Valarie stars as "Big Dee Dee Thorne" on UPN's comedy series "Half & Half." Pettiford has enjoyed a remarkable career on the stage performing on Broadway, Off Broadway and in regional theater as well as in film and television. She began her training at the Bernice Johnson Theatre for the Performing Arts in Queens, N.Y. By the age of 14, she was a teacher and choreographer for the school and became one of the lead dancers in the company. Pettiford is also a graduate of New York's High School of the Performing Arts. Her performance on Broadway in "Fosse" earned her nominations for a Tony, Grammy, Outer Critics Circle and Dora Mavor Moore awards. Her other theater credits include playing Velma in "Chicago," in London's West End, opposite the legendary Chita Rivera. She also performed in Bob Fosse's national tour of "Dancin'" and in his last Broadway show, "Big Deal," as principal dancer, actress, singer and dance captain. She starred in Hal Prince's Broadway show "Grind" as Fleta and in the first national tour of "Showboat" as the tragic heroine, Julie, a performance which earned her a Vancouver Sun Reader's Choice Award and an NAACP Image Award. For her work on HALF & HALF, Pettiford was nominated this year for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. In addition to appearing in numerous television commercials, Pettiford created the role of Sheila Price in "One Life to Live." She has guest starred in "The X-Files," "Walker, Texas Ranger," "Men, Women & Dogs," "Sliders," "Silk Stockings," "The Division," "Any Day Now," "The West Wing," "State of Grace" and "Frasier." Pettiford previously had recurring roles in "The District," "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Fame L.A." and "Another World." Her film credits include "Glitter," with Mariah Carey, "The Wiz," "Cotton Club" and "Like Mike." Pettiford co-wrote and performed her one-woman show "Finding My Voice" at Pepperdine University and recorded her first CD, Hear My Soul, which will be released January 2005. Pettiford lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Tony Rader. She was born on July 8, 1960, in Queens, New York.
Valerie Pettiford: Half & Half
HALF & HALF enters its third season consistently ranked among the top five television series among African-American adults 18-34.
At the outset, twenty-something half-sisters Mona and Dee Dee had only one thing in common - their father. Growing up separately, these two virtual strangers suddenly became neighborsin the same San Francisco apartment building and experienced the challenges of sisterhood for the first time.
Mona, a record-company executive , was raised by her single mother, Phyllis, to be an independentwoman with her own free-spirited and sometimes sardonic style. By contrast, younger sister Dee Dee grew up privileged in a two-partent home and attends law school, but seeks her own identity out of the shadow of her overbearing mother, Big Dee Dee.
The two half-sisters lean on each other for support when it comes to relationships, career choices and how to handle their mothers. Meanwhile, Mona and her best friend and colleague, Spencer, realized that they are more than friends when they kissed passionately last season.
In 2004, HALF & HALF received its first NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. Both Valerie Pettiford and Telma Hopkins earned nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, while Chico Benymon secured his first nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor.
Hunting With Carol And Valarie
Actresses Carol Kane and Valarie Pettiford chat about their new Geffen Playhouse production
"This is actually the room I auditioned in for the play," says actress Valerie Pettiford as we sit down for our interview in one of the offices of the Geffen Playhouse, where Valerie is currently starring in "He Hunts." We're also being joined in the interview by Valerie's co-star in the show, none other than the great Carol Kane. I mention to them that I had seen the show on the previous Friday evening, which immediately sets off a discussion between Valerie and Carol as to which performances draw the best audiences.
Valarie Pettiford: Saturday matinee. That so far was the best audience.
Carol Kane: No, the Sunday matinee. That was huge.
Valarie: No, Saturday-
Carol: No, uh-uh.
Valarie: Are you sure?
Carol: Positive. My friend Camilla came and it was Sunday.
Valarie: Oh, I have to tell people! [laughs] Sunday then.
Carol and Valarie are fun to be around and it's obvious that they're having a great time with this production. So are their audiences. "He Hunts" has been marvelously adapted and translated by Philip Littell from the classic 19th Century French farce "Monsieur Chasse!," by Georges Feydeau. It's the story of an upperclass Frenchwoman named Leontine (played by Valarie) who is convinced that her husband Duchotel (played by Maxwell Caulfield) is having an affair while on his supposed "hunting trips." Leontine decides to have her own affair with Duchotel's devious best friend Moricent (Stephen Nichols), while Duchotel is once again away "hunting." But as luck and farce would have it, both adulterous couples wind up staying in the same apartment building which is run by Madame Latour (played deliciously by Carol), a boozy, fallen "former countess."
"He Hunts" is another in a long string of successes for Valarie Pettiford. In 1999, she earned Tony, Grammy, Outer Critics, and Dora Mavor Moore award nominations for her lead role on Broadway in "Fosse." She also starred as Velma in the London West End production of "Chicago." Valarie has appeared on television numerous times, including a three-year stint as the character Sheila Price on "One Life to Live". She was also recently seen on the big screen in Glitter, starring opposite Mariah Carey.
And then there's Carol Kane. She's in the middle of a near-legendary career which has seen her conquer film, television, and stage. In 1975, Carol earned an Oscar nomination for her work in the film Hester Street. Other notable films include Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Annie Hall (1977), The Princess Bride (1987), Scrooged (1988), Addams Family Values (1993), and Office Killer (1997). In both 1982 and 1983, she won Emmy awards for her role in the famous television series "Taxi," where she played Andy Kaufman's girlfriend Simka. On stage, she has appeared in productions of "Control Freaks," "Signature," Beth Henley's "Family Week," and John Cassavetes' "A Woman of Mystery."
It should be pointed out that the entire cast is fabulous, right down to smaller roles such as that of the young lech Gontreins (Daniel Kucan), the police commissioner Bridois (Alan Mandell), Duchotel's clueless frind Cassecui (V. J. Foster), and the haughty maid Babet (Cathy Lind Hayes), Philip Littell and famed director David Schweizer (who also recently directed "The Blue Room" at the Pasadena Playhouse) have more than met the challenge of creating a new Feydeau for modern audiences.
Venice: So we've agreed- Sunday matinee is the hottest show then?
Carol Kane/Valarie Pettiford: [laugh, nod together in agreement] Sunday
Okay, my first real question is about staging a Feydeau play for a modern audience. So many of the farcial conventions he pioneered over 100 years ago have become familiar staples of modern comedy today. As actors, was there anything in particular you worked on to keep the material fresh?
VP: Philip (Littell), who adapted this, made sure that there were some contemporary overtones as well as the traditional Feydeau. With that, I think it helped us really make that transition easy. Because he added those extra couple of contemporary words, and attitudes, and behavior. And he allowed us to play both sides of that coin.
CK: And then (director) David Schweizer is very brave. He's always encouraging you to go too far and then you can bring it back. He's just brave and experimental. He doesn't want to have anything up there that's been up there before [laughs].
VP: Right, so that combo (of Littell's writing and Schweizer's directing) really helped.
You mentioned experimentation. When you were in rehearsals was there a lot of experimental work to find the tone?
CK: Yes, and it's still going on. David's still coming and giving us notes: working on the tone and the page. [David] is going to be here tonight.
VP: He is? [excited] Yay!
CK: He's going to give us notes from-
VP- the Sunday performance!
CK: [laughs] Sunday
VP: [laughs] You're right! She is so right It's the Sunday matinee [that's the best]. I have to tell everybody [laughs}. But yeah, the process (of developing the tone) is ongoing and never stops. Because the audiences also change your attitude and perception of the show and the tone of the show. So we've just got to stick to our guns and stick to what Monsieur David has told us. And we usually stay on the right track.
Has the show already changed since opening night?
CK: Oh yes.
VP: Yes, definitely
In what ways?
CK: I think the pace has gotten tighter. And David's given notes to the cast "Continue stealing the show away from me and Philip and making it your own." [laughs[. So I think the fact that we really can enjoy ourselves, that changes things.
VP: David gives the greatest notes ever. He's just brilliant that way. And it's true. "Take it over, make it your own."
You as actors have to have a lot of trust in each other to allow everyone to really adhere to that directive.
VP: Yeah [laughs]
CK: But I think David's set a very solid structure. So it's not like you can go haywire. [laughs] But within the structure you can go far in your own character.
Something that struck me about the play is that "the good old days" are traditionally romanticized as more "moral" in terms of marriage and relationship. But this play is evidence that wasn't the case!
CK: Historically, in France, I think it was very, very "done" to have extramarital affairs. I think it was sort of an assumption that was made. [laughs]
. VP: Right! [laughs]
The same marital problems these characters are mixed up in could be happening down the street today.
VP: Totally. I totally agree with that. It has not changed. The same old stuff is going on [laughs] The same old lies and the same old fantasies and the same old desires.
CK: Sure. Affairs of the heart.
VP: Yeah. The same guilt. Just different costumes.
It sounds like David Schweizer is great to work with.
CK: I love working with David. This is my second time working with him. He's such an artist, you know, which is not an easily found thing. He is so dedicated and willing to be in there with you. And he's just so creative and so open. Collaborative. I just really find him inspiring as a director.
VP: Ditto. This is my first time working with him. I just think he's dreamy. Once again, the word "tone" comes up. His tone. He makes the environment just so pleasant and peaceful, but you get the work done. It's just an easy place to work and you are allowed to do what you need to do and have fun within that structure. And when he knows you're having problems, he knows exactly what to say to fix it.
CK: Yeah, has ideas. Actual creative ideas.
VP: [nods in agreement] Ideas! Tons of ideas.
CK: Whereas, sometimes you can be in trouble and you look at the director and you know he or she does not have a clue, so you're going to have to burrow yourself out. But David helps. You'd think every play he goes was his first play, he has that much passion for it. And he workds more than any director I've ever seen- he's always working on three things at once at any given time. At least.
VP: But you never feel like you're coming in second to something he's done. You're always his "first born," you know what I mean?
Something modern writers could learn from "He Hunts" is that's it's a very sexy play. It's all about but there's no actual sex in it.
VP: Isn't that something? Speaking of one thing I do dig about this play- I was telling a friend of mine, "jane, guess what? The men are the ones who undress!" The women don't. The men are the ones who run around in their underwear. We love that! [laughs]
CK: It's all about the pants! (A pair of men's pants left behind during an illicit rendevous figure prominently in the story).
VP: It's all about the pants! [laughs]
Valarie, I know you came into this play very late in the rehearsal process. Was it difficult to get up to speed?
VP: It was overwhelming, but I came into such a great group of people. They opened up their arms with a lot of support. And everything was "done." so I didn't have that process of trying to "find." It was, "You go here at that point. You go there at this point." And for me, coming from a dance background, that was pretty cool. And then from there. I could make it my own.
Exactly how late were you cast?
VP: I auditioned on a Friday morning, got [the part] Friday afternoon, started rehearsal Friday afternoon. On that Sunday, we had a run-through.
CK: I'll never forget that. I thought that they were nuts [laughs] I said, "What do you mean 'a run-through?'" Because I also had been absent- I had the great good fortune to get a pilot during the rehearsal and for a long time we had no leading lady and then I was gone anyway. Then I came in that Saturday and was told we had a run-through the next day. And I thought. "A run-through of what?!" [laughs]
VP: I hadn't even looked through the whole play.
CK: But somehow we did it.
VP: We did.
CK: We went from the beginning to the middle to the end. And I think it was really helpful, because it gave us a forum. And we saw where the big holes were or weren't.
VP: Right! Thank God I'm a quick study. I was blessed with an almost photographic memory.
CK: See, I was getting a little pissed at her-
[They both laugh]
CK- because she had like 84,000 lines and I have 20. And she knew hers way before I knew mine [laughs]
VP: So we did that run-through on Sunday and Tuesday we were in tech!
CK: Then we were in costumes.
VP: Every bew piece changes everything. So you have your rehearsal process, you feel good. Then as soon as you hit the stage it's like you throw everything out from rehearsal because now you're in a new environment.
CK: We were building everything at one time. We were rehearsing teching-
VP: Costumes. Hair. Make-up.
CK: All the branches of the process were occuring at the same time, whereas they usually each have their own time period. It was wacky.
There was no time to get nervous.
VP: Which is a good way.
CK: We just had to work so hard because basically that's all you can do.
The show has an amazing supporting cast.
VK: They're dreamy.
CK: Well, I'm one of them. I am. I didn't mean to say that I'm one of the AMAZING supporting cast. [laughs] But I am part of the supporting cast. I don't have to carry the show [nods to Valarie] like some people.
VP: We thank god for you. We're talking about Carol Kane here. Let's get that straight. We're talking about THE Carol Kane. Just for a moment, let me gush. You know when you have brilliance. Not putting anything against my other cast mates. We have Maxwell, we have Stephen, everybody brings a whole wealth of knowledge and experience and color. And I'm just so honored to be in this cast.
CK: I know. Me too.
VP: But you've got Carol Kane! [laughs] Enough said.
Had you two ever met before this show?
VP: No! And it's like she's just dreamy. You see her on television, you admire her work. You're in awe of her. And then you meet her and she's just like the nicest person ever. She's funny and I thank God for her. Especially during the first week. She just made everything so easy for me, because we would laugh and talk.
[While Valarie is praising her the very modest Carol is hiding her face and giggling.]
I think you're embarrassing her.
VP: I want to embarrass her because she's just that brilliant. And she's nice to boot.
CK: Ohh! [laughs]
VP: There aren't too many people with that kind of talent who are nice, also. And the rest of the cast, everybody's just delightful.
CK: Yes, they are. I don't know how we would have gotten through the sort of abbreviated scandalous rehearsal [laughs] if not for the fact that this is such an exceptionally nice group of people. Everyone was willing to pull everyone else up all the time. And that was very, very communal and collaborative, even though it was a brand-new company. It felt like a company.
One last question. You've both obviously done tons of work on stage, television and film. Do you prefer any of those mediums over the others?
CK: I like writing. I don't care where it takes place.
VP: I second that. Perfectly said. We love it all, but it's all about the writing.
CK: If you don't have the writing, it doesn't matter how well-lit you are or anything.
VP: I agree. Writing. And choreography.
CK: Ah. No choreography is ever going to help me dahling. [laughs]
So let me get this straight before we go- Sunday matinee is the hot show of the week, right?
CK: That sure seemed like the one to me.
VP: But I think the week before that it was Saturday [laughs]
Although we left this last question still somewhat unresolved, take our word for it that any night of this production will be a hot show.
"He Hunts" runs through Sunday, May 19th at the Geffen Playhouse.