Michelle Williams Sam Rockwel

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Michelle Williams, Sam Rockwell, and Tony-winning Broadway director Thomas Kail on Fosse/Verdon’s most ambitious scene.

, a
Fosse/Verdon
consulting producer, “one of her parents’ friends got her pregnant, and then her parents told her to marry him.” Verdon had the baby, but made the devastating decision to leave her son in her parents’ care to pursue her dancing career.
Throughout the course of the scene, Verdon whirls continuously from resentful to skeptical to accepting—begrudgingly!—of the fact that Fosse does have an original vision, designing the “Whatever Lola Wants” number as a striptease. Both begin unsure and nervous, and after carefully choreographed dance and minimal dialogue, end up intrigued by one anotther. The personal similarities they discover during that timeframe are complete surprises. Verdon improvises a shimmy she learned working in a burlesque club—something Fosse instantly recognizes; his parents had also subjected him to the horrors of burlesque clubs as a child to help pay the family bills.
But there is another layer of clever subtext as well. This first meeting was devoted to
Damn Yankees
, a baseball-themed twist on the Faust legend, in which a Washington Senators fan makes a pact with the devil. “The reason that second episode is [centered on]
Damn Yankees
is because it showcases Fosse and Verdon’s deal with the devil. Would you do this if it costs you that?” said Kail. “And in that sense, they both say yes.”
How It Came Together
Kail, Williams, and Rockwell spent significantly more time than usual around the table reading through this 10-page scene. “We talked a lot about what the entry point was for their characters,” said Kail—describing the mindset each character had walking into the room. Fosse did not initially let on to Verdon how much of the number he had already choreographed—so Kail and Rockwell likened Fosse’s first few minutes to Columbo, the bumbling Peter Falk detective whose inelegance misdirects suspects.
Meanwhile, Kail said, “with Michelle, we wanted this to be an opportunity for us to explore our sort of larger thematic idea we had for Gwen—who she was in public and private. So when she steps off of that elevator, you see her in a very different mental and physical state. Then as soon as that door opens, the performance begins: ‘Oh, I’m just delighted to be here.’ And then she’s a total killer when she walks in that room. . . .So we worked on really setting that dynamic up and then, right around when she starts to realize that the dance is a striptease, she understands that he’s not like the other choreographers.”
The difficulty level was high: “By the end of the scene, we have to have Bob and Gwen in some way arrive at the idea that the two of them are meant to be together.” Usually, that sort of realization is made across multiple scenes, if not episodes. But in the case of
Fosse/Verdon
, the emotional arc unravels in “a continuous linear timeframe. . .straight through,” said Kail. “There are not time cuts. We don’t say, ‘Three hours later.’ This happens in six minutes.”
“With a scene like that,” added Williams, “you can’t make it like a ping-pong match. You don’t want the dialogue to just sort of go back and forth, and back and forth. The dialogue seemed very simple on top, but what you realize working on it is that you have to really deepen it, and add a lot of layers underneath it, so that it doesn’t breathe by exactly
what
you say. There has to be a build. . .you have to make music.”
When they weren’t rehearsing the dialogue, Rockwell and Williams spent hours learning choreography from
Andy Blankenbuehler
. Even for
Fosse/Verdon
, which recreates dance sequences from multiple Fosse musicals, this particular scene was rare: “It was one of the few times where there’s that much movement and that much dialogue at the same time,” said Kail. For the
Hamilton
director, melding music with choreography with dialogue was not revolutionary. “I’ve spent so much time directing musicals that this felt like a supremely integrated musical scene,” he said. But for Rockwell and Williams, the scene was an extraordinary challenge.
“It was definitely the most ambitious thing that I’ve ever attempted on film,” Williams said. “This was more complicated—this required more of me intellectually, emotionally, physically. . .it was definitely the most demanding scene of my. . .of everything.”
The scene, confirmed Rockwell, “was a bitch. You know when you you’re trying to touch your head and your stomach at the same time? You’re using two sides of your brain. Dancing and talking at the same time is pretty challenging. We rehearsed it quite a bit, but we rehearsed the acting sort of separately and then the dancing separately. We tried to marry the two, but I don’t think we had rehearsed it well enough. At least I didn’t. The acting was pretty simple. But because of the length of the scene and the fact that I’m supposed to be an expert at this particular dance and I’m teaching her. . .honestly, I think Michelle knew the dance better than I did.” Rockwell did another crash choreography course before the second day of filming: “Then I felt better about it.”
The strenuous scene felt even more difficult considering both actors were operating on limited calories. “I had to lose about ten or twelve pounds to play young Bob and the old Bob,” said Rockwell. “Because he was a drug addict, and he was very skinny. Michelle had to stay in shape. We were on a special diet, and we were in hair and makeup for two hours a day, and we did 17 hour days”—and Rockwell’s weekends were spent in dance rehearsals, sessions with his acting coach, and more sessions with his dialogue coach. “It was a 24/7, seven-day-a-week job for seven months.”
The fatigue, though, actually helped Rockwell sympathize with his workaholic character. When the Oscar-winning actor would complain about being exhausted on set, Fosse and Verdon’s actual daughter,
Nicole Fosse
—who was a creative consultant on the series—would say, “Well, Bob was tired a lot.” Of course, Rockwell joked, “He had dexedrine. I just had coffee. But it started to become like parallels. I was just as tired as Bob.”
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