Santino Fontana is doing double duty on Broadway this year. The “Tootsie” star scored his second Tony Award nomination this month for his hilarious portrayal of struggling actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the female persona that Dorsey assumes to win a role in a play.
The musical, based on the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, gives a 21st-century face-lift to the story of an egotistical performer who becomes a better man after pretending to be a woman.
Is it difficult to be in a musical based on a movie people know so well?
I was surprised by how many people don’t know the movie. It came out 37 years ago. Because it’s been a long time, the majority of people aren’t really sure of what the story is. The people who do know the title are embracing what we’re doing with it, which is taking the core parts of the movie and updating it for today. It’s a challenge to tell any story people think they know.
Did you watch the film for research?
I watched it once when I got the script, but I made a point to not go back to the movie. I looked at the screenplay quite a bit, which was great, but that’s really it. The script we’re working from is very different, so I don’t think it would have helped. I also didn’t want to get into a position where I was trying to re-create any moment of a performance.
“Tootsie” deals with a man confronting his sexism after his experience pretending to be a woman. Did playing Michael/Dorothy cause you to reflect at all on your own behavior with women?
A change in the script is it’s not so much he learns to treat women better. He learns to empathize with the experience of women that goes far beyond physical. It’s not just high heels and makeup. It’s that we still don’t have equal pay. Women have to worry if it’s late at night and they have to walk to the subway alone. A man doesn’t have to worry about that in the same way. All of the power structure that’s built into society men have the privilege of not having to think about. There are big differences between the experiences of men and women. What this show does really well is you get to see a man identify with a woman’s experience in the smallest way and realize he has to stop thinking just about himself.
How did you come up with your character’s look?
We played around with what we can get away with for this character, who is a loving and carefree but very strong woman. How does that manifest itself physically? I went online and put my face in this software where you can put on every different type of hairstyle. We looked at all of those and went, “I can’t really pull that off, but what about that?” It’s been a real process of trial and error.
What is it like performing in women’s clothing?
It’s been a challenge getting used to a lot of things women deal with all the time. I have a whole new respect for what many women put themselves through physically. We did a photo shoot where I had to wear insane high heels. I hadn’t seen shoes that high. My ankles hurt so bad I was like, “I can’t do this! I’m sorry, I can’t do this!” I don’t know how women are walking in those. I was in so much pain.