TV.com interviews Vanessa Williams

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TV.com: So we just heard that Ugly Betty has been picked up for a full season. Congratulations! That's really great news.

Vanessa Williams: Thank you.

TV.com: I heard that you were commuting back and forth from New York to LA to shoot the show. That must have been really difficult, especially because you have kids. Do you think you would do it again if it got picked up for another season?

Vanessa Williams: I don't know whether I'd commute. I'd have to rethink my living situation. So, you know, we'll see. Right now I'm renting and, you know, I'll keep renting until we know what's going on.

TV.com: It sounds like a pretty tough commute for sure.

Vanessa Williams: Well, actually, it's not too bad. I've been doing it for a long time and, you know, I'm home this week. The earliest flight out of LA is 6:30 if I'm shooting late, and the last flight on Sunday night is 8:30. And there are a couple of other businessmen that do the same commute. They all have families in New York, Connecticut, and then commute for the Monday morning. It's almost like you're riding the commuter train into Manhattan. Ours is a five-hour commute on a plane. So you go--especially in this business--you have to go where the work is.

TV.com: Sure do. So you play a pretty extreme personality on Ugly Betty. What do you think about to really get into that crazy character of Wilhelmina?

Vanessa Williams: The luxury of having great writers is that it's on the page. So it's just a matter of execution. It's wonderful to have such fantastic dialogue and also a fantastic ensemble. I absolutely adore my partner in many of the crimes, Michael Urie, who plays Marc, and, you know, a lot of things are pretty organic once you're in the environment and you have the words come to life. So it's really a ball being able to have this character come to life, and it's not like I have to do any major method acting and treat everyone like crap around there.

TV.com: That's good to hear. The show must really be a lot of fun to work on. How much do you enjoy it compared to other things you've done?

Vanessa Williams: When you do an ensemble piece like this on a weekly basis, it becomes family. It's very similar to doing a Broadway show. You know, you're doing eight shows a week with the same people, with the same roles and the same crew, and it's a similar sensibility even though you're lacking a live audience and that energy that you get from doing it live. When you're on the set and especially doing dramedy like this, when you know you've made the director and the crew laugh, you know you've done a good job. And it's a similar type of reaction and effect that you get, which is a lot of fun.

TV.com: Great. What is the funniest thing that has happened so far on the set?

Vanessa Williams: Oh, we did this one episode--I don't know, I think maybe it was the fourth episode that we had shot, and I don't know whether they're--it's not airing this week. I think they're airing it Number 11 or so, but it was just one of those hilarious ones that was funny on paper, and then when we started doing it, it just got even broader and bigger. It was about a Japanese designer coming to Mode, and everyone's supporting him, and his interpreter is flirting with Marc, and it just got bigger and bigger and broader and more funny. And we still quote this particular interpreter and some of his lines because he was such a good actor. And they find out that I have gone down to Brazil to get a butt lift and at the very end I'm walking out of the room. They try to expose my butt lift, and I'm exiting, and the Japanese character goes, "Wilhelmina, a butt lift?" Everyone does Oshi because he was just--it was just funny at the time. Who knows what it will be like and whether it'll translate once we get it on television, but while we're shooting it, we've been quoting Oshi since we started that episode.

TV.com: Do you end up doing a lot of ad-libbing when the show gets broader like that, or is it more jokes that the writers inject?

Vanessa Williams: It's all pretty intentional and very scripted. And again, when you're doing an episodic piece like this, you've got different directors for each episode. So some have different sensibilities and, you know, when you're working with film, you just have to trust that they'll cut it and make it funny. What's hilarious in person might not even translate once they cut it and pick whatever take they choose. So on a weekly basis, we cross our fingers to see that it remains funny.

TV.com: So far, so good. Our TV.com users really, really love the show. One of them in particular really wants to know what's beneath Wilhelmina's steely, Botoxed exterior. Can you give us any insight?

Vanessa Williams: Ah, you'll have to tune in and find out. You saw the introduction of her father, who, obviously, she's never been able to live up to because of his scrutiny and his standards. So that is probably part of her character being so competitive and icy. And in the very near future, her daughter is going to be introduced. She was away at boarding school. And you'll be able to see another side of Wilhelmina then as well.

TV.com: So with this show named Ugly Betty and this whole sort of "ugly duckling meets the beautiful people" thing, a lot of people don't really understand that the term "ugly" is used with tongue firmly in cheek. What would you say to anyone who felt the show might be sending the wrong message?

Vanessa Williams: They have to watch. I mean, it's one thing to be offended or turned off by a title, but once you watch the show...America Ferrera is an extraordinary actress and has done a wonderful job making Betty as real, as likeable, and as well rounded as possible. And it's up to the viewer to accept her and embrace her because I think she's doing a tremendous job.

TV.com: Definitely. So are you a fan of the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty La Fea that the show is based on?

Vanessa Williams: No, never seen it. I still haven't seen it.

TV.com: Okay. I heard that Fox is developing The Devil Wears Prada into a TV series.

Vanessa Williams: Oh, really?

TV.com: Yeah. Do you think that's going to pose a threat, or is there room for everyone? Or do you think that Ugly Betty will just shoot that one right down?

Vanessa Williams: Well, again, America has done such a fantastic job that I think she could win in almost any work environment. So who knows? I mean, with the writing staff that we have, the ensemble that we have now, I hope that the people who are watching are going to stay tuned and are loyal to us. You know, I can't be worried about competition. And that's very typical of every network to see something that's hot and then, you know, there are a zillion copycats of the same exact genre on the next season. That's nothing new.

TV.com: Yeah, definitely. We've all seen that. There are lots of great new shows on right now besides Ugly Betty. Do you have any particular favorites?

Vanessa Williams: Let's see. I'm watching this year's Project Runway probably more than ever. I think my daughter, who's at FIT right now, got me into it. So, I've been watching that on a weekly basis and I'm really excited about that--can't wait for Wednesday when we see the final shows and we see who wins.

TV.com: We're all really excited about that one here too. We watch it in the office.

Vanessa Williams: Let's see, what else, what else? This year I'm watching Dancing With the Stars--I don't know why I got into it this year, but I've been watching that. I've danced with Tony before, who is Sara Evans' partner, who now, of course, with all the brouhaha over her pending divorce has dropped out. Tony's a wonderful guy and a fabulous dancer, so I'm watching him on a weekly basis. It's fun. Some days they have like a little mini-infomercial for Slim Fast while they're doing Dancing With the Stars, and they have like an ordinary girl dancing, and Christian is the instructor for that, who I've danced with many times too. It's fun to watch people that you know on a weekly basis. I'm happy that it's doing well. I mean, when I did the movie Dance With Me back in '97--it came out in '98 and--you know, ballroom dancing was not anywhere nearly as popular it is now, so I guess we were ahead of the curve. So I'm glad people are appreciating it for what it is. It's a lot of hard work and discipline.

TV.com: It's a pretty cool show. You have a couple of other movies coming out soon, My Brother and Somebody Like You.

Vanessa Williams: Oh, well, My Brother comes out in January, I think. I know they just got distribution, so I think it's in January. And I have no idea--I don't know, is that the new name, Someone Like You? When we shot it, it was Who Needs 'Em?

TV.com: That's what I've heard so far.

Vanessa Williams: They change these things all the time. Sometimes I think to its detriment because, you know, I think people get so worried about offending people that they end up watering things down and it becomes forgettable. For instance, when I did Dance With Me, the working title was Shut Up and Dance, and everyone remembered Shut Up and Dance. And they tested it somewhere, I don't know where, and they felt it was too offensive. So they called it Dance With Me, and no one can remember it. They say, "Well, I remember that dancing movie that you did." I remember when we shot the pilot for Ugly Betty in March, it got picked up in May. Then they said they were changing the name from Ugly Betty to Betty the Ugly because they felt it was too offensive. And, luckily, Ugly Betty won out and everyone remembers it. So, you know, sometimes you need to shock people to make them remember.

In another instance, I did a movie that I produced about the integration back in New Orleans in the 1800s with mulatto and quadroon women--who were a mixture of white, Spanish, and French--and how they were married and had a separate class for themselves, different from slaves but not white. The name of the piece was Quadroon Ball because it was about their plight and about a nun who had started her own order in New Orleans, as a woman of color. Then they had to change that to Courage to Love, which again was like a zillion other titles. But Quadroon Ball talks about skin color and is a lot more memorable. So back to Dance With Me and Shut Up and Dance. I think, you know, people tend to be so careful not to offend, and it loses some of its punch many times.

TV.com: I know what you mean--they need everything to be totally PC. Well, what about music? You released a record of '70s soul tunes last year, and you seem to always find time for singing in your professional schedule. Do you have plans to make another album in the near future?

Vanessa Williams: Would love to. Got to figure out what coast makes the most sense, you know. So since I'm shooting out in LA, it would probably be easier to record out there. It's just a matter of finding out what theme I'm going to do and getting the creative team out there as well. So we'll see. I have nothing in the works as of yet. I do have a gig and two shows in Michigan this weekend and three dates at the Orleans in Vegas the first week in November. I'm also doing Japan next year and some other dates.

TV.com: So lastly, I'd just like to ask if there's anything else that you can share with TV.com about those upcoming episodes?

Vanessa Williams: I mentioned that my daughter is coming in--we've been dealing with that for the past couple of issues or episodes. And we're just about to start our Thanksgiving episode this week, so we're not too far ahead. We kind of got a late start, so we're cranking them out. We're as anxious to see them as the audience is because we have no idea what they're going to look like.

TV.com: Well, good luck with the rest of the season, and thank you so much for talking to us.

Vanessa Williams: Thank you.

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