“We can’t do a whole interview about Showgirls,” Gina Gershon exhaled, not five minutes into our conversation at Odeon in Tribeca on May 21. I didn’t mean to exasperate her so soon—I couldn’t help it. The woman who played Cristal Connors in Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic of Vegas excess and g-strings—a movie I have obsessed over for more than two decades now—had sat down in front of me and out tumbled the questions faster than I could regulate them.
“I imagined it differently in my own mind, you know?” she said of the movie that went from being widely reviled for what it wasn’t (a serious interrogation of life in Sin City) to being embraced by a fervent fanbase for being what it was (pure camp). “But listen, people really enjoy it, so I think that’s really good.”
I wondered if that was entirely good since a lot of the enjoyment comes at the movie’s expense. Gershon smiled her perma-Cheshire smile and said, “I didn’t direct it.” She’s long claimed that she was in on the joke, the earliest appreciator of Showgirls’ nonstop ridiculousness. By the third day of filming, when the movie clearly wasn’t turning out to be the gritty drama she envisioned, she made adjustments. “I decided to make a character that the drag queens would want to perform,” she said. “I started having fun with it. I thought it was the only way to get through it.”
Gershon says she gets asked about Showgirls in every interview. But the real reason behind our lunch together was to discuss the jazz show she’s fronting at the famed Café Carlyle in New York City, from June 5 through June 16. The Carlyle contacted her “out of the blue,” offering its stage.
Before we got to that, I had to determine how precisely she understood what was happening on set—if any of her co-stars shared her awareness of the absurdity that was afoot, what it was like to act opposite a perpetually flailing, admittedly astonishing Elizabeth Berkely. And that’s when she shut me down. I apologized for being so zealous. It’s not everyday that I get to sit across from Cristal Connors.
“I’m so not Cristal Connors today,” she told me, which was fair.
That day, she wore neither a full-body glitter get-up nor an ombré of fluorescent eyeshadow like her Vegas showgirl diva character. The real Gershon was in a nondescript black top that was neither tight nor loose, her makeup was neither under- nor overdone. A high ponytail sat atop her head, which read “fun”; the chunky glasses she removed and put back on several times throughout our chat read “serious.” She was at one moment all business (“Exactly at 2, I’m outta here,” she told me at the start of what was to be our one-hour interview, as she was booked all day), and at another, a casualty of pleasure—she was still recovering from a dance party she’d hosted at her place in Tribeca. “I’m so spaced out today,” she said. “I definitely partied a little too much this weekend.”
Gershon’s two week show at the Carlyle, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, gets its name from the blues song recorded by Ida Cox in 1924. The song is part of her setlist and ended up providing the foundation for the show, which Gershon said will in part “explore certain women in my life who really influenced me and affected me.” These include her grandmother Pearl, her grandmother’s bookie Laurie Nelson, her Aunt Ida, and her childhood nanny, Marie Gibson, who at a young age taught Gershon how to play the Jew’s harp.
When we spoke, Gershon was still figuring out her setlist, but intended to include selections from the likes of Ruth Brown, Tom Waits, Patsy Cline, Cole Porter, Peggy Lee, and Nina Simone, as well as her own compositions. Gershon is to be backed by a jazz band comprised of SNL musical director Eli Brueggemann on piano, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Brad Jones, and dummer Jerome Jennings. “They’re much better musicians than I am,” she said. “I’m lucky.”
If you haven’t been paying close attention to her career and know her only from some films (like the Wachowskis’ pitch-perfect lesbian neo-noir Bound or this year’s Blockers) or perhaps her TV work (including a memorable stint as the Hacidic dry cleaner Anna on Curb Your Enthusiasm and her recurring role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine), then a cabaret show in which Gershon sings jazz (and other) standards and tells stories about her life may seem like an unlikely fit. But Gershon’s life and career has been full of music. Her uncle was musician/arranger/conductor Jack Elliott. She starred in Broadway productions of Cabaret and Bye Bye Birdie. She played the frontwoman of a punk band in 2003's Prey for Rock & Roll, which Cheri Lovedog co-wrote and based on her own experiences fronting Lovedog.
Gershon promoted the film at Sundance in 2003 backed by three members of Guns ’n Roses. She then toured singing Prey songs with legendary D.C. post-hardcore band Girls Against Boys as her backup. She’s played the Jew’s harp on albums by Herbie Hancock, the Scissor Sisters, and Christian McBride. And in 2008, she released an album, Searching for Cleo, which spawned a live show and then book (full title: Searching for Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind) chronicling her losing and then finding her beloved cat Cleo. “I AM A CAT PERSON,” she wrote in the book, offering yet another side of herself.
“I’m an artist,” she said to me, distancing herself from actor-turned-singer dilettante baggage. “Not to sound pretentious, but I feel like as an artist if I want to sing or do music or write a book or do a movie or act in a play or TV show, if I want to do a show and paint and draw, I should be able to do whatever I want. Maybe it’s stupid, but I don’t really care about what people think about me.”
“At all?” I asked.
“I really try not to,” she said.
But doesn’t her livelihood depend on her appealing to the masses, thus creating a demand for her work? Isn’t caring about what other people think, in fact, written into her job description as an entertainer? “I want to be good,” she countered. “I have a fear of humiliation for sure. Why do something unless I can be good? Let someone else do it. You can’t think about what people are going to think about you in general. ‘Oh, she’s singing now.’ If they don’t want to hear me sing, then they shouldn’t come.” Plus, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues was Gershon’s chance to create a role for herself as such opportunities in Hollywood become less enticing.
“It gets harder and harder to find material,” she said. “This part is fun, I just get to make up my own material.”
Parts started drying up, she recalled, around the release of Prey for Rock & Roll—a cruelly thematic confluence since the movie wrestles with the concept of “making it” and at what point you should just give up on your dreams. Gershon said she has “no concept of age” (“I don’t think of myself as any age”), but asked me to refrain from printing her actual age because “ageism exists.” She says it has taken a toll on her acting career.
“Women are getting more and more roles, but it’s still tricky,” she said. “I think if you’re a woman in your 20s or 30s, there’s tons of roles—much more than when I was growing up. I get scripts and stuff and I’m just not interested in playing a lot of them. We’ll see what happens.”
Throughout our meal, talking to Gershon reminded me of talking to a particularly magnetic guest at a party. She is so self-assured and matter-of-factly impressive, her presence seems tailored to be relished in the moment. She has a way of making you feel like you’re in on a secret—after she ordered her lunch of a grilled petit strip steak (medium rare) and steamed (not sautéed) spinach, she confided, “All I like to get here is tequila and chocolate pudding.” I had to restrain myself from making a joke about brown rice and vegetables. She told me she lets herself indulge in pudding and tequila “pretty much all the time,” but that she was attempting to “lean out” in advance of the show. “Or at least not each chocolate pudding every five seconds,” she added.
As we circled back to her experiences with Hollywood, she discussed her appreciation for Verhoeven’s early work and intelligence that was evident on the set of Showgirls. But she didn’t mince words about his divisive rape-revenge fantasy, 2016's Elle, which she said she had a hard time with despite Isabelle Huppert’s “amazing” performance. “It just felt very misogynistic to me,” said Gershon. “Listen, in Showgirls, I begged him to take out the rape scene. I was like, ‘Why is this scene in this movie?’ I thought it was such a funny movie and then I was like, ‘What? Why is this here?’ I hated that scene.”
“I did a movie where I’m basically raped in it and I’m punched in the face and I can’t even watch those scenes,” she said, referring to 2011's Killer Joe. “I was like, ‘We’re doing this once and I’m done.’ It’s in the play and it was very violent. At least [William Friedkin] is a crazy great director, but still it was like, ‘Wow, this is harsh.’”
Gershon was at times blunt when we discussed the culture of misogyny in Hollywood, which included talking about the #MeToo movement, —“There’s a part of me that feels like men are pigs? Hashtag duh. People act stupidly.” But she also chose her words carefully, fretting that she might say the wrong thing or get in trouble. “It’s really good that this is being addressed, not just in Hollywood,” she said. “On every single level.” Buuuut: “I try not to judge people until I know what the real story is.”
She takes this stance specifically regarding Woody Allen, who for years has performed at Cafe Carlyle on Mondays. “I don’t have any feelings about it,” she said of taking the same stage just a few days after Allen will have performed on it. “I don’t know what the real truth is. I’m not one to judge him. I saw his band. I thought his band was awesome.”
Gershon’s depiction of her personal experience in Hollywood isn’t as harrowing as some actors’, but her perspective does say a lot about the pervasiveness of misogyny and how women are sometimes forced to strategize in order to stay safe. “I’ve come close to those #MeToo moments, but if someone was weird to me, I would just be like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said, introducing a motif of pragmatism. “If you’re going to get weird, I’m leaving. Even when I was 15, I was at the Playboy Mansion. Some guy was showing me around and he suggested something like, ‘Here’s the grotto.’ I just looked at him, like, ‘You do know I’m 15, right?’ He laughed and said, ‘What are you, 23, 24?’ ‘No, no. I’m 15. You could get in a lot of trouble.’ The guy ran. I wasn’t being tough or anything, I was just being honest.” She knew Harvey Weinstein for years, but said he was “only very respectful toward me.”
“But I didn’t star in a lot of Miramax films,” she elaborated. “He would say, ‘I think of you as a sister,’ so maybe there was that? I don’t know. I think it’s all terrible and it’s all sad.”
When she got the Showgirls gig, she recalled, male Hollywood execs perked up and started paying attention to such an extent they would openly gawk at her. “I could see them literally checking out my body, kind of looking at my boobs, and I found myself unconsciously crossing my arms and intellectualizing everything like, ‘Oh yeah yeah, Paul’s Dutch films are really incredible,’ which they are by the way,” she recalled. “I found myself getting uncomfortable and protecting my body. By the fifth time, I noticed a guy was saying that to me, something inside me was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I just looked at him straight in the eye, like, ‘Yeah. I’m going to be fucking girls, I’m going to be fucking guys, I’m going to be dancing naked, it’s going to be awesome.’”
She said this to me, looking me directly in the eyes without blinking, a technique she’d later compare to training a cat to understand that she’s the “alpha pussy.” It was disconcerting, to put it mildly. “I just kept total eye contact with him and I visibly saw this guy shrink away,” she said. “I realized you’re either a victim or you’re in control. I didn’t like feeling they were in control and all I did was look ’em in the eyes and say that.”
“It could have felt like a #MeToo situation,” she continued. “I wasn’t being threatened, but it was definitely making me uncomfortable and defensive. I didn’t like it. So I just took control.” Then, she reconsidered the imposition that would force her to take control in the first place. “Maybe it’s happened so many times to me and I’ve had to get out of it, being a girl growing up, that it became, sadly, like oh this is what happens and you just have to be on your toes,” she said. “I don’t want women to feel like victims, or people who are in icky positions to feel like victims,” she concluded. “And when they are victimized for real, yeah, get those fuckers out of there.”
By then, it was 2:15—15 minutes after her early announced hard-out. She had to rush out, which meant I couldn’t swing back around to my questions about the nuance of knowing on the set of Showgirls, and what goes on in one’s head when Elizabeth Berkley stares you in the eyes and spits, “You don’t know shit!”
Perhaps one day we’ll have the answers.
“When the book comes out, it’ll be a big bestseller and everyone can buy it,” said Gershon. She clearly has plenty more writing left to do.