How Krysta Rodriguez Learned to ‘Pump Up the Liza’ for ‘Halston’

TheWrap magazine: ”When I got the script, I thought, this is either something that changes my life or breaks my heart,“ says the actress of portraying Liza Minnelli

Last Updated: June 16, 2021 @ 5:00 PM

This story about Krysta Rodriguez and “Halston” first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The role of the best friend can be a thankless and colorless one, but not if the best friend is Liza Minnelli. That’s the part that theater and TV actress Krysta Rodriguez plays in the Netflix limited series “Halston,” which stars Ewan McGregor as the iconic fashion designer and features Rodriguez as the diva who became his lifelong friend and confidante through success, drug addiction and rehab, up to his death in 1990 from AIDS-related cancer.

Playing Liza from her days in small nightclubs through her Oscar-winning performance in “Cabaret” and her party-girl phase during the heyday of New York’s Studio 54 disco, Rodriguez nails all the Liza mannerisms — the flutter, the laugh, the open-palmed gestures — but also has the musical-theater chops to handle material like “Say Liza,” the insanely fast patter song (“It’s Liza with a Z not Lisa with an S…”) with which she is introduced.

But a straight imitation won’t get her through the quieter, private moments between Halston and Liza, so there she keeps just enough of the Liza-isms to suggest the singer without imitating her.

The approach, Rodriguez said, was calibrated from her earliest auditions for the part. “I didn’t come in doing a full imitation,” she said, “but when I came back for a second audition they said, ‘OK, now you can pump up the Liza.’ So we did different versions of it, and Dan (Minahan), our director, and I sort of settled on where we thought she should live. It was like, ‘Can we do Liza when the lights are on and Liza when the lights are off?’”

Growing up in Orange County in Southern California, Rodriguez hadn’t been a big Liza fan before she got into the world of musical theater; as a little girl, she said, she was more impressed by Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland, because of “The Wizard of Oz.” But she later grew to understand Minnelli’s work, and to embrace “women who were connected to their whole bodies and were singing about survivorship.”

So when she first saw the “Halston” script before landing the part, she said, “I was completely floored by it. I remember where I was, where I was sitting, what I felt. I was nauseous, my heart started pounding. I was like, ‘Oh, God, this is either something that changes my life or something that breaks my heart.’”

She had less than two months to prepare, which she did by studying Minnelli intensely but not contacting her. (The limited series is unauthorized, and Halston’s family has criticized it.)

Filming began in February 2020, shut down in March because of the pandemic, then started up again later. The schedule led to some tense moments, including the final encounter between Halston and Liza in Episode 5, which was shot on short notice before the fourth episode had even been filmed.

“It was the hardest scene, the most emotional scene and the most nerve-racking scene, and I had two days to prepare after working on the rest of the stuff for a year,” she said. “I’m still agitated, thinking about the email that said, ‘We’re moving it up.’”

But the stop-and-start shooting also supplied some glorious moments, among them a re-creation of Studio 54.

“It was close to the end of shooting, and we had all become so close,” she said. “They had done a series of shots of us getting out of limos and going into Studio 54, and there were a couple where it was just Halston and Elsa and Joe and Victor (the other characters played by Rebecca Dayan, David Pittu and Gian Franco Rodriguez). And then I showed up to do my shots.

“I hadn’t seen anyone, and I opened the doors to Studio 54 and they’re all decked out in their outfits. And I was like, ‘This is the coolest group of people I’ve ever seen.’”

Read more from the Limited Series & TV Movies issue here

Cynthia Erivo EmmyWrap cover
Cynthia Erivo on the front cover of the June 15, 2021 issue of the EmmyWrap Limited Series & Movies magazine