In a career of many colors, Dolly Parton has had her share of memorable movie crossovers: “9 to 5,” “I Will Always Love You,” albums for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone, and Straight Talk.
Now Dumplin’, Julie Murphy’s bestselling 2015 YA novel about a plus-size teen taking on the beauty-pageant industry, has become a smart, heartfelt dramedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald (on Netflix this Friday) — with a standout soundtrack by Parton, the novel’s original muse.
In a recent interview, the Tennessee legend, 72, spoke to EW about songwriting, self-esteem, and her best dumpling recipe. (Hot tip: leave the lard out of it.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your dance card is already pretty full. How did they get to sign on to do Dumplin‘?
DOLLY PARTON: Well as you know, the whole story came from a book that was written a few years back and it was about a little girl that loved my music and was inspired, she and her aunt, by listening to my records, and it kind of helped build her confidence.
So I had read the book because people told me there was a book about me, and I loved it. But I didn’t think any more about it until Jennifer Aniston’s company called me a couple years ago sayin’ that she was doing it as a movie and was gonna be starrin’ in it and asking if they could license some of my original music for the movie and I said, “of course,” and then later they asked if I would write a theme song for it and co-write it with Linda Perry and have her produce it and I said yes. So I met Linda, and when we started writing songs we were so excited, we were writing so good together, we got five — actually six! — original songs for the soundtrack, so it just came out of this progress like that.
You’ve got some great women on it too, including Miranda Lambert, Sia, Mavis Staples…How did the guest list come together?
I think it was Linda and the director of the film, Anne [Fletcher] who brought [most] of the artists in. I had nothing to do with that! I just told them I’d be happy to do whatever. [Laughs]
But when they started bringing all these other artists in I said, “Well, I can’t be having all these other girls in and not have my two favorites in Nashville, Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss, sing on one of the more country songs.” And then I wrote a song that reminded me of the old Staples Family music and I loved Mavis Staples — always loved her, Otis Redding and Mavis were my favorite R&B soul singers. So I had them contact Mavis to see if she was still around, if she was still singin’ or wanted to perform, and she happened to be a fan of mine too! So she was really as happy as I was about gettin’ to do it, and one of my favorite songs on the whole soundtrack is the one with Mavis. I just love her.
Did you grow up at all with pageants like the ones in the movie?
No. No! Oh, I mean at the fair they had like little beauty pageants, but that was not for me, not for us little mountain girls. It was not a big thing with us — we didn’t even get to go to town all that often when we were growin’ up, and in high school, I just rode the bus to school and left right after that. So yeah that was not a big deal in our home town, not a great big deal.
The film has more than few Dolly impersonators in it. What does it take to do a good Dolly?
[Laughs] Well, you gotta have a big wig, you gotta have a lot of overdone makeup, you gotta have big shoes, big boobs, overexaggeration in every way. I’ve always joked and said that it’s a good thing I was a girl or I would have definitely been a drag queen. because I love all that overdone stuff. But I have a huge gay following, so I was happy to have that element in the film because I think it will be a treat for my fans.
How do you feel about the message of the movie? You’ve probably had a lot of young girls and women come up to you who don’t feel good about their bodies, or have been made to feel bad about them.
Well, I do and I have, and I have been heavy myself you know? I’ve been a little dumplin’ in my own life, probably at one time I weighed like 50 pounds more than I do right now, a lot of people don’t remember that — when I was doin’ Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and some of those, my weight had shot up, so I know what it feels like. Inside of me there’s a dumplin’ still tryin to get out, I just have to kinda watch what I do. So I relate, but it’s not just about the weight that kids relate to me, because I’ve also always been criticized and bullied because of bein’ different and bein’ myself and standin’ up for whatever.
You know, beauty is as a beauty does, if you do beautiful things and if you do what you feel like your self wants to do. If you can improve yourself, that’s great! And if you can’t, then learn to live with it and accept and love yourself as you are. So that’s more what it is [about], and hopefully it will just show that we can be whatever we want to be, even if we do it in a body that we’re not necessarily gonna get exactly right, at least we can dress better with it and wear it better, you know? “Wear it well,” as they say. So it’s really just about knowing that you don’t have to be physically beautiful to be special.
The official motto of the book is “Go big or go home.” You’re known for your aphorisms too, but which ones do you hold on to the most?
Well it’s not even my own, it’s just a lot of those great old sayings — “To thine own self be true,” you know, is to me one of the greatest things ever. And that’s really been in a roundabout way what a lot of those other ones are sayin’. But one of the things they use in the movie is one of my sayings, it’s, “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose. Do it with purpose, and on purpose.” Because you’ve got to find out who you are, what you’ve got to offer, you’ve got to become comfortable in your own skin, no matter what color it is, whether it’s a slim body or a big body, you’ve just gotta find out who you are and find a comfort zone for yourself as a person and just be your best self.
Can you tell us anything about the 9 to 5 remake?
Yeah! Well we’re hopin’ to be a part of it. We’re supposed to get a script. I mean, I haven’t signed any papers yet, but I signed on to do it, which allowed them to write a script. So we were gonna get the first draft right away. Pat Resnick who wrote the original, she’s writing with Rashida Jones, so we’re hopefully gonna get to see that, and I’m sure that we’ll make some changes, but I’m certain that we’ll get it to where we all agree. We’re all so excited about it, I’ve been advertising that we are doing it. [Laughs]
I was never willing to do a sequel [before] because they never came up with anything that was as good as the original. And I don’t like to mess with history, but if you can do better, this would be addressing the same issues, and they need to be addressed again and some more in different ways. And this gives us a chance to have three new young artists, whoever they may be, workin’ at Consolidated — the company that we were with [in the original], and then they want to find these three older women — Lily [Tomlin], Jane [Fonda], and myself — working out in the workplace.
So they’re gonna pick our brains for information, and that’s gonna actually lend itself to some really funny stuff, some cute stuff — and of course having six great women instead of just the three. [Laughs]
Are you surprised that the subject feels so relevant now, and that Hollywood still has so much interest in it as a property?
Well, I think that it stayed popular because it was very entertaining and it was well done. It had the comedy, but it had great subject matter, and I think it stayed relevant because as women we still are having some of the same problems.
Equal pay for equal work and harassment in the workplace and all that stuff is still goin’ on, and I think that gave us a really good reason to have a sequel that was relevant to the times and to the subject matter because of the #METOO movement, and women trying harder to stand up for who they are and their rights. So it seemed to be the perfect time to do it. You know how some things just happen at the right time?
You have some other screen appearances planned before then, yes?
Well I have just signed a deal with Netflix, and they are makin’ eight movies so far based on songs that I’ve written, and I’m in some of them. Jolene being one, we have Julianne Hough playing Jolene and Kimberly Williams Paisley is playin’ her best friend, and I actually own the bar [in the movie] — I’m kind of a mentor mother type figure to the Jolene character. So I’ll be doin’ a lot of bit parts in a lot of those movies.
Members of the EW staff want to know: Do you ever just slip into a pair of sweatpants at home?
Oh I do! I own some sweatpants. But I don’t like them, they get too hot for me. I have my own, what I call my baby clothes — the little pants and little soft things, little teddies and little shirts, they’re just soft and comfortable. If it gets cold enough of course I got sweatpants! I dress down when I’m at home, you know, but I still try to look cute for my husband.
There are so many women breaking down the old demographics in country music now. Who in Nashville’s younger generation is most exciting for you?
Well really, I’m just excited to see all these women doing so great you, know? Like Kelly Clarkson I’ve always loved, and Alison [Krauss] has always been a great favorite, all the girls that are coming along — Taylor Swift, I think she’s absolutely wonderful. So there’s a lot of great ones and I appreciate them all for what they do and respect them and admire them.
Do you get much into TV or movies? It’s hard to see you as a binge watcher.
I don’t watch a lot of television. My husband watches different TV than I do — he loves documentaries and ball games and all that. When I watch TV it’s usually old movies, but when I have some personal time I’d much prefer to read a good book than television, so I don’t get hooked on all the series and things that a lot of people do. And I know there’s some good ones out there! I do see bits and pieces now and then, and I love things like Little Big Shot, kids shows, and America’s Home Funny Videos. Is that what it’s called? [Laughs] But I just now got The Reckoning by John Grisham, so I’m startin’ that this morning.
One last question. Do you actually make dumplings at home?
Oh, I’m the best! It’s my favorite dish, of all my brothers and sisters — because I cook just like my mom. My mom’s dead now, but everybody else, they put too much butter, too much lard, they won’t do this and that. But I still cook good!
I don’t put lard in my dumplings, but I’ve got the chicken fat in it. So yes, I make the best dumplings ever, ever, ever. I even make little containers of it and give to my brothers and sisters for Christmas. I usually cook a big big pot, and then I’ll always have some for them to take home and freeze and thaw out and eat when they get to missin’ me. [Laughs]