She was, to borrow her own words, a "4-foot-11 chubby New York girl," nominated for a Tony Award for her role as bubbly, teenage Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." She was up for best actress in a musical against such big names as Bernadette Peters and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Competition was stiff, the stakes were high and, as friends kept reminding her, Peters was awfully good in "Gypsy."
Was it finally time, Marissa Jaret Winokur wondered, to play the cancer card?
But as the 2003 Tony Awards ceremony approached, Winokur decided not to go public with the heart-tugging tale: During the pre-Broadway workshop performances of "Hairspray," a routine Pap smear had led to a diagnosis of aggressive adenocarcinoma, a glandular cancer, and a hysterectomy.
"Everybody was waiting for me to tell the story, I mean everybody. But I didn't want to be the sick girl," says Winokur, now 31 and reprising her role as Tracy at the Pantages Theatre in the touring production of "Hairspray."
"I never wanted it to be, 'Oh, my goodness, look at that girl who had cancer, look how far she's come,' " she continues. "And trust me, I knew in the back of my head, this is such a good story -- but it ended up being such a better story."
The surgery was successful, no chemotherapy or radiation required -- and the chubby 4-foot-11 New York girl won the Tony without going public with her illness. She's game to talk about it now but sends her omnipresent manager, Michael Valeo, out of her dressing room as she begins. She jokes that Valeo has a lousy bedside manner when it comes to emotional matters.
In fact, all of Winokur's associates have already heard the story and now approach it with a healthy blend of sympathy and irreverence. One of her closest friends, actress Lucy Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess"), scrawled in a recent birthday card: "Happy birthday, sorry about the cancer."
At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Winokur is backstage at "On Air With Ryan Seacrest," broadcast from a studio in the Hollywood & Highland retail complex, preparing for a live performance of the show's high-voltage closing number, "You Can't Stop the Beat."
Unfortunately, Seacrest and his crew had just learned that the low-rated program had been canceled in its first season. Happy seven months on the air, sorry about the show. Winokur cringes at the idea that she and the "Hairspray" cast are preparing to belt out an obnoxiously upbeat song while "Seacrest" crew members are probably already on the Internet hunting for new jobs.
But that's showbiz -- belting out a song on a canceled talk show, or talking about cancer while putting on her big "Hairspray" hair, bright pink shoes and a smile. "For me, 'Hairspray' was always the light at the end of the tunnel," says Winokur, who postponed surgery in Los Angeles for a week to show up in New York for the final reading of the musical. She hadn't yet signed the Broadway contract, so she told no one connected with the show, carefully disguising her weight loss. "My sister and I padded my butt because I was so sick, I was on all kinds of medicines," she recalls. "But it was always: 'I have to get better, I have to do this show.' "
While most sleepy "Hairspray" cast members arrive in drab-colored sweats for the pre-show run-through, Winokur, wide awake on black coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper, has on a bright pink top over white sweats, the same color as the hot pink "Tracy" dress she will wear later. She does it to help orient the film crew as to who's who during the live performance. "Just a little trick of mine -- they're probably saying, 'Where's Beyonce, where's Britney Spears, where's somebody I recognize?' " she cracks.
Since the world premiere of "Hairspray" in Seattle in 2002, Winokur has learned many such handy tricks in the endless quest to be recognized. She knew she didn't have the same brand recognition enjoyed by costar Harvey Fierstein, who played Tracy's mother on Broadway (Bruce Vilanch plays that role in the touring production). "I said yes to everything, David Letterman, Regis and Kelly, I mean there was not a show we didn't do," she says.
For Winokur, being featured in US Weekly magazine's "When Bad Clothes Happen to Good People" column as a result of the unfortunate houndstooth cape she wore at the Broadway opening of Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" was less humiliation than career coup. Her boyfriend, TV comedy writer Judah Miller, tried to hide the magazine, not expecting that Winokur would receive it with a scream of joy: "This is the coolest thing ever; I'm next to Cher!"
The incident did lead Winokur to try to make amends by showing up loud and proud at the L.A. opening of "La Boheme" in a "ridiculously low-cut," bright red dress and a red flower in her fountain of curly brown hair.
"I like costume," she says, completely unabashed at having a reporter and photographer present with her massive hair stuffed under a wig cap and her elastic stage undergarments exposed. "That is one thing that I say that Hollywood doesn't get. The side that theater people get is showbiz -- I mean, we know how to get out of a car, put on a dress, put a flower in our hair and go. I'm so from the old school of, like, Mae West walking out of a stage door. You shouldn't be apologetic. If you are at a press event, you know what, if you don't want your picture taken, then don't go."
Now there's a Tony and some name recognition. The L.A. "Hairspray" is not a Hollywood showcase for Winokur -- everybody who is anybody in casting saw the show in New York -- so she can relax.
She and Broadway costar Matthew Morrison, who plays Tracy's love interest, Link Larkin, are stepping in for only the Los Angeles leg of the tour, then regular cast members Keala Settle and Austin Miller return for the rest of the tour, which includes an October engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
But having a Tony in the bag doesn't mean that Winokur is spending her afternoons at the beach. It's only the beginning of a long day that will include the "Seacrest" appearance and three back-to-back meetings at New Line Productions before going back to the Pantages for the evening show.
Winokur will hit all the New Line production departments: feature films, music and TV. She has deals with all three, including the feature film "Always a Bridesmaid," a children's CD ("rated-G pop, not 'Wheels on the Bus' "), and a top-secret "reality television" show.
Last week, manager Valeo confirmed that Winokur's next project after "Hairspray" is a role in "Fever Pitch," a movie from the Farrelly brothers, starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon.
During a story meeting at New Line, Winokur and writer Nina Colman listen intently to notes from New Line Cinema senior vice president Mark Kaufman, who is appearing live from New York via a huge teleconference screen like a Klingon commander declaring war on the starship Enterprise.
Winokur nods seriously as Kaufman and others offer their input on the romantic comedy -- usually referencing a previous Hollywood success. The male lead needs to go more macho, "a little more Jack Black." The B story and the C story aren't really there yet -- there need to be multiple strong plot lines as in, say, "Love, Actually." And the love triangle is not yet, well, triangular enough, needs to go more in the direction of "The Truth About Cats & Dogs."
Winokur's own input: Anything goes as long as her character, the perennial bridesmaid, remains strong.
"I don't want her to be pathetic," she asserts. "She's not a pathetic girl."
One momentous line
Winokur baldly admits that she wants it all. At 19, she landed her first Broadway role. It was in "Grease!" -- with Lawless. In 1998, she came to L.A. for Lawless' wedding and began doing the Hollywood schmooze. "And, like, the first two auditions I went on, I got," she says, still sounding amazed. "I had, like, one line in this movie, and I was making more money than I made in six months on Broadway."
Her first feature film role was small but memorable. She was the girl behind Kevin Spacey at a fast-food drive-up window in "American Beauty" when the married character portrayed by Annette Bening drives through with her new lover, only to find her husband (Spacey), handing her the bag of burgers. "You are so busted," Winokur's character cheerfully observes.
That one line led "American Beauty" producer Dan Jinks to set Winokur up with an audition for "Hairspray" through his friend Marc Shaiman, who was writing the music for the new show. Winokur first sang for Shaiman and Rob Marshall, originally slated to direct "Hairspray" until he left to direct the movie "Chicago." He was replaced by Jack O'Brien.
"He has an upstairs studio in his house, and he told me he saw her hair coming up the stairs before she did," "Hairspray" producer Margo Lion says of Winokur's first encounter with Shaiman. "He called and said: 'I think we've found our girl.' It is so unusual to have the first person who walks into a room be it."
That wasn't the end of it for Winokur, who had to audition for O'Brien and go through several readings before landing the part. And as soon as the show opened on Broadway, Winokur was already negotiating her next move, signing a contract to produce and star in the ABC Family Channel movie "Beautiful Girl," to begin shooting in Canada a year later.
Making room in Hollywood
There's a character in "Hairspray" called Motormouth Maybelle; that appellation could easily apply to Winokur, who can talk nonstop with no observable evidence that she inhales. Never mind that she's going to have to sing for the better part of two hours tonight at the Pantages -- right now, she's got things to say.
"People are constantly saying, 'Who do you want to be like? Who do you want to be like?' -- everyone wants to put you into this box, and there isn't one!" she observes breathlessly. "The closest thing is Bette Midler, and that's just because she's a stage performer and does movies, but there is no one in my generation who is like Bette Midler for me to model my career after. It's wild."
She knows people sometimes compare her to Roseanne or to Rosie O'Donnell, because of the weight thing -- but those comic personalities don't quite match either; she likes to play good roles, not herself. She's mesmerized by the idea of producing, the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry.
Winokur believes there's more room in Hollywood than on stage for a young character actress. "I always say I'm like the other white meat," she says, laughing.
"They want something different. They don't know what they want, but they want something different."
Those watching her career trajectory agree. "She has tremendous likability," says "American Beauty" producer Jinks. "I could easily see her starring in a situation comedy, or a movie, because you know what? A lot of America looks like Marissa. Plus she does not dress like a heavyset person, ever -- she dresses like a sexy person. She is really sexy."
Later in the day, Winokur will blush when a New Line movie executive tells her that the day's Liz Smith column has quoted her as saying at a "Hairspray" party: "I feel like the Judy Garland of New Line Cinema!" because of her multiple New Line projects.
There's a lot on her plate -- but before the day gets rolling, back in the dressing room at the sinking ship "Seacrest," Winokur says that, cliched as it may sound, her brush with cancer has put it all into perspective.
"I had a Broadway role at 19, and my first movie was 'American Beauty,' my clip was on the Oscars," she muses.
"But then that happened and hit me over the head with: You know what, family is more important than your career, life is more important than your career. At the end of the day, there's a bigger thing going on. We're not curing cancer with this show.
"Had 'Hairspray' happened when I was 19, I wouldn't have been able to handle it, I would have been obnoxious," she adds. "Plus it wouldn't have gotten me anywhere, because now I'm smarter, now I know that after a year of the show I had to leave and make a deal for a movie with New Line, because you see it all the time -- you see somebody win a Tony and two years later you don't even know who they are. Seize the day."