Idina Menzel’s public persona is defined by her starring role in a blockbuster children’s franchise (the “Frozen” movies), a Tony Award-winning performance in Broadway’s “Wicked” and a Christmas album or two, so it’s more than a little jarring to see her show up as Dinah, Adam Sandler’s estranged wife, in Josh and Benny Safdie’s high-tension underworld thriller “Uncut Gems.”
In just a handful of scenes with Sandler’s rakish, charmingly duplicitous wheeler-dealer, Menzel generates serious emotional heat, upping the stakes of an already taut street-level drama.
“I just so yearned to be part of something that was different from what people expected for me,” Menzel says. “I really feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to show that kind of range.”
The Safdie brothers saw her in Joshua Harmon’s Off-Broadway dark comedy “Skintight,” and discovered that she might make sense as a fierce, self-possessed, well-heeled Long Island McMansionite.
She grew up lower middle class in Syosset, on Long Island, and says she recognizes Dinah as an “East Coast Jewish girl” like herself. “Anyone who knows me knows that it’s just where I live, literally and metaphorically. I know that character, and I know many women like her. And I’ve probably been known to act like her once in a while, after maybe a couple of beers late at night.”
Though Dinah is largely absent from the main setting of “Uncut Gems,” which takes place in and around Manhattan’s Diamond District, Menzel said that milieu also felt familiar.
“My father was a pajama salesman, so he was in the Garment District, just a couple blocks from the Diamond District.” She’d go visit him at work as a little girl, and go to the diner with him and his friends. “It’s a world I know and feel comfortable in.”
The Safdie brothers’ films are marked by a documentary-style realism that couldn’t be further from the storyboarding and careful scripting behind a mass-market animated film like “Frozen.” Menzel says that she was electrified by the Safdies’ approach, with its fast pace and allowance for improvisation, and refers to “the frenetic, beautiful chaos that they create.”
But she pushes back against the idea that “Uncut Gems” posed a new kind of challenge. “Look, I’ve been singing professionally since I was 15 years old,” Menzel says. “I guess I have tough skin. I know how to get up in front of an audience where nobody gives a ... and do my job. And then being a creature of the theater and knowing that every night is different and to welcome mistakes — I’m comfortable in that environment. I like spontaneity. The only thing I had to get used to is that [the Safdies] don’t say ‘Action!’ because they don’t want you to feel like ‘the red light is on, now do something.’”
She was on set only for a couple weeks, so at a certain point, Menzel says, “I stopped worrying about being perfect and just stayed in the moment with Adam [Sandler]. He’s always in character, and he’s so generous and focused and has done so much preparation. He knew the rhythm, so I just kind of keyed into his rhythm.”
Though “Uncut Gems” introduces the characters’ marriage at a moment well past its breaking point, Menzel and Sandler make clear through their shouting matches that their passion isn’t entirely extinguished.
“I feel like in order to get to that kind of place of anger or hatred, you have to love deeply and hurt deeply,” Menzel says. “I just imagined that she fell in love with the dreamer in him and made the same mistake that I’ve made in my own life with men where, are you falling in love with the boy or the man?”
Though it seems destined to represent the Safdie brothers’ mainstream breakthrough, and may even earn an Oscar nomination or two, “Uncut Gems” is clearly the underdog of Menzel’s two winter 2019 movies. But for Menzel, who says she “contend[s] with a lot of insecurities and neuroses,” the nonsinging role is crucial to her continued evolution as an artist.
“It’s a gift and a curse to know what you’ve wanted to do your whole life,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl, I just sang, and that became my identity. But as you get older, you start to feel like, ‘Well, when I can’t sing or I have a cold or I can’t get the best performance of my life, then who am I? Am I special anymore if I’m not wowing people with some kind of vocal acrobatics?’ I’ve learned a lot about myself — that it’s not about those high notes; it’s about the essence of who you are and how you tell a story and what you have to offer as an artist. But it’s taken me a long time to come to that.”