Kathy Najimy –
Mother, Activist, Actress…
by Jay S. Jacobs
You couldn’t have made up Kathy Najimy’s life story if you tried. She was not rich, nor did she have formal theatrical training. She was not a supermodel, nor did she have connections in show business. Yet, through a combination of smarts, talent, quirky humor and tenaciousness, she has built a steady and respected career in Hollywood – against all odds.
Najimy first caught our fancy when she and good friend Mo Gaffney barnstormed clubs and small theaters with their topical series of comic theater pieces called “The Kathy and Mo Show.” In 1993, Najimy almost single-handedly stole the surprisingly popular Whoopi Goldberg singing nun comedy Sister Act, quickly becoming a sensation in Hollywood.
Najimy never looked at her career over the short-term, though. She didn’t rest on this white-hot moment and after this surprising breakthrough she has continued working steadily on interesting films like Hocus Pocus, Jeffrey, Hope Floats and Rat Race. She also spent a few years on the Kirstie Alley sitcom Veronica’s Closet and did impressive work on other series like Chicago Hope, Ellen and Early Edition.
Najimy has now spent over a decade voicing Peggy Hill, the sometimes brilliant, sometimes pragmatic, occasionally delusional, but always sure-of-herself matriarch of the Hill clan of Arlen, Texas in the long-lived, highly-acclaimed animated FOX comedy King of the Hill. Beyond her work on that series, Najimy has also recently joined the cast of the popular CBS detective series Numb3rs, playing Dr. Mildred French, a brilliant chair of Physics at Charlie Eppes’ (David Krumholtz) university.
As her episodes on Numb3rs and the eleventh season of King were starting to hit the airwaves, Najimy was nice enough to take the time to talk to us about her shows, her long, eclectic career and her true passions in life – family, activism and games.
You probably first made it onto most peoples’ radars with “The Kathy and Mo Show.” How did the two of you get that on stage?
We met in San Diego. We were friends. We would always do characters for fun. Then we decided we would write a show – a sketch comedy show – that reflected our tastes in comedy and in issues. We were both feminists with a strong point of view. So we thought we’ll write it and no one will like it but us, but then the only rule was that we have to really like it. We did it in very small little cabarets and clubs and theaters in San Diego. People seemed to really like it. We kept extending and extending. So then – I was working for the phone company at the time. For AT&T. I put in for a transfer to New York. It came through and I said to Mo, we’re going to New York. We, again, did really small cabarets and little tiny rooms for a while. Then we got the Second Stage run – small off-Broadway – one summer. Then the next summer we were on real off-Broadway. It’s been 25 years. We just did a reunion back in New York last summer, which was great. Our two-disk DVD just came out on Amazon.com, with both HBO specials and a whole disk of 25 years of special, unseen material. If you’re a “Kathy and Mo” fan, it’s got every word we’ve ever spoken. (laughs) Everything. The worst hairdos. The worst clothes.
Even though it was a supporting role, you sort of became a sensation in Sister Act. What was that experience like, to be a part of the whole Hollywood hype machine?
You know, I had no idea. I had done a couple of small roles in films. I had done The Fisher King and Soapdish and This is My Life. So, for some reason, I had heard about Sister Act from a friend and I don’t know why, but it really touched a chord… excuse the pun… in me. I haven’t really done this since then, but I really went after it. I found out who was casting it. I tried to get in. We were doing “Kathy and Mo” in San Francisco at that time. We were filming the first HBO special and doing a run at Theater in the Square. I heard about Sister Act and I was just relentless. I called and called until I got an audition, which is so funny. I don’t know why I responded to that, but thank God. As I look out at my view… (laughs) I went and auditioned five times. Sang each time. Danced each time. Then I got it. But even then, you know, I didn’t know. We had no idea, when you’re making a movie whether it’s a hit or not. In fact, it had a lot of trouble. We had ten different writers come on board for that. And a little bit of trouble with some of the stars. I just knew I was having a blast with the crew and having a great time. Not having to worry about hair and makeup and wardrobe, because I was in a big, black tent with no makeup. It was awesome. Then, when it came out, people really responded. No one was more surprised than I was. The reviews… I had never really been mentioned a lot in reviews and I was mentioned in every review. It was exciting. Really, really, really a great time of my life.
In 1997, you started your first two TV series about the same time with King of the Hill and Veronica’s Closet. You actually worked on both shows for three years. Making a series is such hard work – what was it like doing two at a time?
It was hard, because I had a new baby. My daughter is ten now. I was doing King of the Hill first. Then Veronica’s Closet came along and I really had hesitation. They met with me and they were saying, “Well, what is it that you’re worried about?” I’d just had Samia and I wanted a place on the set where she could come where I could see her every day. Because why have a kid if you can’t see her? I was worried… I wasn’t a big fan of sitcoms. Still not. I was worried about playing a sidekick that was sort of silly. Especially since she was a working woman, I didn’t want her to be a loveless… you know, they always make working women wish that they had a date, at home eating pie filling out of a can with their pet cat. That wasn’t anything I was interested in. I didn’t want to be a victimy successful woman for a lot of reasons. Personally it’s just no fun and politically I just couldn’t stand of the thought of one more successful woman with no personal life on TV. They assured me they were actually on board with that. That same philosophy. To their credit, they made Olive great. She was flawed and funny, but she also dated. At one point I had a six-week arc where I dated a 22-year old Tom Cruise look-alike. (laughs) They had her dating and being taken seriously as a woman, as well as being successful. I mean, I say that… you know, it was a sitcom. You say, “oh, the toilet’s backing up,” you know what I mean? The plotlines are very… they’re from a TV sitcom, but I really had the time of my life. I had such a great time with Kirstie. I learned so much from her and the cast. So, it was a little struggle to balance King of the Hill and Veronica’s Closet. But, both were really worth it.
King of the Hill is going into its eleventh season. When you started working on the show in 1997, could you have ever imagined that in 2007 you’d still working on the show?
You have no idea. Not only would I not think I’d still be working on it, I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for. I had no idea. Then, prime time animated TV shows… there was only The Simpsons. Now we have American Dad, Family Guy, Futurama… So I had no idea. I literally went to work for it because I was pregnant with Samia and I didn’t want to do any on-camera work until I’d had her. My agent called up and said, “There’s this cartoon, by the guy who wrote Beavis and Butthead.” I have to tell you, although I knew lots of people were fans of Beavis and Butthead, I wasn’t one of them. Not my cup of tea. So, I was like, oh, okay… I didn’t know if I was going out for a Saturday morning cartoon. I remember I went to the audition and it was Greg Daniels and Mike Judge, the creators. There was a sketch, a pencil sketch of Peggy on this little bungalow at Sony, on the wall. I don’t know what it was doing at Sony, it’s a Fox show, but… They said, we want you to just improv. She’s a woman, she’s a substitute teacher… at the time they were going to make her a Sunday school teacher. Well, they turned to the sketch and watched the sketch on the wall while I talked. They didn’t even look at me. It was so surreal. (laughs) I was just improvising as these two men were staring at this pencil sketch. But, anyway, I, thankfully… oh my God, thankfully, thankfully, thankfully… got the job. I’ve heard of some of the other women who tried out for Peggy and they are actually people who I’m a fan of. There were some actresses who were fantastic. Did we know that eleven years later… Here’s the thing about King of the Hill. Long term is really great, because… it just is. It’s such a great job for a person with a family. A couple of days a week. No hair, no makeup, no wardrobe. (laughs) But, above all that, I had told you earlier I’m not a big fan of sitcoms. I’m a fan of good writing. This, I think, is some of the best writing on television. Every Wednesday, to get a script at the door, that is funny and smart without being politically incorrect. Disrespectful. You know, having families scream at each other. It’s really a challenge if you’re a fan of television to find projects where the funny comes from true funny. Not from sophomoric laughs.
I talked with [series executive producers] John [Altschuler] and Dave [Krinsly] last week and we were discussing one of the great things about the show is while Hank is sort of… conservative, let’s put it that way, which is obviously way different from you… one of the interesting things about the show is it’s able to do a balancing act to keep the Hills true to themselves and their beliefs without condescending towards them or making them less likable. Is that difficult for you, particularly coming from such a different mindset?
Well, the great thing is that Peggy and I are a lot alike in our philosophies. Other than the hunting thing, I’m never having to say lines that I completely disagree with or that are offensive or anything. Again, you’re playing a character, you play the character… But it makes it very comfortable that I go in and the philosophy is like-minded – between Kathy and Peggy. Although she’s completely, hilariously, flawed and so self-righteous and so incorrect sometimes, with such a sense of rightness, it’s hilarious. Just her speaking Spanish is so funny. But at the same moment, here’s the thing about King of the Hill, I think. In one moment, any real human being, you or I, are a million different things. Smart and funny and not and wrong and we are courageous and insecure and all of those things. Ugly and pretty. All in the one day. On TV, they draw characters, they write characters that are one dimensional. The pretty girl, or the dumb girl, or smart guy, or the mean guy. On King of the Hill, I think that one of the keys, one of the reasons I’m a fan of the writing is that in any one episode it reflects a real person. People are ridiculous and wonderful in the same episode, which is like we are in life. So, there’s not just the… you know, Peggy sometimes is really balanced and smart, and the very next moment she’s ridiculous. And so am I. (laughs) You know? So, it’s really a joy to be a part of smart writing like that. I’m such a writing snob; I’ve got to tell you. I really have trouble with almost everything on TV (laughs) that’s not a reality show, because there’s no writing. There’s some great things on HBO and… But, I’ve got to say, King of the Hill, I’m such a fan of the writers.
Obviously [series creator and Hank Hill voice actor] Mike [Judge] has a lot of influence, but do you have any influence with the writers on the directions that Peggy is going to go or do you just do what they bring to you?
You know, I’m going to take the chance and say the truth, which is yes. I think we all have influence. We’ve been together for ten years. The writers certainly know me and my point of view. It’s a very, very strong, not ominous, point of view. You know when you meet me what I believe in. They respect it. We don’t always agree. But there’s such an even-headed, level… we’re all on the same level… collaboration going on. If anyone has concern, not just me, but Pam [Adlon] or Mike or Stephen [Root] or Johnny [Hardwick], they really take it into consideration. We’re peers. So, I think, yes, over the years I have had some influence on how Peggy is going through life.
So little in television and movies is about life in small towns like Arlen. Why do you think this lifestyle doesn’t always get its due?
I think, in a society where we’re bombarded with crazy stories about Paris Hilton and whatever, that there’s a bigger than life sense that’s attractive to people to get them out of their lives. The interesting thing about King of the Hill is that it reflects their lives. Not all of us, but certainly a majority. I think that’s, too, the pull and the draw. People aren’t used to seeing on TV – especially now with all the new sort of scandal shows – they aren’t used to seeing their lives up there in smart, sweet, funny stories. To me, King of the Hill is a slice of life.
As a person who was born in San Diego and who lives in LA, how is the slower small town lifestyle intriguing to you?
It isn’t. (laughs) I grew up in San Diego and I didn’t belong there. I’m not an over-the-line girl in a bikini with long blonde hair. Running, jogging… I’m actually much more of a New York person.
So do you ever get the cast and crew of King of the Hill together and clean them out in poker?
(laughs) God, I would love to. No, we do get together though and celebrate. We used to do Dollar Fridays. You write your name on a dollar and put it in a bucket, whoever’s name comes up gets the fifty bucks. But here’s the thing. I could care less about the fifty bucks. I’m just a game person. Game sycophant, crazy… I will play a game with you right now. I love games so much. Which is interesting about Peggy… They made Peggy a Boggle champion and Boggle is my favorite game ever, and they didn’t know that. When I saw Boggle in the script, it was a sign from God that I was in the right place. I love Boggle so much. I think it’s one of the best crafted games ever. But I love poker. I love games. Our friends get together and play running charades every Friday night. I love anything. So, you know that I won the Celebrity Poker thing…
Yes, that was why I asked…
I shouldn’t have won. I’m not a great poker player. I’m just a good bluffer. I told my husband I should have gotten an Oscar. But, I love the games, boy.
Through your experience with King of the Hill over the years you’ve done more and more voice work in animated films. In recent years, you’ve done a Scooby Doo video, Brother Bear 2, Balto III and others. In what ways is voice work more or less fun than doing live action?
Well, you don’t have to go in for 400 costume fittings. Sit in the hair and makeup chair for two hours. You don’t have to stay up, memorizing a bunch of lines. So, what happens is because of that, all your creativity goes to one place. You’re not worried about hitting your mark, how your eyelashes look or remembering your lines. All of your creativity literally goes from your soul up and out your throat to the microphone. It’s pure creativity, with no distractions. So, to me, I prefer it, because I’m not worried about anything else. I’m not worried about… oh, God, I have to memorize these… I’m on a show now called Numb3rs on CBS. Which I love so much. Again, another rare instance of good writing on TV. But, it’s a whole other set of muscles. To memorize lines, care about your mark and where the camera is. On King of the Hill, it’s pure creativity going from your throat into the mic.
Well, like you just said, you’ve just joined the cast of Numb3rs, which is kind of interesting, because it’s a very serious show, but it has a lot of actors who have a background in comedy.
Do you find comedy or drama harder to do?
Comedy. I think once you can do comedy well then drama’s just a breeze.
I hear that you’ve been involved in a movie project about Mama Cass Elliot for years now. That sounds fascinating. Is anything happening with it?
Oh, my gosh, I was. I was so passionate about that. We got really far. I became really good friends with her daughter Owen. She was so great and helpful about it. We just gathered up so many books and film clips and beta tapes. There’s a problem, because there is a movie deal, I think at 20th. So we got wrapped up in that legal void that you could never really figure out what’s happening. I don’t know if it’s too late, but this is how I feel… I feel if it’s me or someone else, [she was] one of the most extraordinary women that I ever read or known about. She had such an interesting life. People are so misguided about who she is and what she did. She was the first woman guest host on The Tonight Show and hosted it like fifteen times for Johnny Carson. She had three prime time specials. She had like fifteen hit albums. She was amazing. She went on the road with politicians and campaigned for them. She was so amazing. So, really… I know this sounds like an Oscar speech, but… whether it’s me or not, I really hope they do her story. Because it’s again, a voice like no other, but it’s a story that needs to be told. If I’m involved in some way I’ll be thrilled. But, I don’t know, it just went into that Bermuda Triangle of projects.
I saw you described online as an activist who makes a living as an actress. You have been very active in many causes – such as feminism, gay rights… Do you feel that you can use your celebrity to help promote causes?
Absolutely. I think that’s one of the only draws to celebrity for me – that it allows a bigger platform to start discussions and talk about things that I feel are important. A lot of people say an actress should be a blank canvas. People shouldn’t think of you as anything. That’s fine for some people. But, I have no interest in that. I’m not a blank canvas. My canvas is full. (laughs) So I want to use my canvas in the best way that I can think of, which is stimulating conversation and getting word out about things that need to be changed.
Looking back; how would you like for people to see your career?
Wow, that’s a very good Barbara Walters-y question. How would I like for people to look at my body of work? Well, selfishly, I’d like for them to have seen some of the less seen things. Dramatic work on Chicago Hope and Numb3rs. Just so they can know that you don’t just do comedy – which is fine, also, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some dramatic work. I was in a movie called Say Uncle a couple of summers ago, where I played a homophobic housewife. Well, here’s the truth. I’d like for them to say – wow, chubby, frizzy-haired girl from San Diego. On welfare. No connections. No money. No education – you know… theater education. Worked really hard and was a working actor. I think that’s inspiring for all the other little girls who think that you need to be born into some sort of show biz royalty or have a lot of dough or have gone to the Academy of Theatrical Arts for six years, you know? (laughs) Or look like Heather Locklear. For me, it’s sort of a miracle that I came from where I came from and got where I got – which isn’t terribly lofty, but certainly a working, comfortable lifestyle.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
About yourself, your career, your shows – whatever…
This is so exciting. I think one is I only do comedy. I think sometimes when you do something well, people think it’s all you do; although, I certainly am grateful for those comic jobs. I really like the activist part of my life. The family and mother part and the activist part are the top two parts of my life. So, I’d really like that to be reflected in the memory of who I am.
|#1 © 2006. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2006. Courtesy of Fox Television. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 2006. Courtesy of Fox Television. All rights reserved.|
|#4 © 2006. Courtesy of Fox Television. All rights reserved.|
|#5 © 2006. Courtesy of Fox Television. All rights reserved.|
|#6 © 2005. Ray Mickshaw. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 11, 2007.