Actress and recording star Katharine McPhee, 31, was born and raised in California and attended the Boston Conservatory before leaving to pursue her career. She first rose to fame in 2005 on American Idol, finishing as the runner-up. Her self-titled debut album charted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in 2007, and she has since released several successful albums, including a recording of holiday favorites, and appeared on two hit PBS specials opposite Sting, Andrea Bocelli and John Mayer. McPhee’s TV credits include CSI: NY, Community and Family Guy, but it was her role on the Steven Spielberg series Smash that propelled her career to new heights. She has appeared in several feature films and currently stars as Paige Dineen on the hit CBS drama Scorpion, now in its second season.
Katharine McPhee: I would have said, “I’ll be on television within five years.” That’s exactly what I did on my 20th birthday.
I get that question all the time, and I don’t see myself as one or the other. I don’t always end up in roles where I get to do both, but it’s nice when I do. Just because I’m more focused on one at a given time doesn’t mean anything. I’m an actor who loves to sing and a singer who loves to act.
Two, actually. Which was fun.
It’s TV, but it’s loosely based on someone’s life. Now that we’re in our second season, the writers are having a great time coming up with things, but the pilot was based on Walter O’Brien’s life.
That’s one of the things I liked the best about the pilot. That relationship really draws me to the show, and it’s a really interesting dynamic for me.
Shooting the pilot with Justin Lin was like going on a huge movie set, with huge green screens and a Ferrari that was on these tracks, and having to react to a puppet or a string hanging above you…that was definitely a little nerve-wracking. I just came on and said, “I have no clue what I’m doing, so I’m just going to do whatever you tell me.” It was a crash course in doing that sort of thing. But I kind of beg for those opportunities, because it’s challenging to do something you’ve never done before.
Sure, but I’d really been preparing myself for that role, which helps a lot. When I met them all at the table read, I was less fearful and more like pinching myself. I had also been on a television show [Idol] where I was performing in front of 30 million people. I’m not intimidated as much as intrigued as to how they worked. I found working with Debra Messing really great because it’s so interesting how she works.
No. That’s just the nature of the business. There were lots of people who loved it, and then there were the critics and other people who kind of loved to hate it, which was fun, too. I am surprised by the level of mourning over it being gone. I believe that [NBC head] Robert Greenblatt told a reporter that one of his biggest regrets was canceling Smash.
Listen, there’s nothing easy about doing television, regardless of the show. We worked hard, yes, but on any show, the schedule is a marathon; you do nine months of shooting, working over 14 hours a day. It was really artistically fulfilling, though, so it was great.
Not really. I grew up loving musical theater, but I’ve never been on Broadway, and I really loved pop music the most: Mariah and Whitney and those kinds of artists.
[Laughs.] It was a huge disappointment that I wasn’t nominated for best supporting actress. Seriously, I never saw that film. I was in New York shooting Smash when they did the premiere in L.A., and so I couldn’t make it. So I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say, “I really loved you in Shark Night 3D,” but you know what? I needed experience, and it was a good experience to be on that set.
I’d like to think it was a little bit of both. When you do fashion shoots and get exposed to really nice stuff, the difference between an inexpensive cotton T-shirt and a really nice one becomes more and more obvious. I’m all about mixing and matching high and low, but when you’re working with the best hair and makeup people, or the best photographer, you learn to see things differently. Your eye becomes more refined.
I think it depends. If it’s an awards show, you go all out, and I’ll be more conscious of how many carbs I ate that week. If I ever had time to go do a diamond facial peel and all those other crazy spa and beauty treatments, that would be great. But I’ve never had the time for it, so the trick to me is the hair and makeup team. They’re magic.
Depends what song is filtering through at the time. “Hello” by Adele is just following me around everywhere, so I might end up singing that.
Probably something Celine Dion or Mariah Carey did. I loved “ ’Cause I’m Your Lady,” or “Power of Love” is the accurate name, by Celine Dion. It’s such a torchy, dramatic ballad, and we don’t have many of those anymore.
I think education is the most important. Social issues and economic inequality are all directly affected by education.
I don’t really have an emotional attachment to it. I was on it for one season, 10 years ago. When I go back to celebrate the finale, I’ll feel nostalgic. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, but eventually, everything comes to an end.
Photo: Martin Rusch; location: the Pink Motel, California; styling: Alvin Stillwell; hair: Derek Williams / The Wall Group; makeup: Debra Ferullo / Tracey Mattingly; wardrobe: Sachin and Babi top and skirt, Mona Shroff cuffs and earrings, Raven + Lily bracelet