An interview with Emmy winner
of ABC-TV's The Practice
By Gloria Cahill
Manheim, who stars as the straight-shooting attorney Ellenor Frutt in
the ABC drama The Practice is no
stranger to Radiance readers.
We first featured Camryn four years ago, when she was appearing
off-Broadway in her ground-breaking one-woman show, Wake
Up, Iím Fat. The play covered a wide range of issues, including
the difficulties inherent in making it in a business that focuses on
physical perfection, her unrelenting quest for a "boyfriend,
boyfriend, boyfriend," and her left-leaning, activist parentsí
inability to accept her size.
Since Wake Up, Iím Fat, Manheim has
broken through the size barriers of the TV and film industries, she has
been dating regularly, and her parents are schepping knackas, which,
loosely translated from Yiddish, means, "they couldnít be more
proud." And, for the record, Manheim is still fat and is still
actively working to wake people up.
In addition to her leading part in The
Practice, Manheim has had feature roles in a number of
films, including The Road to Wellville, Romy and Michelleís High
School Reunion, Wide Awake, Mercury Rising, and the soon-to-be-released
films Happiness, David Searching, You Are Here, Foolís Gold, and The
Tick Code with Gregory Hines. She has had guest spots on Law and
Order, New York Undercover, Touched by an Angel, Chicago Hope, and
Ally McBeal. In 1995, she received
an Obie Award for Craig Lucasís Missing Persons. And in 1997,
she took great pride in hosting the Obie Awards and honoring
actors for their excellence in off-Broadway theater. Knowing that
entertainment and politics arenít mutually exclusive, she recently
hosted the annual luncheon for the American Civil Liberties Union. Most
recently, she was honored by the Western Law Center for Disability
Rights for her fat-positive activism. She is also the subject of a
documentary currently being filmed that will focus on the positive
aspects of living large in New York City.
In addition to acting, Manheimís
other loves include making pottery, swing dancing, and playing
tournament-level bridge. In fact, she asserts that it was her passion
for card playing, coupled with a fiercely competitive spirit, that
ultimately won her the role of Ellenor in The Practiceóbut
more on that later.
One of Manheimís most challenging
roles has been as an advocate for size acceptance. Although it has by no
means been her easiest role, it is one that she has assumed with passion
Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for the size-acceptance
movement, and, if so, how does that make you feel?
After I wrote Wake Up, Iím Fat, the fat community stuck a
torch in my hand, wanting me to lead the crusade. I was scared, because
I knew that in the political arena, you have to satisfy so many
different types of people at once, and I wasnít sure that I could
speak for everybody and be politically correct. I was very nervous about
that, and I was very adamant about the fact that I was telling my
story. This is my story about growing up fat, and this is how I
handled it. I kind of tiptoed through the political arena and wasnít
really ready to stand up on a platform and talk, because I was
afraid of offending people. I knew that I had
offended some fat people. I received complaints that
there wasnít enough fat-friendly seating in the theater. I said
things that were upsetting to the fat
community. I spoke about the force-feeding thing [the practice
of a small subgroup of male fat admirers, who pressure their fat
girlfriends to eat more to get larger], in a not-so-positive way
and some people took offense at that. I needed to protect
myself from being turned against. So I think I walked gently
and lightly in the beginning. But everybody was fascinated by the fact
that I was able to talk about being fat. I think I was
"acceptable." I think a lot of people are afraid of fat people
or they look down on them or they pity them, but because I wasnít
supersize, they werenít afraid of me.
did you overcome your reluctance to carry that torch?
first I thought, I donít always want to talk about it. Iím more than
this. Iím more than fat. I want to talk about other things. So I would
make agreements with interviewers that we could talk about it, because I
didnít want to shy away from it, but that it was also important to
talk about the other things I was involved with. And then I thought,
Screw that, Iíll talk about it all the time, because if I donít, who
else will? And I certainly would like for it to be talked about by
somebody who is articulate and who has confidence and can maybe make
somebody think. Because of that desire, Iíve developed a sense of what
I want to talk about, and Iím not taken by surprise by questions
anymore. I think thatís where the confidence came from and thatís
where the voice came from.
motivates you to address the issue of being a fat woman in America?
have lived my life in a culture that hates fat people. Every billboard,
every magazine, and every commercial tells me I should hate my body.
There are billion-dollar industries invested in me hating my body:
the fashion industry, the diet
industry, the nutrition industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry are
all invested in my hating my body. If women of my size were to actually
enjoy being their size, those industries would collapse. That I
am now thirty-seven years old and have any sense of self-respect and
self-worthóand any confidence at allóis a miracle! When I meet large
women who walk with confidence and are articulate and really have an
understanding of how they walk in this world, I love them so deeply for
being able to overcome such unbelievable odds. So instead of beating
myself up for being fat, I think itís a miracle that I laugh every day
and walk through my life with pride, because our culture is unrelenting
when it comes to large people. I donít understand. We hurt nobody. Weíre
just fat people!
you do a revival of Wake Up, Iím Fat?
No, I donít have any plans to revive the show, but Iím currently
writing a book based on the script with the same title due out this
spring. And Iím working with three fabulous filmmakers in creating a
documentary which will highlight some of the glorious aspects of being
fat in New York City. We go to the fat dances and interview women and
interview men. We go to a lingerie contest and a wet T-shirt contest. Itís
fantastic, a very joyful thing.
sounds like a terrific project. One thing that strikes me when you talk
about size is the fact that you donít shy away from the word fat. Why
is that? What does that word mean to you?
Iíve always thought of fat as just a descriptive word. Iím
blonde, I have blue eyes, and Iím fat. I guess it does carry with it a
negative connotation from the past, but in order to change that, you
just simply have to use it without apologizing for it. You know, in this
world of political correctness, you never really know what to say. I donít
think fat people have come together and decided what they want to be
called. I hate overweight, because it implies that thereís a weight
standard I should be adhering to. I think Rubenesque is poetic and nice.
I would feel silly saying it fifty times in an interview, but itís a
good one. Large is fine by me. I really struggle with the word obese. It
has a very "you-are-about-to-die" quality to it, which
certainly doesnít describe me.
I remember I once read a script, and
the description of the character was, "An extremely obese woman,
about 200 pounds, walks in." Now wait a second, an extremely
obese woman, about 200 pounds . . . ?! Had I had an agent, I would have
told them, I refuse to audition. But since I didnít have an
agent, I was grateful for every audition I got. So I swallowed my pride
and I went to do some really great fat acting.
At the audition, I was told I wasnít
fat enough, to which I responded, I weigh a hell of a lot more than 200
pounds. You might want to reconsider the description of the
character. So to me, fat just seems to be right to the point and
the most descriptive way to say it. When I say fat, it just is
what it is, and it doesnít carry any other weight (no pun intended)
than the description of something. I mean, if weíre really going to
say that fat isnít bad, then it isnít bad, and you have to say it.
And you have to say it loud.
understand that David E. Kelley, the creator of The Practice,
was hesitant to cast you.
My managers, Peg Donegan and Maryellen Mulcahy, have a colleague
named Randy Stone, who casts for
Twentieth Century Fox, the studio where The Practice
is made. He came to see my show and went back to David Kelley and said,
"Iíve met this wonderful actress, and I think that you should
meet her." So David told Randy to just send a tape of some of my
prior work. I had played a lawyer before on several other shows, so
David saw a tape of that and was unimpressed. He thought that I was too
conservative. And Randy Stone said, "Okay, she has twelve holes in
one ear and rides around New York on a motorcycle. Conservative, sheís
not!" So David, because he respects Randy Stone, said, "All
right, Iíll meet her." But I had to fly myself out there knowing
full well that David Kelley didnít think I was right for the role.
So I went, trying to be as
not-conservative as possible, and we had this meeting that was awful, to
say the least. David is very shy and sometimes awkward, and he wasnít
interested in me. He was just doing it as a favor to Randy, and Randy
was saying, Tell him about that part in your one-woman show where
you did this or that. He was trying to create these funny moments, and
it was awful. I was bombing terribly. By the time the meeting was
winding down, it was clear to me that I was not going to be on David
Kelleyís new prime-time series, but I noticed he had a cribbage
board next to his couch. Now, I am a very competitive card player. I
play bridge in tournaments, I play cribbage, I play any kind of card
game. So I said to David, "Oh, do you play cribbage?," and it
was the first time in the whole interview that he showed any signs of
life. He sat up and he said, "Uhhh, you donít want to go there
with me." I said, "You know, David, I could continue to have
this conversation with you, continue to try to impress you, which I am
doing unsuccessfully now, and I could beat the shit out of you in
cribbage at the same time." And he said, "I donít think you
understand: I play the computer." And I said, "I donít think
you understand: I play for money." I said, "Why donít we
just screw this audition, and Iíll play you for the part. If I lose,
you will never see me againóno Chicago Hope, no Picket Fences, no Ally
McBeal [shows also by David E. Kelley]. But if I win, I walk out
of here with the script." He started hemming and hawing and said in
the most sarcastic tone, "I gotta tell you, if you actually do the
audition, youíll have a better chance of getting the part." And
then I said, "Now youíre scared." And he said, "Look,
the script isnít written, so I canít give it to you, but I promise Iíll
give you a copy when itís done."
So I left the audition that day
thinking, Oh, my God, the meeting part sucked. But the challenge was
what won him over. Heís a major competitor. Three weeks later, I got
the script in the mail, and it was clear to me that he had written
Ellenor with me in mind. The character description read, "Big
ballsy woman walks in. No nonsense. Takes over the room." So I
figured, Well, thatís me. But I never really had a confirmation about
that until recently, when we went to the Museum of Radio and Television
to a panel discussion with fans. Someone asked David, "Do you write
the characters first and then meet the people or do you meet the people
first?" He said, "In all cases, I write the character firstóexcept
for Camryn. I met her first and then I wrote the character." I had
such a sense of victory, of triumph, at that moment. It was all private,
because I was up in front of many hundreds of people, but it was quite
you never did play cribbage?
Many months later, after we had done thirteen episodes of The
Practice, I went back to David and said, "You
know, youíre a big fat wuss. You still havenít played me." So
he came into my room and played me, and I donít need to tell you who
won. All I need to tell you is that the following day, a memo was
circulated around the entire studio, and it read as follows:
"Cribbage is no longer allowed to be played on the set of The
Practice. Gambling is illegal in the state of
So I wrote a letter back to David
saying, "Now that you have no recourse to win your money back, I
expect you to pay the full amount by this Fridayóin a check, so that I
can frame it."
Then he wrote me back saying, "As
commissioner of cribbage, I was going to rescind the ban on cribbage,
but because of your flippancy, I have chosen not to rescind it for you.
In fact, I am fining you $1.35 for your flippancy, and I expect you to
open up an escrow account." Which I did. So itís a great story,
and itís why I have the part: my fear was outweighed by my passion for
do you get into character for your role on The Practice? How are you and
I come from the theater. In the theater, when Iím working on a
character, I have a script and I know the beginning, the middle, and the
end. I was trained to look at the "arc" of the character: to
start out with the characters not knowing so much about themselves,
embarking on the journey to learn about who they are, and in the end to
have made some great discovery. And thatís what makes great theater.
Where my training falls short is in what happens when you donít know
what discovery is going to be made.
On a weekly television series, we donít
have a lot of preparation time: most often we get the script two or
three days before filming. Sometimes when youíre creating a character,
particularly in the theater, you start off with a blank slate and add
layers to the character. With Ellenor, however, it would not behoove me
to start off with a blank slate, because as far as layers go, I have
only what David has handed me. I donít know if she has a brother or a
sister or parents. I donít know anything about her past life except
what I have imagined. And I am aware that in the next script, I could
find out a lot about her family and her past. So I chose to bring to the
character some of the complexities of me, Camryn, and lend them to
The character I play is a wonderful
compilation of things I hate about myself and things I love about myself
and things that Iíve invented to make her even more interesting than
me. We are similar in many ways. Certainly our political beliefs are
very much in line. I had some problems with a couple of the scripts
involving the death penalty, involving abortion, and, obviously, dealing
with the fat issue. Those are three things that mean a lot to me,
Camryn. So I chose to make them mean a lot to Ellenor, and in so doing,
I was able to argue successfully to have some things changed. I could
say, "Ellenor would never say this."
When it comes to boys and her weight,
I think Ellenor is much more conservative than I am, and she has not had
the dialogue I have had about my weight. She probably would call herself
overweight, because thatís what sheís been told she is. I donít
think that she engages in discussions about her weight with her friends.
I think Ellenor is embarrassed and ashamed and has devoted all of her
energy to the law and to helping other people get justice because itís
too difficult for her to face her own struggle for justice.
one episode this past season, Ellenor defended a fat woman who sued a
circus for humiliating remarks a clown made about her. How did you feel
about that episode?
It was a major breakthrough for Ellenor, but if you notice, she didnít
want anyone to help her. She was mad at everybody. It was her and the
client, Marsha Belson, fabulously played by Sheryl Hawker, against the
world. I should mention that the actor who played the opposing attorney,
as well as Michael Badalucco, who plays Jimmy on the show, and Steve
Harris, who plays Eugene, are all heavy, but there was no mention about
the weight of the men.
you think that was done deliberately?
not deliberately, but unconsciously. I think it is just indicative of
the way we view fat men as opposed to fat women. Itís okay to be a fat
man. Itís prestige and power and all of that. But fat women are seen
as just lazy and stupid and having no self-control.
key story line for Ellenor was her romance this past
season. Did you have any say about how it was represented?
is where I really see my work as rewarding. Ellenor started to date
somebody on the show and it started to get serious, and the characters
made love. But instead of showing it, as the show does when Dylan and
Lara make love, Ellenor just spoke about it. So I went to the male
producer and I said, "You may not be aware of this, but you have
subconsciously not showed any tenderness on screen between me and my
boyfriend because Iím fat and you donít think that viewers want to
see it. I think they do and I insist that you let us show some
tenderness and kiss." And so they did. We had two beautiful kisses
in one episode.
Iím so grateful to have been able to
bring that to our culture and to all those women out there who are
struggling and donít think that theyíre sexy or that men are going
to find them attractive. And maybe this will help make men say, Wow,
that fat woman is sexy, and that thin man is interested in her.
it important that Ellenorís boyfriend be played by a thin man?
When I read the script, I immediately called the casting office and
said, "We have a much larger issue to contend with here, which is
how people perceive fat women in this country. It is essential that you
pick an attractive man for me to date. It is important that he not be
fat, ugly, or tiny, and that when we get together there is some
chemistry and there is some loviní goiní on. Handsome, thin,
sophisticated men often fall madly in love with larger women, we just
never see it on TV. If we did, perhaps it would give men permission to
follow their hearts and do it more often. That is why it is essential to
me that you consider this when you are casting." And so they cast
just the greatest guy, J. C. McKenzie. He couldnít be more lovely and
fabulous, and I was thrilled to be working with him. P.S.óHeís a
good kisser, too.
of the most striking qualities about Ellenor is that she always looks so
well put together. Sheís never portrayed as dumpy, and her wardrobe is
stunning. Who determines Ellenorís look? Do you have a say in your
Loree Parral selects the wardrobe, and she is a godsend. She understands
my figure. She knows whatís going to look good on me. I love
everything she brings for me to try on. Sheís amazing. In fact, sheíll
often bring me something and Iíll love it and Iíll ask her if she
would order one for me. We, of course, spoke early on. I told her Iím
not a big fan of dresses, and if I have to wear a skirt, then Iíd like
it to be long. Itís a big deal that Ellenor wears pants in court. I
donít think youíll see another female lawyer on television wearing
pants. Itís considered disrespectful, and yet itís a federal law
that women are allowed to wear pants in courtóso thatís actually
quite a big deal. But when Ellenor goes to federal court, sheís no
dummy, she wears a skirt. She does want to win, after all.
the outfits you wear on the show readily available in stores?
There are many designers who tailor clothes for plus sizes: Tomatsu,
Jones New York, Dana Buchman, Emanuel, Nira Nira, and Marina Rinaldi.
The quality of the clothes is great. But theyíre very expensive, and
itís too bad. Tomatsu is my absolute favorite. Whenever I go to an
event, I suck up to Loree Parral and borrow from Ellenorís wardrobe!
It is a big deal that I look good and
not dumpy. Itís important to me that I look good on television
because, letís face it, Iím single, and you want somebody to watch
the show and fall in love with you. After all, that is the goal
of being on TV, isnít it? Itís all about beiní loved. (Laughter.)
brings us back to one of the themes that ran through Wake Up, Iím Fat.
You declared, "I want a boyfriend,
boy-friend, boyfriend." Do you, Camryn, have a boyfriend?
I dated a beautiful Frenchman who would say to me every day in French,
"You are everything and more, and a little more than that." He
was incredibly kind and beautiful and all of those wonderful things. We
were together for over a year, but the distance was very difficult for
us. He lives in New York and Iím in L.A. So we just mutually agreed to
move on. But Iím dating now. Love it. I went swing dancing last night.
I love it.
of the main themes in Wake Up, Iím Fat was your relationship with your
parents and their efforts to encourage, sometimes even to bribe you, to
lose weight. One of my favorite lines in the show is, "Of course
our parents know how to push our buttons. Theyíre the ones who sewed
them on!" How are your parents reacting to your tremendous success?
My parents are so proud, and while they are not really willing to take
responsibility for some of the things they said in the past, they do, in
their silence, make some apology for it. I think they choose not to
really confront the issue of me growing up fat, and how they, in their
attempts to protect me from other people, actually caused me a whole
other set of sorrows. They were afraid that I would suffer a lot because
the world hates fat people. Our culture, to be more specific,
really hates fat people. Or were they just embarrassed that I wasnít
the perfect child? Well, theyíre certainly not embarrassed anymore.
They get so much pride and enjoyment out of my success, which I am happy
to share with them. Despite what they did or didnít do regarding my
body image, to me, itís all outweighed by what they did do,
which was to give me unconditional love and support for my passion for
in this country havenít stopped hating fat people, but theyíve
become more kind to me, since in our culture, even though we hate
our fat people, we love our celebrities even more. Isnít it
amazing how celebrity status preempts even the most ingrained hatreds?
Even though my parents make no reference at all to my weight anymore, it
is clear that the people who speak to them are praising me for being a
large woman on television conveying a good message. Therefore they canít
really maintain their old belief, which I bought for a long time, that
being large is going to prevent me from having any success.
parents are deeply committed political activists with a passion for
justice. How has that influenced your life?
grew up with a very political legacy. For a long time, I really
struggled with the idea of being an actor because I really felt that I
should be in the Peace Corps. While I love acting, I didnít feel that
socially I was making any contribution. That was difficult for me as the
daughter of very political people, people who have been arrested, people
who continue to be very involved in humanitarian activities. I think
they had a concern that in my life I should make some kind of a
contribution. On The Practice, I get to do
what I love to do, and I am making a contribution that will, in the end,
help raise social consciousness, dispel some of the myths about being
large, and change the way that people view and interact with large
people. I could never have had a better platform than this TV show. So
here I am, doing exactly what my soul requires of me.
addition to writing and acting, you have taught drama classes at several
institutions, including New York University, where you received your
masterís degree, and the Atlantic Theater and Playwrights Horizons in
New York. What advice do you give to your students?
I teach about how actors can maximize their potential for success in the
field. That includes working at a charity, because I think that really
does help maximize your success: itís about finding your center on the
planet before you try being an actor. Itís important for me to teachówho
knows if itís because my parents were both teachers or because Iím
Jewish. Itís so much a part of my culture to teach, and I get so much
pleasure out of it, especially now, since Iím a big TV star and all my
students listen to me! Itís pretty damn cool! I can say anything.
have clearly had many painful experiences on your journey to your
current level of success and self-acceptance. How do you feel when you
look back on the people and institutions that have hurt you along the
Itís the same with my parents and the same with my teachers. I know
more than they do now. Iím stronger than they are now. Instead of
hating, I have chosen to forgive and spend all of my positive energy on
changing the world. The point is, you have to forgive so that you can
move on. And itís not even for their benefit: itís for yours. People
know the mistakes theyíve made. And when they see that I am successful
and I am helping people who have struggled with their body image for
their whole lives, they must have their own silent moment when they
understand. I know my parents have. I know my teachers have. I know men
Iíve met and some of my friends have had that moment. And thatís
good. Iím glad theyíve had enough humanity in themselves to
recognize and take back the shame they offered me that I never wanted.
So itís a new day. Itís a new
dawn. Itís time for strong, courageous, articulate, talented, skilled
fat people to step up to the plate, swing that bat, and make that ball
sail right out of the park. ©
Practice airs on Sunday nights on ABC-TV.
GLORIA CAHILL is the director of
community service at New York University. She is also a freelance
more of Camryn Manheim,
see our Summer 94 interview.
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