Kristen Johnston
(© Tristan Fuge)
Kristen Johnston
(© Tristan Fuge)
Kristen Johnston is widely regarded as one of the funniest women working today, as anyone who has seen her Emmy Award-winning work as Sally Solomon on NBC's Third Rock From the Sun or her stage performances in such plays as The Women and The Understudy (at the Williamstown Theatre Festival) can attest.

Now, Johnson is making audiences laugh again as she gives an extravagant comic performance as demanding, manipulative actress Lily Darnley in the Mint Theater Company's production of Maurine Dallas Watkins' heretofore unseen play So Help Me God! at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. TheaterMania recently spoke to Johnston about this project, her frequent participation in the Drama Desk Award-winning Celebrity Autobiography, and guest starring on ABC's hit comedy Ugly Betty.

THEATERMANIA: Did you immediately jump at the chance to do this play?
KRISTEN JOHNSTON: I don't take doing plays lightly. It's a huge process doing eight shows a week, and I know what it costs me. So when I decide to do one, I just make sure everything is in place. But there were a few reasons I wanted to do this show. First, it was such a smash when I did a reading of it last summer. Second, I love the story behind the play. It never opened in New York and I believe it should have a beautiful New York production. Third, I really wanted to go back to and do The Women again and make Sylvia more real and to truly get under her skin. I never felt like I nailed it. Now, I think I've learned to be a better actress, so this is a way to go and show that. I also like the opportunity to say darling on stage. And, finally, I love the stage because from 20 feet away I'm kind of a fox. It's the old saying: she's a beauty from afar and far from a beauty.

TM: Is it fun for you to play someone with as big a personality as Lily?
KJ: I don't play her as larger than life. I play her as basically me if I was a miserable person. Actually, I am basing her on someone I know -- but not someone I ever worked with, who does everything she can to keep herself fabulous. And no, she won't figure out this is her.

TM: How did you avoid becoming someone like that?
KJ: There was a moment when I was living in Los Angeles -- I had done Third Rock and had just finished The Flinstones movie -- where I looked at myself, and I just went, you know what, I'm becoming what I'm not supposed to be. And that's when I decided to come back to New York. If I stayed there, I could have become Lily.

Kristen Johnston and Matthew Waterson in So Help Me God!
(© Richard Termine)
Kristen Johnston and Matthew Waterson
in So Help Me God!
(© Richard Termine)
TM: Do you think some people regard you as a diva?
KJ: I will say with all humility that I am not a diva. I do fight for what I believe in, and I can be tough to work with, especially when it comes to a script. But I will never care about something like the size of my trailer. If I did, I wouldn't be doing plays for $300 a week.

TM: You've done a lot of evenings of Celebrity Autobiography. Is it as fun as it looks?
KJ: Definitely. It's the least amount of work for the most worship and love; you stand and read and people freak out. So why not do it? Eugene Pack [who created the show] was my college roommate at NYU; so I ended up seeing it when he started it in L.A. But the actors were so bad! So I went up to Gene, and I said do it in New York and you could get great people and it would be the biggest hit!

TM: Do you have a favorite Celebrity Autobiography co-star? And what about a dream future co-star?
Everyone is so funny, but I just love working with Rachel Dratch. She's such a riot. And I know Carrie Fisher, and my dream is that she would come and play [her mother] Debbie Reynolds.

TM: You appeared on the season premiere of Ugly Betty. Will we be seeing your character, Helen, again?
KJ: Yes, I am shooting two more episodes in December. I think the character is hilarious. Originally, she was supposed to be pretty old and dressed young, so I said to the writers: what if I am just my age and a nerd, but I dress like Lindsay Lohan? They were great in letting me help create her. I love to get involved with costumes and hair. In fact, it was my idea to have her lips lined circa 1994. I figured 1994 was a good year for her and she was stuck there.