Interview with Eartha Kitt
Tom Bennett is writing a book on the
history of the caper film which will include lots of information about M:I.
During his research he interviewed Eartha Kitt about her role of Tina Mara from "The Traitor". Tom Bennett allowed me to publish his interview on mission-impossible.tv . Please remind that the copyright on this interview belongs to Tom Bennet. As soon as his book is published, you will find a notice here.
Enjoy the interview:
1. Was the Tina Mara character
written for you, or
were you cast after the script was written? Was your
character Bruce Geller's idea, or did one of the
writer's come up with it?
No, the role wasn't written for me per se. It was written for someone who could be as agile as I was. I had to go in and do the audiition, and show off my dance skills before I got the part.
2. I noticed you moved extremely well
when you were
manipulating the fake mattress (both times) in the bad
guy's room and stealing the coded message from the
vault. I read later about your years dancing with the
Katherine Dunham Company. Did you have many other
chances to use your dance training and experience in
the 50's and 60's or later?
I use my dance training all the time, even if I'm standing there singing, because the body & the mind have got to speak the same language. The body cannot say one thing while the mouth says something else, they're connected. My Dunham training really helped me with my stage roles in "New Faces of 52," "Timbuktu," and especially for The Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz," which was my most strenuous theatrical role. Of course, "Mission Impossible" and Catwoman on "Batman" were extremely physical too. I would have liked to have done more, especially with Catwoman, but there's always the fear that the actors will get hurt, so sometimes we were kept from doing all our own stunts.
3. Was it difficult for you to
portray a character
who was so tentative and unsure of herself? The
impression I've gotten from reading your books is that
you've always been very confident and sure of
yourself. Is this the case?
As Freud said, it's the most introverted person who is usually making herself act like an extrovert. So the character of an unsure person is easy for me bc I understand that-- I was very unsure as a child, I was told I was ugly by my step-father, my mother gave me away to live with relatives. That's why I teach movement to kids in Watts (through her charity Kittsville)--dance and movement give you self confidence, make you feel good about yourself. Any physical activity or sport can help with that.
4. Which part of the role was more
acting or the movement required? Which part did you
enjoy the most?
Both were challenging-- you're thinking about both sides of the character at the same time. Movement & acting go hand in hand. They're connected, so I cannot say I preferred one over the other. You don't act and leave your physical self behind. You;re not supposed to be acting anyway- you're supposed to become the character-- at least thats the way I feel- I become the the character.
5. The impression I've gotten is that
your image in
the 50's and 60's was mostly that of a sex kitten,
glamor girl, gold digger and villainess. Is that
accurate? If so, was Tina Mara a big change in your
image at that time?
I never thought about changing my image bc the way I looked was the way I was born. If your sensuality comes through, it comes through. I never thought of myself as a sexy woman, but casting agents & producers always pictured me that way. So yes, I suppose Tina was a departure. You know, I'm 75 years old and still considered a sex kitten. There are certain traits that people are born with. I've always been hoping that I would be recognized as something beyond that. I can be a hindrance- being pigeonholed into a certain role. And bc I didn't "let myself go" I'm still to this day cast as that. I do like to play comedy, to be a witty witch, not a mean bitchy one, is much for fun. The way I look and sound, I automatically get cast as the bad gitrl. I enjoy characters with a little bit of tongue in cheek so you can laugh with her, I'd much rather be laughed with rather than at. That's why I don't do humor at the expense of other people, intelligent witty humor- yes, but nasty- no.
6. I've read that your work on
led to your being cast as Catwoman on "Batman". Is
that true? Can you tell me about how that happened?
I have no idea if Mission Impossible led to Batman. All I know is the writer called me and said he wanted me for the part. He told me he had written that part specifically for me, with my voice in his head. I was very nervous & scared that I wouldn't do it right, but I loved working with Cesar Romero, and the crew was absolutely wonderful to me. They made me feel so welcome. My secretary was played by Pierre Salinger, and he was hilarious. We were waiting to do an interview one day, and Pierre whipped out a cigar, and asked if i minded if he smoked. And I said no, I only mind cigar smoke from people I don't like.
7. I've read you were upset when Madonna
"Santa Baby" years ago. Is that true? Your Tina Mara
character on "Mission: Impossible" had a lot of
influence on similar characters in later films that
included capers like "Return of the Pink Panther",
"The Real McCoy", "Charlie's Angels" and especially
"Ocean's 11". How do you feel about this? Are/were
you upset by it?
No, I wasn't upset about Madonna recording Santa Baby-- I find it interesting when artists re-record my songs. The only problem is, they imitate us and make a fortune but don't pay us for the idea (laughs). It's wonderful to be an influential character.
8. Thanks for your smoking anecdote about
Salinger from "Batman". Do you have any anecdotes
you'd like to share about your experiences working on
"M:I"? I'm especially interested in your experiences
working with Greg Morris, Peter Lupus and Bruce
I had few scenes with the main actors on the series, but what I remember most vividly was the audition. The producers really wanted me to play the part of Tina Mara, but hey weren't sure I was up to the gymnastics of the role. So they built tis giant 2-story air-conditioner type shaft with totally sheer walls, nothing to hold onto, and I had to climb up through it by bracing myslef against the sides. I did it over and over till I was about to collapse. The scary part was, there was no padding on the floor, so if I slipped it would've been SPLAT! But I just kept repeating to myself "You can do it", and the fact that my mother in law was there with my daughter Kitt, who was about 3 at the time, really helped me: I knew I couldn't get hurt, not when I had a baby depending on me. It was very much a case of mind over matter.
9. I asked last time about how Tina was a
from your glamor girl/gold digger/sex kitten/
villainess image. It occurred to me after I got your
reply that you didn't play Catwoman on "Batman" until
after "M:I". Did your villainess image begin with
Catwoman? I'm not too familiar with your earlier
work, but the impression I've gotten is that the only
villainess you played prior to that was Salome on
Omnibus on TV. Is that accurate?
Correct- the only villainess I played prior to Catwoman was Salome.
10. Thanks for answering my questions about
training with the Dunham Company, and how you used it
on "M:I" and your other work. I'm planning to write
that "M:I" was the first chance you'd had in several
years to use your dance training in a project that
required a lot of movement. Is that true? Did you do
a lot of movement for your role as Salome or any of
your other roles from the 50's and 60's (other than
Prior to M:I and Batman, I didn't have a lot of ooportunity to use my dance training. I remember when I was doing "New Faces of '52" on Broadway, the choreographers asked, "What can you do?" Well, it's hard to explain that, you just have to DO it. So originaly for my big number "Monotonous" they had me just walk back and forth across the stage as I sang. Well, talk about monotonous! Finally, I cornered the producer and said, 'If you'll give me 6 chaises longues, I'll show you what I can do." Well, they ended up giving me 3 or 4 chaises, and I was crawling and vamping and draping myself all over them-- it brought down the house.
11. Two trains are in cities 300 miles
apart. Train A
leaves Station A at 9 am. . . . .
Once again, thank you Ms. Kitt for
answering all my questions. Your answers are helping
a lot as I write my book!