From her first acting role at age nine in David Lynch’s Dune, to staring alongside Al Pacino in 88 Minutes, Alicia Witt has maintained an enviable career as a working actress, all the while working out her own ambitious musical material and performing on stages across the country as a solo singer/songwriter.
From playing piano in a hotel lobby to gracing the Viper Room stage this Friday, November 2, Witt is a shining example of tenacity as she continues to branch out, reaching new plateaus as a musician as well as a sought after Hollywood actress.
From what I've read, you used to play piano in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. What were your most popular requests? Any particularly interesting stories come to mind?
Yes, [I played piano at the hotel] to support myself for two and a half years, starting when I was 16. It was a great day “night” job — they always let me out to take acting jobs as long as I covered my shifts. I don’t think I went a single night without being asked to play “Misty,” “Clair de Lune,” “Memory” from Cats or Phantom of the Opera. There were regulars I got to know who had more obscure favorites and it got to the point where I’d start playing their theme as soon as they walked in.
I have so many stories from working there! I think my favorite celebrity run in was with George Burns… He was well in his 90s by then and was sitting at a round table with some “younger folk,” who were all probably in their 70s, and you could just barely see his head over the top of the table! I played “Young at Heart” for him...
Rick Dees was very kind to me and gave me a $50 bill as a tip, which meant a whole lot... And there was another gentleman who came in one afternoon and kept giving me $100 bills for Elvis tunes! After I’d played about six of them in a row, the host came up to me and nicely but firmly said, “I realize not everyone in here is giving you hundreds, but you have to stop with the Elvis!”
How have your skills as an actor affected your life as a musician and vice versa?
They go hand-in-hand for me. I’ve been a musician for as long as I’ve been an actor— just took me a while to actually realize it was time for me to be playing my own songs in front of people. I started competing in classical competitions when I was seven, which is the same year I made Dune, my first film. So in a way, they’re each as much a part of me as the other.
But while acting is performing and making yourself vulnerable, just like making music, it’s so different to me because playing a role is safe in a way, especially at this point. I’ve been doing it my whole life and although it’s you, it’s kind of not you. But getting out there and playing my songs is 100% me. It’s a high like nothing I can compare to.
As far as your acting body of work, what role are you most proud of? Which one of your songs would you say that you are most proud of?
There have been so many that have meant a lot to me, but some of my favorite roles have been in: Fun, Playing Mona Lisa, “The Sopranos,” and the upcoming Pasadena and Away From Here.
Songs, I can’t choose! Of course there are many songs I have written that I haven’t played out at gigs and maybe never will... I try to write at least one song each week, but there are way too many to choose favorites from.
I think these days two of my newest songs, “Blinkers” and “Friend” are taking a big place in my heart just because they were written recently and still have a lot of relevance. It’s always so fun to see where songs end up taking me—when I wrote them years ago and they were inspired by certain circumstances, and then I play them now and they mean something completely different to me.
Thus far in your career have there been any pivotal points where you've had to choose between acting and being a musician? Going on tour versus accepting a role?
Thus far, no! But I look forward to that happening hopefully in the very near future!
My goal/intention is to do both equally, so that I could turn down an acting job for a tour, but so far I’ve managed my music career completely on my own and have been just working it in between shoots. There’s also been a lot of luck involved too... I shot two films in April/May and they ended right before my album release tour for Live at Rockwood that I’d booked a few months earlier.
As an actor/musician, whose career path would you most like to emulate? Who do you look up to as far as people that have been able to maintain a successful career in both disciplines?
I really admire what Jared Leto has done with 30 Seconds to Mars. He had already started working very hard on his music at the time we worked together on Urban Legend, and I’m really inspired and blown away with how all his hard work has paid off, and how genuinely great his band is...
Alicia Witt plays The Viper Room Friday, Nov. 2. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. www.viperroom.com www.aliciawittmusic.com