Judith Hoag is more than just a familiar face in the world of entertainment. A chameleon-like actor, she delivers inspired performances time and time again in roles ranging from television to the silver screen. It is her incredible range and strong work ethic, which have earned her the reputation for being one of the most respected, versatile and captivating actors in the industry. She will be forever known to an entire generation as April O’Neil in the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie but she is far from one dimensional. She has spent the last twenty five years creating a body of work that continues to turn the heads of critics and industry insiders alike. Her most recent gig finds her as a key player in ABC’s addictive new series “Nashville,” which is about to debut it’s second season. Created by Academy Award winner Callie Khouri, the series was just picked up for its second season and is a favorite of both fans and critics. “Nashville” features Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as dueling country stars thrown together in a tumultuous yet increasingly poignant relationship. “Nashville” isn’t just a story about music (brilliantly produced by Academy Award winner T-Bone Burnett) it’s also about intense family bonds and complicated relationships. Judith Hoag co-stars as “Tandy Hampton” the sister and confident of Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton). Under the often strangling tutelage of her mentor and father Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) Tandy has been groomed to become the successor to the family’s billion dollar corporate dynasty, Wyatt Industries. It is a tense relationship that explodes as the first season concludes. Hoag also co-stars in the film “Bad Words” a soon-to-be-released Aggregate Films feature directed by and starring Jason Bateman. “Bad Words” is an adult comedy, featuring comedic heavyweights Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney and Ben Falcone. The film revolves around a grown man’s misguided attempt to hi-jack and win the National Spelling Bee. As you can clearly see, Judith Hoag is showing no signs of slowing down as she continues to put out amazing work and land highly sough after projects, each more dynamic than the next! Jason Price of Icon Vs. icon recently sat down with Judith hoag to discuss her inspirations as an actor, her process for bringing a character to life, her time on the set of “Nashville,” the impact of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ film and much more!
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of your journey as an actor. What got you started on the journey and made you chose acting as a career?
To be honest, I feel like it chose me. I really didn’t have a say in it. I think I came out this little character who just loved to make pretend. Once I found out you could do that and earn a living, that actors actually do that, I just thought it was a great idea and I have never strayed from it! It is really something I have wanted to do since I was about four years old. I was really lucky because my family never disagreed with me! [laughs] They never said, “Oh, come on! You don’t want to do that! You are better than that. Nobody does well doing that!” It really chose me.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest influences along the way?
I would have to say that was the biggest mentor to me was my mother. She always told me I could do whatever I wanted and she never belittled my dream or told me they were out of reach. In fact, she found them exciting and told me to go for it. She always supported me, whether it was when I was first starting out and she gave me the encouragement or later when she would float me some cash when I was getting started in New York. My Dad was also helpful but particularly it was my Mom who always said “If that is what you believe, you have to go follow it.” I think that is a great gift to give to a kid.
When it comes to actors, who did you look to for inspiration?
I think the people I admire most are some of the people I have worked with, who along the way have been really inspiration. They are not necessarily the most well-known actors, but they were really generous actors. Years ago, Tyne Daily did a show called “Judging Amy” with Amy Madigan. Tyne was one of the most generous actors I have ever worked with. When you work with Tyne, it is kind of like working with this beautiful bird who threw her wing out to gather you and bring you in. She sorta showed me how to behave on a set and how to treat other people. She treated everybody so well, with such consideration, so professionally and really loved to play. She really made a mark with me. Robin Williams really made a mark with me in terms of how he always gave 150%, even when he was off camera. I just worked with Helen Mirren last year and I love her! I loved being around her and working with her! There are so many other people I want to work with as well.
Did you ever have that “ah-ha” moment in your career where you felt like you finally made it?
No, I am still waiting for it! [laughs] Honestly, I felt like climbed a rung or maybe was successful at achieving something I had set out to do but in terms of really making it, I still don’t feel like I have really made it. I feel like I have a long way to go.
You have been at this for a long time and have been very successful. To what do you attribute your longevity in this cutthroat industry?
You know what; I think part of it is that I don’t see it as a cutthroat industry. I know it can certainly be perceived as that and there are certainly aspects of our industry that I abhor. I can tell you it is excruciatingly hard. However, the way I approach it, and I think I have been quoted saying this before and I stand by it — I am pathologically positive. I am pathologically positive and optimistic about my experience, so I am not willing to give that away to somebody else. I know it is my day and my career, so it is up to me how I am going to make it. When I am faced with super challenges, which you can be an actor and not run into those, I am always looking for what is right in the situation, not what is wrong. I think when you are looking at it from the perspective of “What can I make out of this? How can I transform this into something that works for me?” then that is exactly what you do. You transform it into something that works; even a flipping horror show of an experience and Lord knows I have had them! I have had train wrecks left and right! It is not easy! Sometimes you think “I’ve got nothing! I don’t know how to fix this one! It is so screwed up there is nothing I can say but we are all going down in flames!” [laughs] Then you just laugh and put things in perspective. I also don’t lose track of the idea that what I do for a living is pretty fun! I mean, come on! You get to be an actor; they dress you in nice clothes and are thrown into pretend situations! Over the course of your day, things could royally screw up but I realize I am not sitting in a cubicle, not that there is anything wrong with that. I am just not designed to do it! Some people do it brilliantly but I would go postal if I had to do that! [laughs] I get to work in an industry that I love that is an imperfect industry and I really do try to get the joke of it all. Some days it is like “I know we have just gone into crazy town! Full speed ahead! We have to find something to laugh at!” My default mechanism is, when things get really bad, I get really silly! I will either get really upset or then apologize to everybody that I was really upset or I get really silly! I prefer it when I get really silly.
Your latest project is the television series, “Nashville.” The show is headed into its second season! What initially attracted you to the role?
I loved the writing. First of all, it is written by Callie Khouri, who is a wonderful writer. She won the Oscar for writing “Thelma & Louise.” She knows how to write women. She wrote this really beautiful story and when I read it I knew I had to do this job. I had to jump through so many hoops and it was a very challenging experience to get there. The first season was really a challenge because it took awhile to get the writers invested in my character and to really write for me because they had a whole lot of other concerns to take care of first. When you are crafting the first season of a show, it is very challenging. I had to be really patient and stay really positive. I loved the story, the characters, there was music involved and T-Bone Burnett was in charge of the music. I loved it being a southern story which is so much fun. I loved the actors that were involved with the show. I love working with Connie Britton, she is like a sister to me. She is such a wonderful actress and we have such fun playing together. Working with Powers Booth, as my dad, we just have a blast! Hayden [Panettiere] and I only had one scene together but I love her. I love playing with her and going out with her. Sam Palladio and I have never had a scene together but are still friends. It is a really good group and I was attracted from the get go. I fought my way in, let me tell ya!
What have the challenges of this role been for you?
Sometimes what is challenging, especially at the beginning, my character wasn’t necessarily given a lot to do but I had a lot I wanted to communicate about who I was as the character. The challenge was communicating what you needed to communicate with very little screen time to do it in and to smartly and honestly. That can be challenging. You just do your best, throw it against the wall and hope it sticks! It seemed to. Tandy became a slow burn during the course of the season and the character just kept growing toward the light and as she continues to grow, she is a delight to play. I love playing this character! I love my family there. I love the little girls who play my nieces, Lennon and Maisy Stella, who are musical geniuses! I love the family we have in the show and then on the show. It is very special.
What have you taken away from your time working with this talented group of actors?
One of the things I have learned is that everyone works differently. Everybody has a different process and no process is better or worse than another. It is really about respecting everybody’s path. You may not agree with the road to get there but it is a collaborative art. There are times I have to step back and allow. Then there are other times I need to step ahead and really fight for something or defend a point of view or how I am going to get to where I am getting. The actors I work with are so talented, so it is such fun to be there! We all have a lot of respect for each other’s work. Everybody has a mutual admiration and since we are so close there is such respect for each other. There are times when we just sit back and watch each other’s work and applaud at the end of a scene. We don’t have any divas or bad behavior on our show, so we are really lucky. We have a really healthy, functional cast! I am telling you, it makes your life a whole lot easier! [laughs]
Whether it is “Nashville” or one of your previous parts, is there a particular way you go about preparing for a role?
The way I do it, everything is through my imagination. I can sit with a story and I sort of tell myself what the story is. When you asked what inspires me, it isn’t always actors that inspire me; it can be people in the world who inspire me. Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, totally inspires me! Listening to his music inspires me but the way he talks about when he gets a new piece of music and how he approaches it is very interesting. He listens to it and then he sits with it. As an artist, some people have a vocabulary for what that means, it is like letting a piece of meat marinate. You become infused with the story and like a kid, you dip into your imagination and start telling yourself the deeper story beneath it. As an actor, it is your responsibility to be able to answer the questions left unsaid. They handed me the role of Tandy but I have to make up the whole story that happened before that point, everything I am not saying in the scene, her hopes, aspirations and dreams. I think as an actor, you need to know what that back-story is. I have done work with actors who don’t do that at all and that is fine. I just don’t think you get a very complicated or dimensional character otherwise. I don’t think it is fun for the actor to play or for the audience to watch. It is always fun when you get a sense of wholeness to a character. It might even be something you can’t describe what it is but they resonate with you because they are deeply telling the truth. You are telling the truth because you have investigated the story. I tend to really sit with it and make it real. I make up stories in my head and then I tell other people! [laughs] I do that when we are having our script meetings and a lot of times you have to discuss your point of view within the story with the writers. We really do talk about those thing and make changes as we go along. If you are going to come in and ask for a change on something, you better be able to defend your pitch! If you can’t defend it, then it is not going to happen! Sometimes, if someone does not understand quite what you are doing, if you explain it to them, suddenly it all becomes clear. A lot of times, the director might just come in for a few episodes per season, so they might not be up to speed with where you have been. You may have to explain to them what has happened with season because it hasn’t aired. If you have done your homework, you are good to go!
You have another exciting project on the horizon, which is Jason Bateman’s directorial debut. What can you tell us about ‘Bad Words’ and what Jason Bateman brings to the project as a director?
It is such a fun script! It is an adult comedy, completely! It is not for children, even though it is about a children’s spelling bee! I love it! If you like Judd Apatow movies, you will most likely love this movie! It is a funny and unusual script. Jason Bateman stars in it and it is also his feature directorial debut. Jason is a great actor and I have always loved him. He is so talented and professional. He has been doing it since he was a little boy! As a director, he knows what he wants and has such confidence on the set. The crew adores him because he is a kind, funny, smart man with a good point of view about what he wants. I adored working with him. He made me look like hell! [laughs] I have the worst hair, makeup and clothes! I just look awful, which was the point! Everyone in the entire movie is made to look awful; it is part of his vision. It is really hilarious. I can’t wait to see what it looks like. I don’t have a lot of vanity. I mean, I do because I am an actress but I don’t. I don’t care! I will look like an idiot! [laughs] Make my hair look ridiculous. I am pretty comfortable with all of that! I wouldn’t do it for just anybody but for him, it is “How bad do you want me to look, babe?” [laughs] I will do it! We just had so much fun playing! I hope it is a big movie for him. It is not a huge movie because it is not a studio film, it’s an independent feature. I think it will find its audience and it would be a delight to have it do well for him so that he can direct more because I think great things could come out of him!
Did you get a chance to do a lot of improv on the set of this film?
You do get to do some! Yes! It is something I love to do! Don’t get me started!
You seem pretty quick on your feet, so I thought you might enjoy that aspect![laughs] Yes! All of my scenes are with Allison Janney and she is a hoot! She is such a great actress and I admired her so much before I got there. We have mutual friends and I had heard she was lovely. She was just a lovely as everyone said! We played all day and laughed so hard! There were times when you had to look away or you would crack up just by looking at each other. Just the visual of what we looked like was enough to crack anyone up! It was really fun and I have high hopes for the movie. I hope it does really well!
I obviously can’t interview you and not touch on one of the most notable roles from your past. You played April O’Neil in the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ film. Did you have any idea that film would be the sensation it became and how big of an impact has it had on you personally?
I didn’t have a clue! I had never ever heard of them. The first time I heard “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I thought “Is this a horror movie? What are we talking about here?” [laughs] I read the script and I thought “Oh my gosh! This is a wonderful script and I love it!” I knew Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was going to be doing all of the animatronics for it. I was really onboard with all that was happening; I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into! Actually, one of the people who clued me in on the cult status the comic book had was Robin Williams. I was doing a movie with him at the time and he said “Oh God! They are making the movie! That is so exciting!” That gave it a lot of street cred and he made it a lot better than I made I sound! [laughs] The impact it has had on me is that it will probably be one of the first things you read in my obituary! [laughs] It will definitely be a part of that! It has changed my life in that people remember it so fondly. I am the type of actor who does my job and then leaves, I don’t really hold on to things for a long time. I love that people loved it but I haven’t done the conventions, sold my autograph or lived off of it because I had this whole body of work that followed it. That was just one of the many roles, I have probably done 120, and that was just one of them. It was really cool that people responded to it. What is fun about it now is that people love it so much, so many years later and they are introducing it to their kids! I had someone just offer me a part, that I would love to do but I am not sure it will fit into my schedule, where they wrote the part for me because they grew up with that movie. It was the thing that made them want to be a filmmaker. He is an up-and-coming filmmaker and it would be fun to work with him, if we can work it out. It is really nice to see the impact it has had on so many people, all these years later! It just seemed to touch a nerve with a certain generation that still goes back and watches the movie. So many people tell me “When I am feeling bad, I just pop that movie in and I feel better!” Right on! It’s a great compliment and I will take it!
How do you feel you have evolved as an actor through the years?
I definitely have grown. When I look at my early work, I just cringe. In fact, when I look at ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ I love that people appreciate the role but when I look at the work I think, “Ok, you were just starting out. You were such a newbie and there was so much you didn’t know.” I would totally play the role a little differently now. I have learned how to trust myself, still myself down and to use my imagination in deeper and greater ways than I did when I was younger. I have kinda gotten to the point where I don’t really give a crap what anybody else thinks in terms of my work. I find that very freeing. It’s not like “I am so great. Who cares what you think?” It is that it is too difficult as an artist to care what other people think about you. It is too wounding. If you give that away to other people, you are dead in the water. You can say “I am doing this for me because I love it and I am not going to pay attention to how people respond to it. I am just going to do it because I love it and then I will move on.” it keeps you in a healthier place. I think as I have gotten older, I have really come into that place where I am grateful to still be in the game. I have seen so many people fall by the wayside. I am grateful to be doing what I love, feeling much more balanced in it and happy people still want to hire me! I am thrilled that I am still working!
Is there a particular role or project you are still anxious to tackle?
I know this is a lame answer and I apologize but I really love a well written character. It would be fun to play a super badass! I have done it only once before where I had a sawed-off shotgun and leather guns. I set a house on fire and I sped off in a car! [laughs] That was really fun! Although, I am not particularly into heavy violence but I am interested in telling the story of a crazy, twisted badass! I am not really interested in always having to be the nice person or the sane person! It is really fun to do twisted and evil! [laughs] It really is!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those who might look to you as an inspiration?
I think the thing I would tell anybody is that this is your life. This is your shot at living your life. It is up to you every single day on how you are going to approach it. Make it a good day. If you have a choice between getting pissed off and angry about something or trying to find a way to make that thing work for you, chose the positive way that supports you and helps you move forward. You can make it a great day or a shitty day. It is your choice. I personal am always going to go for the great day. The shitty day is going to show up from time to time, it is just part of life but don’t go looking for it. That would be my advice.
Being in the spotlight puts you in a great position to give back. Are there any charities you are currently involved with that we can help spread the word on?
There is thing here in Nashville that I took part in last year called Nashville Cares. It is an organization in Nashville that helps people with HIV/AIDS because it is still a problem. All over the country there are people struggling. They still need education and resources. It is a terrific charity. Another program I am getting more involved with is called The Fragile X Society, which is a chromosomal disorder that runs in my family. It is something that not a lot of people know about but definitely can us more research and finances to help families dealing with kids who have it. It is a chromosomal disorder that shows up as mild to major mental retardation. It is has been identified in the last 15 years and is a cause I plan on putting more of my time into as well. Those are my top two. I think the best thing we can do is care about each other and support things that make the world better.
Thank you so much for your time today, Judith. You have been terrific and we can’t wait to spread the word on all of your projects!
Thank you so much, Jason! It has been so nice talking to you. You are such a sweetheart! Talk to you again soon!