When Keala Settle considers the possibility of performing at the Oscars, she shivers.
“Your mouth to God’s ears, honey,” she yelled over the phone, as a makeup artist removed her beard following a rehearsal for the live “Greatest Showman” commercial that aired Sunday. “Your mouth to God’s ears!”
Settle is genuinely surprised that her portrayal of Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady, in the movie-musical about circus showman P.T. Barnum is getting any attention at all. The film centers on the message of a pop ballad she belts out in the musical ― “This Is Me,” written and arranged by “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen” maestros Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The song has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice award, and is on the Oscars shortlist for Best Original Song.
“Look, I’m just trying to have some celery with some hummus, OK? Just leave me alone. I’m just trying to come down,” she joked when I brought up the hype.
“This Is Me,” sung from the perspective of the bearded lady and her company of fellow misfits, is meant to give a voice to those who feel left behind, bullied or rejected. It includes lyrics like, “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down / Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out / I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”
It’s a powerful battle cry, and Settle can’t seem to escape it.
“It still really is hard for me to sing this song because I relate to it every day,” said Settle, 42. “I wake up in the morning and I look in a mirror and I go, ‘Is this really all I got? Is this all the universe has given me?’”
“We’re all feeling that way,” she added, “every single one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Victoria’s Secret model or you’re someone’s 90-year-old grandma or you’re a little kid who’s getting bullied or you’re that kid’s bully ― everybody feels like there’s something going on that’s more correct than what is. We all have to reach out to one another in that fear and we’d be surprised to hear, ‘Me, too.’”
Settle says she’s always felt slightly out of place in her own shoes. The eldest of five children, she grew up in Hawaii with her Polynesian, New Zealand-born mother, Susanne, and her British-born father, David.
“Their life was very hard because they were an interracial couple,” Settle said. “They had to grow from that and then they had us biracial kids, and we had to grow from that, trying to figure out where we belonged.”
She found she was most at ease when she was performing, which Settle started doing at the ripe old age of 2. The actress fantasized about becoming a recording artist and would harmonize to “every commercial, everybody, everything.” In response to her nonstop theatrics, she says, her parents “ended up getting the two-VHS-taper of ‘Sound of Music’ and throwing it [on] so that I would shut up.”
In reality, Settle’s family was something of a real-life von Trapp clan. “My mother played guitar by ear and all of us sang except my father, bless his heart,” she said. “So when we would all go to sing, whether it was at church or an event, we would tape the words to one of the kids’ backs and dad would go stand behind them because he was too busy at work to go learn the lyrics.”
Every day I wake up going, ‘I don’t fit in.’ And that may never change and that struggle I have to embrace because I don’t want it to go the other way.
Settle says her father, whom she describes as a mashup of Mr. Bean and Peter Sellers, didn’t appreciate the giggling that ensued as he sang off-key, but now he’s come to understand what those moments meant to his daughter.
“You get older and realize, ‘Wow, [my parents] really did sacrifice a lot to come to a place to make dreams come true.’ And I’m living one right now,” Settle said.
She eventually took her natural talent on tour, appearing in Broadway’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” in 2011 and landing the role of Norma Valverde in “Hands on a Hardbody” in 2013. (The latter performance nabbed her Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.) Since then, she’s starred in “Les Miserables” as Madame Thenardier and in Sara Bareilles’ musical “Waitress” as server Becky.
Settle says she kept on “hustling” throughout her time in “Les Mis” in 2014, which is how she stumbled on Hugh Jackman’s recent passion project. At that point, “The Greatest Showman” was being presented as a series of read-throughs in New York, and a casting agency asked Settle to be a part of the workshopping. When “This Is Me” was introduced in the third and final read-through, the production team proposed a nervous Settle perform it for the group.
“I ended up booking the job. I didn’t believe them when they told me that until two months later when they provided me with a contract,” she laughed.
Settle admits she struggled throughout the film’s production, in part due to the loss of her mother two years ago. Susanne was the inspiration behind every performance Settle did up until that point. All she ever wanted to do was make her mom proud.
“So when she was gone, I had to reach deep down and figure out why I was going to continue on,” Settle recounted through tears. “I said, ‘Hugh, my mom is gone and I have no idea how to navigate this anymore.’ And he was like, ‘It’s all right, babe. We got you.’ And he wasn’t lying.”
Jackman, who plays Barnum in the film, took Settle under his wing and continued to support her every step of the way. During production earlier this year, he made sure she had the energy to push through those tiring 15-hour days, at times whipping out his Wolverine pose just to cheer her up.
“When he shows up to work and he’s just finished doing press for ‘Logan’ in Mexico and Berlin and Paris with a piece of tape across his nose because he just had a cancer removed, trying to spin a cane and work his top hat, we have no excuse to be anything less than right up there with him,” Settle said. “Every day and every night on that set, we could trust everyone and fall on everyone because of how much of a passion project this was for him and where it had to come from to reach where we needed to reach, and where we still need to reach.”
Despite everything ― her read-through moment, her experience with Jackman, the awards season hype ― Settle doesn’t think she’s “made it.” Not in the slightest.
“Every day I wake up going, ‘I don’t fit in.’ And that may never change and that struggle I have to embrace because I don’t want it to go the other way,” she said. “I’m just glad that, whatever this is, I can be a part of that message [of hope]. That’s all, nothing more, nothing less.”
Settle did fulfill one lifelong dream, though, even if it only lasted a few fleeting moments.
“We actually had all of Janet [Jackson]’s dancers, all of Pink’s dancers, all of Beyoncé’s dancers and all of Gaga’s dancers backing me up in ‘This Is Me.’ So when we did that first rehearsal, I cried [to them], ‘You are making my dreams come true right now.’”
“The Greatest Showman” is in theaters now.