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Class(y) Action

An interview with Emmy winner
Camryn Manheim
of ABC-TV's The Practice

By Gloria Cahill

From Radiance Fall 1998

camryn6Camryn 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, I’m 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 parents’ inability to accept her size.

Since Wake Up, I’m 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 couldn’t 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 Michelle’s High School Reunion, Wide Awake, Mercury Rising, and the soon-to-be-released films Happiness, David Searching, You Are Here, Fool’s 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 98fallreceived an Obie Award for Craig Lucas’s 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 aren’t 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, Manheim’s 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 Practicebut more on that later.

One of Manheim’s 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 and commitment.

Cahill: Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for the size-acceptance movement, and, if so, how does that make you feel?camryn7

Manheim: After I wrote Wake Up, I’m 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t supersize, they weren’t afraid of me.

Cahill: How did you overcome your reluctance to carry that torch?

Manheim: At first I thought, I don’t always want to talk about it. I’m more than this. I’m 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 didn’t 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, I’ll talk about it all the time, because if I don’t, 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, I’ve developed a sense of what I want to talk about, and I’m not taken by surprise by questions anymore. I think that’s where the confidence came from and that’s where the voice came from.

Cahill: What motivates you to address the issue of being a fat woman in America?

Manheim: I 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 camryn2diet 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-worth—and any confidence at all—is 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 it’s 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 don’t understand. We hurt nobody. We’re just fat people!

Cahill: Will you do a revival of Wake Up, I’m Fat?

Manheim: No, I don’t have any plans to revive the show, but I’m currently writing a book based on the script with the same title due out this spring. And I’m 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. It’s fantastic, a very joyful thing.

Cahill: It sounds like a terrific project. One thing that strikes me when you talk about size is the fact that you don’t shy away from the word fat. Why is that? What does that word mean to you?

Manheim: I’ve always thought of fat as just a descriptive word. I’m blonde, I have blue eyes, and I’m 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 don’t think fat people have come together and decided what they want to be called. I hate overweight, because it implies that there’s 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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t carry any other weight (no pun intended) than the description of something. I mean, if we’re really going to say that fat isn’t bad, then it isn’t bad, and you have to say it. And you have to say it loud.

Cahill: I understand that David E. Kelley, the creator of The Practice, was hesitant to cast you.

Manheim: My managers, Peg Donegan and Maryellen Mulcahy, have a colleague named Randy Stone, who casts camryn3for Twentieth Century Fox, the studio where The Practice is made. He came to see my show and went back to David Kelley and said, "I’ve 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, she’s not!" So David, because he respects Randy Stone, said, "All right, I’ll meet her." But I had to fly myself out there knowing full well that David Kelley didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 Kelley’s 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 don’t 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 don’t think you understand: I play the computer." And I said, "I don’t think you understand: I play for money." I said, "Why don’t we just screw this audition, and I’ll play you for the part. If I lose, you will never see me again—no 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, you’ll have a better chance of getting the part." And then I said, "Now you’re scared." And he said, "Look, the script isn’t written, so I can’t give it to you, but I promise I’ll give you a copy when it’s done."

So I left the audition that day thinking, Oh, my God, the meeting part sucked. But the challenge was what won him over. He’s 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, that’s 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 first—except 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 something.

Cahill: So you never did play cribbage?

Manheim: Many months later, after we had done thirteen episodes of The Practice, I went back to David and said, "You know, you’re a big fat wuss. You still haven’t played me." So he came into my room and played me, and I don’t 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 California."

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 Friday—in 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 it’s a great story, and it’s why I have the part: my fear was outweighed by my passion for winning.

Cahill: How do you get into character for your role on The Practice? How are you and Ellenor alike?

Manheim: I come from the theater. In the theater, when I’m 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 that’s what makes great theater. Where my training falls short is in what happens when you don’t know what discovery is going to be made.

On a weekly television series, we don’t have a lot of preparation time: most often we get the script two or three days before filming. Sometimes when you’re 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 don’t know if she has a brother or a sister or parents. I don’t 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 Ellenor.

The character I play is a wonderful compilation of things I hate about myself and things I love about myself and things that I’ve 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."camryn4

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 that’s what she’s been told she is. I don’t 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 it’s too difficult for her to face her own struggle for justice.

Cahill: In 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?

Manheim: It was a major breakthrough for Ellenor, but if you notice, she didn’t 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.

Cahill: Do you think that was done deliberately?

Manheim: Maybe not deliberately, but unconsciously. I think it is just indicative of the way we view fat men as opposed to fat women. It’s okay to be a fat man. It’s prestige and power and all of that. But fat women are seen as just lazy and stupid and having no self-control.

Cahill: Another key story line for Ellenor was her romance this pastcamryn1 season. Did you have any say about how it was represented?

Manheim: This 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 I’m fat and you don’t 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.

I’m so grateful to have been able to bring that to our culture and to all those women out there who are struggling and don’t think that they’re 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.

Cahill: Was it important that Ellenor’s boyfriend be played by a thin man?

Manheim: Yes. 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 lovin’ goin’ 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 couldn’t be more lovely and fabulous, and I was thrilled to be working with him. P.S.—He’s a good kisser, too.

Cahill: One of the most striking qualities about Ellenor is that she always looks so well put together. She’s never portrayed as dumpy, and her wardrobe is stunning. Who determines Ellenor’s look? Do you have a say in your costuming?

Manheim: Loree Parral selects the wardrobe, and she is a godsend. She understands my figure. She knows what’s going to look good on me. I love everything she brings for me to try on. She’s amazing. In fact, she’ll often bring me something and I’ll love it and I’ll ask her if she would order one for me. We, of course, spoke early on. I told her I’m not a big fan of dresses, and if I have to wear a skirt, then I’d like it to be long. It’s a big deal that Ellenor wears pants in court. I don’t think you’ll see another female lawyer on television wearing pants. It’s considered disrespectful, and yet it’s a federal law that women are allowed to wear pants in court—so that’s actually quite a big deal. But when Ellenor goes to federal court, she’s no dummy, she wears a skirt. She does want to win, after all.

Cahill: Are the outfits you wear on the show readily available in stores?

Manheim: 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 they’re very expensive, and it’s too bad. Tomatsu is my absolute favorite. Whenever I go to an event, I suck up to Loree Parral and borrow from Ellenor’s wardrobe!

It is a big deal that I look good and not dumpy. It’s important to me that I look good on television because, let’s face it, I’m 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, isn’t it? It’s all about bein’ loved. (Laughter.)

Cahill: That brings us back to one of the themes that ran through Wake Up, I’m Fat. You declared, "I want a boyfriend, boy-friend, boyfriend." Do you, Camryn, have a boyfriend?

Manheim: 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 I’m in L.A. So we just mutually agreed to move on. But I’m dating now. Love it. I went swing dancing last night. I love it.

Cahill: Another of the main themes in Wake Up, I’m 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. They’re the ones who sewed them on!" How are your parents reacting to your tremendous success?

Manheim: 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 wasn’t the perfect child? Well, they’re 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 didn’t do regarding my body image, to me, it’s all outweighed by what they did do, which was to give me unconditional love and support for my passion for the arts.

camryn5People in this country haven’t stopped hating fat people, but they’ve become more kind to me, since in our culture, even though we hate our fat people, we love our celebrities even more. Isn’t 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 can’t really maintain their old belief, which I bought for a long time, that being large is going to prevent me from having any success.

Cahill: Your parents are deeply committed political activists with a passion for justice. How has that influenced your life?

Manheim: I 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 didn’t 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.

Cahill: In addition to writing and acting, you have taught drama classes at several institutions, including New York University, where you received your master’s degree, and the Atlantic Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York. What advice do you give to your students?

Manheim: 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: it’s about finding your center on the planet before you try being an actor. It’s important for me to teach—who knows if it’s because my parents were both teachers or because I’m Jewish. It’s so much a part of my culture to teach, and I get so much pleasure out of it, especially now, since I’m a big TV star and all my students listen to me! It’s pretty damn cool! I can say anything.

Cahill: You 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 way?

Manheim: It’s the same with my parents and the same with my teachers. I know more than they do now. I’m 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 it’s not even for their benefit: it’s for yours. People know the mistakes they’ve 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 I’ve met and some of my friends have had that moment. And that’s good. I’m glad they’ve had enough humanity in themselves to recognize and take back the shame they offered me that I never wanted.

So it’s a new day. It’s a new dawn. It’s 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.

The 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 writer.

 

For more of Camryn Manheim,
see our Summer 94 interview.


Remember, this is only a taste of what's inside the printed version of the magazine!

 

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