Debra Christofferson is known for her work on such films as Changeling, Mousehunt, and Wild Wild West to name a few. Over the years she has also appeared on such television shows as Murder One, The Jamie Foxx Show, NYPD Blue, The X Files, Ally McBeal, Dharma & Greg, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, NCIS, Southland and American Horror Story. She was also the ever impressive Lila on Carnivale.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood? What are some of your most fond memories from that time?
I was raised in a very small town in the Midwest. It was great growing up in a small town — it was safe, rather insulated, and quite beautiful. One of my favorite memories is that of Sundays when we would visit my Grandma’s farm, and my dad would take the back roads, which were gravel and curvy and hilly. Dad has a beautiful voice, and we’d all sing on the drive. It’s where I learned to harmonize.
Did you have an active imagination early on or was it something you acquired along the way?
I’ve always had quite an active imagination, and also have always loved to read, so that has enhanced my imagination in many ways. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor, and imagination always played a big part in that dream.
When did you first discover your love of acting? What are some of your earliest influences?
There’s an old video of me when I was about a year and a half old and came tearing around a corner to see my dad with the camera. I looked up at him, then down at the floor as though I was looking for my mark (a piece of tape or something on the floor indicating where an actor is supposed to stand to be in the right place for camera), adjusted myself and then looked up at the camera again and smiled. It’s hysterical. I was always stealing focus in family videos and pictures. I’ve never wanted to do anything else but perform.
We only got one television channel in our little town, and fortunately it was CBS which aired The Carol Burnett Show. I loved that woman! I was just a kid, but I wanted to be her, and have my own variety show and get to sing and dance and play all the wonderful, different characters that she played. Still do, in fact! I also loved old movies, especially musicals, and idolized Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. It’s kind of ironic that although my earliest influences were comedic, and that’s where my heart lies, I’m best known for my dramatic roles.
What do you love most about being an actress?
Being able to create. To create a character outside of myself, perhaps totally different, perhaps similar, that Debra then inhabits — living, breathing, thinking differently so as to create a completely new person, hopefully unrecognizable as Debra, and hopefully to move, to inspire, to touch an audience in some way as to make a difference in their lives.
As someone who has worked on television and in film is there one you prefer over the other? How do they differ most?
Actually, I prefer theatre! I love having a live audience for which to perform. There’s nothing like it – they’re right there with you, living and breathing the same air, eagerly awaiting what happens next, which keeps it fresh and gives you energy.
I really enjoy doing features, it’s wonderful to play different characters, and when you get to travel, that adds to the fun of it. However, it’s been my experience that there are better and more roles for women in television, and that’s where I work most.
Are there roles you have played you hold more dear than others?
Yes, I have played roles that are more dear to me than others, for a multitude of reasons. I played Kate in Taming of the Shrew at the California Renaissance Pleasure Faire for several seasons opposite Billy Campbell as Petruchio. That was my first Shakespearean lead and I was very scared when I started. Campbell and I had great chemistry though, and we had such a wonderful time on stage together, it’s probably my favorite stage role I’ve ever done.
I did a short film called Seraglio because I fell in love with the script where an unfulfilled housewife creatively found a way to be fulfilled. I won’t give away the ending, but it was such a lovely experience, and the film was nominated for an Oscar, which was yummy icing on a delicious cake.
There are two television roles I’ve done that are quite close to my heart, Holly Gerges on Murder One, and Geri Turner on NYPD Blue. Holly was the first time I saw a performance and couldn’t see myself in the character. It was a huge turning point for me in terms of confidence in my abilities. I was able to see how I had crafted a character outside of myself, like my dad had crafted a curved wooden staircase. He had done beautiful work, had created this piece of art and could be proud of the work he’d done without being egotistical. I finally saw that I was a craftsman and could do the same thing, be really proud of something I’d created without ego being involved. It was life changing for me. And then Geri came along courtesy (again) of Steven Bochco. I was welcomed into the “family” personally by Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits, two of the kindest actors I’ve ever met, and spent several episodes with the warmest television family with which I have ever had the pleasure to work.
What was it like to play Lila on Carnivale?
Let me just say that Lila is dearest to my heart of all. I mean, come on, to play a sexy bearded lady in the 1930’s? Fabulous! I almost didn’t audition for the role. The casting breakdown was not very appealing – it referred to her as a behemoth and fat and used other off-putting adjectives. I told my agent I wasn’t interested in playing a “fat girl” part, which is what I call roles that make fun of being overweight or use that attribute to diminish people. Then I thought about what a friend had just told me about never turning down an audition, but to find a way to make a part my own. So I changed my mind. I decided that if I was going to audition to play the role, I was going to audition the only way I would play the role: sexy and assuredly. So I did. I strode into the room, read a scene between Lodz and Lila (who were merely friends at that point) and there was silence. Then the director, Rodrigo Garcia, asked me to do the scene again, only less sexy. I took a risk and did it exactly the same way. If I was gonna play Lila, this was what they were gonna get. And I did and they did.
Dan Knauf told me later that when I walked into the room he thought to himself, “If she can talk, she’s got the part.” Thanks, Dan!
Lila was so much fun to play. The first season, she was reliant on Lodz for her storylines, but season two she started to come into her own, culminating in her storming Management’s trailer. I loved playing her scheming and fretting and fuming, and was so fortunate to work with amazing actors, writers, directors and crew. Also, the 1930’s is my favorite time period for costumes, and I had a blast “living” in that decade. I even wore some of my own shoes, hats and jewelry during the series.
What did you love most about your time there? What was it like to work on a show that was so well made?
There isn’t really one thing. It was an amazing experience for many reasons, some of which I stated above. I feel very blessed to have been a part of such a unique, captivating, well-crafted series.
Why do you think that particular series seems so timeless?
Good vs. evil is always timeless, and being set in the past gives the audience an arm’s length perspective that helps.
Do you have any interesting stories from the sets that you have accumulated over the course of your career?
Far too many to tell, but I’ll share one favorite. I’m a big fan of The Princess Bride, and of sword fighting, and especially loved the swordplay in that movie. Mandy Patinkin played a Spaniard named Inigo Montoya, a character who repeats the phrase “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die!” throughout the film.
I worked with Mandy on Chicago Hope, playing a character named Gwen Taylor. He, Adam Arkin, Barbara Hershey, my “husband” and I were rehearsing a very intense scene and when it came to my line at the climax of the scene, Mandy rolled over it with a joke. After we finished rehearsing, he went to his set chair to read, head down, intent on his book – kind of unapproachable. I honestly couldn’t help myself, and slowly walked up to him, saying (with Inigo’s accent and fighting stance), “My name is Gwen Taylor. You killed my moment. Prepare to die!” He looked up at me blankly, there was a huge silence all around, then he broke out laughing. He invited me to sit next to him and we talked about The Princess Bride and the sword fighting scenes, which were so marvelous with him fighting ambidextrously, until we were called back to set. He was very personable and kind. At the end of the day my hair stylist, make-up artist and costumer all told me that everyone had held their breath when I’d approached Mandy because that was not the response they expected…but he couldn’t have been sweeter.
Are there any little known things about you that your fans might be surprised to learn?
That I used to sword fight and once wrote a script for a pirate movie.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? Who was it?
That would be the advice my dear friend, Dennis Adams, gave me to never say no to a part, but to find a way to make it my own and to make it work for me. Which coincides with something we’ve all probably heard at one time or another: Be yourself. There’s only one you, you are unique in the Universe. Celebrate that uniqueness!
What do you think is the key to a life well lived?
Being able to truly celebrate and embrace one’s uniqueness.
What are your own personal feelings on life and death and what comes after?
All we have is now – present moment. Live life to the fullest because no matter what religion you believe in, or don’t believe in, none of us really knows what comes next. How you live your life is ultimately between you and God, or if you don’t believe in a higher power, then between you and your conscience.
What direction would you like to see your career take in the years ahead?
I’d like to expand my career even further. I’d like to do more comedy, more films, and maybe squeeze some musicals in there somewhere, hopefully on Broadway.
Do you have a dream role you’d most like to play or project you’d most like to bring into being?
Regardless of the character, a dream role would be one that challenges me, moves me, entertains me, is entertaining, moving and fun to play. That being said, my dream job would be to do a great three-camera sitcom with a live audience. And let’s throw a little music in!
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are at liberty to speak of?
I worked on a couple of “confidential” projects last summer that I’m waiting for a green light so I can talk about them. Haven’t gotten it yet, though. But I’m very enthusiastic about both.
I have a film coming out next April called 1915 about the Armenian genocide. I play an American actress portraying an Armenian mother. It’s a passion project for its two directors, Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian, and we’re all very excited to see how it is received.
I’m also working with a couple of friends on a half hour comedy that is quite promising — surprisingly not a three-camera comedy! We’ve gotten some great feedback from people in the Industry, and are currently working on the script. Keep your fingers crossed!
Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?
To any budding artists out there: If there is anything else you want to do, have even the slightest desire or aptitude for, do it. But if there is nothing, absolutely nothing that makes your heart sing, that gets your blood pumping, that feeds your soul like your particular artistic passion does, then do IT. Fully, committedly, 150 percent. Most artists never achieve fame, but they can achieve personal greatness and fulfillment, inspire, and touch many lives along the way. What better reward is there than that?