TBC — As part of my mission to prove myself worthy of blog-posting on the Mindset, I had a chance track down the great Muppet co-stars to discuss their unique insights into the Muppetverse. One who was kind enough to respond was the lovely Juliana Donald (known to us as Jenny from Pete’s Diner in The Muppets Take Manhatten). Juliana has stepped back from acting in recent years, has earned two Masters degrees (which we hope were essay questions, no sweat!) and is now starting her own business working in, believe it or not, fashion.
Interview with Juliana Donald
Conducted by The British Correspondent
TBC: Hi! Juliana, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything I can get for you? Some coffee? A biscuit? Yankee bean soup?
Juliana: To be honest, I didn’t even think about that at the time. I was doing a show Off-Broadway and had this last minute call back for the Muppet Movie. I had not watched Sesame Street and so was not aware how big the fan base was. Also, you never know when you do something what will happen and at the time I was too young to realize just how wonderful getting the job was.
TBC: Were you already a fan of the Muppets yourself?
Juliana: Not really. Other than Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, I wasn’t familiar with any of the other characters. That of course changed with the job and entering the wonderful world of Jim Henson; what a genius that man was.
TBC: Tell us what you remember about the audition. Was it different from anything you’d done before? Did you have to test your chemistry working with Puppets as part of the process?
Juliana: Apparently, they were trying to cast a star in the part and had been back and forth and all over the world looking for someone. I was told that the problem they were having was finding someone who looked like they were really talking to the Muppets, not talking “at” them. By the time I went in they had thrown up their hands and agreed to meet anyone and everyone that was remotely close to what they were looking for. I came into the audition about one week before they were starting. So, I think part of getting hired had to do with timing and part had to do with my audition with Jim Henson and Frank Oz. They said I was believable talking to Kermit.
TBC: Were there any particular challenges in working with Puppets rather than normal human actors?
Juliana: The biggest challenge had to do with the set. All the sets were built 4 feet above ground level. The puppeteers would stand inside these ‘pits’ very close to each other with headsets for their voices and monitors positioned in front of them on the floors to make sure the Muppets were facing the correct direction. It was actually really physically exhausting for them since they were standing for hours with their hands in the air holding the Muppets, which were not light weight) and manipulating the arms and mouths with attached sticks. For the humans it was important to watch your step so you wouldn’t accidentally step into the hole and drop on top of everyone’s head. Kind of hard to explain but hopefully you get the picture.
TBC: Before being involved with the movie, did you ever imagine your first major role would be as a waitress with a rat as a co-worker?
Juliana: Absolutely not. But, I come from Virginia and always had many pets growing up that I spoke to so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to talk to a rat.
TBC: This film was directed by Frank Oz. Was it strange to have Frank Oz directing when he was performing Miss Piggy at the same time?
Juliana: Not at all because he had someone holding up Miss Piggy, a stand-in, while he was directing the humans and the other parts of the scene. When it is his turn to take over Miss Piggy everything was totally set up so it was kind of seamless at that point.
TBC: Do you have any particular memories of Jim Henson?
TBC: Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories from the set?
Juliana: There are so many we would be here for days if I tried to list them all but a few that come to mind are:
TBC: I’d like to talk about Jenny for a little bit. Do you have any insights into her character?
TBC: There were subtle hints of a romance between Jenny and Ronnie (played by Lonny Price). Was this ever discussed as a plot point?
Juliana: Yes, it was discussed at one point prior to filming but they decided it might take away too much from the Kermit and Miss Piggy plot, which is why it was finally just a good friendship.
TBC: Jenny can be described as the first human lead in a Muppet film that wasn’t cast as the bad guy. I would imagine that it is a challenge to work with such colourful, furred and feathered co-stars without feeling a little over-shadowed. Was it difficult to act alongside them while also trying to find the proper balance of sanity and insanity?
Juliana: You know that’s a really good point that you are making about balancing the make-believe with reality (or as you put it, the sanity with the insanity), which could be a challenge for sure. But, the puppeteers were so amazing and solid in their characters that, even though you were looking at felt covered puppets, they seemed real. Hopefully, that makes sense.
TBC: There has always been a debate in the Muppet fan community over whether humans should play the lead in Muppet films, such as Michael Caine as Scrooge in Muppet Christmas Carol and Jim Hawkins in Muppet Treasure Island. How do you feel about this?
Juliana: I can totally see both sides of the argument. Is it better to keep things consistent where all the characters are the same? Or, blend both worlds together? Personally, I think blending the two lends credibility to the characters and a reality that might not be there otherwise. For example, if humans can interact with Kermit the Frog then Kermit the Frog must be real. It kind of demystifies and humanizes the Muppet characters, which is really wonderful.
TBC: Have you been able to stay in contact with anyone involved with the film? Do you ever get postcards from Gonzo and Scooter and the gang?
Juliana: I got Christmas cards every year after until Jim passed away. I bumped into Jim’s son and some others from the Muppet family on a sound stage out here which was really nice but, unfortunately I haven’t really been in contact with any of them for quite a while.
TBC: The character Jenny was studying fashion. Are you interested in fashion yourself?
Juliana: Yes, as a matter of fact that is the line of work I am in now so, it’s interesting how life imitates art.
TBC: Since working with the Muppets, have you kept up with their new projects?
Juliana: Not really, unfortunately. Grad school is pretty crazy with the amount of studying one has to do. So crazy that it was rare that I had time to even go to the movies.
TBC: Did you ever see Muppets From Space? Do you have an opinion on whether Gonzo is really an alien or not?
Juliana: Yes, Gonzo is definitely from another planet. If he’s not an official alien yet he will be soon.
TBC: Have you seen the Muppets perform Bohemian Rhapsody on YouTube?
Juliana: No, but I will definitely check it out.
TBC: Are you aware of the new movie they have in production at the moment?
Juliana: No, like I said, my head has kind of been stuck in books so I haven’t followed things.
TBC: Let’s talk about your other work. As well as being involved with the Muppet franchise, you have appeared in Star Trek three times, have had reoccurring characters on Murder One and NYPD Blue, and have appeared in a variety of other tv-shows and movies. Do you have any favourites?
Juliana: Probably NYPD Blue because I loved working with Dennis Franz so much. He is really a wonderful person and was a pleasure to work with. The Star Trek jobs were really fun but I was sitting in makeup for over six hours a day for both so they were challenging in that way.
TBC: Are you working on anything at the moment? What are your future plans?
Juliana: I’m working on getting my business off the ground. Things are really busy for me at the moment.
TBC: Once again, so much for chatting with us! We wish you all the luck in the world with your new business! Before we go, though, we have to ask. What was it like getting a kiss from Kermit the Frog?
We just wanna say again, thanks so much to Juliana for answering our questions and not finding us too stalkerish! We wish you luck with the new business and hope to speak to you again sometime. — TBC