A conversation with 'Justified's Alicia Witt Special

Posted Jun 8, 2014 by Mindy Peterman
You may know Alicia Witt as Wendy Crowe from "Justified" and as Cheryl from "Friday Night Lights". What you may not know is that Witt is also a talented singer-songwriter, a pursuit she says, “fills something in me that acting can’t by itself."
38-year-old Alicia Witt has an impressive track record as an actor, appearing in such films as Dune and Mr. Holland’s Opus, as well as on TV in Friday Night Lights, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and Cybill (playing Cybill Shepherd’s daughter for four seasons). More recently, she joined the cast of the FX drama Justified for season five, playing Wendy Crowe, the lone sister to a gang of “redneck, southern gang brothers”. Now Witt has revealed her impressive talents as a singer-songwriter, with two releases available on iTunes and Amazon.
I spoke recently with Witt about her career as an actor and musician, and how she balances the two.
You had an auspicious start to your career, beginning at only 7-years-old, and chosen by David Lynch for the Dune film. What was it like working with him?
The thing about it was I didn’t have an agent and wasn’t in any way trying to be a child actor. It was just an odd series of events that led to the casting director for Dune finding out about me and calling my parents. They flew me to New York to audition for the casting director and then for David himself. It was so easy. It actually, if anything, gave me a sense that all movies were going to be like that in terms of both how easy it is to get a part and what a nice set it was to work on, and in particular, David, the kind of director he is: the way in which he works with actors and stays on such an even keel. Even on a set like that, where I now know there was actually a lot of tension over budget and creative differences. But I had no clue about that. It was a no brainer. I knew as soon as I set foot on that stage that I was going to want to do that for the rest of my life.
Is there a role you’ve played that you would consider special to you?
A role that always comes to mind when I’m asked that question is my part in Playing Mona Lisa. That’s an independent film I did in 2000. It was just so extremely close to what I was going through at that time in my life. It told the story of this girl who had just graduated from music school and was dealing with the breakup of her first serious boyfriend, and the fact she got rejected from a big graduate school. She had to move back in with her parents. All this stuff happens to her at once. I didn’t have to move back in with my parents but it was intense. I was going through a breakup in real life, which I didn’t know at the beginning of the movie and I found out at the end of it. It was just an incredible period of transition. What the story was really about was this girl who had spent her whole life working so hard to be good at something that she kind of forgot to just be a kid. So she had this later coming-of-age thing when she graduated from college.
You identified with this strongly.
Very strongly. I never went to college or to school at all, in fact. I was home schooled. But I certainly identified with being late to the game. At the time I shot that movie I hadn’t had a drink yet. And by the end of it I’d had a drink. The character and I were both 23 and we were having this delayed coming-of-age. I’m really proud of how that movie turned out.
You played Amy Safir in the D-Girl episode of The Sopranos. What was it like working on an episode of such an iconic show?
This is a pattern for me when I do these roles on shows that are thought of as iconic. I’ve been on a couple of those where everyone says, “You have to watch this show. It’s really great.” Invariably, whenever I end up on one of them, I’ve never seen [the show]. That gives me an air of unaffectedness, which is really helpful. I’m not starstruck by it.
The one time that was the opposite was on Ally McBeal. I lobbied hard to get a part on that show because I was obsessed with it. I was so nervous (laughs). I was so nervous! My first scene was this giant page long monologue that I had to deliver as a defense attorney, facing the entire cast. I was an Ally McBeal freak and I was shaking in my boots. I could not believe I was really on the set.
With The Sopranos, I had never seen the show. I just knew it by its reputation. So all of those characters were new to me. I didn’t come into it with any preconceived notions, which is exactly what Amy, the character, would have [done]. But I did have specific female producers and various stage people, who I can’t stand, who I based the character on. The funny thing is that after it aired, I had so many different people tell me, “I bet I know who that’s based on.” And it was always somebody different.
It’s like Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, right?
You can currently be seen as Wendy Crowe in the FX series Justified. This is your first season on the show?
Yes, and I don’t know if I’m going to be in for the final season. But all the episodes from Season 5 are up on Netflix now. I think they’ve also made the entire season available on for Academy members.
Can you tell us something about the character and her role in the storyline?
She is the lone sister in a family of real redneck, southern gang brothers. They are just bad news. Each one worse than the next. She is the lone voice of reason. She’s trying to keep the family together and keep things going. She’s sort of half trying to keep them in the clear, knowing they’re doing shady business and then half trying to live her own life and stay as little involved as she feels she needs to. There’s a real element of an abusive relationship there that became more apparent as the season goes on. She’s a really smart girl. She’s trying to put herself through law school. She does have a son who she claims is her brother but he’s actually her son. She’s denied that for years. And she keeps coming back to this brother, Daryl (Michael Rapaport), who is bad news and who betrays her over and over again. So, in the end, with Raylan Givens' (Timothy Olyphant) help she starts to understand just what the extent is of Daryl’s lies. She ends up needing to make some hard decisions, to say the least.
You are also a songwriter and classically trained musician. How long have you been writing songs?
I’ve been writing them off and on my entire life. It’s funny. It’s one of those things that I always thought I’d really want to do someday. I’d want to be in front of an audience playing my songs for people. But it wasn’t until, I think it was seven years ago now, that I played some of my songs for my best friend and she just looked at me and said, “You have to do this somewhere other than your living room.” That was the real beginning of believing that I could do that. Then the universe just guided me in that direction. I started meeting other songwriters, people who would let me sit in on their sets and play a song or two. [I started meeting] people I could write with as well as finding I could write by myself. It all came together and it’s just become such a huge part of my life I just can’t imagine how I could have possibly gone so long without it.
If you had to choose between music and acting, could you make that choice?
I don’t have to make a choice. I can’t. I think one helps the other. I feel like I’m a more well-rounded person now that music’s become such a big part of my life. It fills something in me that acting can’t by itself. But at the same time I love acting and I actually think I love it [more] since I started making music because it’s not the only thing I’m putting everything into.
Could you name some musicians who've inspired you?
There’s so many. I grew up listening to a lot of the classics like Nat King Cole, the big bands, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. I didn’t go to school so I didn’t really have any peers to point me in the direction of what was on the radio. I spent the ‘80s listening to the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s music. The modern artists I do remember listening to were classic singer-songwriter piano people like Elton and Billy Joel.
I hear those influences in your music.
Thank you. They were huge influences on me. Two people I really admire on today’s radio are Sara Bareilles and Pink. Of course, Adele but she’s a different style than what I do, I think. I just really love what Sara does. Sometimes people point to artists like that or Elton John as having a musical theater vibe. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Because you could put all good songs on a Broadway stage and they would mean as much. I really admire the songs that Pink picks because hers are songs you can just make an album of playing the piano and singing.
How about your acting influences?
The people who come to mind are Cate Blanchett and Judy Dench. I was incredibly inspired by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I got a chance to work with him once. It never saw the light of day. It was an improv thing that we were doing with Bob Balaban. We all got together for two weeks and improvised a script. The idea was that the script would then be written and turned into a movie. When the script got written they didn’t do anything with it. It was an incredible cast. I got to work with Phil and he was extraordinary. I love actors who are able to transform themselves so effortlessly that you actually believe they’re playing themselves, even though they’re different people in every movie. There’s an element of truth in every single character. If you didn’t know better you’d think this person was cast because they’re exactly like that character.
Al Pacino’s always been such a great inspiration to me: getting to work opposite him [in the film 88 Minutes], not just have a few scenes but to get to know him to that level. There was also a lot in that film that didn’t even make it into the [theatrical] film. Originally our characters were having a romantic relationship. So in the film it was implied that I had an unrequited crush on him. It was an experience that made me a better actor, for sure. It’s great when you watch someone you’ve looked up to for your whole career and find them to be just a real person.
He made you feel comfortable?
Yeah, he really did. I feel like with Al, if you’re somebody who’s easily intimidated, he might not take it well. Like if you tried treating him with kid gloves, like he’s made of porcelain, he doesn’t take well to that. He’s just a person. I don’t think he likes the fact that people look at him that way. What he enjoys doing is digging in to characters. I saw him do take after take of the smallest scene. Not because he was showing off for people on the set. But just because he really thought he could do it better. We all knew we were making a film that was not going to go down in history as his greatest film of all time. But it was supposed to be an entertaining thriller and he still put 100 percent into it.
Your songs such as “Me Or New York” and “Is This What You Meant” show a maturity both musically and lyrically. What is your songwriting process?
It depends. It’s all over the place. I tend to write a lot of lyrics. Sometimes I write them with a melody attached and sometimes the melody shows up later. Other times they come together. Sometimes, a little less often, the melody will come first. There’s a song that I actually wrote with [the rapper] T.O.N.E-z that is inspired by Justified and what Wendy is going through. It didn’t end up in the finale because there wasn’t room. That was a very packed finale; there wasn’t room for another song besides the ending song.
What are some of your future plans?
I’m trying to figure that out. The next thing at the very moment is I’m playing a gig in Kansas City on Monday night. I have a very good friend who is the program director at a big radio station there. He has been asking that I come out and play a show for a while. I’m also doing a guest starring role on this new show called Navy Street. It’s got a really cool cast. I’m also doing the 24 Hour Play here in L.A., the week after that. I think it’s the seventh time I’ve done this. Then I want to figure out what to do with my new record, when to release it, how to release it.
When do you think it might come out?
I haven’t quite decided yet. I don’t have a manager for music. I don’t have a booking agent. I've done it all myself up to this point. What I’m honestly trying to do right now is figure out how to find the right representation for that. I’ve been on tours before but they’ve all been self booked. I would love to actually get a label involved and get a booking agent involved on a bigger level. I’m just trying to scope that all out.