songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins and acclaimed filmmaker Gigi Gaston will team up
to bring the spirit of legendary soul singer Janis Joplin back to life and to
the stage in Room 105, a one-woman
musical tribute that explores Joplin’s turbulent and fascinating life.
I recently had the opportunity to
interview Hawkins about her once-in-a-lifetime role. Looking every bit the part
in a Venice T-shirt and bellbottoms, with her famously thick blonde mane temporarily
tamed by a French braid, Hawkins’ sincerity and dedication to her art was unmistakable.
Over the course of our interview, she shared with me her thoughts on the
similarities between herself and Janice, her relationship with Gaston, and the
frustrations and rewards of acting.
LifeinLA: Tell me about how you got
involved with this production.
Sophie B. Hawkins: OK, well, Gigi has been my
manager for years and years and years, and she came to me one day and she held
up a playbill of another person doing a one-woman show and she said, “I just
saw this show of this woman playing Shirley Bassey, and you’re gonna play Janice.”
And I said yes. And everything in my whole system said yes, even though I never
would’ve felt I could sing Janice, let alone carry a one-woman show playing
Janice Joplin. But that was the beginning, and what happened was Gigi would
write scenes, and while I’m on tour as Sophie B. Hawkins, I would start
channeling Janice, and I would do a scene, and then a Janice song.
worked really hard first on the music — not Janice’s music first. I actually
spent over a year learning everything Janice learned as a kid — Ma Rainey, Lead
Belley, Big Mama Thorton. I grew up with Bessie Smith and a lot of the people
that Janice grew up listening to, but I was a drummer. I wasn’t a singer. So I had to really become Janice as a
child, studying the people that she studied. And it was the most amazing
experience. It was the greatest thing ever, to be now who I am now, and
supposed to be touring for my new album, but then to go back into these great
artists of our time who created all this music that we sing, and really learn
the blues. Not from a musician, not from Sophie B. Hawkins, but from what were
they really doing. And I would even write out the melodies of Bessie Smith,
etc. I was so precise because I remember when I was a kid learning drums and
everything, I was precise. And I know Janice was precise. She was a great
musician. So I wanted to learn it like she would have learned it.
when I got to learning Janice, it was like jumping into cold water because
she’s so different than the people that she emulated. There’s recording where
she’s emulating Betsey Smith, but when she really became Janice, it’s nothing
like that, when she was playing with Big Brother. So I was almost shocked
because I had gotten into one world, the world of her childhood, and now I was
in the world of her presence, and it was difficult, because it’s so hardcore
how she sings. But I’ve been working and working and working at it. And I feel
I’ve gotten to a great extent, musically. I really understand her. And it’s not
so much that you can imitate her, because I don’t want to imitate her. Well,
actually, I do want to imitate her privately; but when I sing her on stage, I
want to be her, and she wasn’t
imitating herself. So, it’s really an incredible experience musically as a
musician and as an artist, because it’s given me so much guts to go for it in a
whole ‘nother way as a singer than I ever would have as a singer.
one aspect. And then there’s the acting part where Gigi would write scenes, but
listen to what I’m discovering about the actor: When I would do scenes coming
out of Sofie B. Hawkins in the middle of my set, I was still a performer. But
acting isn’t about performing. This whole thing is such a shock. I’ve had to
learn and go from being a performer with my fans — who were surprised that I
was doing Janice but they accepted everything, they’re curious, they’re along
for the ride — and taking that version of what I was doing and totally trying
to translate it and tone it into a whole ‘nother realm, into this audience,
where I’m not a performer, I’m Janice. It’s incredibly different. So the only
time I get to perform is when I’m being Janice singing. And then I’m
comfortable. The other part is really uncomfortable. And the good news is
Janice is very uncomfortable. Her story is so uncomfortable. So if I can use
that, it’s really good. But I can’t tell you the kind of hard work this is. And
I think that everyone would like to be an actor, because it looks so wonderful
and fun, and it’s just the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, I’m going to
be honest, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s so unnatural, to me.
LiLA: I had assumed that you had had
significant acting experience.
SBH: Well you know what, I did, to be
totally honest. In New York City, where I grew up, there was a point in my life
before I was signed to Sony, I was a songwriter, a musician, and I was acting.
And the reason I started acting was because I felt I didn’t have enough
experience in life to really write deep songs — which is a total fallacy. But I
said, if I can play the parts of other great people, then I’ll understand how
they felt and I’ll be able to write deeper songs. Of course that’s just a kid
thinking things through in a lopsided way. The truth is, I probably wanted to
act. I’m sure I wanted to act, because I enjoyed it, and I went to every
audition, and I spent a good three or four years [taking] acting classes, going
to every audition that I could, and working on it. And I thought it was hard
then. It almost killed me actually, it made me incredibly sick, because acting
can do that to you. It gets in there and it’s so frustrating and it’s so
agonizing that you can really destroy yourself.
then what happened though was at a certain point my father said to me, “You
know, I see you spending all this time going to auditions, and you’re not
writing your songs, and I don’t think it’s who you are.” Now my father never
had anything legitimate to say about anything I was doing, but I took that to
heart for some reason, and I just said “Oh, okay, I’m not gonna go, I’m just
gonna focus on my [songwriting].” Well then I did get a record deal and
everything. And that’s an interesting story in and of itself. But basically my
fate was decided. I actually had someone who was going to pay for me to go to
RODA, but he was a sugar daddy and I didn’t want to do that. But anyways, so to
really be honest, I was very interested, and it’s interesting in life, it’s
fascinating, how you can come back and you’re exactly where you left off. It’s
like meeting someone from 20 years ago. I’m exactly in the same place acting
that I was twenty years ago where I left off. So that’s the answer to that.
LiLA: So it must be very exciting for
you to be on stage, obviously very hard and challenging but…
SBH: Yes, it is, I’m so excited, until
I get on stage and I feel like I’m stuck again… But I am [excited], I love this
role, I love studying Janice. Every time I go back to watching her, I heard
something new. It’s profoundly enlightening. And I don’t think I’ll ever, ever
be self-conscious the way I was. It’s given me an insight into even playing myself.
And I don’t think that I’ll ever want to not act on some level because it’s so
good as an artist to face yourself. I couldn’t say this about everybody, but
for me [acting] really is like fine-tuning your ability to communicate and be
real. And I think that when I go and I sing now, I have such an appreciation and
such a naturalness now. I don’t think anyone would have accused me of not being
natural before but it’s a commitment. And Janice had that commitment in her
that’s the first thing, when I started to really learn Janice, I said, “Whoa,
what a commitment to each consonant.” That woman was really involved with every
word she was singing. As songwriters we throw phrases off, it’s like a poem, we
just “rrrah.” And it’s cool. But she didn’t do that. She articulated every
single consonant. Every vowel. She was wild. It’s like her life depended on it.
LiLA: Wow, yes, and I’ve heard before
that that’s the hallmark of good art. Were you a fan before?
SBH: Well, I was as a drummer. I think it’s all these defenses. I had
this feeling when I would listen to her sing, that I would love to be her
drummer, so that’s how I approached it. I never listened to singers thinking I
was going to be a singer, I listened thinking that I want to be a musician, I
want to be a great musician. And then as a songwriter I wanted to be a great
songwriter, I didn’t care about the singing. I only started singing again
because I wanted my songs out there. But then there’s another level, where you
say that to yourself, but of course the truth is of course I wanted to sing. I
just didn’t have the guts to really admit it.
LiLA: What kind of different things did
you do to prepare for the role?
SBH: To prepare for Janice, first of
all, learning every single inflection and her speech. Listening to her speech
in singing, and listening to her speech in singing, her inflections and her
emotions. And as I watch her, I have to step away from watching her sometimes,
because I can’t imitate her, like I said. It doesn’t help me find her. It only
helps me when I step away and take long walks and really feel like, (sighs)
when I see a man take a woman’s hand, and as Janice I can honestly say that
that will never happen for me, because I’m alone and people never cared about
me. And to really get in that space, walking along and seeing her through the
eyes of someone who people really thought was ugly. I know that Janice probably
covered, of course, and self-medicated, and I covered and self-medicated all my
humiliation, but I have to get in touch with it again. I have to get in touch
with when I was in school and I was the most unpopular. And I was. Thank God
for this role. I was the person they called “ploop.” I was the person they
would imitate picking my nose. I was second to the most unpopular person in the
school from kindergarten to eighth grade. Ninth grade nobody cared and tenth
grade I became a drummer.
was very similar to her because Janice was trained by her mother in piano and
singing, her mother was a great singer, and got a scholarship to Julliard, but
was horrified when Janice started to become Janice. Now my mother was different
but the same, my mother knows no musicians in my family, so when I wanted to
play drums, it was like “What, are you kidding me? What a waste of time.” … So
I went through similar things in the sense of rejection, not being able to get
to who I am, and every time I became myself it was like, you’d be punished. And
that’s really well-documented in Gigi’s movie The Cream Will Rise. And that’s why Gigi wanted me to play Janice,
because Gigi’s an intuitive person, she’s really remarkable. When Gigi made the
movie about me, The Cream Will Rise,
she said I was the most effed up person she’d ever met, and the most in denial...
She made this movie to show me how crazy I was and how crazy my family was and
how in denial I was, and that I was throwing my talent away. And basically what
she wanted me to see was what she could have done for Janice. If Gigi had met
Janice, I’m gonna be honest with you, she would have been alive today. Because
Gigi wouldn’t have minced words, she wouldn’t have given her drugs. She would
have said, this is who you are, this is
who your family is, get your shit together or you’re gonna die. And Janice
would have lived because Janice would have loved to have been with someone like
Gigi. Janice would have fallen in love with her, fought with her, but she would
have depended on her. Janice had no one like that in her life. She had people
who loved her but were too self-involved or they were drug addicts, and drug
addicts always take you down, they can’t help it. It’s like that scorpion and
that frog thing in [the 1992 film] The
Crying Game. Why did you kill me? Well, I’m a scorpion. And she was around
scorpions. And I was around scorpions when Gigi met me. And Gigi wanted me to
save myself. It’s very interesting. If you see the movie you will see that
there is a connection between Sofie and Janice. But the hard part is to draw on
it, because I don’t want to draw on it, I don’t want to go there at all. But
why acting is really hard. And to do it on call like Pavlov’s dog. It’s one
thing to be taking a walk and go “I got it! I got the scene, I understand this,
I’m so happy, I’m so excited.” It’s like getting a painting, it’s like getting
a song, but when it’s a painting or a song you do get it and you can show
everybody and you don’t have to re-do it and re-do it and re-do it. With acting,
you’ve got in that moment, and now you gotta do it on stage, and you gotta do
it again and again and again, rehearsal after rehearsal, show after show. I
don’t know what’s gonna happen.
LiLA: [Laughs] Well, at least it’s a
SBH: Yeah, but they’re extending it.
And, by the way, I want to do well. This is Janice. I’m in love with Janis
Joplin as much I could be in love with anyone in my present. She breaks my
heart every song I hear her sing. I cry. I love her. So I want to do her
justice. I can’t stand to do this badly. It’s killing me.
LiLA: Well it sounds like you’ll do
great! So you’ve talked about what was challenging for you. What came more
SBH: The singing. Isn’t it funny about
egos? When Gigi said, you’re going to play Janice Joplin, I thought, oh, the acting will be fine because I’ll
just be myself, be natural. It’s so hard to be natural. It’s impossible to
be natural! The singing, I said, that’s gonna be really hard. Well it turns out
the singing has become totally natural for me and the acting is completely a
LiLA: Do you want to continue acting?
SBH: Yeah! All I wanna do is this — I wanna
do so great in this role that people feel that Janice is telling the story. All
I wanna do, honestly, is finish these three weeks, and have a glass of wine or
Southern Comfort and say, “I f---ing earned my seat at
the table. I was allowed to play Janice, I was given the opportunity, and I nailed
it.” And Janice can say, “She nailed it, she did it.” Because I feel she’s
here. I can tell you story after story why I feel she’s here. Not just in this
place, I think she’s all around, I think she’s in that hotel room. Gigi walked
into one of [Janice’s] friends last night in room 105. That friend is coming.
That friend says [Janice] is here, and he’s been her longest friend. I just got
chills. She is here, man… Like I said, I want to earn my seat at the table.
I’ve been Janice Joplin. I am her. I want everyone to mistake me for her. I
want them to want my autograph as Janice Joplin. Then we’ll move on from there.
And I don’t care if I ever get another role. Because this is the role of a
LiLA: It’s Janis Joplin, for god’s
sake! It’s funny, I told my friend today, “Oh yeah, I’m interviewing Sophie B.
Hawkins, she’s going to be playing Janis Joplin.” And he said, “Oh my god,
SBH: From the very first birthday I
played in 1992, people would give me books of Janis Joplin. People would say,
“Why aren’t you playing her in the movie, why is that star and that star?” And
I would say that I don’t see it. I never got why they thought I should play
Janis Joplin. And now I do. But see, this is the thing with all people, all of
us: We don’t see ourselves. And Janice didn’t see herself. And I don’t see
myself. And we do need other people to hold up the mirror and say, “Do you see
yourself? This is who you really are, this is how you’re behaving.” And that’s
the beautiful thing about acting is because it’s in your face, all the time….
I’m not talking about anything but the actual deep art of it. I don’t know
anything else. Some people do things for other reasons, but that’s not why I’m
doing it. Like I said, I don’t care, I don’t wanna be on a sitcom, I don’t want
any of that, I wanna do this great. Because I wanna feel it! I wanna get off
the stage every night and go, “I felt every moment,” because she felt every
moment that she was on stage. There was nothing tacky about that woman, there
was nothing jaded in her performing, although at the end she was tired, but she
still tried. And she was tired because no one was helping her.
lover, Peggy, that woman playing, she is Peggy.
And when she walks on that stage, I feel like Janice looking at Peggy and it
fills me with everything that I’m sure Janice felt about Peggy. And with Peggy,
they had a very complicated relationship. But that woman has it, and we have
that on stage and we’ve had it since the [first] moment. I swear to God, Janice
cast this play.