Actress Wendy Makkena and the Perks of Being a Full-Rounded Interpreter

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Wendy Makkena
Wendy Makkena and Chris Cooper in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

The actress, musician, dancer and entrepreneur who stars in the Oscar-buzzed seasonal sensation A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller and starring Tom Hanks, Matthew RhysChris Cooper and Susan Kelechi Watson – recounts her long and articulated career started with her stellar debut in the iconic Sister Act 1&2 alongside Whoopi Goldberg.

by Tommaso Cartia

Like stepping into a light and kind field of energy, that was the instant sensation I felt when I met Wendy Makkena at the Sony Square Headquarters in N.Y.C. for a conversation that revealed surprising epiphanies: “Quantum Physics has proved that even the smallest particle has their fielded energy and they react to the field of energy of the person observing them,” the actress told me when asked about the impact of feel-good movies like Sister Act or A Beautiful Day where she has been cast. “If you take that and you apply it to what are we attracted to, is going to come back to us. The universe mirrors.” And you immediately realize that there is definitely much more in her to explore than the lovely screen presence with which Makkena graced us since her debut with the shy, good-hearted Sister Mary Robert in the Sister Act’s extravaganza.

Our ‘Creative Being Interview’with Wendy Makkena
Wendy Makkena
Wendy Makkena

She is an interpreter – as she likes to define herself – and it is so refreshing to hear that in an entertainment world filled today with influencers-wannabe divas. “My first intuition is that I really think that there is a common thread in any creative endeavor. When I play the harp, I interpret someone’s else music, when I’m acting, I’m interpreting someone’s else words. Even as an entrepreneur creating a recipe, I feel like I’m interpreting something, putting my acting skills into practice for marketing purposes.” And that’s probably the secret of her long-lasting career in the ever-changing entertainment industry. Makkena’s versatile talent brought her to perform in successful Tony Award-Winning Broadway shows; she is also a classically trained Juilliard harpist performing at Carnegie Hall; and a dancer who spent six years with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. After a hiatus, her “long, dark winter,” the performer is back in full shape with the daring role of Dorothy in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, as well as many interesting upcoming projects, and as an entrepreneur – she is the founder and the creator of the successful start-up “Ruby’s Rockets” frozen fruit and veggie pops.

Listen to the podcast above and read the interview below to explore more about Wendy Makkena’s creative endeavors.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Wendy Makkena at ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ premiere

I want to start by asking you: how did you feel to be a part of A Beautiful Day, acting alongside a master like Tom Hanks, an all-round incredibly talented cast, and directed by the exquisitely talented Marielle Heller?

“I’m so glad you said exquisite director Marielle Heller, because I can’t say enough about working with her and about her movies that I watched preparing for this role. She was an actress and a writer before becoming a director, I didn’t know that before, which makes her even better qualified. I think she definitely deserves an Oscar. The greatest accomplishment for me in this movie was basically not fainting when I walked in the room on my first day on set! It was with Marielle Heller, Chris Cooper, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson. Tom Hanks was not there that first day, but still, I was petrified! It was the family scene when the character played by Rhys meets my character, Dorothy, someone who he hates because she is the new woman in his father’s life. I felt nervous, but I also thought, well this must be how the character feels in this scene, so I stepped into the role.”

The movie is based on the beloved TV personality Mr. Rogers, where you familiar with him and his show?

I was familiar with Mr. Rogers growing up, but I didn’t watch it when I was a kid. But when my daughter was little, I wanted her to watch things that were fast cutting, so she watched the Teletubbies and she watched Mr. Rogers. And I started getting sucked in when I was doing house works and I would think ‘oh here is Mr. Rogers, he is kind of a character’. And I realized, as I’m into the mindfulness philosophy, that he was really present for these kids, he was holding a presence, it wasn’t just about entertaining the kids. Little that I know, cut to 20 year later I’m in a film about him.

This movie kind of reminded me of Sister Act, and of those feel-good movies that specifically in the ’90s were proposing these very good role models for a new generation. I believe that there is a tendency with the movie industry today to equate box-office success with very dark, violent, superhero subjects. How do you think that those light-hearted movies, like the Mr. Rogers’s show was for kids, are still important for us to experience and to reach that sort of cathartic release of our own day-to-day struggles?

Well, I think that we have noise pollution, air pollution, but we also have mind pollution. I feel like our souls are wilting a little bit anytime we see another night of CNN, another night of FOX, it’s the 24 hours news cycle. How dark can we get, how sexual? It feels like everybody in entertainment is competing against each other to be as extreme as possible. I feel like I’m polluting my mind. There is such a thing as vibrations and a law of attraction; quantum physics proved it. Through an electro-magnetic microscope, scientists videotaped the tiniest particles to see how they change depending on who is viewing them. They do change, drastically, and they can even completely disappear. They have a fielded energy, they react to the field of energy of the person observing them. If you take that and apply it to what we are attracted to, it is going to come back to us. If we are attracted to negativity, it will come back to us. It is the time for us to sit back as a group, as humans. If you smile and laugh it changes your brain chemistry, let’s just look at science!

Based on this, what are you taking away from the feel-good vibrational experience of working in A Beautiful Day?

Before I did the film, I had what my agent calls a long dark winter. There were some personal things that were troubling in my family, my mom passed away, so I took a step back for a couple of years. When I came back, I was a different age, I was in a different city and I was feeling just, exhausted. But God Bless Avy Kaufman, who is the casting agent of this movie, who loves my work and she brought me in for a part I’m not usually cast for. So, what I feel is gratitude, gratitude. I mean, I’m in a room with Tom Hanks, all I can think is, gratitude.

How does it feel to be a part of the American cinema history with Sister Act, and how was working with Whoopi Goldberg?

It is such an iconic film, internationally, and again this speaks of how good people can feel when they watch a movie like that. Also, it speaks to 5 years old to 90 years old, like Mr. Rogers does. When you start a project you never know how it will go. It is a movie about singing nuns, so we were worried if we were going to be made fun of, or would the material be disrespectful? But no, when we first saw the first screening, we had chills, we were crying, and we knew this was something great. First of all, it was super fun, but it was really Whoopi who made it special, because of course it all comes from the head, and she has a such a generosity of spirit. I knew I would have learnt so much from her. She was protective to all of us, it didn’t matter who you are, everybody was important for her, across the board, and I thought, that’s who I would like to be if I were her, that was my big first role. I was a theater actress at that time, and I was scared of being maybe too big, theatrically, on screen, or I thought, “Am I going to be able to lip-sync?”

Whoopi Goldberg
Wendy Makkena and Whoopi Goldberg on the set of Sister Act

There were parts that I would sing on my own and actually I auditioned for the part with my own voice. And this is the first time that I’m sharing this. When I got the job, they wished I could sing but I couldn’t, but they still wanted me, and they were busy trying to find someone who could sing my voice. I was feeling so comfortable in the room doing rehearsal, that Marc Shaiman’s (the musical director Ed.), assistant said, “Wait a minute, everybody stop! Wendy why didn’t you sing like that when you auditioned! We could have gotten you ready to sing for the role in three months.” So a matter a fact, they got me into a limo, into Hollywood, and into a sound studio and asked me, “What do you need to sing the way you just sang in that room?” I said, “Give me a bottle of red wine and I don’t want anybody to see me while I’m singing!’ So that’s how they decided to mix me with the singer–they still needed a singer because my high notes were still a little tight, but they got me to sing live during the takes. So, the amazing Andrea Robinson sings the parts of Sister Mary Robert, but she is overlapped with my own voice.”

Being that you are an actress, and also a musician, dancer and entrepreneur, how it is for you to navigate through these different mediums and art expressions?

My first intuition is that I really think that there is a common thread in any creative endeavor. I’m an interpreter, when I play the harp, I interpret someone’s else music, when I’m acting, I’m interpreting someone’s else words. Even as an entrepreneur creating a recipe. I thought to take a very cool smoothie and turn it into a vegetables and fruits’ popsicle mood so that kids can have a popsicle breakfast, they don’t know what’s inside, there is no sugar in it, just fruits and vegetables and it is probiotic. To me, there is a creative engine somewhere, and I used my acting skills in a huge way to put these popsicles on to the shelves. You have to be convincing, like when I’m on the phone, I know how to pitch my voice up to sound a little younger which makes people more willing to help you more, it’s a marketing strategy. Everything is interrelated. 

What are some of your next new projects that you can share with us?

I just wrapped a wonderful movie called Spiked, a true story about a group of Mexican miners in Arizona who are being racially profiled. It was a big news story in 2005. Juan Martinez Vera, the director, got a hold of the story. The movie stars Aidan Quinn, who plays a journalist, a newspaper owner, and I play his challenging wife, a very different role from the ones we just talked about. She is bipolar, hypersexual and an alcoholic. 

Read our review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
HERE


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