Philip Fortenberry, pianist
BY MARIE ANDRUSEWICZ -- It began with a vaguely creepy phone call and ended with pianist Philip Fortenberry, or rather his hands, landing a gig portraying the virtuosic digits of Liberace in the HBO biopic “Behind the Candelabra.”
“I got a phone call from a friend of mine who is a local contractor. ‘Do you have any pictures of your hands?’ I said of course not. I don’t know you that well. I’m not into that sort of thing,” laughs Fortenberry.
But, as the pianist says, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He sent off the photos and landed the part. Then the work began, work Fortenberry had a jump on since he’d performed in a cabaret show at the Liberace Museum, called “Liberace and Me.” Nonetheless, the movie's close ups meant extra careful prep.
“Liberace actually never wrote down his piano parts and so a lot of what I had to do is study original footage of Liberace,” he says. “Not only to learn to play it, but more importantly how to play it.”
And he had to do the work under the weight of some gaudy, heavy obstacles. The rings that Liberace famously wore, that, according to costumer Ellen Mirojnick were the key to Michael Douglas' transformation into becoming Liberace, were a burden to Fortenberry.
(Photo: Liberace Museum)
“I had to have them glued on because they were flopping around. They’re heavy, they’re bulky, they’re big. They’re in the way; they catch on to everything you touch. The only way to remedy this was to put a kind of glue on my hands and then they crammed the rings on. And that’s how I spent my days.”
If the rings got in the way, one set piece supported Fortenberry’s performance.
“The piano I knew, because it was the one that I had played in my show at the museum – you see that famous mirrored concert grand piano,” says Fortenberry. “I already had a relationship with that instrument. So I knew what it could do, I knew how to approach it. It was like meeting an old friend.”