by Patricia Grandjean
Feb 7, 2013
12:07 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Judith Ivey
She triumphed in her last go-round at Long Wharf Theatre—starring as Amanda in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, which brought her a Lucille Lortel Award after the production moved off-Broadway—and now double Best Actress Tony-winner Judith Ivey, 61, has returned to New Haven to play another matriarch: Ella, the troubled mom at the heart of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class (which, believe it or not, is the first Shepard play the theater has done in its nearly 50-year history). The production starts just days after Ivey finishes up her run in Broadway's acclaimed drama The Heiress. Do we see a third statue on the horizon? For more information on Curse, which runs Feb. 13 thru March 10, call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
Gordon Edelstein has called this "one of the most realistic plays about the American family." Would you agree with that?
Yeah . . . it has a spin to it. It's a little more, let's say, stylized than pure realism, because it's Sam Shepard, and Sam Shepard doesn't write totally realistically. I think that's what makes it special. I was just telling someone about it while I was still in New York City yesterday. I said, "It's probably one of the first plays about family dysfunction in the modern era of writers, and about how we glorify the family." As everyone can attest to, the family isn't perfect. It's a place in everybody's lives where you deal with not only finding yourself, but defining yourself. Sometimes it's misguided—everyone is trying to do their best, but the end result is not so hot. I think that's what Shepard decided to explore.
And in the '70s, that's when we all started saying, "Hey, life isn't so terrific. Who are we kidding?" And that was the style of literature then.
What do the Tates illustrate about the contemporary American family?
Well, they each have their own dreams, and they all are planning on a future, but it varies from family member to family member. Some of them think things through, some of them fly by the seat of their pants. I have a little nuclear family of four, with a daughter and a son. I could sit and tell you each of our dreams and aspirations, and it wouldn't be far off from the Tates! I think that's probably true of every family, no matter what the size and configuration.
Tell me about Ella, the character you play. How does she fit into this picture?
I think Ella has put up with the traditional mom role—much more so in the '70s, when it was written, than now—although there are still plenty of women who are stay at home mothers; that is their profession. And she's had an abusive, neglectful husband, so she's kind of reached that point of, "You know what, I'm not doing this anymore." And she's got a scheme, to sell the house, take the money and go off to Europe. Once again, that's an iconic dream for a lot of Americans.
But she doesn't think the angles through very carefully, does she.
No! [laughs] Ranging from she has no idea what it costs to go to Europe, and she has absolutely not thought through how you could get there and who's gonna go. It's all kind of by the seat of her pants.
She's like her daughter, actually.
A little bit, yeah. He's written it both ways. The dreamer in Emma probably stems from the dreamer in Ella, but Ella's the one who still stayed at home and took care of the house, and that's what Wesley does. Shepard has kind of balanced the kids and what they get from both parents, because of course Weston's the one who's always leaving, so you could say Emma gets that from him.
As you said, the play was written in the '70s. What does it have to say to audiences in light of the circumstances of today?
I'm gonna find out, I don't know that I can answer that yet. [laughs] I hope it does; it speaks to me as an audience member in the sense that I recognize everything I just said, in that we think the world has changed, but it hasn't come that far. We still basically are the same people.
You have a history with Long Wharf; you were in a production of The Glass Menagerie that eventually went to New York under the aegis of the Roundabout Theatre. What's special about working with the team at Long Wharf? Why did you want to return?
They're so professional; the attention paid is on a level of artistic, rather than commercial, achievement. That takes me all the way back to how I was trained. Sometimes the commerciality that we all deal with in this profession robs it of its quality. Producers may throw a lot of money at something, but you wouldn't know it, and it's to no end. I feel like at Long Wharf, the eye is always on what is the best way to present the piece.
I love the audiences at Long Wharf—they're attentive; they care. They're devoted. There's just always an overall sense of, "We're going to do the best we can do." There's not that pressure that goes with commercial theater. We haven't closed it yet, but come Saturday [Feb. 9] I will have finished a Broadway run in The Heiress. It's a different kind of pressure and approach, because it's Broadway. Sometimes that's more fun, sometimes it's not. Choices are made because it's going to make a show more money, seemingly to the detriment of everybody, including the audience.
You had tremendous success in the role of Amanda in Menagerie, winning a Lortel Award. What was fulfilling about that role for you? What did you relate to in her?
Being a mother concerned about your children: What's going to happen to them? Especially when they are children who are grown, but they haven't really grown up yet. She's aware of that, and wonders, "Was it my fault? Should I take the blame?" The parental aspect of her has always . . . I wanted to do that role since I was a young actress. My focus was always the desperation of her as a mother, as opposed to a narcissistic Southern belle whose dreams were dashed—which is another legitimate way to approach her, and a lot of people do. But it was important to me that the mother aspect of her be emphasized. That's she's a survivor, you know? She's had a rough life, and she's tried to make the best of it. And she had to do it by herself.
I remember when I said I was going to do it, someone said, "Oh, you're going to play the beautiful monster." I thought, "She's not a monster, what are you talking about?" But that's how she's perceived, I think because no attention is paid to her major role in life.
I always thought the ending of that play is so very touching, when you see mother and daughter waiting, again, for the "gentleman callers." The traditional interpretation is that they've both just totally lost touch with reality, but you do see a mother who's trying so hard to help her daughter stay afloat.
Exactly. And her son, to a certain degree. She's equally concerned about him, it's just that he is out in the world more than the two of them are, and she's terribly reliant on him to bring home the bacon. Which is why it's so frightening when he leaves.
Is Ella a desperate character in Curse, too?
Oh, yeah. They don't have any food, they owe money . . . and when she finds her husband has sold the house out from under her for $1,500, which he owes to somebody else, that's the last bastion of hope. There's nothing left. And she has a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old. It's not like they can go off and make the money. It's dire straits. You know, I think a lot of what Shepard's saying about the American Dream and how hard it is to hold onto it, we're all experiencing now. It's come full circle. There are so many people who thought they were going to have "X," and it didn't happen because the economy crashed. So the play is terribly relevant in that sense, that it's hard to get by these days. And when you're the iconic American family of four, then you're supposed to be able to stand up on your feet, and get to go to Europe, and get all the things that through the decades, we aspire to have.
As you mentioned, you're finishing up in The Heiress on Broadway. What was that experience like?
Well, I loved my character. Aunt Penniman is . . . she's just a doll, though she can be terribly annoying, I know, to other people. It's a very serious drama, on a certain level, and I think what's really interesting is our company found probably as much humor as one can find in it. I'm very proud of that, because I think drama kind of takes care of itself, but comedy has to be mined and developed. And you have to be a team to do it. Through the run of this play, that's what we have found together. So, it's been a very interesting experience in that sense, the exploration of the play and how you can interpret it. That's the joyous part. We weren't writing it or rewriting it, because it's a classic.
The movie version with Olivia de Havilland is, of course, what everybody thinks of. How does this production depart from that?
If you were to take my character in the movie, she's played completely straight. There's not an ounce of humor in her, really. She's just a very sophisticated, loving aunt, as played by Miriam Hopkins. I play her much more for the excitement, as a romantic, making sweeping statements, getting caught up in the whole drama that's going on with her niece: her potential boyfriend, and opposing her brother who's saying, "This can't be a marriage."
Jessica Chastain plays Catherine much more as a character actress than a leading lady, in many ways. She finds the awkwardness; she finds the person who doesn't really fit in. And then she develops her from there, that she goes off to Europe and Paris and discovers herself, and doesn't look quite so much like the little orphan girl down the street. As her father, David Strathairn has found more concern, more complexity and conflict within himself about this whole situation with his daughter. I think Sir Ralph Richardson played it more as a done deal, that "you're not marrying him, and I have the final word and that's it." David has a lot of questions and struggles whether to do what he does.
And Dan Stevens—everyone kind of gasps when I say this—I don't remember Montgomery Clift in that movie. [laughs] But Dan Stevens, certainly from other stage productions I've seen, plays the suitor as someone who did indeed fall in love with Jessica's character. He also likes fine things. Those don't necessarily need to be mutually exclusive. So I think that that's an interesting take on Morris: He loves beauty, and he sees some kind of beauty in this young woman, and he did run away in order to protect her fortune. You can take him at his word. The twist is really that she has been so hurt by her father, so damaged by his adamant choices for her, that she really becomes him. So once Morris returns, she can't be open to that. She's as paranoid and defensive as her father was. I think that's a different twist than what I've seen in other productions.
You've done a fair amount of directing for stage, including for the Westport Country Playhouse, where you did Two for the Seesaw. What's rewarding about that for you?
Well, I like being in charge. An actor's really not in charge, you're a cog in the big wheel. So I like getting to make all of those decisions. It's all kind of simple math for me. I'm a 61-year-old actress who didn't really become a movie star. So, I'm going to have to figure out what my future is, because everything is predicated—whether you're doing a play or TV—stardom is the focus, and if you don't have that, you almost can't make a living anymore. So, directing seems like a place for me to go, which can subsidize my income as an actress.
I discovered through the process of moving into it that I so enjoy it, I won't mind if the acting goes away and all I do is direct. Because it's so challenging, and it fascinates me. Assuming we get the money together, I'll be making my Broadway debut as a director in April.
Can you tell us what play that will be?
We hope it's The Miss Firecracker Contest, by Beth Henley, which was done in the mid-'80s off-Broadway. This will be its Broadway debut. We're working on casting it and designing it as our producer tries to put the financing together.
What's the biggest challenge of directing for you?
Being diplomatic with everyone who thinks they know how to direct it as well as I do. I love sitting and watching the actors find it, I love listening to the designers' ideas. That's so easy, to put everybody together and let them in many ways take off with it, and just be a guide. I think that's really what good directors do. They have a vision, and they put together who they think will fit. It should work almost without you, in a way. Certainly, you need to be able to step away and let it work, and just intervene when it's not working. That's been my experience from all the wonderful directors I've had the privilege of working with.
The hard part is, everybody has an opinion, and depending upon, once again, where you're directing, you will get X number of opinions from everybody else on, "What if you tried this?" I have to remind myself, "You've excited them, and so they're dreaming, too." They have a good idea—they think—and you have to take it as a compliment rather than, "Are you trying to tell me what to do?" Although, sometimes they are!
You've also done a fair amount of TV work, most recently on the USA series "White Collar." Is that a continuing role, or just for last season?
Just last season, as far as I know. I mean, they did kill me, but I always say, "You didn't actually see me die." So then they can bring me back if they want to.
Tell us who you played.
I was in the witness protection program. and I had been put there because Matt Bomer's character's [Neal Caffrey] father was my partner; we were cops together. And he was a dirty cop, who got caught. Once it was all out in the open, they had to put Neal, as a little boy, and me and Neal's mom in witness protection. And Neal's of course a grown-up, very gorgeous man now. He worries that he went into white-collar crime because he inherited it from his dad.
I kind of have a secret that I don't really reveal; it's discussed a bit but sort of danced around. Eventually I got shot as they kept moving me around so people wouldn't find me, but they found me, and my last words were, "Listen to Sam." Sam's the important one. And my buddy, Treat Williams, who played my husband—named "Buddy," for that matter—in Follies, is the actor who played Sam.
There's more to it, but generally speaking, that's what my story line was.
So there's potential to bring you back, at least in flashbacks.
But you know what? They did. They kept sending me agreements for another episode. So I got paid very well for that! [laughs]
Hopefully, you'll do the Broadway directing gig. What else is coming up?
I hope, a rest! [laughs] I've got three jobs right now, so I'm not looking to be employed. I don't know. I'm talking to other people about their next season, I hope for more directing. I've got two or three more projects I would like to happen. And I do have people asking me to do more acting; I'm hoping something in TV comes up again, too.
What is it you like about TV?
It's going to make me sound lazy, and I know I'm not, but it's fast, and you make a lot of money, and it's fun. I don't have the patience for how long it takes to make a movie. It always seems very slow and tedious to me; you do a lot of waiting. That's why movies are so beautiful; the time taken is usually reflected in the quality of the film. And that has very little to do with the acting. [laughs]Q&A Exclusive: Judith Ivey