Honey, What’s Going on Here?
Megan Mullally is responsible for crafting one of the most popular and seminal sitcom characters of all time, the irrepressible and fabulously absurd Karen Walker. Ahead of her headline Mardi Gras Festival appearance, she speaks with Garrett Bithell.
“I’m prepared to be torn limb from limb by Sydney’s gay men.”
So says American actor Megan Mullally, the formidable comic talent behind arguably one of television’s most iconic characters: the strong, shrill gold-digging socialite with a sharp wardrobe and even sharper tongue, Karen Walker from hit sitcom Will and Grace. As Mullally is fully aware, when to comes to gay-icon status, Karen Walker would give Judy Garland and Madonna a run for their money. So when she arrives in Sydney later this month as the big international drawcard of the 2013 Mardi Gras festival, she is girding her loins for a right-royal mauling.
“I think Karen resonates with the gay community because she is a character who is not afraid,” Mullally says. “I’m going to speak in the present tense just for the fun of it! She’s not afraid of what other people think of her – she’s very loud and proud.
“Unfortunately the gay community is still an oppressed minority, and I think any oppressed minority is going to relate to a character who is so confident and uncompromising – Karen brings people around to her way of thinking and that’s the end of it.”
Set in New York City but filmed in front of a live audience at CBS Studio Center in Los Angeles, Will and Grace ran for eight highly successful seasons from 1998 until 2006. Although originally based on the relationship between gay lawyer Will Truman and his interior designer best friend Grace Adler, the secondary characters of Karen Walker and Jack McFarland proved so popular that the four characters soon had equal screen time.
Today, almost seven years since the series wrapped, Will and Grace remains the most successful television series with gay principal characters. The show has been cited as one of the primary architects of social and political change in the US around the issue of gay rights and marriage equality. Indeed in May 2012, during a Meet the Press interview, Vice President Joe Biden asserted that “Will and Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand.”
“That was pretty incredible,” Mullally says. “There were emails going around between the cast and crew and directors of the show, which was the first time there’s been that collective reaction between all of us since we went off the air. So it’s a big deal, and everyone was pretty proud.”
In 1999, Mullally ignited a bonfire of controversy for asserting in an interview with The Advocate magazine that everyone is “innately bisexual”.
“I do think that, at least from a philosophical point of view,” she says. “Obviously people’s levels and awareness vary, as we know, and some are more open-minded and freer than others, and that’s fine. Everyone is going at their own pace.
“But I do think a lot of things are culturally ‘unacceptable’, especially in straight male culture. But take that away – that social paranoia – and what have you got, I wonder? There’s certainly something to that.”
Certainly, much is made of Karen Walker’s bisexuality on the show. In a sixth-season episode, Karen says to a lesbian realtor, played by Edie Falco, “Stay back, bulldozer, I'm engaged!” To which she replies, “You were last time, too.” In another episode, Karen says to Jack, “The last town we lived in, I fell in love with a boy. He had long blond hair, delicate features, soft skin ... at least I think it was a boy. Well, anyway, I was in love. And he or she loved me.”
Mullally was born in Los Angeles and studied ballet from the age of six, even studying at the School of American Ballet in New York City. She eventually studied English Literature and Art History at Northwestern University, and became involved in the Chicago theatre scene. After moving back to Los Angeles in 1985, she landed a number of guest spots on various television series, and even tested for the co-starring role of Elaine Benes on Seinfeld in 1990. Mullally made her Broadway debut as Marty in the 1994 revival of Grease, and subsequently appeared as Rosemary in the hit 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opposite Matthew Broderick.
But Mullally’s break came in 1998, when she landed the role of Karen Walker. With no formal acting training, Mullally crafted Karen using instinct and vivid external artifice: flawless alabaster skin, perfectly groomed hair and makeup, an immaculate designer wardrobe that amplified her 34C breasts, and an unusually high squeaky voice. But Mullally’s natural speaking voice is much lower, and indeed the shrill high pitch didn’t emerge until part-way through season one.
“From the start, I thought it would be funny is Karen was so critical of other people yet had this incredibly annoying voice,” Mullally says. “Usually in the past I would have gone into the audition with that choice, but I had learnt at that point not to make such big choices straight away. So I brought it in slowly, working it in over the first few episodes.”
Mullally herself doesn’t possess Karen’s brashness, and is much shyer and more softly-spoken than her famous creation.
“Karen is perhaps the furthest character away from me that I’ve played,” Mullally tells. “I know that’s disappointing and I’m sorry about that! However one thing I love about Karen is that she has a childlike quality to her – this cavorting, petulant childlike manner. I’d like to think I have that playful quality too.”
Following Will and Grace, Mullally hosted her own talk show, The Megan Mullally Show, from 2006 until 2007. She has also guest-starred five times as Tammy Swanson – the ex-wife of Ron Swanson, played by her real-life husband Nick Offerman – on Parks and Recreation, as well as roles in Party Down, Childrens Hospital, Happy Endings, and Breaking In.
She is coming to Sydney with An Evening With Megan Mullally, which will combine her legendary wit and expert musicality by presenting her in-conversation with comedian and pianist Seth Rudetsky. The two old friends will shoot the breeze, dish the dirt, and raise the roof with performances of a variety of classic Broadway songs.
“It’s very loose,” Mullally says. “We don’t have any set pattern, and I think we’ll even change up the songs night to night. But I can’t wait to see everyone there!”
Reprinted with kind courtesy from CULT Magazine, where this article first appeared. The latest issue – February 2013 – is out now.
An Evening with Megan Mullally, part of the Mardi Gras festival, is at the State Theatre, Sydney on February 22 & 23. Go to www.mardigras.org.au.