Katharine McPhee Transforms From “Idol” to Actress for “Smash”

The former “American Idol” singer set her recording to the side for "Smash"

Katharine McPhee’s going from aspiring Idol to aspiring icon – namely Marilyn Monroe – with her new role in the musical series “Smash," debuting Monday, Feb. 6, on NBC. 

The former “American Idol” contestant tells PopcornBiz she’s set her recording to the side to dive headfirst into her role on the Steven Spielberg-produced series. McPhee plays Broadway newbie Karen Cartwright, a waitress from Iowa who suddenly finds herself in contention for the lead in a musical about the legendary sex symbol – if she doesn’t lose the part to ringer Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty). McPhee reveals the road that led her back to TV, this time singing and dancing as someone other than herself.

Did the competitive theme of the show kind of take you back to your 'American Idol' days? Can you draw on that a little bit, wanting something so bad and being so close to getting it?

I was really more thinking about myself as an actress and what it is to go into auditions and to not feel like you did your best. Or to feel like you did a great job and then you didn't hear anything, and then you doubt yourself. And 'Idol' was a TV show and it was a competition, but it was kind of like something that I did because I was frustrated with my acting career. And I had no idea that it was going to turn into like, 'Okay, you have a really big record deal now. What are you going to do now?' It was sort of such a whirlwind experience – and wonderful experience – but I mean, maybe had my music career like been an instant rise to millions of album sales I would maybe be doing something different right now. But as an actress I always kind of knew where I wanted to go and where I wanted to be. I didn't know it would be this show, but I always knew that this is was what I wanted to do. But that's something you can't say when you're coming off a reality show: "Well, now I'm going to do television and film." Everybody’d be like, "The hell you are!" My theory is always just kind of do it silently and get people to rally around you and believe in you, and hopefully things will go your way. But it's taken a long time.

Is this series exactly the kind of opportunity that you wanted starting out?

It’s more than I could have ever dreamt, because I do love theater. I studied theater in college for three semesters before I dropped out. I love musical theater, but of course I obviously have this love for acting for film and television. It’s just more than I could have ever imagined, and the cast is incredible.

What are the different sort of pleasures you get out of singing as opposed to acting? Can you compare the two?

Yeah, it's a really hard comparison. The gift that my career, take it for what it is, has given me over the last five years was still performing live. Sometimes at like country fairs where, I kid you not, there were like 150 people who showed up. And you know, it was hard for your ego. You're like "Nobody cares. Why should I care? I don't want to do this." And the gift that it gave me was "Okay, just suck it up and go out there, even though I don't feel like it." And then you go out there and you realize it doesn't really matter. Yeah, the ultimate goal is to have it be in front of thousands of people, but if you can't have the joy of it in doing it in front of a hundred people or two people, then why are you doing it? And I think that, honestly, as difficult as sometimes it is to feel like "Oh, well, people see me as a failure" or this and that, it really gave me an amazing gift. Because I don't think I could've been in the moment as much as I am now. Like I wasn't in the moment when I came off 'Idol'. I was like, "What? Okay." I met Steven Spielberg when I came off of that show – right when I came off that show he called a meeting. He wanted to take a meeting. And I was probably so obnoxious. I probably talked too much. I remember walking out of there going like, "Did you even let him speak? Did you even let him?" And it worked out for me, because I think he had, obviously, this project in mind and all that stuff. But anyway, it's all worked out. And obviously we're hoping that the show is successful and that people will tune in. And obviously I'll be okay.

What touches you about Marilyn Monroe? What's the thing that really got to you?

I think there's this sweetness. There is just a genuine sweetness to her that I think actually Michelle Williams really did a wonderful job portraying. Was just this- she just really did. She just wanted to be loved. And it gives me chills. Even someone who has everything in the world just wants to be loved.

You had your own blonde phase – and a bit of a Marilyn-esque ‘do – after your second album.

Actually when I was auditioning for this part, I was thinking to myself "Oh, I hope they look at those pictures of me when I was blonde. I can look good when I'm blonde, I really can!" Because that is one of the major things when you're auditioning for stuff. You stress about it if you're going in for a blonde role – you're like "These people don't have imagination. They cannot see past what it is that they see." Listen, if it wasn't "Idol," it would be something else. Every actor has something that they have to overcome. Their boobs are too big, they're not tall enough, they're too short.

Do blondes have more fun?

I don't know. I think real blondes might have more fun.

"Smash" premieres February 6th at 10 PM ET on NBC

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