Kelly Clarkson used to really hate acting, believe it or not. In fact, when she won the first season of “American Idol” back in 2002, her contract required her to fulfill both a record deal and a studio film deal. This would have been a dream come true for most aspiring artists, but not Clarkson.
“I cried,” the singer, now 37, said. “I talked to many lawyers and could not get out of the movie.”
The movie was “From Justin to Kelly,” (so you can imagine why she fought so hard not to be in it) a Fox musical co-starring Clarkson and her “Idol” runner-up, Justin Guarini, as two twentysomethings who fall in love on spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The 2003 release grossed an embarrassing $4.9 million in theaters, scored just 10% on Rotten Tomatoes and, according to Wikipedia, “is often regarded as one of the worst movies ever made.”
Despite the fact that the movie bombed, Clarkson continued to receive offers to star in films. She turned them all down — save for a “seven-line” cameo in the 2017 animated film “The Star” — to focus on her real passion, singing.
Clarkson has proven she can tough it out through anything as she had her appendix removed right after hosting the 2019 Billboard Music Awards on Wednesday. She flew straight home to Los Angeles after the show in Las Vegas to have surgery on Thursday. Even though she was in tremendous pain, Clarkson performed “Broken & Beautiful” and opened the awards show with a medley of the year’s biggest hits. It was her second year in a row hosting the awards, but the first time making it through without passing out in pain. She pulled it off as no one would have guessed.
But when the filmmakers behind STX’s “UglyDolls” approached her about playing the lead character in a movie based on the popular misshapen kids’ toys, she decided to reverse her no-acting stance. In the film, out this weekend, Clarkson voices Moxy, an UglyDoll who’s told she’s too unattractive to be given to kids who prefer more perfect-looking toys. Yes, it sounds just like the Isle of Misfit Toys in “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“This role could not be more me,” the performer said. “I get really nervous acting, so I don’t generally do it. I don’t like it. I tend to stay in my comfort zone. But this was kind of awesome, because I thought: I’m not going to have to act … this is basically my character in life.”
After a morning of shooting NBC’s “The Voice” — where she serves as a coach alongside Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and John Legend — Clarkson discussed her quasi-return to the big screen, her upcoming talk show and her thick skin.
So, when you see such names like Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, Nick Jonas, Lizzo, Pitbull, Blake Shelton, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, in the same lineup, you’d easily assume it’s for a big festival or awards show. But in this case, it was “Uglydolls,” an animated film playing in theaters now based on the popular toys that brought these diverse musicians together under the same banner.
The draw for many was the message. The film imagines a doll class system where the “ugly” ones, with defects and flaws, are filtered out to their own island, while the pretty ones get the chance to match up with a kid. But a tenacious ugly doll called Moxy rejects this idea and decides to train alongside the perfect dolls for the same chance. Critics haven’t been so kind to the film, and it’s at 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The Audience Score tells a much different story with 77 percent liking it.
Moxy is voiced by Clarkson, who found herself amused when she was pitched the role. Although she grew up with “all the princess ones,” she found that she related to this Uglydoll.
“My husband and I were laughing like, huh, super determined, stubborn, can’t be swayed from what she knows her truth is,” Clarkson said. “I was like, oh so basically it’s just like a doll form of me. OK.”
So even though she doesn’t necessarily love acting (“I don’t have like some big dream of like winning an Oscar,” Clarkson said) she signed on. Animation is different, she figured, and more like musical theater, which she does enjoy.
Monae, who does actually enjoy acting in front of the camera and has found successes with roles in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” was similarly intrigued by the ideas behind “Uglydolls.” Her character Mandy is one of the pretty ones, but she has some hidden depth too and an imperfection she’s been taught to be embarrassed about — her glasses.
“I love my character Mandy. I love the Uglydolls and what they represent. We’re the weirdos. We’re the outcasts. We’re the cool ones because of that, but we see it and we discover it because of each other,” Monae said. “The story itself is something I have preached since the beginning of my career.”
The two pop stars have a duet in the movie on the inspirational anthem “Unbreakable,” which Monae found particularly poignant.
“People are always going to say you’re not good enough, you don’t look good enough, you’ll never be good enough because of maybe who you love or where you come from, but you have to remember your power and your worth and understand that the feeling of being bullied won’t last forever,” she said. “You will have allies. You will have your community of folks. And things will get better.”
It’s a message that they hope resonate with both children and adults, and Clarkson got the best endorsement of all too: From her youngest kids.
“The fact that a 3 and 4-year-old sat in a chair and watched the entire thing is an amazing feat in itself,” Clarkson said.
And they’re already requesting a second viewing.
Thankfully, Clarkson enjoys talking so we were able to get a few more direct questions in, and let’s face it, she’s one of the few interviews we’ve enjoyed in a long time where the person doesn’t have her PR person hanging around intrusively. Plus, she’s ready to be in our seat asking questions of celebrities with her new talk show coming up in September on NBC.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this countless times, but was “From Justin to Kelly” really as bad as has been reported?
I just didn’t believe in it, first of all. I’m not a beach blanket-movie kind of girl. And I didn’t want it to deter or ruin any chance of me being able to go down the path I actually auditioned for on “Idol.” They did give me this: I begged them — since I had to do it contractually — I wanted my single to be released before the movie came out and I think that literally saved my career. It was “Miss Independent.” The fact that that was successful, I think that overcame what the movie was.
There weren’t any positive memories from being on set?
It was a very miserable time of my life. I feel like it’s one of those things where, “There are plenty of people that would love to do this — why don’t you ask one of them?” There were plenty of people on that show. I think I might have been the only one that didn’t want to do it. But the winner had to, so. I can get over the fact that it’s silly and cute — that’s not embarrassing to me at all. I just don’t find it very cool that somebody makes you do something that is not your passion and you don’t want to do.
Was that experience one to kill any desire for acting or was your heart just never in it?
I feel like if you’re in the limelight, people think you have to do all these things. If it’s something I want to do — I appear on TV shows where I feel like it’s fun. I did “The Crazy Ones” with Robin Williams because I grew up watching him and I love him and I was like, “I’ve just gotta say yes to that. Who gets to be in a scene with Robin Williams?” But I don’t really want to commit to some big kind of role because I respect that art tremendously. All actors shouldn’t be singers and all singers shouldn’t be actors.
Back in the day, Judy Garland and Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney — women did all things, they sang, they danced, they acted because they all came from stage. I find stage very different. Like musical theater? One-hundred percent I would do. It’s live, and you don’t stop me. I like starting and then you get to tell the story, nothing’s interrupting, and you don’t have to redo anything. I like the excitement of that. I don’t get nervous doing that.
I’m was surprised that you didn’t’ write the songs you sing in the film. Did you consider working on the music?
They asked me to write music for the film and I was like, “I have a lot of jobs.” And my kids come first. I was like, “This is not me saying I don’t want to do it — I don’t have time to do it. I’m choosing my kids and all the other jobs before this.” When the Pink song came in, it was awesome. I’ve done songs on my albums where I haven’t lived the experience. … For a movie, you kind of put your ego aside and go, “This isn’t Kelly Clarkson making a record, this is Moxy.”
A simple Google on you seems to focus mainly on your weight loss. Does it bother you that since “Idol,” your looks have been so publicly scrutinized?
I am from a very small town and ever since I can remember, especially in the South, they say something about what you’re wearing, what you’re believing, what you’re thinking, how you should be. Honestly, the industry isn’t any different than a very small Southern town. … Maybe that’s the universe — God — setting me up or preparing me. It doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when people say stuff — not all people in the limelight come with the same armor or thick skin or same amount of confidence. … It’s not easy for some people I know in the industry to take that heavy criticism that’s not constructive, it’s just mean. Not everybody can blow that off, that’s the bummer.
You’re famous for clapping back at some commenters on your Instagram before who make rude remarks about you.
It’s just a highly-filtered world. I always make fun of my friends because I’m like, “Girl, they’re gonna see you in person at some point. And you don’t look like that.” Aesthetics are important … because it’s fun, it’s art. But I don’t think you should be held to that standard. I enjoy it for work, but I really enjoy not wearing makeup and just being me outside of work. People will push things on me — magazine covers of other artists like, “This is what we’re competing against” and I’m like, “I’m not competing against that. I’m not even anywhere near like that.” It’s happened my whole career where people try to force-feed you. The whole Clive [Davis] era. I always put it down in a respectful manner. … Don’t try to make Oreos chocolate chip cookies. It’s fine how it is. There’s room for everyone.
You stood up and spoke out in defense of Kesha and even stopped working with her alleged abuser, music producer Dr. Luke. Do you think the music industry has yet to grapple with the full weight of the #MeToo movement?
I don’t know, because I don’t relate to that at all. I’m the person who will say something right there in the moment. I do have friends that have been in situations that have been super [crappy] that have happened to them — not in the industry, but outside. I think people get shocked and don’t even know how to internalize it, let alone say it out loud. I had a lot of things in my childhood where I had to grow up fast. Where you’re like, “I have to do this on my own. Awesome.” And I thank my past for that. Because I am a person who can say right off the bat, “I’m uncomfortable with this.”
Along with everything else, you’re hosting a talk show on NBC beginninging in September. Have you been looking for this kind of gig?
I wasn’t. [NBC Entertainment co-chairman] Paul Telegdy came to me and was like “Dude, I think you would be such an amazing talk show host.” And I literally laughed. I was like, “Paul, did you run out of people to ask?” And he was like, “No, on ‘The Voice’ it’s so evident, you’re so comfortable with people and I think it’s very relatable.”’ He kind of convinced me … but I was still a little bit hesitant. But I was like, as long as I can involve music. So every show is kind of how I tour. I cover other artists that I love during the intro instead of a big, huge monologue thing. On tour, the thing that goes the most viral is the covers — and it’s how I started. It’s me highlighting people I love. And we let people from the audience pick the song we’re doing.
How would you describe your interview style?
I’m very much a conversationalist. The big joke is that I talk too much, but I do listen.
Howard Stern has no problem talking a lot during his interviews. Or even “Morning’s Joe’s” Joe Scarborough.
I love Howard Stern — that’s one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done. I’m actually very similar to him in the sense of being really open. Everybody that I talk to on the show, I probably bring an element of them out. A lot of friends I have who are actors or singers, they can get guarded ’cause they’re afraid — their publicist is saying “don’t say this” or “don’t say that,” and at the end of the day, just be you. You’re fine.