Cybill's Martha Moment

As the Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal erupted last summer, Matt Lauer gave the "Today" show audience his picks for the perfect actors to play Martha in the made-for-TV biopic: Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen or Robin Williams. A friend of Shepherd's immediately called her and told her to pursue the part. Shepherd got her manager on the phone with the NBC brass that day. And now Matt Lauer's casting call will come to the small screen. On Monday, May 19, Shepherd will star as the domestic diva in "Martha, Inc.: The Martha Stewart Story" airing at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

Shepherd doesn't consider it typecasting, but she says she did draw on her own rage playing the famously temperamental Stewart. (The scene of her hurling a copper pot at her catering partner is particularly delicious.) Yet Shepherd also humanizes Martha, especially in a highly sympathetic ending that shows her being mobbed by adoring fans. (The producers had to dream up that scene--the real Martha story isn't over yet. Stewart denies any wrongdoing in dumping stock in biotech company ImClone the day before negative news sent it tumbling. But federal prosecutors are still weighing criminal charges.)

Shepherd spoke this week with NEWSWEEK's Keith Naughton about playing Martha, how she controls her own rage and "Cybill Disobedience," an autobiographical musical she's developing for Broadway.

NEWSWEEK: Why did you want this role?

Cybill Shepherd: I wanted the role so badly because it was the part of a lifetime. This woman is one of the most fascinating, contradictory characters and powerful people that have been in front of the public in a very long time.

Could you relate to her?

On "Moonlighting," I admit, I threw a chair. But I did not throw it at [show creator] Glen Caron. I threw it at the wall. Also, I hadn't been through 10 years of therapy to straighten me out about the rage thing. But I had enough of that to know that I needed to learn more about it. And so for me, I dealt with my rage issues in that 10 years of therapy that started while I was in "Moonlighting." So by the time I got to the "Cybill" show, I didn't have that problem.

Why do powerful women like you and Martha Stewart become magnets for criticism?

A lot of it has to do with envy. There's just something about being a blonde and being very powerful and walking into a room and acting as if you have as much power as everyone else in the room that really pisses people off. I think it's the beauty issue, too. Beauty is so envied, and there's so much hatred. I do cabaret. And you always go into a room and there's certain people that really hate you. They're sort of there because they hate you and they're envious. But there's always some people that love you. So I always block that hate out with the love. So I think the brains and being blond is something that [people] are jealous of. And she was so beautiful, she could have had a very successful career as a model. And she let love get in the way. I didn't let love get in the way of "The Last Picture Show" when my fiancee said, "If you do this, I'm not going to marry you because I don't want you to do a nude scene." Then I said, "See you later." Recently, he told me that he was wrong.

Was it difficult convincing NBC that you were the right person to play Martha?

I thought I'd never get the part because the minute my manager calls NBC they say, "Oh, we don't even have a script and it's mostly about her as a young woman." And I thought, "Oh well, that's a big fat lie. That just means I'm never going to get the part." But it took on a life of its own. People kept calling me and saying, "People are saying you're doing it." And it was written about in columns. And they did some kind of survey on the Internet asking people who they wanted most, and it was me. Then I did the cover of More magazine. And in that, I said I thought I was the best person in the world to play the part. The director, Jason Ensler, saw that and knew my work and he believed it, as well. And he fought for me to play the part. The last time somebody had to really do that was "[The Last] Picture Show" [director] Peter [Bogdanovich]. Burt Schneider, the producer, did not want me. He didn't think I had the experience to do it. Finally, he gave in and said, "OK, you can put her in the movie, just make sure there's plenty of nudity."

In the Martha movie, you really seem to embody her manner, her look, her voice. How did you prepare for this role?

From the minute I got the part I started doing things a little bit differently. I raged at a few people, but I warned them. I said, "Look, I'm going to scream at you a little bit because I'm trying out what it feels like to be Martha Stewart." Afterward, they said, "We like Cybill better." I didn't want to do an imitation because that would never have worked. The emotions had to be real, from me, as if I was being attacked and I was being insulted by inferior work or someone not doing the job that I told them to do. And then I could really let that rage roll. And the heartbreak of her husband dumping her and leaving that letter and running off with her assistant. I can relate to that. It raised interiors that came from my life. I was dumped, too, all of a sudden. We were in couples therapy and I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. And he said, I can't do this anymore. And I thought he meant the therapy.

You also made some physical changes. You're playing a woman who is almost 10 years older than you and you put on some weight for the part, right?

Yes. I had lost 25 pounds a year ago. And when I went off to do Martha, I just thought it would help the part to gain some pounds. And I'm still struggling to get them off. I gained like seven pounds, and now I've got nine pounds to lose. But I'll be OK, I'll get it off again. It really wasn't quite enough. So we did pad her up some.

I understand you've met Martha before. Have you heard from her about this film?

I haven't heard from her at all. I wouldn't expect to. What would I get, hate letters? It's sort of blowing the whistle on how she is when she's off camera. That's tough. It's written about in the book ["Martha Inc.," by Christopher Byron, upon which the movie is based], and she didn't sue the book. If she'd sued the book, the movie wouldn't have happened. I'm just the hired hand here, who played this amazing, complicated woman that I have a lot of compassion and admiration for. I don't like some of the stuff she did. But yet I think men do that kind of crap all the time and get away with it.

Do you think she's guilty of insider trading?

I have no idea. But I know she was one of the early pioneers for woman as a stock broker after she'd blown it as a model.

Is it challenging to play a role where the ending hasn't been written yet?

It's fascinating. We end this where she goes into the market (and is mobbed by adoring fans). No matter what they think of her, she's still one of the most famous women in the world. Even when people don't like you, they can mob you for your autograph, which they do in England whenever I play there. But at the same time, she was still beloved by those people. Not all, some of them. Some of them are mobbing her because she's f--king one of the most famous women in the world. But I think a lot of them did care. And that she meant something to them. And I think she still does. She just happened to pull it off. It took guts and cunning and intelligence and brilliance to go public and to buy herself out of [her] Time Warner contract.

Were you going for sympathetic portrayal of Martha at the end?

I wanted it to be what it really is: this is one of the most famous women in the world, and a lot of people still are crazy about her. And we don't know what's going to happen. She hasn't been indicted yet. [Phone rings in the background.] This is driving me crazy. My assistant forgot to turn that ringer off.

Now I'm worried for your poor assistant. You're not going to have a Martha moment when you get off the phone, are you?

[Laughs.] I've learned to be respectful of the people I work with. I mean it took a lot of work. Anger is sometimes one of the most wonderful things in the world. It can steel you to do great things in the world, righteous anger about injustices. But when you dump it on other people, it's called rage, and that can hurt other people. Not physically, but emotionally. And I wanted to get over that because I never wanted that to happen with my children. And I had so many problems with anger because of the way I was treated on "Moonlighting." I had absolutely legitimate reasons, but not too many tools to deal with it. So I got the tools to deal with it. You can vent, but I try to ask permission. "Hey, I'm venting now. I'm really angry." You know it's totally different.

Do you have any sort of inner-Martha domestic goddess about you? Do you cook, sew--any of these things?

Um. Well, I love to be home. I love to eat with my kids. I'm not great at organization, I have to say. I think that she'd have a heart attack if she saw my bedroom because the piles just seem to pile up. I don't have a full-time housekeeper.

You're working on a musical about your life. Can you draw any lessons from this biopic you just finished?

I feel like I learned a lot from Martha Stewart. I felt her strength, the way she stood up to men, and she didn't let anybody intimidate her and the fact that she was willing to take the chances to go all the way. I feel like I'm stronger in that way. Martha will absolutely be in it. I couldn't avoid that fun. It comes from doing cabaret for 35 years. My most recent engagement was January in England. It was really very, very satisfying to me. It was huge. We had to turn away lots and lots of people. I got wonderful reviews. And I just thought, you know, what if Elaine Stricht and Bea Arthur can have these hits on Broadway, why should I wait? I'm not going to do a one-woman show though. I want to do a play with music with like five or six characters. So that we have a chance to do big musical numbers as well as lots of conflict. And I guess it's going to be called "Cybill Disobedience."

Do you hope Martha will be, in her words, "exonerated of any ridiculousness?"

I certainly hope so for her. I have great admiration. And no matter what happens, she will always be a survivor. And I like to think of myself that way, too. There will always be something Martha's doing that will be very interesting. And no doubt America will want to watch. And I should be so lucky.