Kathy Najimy enjoys playing games. Literally.
“For about three years, when I was living in San Diego,” she says of her early days trying to break into show business, “I paid the rent by going on Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, and The $10,000 Pyramid.”
Years later, of course, Najimy, beloved for her roles as Sister Mary Patrick in Sister Act, part of a trio of witch siblings in Hocus Pocus, and as Peggy Hill in Mike Judge’s stunning, astonishingly heartfelt animated sitcom King of the Hill, appears on game shows as a celebrity star. Her favorite is Pyramid, which she calls “a brilliantly designed” game show, as winning it relies on talent. “There’s not a lot of luck,” she says. “It’s heaven for me. Any time that they call me up to go do the $100,000 Pyramid — especially because I get to be around the really, really cute Michael Strahan — I say ‘Yes!'”
If game shows are Najimy’s preferred form of celebrity leisure, then activism is her driving lifeforce. A card-carrying, outspoken feminist (she’s pals with Gloria Steinem, who officiated her marriage to musician Dan Finnerty in 1998), Najimy has been aligned with nearly every liberal rights organization in modern history, from PETA and Planned Parenthood to HRC and PFLAG. Her passion for what she feels is right and good and just flows naturally and abundantly from her, and she speaks of change and justice with a ferocious, emphatic charge.
“I have been a feminist since I was 14 years old,” she says over the course of two phone conversations. “And feminism dedicates itself to the equality and respect of all people.”
Najimy will appear as a special guest at this Saturday’s American Pops Orchestra concert, “I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman,” alongside Paige Davis of Trading Spaces, Broadway star Mauricio Martinez (see page 32), RuPaul’s Drag Race contender Alexis Michelle, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Paul Roeckell, and was surprised when she got the call to appear.
“My agent got the request,” she says. “They said, ‘Does Kathy happen to be free on this weekend.’ And I was. And other than what’s going on there right now with the administration, I love Washington, D.C. I said, ‘Listen you guys, despite what you think from a couple of old movies that I used to do, where I kind of pretend comedy sing, I don’t really sing.’ And they said, ‘It’s okay, don’t worry. We’ll make it work.’ They were just so adorable and so persistent and convincing that I said sure. I think it will be really fun.”
“It’s so funny,” says APO’s founder and conductor, Luke Frazier. “She walked into the first rehearsal and said, ‘I’m not really a singer. I’m more of a talk-singer.’ We get done with rehearsal. I’m like, ‘No, Kathy. You can actually sing.’ She’s just very modest about it.”
Frazier has chosen a few special numbers for Najimy — among them one of Herman’s greatest chestnuts: “Hello, Dolly!” She’ll also sing “Bosom Buddies,” a raucous duet from Mame, with Davis and “The Man in the Moon” from the same show.
“So many of Jerry Herman’s female leads are truly larger than life,” says Frazier. “They all have an element of comedy, but there’s a lot of depth to them. Kathy has played so many roles where she shows off not only her comedic side, but as a person, there’s so much depth in the causes she cares about. Since she spends so much of her time on activism, it’s kind of that great duality. She brings so much to the roles.”
For her part, Najimy is thrilled to be a part of Saturday’s APO event. Each of APO’s shows are unique to their one evening, hand-crafted by Frazier to be eclectic, entertaining, musically invigorating, and fully adventurous. All the performers have a moment in the spotlight, culminating in a powerful all-hands-on-deck finale, and each APO show is calculated to evoke a wide range of emotional responses — from boisterous laughter to some serious heartstring-tugging.
“Every single APO show is original,” says Frazier. “We create them. They’ve never been done before. They’re never performed again. It’s one night. It’s a special event. That’s what makes us unique.”
Najimy, for her part, is up for the challenge. “I did a lot of musicals growing up — I did a lot in community theater,” she says. “I sung badly on purpose in Sister Act. And I sang backup for Bette in Hocus Pocus. But none of it was solo performer singing.”
Najimy, whose current projects include producing a documentary exploring why more than 50% of white women voted for Donald Trump, plans to incorporate some of her ideologies into the evening, but she won’t go into specifics. “I have about three songs,” she says, “and before each song, I’m going to talk a little bit about — not in a serious way — just where we are, that we’re in D.C., and how close we are to the haunted house. And also how much women have come forward and made strides in the [House] last year, which is really heartening.
“Of course,” she adds, “I would have liked for us to take the Senate as well.”
METRO WEEKLY: You are a well-known, amazing advocate for many issues, but specifically, with regard to the LGBTQ community, you took a stance for us as a celebrity long before many others. You were one of the first. And I think that’s remarkable. You didn’t have to do that. So the obvious question is, why?
KATHY NAJIMY: Well, I’ll tell you. I’m a feminist. And as a feminist, I believe in equal rights, equality, and justice for all people. So when there is a community of people who are being treated less than citizens because of who they love, that makes no sense to me. I believe everybody has the ability to love anybody. And I feel like there’s a spectrum between one and a hundred and we all fit somewhere there. Love is love, you know? And I believe that with all my heart. So I thought it was very unjust when I was a young activist in the ’70s and ’80s that anybody would be persecuted. That made no sense to me. I was happy to — and honored — to help any way that I could.
Also, in the ’80s, I was in college when the AIDS epidemic came to light. I’ve been sort of an ambassador for people with AIDS for many, many years. AIDS is the only disease where the people who have it are persecuted. If you have any other major disease, you’re surrounded by love and doctors wanting to help. People with AIDS not only had found themselves with a life-threatening disease, but also with no support. And that broke my heart.
MW: It’s different now, though.
NAJIMY: Different, yes. But when we needed it not to be different, it wasn’t. I mean, there’s a lot of people living healthy lives with HIV/AIDS now, thank goodness, but we lost way too many for no reason other than homophobia and hate.
MW: Did you at all worry at all about what your outspokenness, especially in the early years, might do to your career?
NAJIMY: Oh, it certainly has harmed my career, but I don’t care at all. I am an activist and human person first. Business is not everything, it’s not my life. There were certainly people — agents and such — who said if you speak out about this, then these people won’t cast you. And I said I respect their choice not to cast me. That is their choice and that’s fine. I don’t wish to be cast by them. And I respect my choice to be an advocate and to speak out and do one of the things in my life that is most precious to me.
Certainly, there have been studios that have asked me not to talk about radical notions. It’s their right to ask me and my right to decide to. You should hear some of the requirements they make. But isn’t it great to be a troublemaker? [Laughs.] It’s so sexy! I love it.
MW: You’re definitely my kind of troublemaker. We live in a country founded on different points of view. Yet, I often find myself feeling the opposing point of view is wrong.
NAJIMY: Yeah, but I respect their right to say it. I fight for their right to say what I don’t believe in. I don’t fight for their right to legislate against human conditions and human choices. But freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and we all don’t have the same opinions.
MW: I look over your career and think how marvelous it’s been so far. One of my favorite shows you did was King of the Hill. Peggy Hill was just such a rich, full-bodied animated character, largely through your interpretation of her. The show poked fun at conservative values, but not in a mean way — it was more instructive. Mike Judge found a way to appeal to both liberals and conservatives and provide insights.
NAJIMY: I’ve got to tell you — I’ve been on a lot of jobs and my thirteen seasons on King of the Hill were among my favorite. It’s really hard to find integrity like that. Every single Monday on our doorstep came a script that was just so funny and so relevant and so brave. I loved the writing on King of the Hill. I also liked that it was very collaborative — we weren’t separate from the writers. We were all at the table read together. We all got to put in our point of view. It was very respectful of the actors and what we wanted to bring to the characters. There was no preciousness about anything. And, to tell the truth, the greatest part is that there was no hair, no makeup, no line memorizing, no 6 a.m. calls. No wardrobe fittings. You just showed up for a couple of hours and recorded. It’s something I’m so proud of — I love King of the Hill. Every moment of it was just a joy and I’m a complainer, so there you go.
MW: One of your biggest hits was Hocus Pocus, which just celebrated its 25th Anniversary. Disney made a big deal about it. Can you briefly talk about your experience making it?
NAJIMY: I’ve made 30 films, and you never know which ones are going to stick, which ones are going to become really popular. You just sort of make them. So the experience of it was only very singular to me because I had been a huge fan — like a crazy sycophant fan — of Bette Midler’s growing up.
I had all of her posters. I had all of her records. I had several incidents where I would run backstage at the Hollywood Bowl with guards running after me, and opening all the rooms until I found her in the room. I had one where I found where she lived in New York, when I visited New York in the ’70s, and left a message with her housekeeper. I even had one where I sang to her.
MW: That’s something.
NAJIMY: Well, I worked for a singing telegram company in San Diego. So my boyfriend at the time, Greg Barnes, who is now a big fancy Broadway costume designer, had designed costumes for a junior theater’s Alice in Wonderland. He gave me the “I’m late, I’m late” bunny costume. We took the bus up the Hollywood Bowl where Bette was performing and I pretended to the officials that I had a singing telegram for her after the show. But it really was just from me.
So, I hopped backstage, and in all these pseudo-celebrities were in Bette’s room surrounding her. And I sang a song and handed her the telegram that said, “From Kathy.” And she said, “Kathy? Kathy who?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I love you, too!” And I hopped out and fainted.
So for all of those experiences, plus more that we can’t go into today, getting a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, after I did Sister Act, who said, “I want to offer you a role in a movie called Hocus Pocus to play Bette Midler’s sister” — that was really a full fate turnaround. An interesting highlight of my life.
MW: Did you ever reveal to Bette that the singing bunny was you?
NAJIMY: I didn’t want to freak her out, so I would slowly let her know things. Like, “Oh, you wore those shoes in Chicago in March of ’78. No, no, you didn’t sing that at that concert. You sang this other song.” She would always sort of look at me side-eyed until one day I said, “Remember that girl who ran backstage and got pulled off by the guards?” And she said, “Yes.” I go, “And then, remember that bunny?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, I’m the bunny.”
MW: What did she say?
NAJIMY: I think it was just a very slow sort of like, “Oh God, I’m making a movie with a crazy person” into very good castmates and friends.
MW: What was it like working with her?
NAJIMY: It was great. She’s tough and she knows what she wants, and so am I, and there was a lot involved in Hocus Pocus. There was dancing and singing and children and animals, and I mean, it was just flying, it was a lot, but it didn’t do well the first weekend. It didn’t do well at all. It just took years and years, and slowly started building an audience, generation after generation.
MW: And now it’s a phenomenon.
NAJIMY: Who knew?
MW: I will often ask this question of straight actors we speak with: Do you remember the first time someone came out to you, and what was your response?
NAJIMY: You know, I think one reason that I am effortlessly an ally of the gay community, besides my political views, is that in community theater, you’re usually surrounded by a lot of gay men. Those were the guys I hung out with, those were my friends. So being a part of the gay community was seamless for me. All my friends came out to me. In fact, straight married men now will come out to me. I’m a gay magnet. People who want to be gay will come out to me.
Also, I have to say something about being straight-identified by being married — I do believe that there is a spectrum. A lot of people don’t agree, but I believe there’s a spectrum between one and a hundred. And I don’t believe anybody is anything. I believe we have the ability to love who we choose, when we choose, and how we choose. And so, I think sometimes, straight people have to act straighter than they are because they’re afraid of political homophobia. And gay people need to be really rooted in gayness because it’s been taken away for so long. When something is beyond your reach, and then it is in your reach, you really root down hard.
MW: It’s more relevant today with the current administration. It’s scary.
NAJIMY: I’m scared. I’m scared-scared. The loss of Democracy is earth-shattering.
MW: But what do we do? How do we wake up from this? I’m looking to you for all the answers.
NAJIMY: I’ll tell you exactly what I think we should do. I think the reason that Trump is the President — God, I’ve never said that sentence before, that’s eerie — I think that the reason he won is because the Democratic Party and the Liberals were split. And I think we lost a lot with the anti-Hillary people. I was a Hillary devotee — I was actually a speaker for her. I would go and speak where she couldn’t. That was such an honor.
But I feel like the split, which I think is because of misogyny, led to Donald Trump’s win. I think whoever wins the Democratic nomination, whoever it is, we must wholeheartedly rally around that person. We must forget our differences of who our favorites were, because now this is serious business. Donald Trump is President. We can’t pussyfoot around anymore. We can’t go, “Oh, I don’t like him or I don’t like her.” Too f-ing bad. We have Donald Trump. That’s our alternative.
I was at the Tribeca Film Festival’s events and someone asked who do you want and I went, “Whoever is going to be the candidate, that’s who I want.” And that’s who we all should want. We have to all want the same person — any sort of a compassionate thinking person. Or else we’ll have another four years of Trump. So, you know, I’m going to rally around 100 percent, heart and soul, with whomever wins the nomination.
Now, I know who I would like to be nominated, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m not going to split the vote. I’m not going to not vote. I’ll just support that person, because we don’t have a choice anymore. We’re losing our rights — women are losing their right to reproductive choice. There’s many states in the middle of the country where there are no reproductive rights now. It’s happening. It’s real.
MW: It’s horrible.
NAJIMY: Oh, it’s horrible racism. It’s horrible misogyny. It’s horrible homophobia. It’s horrible everything. It’s anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-any kind of a brain. It’s really bad. And lives are being lost and Trump is making decisions that will affect our children’s children. There won’t be a planet. So, whoever is the nominee, that’s who I’m going to wave my flag for. Anybody but him.
MW: Who would be on your dream ticket, though? We’ve got so many amazing choices out there now. It’s an amazing field in many respects.
NAJIMY: Who would I pick? Well, I want Hillary. But if I can’t have Hillary, I love Kamala Harris. But honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. Anybody but Trump.
God, it’s so hard, because I don’t know enough yet. Honestly, I’m not being coy because, obviously, I say what I think, but I haven’t quite heard enough to claim my stake yet. I would love for it to be a woman. It’s time for it to be a woman, but I want whoever will win.
MW: You’re currently producing a documentary about the 53% of white women who voted for Trump in 2016.
NAJIMY: I am. At the end of this month, we’re going to do our first three days [of shooting]. They’re the most important equation in the nightmare of the last two years. We can’t dismiss them — they’re either women who voted for Obama, or didn’t vote at all, who, in 2016, voted for Donald Trump. So we need to honor them and find out why and what, and understand it, so it doesn’t happen again.
MW: It is a very perplexing statistic. We’re all like, “How could any woman vote for him?”
NAJIMY: Every one of us producers [of the documentary] has a different theory. My theory is that it is because of self-misogyny. When you’re taught that you’re not worthy — that you’re not worth as much [as men] — it seeps into your great-grandmother, and then down to your grandmother, and less to your mother, and less to you, but it’s still there. And if you think you aren’t worth as much, you’re not going to vote for someone that you think isn’t worthy.
Other people think differently. Gloria [Steinem] thinks it’s because they vote the party line of their husband. I mean, we all have a different idea. The truth is that none of us can put words in their mouth. We need to really find out and ask them and understand, so that we can move past this crazy nightmare.
MW: I want to bring it back to activism. What is the importance of activism to you and why should we all remain vigilant?
NAJIMY: There have always been activists and nonactivists, but at this point, there really is no choice. We know that, every day, we’re waking up, and not only are opinions changing, but laws are changing — laws that govern us and our daughters and sons. If you have any interest in the future beyond a year from now, just with climate change….
I mean, I’m so inspired by today’s high school students. This one girl that had just gotten an award here in New York said, “I take every Friday off and go sit in front of the UN.” And they said, “Do your parents mind that you aren’t going to school that day?” And she said, “No, they understand. If I’m not an activist today, I won’t have a future.”
The kinds of adjustments that are being made that affect our whole lives are devastating changes. I understand that everybody’s different. I don’t require everybody to be the same, but what I do require is that you open the paper and look on the internet and turn on the news, and see how, every single day, this isn’t just happening. It was planned, and it is dangerous, and we are going to find ourselves in the same position as in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Things are going to change in a way that you can’t imagine, because we’re ignoring and saying, “Well, I’m not a political person,” or, “It doesn’t affect me,” or, “It’s too hard.” And I get that it’s too hard. It’s too hard for me. I get that it’s scary. It’s too scary for me. Nobody wants to do this. We all thought it would be Hillary, and we’d be swimming in a lake and having picnics. But it’s real and it affects everyone, you and your kids, your nieces, your nephews, and just the future in general, people you’re not even related to. It’s the future of humanity. Democracy is being systemically [dismantled]. All the bolts are being loosened, all of them.
We can’t be sure what they’re finding out about Donald Trump. We don’t know how he got to be president. I mean, how many presidents have had 17,000 investigations about them being crooked? I mean, there was Nixon, and a couple more, and certainly, first of all, I don’t care what presidents have affairs with who. That’s a personal choice between them and their wife or their husband. That is none of my business, and I don’t judge somebody on what they do in their personal life. I judge them on how they protect and rule our country and sisterhood and brotherhood with the world, and this administration, more than any other administration — and there’s been some pretty sad ones — is boasting about the illegal-ness of their affairs. I mean, you can’t not pay attention this time.
MW: I have to bring up one final thing before you go. You made a guest appearance at Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend here in 2009. What do you remember about that experience?
NAJIMY: I remember that I was a little bit surprised about how very, very polite and well behaved every single person at that whole event was. I thought they were the sweetest, kindest, most considerate people. Not that I didn’t think they would be, but like it was very peaceful. It wasn’t very raucous, you know what I mean? Everyone was just really nice. The reason I was in D.C. was for the Obama Inauguration. And the excitement was in the air, you know? And then, of course, I went home with a couple of leather queens.
Kathy Najimy will perform as a guest artist at the American Pops Orchestra concert “I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman” on Saturday, May 18, at 8 p.m. at the Fichandler Stage in the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $25 to $75. Call 202-599-3865 or visit www.theamericanpops.org.