Most movie fans probably know Keala Settle because of her role in The Greatest Showman, but Keala Settle has been a Broadway star for almost a decade now. She has starred in several productions over the years including Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hands on a Hardbody, Les Misérables, and Waitress. In between her stage career, Keala Settle is also a recording artist and a film actor. Settle has most recently appeared in the film, All My Life, alongside Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. After years of being a fan of her work, I finally had the chance to have a conversation with Settle where we discussed the film, being on Broadway, and the struggle of being a live performer during the pandemic.
Scott Menzel: Hi Keala!
Keala Settle: Hi Scott! How are you doing?
Scott Menzel: I’m holding up alright. How are you?
Keala Settle: Yeah. It’s the million-dollar question, right? I always ask that because I want to see what everybody says because it’s real, so we’re doing, right? We’re doing…
Scott Menzel: Yeah. We’re surviving. We’re getting through. Some days are better than others. Some days are harder than others.
Keala Settle: Life’s serious, sir. Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Correct.
Scott Menzel: I’m sure doing some interviews this week has been a bit refreshing since you get to interact with some new faces and talk to a few new voices. So I’m sure that helps. I’ve been taking more interviews than I’ve ever done during this, just because I want to have some interaction in my life.
Keala Settle: And that makes absolute sense to me. That makes total sense to me. Gratefully, I’m working right now, and so I was on set yesterday. And every time I go to set, which is not every day, I keep being reminded about how much I’m not around people. Because when I get to set, I turn into a loose fiber optic cable. And I’m going, “You’ve got to calm down. I know you haven’t been around people for a long time. Would you chill out so we can get working” So it’s a real thing, the human connection? Who knew we needed it? Who knew?
Scott Menzel: Haha. Go figure. Well, I’m excited about the fact that you’re actually able to get back to work and start doing things. I know a lot of things here (in Los Angeles) aren’t looking so hot right now.
Keala Settle: Oh, my God, I get it. I still go to work, and I’m working here. We all are because we’re taking every single frigging precaution that we possibly can when we’re on set. I don’t know anybody else when they go offset, but I know that when we’re on set, we’re doing everything that we possibly can to keep ourselves safe. Everyone is, which I’m very grateful for, I think because it speaks to the understanding that everyone respects the fact that we need to work and that it’s essential.
I have millions of friends in New York City right now and across the country that are not working, and a lot of them are live performers. And people are going through Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon Prime like it’s tap water, just running, just keeping the faucet on because they needed it. But meanwhile, there are all these other performers that are being called nonessential, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s blowing my mind. I’m grateful for the work, but it’s a difficult position to be in because I wish that I could take at least 10,000 people with me every day because it’s vital, you know?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, that was one of the questions that I was going to ask you, I know that singing and performing is your passion. What the hell have you been doing to keep sane for the last nine months.
Keala Settle: It is my passion. Well, it’s not even sane. For me, a lot of it has been reflection for me and how much this industry has tried to affect me and how much power I’ve given to the industry to let it affect me in a negative way if I have, and why I’ve done that and what that means for me and how I can navigate that. This means I have to do a lot of work on myself, which I gladly do and will continue to do until I’m six feet under and not breathing. Because I think that’s something that’s so important just for myself. I can’t speak for anybody else, but if I stop learning, I am so screwed.
But throughout the pandemic… And I’ll talk about it here, and I hope you’re able to post it or write about it. The Actors Fund is so vital, specifically in this pandemic, because there are more of the people who are out of work, not just actors. It is stagehands. It is designers. It is health managers for the theaters that work to open the theaters, keep them open, clean the theaters, and then shut the theaters down. It’s not happening. And it’s a lifestyle that created television and film. That’s the basis. That’s what film and television came from is the fact that people were doing live theater on stages or anywhere that they could find a place to create these stories. And you have a suspension of disbelief to sit there and watch it and see how they create it and how close it is to real-life to you or for you and what you learn from it. And that’s the industry that seems to be suffering, that part of the industry, the most.
And because I love them and I believe in them and that’s where my roots are, I had anything and everything that I’ve been able to do as far as concert-wise from my studio upstairs or my living room, wherever I’m filming, all of it goes directly to the Actors Fund, if there’s any money involved. And I’ll keep doing that as much as I can, as much as I need to, because I’m not going to cry. Oh, I don’t want to cry, because I was on set yesterday crying all day because that was my character. But now, who cares? They’re my family, and when I’m talking to you and I do interviews, you have to understand, you’re not just interviewing me. You’re interviewing an entire community that has brought you to me to be able to give you this interview right now. And you don’t know them, but I do because they’re with me every day. And I wish to God I could bring anything to them so that they can continue their craft, which is saving us from our own life by creating another life in front of us that we can watch and learn from. That’s the bonus of it all, but you’ll just have to wait. You’ll have to wait.
Scott Menzel: No, listen, I sort of understand. I can’t be in your shoes. I can’t be in the other actors’ shoes, obviously. But listen, I’m from New Jersey. I love Broadway.
Keala Settle: You get it.
Scott Menzel: I miss it. It kills me when I saw that it shut down for all this year. It kills me that they’re going to keep it closed until, what, June?
Keala Settle: It probably won’t even open until 2022, I’m telling you right now.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I’m not surprised by that.
Keala Settle: And I can’t even talk about that because the flood gates will open. But just know that I carry the community. The live theater community has carried me nonstop, and I will never not carry them, never.
Scott Menzel: Well, I will tell you that I run the Hollywood Critics Association. We did a small little trivia event right when it started. And one of the things that we donated some of the profits to was the Actors Fund.
Keala Settle: Oh, thank you
Scott Menzel: We are thinking about doing one for the holiday season, and there are so many organizations that need help right now. What we made a mistake last time doing is that we wound up donating to eight different organizations. So we raised about $1,400, but then everyone only got $200 bucks. So we want to do another one where its only one or two organizations.
Keala Settle: Yeah. But that’s 200 bucks they didn’t have. You can’t say that. There are still organizations, of course, Covenant House, which is one of my charities. They’re dealing with human sex trafficking and have been for decades, internationally. And they’re trying to help all these homeless youth, not only nationwide, but internationally, as I said. Everyone is trying to help each other out because this is such a bizarre and excruciating time in our lives that we happen to be alive for. The fact that you gave that is a blessing. Thank you for doing that. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Scott Menzel: Absolutely, no problem. We’re going to probably do another one for the holidays soon. And I’m trying to think if it’s the right thing to do is just do one or try to do multiple ones. I don’t know what to do yet. We’re deciding on that.
Keala Settle: Whatever you do is going to be okay, because you’re giving. Just remember that. Give yourself some grace. For God’s sake, give yourself some grace, my God. Thank you for even thinking about it-
Scott Menzel: I appreciate that. Listen, the great thing is that we’re a small Los Angeles based critics organization, and the fact that we managed to get Edgar Wright to do a video and Jon M Chu, and people like that to contribute, that was fucking great.
Keala Settle: Because they know too, that’s what I’m saying. It’s like everyone knows. Everyone knows. We may not think that because we don’t get to talk to everybody every day, as we already said at the beginning of this conversation, but they know. Everybody knows.
Scott Menzel: Alright, I have to ask you at least one or two questions about this movie because I want to make sure that Universal gets some love since they set this interview up for me.
Keala Settle: Exactly
Scott Menzel: But, before we switch to that, I have to tell you that your performance at the Oscars for This is Me, and your performance in The Greatest Showman was fantastic. That is now one of my favorite movies of all time. I actually have a huge poster on my wall for it.
Keala Settle: Oh, wow.
Scott Menzel: And I saw you perform with Hugh Jackman live at the Hollywood Bowl. You killed it.
Keala Settle: Well, thank you so much for being there. Thank you. I loved doing that.
Scott Menzel: Well, I love you. I love him. I think you guys are just amazing. So, I just wanted to ask you real quick about the friendship that you have with Hugh.
Keala Settle: oh, it’s family. It’s family-like, “I’m going to beat you at Rummikub. Let’s go.” But it’s that kind of thing. His whole family, his wife is basically the mother that I never had/closest confidant. I called her this morning to say, “Thank you for being such an inspiration.” She has an organization called Our Hopeland for adopted children because they have two adopted children. And the work that she does is incredible. And they’re just down to earth people. It’s crazy. She has a scooter. With her mask, she rides around when it was cooler in New York City to go to the store to get whatever she needs and then gets back on the scooter and comes back home, with her helmet and her map. They’re great. They’re regular people. They’re just regular people, but you just happen to know who they are from millions of people around the world. They’re incredible.
Scott Menzel: Oh, that’s good to hear. All right. So two questions about All of Me. How familiar were you with the story prior to signing onto this film?
Keala Settle: I wasn’t at all. When I was asked to be a part of it, that’s when I looked it up. And then when I found out it was a true story, I was really intrigued by that because I love true stories, because everyone has a story. And I the biggest cheerleader for learning from other people and connecting. Obviously, we just started a conversation about connecting with other people in whatever way we can. And then I found out that in Sol’s passing, he passed away just about probably three or four days before my mother did. And my mother’s and my relationship was very, very conflicted. I was not there when she passed away. And so for me, it was an honor not only to do it for Jenn and then the memory of Jenn and Sol’s relationship, but also in honor of my mother and the opportunity that I was able to, in my own way, say I loved you when you were here and thank you. It’s a beautiful film, absolutely beautiful.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, it really is. And I hate to say this, but so many movies we seen have tried to tackle the subject matter like this film does-
Keala Settle: Well, it’s hard. How do you do that? Death and dying, not a lot of people want to talk about that in America, especially now. It’s hard. I don’t know why it’s hard. I don’t know what made up rule people are saying about not talking… They repeat, “It’s not happening. It’s fine. It’s fine.” When in fact, not only is it happening, there’s a whole process to it that we don’t get to be a part of right now anymore. No one tells us, unless we actively seek it out, how to deal with that and how to understand it. Or how to navigate through it, because it will come. It will come, people. It’s not like, “Oh my God, I’m not going to die.” You’re going to die, guys. But it’s not death and destruction. You can’t look at it that way. You have to just live with hope every second of every day, and that’s what this movie is about. No matter what, no matter what, the human spirit will always win, always, always. We just have to make sure that we’re in tune with it.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. And I love the fact that I think Mark said this in one of the interviews or maybe it was in the press notes somewhere, but it was interesting because he said, “This is not a movie about dying.” And I think that’s the big difference and makes this movie stand out from other movies with similar themes.
Keala Settle: Yeah. I remember when this all started and when we were doing post stuff for the film. And I told him, I said, “I can’t believe how this pandemic has actually paved the way for this film.” Because it is an actual, on-screen, how to deal with dying for the general public. That’s really what it is. That’s how to celebrate that and how to understand what that means. Not only for the couple themselves, but you see it through the film individually, through each of the characters that are in that little group, in that little pod of people.
And then it spreads out to the people that are in the wedding, and you see how many people are there to just simply support this moment. We already know, because in actuality, we do. We already know we’re going to die. We know it. That’s not a secret, people. But we can still have this moment. We can still have it. That applies to everyone, everybody, and that hope gives each of us that grace to be able to understand that and not be so hard on it if that makes any sense…
Scott Menzel: Oh, I agree. And I think if anything else, right now what we’ve learned from this, more so than anything else, is that you have to live each day like it is your last. Because if you put off like, “Oh, I’m not going to see that show this day or I’m not going to go on that trip,” you never know if you will. And literally, now we have an entire year that we have lost, and some people have lost their lives and will never get that experience because they waited.
Keala Settle: Correct. And a lot of it, too, is for the people that don’t even get to go in and mourn the fact that they’ve lost a loved one because of the situation. And I think what is so beautiful about this film is that it gives you the leeway and the grace… I keep saying giving oneself grace because it is so important at this time. Giving oneself the space to understand that you have the chance, from this moment on, to honor anyone in your life that has gone, whether you were there or not. You get to tell their story, just like Jenn’s telling their story, just like I had the privilege to do that. You get to, everybody gets to do that. Amanda Kloots and Nick, my buddy, would tell his story every day, and we get blessed by it. Talk about a lesson to live your life to the fullest, right?
Scott Menzel: Absolutely.
Keala Settle: She’s a perfect example of this. She’s a perfect example. I’m so sorry.
Scott Menzel: No, listen, you keep it real. That’s something that I appreciate so much because you know this industry. Come on, you know how some people in this industry are, and I appreciate the blunt honesty.
Keala Settle: Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: So the last thing I wanted to ask you, and then I’ll let you run because I know you’re busy and have so much going on, but you’ve obviously had the honor of working with some incredible people behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, on stage, on-screen before. We don’t have to go through the list. But my question to you is, for this particular film, what was it working with Jessica and Harry?
Keala Settle: I knew Harry from a program that was on YouTube years ago called LXD…
Scott Menzel: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, yeah.
Keala Settle: …Yes. So when he first entered for the first reading, I kept calling him Elliot because that was his character’s name. And then I proceeded to group text, without even asking, everyone at the table his episode called Elliot’s Shoes. And I was like, “Guys, this is who we’re working with.” I had such a privilege, the privilege of meeting Jess, throughout the process, who I actually spoke with probably a couple of weeks ago, just to check up on her and see how she was doing. Just such a delight, both of them so down to earth and so very similar to the director himself.
Always creating this space for everyone to come in and go, “What do you have? What do you have? Please, don’t be afraid to say anything and work along the lines of the script and see what we can do and what we can accomplish.” It’s so fun when you get to play in a sandbox-like that. And all of the actors were like that, every single one of them, Ever, Chrissie, Jay, Kyle, everybody. They were so willing to be there and do whatever. And it’s comforting, and it makes you want to give everything you have.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I lied. I said one last question, what Broadway show would you like to be a part of when Broadway returns?
Keala Settle: Maybe Shakespeare. I studied Shakespeare, maybe it’s because I’m bad, but I’m holding out hope that maybe I can someday play a tree in King Lear or whatever. I’d love to do anything Shakespeare. I miss Shakespeare so much. It was the first thing that I studied. And it taught me that there are so many ways to tell a story in so many forms of language, specifically the English language. And I miss that so much. I miss it so much.
Scott Menzel: Well, I hope you get to do it. Thank you so very much for talking with me. You are lovely. You are awesome.
Keala Settle: Thank you. All right, I’ll talk to you hopefully again soon.