Pop-Culturalist Chats with Lilli Cooper
When people think of a Broadway character that they admire, they most likely don’t think of a squirrel. But, thanks to the inventive Spongebob SquarePants everyone will be talking about the great Sandy Squirrel who is played with a lot of heart by the talented Lilli Cooper. We were excited to chat with her about one of our favorite new musicals of the season.
P-C: When did you know that performing was what you wanted to do?
Lilli: Well, I was raised in a musical-actor family. My dad is an actor. He’s been in, like, fifteen Broadway shows to date. So when I was a kid I really grew up backstage, and it was just in my blood. I was surrounded by it and just loved being around it. I always knew I wanted to do it, but, secretly kind of, because I was really shy as a kid. I didn’t start singing until high school, and it came as a surprise to my parents because they had never really heard me sing before. Once I started, I got the bug. I couldn’t stop.
P-C: So, Spongebob SquarePants. Since there’s source material, people know it and like it. What was the process like for you in bringing Sandy to life, then, and making her a full, multi-dimensional character?
Lilli: The things that I found in Sandy that I thought were so important to her character are that she is a brilliant scientist, she’s in a world that is so far away from her native land so she’s an outsider, and she has friends that she loves and adores and are so important to her. Those are very much human things that I could relate to and try to represent on stage.
When it comes to finding the character of Sandy in my voice and body, that was definitely a bigger challenge. One of the most important things that Tina, our director, wanted from us was not to do just an imitation of the characters and actors who did the voices; it was to really find our own versions of them. So, for instance, Sandy is from Texas so I have a little Texas twang. She is a karate master so I actually took some karate lessons so I could get that movement into my body. And, believe it or not, I actually watched a lot of squirrel videos to see what squirrels move like. One thing that I find really funny is that whenever you see a squirrel figurine or a photo of a squirrel, they always have their hands together in front of them or nibbling so that’s something I sort of use in the show. I always have my hands moving fast in front of my body like a squirrel would. It was a combination of watching the cartoon, getting the actions down, of relating to her on human level, and finding her animal character traits.
P-C: You mentioned she’s a scientist. What is that like–playing such a strong female character in this show? Especially when there are a lot of young audience members coming to this?
Lilli: It’s really amazing. I think what I love so much about it is that little girls and boys come and see the show, and they see this character who is so intelligent, smart, loves science, and wants to use that to literally save the world. I feel like it’s an inspiration of a story to be able to see a woman on stage helping save the world and using science to do it. So, I love the fact that I get to do this for hundreds of little kids who can potentially see themselves in that position in the future, look up to it, and hope to be that one day. It really invigorates us and that’s why we do what we do.
I love telling this story because I think its really relevant to what’s going on in the world today. We make a reference to “tidal warming” and to the group of people questioning that–who don’t believe in science as a way to save the world. I think it’s cool to be able to see an aspect of our world on stage.
P-C: Is that something, going into it, you were expecting out of the show? Did it surprise you that it is so relevant?
Lilli: A little bit of both. I knew who the team was: Tiina Landau, Tom Kitt, and Kyle Jarrow. I know how incredibly intelligent and brilliant and forward thinking and woke these people are. I couldn’t imagine doing a show that didn’t have an amazing story with these people because the way that they work is by telling powerful stories. I think what surprised me–and surprises a lot of audience members–is that you come into the theater expecting one thing, and you leave having experienced something completely different. It’s deeper and more powerful than you ever expected. That’s what I love so much about it. I think that has to do with every single person involved. An important thing about the show and the story we’re telling is that we can’t tell the story without the influence of the world around us, and because our world has changed so much in the past few years, then, of course, our story had to change around that too. That had to do with things that have shifted since our Chicago production, and it feels more relevant to today’s climate.
P-C: So did a lot of things change from Chicago to Broadway?
Lilli: I’d say a lot of things changed little bits. Like the story and the music is the same, but we have incidental music and lyrics that have changed. The biggest thing is that we have new cast members and such wonderful additions to the cast. Their energies and art they create has transformed the show for the better. I think it’s just smarter and funnier and quicker. We’ve really tightened it up to be this little gem of a musical. You’re constantly looking at different places. laughing at jokes, and engaging. We have audience members from three years old to ninety years old. They all love it. I don’t ever look out in to the audience and not see a smiling face. it’s pretty awesome.
P-C: Personally, what’s your favorite part of the show?
Lilli: I have a lot. One of my top favories is “Super Sea Star Savior” which is Patrick Starr’s number. Ethan Slater and I get to be on stage and be a part of it, but also stand to the side and watch which is so cool. You never really get to see your own show because you’re in it, so being able to watch the number while it’s happening is so incredible and magical. Watch the amazing ensemble dance their faces off and have this musical mash-up so that’s so incredible. It’s such a fun experience to able to be an audience member every single night, but still be in the show.
P-C: A couple other shows of that you have been in have source material, too (like Wicked, Spring Awakening). If you could bring a book, a film, etc. to the stage and you could be in it, what would it be?
Lilli: That’s a great question…It’s not something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but the first thing that popped into my head was one of my favorite movies Death Becomes Her. It would be a good musical, I think. I don’t know which part I’d want to play though; both women are so great!
P-C: Do you have a dream role?
Lilli: I’ve always wanted to play Sarah in Ragtime. My future dream for my career is to become a character actress. I love doing character work and comedy. I have always loved Sondheim. His shows are some of my favorite. I’d love to play Mrs. Lovett at some point in my life.
P-C: Is there a piece of advice that you’ve received that you try and live by?
Lilli: I think a really important piece of advice is to try to maintain a life outside of your work. As much as I encourage constant learning and growing and taking classes and lessons, I think it’s important to immerse yourself in things that are polar opposite, especially if you want to be an artist or actor. Actors really study the people and world around us. So not being holed up in the drama bookshop, reading play after play–which is amazing–but immersing yourself in different worlds and fields. Keeping your brain and body active in other ways than your specific-career path.
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