Into the Woods, one of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim’s most acclaimed stage productions, is a modern twist on what happens when several beloved fairy tales cross paths with each other. It’s entertaining, funny and heart-breaking, all at once, with memorable music that explores themes of greed, ambition, loss, family, love, and the consequences of wishes. From director Rob Marshall (Chicago), the film stars Meryl Streep (“Witch”), Johnny Depp (“Wolf”), Emily Blunt (“Baker’s Wife”), James Corden (“Baker”), Anna Kendrick (“Cinderella”), Chris Pine (“Cinderella’s Prince”), Christine Baranski (“Stepmother”) and Tracey Ullman (“Jack’s Mother”).
During a roundtable interview at the film’s L.A. press day, co-stars Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman talked about their preparation for this project, rehearsing for this film as if they were doing a theatrical show, whether they chose to do any of their singing live on set, what they thought of the stage production, why there’s nobody like Stephen Sondheim, what the classic Disney movies mean to them, and that they both hope more musicals will get made, in the future. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: What was your preparation like, for this project?
CHRISTINE BARANSKI: When you get this material, your first fear and your first priority is learning that music and making sure you can sing it and hit the pitches. Sondheim’s music can be very staccato with tonalities that are your responsibility to master. You’re trying to bring reality to those iconic characters, to say nothing of the various props you have to use, and the high heels and costumes. There are just so many elements that you have to master, and you do it over time. We had a rehearsal process that Rob [Marshall] put the cast through. Usually, you don’t get rehearsal in a film, but it’s invaluable, particularly with a musical, and he understood that.
TRACEY ULLMAN: It felt like we were doing a theatrical show. Everyone showed up on day one and read through it, and then we sang through it. And then, we had three weeks in a studio with a wooden cow that looked like a stage production cow, and we came and went. I’d go and learn how to be with a real cow. And then, I’d see Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine thundering past on horses, learning how to ride. It was like summer camp. We all had something to do. It was like a theatrical company, coming together. Just to be cast was brilliant. I didn’t care how small my part was. I just wanted to qualify to be in a Sondheim piece, which is like doing Shakespeare. I auditioned for Rob [Marshall] and sang, and I made sure one of musical directors rehearsed with me, a couple of days beforehand, just to sing Sondheim. It was just complex.
Tracey, how did you ultimately end up getting along with your cow?
ULLMAN: I became so attached to my cow. I just loved that cow. If they’ve killed that cow, there will be hell to pay! I’ve been told she’s in a lovely field, very happy. Now that she’s learned to do so much stuff, she might be useful to the film community. She might be cast-able. I loved her.
Did either of you do any of your singing live, on the set?
ULLMAN: I did ‘cause I only had such short little bursts of singing. We pre-recorded it, but by the time we got to the middle of a field with a cow and a barn, and it was six in the morning, it just sounded so slow. We speeded up the track, and I just sang live for my bit. That was the lovely option you had.
BARANSKI: Meryl [Streep] did that rap song live, too. Some of it is really hard to do live.
ULLMAN: We always has the option to sing anything live, but some of it was so complex.
BARANSKI: In a recording studio, you have a chance to get every vocal subtlety exactly right. You’re under a microscope. They’re all in the booth with all of the controls, and you’ve got the earphones on and you’re hearing the feed of the orchestra. You have an option, as a performer, to say, “Can we do one more?” It’s a great opportunity to just get your vocal performance exactly right. But then, you live with it once you start shooting.
ULLMAN: We had the luxury of three weeks of rehearsal, and we were able to develop each scene.
BARANSKI: There was lots of musical rehearsal, but I was coming and coming.
Had either of you seen the original stage show?
BARANSKI: I had, yeah. Nobody had seen anything like that. It was probably how people felt with West Side Story or Sweeney Todd. There was the genius of putting all of those fairy tale characters together, and having those inner monologues that are so much about the psychology of the characters. But, it took a long time to get it up there on the screen. Thank god, it was in Rob’s hands ‘cause it could have gone wrong, a thousand different ways. This is a tough one to pull off for the cinema. Rob totally understands that a musical like this was written for the stage, and he understands music and lyrics, and how to cast and deal with actors, but then, he’s a great cinematic visualist. He takes you into that world.
ULLMAN: I saw the production in the park a few years ago and loved it, and my son had been in a middle school production. But, I didn’t see the original cast.
Do you feel like Stephen Sondheim the last of his kind? Is he a dying breed?
BARANSKI: Well, there’s nobody like him. He was a groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind talent, but he freely admits to come from the tradition of Oscar Hammerstein. That was his mentor. I think it’s great that we got this movie done when we did. Sondheim is in great shape, and he’s writing his next musical, but he’s in his 80s. When you get something on film, it will actually be there forever. People will not have seen the Bernadette Peters-Joanna Gleason Into the Woods, but our grandchildren will watch this movie. It is a tradition that has to do with a quality of songwriting and writing of lyrics. A lot of Broadway is becoming very pop.
Did you guys watch the old Disney movies, growing up?
BARANSKI: The first Disney movie I saw was Bambi. I love animals, and I loved seeing animated animals. Bambi and 101 Dalmatians weren’t Grimm’s fairy tales, but I remember seeing those two movies, as a child, and feeling that enchantment. I have a little grandson who’s one years old, and I can’t wait to introduce him to that world of enchantment. And enchantment can be scary. There’s stuff that’s scary, but it’s so intriguing.
ULLMAN: I never wanted to be a princess. I didn’t look like a princess. I was a strange little troll-like girl. I just wanted to play the baddie. When I was at school, I wanted to be the wicked stepmother, or the ugly girl, or the person with a problem. I loved the dark side. It’s much more fun to play. And I never liked cartoons when I was a kid. I hated the ones where they would just get wacked over the head. I like reality. I like documentaries. I never liked cartoons until Beavis and Butthead. Now, I do. And my son adored The Lion King. That music was great. Elton John wrote a great score for that. There might not be another Sondheim, but someone will come along that does something extraordinary. We have to believe that. Sting and Sara Bareilles are really trying to write great things on Broadway. You just don’t know what will push through. So, I hated the whole soppy, sappy, girls are princess stuff. I used to get my Barbie and cut the hair off. I wanted a G.I. Joe. I wasn’t one of those girly girls. But I like this Sondheim story because it was all of the stories that I remember. It’s not about being protected and special and beautiful, and caring about each other. It’s a tough bloody world, and you’ve gotta have a sense of humor about it. That’s what the original Grimm’s fairy tales were trying to tell kids. You can’t protect them from the world.
You both have such a great sense of humor and you’re great at comedic acting. Is that something you had to learn, or is that something you’re just born with?
BARANSKI: I do think funny is like sexy. You’re either funny and sexy, or you’re not. It’s really hard to act that, if you’re not innately funny. Who knows how it happens. But we’ve got the funny thing going, that’s for sure.
ULLMAN: My heroes were Lily Tomlin, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner. I saw Gilda Radner when I was in England and was like, “I want to be on a show like this, and do bits like this!” She was funny, yet she was brilliantly real, and she was on par with the guys. So, making your own way and finding your own things to do and writing your own stuff, as a woman, is just really important. But, I’ve loved being in this ensemble. It was a fantastic experience, being with everyone in this film.
BARANSKI: We each could use a lot of our skills. It’s funny, and there’s the music, but it has such serious, dark undertones. There are moments that are really dramatic, like when we confront the giant. That’s not a funny moment. People are absolutely unhinged by that.
Are you guys hoping there will be even more musicals made, in the future?
BARANSKI: Yes, and we want all of them directed by Rob [Marshall], and we’re going to be in all of them.
ULLMAN: I think people will make more musicals. Some are going to be awful, and some are going to be great. People were so embarrassed by the musical genre 10 or 15 years ago. Cop Rock happened on TV, and that really was scary. It can go wrong.
BARANSKI: When it’s wrong, you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at, it’s so weird. I think there will be more. I think this movie is going to do fantastically well. Disney is so excited about this movie. Rob [Marshall] has a deal at Disney. I think it will continue and keep the tradition alive. There’s so much talent out there. There are so many great singers. This is another aspect of our lives.
Into the Woods opens in theaters on Christmas Day.