“Dancing With the Stars” has always been a rebranding platform for actors who need a career bump, but the winner of Season 17 — even if she doesn’t take home the Mirror Ball trophy — is Elizabeth Berkley.
The actress who was typecast after playing Nomi in “Showgirls” has been showing America a different side of herself. She’s channeling her inner screwball comedian, whether joking with partner Val Chmerkovskiy or staging a “Saved by the Bell” dance homage that went viral last week. Her recently launched Twitter account shows that she has a sense of humor about her 90s notoriety, as she’ll retweet pictures of her fans doing their best Nomi poses.
Berkley, who had taken a break from acting to raise her one-year-old son, says she’s glad America is finally allowed to see the real her. “I don’t even look at it as rebranding,” she says. “I actually think I finally get to be myself. For the first time, people get to meet me where I am. I’ve played some very strong characters, where maybe people have been a bit confused.”
She spoke to Variety about acting at 15, how Paramount’s CEO Sherry Lansing helped her find her way after “Showgirls” and why she wants to return to TV.
Your dance last week was so great. Did you expect for it to go viral?
You know what? We didn’t really know, because how could you know? I’m thrilled it was embraced by the fans the way it has been. We did it for them.
Was it your idea?
My partner Val and I collaborated on it. We knew we wanted to dance to the Pointer Sisters “I’m So Excited,” because that was the song from the specific episode. From the beginning, fans were asking us to dance to that song. And we thought, if the producers on the show would go for it, wouldn’t it be fun to recreate that moment–that heightened moment before the jive? For the first time, the producers were willing to open up the mics. They never do dialogue before a dance.
Did you rewatch the “Saved by the Bell” episode to prepare?
I did. I haven’t watched it in years. People come up to me all the time singing the song, or doing that moment. I wanted to make sure I did right by it.
How old were you when you auditioned for “Saved by the Bell”?
Fifteen. I think it was like three [auditions]. And then I tested for [NBC exec] Brandon Tartikoff. He’s the one who really gave me my start. There was a moment when he couldn’t decide between Tiffani [Amber Thiessen] and me. Brandon said, “Let’s create this other character [Jessie Spano].” I’m grateful he saw something in me and gave me my shot.
You studied dance classes growing up?
Like many little girls, I took dance classes locally in Michigan, where I grew up. I took ballet and I did tap and jazz. And then, I came to California. It was something I absolutely loved. I knew I wanted to use it someday in my work.
Why did you stop dancing after “Showgirls”?
It was a bit of a difficult time for me personally, because a lot of doors were shut at that time. I had to find my strength and my confidence and go back out there again. I think that because it was so criticized, it was humiliating– doing anything that was connected to the film was not fun. So I think being able to find a relationship to my dancing, which something I loved, has been healing.
Did you regret taking the role?
No, regret is not a word that I connect to in my life. I truly believe that everything we walk through and go through is a lesson. Was it difficult and did it hurt? Yes. I became more discerning about my choices and wanted to feel safe again. I had to open those doors back up myself. Luckily, Sherry Lansing was a mentor to me around that time, and “First Wives Club” was the first big thing I got after that.
Why do you think the public’s opinion about “Showgirls” has changed?
Obviously things are different with the film now, it’s been embraced in a whole new way. It’s kind of shocking–it’s one of MGM’s highest grossing DVDs of all time. It’s just a different time now. It’s very campy and over the top. I don’t think it was presented that way for people to know what to make of it. I think it was being marketed one way when the film itself was so big and we were directed in such an over the top way. But I think it was embraced and found its way for all its grandeur. There’s a sense of humor underneath some of the darkness. I think, also, pole dancing is now mainstream. People take lessons at gyms.
Have you voted for yourself on “Dancing”?
I haven’t yet. Should I?
I think so.
I should, actually. I’m glad you brought this up.
Why did you decide to do the show?
This just felt like the right time. The day my son went for his one year pediatrician’s appointment, I got in the car and I got the call from my manager Jason Weinberg from Untitled. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time. I think having my son returned me to making decisions from a really joyful place. It kind of brought me back to my own purity of why I love to do what I do in this business.
You’ve done a lot in your career, from working for Woody Allen to Oliver Stone to acting on the London stage.
For eight years, I’ve been facilitating a self-esteem program for middle schools and high schools–Ask Elizabeth. I have a New York Times bestselling book. One of the big things I’ve heard from teens, a lot of girls shared with me how they stopped themselves from opportunities that knock on their door, because they don’t feel ready. They feel too scared. When I really thought about [“Dancing With the Stars”], the only reason I would say no would be fear.
Since people now have seen a different side of you, I wanted to give you the chance to tell the industry what you’d like to do next.
I appreciate being asking that. Of course, my reps we’ve been talking about it. I would love to do a TV series again. I love doing comedy. I would also do a gritty HBO drama. It would be fun to bring my dancing to Broadway, too.