Interview: Sophie B. Hawkins

lauren stern gets inside the head of Sophie B. Hawkins…

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Since Sophie B. Hawkins first warmed our hearts in 1992 with her hit single “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” the Grammy-nominated singer has been kicking ass and taking names in concert venues all over the country. But recently, this past year in fact, the singer has been kicking ass in a different kind of setting — the theater.

At the end of this past year, Hawkins embarked on a new venture as a performer by accepting the role of the iconic Janis Joplin for Gigi Gaston’s new play Room 105: The Highs and the Lows of Janis Joplin. Since the play debuted in L.A. in October, Hawkins performance as Joplin has helped the show sell out and even aided to an extended run this past December.

Tomorrow, Ms. Hawkins will be returning to the East Coast for a special one night only performance of the play at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, NJ. In our in depth conversation, Sophie and I talked about the show, the process of portraying Janis Joplin, and the possibility of Hilary Clinton as a 2016 Presidential candidate.

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Pop-Break: Why did you decide to bring Room 105 to the Bergen Performing Arts Center in NJ?

Sophie B. Hawkins: Well I really love this show so much, I would bring it anywhere and I’ve been to the Bergen before, and you know — I’m from the East Coast, I’m from Manhattan so any chance I can get to play on the East Coast, I always do. And – it’s a great theater. It’s a beautiful theatre and I remember it was somewhat historic. So, why wouldn’t I bring it there? It’s a great show, it’s a great theatre, and there are great people in New Jersey, so here it is.

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PB: Since the show is only one night only are you considering bringing it to other venues on the East Coast?

SH: Yeah, the whole thing about this show is that I’m just the actress and the singer in it, this isn’t Sophie B. Hawkins, so it’s not like a tour that I set up. The man who is producing this, Tommy Thompson and the director and writer, they’ve created an amazing experience. So they would like to bring it everywhere, they are just doing it step by step. This will be the first show on the road. You know, we were extended three times in L.A. sold out and two shows a night and it was really successful in a sense that people loved it. People kept coming back and bringing their friends. So that’s when they knew and I felt that this is something that could really last. This is something that could even go to off Broadway. So in that sense, I think that basically setting up whatever is feasible right now to get it out on the road that’s the process. You get it out on the road, you keep changing it and tweaking it, and then at some point you’re ready to I guess go to off Broadway and hopefully you go to Broadway.

PB: Describe how you initially prepared to play Janis Joplin — when you first landed the role and how you are preparing the role for the East Coast audience.


SH: The good thing about doing Janis is at some point I kept up doing an amazing acting class. It’s not private, it’s a class and her name is Carole DeAndrea. I developed my character, really of course, alone, you always have to do it alone, but I would also go into class every week and sometimes more than once a week and bring in scenes and sing a cappella and I really developed it in this workshop atmosphere. But you know, you have to do your homework, you can only get done what you bring into the class.

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So I started going back to class with Janis when that last extension ended and I started working on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and other scenes with other actors. So then I was growing so much as an actress in between when Janis ended until now. I started working on being Janis again on Saturday and I just thought, “Wow, I have really got new tools, this is great!” Watching other actors develop their characters and some of them are highly esteemed, some of them are new — you get so many ideas.

So, the one way I’m doing it is learning how other people do it and applying those and I’m starting to of course go through the scenes again. Now that I have more tools and the experience of having been Janis, and I really felt that I’ve got to the point of being Janis and it was very fulfilling and also difficult because she’s not an easy person to be. I would never say that I was her but just to portray her enough. So now I’m coming back to it with a whole new set of creative ideas basically and I’m also going back by watching her on YouTube and listening to her interviews and going back to the way she sings again because I got very confident in the singing but then I realized I’ve got to go back to square one and start again and make sure.

And guess what I found out?

I found out that I’m a much better singer than when I started because now things that were very hard for me to do as Janis, like when I would imitate her singing ‘Summertime’ or something, things that were very hard are not hard for me. I realized, “Wow, I really grew! This is great! Now I could do even more!”

PB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in performing the role of Janis Joplin?

SH: The biggest challenge is being Janis onstage and leaving her there because she’s somebody that takes over your life and I’m sure she took over people’s lives when she was living. She’s so charismatic, and seductive and complicated and this only hides her vulnerability and her anger and her recklessness and then yet her lady likeness and her intelligence versus her sort of bar room brothel dish wife side. She’s got so many sides!

So for me being on stage it’s really fun to explore and get into the emotions and the emotions get very intense, you know I die on stage, I go into these healing twists with my mother on stage that are so heart-wrenching for me as a human cause I don’t feel that when I’m not her. When I get off stage, the hardest thing is not being Janis. I come home and I wake up at seven with my son and I have to be a mother completely and it really has wreaked havoc on my life and I think that a lot of actors go through that kind of thing. To them, you just have to live through it and realize that you’ve just grown so much as a person but you’ve maybe grown too fast, so you have to catch up. I think that’s what it is because when you get into something and you really commit yourself in being somebody else, you grow a lot. You expand your whole emotional realm and then when it’s over you’ve lost that side and you have to come back to yourself but you are never going to be yourself again, not totally.

So, you’re bigger and then see where I got the clue to this is when I started playing Maggie in Cat in the Hot Tin Roof and I started developing Maggie and I said “You know, it’s all stuff that we create” and I’m not being Janis Joplin, I’m being my version of her. We’re creating these things, our whole lives are created, and you realize how fragile all of us are because we create our psyches completely. You know, and I have a child and I watch him developing and what he chooses and takes and what he doesn’t choose and what you can help them with, all these things and you realize we’re all just creating constantly and everything is a choice but it would be too overwhelming to think that everything is a choice. It’s just too overwhelming. You can’t do it; it’s not humanly possible because you can’t let go of certain things at certain times. So all that stuff, I really said too much, but it really is basically that sense that I realized that it’s a creation of what we all are and its hard to come back to just life and that, just being Sophie after being Janis.

PB: Describe to me the process of channeling Janis Joplin and what you have learned about yourself through this process.

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SH: Well, something that Janis gave me that I always wanted that I couldn’t access before, you know, for instance when Gigi Gaston, who wrote it and directed it said “You’re going to play Janis” and I said “Hell Yes!” and I knew I should have said “Hell No!” because I knew I couldn’t sing Janis, that thing of not being able to sing was actually not true. So one of the things I realized was that I was stopping myself in so many ways, from expressing my certain kinds of emotions in a certain way.

So, when I started working on Janis, in my plotting way, you know learning everybody she loved, her sister, Big Mama Thornton, and then I finally got to learning Janis and inch by inch opened the door inside of myself inch by inch just got to the place where I was saying, “I’m doing this! I figured it out! I know how she got that distortion, I know this, I’m getting it!” and you do have to teach yourself really. I don’t think anyone can teach you acting or singing or anything in the meaningful way. You can get a pointer here and there, like I said, you can get tools but you have to do the work. I was doing that work, I was figuring out how Sophie was going to become Janis and Sophie had to become Janis in many ways by thinking “How would Janis have done this,” which nobody could ever tell me because Janis never told anyone how she got there and then I had to say “how could Sophie sort of mold into Janis to make this” so I could actually really learn this.

So that was a really cool process, I had to push myself so much just even being her student, you know in my little studio alone. So what I learned about myself was how much I stopped myself and how little knowledge I really had of my own talent, of my own voice and that was very cool when I finally started getting up with the band and trying it out and saying “Wow this is really there.” It wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t worked on it for two years, it really wouldn’t have. I couldn’t have faked it because she’s a master; she’s a great singer. I will never be as good as Janis in what she does. I am able to get that sense across to people because they do feel like they are listening to her and they feel like they are getting her emotions. So that’s cool. I’m not imitating her by any means; I just want you to know that.

PB: Oh, no.

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SH: I heard some misses and I’m actually really happy about that because it really is real. It really is coming across. Anyway, that was one of the things — how much I stopped myself and the other thing is Janis has balls and you know, Sophie — I don’t really have that. I’m a little too nice; I’m a little too sensitive. I don’t know what I am — I am a little bit too much of a survivor. You know, even though I’ve taken a lot of risks and people think I am a risk-taker, I think that Janis was a really really big risk taker. I mean, even in the amount she could drink like I never could go as far as Janis. I couldn’t survive and I guess she didn’t survive either. But I guess I want to survive. Of course, I never want to die now that I have a child. But the fact that Janis was able to throw herself into things with that passion and that abandon sometimes, I could never do that. I pull back because, in essence, I see myself as an observer. So I’ll go to a certain point and then I’ll pull back and say “this isn’t really worth my giving up myself for” but I think she did give up herself. I really learned about that, about how you can push the boundaries and how I’m not willing to.

And you know, I see it in so many ways, like I’m so private and I’m so isolated basically, but I like to be. I like to be very much in my own realm and come out like I said, to a certain point for a certain reason. And I think Janis – she just went out. So I have to play that and that was very challenging for me and the director got very frustrated with me. And I just went further and further and further and I just thought “Man it seems crazy to go this far.” But I realized – I didn’t realize anything – I just did it because I was pushed to do it and I had to do it so I found some ability to do it in myself and you know what? It opened up a whole thing inside of me that had never opened up and that was really scary. I mean not only passion but anger and all of it, I mean lots of feelings that I didn’t feel comfortable with but also they were there and you’ve got to let them come out. I didn’t know how to let them come out.

Playwright and Director, Gigi Gaston
Playwright and Director, Gigi Gaston

PB: Yeah I’m the same way, I guess I’m very passive in a way; you know I’m not exactly a big risk taker. I understand where you are coming from where you would be nervous in coming into a role where you’re more aggressive and you’re out there and you’re taking risks and you’re kind of outside yourself. So I think that’s a very cool –

SH: It’s scary.

PB: I think that it could be cool at the same time though.

SH: It is. It’s freed me in so many ways. Also, here’s another thing, I never really knew how self conscious I was and I don’t think I’m known for being self conscious. You know, I basically never buy new clothes, I’ve worn the same outfit I’ve worn for 22 years on stage, I really don’t care about my looks. When I play Janis, I realize I can go so far because that woman was known for not — she did do a lot to make herself beautiful — but she wasn’t known for being beautiful. So, I realized I didn’t have to care how anything looked because she didn’t have the luxury of caring. She didn’t have the luxury of caring how her face looked in a certain pose, she just had to get it out and she wasn’t considered beautiful. The standards of today, what you have to do to be acceptable on stage, you just can’t even be real anymore. So Janis gave me the guts to go back to my roots and be even more uncaring of what people think about the way I look, smell – all of it.

Sophie B. Hawkins stars in Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin which’ll have a special New Jersey performance on Saturday February 23 at the Bergen Performing Arts in Englewood, New Jersey. Tickets can be purchased by clicking on this link.