Kathy Najimy Kicks Ass

Returning to San Francisco, Kathy Najimy promises to deliver at Feinstein’s with her new show, 'Lift Up Your Skirt' | By David Helton

I think I am in love with Kathy Najimy.

Kathy Najimy likes to laugh out loud. In fact, she likes to live her entire life out loud. She is a respected show business veteran. From her first major role in 1993’s Sister Act as the sassy Sister Mary Patrick to her current recurring role on the HBO hit series Veep, she has an unmistakable style that is quintessentially all her own.

As an actress, she’s truly a master of her craft and has the versatility to play television roles as well as own the Broadway stage (sometimes all in the same week). Aside from her impressive acting resume in front of the camera, she’s also an accomplished director and producer (with a new series in the works.)

Above all else, and most importantly – this woman is a true humanitarian. Even as a mother and wife, she makes the time to get behind a lot of important causes – standing up for Marriage Equality and tackling important women’s issues, from abortion to body image and eating disorders. She’s a big advocate of having an open dialogue about anything and everything.

“First and foremost, I’m a feminist. And basically that stems from a strong belief that all people and creatures deserve equal opportunity, rights and respect.” I intended to have a brief five minute call with her to chat about her upcoming one woman show, Lift Up Your Skirt, which runs at Feinstein’s at the Nikko on January 9th and 10th. Instead, we were gabbing it up on the phone for an hour like two old friends. Open and warm, she’s brutally honest and funny.

Yeah. I’m in love with Kathy Najimy.

Holy shit. I can’t believe I am talking to Peggy Hill! <laughs> Yes Ma’am, you are! <In her trademark Peggy Hill voice>

Do you identify with Peggy? [From the animated series King of the Hill]? You know, I do. It was a great gig, man – 14 years on that show. I loved every minute of it. There was some great writing on that show. Yes, there was. I mean every script was like a gift. <laughs> Sometimes on TV shows they typecast people . They have the nice person, the mean person, and the crazy person. But on King of the Hill, we were all of these things at once – the way we are in real life. Peggy had days when she was confident and pompous and seemed to be on top of the world – then she had other days when she was clumsy and self-doubting and afraid. It was familiar for me to play her because she was a very real woman.

Well you are a New Yorker and she’s a Texan – but you’re both feminists. We are. And I love that – and thank you.

Do you play Boggle? <laughs> It’s actually my favorite game. I played Boggle before Peggy did. I honestly have played that game for like 30 years. I think it’s the most well crafted game. It’s hard to find a Boggle partner! I even ask my husband all the time, ‘Baby, where can I find someone to play Boggle with me?’ <laughs> I seriously want to start one of those groups where people get together and play. Is that weird?

Yeah. It is. <laughs> But I love it. My best friend and I used to quote that episode all the time. It was a running joke for months with us. Wait, you sound like you have an accent.

I’m originally from Georgia. I’m displaced – but I love it out here in California. Well I love it and hate it. <laughs> I don’t know if I could handle NYC. I love New York, but I am from San Diego. I came out to NYC doing The Kathy and Mo Show. But then I was doing a lot of films in the 90’s and so I bought a house in LA so I wouldn’t have to be in hotels all the time. I’ve actually done a lot of work in San Francisco – and I just love it. That City has been really good to me.

Have you played Feinstein’s before? No, I haven’t, but I am actually close friends with Michael Feinstein. When my family and I moved to New York a few years ago, Michael and his family were so encouraging to me and they were part of the welcome wagon. They were also really good to my daughter who is an aspiring singer/songwriter. She’s actually the most talented one in the family to be honest.

The sound in that room is amazing. <laughs> Everyone says that, but I am not going to sing anything! <laughs> This is not a singing show. I always make lame excuses because I am worried that people are going to come expecting me to start belting out some show tunes or something. This is a play. So I will be talking – not singing.

What I mean is that it’s a great venue. Everyone is comfortable – not a bad seat in the house. That’s awesome to hear!  What is the best show that you’ve seen there?

Martha Wash. I saw her a few weeks ago. She gets up there and just sings and it’s all so beautiful and effortless. OMG! I love Martha. I recently directed something called The 24 Hour Musicals – and Martha was one of the featured singers in the show. She’s absolutely brilliant.

Lift Up Your Skirt is semiautobiographical, right? Yes. It is. There are two versions of the play – one is two-hours long and it’s very dense with a lot of monologues. Then there is a ‘lite’ version, which includes some shorter pieces – that’s the version I’ll be performing in San Francisco. It includes a lot of my life and one monologue that really is about marriage equality – and I wrote it when it was hitting a peak. I thought it would be appropriate to put that one in there.

Do you think talking about marriage equality in San Francisco and New York is passé? No. And I will tell you why: if we have our rights in California and New York and the rest of the country doesn’t have their rights – then we truly don’t have equality. It’s still relevant.

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Aside from Marriage Equality, you support countless other causes. Given what’s going on in this country today – what do you think about race relations in America? What are we doing wrong?
There are two things at play here. First, there is the overwhelming and almost suffocating feeling of racism – and sexism and homophobia. These are tangible things that we can see and feel all around us every day. Everywhere. These messages are in everything. They are in our movies. They are on our TVs. They are in the ads for products that we buy everyday. It’s both subtle and gigantic. Then there are these legal cases. It’s hard to say that the overwhelming feelings of racism, sexism and homophobia are not spilling into those cases. That being said, I am sure there are specific cases where it applies – and there are some that don’t. I guess what I am saying is that we need to pay attention to these cases. It’s so funny that these specific cases ignite so much energy when we are living with this every minute of every day. It’s all very real. It’s sad and disturbing.

Why do you think these cases ignite all that energy? I think because they are specific. During our day-to-day lives, the racism and sexism seems almost nebulous – you know? I mean, you can sense it but it’s not so tangible. It’s almost unspoken. But when a particular case happens – and there is something specific we can all grab on to – it really drives home the fact that this is not all in our imaginations. Again, it’s all very real – and we, as a nation, as a culture – we’ve got to deal with it. There are hate crimes every day in NYC. Violence against women is out of control. It’s all around us all the time. We need to pay attention all the time – not just when these news items are happening on CNN.

On social media, I’ve noticed that some people whom I respect make ridiculously racist remarks, and I can’t believe where they fall on this issue. I’ve had to block and unfriend people. I guess this creates a dialogue – and while the dialogue may be healthy, it can also be painful. I do think that people need something to rally around. We need something to galvanize the frustration and sadness and anger we feel everyday living with the racism, sexism and homophobia. We need these moments to move us all forward.

Are you big with social media? I’m not really. I mean, I went on Facebook like three times. I am a Tweeter. I like to send out a few tweets at 3am like a crazy person. I like Twitter because it’s easy and it’s fast and I know how to use it. <laughs>

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Watching your daughter grow up, how different is her high school experience from yours growing up with all these devices and all this connectivity? It’s absolutely, undeniably and unbelievably COMPLETELY different than what I experienced. <laughs> It’s so different in almost every way.

I know, right? <laughs> We lived our lives in a bubble, you know?! We knew the people in our class and the people on our street. If you had a bad hair day or a boy broke up with you or you did something totally stupid or embarrassing – only the people who you interacted with in your class or on your street knew. Now – famous or not famous – it doesn’t matter – everyone knows. For my daughter, in her reality – that moment could go viral and everyone would know something really personal and intimate. There is so much more pressure for her. I watch my daughter care so much about how she looks and how she is presenting herself because she knows that it’s all for public consumption. They really do care what people think. I didn’t have to care about any of this stuff. The only people who worried about what I wore were me and the Italian girl who lived down the street. <laughs>

When I was in high school I could do something embarrassing and get away with it. Today, someone takes out their phone and suddenly it’s memorialized forever and you can’t live it down. I think that’s why bullying has taken on a whole new modern form. I don’t think I would have survived high school with social media. It’s so hard for teenage girls especially. I mean, six out of ten 11-year-old girls are on a diet today. These eating disorders are not organic. They come from somewhere. We are not born hating our bodies – we are taught to hate our bodies.

Homophobia is the same I suspect. It is. It’s like you don’t know gay is ‘bad’ until someone tells you gay is bad. Here are all these LGBT kids feeling their organic feelings – they are feeling what is natural to them – and then suddenly they are taught to oppress those feelings and go against their own nature. It’s really confusing and it does damage.

I agree! But you know, kids are not sexual beings at 9yo. I think these are gender issues and we don’t know how to identify and treat those. We’re still learning. Listen, I think there is this spectrum of straight to gay – and I don’t know if anyone falls on one complete side of that spectrum. Society and exposure to experiences have a lot to do with it. I think it’s important to not only listen to these kids – but to really hear them. Stop telling people how they should feel and just let them feel what is natural to them.

I absolutely agree.  Jesus, we got deep in this interview!? What are we talking about?! <laughs>

I know, girl, we need to lighten this shit up a bit. <laughs> But honestly, I think it’s always interesting to see how an artist sees the world – because that will be reflected in your work and the choices you make. Do you like to write?  I do. But it’s so damn hard. <laughs> I love to direct and act and produce. But writing, dear God, it’s so f’ing hard. I will do anything in the world – I will save animals. I will speak at an event. I will clean your house and mow the lawn. <laughs> But to sit down and try to write something. Man, it’s hard.

I think you’re really vulnerable when you write. It’s not communal. I tip my hat to brilliant writers – especially those who write for TV. I mean, I am so hooked on that show Girls. <laughs> Lena Dunham is a cherished acquaintance of mine and I adore her – and I really respect her work.

She is doing something interesting on that show. But you’ve always been doing something interesting – aside from Broadway, films, TV, and stage shows, you are always so outspoken and honest with your politics. Even when it comes to abortion. You were so honest and outspoken about having an abortion – something that remains taboo to talk about for a lot of women. We need to have that conversation in this country. I think it’s like 1 in 3 women have had an abortion but still no one is talking about it. People think that you’re ‘for abortion’ if you are pro-choice. But come on, nobody is ‘pro-abortion’ – we’re ‘pro-choice.’ It’s a deeply personal and painful choice to make. I have no shame about my choice. There should be no shame when you make a hard choice like that. Instead, there should be a lot of support – especially from other women. I terminated a pregnancy and then, when I was ready, I decided to have a child – who is actually turning 18 this month by the way. You design your life in a way that works for you. You need to take care of yourself and this other life you create. Only you know what you are capable of.

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I like it when people talk about the difficult things in life. I like the forbidden topics. Listen, we all have choices in life. Some of those choices are difficult. It’s like being in a relationship with someone that’s wrong for you. You need to break up. Breaking up is not fun. In fact, it’s incredibly painful – but it’s sometimes necessary. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do. It’s often hard to reconcile that. That’s how I feel about most choices in life. You have to do what’s right for you, regardless of how much it’s going to suck.

It’s like talking about HIV openly. It’s hard to have that discussion with people. Well there wouldn’t be a stigma attached to HIV if it were in the straight community. I mean, let’s be honest. More people in the straight community have HIV now than the gay community. There is that same shame around it and it makes no sense.

When straight, white, suburban, Middle American teenagers start getting it, I guarantee you that suddenly there will be billions of dollars available and a cure will be priority number one.  Can I just say this – people are going to read this interview and think ‘What the fuck is this?! This crazy woman is going to come to San Francisco and talk about racism, abortion and HIV and not sing a fucking song?! Really?’ <laughs>

<laughs> I know! What is wrong with us?! Let’s stop talking about this stuff and get back to your show… Tell me more about your show. Well, be clear on this – I am not Liza. <laughs> I am no chartreuse. It’s a portion of a larger show that I will be doing in New York eventually (I hope). I wrote it because I am known for The Kathy and Mo Show. San Francisco and the Theatre on the Square were the perfect jumping off point for me with that show. The Kathy and Mo Show got a great reception there. In fact, I was doing that show in San Francisco when I got the audition for Sister Act.

Shut the fuck up! No, I’m serious. <laughs> I actually had to commute to LA from San Francisco daily to make that happen. I would wake up at 4am and fly to LA, audition and fly back to San Francisco, put on my makeup and do The Kathy and Mo Show. And then I got the part, so, for two weeks – I would fly down to LA every day and rehearse and fly back to San Francisco and perform that night. I don’t know how I did it?! You know how you just sort of numb yourself?

You didn’t second-guess yourself? I didn’t have time. <laughs> I just knew I was going to be part of something really wonderful with Sister Act, but I also knew that The Kathy and Mo Show was important to me.

How is Lift Up Your Skirt different from that show? What I want to do with this solo show is say things I haven’t said before. I want to challenge myself a little bit. I also want to challenge the audience a little bit, if that makes sense. I think San Francisco is the ideal place to test the boundaries . Wait, does San Francisco have any boundaries? <laughs>


Kathy Najimy appears at Feinsteins at the Nikko on January 9th and 10th.

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