The Wit Under the Wimple : Najimy Had Devil of a Good Time in ‘Sister Act’
Kathy Najimy recalls filming a scene in “Sister Act” in which make-believe nun Whoopi Goldberg stood poised, ready to direct her new charges in a convent choir where Najimy plays the overzealous soprano Sister Mary Patrick.
“When she heard ‘Action!’ Whoopi pulled her hands out from under her (habit’s) tabard, and out came those big white Mickey Mouse hands with the stuffed four-finger gloves,” Najimy said.
The practical jokes are what Najimy remembers from the “Sister Act” set--not the widely reported tension between Goldberg and executives at Touchstone Pictures and Walt Disney Studios.
Najimy said whatever went on between them, it didn’t spill over onto the set. “I had a great time with Whoopi--she was the perfect example of generosity and talent,” Najimy said. “I never had a better time making a movie.
“One minute we were playing off-color charades and manic games with lewd lyrics and the next we snapped right back into hymn singing,” Najimy says.
But when it comes to her career as an actress and comedian, Najimy follows a more secular motto--from Nike: “Just do it.”
“I just try to go out and get things,” she says. When she went up for the part, she was performing her successful Off-Broadway revue “The Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives” on tour in San Francisco.
“I had five audition-callbacks, and once I got the part, a 10-day blitz of shuttling, filming and schedule juggling. Every night I zoomed to the Theater on the Square for an 8 p.m. performance, ran for the 11 p.m. flight to L.A., slept a few hours, rehearsed the film from 10 to 2, rushed to get the 4 p.m. shuttle back to San Francisco to make the 8 o’clock curtain and started all over again.”
But Najimy’s used to just doing what’s necessary from her days doing stand-up, improvisation and political theater in San Diego for the feminist theater collective Sisters on Stage and at the now-defunct Wing Cafe, to delivering singing telegrams, including one, in which she was dressed as a bunny, to Bette Midler, one of her idols.
After drafting partner-to-be Mo Gaffney’s “Hot Flashes” act--also in San Diego--into her feminist cabaret act, the two developed “The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives,” a collage of character vignettes that premiered at a Gay Pride benefit at the Old Town Opera House (now the Theatre in Old Town) in 1984. The show ran for a year and a half Off-Broadway, collected several Obies and was made into an HBO special.
Spinning off from the duo, Najimy was cast in six movies within two years, and had a flurry of scene-stealing cameos: Sally Field’s costume assistant in “Soapdish,” Michael J. Fox’s secretary in “The Hard Way,” a video store customer in “The Fisher King” and Julie Kavner’s stand-up comic friend in “This Is My Life.”
Cast as Al Pacino’s social worker in “Frankie & Johnny,” she never made it to celluloid. “They ran out of time and money and never got to the scene. But they sent me this lovely apron, signed, LOVE, MICHELE (Pfeiffer).”
Her largest part to date is in “Sister Act.” In preparing for her role, Najimy says, “I didn’t have it go into the trailer and prepare over some sort of crystals and a Lee Strasberg Method book.
“It’s a takeoff on a legit soprano but really I’m an alto,” she says. “I play a nun, but not an ordinary nun.”
The convent choir, under the direction of conductor Goldberg, suffered from a sort of sibling rivalry at times; composed largely of actresses who have appeared in the musical theater, their sound was at times more manic than mellifluous. “It was like the Battle of the Broadway divas.”
Najimy is no neophyte to the musical stage, having performed in 12 community theater musicals in three years but she “got burned out belting all those roles. I was a singing Ethel Mertz. I wrote a song parody based on ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ called ‘Don’t Take My Food Away'--and used it in ‘The Kathy & Mo Show’ for another three years.
“I’m just not one to blend into the background. If I’m going to sing, I want attention!”
Although Najimy grew up in San Diego, she’s now based in New York; her personality is bicoastal. “I wish I could sound more mysterious, sinister and dark, but I’m like here in L.A. and I love everything . . . I’m like a cross between Woody Allen and Gidget.
“The whole time I was growing up in San Diego everyone would say to me, ‘You’re from New York, aren’t you?’ And pretty soon I just started saying, ‘Yes.’ I had this whole fantasy in my head that I began to believe that I was born there and would go back some day.
“Yeah,” she admits. “when I think about real life . . . the things I need to think about to get done what I need to get done, I think about New York.” Which is, incidentally, where her most personal relationships--her boyfriend-musician John Boswell, and dog, Al Finney--are based.
“In L.A. I feel this low-level desperation. Everyone’s always looking over your shoulder: at the next person, car, dog, skirt or hairdo, thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a producer I’ve gotta meet; oh, I’ll go hang out with her, that’ll do it.’ You’re never quite into what you’re doing. But in New York you just do what you do. In L.A. you look over; in New York, you keep looking straight ahead. You just do it.”
Najimy’s feminism was evident in “The Kathy and Mo Show” and she bristles at the notion that feminism has become passe.
“I’m bothered by the ‘90s phrase ‘post-feminism’ . . . As if the movement’s over. It certainly isn’t. Maybe it’s over in the minds of the people who never accepted it from the beginning. ‘Post-feminism’ is like saying ‘post-equality’ or ‘post-civil rights.’
What Najimy really cares about is individual choice. She’s contributed a chapter in “Choices We Made,” a book of essays on abortion. Contributors include Linda Ellerbee, Anne Archer, Margot Kidder and Goldberg.
Najimy and Gaffney have teamed up again, co-writing a comedy under the guidance of Nora Ephron. “Your personalities have to come out somehow. It will undoubtedly have overtones of our compassion, our point-of-view.” The plot? It’s the fifth-year reunion of a group of people in a bus accident.
The script is part of a two-picture writing deal with Hollywood Pictures; she also has a CBS development deal, and she’s talking about playing a serious role in an upcoming movie--"a refreshingly normal, everyday woman,” she says. She declined to say more about the project.
She’s even gotten together with her idol, Midler. “After months of trying to have her come see the play, I sort of gave up. Then one day we got word she was ‘jetting in.’ She appeared backstage like in a dream on the last weekend of my show; now we’re going to play sister witches in ‘Hocus Pocus,’ ” an upcoming film from Disney.
Najimy has said her role model for Sister Mary Patrick came from the TV show “Entertainment Tonight.” During a story on “Soapdish,” host Mary Hart gurgled, “Sally Field . . . you gotta love her.”
“And there it was,” Najimy says. “That was my character. That bubbly, always-smiling girl . . . without legs.”