Jordan King speaks to Little Shop of Horrors star Ellen Greene on it’s 35th Anniversay

Rarely has an actress ever made a role their own in quite such as inimitable a fashion as Ellen Greene, the star of Little Shop of Horrors, who originated the role of Audrey on stage and then brought her to life on screen in a way that has left viewers mesmerised for the past 35 years. To help celebrate the anniversary of Frank Oz’ cult classic, in late August Greene spent some time chatting with Filmhounds about the film – and the show before it – over the phone.

This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

With so much to discuss, Greene starts at the very beginning, telling me how she reacted to reading Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors script, and singing from it, for the first time. “I was on my way to unemployment, going “Skid Row, Skid Row, Skid Row, I don’t want to be in a camp musical,” Greene tells me. “But then I was listening to [Somewhere That’s] Green, because I didn’t have [Suddenly] Seymour,” she continues, “And I’m on line. Usually, I either listen and I never learn a song, or I have to study hard for it, but all of a sudden, I started to be able to sing it. And it broke my heart. I started to cry.”

Moved deeply by the song, which would provide the framework for all Disney “I Want” songs since, Greene agreed to meet with Ashman, who she had met a year prior in Cambridge whilst performing The Seven Deadly Sins. “We spent an hour together, I sang everything I knew, and we laughed immediately,” Greene reminisces. “We just melted into each other. We just knew each other.” Enamoured with Ashman, Greene auditioned in front of him and composer Alan Menken, who played piano for her. “I had no idea where it came from, but that voice just came out,” Greene shares, referring to Audrey’s unique sound, “and by the end of singing Green, Howard and Alan and I were all crying. You could feel you know, you could feel the magic was there. We just felt it.”

With that moment of magic, Greene got the role. And, over the weeks that followed, she began to form Audrey Fulquard, the sweet-natured holding centre of Little Shop whose character embodies tragedy, comedy, romance, and resilience in a series of belting ballads, soulful solos, and what Greene calls ‘Audreyisms’ – the vocal quirks and peculiar line deliveries which Greene developed in rehearsals and which the entire cast and stage-crew ended up adopting and adding to. As Greene describes her, “Audrey is a fragile character in a way. The fragility’s inside. But there’s also immense strength. When she talks, she’s a 50s idea of a woman, a man’s idea of a woman. When she sings though, it’s what she’s feeling inside, it’s the woman inside of her.”

A pivotal part of Audrey’s character is her distinctive look. While Greene had a clear vision for her right from the get-go, Ashman needed a little more convincing, as Greene shares. “When I was putting her together, we went out and got a black cocktail dress and I thought, “This is like Gracie, [doing an impression] “Good taste!” And Howard said “What are you wearing?” I said “No, no, no, I think this is right.” Howard was perplexed, but he ended up saying okay.” With the dress picked out, Greene next turned her attention to Audrey’s footwear. “I put her in heels too, because I wanted her teetering,” Greene explains, “so just when you’re about to cry, I make you laugh, and when you’re just about to laugh, I make you cry. It’s a very interesting style, it’s almost in a weird way like Brechtian style, where you’re acting, you’re presenting it, but you’re inside of it.”

Having tangented into a discussion of Brecht – tangents are a frequent, welcome feature in conversation, and when you have stories of erotic Tangos with Raul Julia to share why wouldn’t you share them? – Greene returns to building Audrey’s character. “I wanted her to be really zaftig. I wanted her ripe, like a peach!” she tells me, popping the ‘p’ for emphasis. “And I did her makeup too. It’s an odd makeup, I know, but it was what I thought it should be.” Greene, naturally dark-haired, also chose Audrey’s iconic blonde wig, reasoning that “I thought she would be too hard with dark hair.” Though Ashman was initially unsure about the wig, by the time Greene left the company to tread the boards in London, he wouldn’t have Audrey look any other way.

Little Shop of Horrors opened at the legendary WPA Theatre Off-Off Broadway in May 1982, with Greene as Audrey joined by Lee Wilkof (“My Leland I used to call him, because he lives in the land of Lee”) as Seymour, Franc Luz as Orin Scrivello, and Ron Taylor as Audrey II – who was puppeteered by Greene’s then boyfriend Martin “Marty” Robinson.

By July, the show had transferred Off-Broadway to The Orpheum. “It was a very hot ticket, and a very exciting time,” Greene enthuses. “Everyone came. Steve Martin, that’s where I first met him. Carol Channing wanted my wig. And Michael Jackson came, and so many people came.” In March, 1983, many of the original cast flew out to LA to do the show on the West Coast. While there was a bit of off-stage drama as Greene ended up on vocal rest nights before opening, the show’s glorious reviews continued, giving Greene the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream – going to London.

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This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

“I left the production in August,” Greene shares, “because during negotiation, all I wanted was London. I wanted to do the London stage. That’s what I cherished in my childhood. The idea of going to London and performing there.” And perform she did. Little Shop was a revelation to the Brits, scooping Best Musical at the 1983 Evening Standard Awards, while Greene earned an Olivier nomination for her run at the renowned Comedy Theatre. “Nobody’s that funny!” Greene exclaims, still wonderstruck by hers and the show’s success. “But the British people got my humour, which was wonderful, and Little Shop did so well there.”

Following Little Shop’s transatlantic success, in the early Spring of 1984 Greene received a call from Ashman that would ultimately change her life once again. “Howard called me and said “I have a gift for you.” And so he had me read the movie script for Little Shop. And in the script, the gift was Green. Remember, Howard knows me, all right,” Greene says, acquitting herself neatly. “So I started to cry when I called him to say I read the script. And I said, “But my trash can!” [On stage, Somewhere That’s Green is usually performed with Audrey sitting atop a trash can] I was so upset. And Howard, thinking I would love this, just started laughing. But then he said, “Darling, when they pull back on the tenement houses from your window, it will elicit the exact same response it does on stage. I promise you this.”” And if you’ve seen that exquisite double-crane shot, which Howard Ashman wrote into the screenplay, you’ll know he made good on that promise.

While the script alone didn’t guarantee Greene a reprisal of her starring role in Little Shop of Horrors’ movie, she recalls vividly the lunch with then-director John Landis that changed her life. “Marty was at that moment doing the plant for the film. And so we went to lunch, and John [Landis] was going to talk to him about it. And at the end of lunch, he says, “Oh, by the way, you’re playing Audrey!” I was shocked. Nothing had been said about it. I went downstairs to the ladies room and I lost it.”

Landis would subsequently lose the gig on Little Shop whilst in court over manslaughter charges relating to The Twilight Zone Movie, and whilst Martin Scorsese was attached for a time as his replacement, that fell away too. It was a combination of Ashman, Greene, and Frank Oz’ Grover of all things that would eventually see Oz take the helm.

“I knew Frank and Jim [Henson],” Greene tells me. “They were very kind to me because Marty and I were together and he worked on Sesame Street. Frank doesn’t remember this, but I met him for lunch while he was filming one time, because I asked Howard’s permission to talk to him. I said to Howard, “Grover is larger than life, full of heart, absolutely silly, but really real – Frank will get the style of Little Shop.” And Frank’s not afraid of dark either, so I talked to him, and he was wonderful. I asked him to consider it – with Howard’s permission – and lo and behold, Frank said yes. He also gave me a screen test, which Howard worked on with me. And I was scared, but I tested, and Frank decided to give me the part.”

From there, Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors, starring Greene opposite Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, went into pre-production. Greene vividly remembers working alongside Bob Gaudio (“he was extraordinary”) and Audrey II voice actor Levi Stubbs (“he was so exciting to watch”) as the film’s soundtrack was recorded, and also visiting premier London costumier Cosprop, where John Bright and costume designer Marit Allen made Audrey’s iconic black dress.

That dress caused some issues however, as Greene had to keep her measurements whilst shooting for nine months. The British camera crew, headed by DP Robert Paynter and camera operator Freddie Cooper – who Greene lovingly calls her ‘touchstones’ throughout her time in London – combatted Greene’s tendency to lose weight while working by taking her for a nightly pint of Guinness at the pub. They’d also take her in full Audrey costume to see how locals reacted, a ritual Greene humorously recollects.

Talking about the shoot itself, Greene – like Oz – first recalls that remarkable Pinewood set. “It took my breath away,” Greene says. “I had been living with this little stage shop for so long. To see it in such detail, it was incredible. When a production is so beautifully defined for you, you don’t have to work, you just have to live in it.” Recalling seeing the Suddenly Seymour set for the first time, Greene gushes. “Tears just poured from my face. I mean that set in real life was so big, it was enormous. The grass growing through the rocks. It was so romantic. Beautiful. Moody. You just knew this was a hideaway that Audrey went to when she needed to be by herself”

When I ask Greene about filming scenes Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green, how 30+ takes at a song compares to singing live on stage, her response is illuminatory. Firstly, she’s quick to let me know she didn’t lip-sync on set. “I sang live, because that was the only way it would look right. When you just mouth the words it doesn’t look natural. It’s not coming from the heart. It’s not coming from the kishkes [a Yiddish word meaning deep inside].“ More than just singing live though, playing Audrey – whether on stage or film – is about connecting in the moment for Greene. “I don’t know whether it’s a gift or what… I mean I’ve done Green so many times, but every single time I’m lucky that I feel it anew. The only thing you have to always do is keep finding the place where the character is emotionally.”

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Prompted by Greene’s discussion of shooting two of the show’s standout numbers – ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ and ‘Suddenly Seymour’ – I ask how naturally taking the role from stage to screen came to her, and how the character changes between the two. “I had a little television in my bedroom that I watched black and white films on with all these different women and men that I loved,” Greene recalls, “and I always dreamed of being there walking down a cobblestone in a gown and ripped stockings and high heels and going down into a block and singing in a club. So I always dreamed of filmmaking. And it’s funny because, you know, I’m not the most beautiful woman, but there’s something about film and me. Always has been.”

When you watch Greene’s Audrey, with her almost ethereal look, incredibly emotive eyes, and the contrasting wispiness of her spoken voice and tremendous power of her singing, that implacable ‘something’ renders her performance totally singular. Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper were supposedly in talks to play Audrey at different times, but nobody could inhabit that part in the same mesmerising way Greene does.

This isn’t to say that Audrey came from stage to screen seamlessly however. “Frank always wanted Audrey to be more of a heroine, and straighter,” Greene freely admits, “and he found some of the Audreyisms a problem. But there was a compromise made in the performance of it, because that’s one of the problems. When you start out straighter with this role, where you’re ending up in the death scene is heavier. So that’s why the death on stage is silly and yet sad – so many things at once. Whereas on camera, in a close-up, it’s more intense, and more intimate. And by being intimate, you can’t pronounce [does Audrey’s voice] “Which will be very shortly.” You can’t go there, because it didn’t start that way.”

Touching on Audrey’s death scene, or lack thereof, I ask Greene how she feels about the theatrically released “happy ending” and the originally shot endings of Little Shop. “Maybe it’s like two children,” she suggests, “because actually I was fond of both. I mean, I loved my death scene (laughs), but I was fond of both.” I’m surprised when Greene follows this up by telling me that she and Ashman had always wanted to do a sequel, which is something the less death-filled theatrical cut definitely leaves the door open for. “That little plant,” she says, referring to the happy ending’s gatecrasher, “gave us hope.”

Part of that dream to do a sequel, as well as a strong will to honour Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and the British crew who worked on the film, led Greene – alongside Frank Oz – to work on a revival of Little Shop in the mid-2010s that would’ve merged the film and stage musicals together. Sadly, Greene and Oz’ ambitious project – filled with technical wizardry and Faustian portent – never came to be, but the passion in the act of trying alone speaks volumes about Greene’s love for Ashman, her relationship with Oz, and her boundless gratitude to those whose “hearts and talents and magic” Greene says made Little Shop the film it is.

When we come to discuss Greene’s time working with Frank Oz, her praise couldn’t be more effusive. “I love my Frank,” Greene declares, stretching the ‘o’ on love deliciously, “he’s brilliant. I’ve been very fortunate, because Little Shop has had two brilliant directors, Howard and Frank. And Frank’s a very, very funny man. But he’s very serious, also, very deep, and so unbelievably clever. He also has a really beautiful eye. The girls with the sequin dresses in ‘Suppertime’, and all of the 12 frames per second stuff – what a teacher! It was almost balletic what we were doing, and how creative?” At this point, Greene loses herself in remembering some of those great sequences she shot with Oz. Changing lanes for a moment, she shares the lovely story of how Oz presented her with a stuffed spaniel to remind her of her own pet, knowing she’d be missing him while shooting. It’s in little divergences like this that the ‘incredibly sweet man’ Greene knows Oz as – who told me himself he could do the boss routine when needed – becomes beautifully apparent.

Greene and I couldn’t talk about Little Shop without talking about how, in 2015, she took part in a limited revival of the show, reprising her role alongside Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour at the New York City Center. The experience was profound for Greene, who was twice the age returning to the role as she was when she first got it. ““I didn’t know if I could do it again,” Greene admits, “I didn’t know if it would be accepted if I could pull it off.”

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But performing with Gyllenhaal, Greene soared. “Jake’s talent is at the very ends of his fingers,” Greene tells me, “he can call, he can elicit magic. And though I loved Leland and I loved Rick, Jake was my favourite Seymour.” As an actress who loves analysing and exploring her characters, Greene was inspired by the way she could throw things at Gyllenhaal and have them returned, discovering new levels of Audrey in the process. “We found things that were never there before,” Greene explains, “subtle, nuanced, funny things, sad things, intimate things, sexy things. It was very organic. our working together, and it was such a gift to me.”

This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

Among the things Greene discovered in 2015 was the answer to a question she has been asked for decades – what is the magic that makes her Audrey work? Divulging this answer for the first time, Greene tells me “When I sang “Losers like I’ve been,” tears fell out of my face. I mean, poured. And I finally realised why my Audrey works. Because I know what that feels like. Everyone’s been there some time in their life. Her essence is, yes, she’s sweet, she’s a lot of things, she’s the heart of the show. But she works because she’s complicated. She feels like damaged goods. She doesn’t act it, but she feels like, well…” and at this point Greene quotes her song, but she isn’t quoting the song, “losers like I’ve been… It’s so hard to say.”

Noting that we’ve ventured quite deep into the heart of Audrey at this point, Greene reflects on Audrey and how that character has evolved. “She’s become more nuanced. She’s basically the same, and yet she’s very different. Maybe because I’m older, and I’m also more authentic. I also think when I sing, I heal. And my intention is to tell people “you’re not alone, I understand what you’re feeling.” You know, there’s so many things that are left unsaid that I know I can say” Greene then shares with me a childhood memory, the sort many can relate to, involving the cruelty of peers and the damaging ways we variously are told to hide ourselves. “What I went through is why I’ve always felt I know what it’s like to feel like a freak, to feel like I was different. I know what it’s like to feel like an outcast, like Audrey in a way, on the outside looking in.”

Turning conversation back to filming Little Shop, Greene enthusiastically offers up a story which she promises is a funny one. “Now this one’s got Steve [Martin] in it, and Peter Sutton too, who did the sound,” Greene starts, her performance roots showing, “So Steve [Martin] and I are running on the set, and all of a sudden, there’s a sound and nobody knows where it’s coming from. And there’s all these men around Peter Sutton. They’re around his place, you know, and they’re listening to it, and they hear it. And they’re trying to find where the sound’s coming from. So we started the take again, because maybe it’s a wire or something, and they stop it. “Cut!” Okay, so they start the take the third time. Now, everyone’s around there. And all of a sudden there’s this big laughter from Peter’s spot, and he comes over to me and says, “Pardon me. Could you divide your breasts?” I wear my mic there, and it was hitting the mic every time I ran. I was so embarrassed!”

Having both burst into fits of laughter, and also realising we’ve been talking for over two hours (I offer to pay Greene’s phone bill, she has none of it, saying “Pfft, I’m happy!”), I roll out my last question – “Do you have a favourite song, scene, line?” – and find myself lost for words at Ellen Greene’s response.

“No.” She says. “Because it’s Howie. My love is for my Audrey, and for Howie. I’m too inside of it, I love it all. And if I picked one out, the others would be jealous. I just think it’s Howard and everything about Howie… I mean, I lost him March 14th 1991. May 1990 was his 40th birthday and I cook, so I cooked. I made from soup to nuts, bread, so many entrees, so many desserts and pies. And I made such a spread for him. And we sat around a great, long rectangular table with the skylight overhead. And we laughed and told stories. And so much of Howie is when I think of Little Shop. He was such a visionary, not only as a lyricist and a great director, but he had such ideas and, you know, you like the rawness in an artist. I couldn’t pick a favourite bit… I’m too close to Howard, and actually I suppose I’m too close to Little Shop. It’s his magic.”

Greene is, of course, right. It is Howard Ashman’s magic. But, 35 years after the film was released and 39 since she donned the blonde wig and high heels for the first time to break our hearts and then fill them anew with love and hope, Ellen Greene still has that magic too.

This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

By Jordan King

Watches films. Writes about films. Watches more, writes more. And on and on it goes, perfectly balanced as all things should be. Hottest Take: Revenge of the Sith is the best Star Wars.

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