Liza Minnelli is an undeniable icon who knows you can’t always strive for perfection.
“She wasn’t afraid of playing the ‘messy’ girl, the girl that might turn you off, and you can’t help but pay attention and love it,” says actor Krysta Rodriguez, who plays Minnelli in Netflix’s Halston.
The EGOT winner was a confidant and muse to the titular fashion designer, portrayed by Ewan McGregor as he navigates triumphs, setbacks, and the disco era decadence of the ’60s and ’70s. Through Halston’s journey on the limited series, Minnelli is his emotional support system, his go-to for late-night phone calls; gossipy dinners, and parties at Studio 54. The designer taught her to celebrate her uniqueness through her wardrobe, and one would assume that being part of fashion’s in-crowd made the actress feel less like an outsider.
Minnelli started her acting career alongside her mother, Judy Garland; became one of the youngest Tony winners in the Best Actress in a Musical category; and cemented her status as one of the most prolific inter-medium performers of her time with her Oscar-winning performance in Cabaret. Similarly, Rodriguez is also a star you can’t overlook. She has a long history on Broadway in shows like Spring Awakening, The Addams Family, and A Chorus Line, and outside New York City’s Theater District, she’s perhaps best known for her work in Trial & Error and Quantico.
Ahead of the series premiere, Rodriguez spoke about her approach to playing Liza, what embodying the legend has taught her, and the clothing that empowers her.
When you’re playing a real person, let alone someone as illustrious as Liza Minnelli, does your acting process change?
You always want to treat any character as a real person. The exercises that I’ve done in the past are to dream about that person as an actual human and journal like they would and know all the details about them and their parents, where they grew up, and their economic background. What’s great about playing a real person is that a lot of that work is done for you. You know who their parents are and what they looked like when they were born. The work now becomes diving into the things you don’t know and imagining them in scenarios you haven’t seen them in. I watched Liza’s performances and movies, but I found the most wealth of information in her interviews and what people said about her. We were doing a show that’s about Halston, and so any way you slice it, it’s going to be Halston’s version of his relationship with Liza. Then I had to figure out how she would be in her most intimate moments, which we will never see.
Was it more challenging to change aspects of your performance as filming progressed?
Initially, it was a lot of thinking if something worked or how far we could go. Once those questions were answered, it became more of a well-oiled machine. Each episode is a different decade essentially, and we shot them out of order, so there were lots of changes with each character. When you’ve done all this research, you can immediately think about what she would look like at a given time, who she would be married to if she was in rehab, so I had a shorthand and facility with the different versions of her.
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I’ve always been interested in how being labeled as Judy Garland’s daughter affected Liza as she discovered who she was as an artist and human being. Actresses often get categorized at the beginning of their careers based on their looks and singing voice. How do you think that influenced your development as an artist?
I wanted to be an actor from the time I could understand that it was a career, and it’s a delicate balance between growing and not limiting yourself but also knowing your limits. The industry is just math. There’s one role, and there are a thousand people and the math doesn’t work in your favor sometimes. You might not always be right for the part, but when you are, you are the only one. The only way that that happens is if you stick to what you know makes you unique in your craft, you become the best version of yourself. Liza knew she wasn’t going to get anywhere just being Judy Garland’s daughter; she had to do something different. Once she was herself, which was actually a lot more freewheeling, guttural, and reactionary, she became her own thing. That’s what I try to do in my life, which is why I relate to Liza so much. I’m not going to be the highest belter or the best dancer, but I will be the best storyteller. That’s where my strength lies, and then follow through with that and keep honing that.
What’s your relationship like with the idea of being ambitious or being seen as ambitious?
I find this is a touchy subject, too, because I teach theater to younger students. We have women in all these great arenas and are taught that it’s not a problem to be ambitious. My mother always went for her dreams and never showed me that it was unsavory. As I started getting into more rooms where the male perspective was the loudest one, I realized it didn’t pay off as well as it did for men. That’s not to say that it’s not a valuable perspective, but there were instances where my contributions were looked at with a side-eye rather than welcomed with open arms.
I spent almost 10 years hiding that ambition. I have a photographic memory, and it helped a lot in my early career because I learned things quickly, but I saw it as a downside because I thought peers would think I was a know-it-all because I knew everyone’s lines. Now I have more freedom in the roles that I choose and who I want to be in the room with.
It’s about having the confidence and the experience to stand in your beliefs and let the chips fall where they may, and that’s a difficult thing to do when you’re starting in this business because you don’t have any control. I’m grateful that I now have that awareness.
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Since you live between worlds of both stage and TV, what from the stage would you bring to TV and vice versa?
I went to NYU and learned that there’s no such thing as television acting and theater acting. There’s good acting and bad acting, and I have taken that to heart a lot throughout my life and have been lucky enough to move through the two disciplines. People will try to simplify it and say that it has to be smaller on camera. While that is a technique that you can use on television, some of my favorite performances have been erratic and large and used the whole body and it doesn’t always have to do that. But many theater actors are connected to their entire bodies and that’s why so many of my favorite actors come from the theater. Alternately, others don’t have access to that and are great on television but can’t command an audience. Being unafraid of the fact that life can be loud and messy is something that I want to bring to both.
Halston wasn’t only Liza’s friend, but he also helped her find her signature style. Tell me about an outfit that makes you feel most like yourself.
A few years ago, I would’ve said heels because I’m a little shorter, and when I wore flats, I felt like a child [laughs]. This is part of realizing that I can step into power without those external things. I went to high school when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were becoming popular with the tiniest outfits, so I’ve been thinking about how strong and powerful I can feel in my tennis shoes and pants that aren’t hugging every curve and letting my work speak for itself. The world has changed and heels no longer make me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article first appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US