Critics Agree with the Man-Eating Plant in Little Shop of Horrors: Ellen Greene Is Delicious
Her name is Audrey, and as played by the rapturously reviewed Ellen Greene in the film version of off-Broadway's smash musical Little Shop of Horrors, she's a ditzy delight. That's why meeting Greene offscreen requires a few adjustments. In place of the blond wig is a mop of curly brown ringlets; jeans sub for Audrey's Frederick's of Hollywood-type dresses. "I fleshed her out," says Greene. "I had to gain weight to keep my bust up for the part. I wanted Audrey to be ripe enough to fall off a tree."
Greene, who created the stage role in 1982 and played Audrey for two years in New York, L.A. and London, is the only member of the original cast to repeat her role onscreen. No one is more surprised than she. "I felt they'd go with a big name, the way it usually happens," she says. Biggies like Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper were mentioned. But producer David Geffen had a plan: "I decided we'd put the stars [Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy, Jim Belushi] in the smaller parts," says Geffen. "I never considered anyone but Ellen. She is the quintessential dumb blonde."
Hardly. "I don't have Audrey's problems," says Ellen. "I don't feel I deserve to be hit." Besides, she might hit back. Ask Little Shop screen writer and lyricist Howard Ashman, who argued over his star's interpretation of the song Suddenly, Seymore. "We had Seymore wars," says Ashman. "We've thrown caviar at each other. She speaks her mind loudly and often. Ellen's what I imagine Anna Magnani was like, only skinnier." Greene also had her own notion of Audrey, refusing to camp her up. "Audrey has a good heart," she says, "that's something I believe I gave her."
With nearly two decades of showbiz savvy to draw on, Greene, 35, is clearly unencumbered by Audrey's lack of self-esteem. She was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island by her father, a dentist who died in 1971, and her mother, a retired guidance counselor. Ellen wasn't really interested in following the careers of her older brothers, a doctor and an attorney. There was only one thing for her. "My parents wanted me to teach, but I had to perform," she recalls.
After studying fine arts for a year at Rider College in New Jersey, she left school to join a musical road show, making the most of the singing lessons she had begun at age 7. Soon she graduated to the Manhattan cabaret circuit. Heavily made up and dressed in outlandish castoffs ("My mother said, 'Ellen, you're uglifying yourself,' "), she belted everything from bitter torch songs to rock 'n' roll. Cabaret became a back door to theater, though she had very little formal stage training. Known for "heavy, alienated roles," she won a Tony nomination for playing a vengeful whore in the 1976 revival of Three-penny Opera. Her film debut that same year as a promiscuous existentialist in Paul Mazursky's box-office fizzle, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, earned her raves, but not many jobs.
With a failed TV pilot, Rock Follies, behind her, Greene was in fact on unemployment when the chance came to audition for the stage production of Little Shop in 1982. She got the $30-a-week part and a chance to meet Marty Robinson, 32, the puppeteer who created and operated the plant onstage. "We've been together for 4½ years since he ate me," she says, referring to the ending of the play in which the Venus people-trap uses Audrey as plant food. (A new, happier ending was devised for the film version.) "We're so shmoozy and kissy," says Ellen. "During the show, I used to pat the plant and I'd see Marty inside there acting like a puppy."
Ellen admits she took the initiative with the long-haired, angular, quiet Robinson. "I asked if he wanted to go to a show with me," she says. "And somewhere in the first act, I just took his hand. That's all I did. Well, our hands talked." Outside in the rain, "Marty whipped me around in his arms and kissed me; he's very hot when he wants to be. Since then it's been Marty all the way."
Or sort of. Though Ellen got to go to London to film her stage role, Marty—committed to his work as a Muppeteer on TV's Sesame Street—had to stay home. Ellen missed Marty, who has become a stabilizing influence in her life. "When we first met I thought she was this wild woman," says Robinson. "Ellen is obsessed with telling the truth. We still bump heads over that. I think I've taught her to shade a bit."
Greene treats Robinson's workplace—the Sesame Street set in Manhattan—as a cocoon and her second home (the couple is in the process of moving to a large loft in SoHo with a workshop for him and a greenhouse for her). "This studio is my hangout," says Ellen, who shares Robinson's fondness for the felt creatures that inhabit the set. "If my agents want me, they know to call me here." They should be calling often, if the Little Shop box-office take—a healthy $11.5 million to date—is any indication. And if the offers don't come, Greene says that's fine too. "I have a very strong love and it sees me through everything." Neither sees any reason for marriage ("We feel married"); they're more concerned with creating their own magic kingdom. Reaching for Slimey, a finger-sized Muppet he operates with two sticks, Marty sidles the impish orange worm over to Ellen for a few pecks on the cheek. She squeals in delight. "It's like Little Shop here," she says, "bigger than life with a sense of the silly." She would hardly mind anyone saying that the same goes for Ellen Greene.