February 23, 2020

Idina Menzel on Work, Family and Giving Back

Idina Menzel in “Uncut Gems”

Idina Menzel currently has two hit movies in theaters. She’s reprising her role as Princess Elsa in the family-friendly “Frozen II” and starring opposite Adam Sandler in the gritty dramedy “Uncut Gems,” playing his exasperated wife. She seized the chance to work with Sandler and directors Benny and Josh Safdie on a role that struck a familiar note.

“I know a lot of women like her. I grew up on Long Island [N.Y.] and could identify with a strong-minded woman trying to raise a family with an unreliable husband,” Menzel told the Journal. “She’s really the truth teller in the movie. She’s the only person who says what she means to his face.”

Sandler plays a gambling addict whose increasing debts threaten his life and endanger his family. “He’s making a lot of bad choices,” Menzel said. “He really wants to be a winner for once in his life and I think people can identify with that no matter how despicable a character he is. Adam still finds a way to make the audience root for him. I think we all can identify with the desire to be a winner in life and see our dreams come true, in whatever way that manifests.”

“Frozen II,” meanwhile, already has earned close to $1 billion worldwide, which surprises Menzel despite the original movie’s enormous success. “There was a lot of pressure on everybody for the sequel and it feels really great to have it be so widely received again,” she said.

The movie’s soundtrack is topping the Billboard albums chart but it’s not her only holiday album. “Christmas: A Season of Love” features duets with Josh Gad, Ariana Grande and Billy Porter, and includes “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Latin-flavored Hanukkah song sung in Ladino. Leading into it is “Walker’s 3rd Hanukkah,” in which Menzel teaches her son the blessing over the candles. 

“I’m not too religious but I try to carry on the traditions,” she said. “It was always a special time when the family would get together and light the menorah. There were tough times in my teenage years when my parents divorced and the holidays became a little more complicated for my sister and I. I get to sort of rewrite all of that now that I’m a mother and define what those traditions are with my son, which is really a gift.”

Walker is Menzel’s child with ex-husband Taye Diggs. She is now married to fellow “Rent” alumnus Aaron Lohr, who sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with her on the album and recently joined her on stage at Carnegie Hall. Although she loves touring — “it’s where I live and breathe — I’ve been traveling so much in the last few months, it would be nice to stay home with my family and check out for a minute before I make those decisions.”

“As long as you’re really honest and authentic, you will connect with people. That’s more important than any high note you sing.” — Idina Menzel

Menzel’s vocal prowess emerged long before “Rent” and “Wicked,” at the Concord Hotel’s day camp talent show. “I sang ‘The Way We Were’ in a really strong Long Island accent,” she said. “The whole audience flipped out and told my parents that their daughter had something special.

“There’s really only one role I’ve wanted to revive,” she continued. “Fanny Brice in ‘Funny Girl.’ Other than that, I’m very comfortable being in the embryonic stages of a musical in development and helping composers create new work.” 

She’ll next play the wicked stepmother in a film version of “Cinderella,” with Camila Cabello in the title role. “It’s a modern telling of the story with music, sort of like ‘Moulin Rouge,’ ” she said.

On Dec. 22, Menzel will host and perform on the CBS special “Home for the Holidays.”

“It’s a beautiful evening celebrating foster kids, chronicling their stories and helping them find homes,” she said. An active supporter of arts, education and LGBTQ-related charities, she established the A BroaderWay foundation, which operates a camp for girls. It was inspired by “the greatest six summers of my life” she spent at Camp Olympus, a Jewish camp in the Catskills, and her desire to give back.

“The way we can show our gratitude is giving back for the gifts that are given to us. Giving back gives you perspective in the world. But it’s not just giving back. It’s the reciprocity of the experience,” she said. “To be a role model, you have to live and breathe what you say, so it’s a reminder of who I want to be in this world as well.”

In November, Menzel received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with her family and her “Frozen” sister, Kristen Bell, in attendance. “It’s an incredible honor and to share it with Kristen Bell was even more special because we created these roles together,” she said. “It was nice to have my son there so he could see how cool his mommy is,” she added. 

Walker, now 10, is more interested in basketball than music. “But we overhear him singing in the shower once in a while and it’s clear that he has a great ear and a great voice. Maybe by high school he’ll change his mind,” she said. “I think he’s turning out to be a fascinating, loving, sensitive yet strong little man.”  

She’s also proud of the women she has portrayed. “I’ve tended to attract characters that speak to young audiences and give them permission to be their authentic selves and celebrate who they are,” she said.

She credits “hard work, discipline, practice and surrounding myself with people who are honest with me” for her success. “I try to remain vulnerable and open and be as real as possible,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you do or what kind of mistakes you make. As long as you’re really honest and authentic, you will connect with people. That’s more important than any high note you sing.”

“Uncut Gems” is now in theaters.