You insist that you will not ask the cat what his favorite Elvis Costello album is, because it's purely a physical thing. What's your favorite Elvis Costello album?
I'd probably have to go Imperial Bedroom.
When you were young, you stole a Jew's harp. You also stole some rubber balls. And those are relatively small items, but you also write about stealing a copy of Led Zeppelin IV. Is that vinyl? And if so, how do you steal a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin IV? And if you were able to pull that off without getting caught, is it possible that you're a master of both the Jew's harp and pilfering vinyl?
Well, clearly, I was. I mean, I don't know how I didn't get caught. I just was very ballsy. I was very confident with my thievery. I had a cape. I just put it under my cape, and I just walked out. I mean, honestly, it's insane. But I did it, and it's crazy. I was just ... I was stupid then, I guess [laughs].
When you stole the Jew's harp, is that because it was convenient, or did you go in thinking that you would grab a Jew's harp?
I saw [a Jew's harp] on the TV -- Snoopy playing it -- and I was instantly drawn to it. I just thought it was cool, and so when I was doing my perusing at Thrifty, I saw Snoopy on the Jew's harp. I mean, I didn't go specifically to find a Jew's harp, but when I saw it, I went, "Oh, there's that cool thing that Snoopy was playing," so I just took it.
But it was an accident that your housekeeper, Marie, was so good at the Jew's harp? You didn't know she was good at the Jew's harp until you came home with it.
That was just fate. I had no idea. I was practicing, and she grabbed it. She said, "I used to play this on the plantation," and she starts playing it. She definitely taught me how to play the Jew's harp.
Was Led Zeppelin IV something you were aiming for, or was it just one of those things where it was the album closest to your hand?
No, I had a plan. That was a planned thing. I needed to learn how to play that song on the guitar so my brother would let me in the room with his older friends. I had a mission to learn "Stairway to Heaven."
And did you?
I did. I can play it to this day. Not well, but I probably can [laughs]. Yeah. Listen, you do a lot of things in order to get into your older brother's room and hang out with the cool kids, you know?