By now you’ve probably seen either a commerical or a billboard for NBC’s highly anticipated (and hugely publicized) new musical drama Smash, which premieres on the network Feb. 6 at 10pm. Former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee stars as struggling actress Karen Carpenter, competing for the leading role in a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. It’s an incredibly ambitious series (hatched by an idea from none other than Steven Spielberg) that mixes backstage drama with elaborate musical numbers. And McPhee has already drawn buzz for this star-making role. “I think that’s a nice way of looking at it,” says the actress of this being Katharine McPhee 2.0. “I was really surprised in the trailers when they said, ‘And introducing…Katharine McPhee.’ But it is a new introduction because people don’t know me as an actress.” EW chatted with McPhee on the Smash set and talked about meeting Spielberg for the first time and her fight to get roles after American Idol.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I heard you actually met Steven Spielberg after Idol?
KATHARINE MCPHEE: Yeah I did. He brought me in. It was the most bizarre thing. I remember just being obviously elated about meeting him. It was just a general meeting. They said just go to his offices at Dreamworks at Universal Studios. He had me in his office and I met Stacey Snider. They were just the most lovely, sweet people. I was just so excited. He was asking me questions about what I wanted to do and my aspirations. I told him I wanted to act and I had been acting and before Idol that was sort of my dream.
Clearly Idol made you a name but do you think it also held you back?
There’s a lot of reasons you could speculate why I didn’t get parts. There’s always a stigma. Not just a stigma with reality stars but it’s just like anything else: the actress was too tall, she’s too short, she’s too fat, she too thin. There’s always some sort of obstacle to overcome. In my case, yeah, I’m not going to lie and say there weren’t certain casting people that didn’t wanna see me because they didn’t think I could act. That’s fine. If anything, it made me more determined.
In my view, I’ve had tons of success but, in the way the world views success and they expect Idols to do, mine has just been a longer journey to get there. And I’m grateful for it. It just makes the journey that much sweeter in the end.
Have you had to do research on Monroe?
You grow up with knowing who Marilyn Monroe was and you have this idea in your head. It’s always the heightened Marilyn. YouTube is the most amazing thing and a lot of movies. But I found the stuff on YouTube is the best. I feel like people have made her more of a caricature of herself. She was really more of a simple woman. Marilyn as a person was very humble and quiet. It was a character she chose.
Smash was announced last May. Are you anxious for it to finally premiere?
So anxious. First of all I got cast like last February. Then we shot it like March/April. Then we got picked up and people were so excited for the show. Upfronts were so exciting but then we found out we were midseason and I was like, “NOOOOOOOOO!”
One-hour dramas are a long commitment. Are you in it to win it?
I’m in it to win it. I hope the show is a major success. I’ve moved my whole life here. Fingers crossed. I hope it lasts for five years! It would be great.
For more on Smash – as well as all the scoop on new shows including Kiefer Sutherland’s Touch and Jennifer Lopez’s ¡Q’Viva! The Chosen and returning faves such as Glee and Cougar Town – pick up EW’s Winter TV Preview issue, on stands now.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @EWTimStack