On the Phone With Debra Jo Rupp

On the Phone With Debra Jo Rupp

I recently had the pleasure of chatting on the phone with actress Debra Jo Rupp.

Credit: Larry Nagler
Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Becoming Dr. Ruth

Rupp, beloved by millions of TV fans as Kitty Forman, the über-mother in the long-running FOX comedy series That '70s Show (1998-2006), is now starring Off-Broadway in the one-woman play, Becoming Dr. Ruth. That’s Dr. Ruth as in sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a role many believe Rupp was born to play. And not just because she stands a petite 5 feet 2 inches (to Westheimer’s 4 feet 7 inches). What I remember from our 15-minute conversation is the actress’ joie de vivre and devotion to her craft. That, and a bubbly sense of humor that is never far beneath the surface. Welcome back to New York, Debra Jo. (A condensed version of this interview will appear in my Footlights column in the December issue of IN New York magazine, out Dec. 1.)

FL: The show is called Becoming Dr. Ruth. So, where did you begin to become Dr. Ruth?

DJR: Mark St. Germain called me and said he wanted to write this for me. I guess it just scared me so much I thought I had to do it. You know you get to a certain age, and you go, “I don’t know when I’m ever going to get this again.” And so, I went for it.

FL: Dr. Ruth Westheimer is so well known. The way she talks, looks, laughs. Did you build the character from the outside?

DJR: The first thing I did was to start with the dialect, because I had to know that I was going to be able to do it. I also knew that that was going to take me the longest period of time. I grew up with her. In the 80s, I listened to her at midnight and on Sundays [on the radio and TV]. So, I knew who she was. I knew her energy, and we have that in common. I knew the energy wasn’t going to be a problem, I knew the height wasn’t going to be a problem. And then the spirit came from Mark’s writing. It was just there [on the page]. I guess that’s how I put her together.

FL: It sounds like you took it step by step. You just didn’t wake up one morning, walk into the rehearsal room and there she was.

DJR: No, it was a gigantic undertaking. I guess I’m kind of organized in my head. I do something until I get it accomplished, and then I do something else until I get that accomplished. I do remember saying in rehearsals, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’m going to get her physically. Don’t worry.”

FL: Is there a particular way Dr. Ruth holds her body?

DJR: She was involved in a bomb [blast] when she was 20 years old in Palestine. She was hit by shrapnel, and the biggest pieces were in her neck. So, she holds herself forward a little bit, and her shoulders protect her neck a little bit. The top of her right foot was blown off, and she had to learn to walk again. She has a different kind of gait. It’s very quick, which is kind of how I walk. And I think maybe short people just do that. I call it marching. I think we just tend to march everywhere because we have to keep up with the people we’re walking with.

FL: I guess it’s a way of asserting yourself, too.

DJR: I guess so. And [short people] spend so much time looking up. People don’t think about that, but we do. We look up a lot.

FL: Was there a specific moment when you knew the character had come together?

DJR: No, I’m always working on it. Because every audience is different, the show is always different, and so my reactions to things are different. One night, I might be very emphatic with my arms and my hands; another night I might not be. I might be just sitting quietly. I would say that I am never at a loss now for any reaction. I feel very confident in her physicality. The walk to me is her. Once I mastered the walk—or felt that I did, because that is always up for opinion—that really informed a lot for me.

FL: Do you feel that half the battle of being up there

Credit: Larry Nagler
Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Becoming Dr. Ruth

onstage alone for 90 intermissionless minutes is won because people come to the show predisposed to like Dr. Ruth? Perhaps you don’t have to win them over so much.

DJR: I think that’s correct. However, I think some people come to this show expecting a sex show. And that’s not what they get. Honest to God, I think some businessmen come from work because their wives said, “Come on, we’re going to see this.” And then I open my mouth. I know they sit there and think, “Are you kidding me?” I have to work hard. This is an accent. I see their eyes glaze over a little. But within 10 minutes, they have it, and it’s good. I just have to be really careful and sell it at the very top of the show.

FL: I don’t think anything embarrasses Dr. Ruth. Does any of what she says intimidate you?

DJR: No, because I’m playing a character. It’s not Debra Jo up there. If it were me, I don’t know. But it’s not me. I’m playing Dr. Ruth, and this is absolutely what she would say and do. I have fun with the different audiences. There are some that I go, “My, my, my, this will be fun.” And there are times I just laugh: “You’re not having any part of this. You just wait. It gets worse, people!”

FL: Has playing Dr. Ruth changed you in any way?

DJR: Yes. It absolutely has. It has made me appreciate what I have. Not that I wasn’t appreciative before, but I don’t think I put a lot of thought into. I think I took a lot for granted. Doing this show, there’s been a profound change in me. Dr. Ruth is so life-affirming. Family is so important to her. She takes care of them. And she takes care of her friends. She has a very generous spirit.

FL: And she’s a notorious advice giver, sometimes unbidden. Has she ever given you advice, whether about life or the role?

DJR: She has never overstepped that line with me. Except—and I probably shouldn’t say this, I will probably get killed—the only time she has ever done it is when we opened the show, and she called me and said, “Debra Jo, there are some people you listen too, and there are others you do not.” And I loved her for saying that. She was referring to critics. She was quite adamant.

FL: Do you read the critics?

DJR: I try not to. I’m one of those actors who believe that, if you believe the good [reviews], you have to believe the bad ones. So, they just cancel each other out. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. When you have friends who write, you are certainly aware of what is happening.

FL: Is it thrilling being back in New York?

DJR: Absolutely! Ask anyone who worked with me in California. All I wanted was to get back to theater in New York. That was all I wanted. I did That ’70s Show for eight years, and I was very lucky to get the job. I understand that, I know that. And actually I can do theater now because of that job. I left New York when theater was just starting to get going for me. I finally got to Broadway [she made her Broadway debut in 1990 in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playing Sister Woman opposite Kathleen Turner’s Maggie the Cat] and my father died on opening night. Jesus, I can’t even tell you. So, coming back this time, nobody’s sick, everybody’s alive, we’re all good to go.

FL: Do you have more theater lined up?

DJR: No, because honestly we don’t know how long this will run. I think it’s a beautiful play with a very strong message. I know that audiences are greatly affected. So, as long as that continues …

>> Becoming Dr. Ruth, Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 W. 43rd St., 212.239.6200