Rhea Perlman is dipping her toes in new water—or, rather, tapping them. Nearly 30 years after the Cheers finale, the Emmy-winning actress has launched her musical career with the debut of 13: The Musical on Netflix.
But that may not even be the most exciting—or delightful—project she has to talk to about. Next year, Perlman will also star in the mythical, highly-anticipated, hot-pink Barbie movie from Greta Gerwig.
Perlman can’t tell me anything about the movie. She can’t even tell me anything about her role! She gives me hints: Barbie is going to be a great movie. The actress tells me this twice, with such conviction that I believe it to be fact. Objective statement: The Barbie movie is going to make waves in American cinema. Set photos alone have already divided, and perhaps broken the internet.
For now, though, there are two musicals in Perlman’s life. Launched last week on Netflix, 13 transforms the cutesy teen Broadway hit into a feel-good movie musical, bringing in an adults perspective with mom (Debra Messing) and grandma (Perlman) ready to help Evan (Eli Golden) plan the best Bar Mitzvah ever—even though he’ll have to deal with a divorce and a big move to Indiana, of all places, amid the celebrations.
The stage musical featured kids, kids, and more kids. Fun fact: Ariana Grande made her Broadway debut in the original cast of the Broadway production when she was 15.
No adult roles were featured in the Broadway show (which made it a hit for school theater programs), though they were featured in Dan Elish and Robert Horn’s original novel. The film brings them back, giving Perlman the role of Evan’s yoga-obsessed grandma. And yes, Perlman does do yoga in real life, too.
“I love the idea of being a grandma,” Perlman says. “I’ve been a grandma, in a way, since I was in my late-30s, since Carla from Cheers had so many kids. I was a grandmother even when I was 38. It’s a good thing. I hope to be one someday in real life.”
The other musical we gab about , however, doesn’t even involve Perlman in the main cast. Later this year, Netflix plans to release Matilda the Musical, a movie adaptation of the Broadway show based on Roald Dahl’s book and Danny DeVito’s 1996 movie. Though Perlman’s no longer Mrs. Wormwood—she now shares the title with Andrea Riseborough—no matter how it’s told, the story will always be one of her favorites.
Perlman sat down with The Daily Beast’s Obsessed to chat about starring in a movie musical (without any singing or dancing), the legacy of Matilda, and all the Barbie hype.
Congrats on 13: The Musical! It’s such a fun time.
Thank you! It is. It really is. They had a screening in New York, and a lot of the kids who were in the movie were there. A lot of kids in general. It was just through the roof. It was like you were seeing West Side Story for the first time.
Had you heard about the musical before you signed onto the project?
I hadn’t. But a lot of people had. My kids never went to theater camp. I think a lot of kids who went to theater camp did that musical at camp. I guess I wasn’t in New York when it was on Broadway, because it was on for less than a year. I wish I’d seen the play. I would’ve liked to see how they did that.
In the stage version, it’s just the kids. How did you add adults back into the situation?
Weirdly, I didn’t know what it would be like to not have the adult roles. They actually have to then explain why they go from New York to Indiana. They still move because of the divorce. But they have to just say that, I guess. It doesn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t know what we’re talking about, I have a feeling. They just did a great job of adapting it.
How was working with Debra Messing as your daughter?
She’s great. Great to work with her. She is, of course, a pro. We have that same sitcom background as part of our stuff, but she’s very much more familiar with musicals. She sings a great song in the movie, and it’s beautiful. She’s a very great singer. The songwriter Jason [Robert Brown] said, “Next time I write something, I’m going to write a song for you!” I said, “Maybe it’s better off if you don’t.” [Laughs]
I was going to ask about that! You don’t have any singing or dancing in the musical.
I know, I know. That’s how the grandma is, I guess.
Did you want a number to yourself?
You know, I guess my voice, if I compared it to anything, would be like Alfalfa from Our Gang.
What was it like to watch the finale come together, even though you didn’t participate in the number?
I really wasn’t there for the three months of rehearsals and all of the stuff they did to make those musical numbers come together. I hadn’t actually seen them before. So in this one, in the finale, we’re not looking at dancing, but when they start singing? [Gasps] I was just all in tears because it’s so beautiful. They have beautiful voices. And they’re all so committed. We had to do that over and over again, many times. They’re not like kids, they’re not fidgeting. They’re just right there every time. They have an amazing group of people in this movie.
I feel like in movies and TV about middle schoolers and high schoolers, the kids look a little older than they should be. In this, they really look like middle schoolers.
They actually were all 13! For real. Eli Golden, who plays my grandson Evan, he was only 12. Nobody was older than 13. Now they’re older because we did it over a year ago. But yeah, it’s quite amazing. The director [Tamra Davis] said it’s a good thing, because kids change every year. They would’ve looked completely different if they were 14 or 15.
The original cast included a bunch of breakthrough stars like Ariana Grande, Liz Gillies—do you see the same future for this cast?
I expect some of them to. There’s a lot of kids in the movie, and sometimes you never know. But from what I saw when I watched the movie the other day, there are some really stand out kids who are great at singing and dancing and acting. I have no doubt that some of them will become great stars some day.
What was it like to work with Eli Golden as your grandson?
It was great. He was present every second, always there. He knew his lines even better than I knew mine, I’ll tell you that. I think he knew my lines better than I knew my lines. His mom was always there as a chaperone. Even the moms on this movie were not stage moms. They were all just real people. I feel like, somehow, they collected a bunch of very real people to work together.
Another musical heading to Netflix is the Matilda musical. Have you coached Andrea Riseborough about playing Mrs. Wormwood?
No, I haven’t. After we did Matilda, which is one of my favorite projects of all time—it’s still a fantastic movie—I really didn’t get to see the musical on stage. I’m looking forward to it.
The legacy of Matilda is strong. People are going to love this.
It’s very empowering to kids, girls especially. Matilda has some powers, and she uses them for good. Kids love it. Even though there’s the scary Miss Trunchbull in it, it’s not really scary. There’s certain kinds of scary that kids like. This is one of them. Kids are not running to the other room. It’s not like a horror movie. They’re not scared of Trunchbull in the movie whirling somebody around by their braids in the air. They know it’s more like a cartoon, in that way.
It’s really amazing, actually, when I go into a store or a market, some place where I’m working, and somebody comes up to me and says, “Oh! You’re the mother from Matilda!” I feel like I don’t even look anything like her anymore. I certainly am not blonde! She was blonde and very floozy looking. But I love that they recognize me as that character. It’s really cool.
What’s the most bizarre title you’ve been recognized from? Is it Matilda?
Well, Cheers for sure is the most. The other one I would never expect to be noticed from is this movie I did called Sunset Park, where I played a basketball coach in Brooklyn to a group of high school boys. It wasn’t a big movie. It didn’t have long legs, as they say, but it was a good film. A while ago, somebody came up to me and said, “Aren’t you the coach in Sunset Park?” And I was like, “Yes! I love that you know that.”
Now you’ll have a bunch of young teens who recognize you from 13: The Musical.
Yeah. Once in a while, I’ll have somebody come up to me and say something really ridiculous. I was in Canada doing something else recently when I came down the elevator and there were these two men standing there. This one guy goes, “Ooh, ooh! I know you, I know you.” I was running out to get into the car to go to the set, and he comes running out: “I know where I know you. You’re Margaret Atwood.”
Oh, that’s really bad.
I just almost collapsed in a heap. I was like, “Mm…no.” [Laughs] It’s really funny. I don’t mind. I just take it all as fun.
Everyone is talking about the Barbie movie. How was filming?
We’re not allowed to talk about anything specific in it, but it was fantastic. I can tell you it’s going to be a really great film. It’s not just some ditzy movie about a doll. It is really going to be a great film. Greta Gerwig is great at directing it, and Margot Robbie is the main Barbie. It’s very different and quite beautiful and really fun. I couldn’t have had a better time.
And Greta Gerwig has made such great films.
She’s a great director. I’ve been an admirer of both of those people for such a long time. I love her movies. And I like her acting too, she’s a great actress. It’s all very great, pedigreed people involved.