Donna Murphy just took down Voldemort. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Murphy provides the voice of the villainess Mother Gothel in Tangled, and it was the hit animated feature that finally toppled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I from the top slot at the box office a couple of weeks back. Star Trek fans will recall that the Tony Award-winning actress ventured into the Star Trek universe in Insurrection, which opened on December 11, 1998. Murphy played Anij, the serene Ba’ku woman who appealed to Picard’s heart and mind. StarTrek.com recently spoke with Murphy about her memories of Insurrection and her current projects.
Back in 1997, when you signed on for Insurrection, how big a decision was it for you to do a Trek movie?
Murphy: It was a no-brainer. I thought that the opportunity to step into that world, if you will, was too good to pass up. I loved the part. I thought it was an interesting script. I wasn’t going to be buried underneath some of those amazing makeup designs; it was appealing to me that I’d have a human face. And most of my work was with Patrick Stewart, who I think is a fabulous actor. That was something where I went in, had a meeting, auditioned, and was thrilled when they came back and said they wanted to me to do the film.
What do you remember most about the production?
Murphy: I remember the beautiful locations, things that were constructed (at Paramount) and then we went up north and shot (the Ba’ku village scenes) in the mountains. We actually shot in a couple of locations. One was an hour outside of L.A. and then we flew up north and were helicopter-ed into a location way up in the mountains. I’m drawing a blank on specifically where we were, but these locations were stunning. People always said, “Oh, you probably had a lot of blue screen or green screen work on the film, where you had to pretend you were being fired on…,” and I’d say, “Yeah, there was some of that stuff, but there was a lot that was right there that was quite stunning.” You felt like you were in a magical place and you knew you were out of your own natural, familiar element. And the thing about working on Insurrection was I was stepping onto a moving train. I was working with a company of actors that had worked together for years. I could have felt kind of ostracized in that situation, but on the contrary, they were so welcoming. A lot of them had done theater. So there were more show tunes being sung on that set than on any other film I’ve ever been on. Brent (Spiner) and Patrick would say, “Come on, let’s sing something from Sunday in the Park.”
What interested you about Anij as a character?
Murphy: I loved the centered sense of self she had, which is something I always aspire to. I know how to go to my own version of that, but living there, remaining there under stress is not always so easy. I remember, before starting rehearsals for Insurrection, I studied with a woman who’d been a Buddhist for many years. She wasn’t a practicing Buddhist anymore, but she was someone who meditated five times a day and lived a highly spiritual life. Her spiritual life wasn’t about attending services; it was about going inside, going within. I studied with her and worked with her for two or three weeks. I’d done some meditation on my own and studied yoga, and I called upon those things, but this person was terrific in helping me find a place I could access very quickly. Anij walked in a state of meditation. That was very attractive to me and I loved that ability she had to slow time down, to really get inside a moment. People talk about that kind of thing, but they found a way to make that active in the movie. And I admired that Anij was a woman who tried to be an advocate for her race of people who were being threatened. So all those things were attractive to me as an actress and as a woman.
Insurrection was neither a blockbuster nor a flop. Some fans love the movie, think it’s very Zen and consider it something of a high-end episode of TNG. And other fans feel it’s too slow, too cerebral and too much of an episode and not enough of a film. What did you think of it?
Murphy: I’m not objective about these projects. Once I’m in it, I’m in it, you know? It’d be interesting for me to see the film again now, in its entirety, because it’s been a long time. I’ve seen pieces of it because, for example, there’s a piece on my reel. I’m also highly critical of myself in everything. But I’m trying to remember my response to the film outside of seeing myself. As I’m talking about it, I’m remembering that I was quite pleased with it. I hadn’t seen every Star Trek movie. I’d watched several before auditioning and then before filming because I really wanted to understand more about the stories they’d told and the way they told them, and about the characters and the characters’ history. I’d also watched some additional episodes from the series. I think Insurrection did what it set out what it was trying to do. There was action, but this one had more, as you said, of a Zen-like quality to it. But that was in keeping with a big piece of the story, so I felt that it served what they set out to do. Now, that it was a turnoff to some portion of their fan base was unfortunate, but I give them credit for trying something different.
Let’s talk about your current work. How amazed were you that Mother Gothel brought He Who Must Not Be Named to his knees at the box office?
Murphy: I’ve never been one who’s paid a lot of attention to what other films are being released when a film I’ve done is being released. I’ve never really paid attention to numbers. But, the day before Thanksgiving, I was driving up to Massachusetts to visit family with my daughter and my step-daughter and her family, and I was getting all these texts and emails about how well Tangled was opening. I was spewing this information to my family as I was getting it and my husband finally said, “You never pay attention to this stuff.” I said, “I know, but everyone’s hitting me with it.” It was, apparently, a coup that the movie was received very well. That’s everyone’s hope, but you just never know. Then, the next weekend, I got all these texts about it having done so well again and being number one at the box office.
How much fun did you have voicing Mother Gothel, and how evil did you want her to come across?
Murphy: I had a blast playing her, and I actually had a blast just even auditioning. They gave me a terrific character breakdown, which is a description of the character. They don’t always have such good breakdowns, and this one told you things they’re looking for, qualities they feel are necessary in the character, and one of the things I remember vividly is it said this is a character who needs to be as funny and entertaining as she is truly devious and… They didn’t use the word evil, but they said devious and frightening. They added that the trickiest part is that she needs to have some trace, at least, of believable warmth in her relationship with Rapunzel because otherwise Rapunzel will look like an idiot, or just a complete victim, to have remained there for 18 years. So you couldn’t take it too far in the evil direction. I remember saying to my agent, “I really get this. I feel like I have something to bring to the table that would be suitable.” That doesn’t always mean you’ll get cast, but in this case we all got each other and they were enthusiastic about ideas that I had.
What else are you working on? IMDB has you down as starring in the films Higher Ground and Dark Horse.
Murphy: It’s been an unexpectedly busy summer and fall. I did Tangled on and off for a year. Higher Ground and Dark Horse, I was asked to come in and meet with the directors. It was Vera Farmiga on Higher Ground; this is her directorial debut. It was Todd Solondz on Dark Horse. I was enthusiastic about meeting them and I thought both scripts and roles were interesting. In both cases, I ended up not being able to go in because I was working on Tangled the day they were available to see me. I thought, “OK, I have to let them go. Nothing I can do about it.” Then, with Vera, she wanted to talk, and we had a conversation one night. We were talking mommy stuff and then we talked about this role. Vera plays a character we first meet as a child and then we follow her through her teenage years and then Vera plays her from a young adult into her late-30s. I’m her mother throughout, so I age almost 30 years. I didn’t know if I was being offered the role or being asked to audition, but I loved talking to Vera and thought, “Wow, it’d be wonderful working with this woman because she so gets it as an actor and an artist.” The next day I got a call saying, “You got the film. Vera always had you in mind.” It worked out and I got to support her in telling this really interesting story.
Then, with Dark Horse, I couldn’t meet with Todd and I was brokenhearted. I thought, “Oh, there’ll be another (casting) session,” and there wasn’t. A script went out to a film star and they made a deal with that person or were close to making a deal. All I know is that about a week before the film was set to start shooting, unbeknownst to me, my reps got a call saying “So and so has not worked out.” I was visiting my dad, who was not well, and my reps didn’t want to bother me unless it was an offer. I was dealing with my dad. I had a bunch of other conflicts, obligations to promote Tangled and a concert at Lincoln Center. They weren’t even sure they could work out dates, but the Dark Horse people worked with Disney and Lincoln Center and then they came to me and said, “Well, we’ve got good, complicated news.” I’d been dealing with some not good, complicated news, and so they hit me with this good, complicated news, which was that the Dark Horse offer came in and they’d worked out the schedule. I couldn’t even remember the name of it, but they said, “Your fitting is tomorrow if you choose to do it and you start shooting Tuesday.” It all worked out, and I’m glad it did. It’s a crackerjack company, with Mia Farrow, Chris Walken and Selma Blair. And my role was quite unlike anybody I’d ever played before. So I’ve done the three films, and in February I jump into rehearsals for a new Broadway show called The People in the Picture.