Fran Drescher reveals the role she turned down out of principle: "Who am I if not my word?"

Salon talks to the "Nanny" star about her new film "Safe Spaces," her iconic turn in "This Is Spinal Tap" and more

Published May 2, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Fran Drescher (center) in "Safe Spaces"
Fran Drescher (center) in "Safe Spaces"

When people think about Fran Drescher, they often think about her voice. It’s distinctive. It’s abrasive. It’s comical. It’s annoying. But Drescher knows how to pitch it. Love it or hate it, Drescher can play it up or tone it down as the situation requires — she’s no dummy. It is precisely her smarts and her shtick that have sustained a career for forty (!) years before and after her hit TV show, “The Nanny.”

Drescher’s voice, however, goes beyond her nasal Queens accent. She has been a strong, vocal woman throughout her career, advocating for issues and causes that are important to her and creating the Cancer Schmancer Foundation. She has succeeded both on screen and off — from her New York Times best-selling books, “Enter Whining” and “Cancer Schmancer,” to her recent TV series, “Happily Divorced,” about life with her gay ex-husband (based on her own marriage).

The actress now takes a rare dramatic supporting role in the new film “Safe Spaces,” which had its world premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. She plays Diane, whose mother (Lynn Cohen) is dying and whose son Josh (Justin Long) is going through a bad patch at work. Diane copes with her impending grief by starting to empty her mother’s apartment before the woman is even dead. It’s a scene that shows Drescher as high-strung without being overbearing. Drescher handles the role with finesse, making Diane sympathetic even when she behaves inappropriately. And inappropriate behavior runs in Diane’s family.

Salon caught up with Drescher at the festival to talk about “Safe Spaces” as well as one her classic roles, Bobbi Flekman, “the hostess with the mostest” from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which also screened at the fest.

“Safe Spaces” opens with Josh telling his students that they shouldn’t be afraid to embarrass themselves. I think that’s a good place to start with you, Fran.

[Laughs.] Because I’m such an embarrassment?! [Laughs.]

No, you seem fearless, and shameless. You’ve discussed your life with candor, verve and style. Can you talk about what I might call your lack of inhibition?

I think it’s presenting myself authentically. That is how I like to look at it. My fans feel like they know me, and in many ways, they do. I got famous, and subsequent to that, things happened to me. I was the victim of a violent crime — raped at gunpoint by somebody I didn’t know, who was on parole. I’m a cancer survivor. People often ask me to sign the chapters in my books that they identify with. Whether it be my dog dying, getting raped, or surviving cancer. I feel like I want to share things that I’ve gone through so I can also share how I’ve learned from the experience and what the silver linings and life lessons were. As a writer, and as a celebrity, I feel compelled to take my pain and turn it into purpose and be philanthropic. I can apply my celebrity for the greatest good.

Diane is a Jewish mother and she seems to know when to be pushy, when to lay a guilt trip on her son, when to be manipulative. What are your secrets? And how I can deflect things the next time that my mother lays a guilt trip on me?

[Laughs.] Guilt is a funny thing. It usually is that the recipient feels guilty. The person laying the guilt is sharing their feelings of where the other person has gone awry or not really been as helpful, or caring, or considerate as they could be — according to that person. The Zen masters teach us that there is no place for guilt. You have to articulate where you’re coming from, at the same time feeling respectful and empathic and sympathetic to the other person’s grievance.

And when your mother lays guilt on you specifically, Gary Kramer, I would say to her, “You know, you are so beautiful! You’re the prettiest mom out of all the moms, and I just love you so much!” And see if that diffuses.

I’m an identical twin. He wanted to take my place and interview you because he loves you. I am afraid to publish your advice now, because it will help him, too.

[Laughs.] I’m sure she has no favorites and loves you both equally!

There is a point in the film where the characters have to make a difficult decision. I want to ask you about your decision-making process. I intuit that you are smart and not rash, despite being ruled by your emotions. What is your approach to making decisions about your family, your career or even what to wear? You’re decked out gorgeously in pink today!

Some of the barometers by which I make decisions are: Does it make my heart sing? Is it something I can feel proud of? Does it compromise my self-sense of cool? I’ve kind of maintained that over generations. That means you don’t do certain things. You have to say no to certain things. I take pride in the fact that I walk the talk.

What was your line from “Spinal Tap?” — “Money talks, bullshit walks…”

Yes, right. [Laughs.] But that’s different. Walking the talk means being a person of word and deed. I feel that is what’s really important. I founded the Cancer Schmancer movement, and a big cornerstone of our organization is detoxing your life. That’s going to reduce, exponentially, a lot of dis-ease that you and your family may be experiencing. We teach you how to do it. We’re about causation, not reductionist medicine.

If you go to they can click on a half-hour education video called “Be the Change,” and it’s fun and informative and free. It stars me, Jamie Foxx, and Jeff Bridges. We’re trying to target young people, who, for the first time in U.S. history, are predicted to not live as long as their parents. We don’t wish to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy, so what we try to do with both adults and young people is to become mindful consumers. Use your purchasing power to dictate more responsible manufacturing trends. Because at the end of the day, manufacturers really don’t want to kill you, they want to sell you. But they’ll sell you anything you’re willing to buy.

You got to motivate, educate, and activate people to take action. Everything they buy and don’t buy becomes their vote and their protest. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House or Congress, what matters is us. We as the largest consumers on the planet are driving all the woes of the world because of big business greed — but we’re enabling that because of mindless consumerism. If everyone stopped drinking cola today, they’d stop making it tomorrow. The bottom line is the bottom line. That’s my job. I tirelessly speak to people to wake them up, shake them up, and take the check, choose, and change challenge. Check labels, choose healthy, organic, eco-friendly products and become the change we all so desperately need.

Your role in “Safe Spaces” is more of a dramatic turn for you, and your expressions conveyed so much. I know you are known for broad comedy, but I think folks might be surprised by your work here. It’s much more of an internal performance. Can you talk about changing things up?

I think we find out in the movie that Diane is very scared about what life is going to be like without her mom. Fear is driving her behavior and putting her in opposition with her sister and trying to deal with things and face the inevitable, but not really wanting to. That is very hard for Diane.

For me personally, both my parents are still living, still madly in love, but they are getting older, and these are precious moments with them. I’m one of the few people in my circle of friends who still have living parents and I cherish them, but I also rue the day when I don’t have them anymore. I connected to this character in a very relatable way. It’s written with a lot of authenticity and from the writer’s personal experience.

Diane says she has “enough on her plate.” You strike me as a workaholic. Can you talk about how you juggle your life and career? She tells her son to “breathe” at one stressful moment. Do you stop and breathe, or are you constantly in motion?

Yes, that’s true, and as my assistant Jordan will tell you, it’s not a boring job! [Laughs.] I never had children. Even when I was actually ready to, I found out I had gynecologic cancer, so that put the kibosh on that. But that was after “The Nanny,” and up until “The Nanny” I didn’t know myself as well as post-“Nanny,” so I didn’t have insight into some of the things that drove me. But I did have the wherewithal to know you gotta pick a lane. You can’t be a writer, producer, and star of a television series and do justice to a kid. The kid has to be the main event in your life and if you’re not in a position to do that, you’re asking for it, because they are not going to turn out well — and it will be your fault.

The other aspect of that is that I set myself up very early in life to be a caregiver. By the time I became a grown woman, I was beginning to feel suffocated by my own life choices. I was a person who without even realizing it, set myself up with a lot of needy people because I had thrived on being needed. I needed to be needed. But I couldn’t think of then adding a kid who’s uber-needy! I wanted to frolic and be free of the life I had created for myself. I had to break that.

And part of doing that was walking through fire to leave Peter, who turned out to be my gay ex-husband. We’re the best of friends now, but I was suffocated, and I felt like a bird in a gilded cage. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. And reaching my stride through “The Nanny” made me realize: I’m famous, I have money, and friends, and a beautiful home. I’m married. What’s the problem? I’m not happy. I really needed to walk away from the relationship in order to hear myself think. I basically hit a very garden-variety brick-wall mid-life crisis. And he, by the way, did not want the divorce. It was very hard for me because I was not in the habit of putting myself above other people’s needs. And causing other people’s pain is not in my m.o. That, and having cancer — and therapy of course — helped me to learn how to make it about me and be able to say this is not going to work for me. I don’t want that. You do it if you want to.

It was time for you to do you.

Yes, live my life for me and recognize the importance of that.

Let’s talk for a minute about your other film screening at Tribeca, “This Is Spinal Tap.” Did you ever think it would be a cult classic 35 years later?

I don’t think we knew that when we were shooting it. But I did recognize that there was a lot of very talented people in it. I loved the opportunity to do improvisation because that’s always been a strength of mine. There was only a 27-page outline and there were certain points you had to hit within your improv to keep moving the plot forward but other than that, it was all free. But most of the stuff people continue to quote was all stuff that I improvised.

And you know, the interesting thing is I was actually very young at the time, but I come across as this 35- or 40-year-old executive type. People are shocked when they meet me now and say, “How come you don’t look different and everyone else in the movie does?” It was because I was actually playing older than I was.

You do look great! “Safe Spaces” is about finding a non-threatening environment. In “Spinal Tap,” Bobbi conveys the dislike of an offensive album cover. So, given I started out by asking about embarrassment. What offends you?

I think marginalizing people, I find very offensive. Abusing the environment. Disrespecting women and children I find terribly intolerable.

Has there been a role you’ve been offered that you’ve said, “I won’t do that!”

Yes. I can tell you it was a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial for a half a million dollars. I said I gotta walk the talk in this life. Who am I if not my word? I go to the mat every day to convert people to live a toxic-free life and change this world and wake people up to not be a throwaway society, a plastic-driven society, an agro-chemical society, an industrial farm society. We have to walk away from all that stuff — a prescriptive drug society — and dial it back and get more connected to the natural world and become more conscious to your behavior. Stop being manipulated by big business greed. I had to say no, even though I would have loved the money. Loved it!

I respect that. I admire how Diane copes in the film. You’ve talked here about putting your life in order. How do you sustain that?

I’m a BuJu. I turned Buddhist. I’m a Jewish Buddhist. That philosophy is very handy and very helpful to get you through this life. To live in gratitude and try to own your bads and be present each and every day to keep pulling yourself back into the moment and seeing everything instead of being in your head in the past or the future. That’s a daily practice. I’m an imperfect person. I try not to make perfect the enemy of the good. But I also like to aim towards making kindness and compassion my compass.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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