Kristin Chenoweth is not afraid of contradictions. The Tony and Emmy award-winning star of stage and screen, who is probably best known to gay audiences for originating the role of Glinda in Wicked and playing alcoholic high school dropout April Rhodes on Glee, is just as comfortable talking about her Christian faith as she is speaking out for gay rights.
Last year when a Newsweek writer questioned whether openly gay actors like Chenoweth’s Promises, Promises costar Sean Hayes could convincingly play straight, the actress fired off a burning missive that labeled the piece “horrendously homophobic” and likened the writer’s comments to bullying. And in 2005 after being named singing spokeswoman for a Women of Faith concert in Oklahoma City, promoters demanded her resignation after learning of her pro-gay stance — which ironically came out during an appearance on The 700 Club that upset many of her gay fans. Chenoweth refused to step down, saying if Women of Faith had a problem with her beliefs they could fire her. They did, which she referred to as the saddest moment in her professional life.
Her fourth studio album, Some Lessons Learned, available September 13, is an exploration of the Oklahoma native’s Southern roots, a journey that will continue with her role as Carlene Cockburn in Steel Magnolia writer Robert Harling’s upcoming ABC drama Good Christian Belles.
The Advocate: Many of the songs on your new album are about yearning for someone or something. Were you nervous about putting out something so personal?
Kristin Chenoweth: Yes and no. Every album I’ve done felt personal to me at the time, and obviously this one is about some lessons I’ve learned — both good and frustrating, and hard and wonderful. Mostly I wanted it to be full of hope and inspiration for women like me: women that have had love but maybe haven’t found that right one yet.
Did you learn any specific lessons while you were making the record?
Yeah, I always learn. I feel so lucky because every time I put out an album I learn so much. I think the lesson for me on this one was just to let it go. These guys [I worked with] were like, “Let’s throw it all away, and let’s just sing.” There’s a freeing element that happens when you do that. And I loved it. I loved living in Nashville; I loved getting together with those musicians and songwriters.
What was it like working with the legendary Jordanaires, who sang backup for Elvis Presley and some of country music’s greatest artists?
Oh, my gosh, you’re the first person to ask me that! I think it was one of the coolest moments because two of the original members of the Jordanaires were in the recording studio with me. And they were so sweet. One of them said, “I do believe this song’s a hit!” They have game. They’re team players, and I got why Elvis loved them. I was very honored to get to work with them. That was Bob Ezrin, my producer’s, idea. I was like, “We’ll never get them!” And they said yes. I couldn’t believe it.
Diane Warren wrote many of the songs on the album. Did you learn anything from her?
Man, there’s a reason she’s the number 1 hit maker. She writes these melodies and makes these lyrics just mean something. Everything has a reason, and that’s what makes her so special. I was honored that she wanted me to do these songs. She gave me the confidence and faith in myself to do this album. She heard me do a track of Carrie Underwood’s for Glee called “Last Name,” and she said, “You’re a country artist.” I said, “I do feel that, but I’m afraid I won’t be accepted.” She said, “This is part of who you are. Go for it.” She’s the one who got me into the recording studio in Nashville. I said, “I’ll do two songs and we’ll see how it goes.” And it just grew from there. So I credit her fully for this.
The first single, “I Want Somebody (Bitch About),” is a fun and quirky song about unconditional love. What are your thoughts on the practicality of unconditional love?
I think it’s the biggest gift a parent can give a child, a friend can give a friend, and a brother can give to a sister. It’s what we all want in our lives. And I’m lucky because I had and have a family that did that for me.
Growing up in Oklahoma, you were obviously influenced by country music — what other genres did you listen to?
I was probably the freak in [her hometown of] Broken Arrow, because I loved opera. My parents played all kinds of music. I was a huge Julie Andrews fan, and I loved all the cast albums. I also listened to Beethoven and Chopin. I grew up playing classical piano, so my taste went all over the map.
You have said, “Just because I'm Christian doesn't mean I don’t question things — God gave us a brain for a reason.” What would you ask people who cite Christianity as their justification for passing laws that discriminate against people?
I would ask, “What would Jesus do?” [Laughs] It sounds so cliché and Pollyanna-ish, but I have a feeling if he were on the earth today, he wouldn’t be walking around saying, “You’re going to hell” and “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” I think he’d be accepting and loving. I always use this as an example: What would I do if it was a sin to be short? That’s the way God made me, so what could I do? Let’s see, I could wear heels, I could tease my hair, and maybe on a good day I could be 5'1". But the bottom line is, I’m 4'11" and that’s the way I was put together. And that’s what I believe about homosexuals. And I love, love that this has become a purpose in my life. It’s one that I didn’t ever expect. “What would Jesus do?” That’s my answer.
How do you respond to people who think your pro-gay attitude is a contradiction to your faith?
I say, “I don’t judge you for your opinions, so please don’t judge me for mine.” I’m not out to tell people they’re wrong. I’m just here to say what I believe.
Do you think Christians get a bad rap?
Yeah, I think we do it to ourselves. But I also think there are a lot of Christians who believe like me. My family is very much like me. But I did grow up in the Bible belt — and you know what comes with that. My Grandma Chenoweth told me something when I was growing up. My [gay] best friend — I’ve talked about him many times, his name’s Denny. I asked my Grandma Chenoweth, “How can it be that he’s going to hell? I just don’t think that correct.” And she said, “Well, Kris, I read the Bible like I eat fish: I take the meat, and it serves me well, but I don’t choke on the bone.”
It is interesting. And I think she was on to something. “I take the meat that serves me well, but I don’t choke on the bone.” I read my Bible and I pray and all of that — I really do. But at the same time, I don’t think being gay is a sin. Period.
A lot of people cheered last year when you responded to that Newsweek rant about Sean Hayes and openly gay actors. What kind of backlash resulted from your comments?
Most of the feedback was positive, to be honest with you. But I did read online that some people were disappointed to hear that I felt that way. And that makes me sad. But what can I tell you? I’m sorry if somebody is offended by what I say, but it’s the truth of how I feel.
What sort of gay deliciousness can we look forward to on Good Christian Belles?
[Laughs] Well, you know there are always people of faith that battle this and think that it’s wrong. I’ve struggled with that. You might see that on the show. And I love that [the show’s creator] Bobby Harling is dealing with it. It makes me happy.
Last question: What’s on your iPod these days?
Oh, gosh, I just love Dierks Bentley. I’m listening to him a lot. And I’m kind of in love with Lady Antebellum still. And Little Big Town. Those are my big ones right now. But I also like Eminem, so what are you gonna do? [Laughs]