Pamela Shaw Breaks Down How She Brought Lucky Stiff's Outlandish Rita to Screen
Brace yourselves Broadway fans because we are about to get a new movie musical that teams up Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu, Rocky Horror) with Ahrens & Flahery (Ragtime, Once on This Island): Lucky Stiff.
The show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1988, and has finally made its way to the big screen with a starry cast including Jason Alexander, Nikki M. James, Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Shindle. But when you leave the theater, you’re going to be talking about Pamela Shaw’s flashy performance as Rita.
Below, we chat with Shaw, who previously played the role on stage in Australia, about creating the over-the-top but oh-so-lovable character of Rita on film.
The first thing is we were lucky enough to have Lynn Ahrens write the script. In the play’s script is an extraordinary character breakdown that gives you Rita’s complete past—family history and everything. Essentially it said she has always been an aggressive browbeating type and she’s always humiliated, embarrassed and played games with her brother (Jason Alexander) since she was a child. She’s always enjoyed stomping him because she’s that kind of broad. Then I added a backstory that they loved him more than me and I have a chip on my shoulder because of that, and I’m going to get back at him. So that was a great starting point for me having done the play to bring into the film.
The next part was the internal work. I feel you do that if it’s comedy or tragedy, musical, straight play or film. It grounds me to do that. Susan Batson teaches that each character, as in life, has at the bottom the need and you determine the character’s need; then next thing you determine is the character’s public persona and then their tragic flaw. It really, really gets you to the bottom of the truth of a character. For Rita, she really just wants to be loved—she’s been ignored. Her tragic flaw is a huge impulse control problem; she definitely does before she thinks. And in terms of her persona, she was a showgirl in Atlantic City, so she’s glamour and likes to think of herself as still having that huge headdress on.
Finally, I worked with Jean Louis Rodrigue, who is an Alexander teacher who works with actors—he famously worked with Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain—and I worked with him on Rita’s physical. Together, we found that she was a big, flapping, squawking bird and that was my image for her.
Lucky Stiff opens in select theaters, and is available nationwide on-demand, beginning July 24.