‘Tootsie’ Star Santino Fontana on the Challenges of His Tony-Nominated Dual Role

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. 

Popular on Variety

More Legit

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s return to the Great White Way after a five year absence, a period that saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and another nomination for his work in “Vice.” [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content