Kathy Brier portrayed Sophie Tucker on the first season of HBO's award-winning original series Boardwalk Empire, appearing on screen in a few episodes and singing three songs on the official soundtrack for the show, which is up for a GRAMMY nomination this year.
In an exclusive interview with Atlantic City Weekly, Brier reveals the work that went into portraying her character, her experience so far being a part of the critically-acclaimed hit television show, and what's ahead for her.
What was the initial process of auditioning for this role like and how much time did you have to prepare?
The audition process was swift and a whirlwind. I think the first time I had a day to prepare the music [for the audition]. I mean, I knew who Sophie Tucker was, but I didn't understand the scope of her reach in terms of entertainment. So when I got the audition it was like a cram session. I knew that they wanted her to kind of be as close historically to her as possible in terms of her sound and everything so I got the audition one day and [was] called back in the next. Then I recorded "Some of These Days" and "Don't Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls" the day after that. So it was like in a span of two-and-a-half days that I had to perfect those two songs.
The last song I sang [in May 2011, while she was pregnant] "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)," I didn't have much time before recording it either. Actually, it was originally supposed to be sung by three chorus girls and I guess for whatever reason [the producers] decided that it wasn't working out ... so they called and were like, 'Can you come in tomorrow and do this?' And I was like, 'OK!'
Although you don't appear on screen in season two, the song "After You Get What You Want" appears on the GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack.
When they called they were like, 'You know, you're not on camera [for the song], is that OK?' And I said absolutely. I love the show and the music and I just love singing with the band. When we did "After You Get What You Want," the music had been previously recorded so I had to work within the confines of what they had recorded for the [chorus girls]. When I recorded the first two songs I got to record with the band, which I prefer — in the same room, we did it live. Coming from a musical theater background, I prefer to sing live because there's just this synergy when you have a band playing behind you. I pick up on things that maybe the cellist is playing or the trombonist. I may hear something and it inspires me and vice versa. Like I would sing something and I could hear a certain instrument try to mimic me, like an improv based on what I did vocally.
What was your experience like working with the band and its bandleader, Grammy-nominated musician Vince Giordano?
I find Vince fascinating. When I came in he was just so sweet and he just became an instant fan of mine and I became an instant fan of his. It's a gift. That's the way I look at working on Boardwalk Empire, whether I'm on screen or off screen, it doesn't matter to me, just to be a part of the show and the time period and to sing with a 12-piece orchestra and to work with a company that really cares and has a high standard for the product that they're putting out. And as an actor and a singer that's a joy because, believe it or not, it doesn't happen that often!
Did you know much about Sophie Tucker before being cast to play her?
I knew who Sophie Tucker was, but I didn't really understand — I mean, there's nobody to compare her to today. The only person you kind of could I think would be Bette Midler, but there is no one like her and there hasn't been for a long time. She was actually famous for 60 years and that's very uncommon. And I found that interesting also because she was a character woman and usually character women don't have that kind of reach. They have long careers maybe, but they don't have that reach of like, for example, a Beyoncé of her day. She was that big of a star.
How did you prepare for the role?
I just tried to find as many recordings of her as possible — online — because I didn't have a lot of time to go into the city and do the research that I would have wanted to, but I did find a tiny little clip of her on stage in the '20s and I just watched it over and over and over and over again to get her physicality down. And I found an audition clip of her when she was auditioning for a movie, to see how she moved her body. And to be honest, it wasn't that much of a stretch; I'm kind of broad myself! [Laughs] So I was very much at home in a way.
Were you hesitant about becoming Sophie Tucker at all? This legendary figure of music.
What I was most concerned about was, based on the time period of when [Tucker actually] recorded ["Some of These Days"], or how old she would have been when the song was recorded in the time scheme of the show, she really would have had more of a Russian accent. If you listen to a lot of her early recordings her accent is much heavier. So at first I was like, I don't know [what to do], and they weren't really giving me a tremendous amount of [instruction]. They just told me they wanted it to be as authentic as possible. So I just went with my gut and so I tried to make it as accessible, but historically viable as possible — in terms of her sound and her demeanor and everything like that.
She was about 36 at the time. She lived a long life.
What do you find most interesting about your character Sophie Tucker?
I love that she was so ahead of her time for that time period, She was a woman who was married as a teenager, got pregnant, then divorced [the father], which was scandalous at the time. And then she lived on her own and supported herself and her family. I think she auditioned for her first Broadway show when she was 16, and she would leave her baby with her mom at first. She's just a very fascinating character.