Estelle Parsons, 87, a former head of the Actors Studio, will be playing wily Mathilde Girard in Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady at Palm Beach Dramaworks from Friday (Dec. 5) to Jan. 4. An Oscar winner for Bonnie and Clyde, a five-time Tony nominee including last season’s The Velocity of Autumn and a longtime regular on the television sitcom Roseanne, she spoke recently with Hap Erstein about her life and career.
Erstein: Estelle, what interested you about My Old Lady?
Parsons: I was intrigued by the character, by playing another culture. To play French is great (laugh), but I don’t really know their behavior, how much they touch other people and all those things. And then the funny thing is that once I started working on the character, I found this wonderful maturity and a kind of serenity that I think is really characteristic of French people.
Erstein: What did you do to learn about Mathilde and her culture?
Parsons: I went to Paris actually for five days to do research. I know, everyone laughs at that. I’m coming to Palm Beach to do a play in December and I’ve got to go to Paris to do a little research for the play. But actually, it was very, very helpful.
Erstein: A real contrast to your own background?
Parsons: Oh, yes. I grew up in New England in the American Puritan tradition, extremely strong. My mother was a Swedish person, but my father’s family came over in 1632. So that Puritan tradition and all that that implied — sexually and otherwise — has been my background. Of course the French are completely different, including their attitudes towards sex, which I guess is relevant since this is a theater piece and life is all about sex.
Erstein: What is the main challenge of playing Mathilde, would you say?
Parsons: Being French properly, I think. The bodily things and the lilt in the voice, the rhythms of the speech and all that. These things are hard for me. It’s one thing to sort of explode from inside, but I don’t think I’ve ever played another culture. Well, I did play (Henrik Ibsen’s) Peer Gynt, but my mother’s Swedish, so that wasn’t that far from me.
Erstein: Do you have any experience with the plays of Israel Horovitz?
Parsons: I did a play for Israel in 1969 called The Reason We Eat. I was supposed to weigh 400 pounds. I was in a huge fat suit. It was the worst flop anybody has ever had. Ever. But I’ve known Israel forever, from New York and the Actors Studio and his plays.
Erstein: You are an Oscar-winning actress, yet you keep coming back to the theater. Why?
Parsons: I started in community theater when I was 6. The theater is what interests me. It’s an actor’s medium. Film is a director’s medium. When you’re out on the stage and you have to entertain however many people — 150 up to 1500, I guess — without a mike, like I did in Miss Margarita’s Way, it’s a totally different experience. It’s intense and you need to have the skills and the gift, to hold people in your hands as it were. The silence of an audience, when they’re totally wrapped up in what you’re doing, is just palpable. It’s a life experience that you just don’t have talking into a camera with lines you learned this morning.
Erstein: Who is Mathilde Girard, the character you play in My Old Lady?
Parsons: She founded and runs a school for teaching English. So she’s a very smart woman, a successful businesswoman in Paris all of her life. She comes from a very rich family once, very much a product of war, which is an experience we really didn’t have in this country. All the boys of my generation went. I wanted to be in the Army in the Second World War, but my father wouldn’t let me go. I was 16.
Erstein: How did you come to be in this production?
Parsons: I just did this play, (Eric Coble’s) The Velocity of Autumn, on Broadway and it was a very wearing experience. For some reason it was very hard. I wanted to have something that was completely different.
That was a woman who was getting dementia and had had a couple of dementia episodes. I found that extremely upsetting. Because things change, in your mind as well as your body, as you get older. I mean, dementia has nothing to do with me. There’s no dementia in my family and here I was playing this woman with dementia. I was just so terribly terrified of dementia. So I had to work all that out for myself in my own mind in order to play that part. And it took a tremendous toll of me, that play.
So I wanted to do something that would be completely away from that aspect of being old. And this woman is so smart and so sharp and capable. In my life, I’ve played so many parts wearing an apron. I have plucked a chicken, I have cut up chickens, I’ve done everything but shoot a chicken, I have cooked chickens onstage, I have fed chickens to the men. I’ve spent my life being a housewife in theater, so I was ready to play someone really intelligent.
Erstein: You turned 87 on Nov. 20. What does that number mean to you?
Parsons: Y’know, age, it’s never meant anything to me in my life. I’ve never thought in terms of birthdays, for some reason. I don’t know why. I didn’t decide not to think of birthdays, and I love birthday cake. And I don’t mind celebrating at all. But I’ve never thought of the numbers. I’ve always been active, physically as well as mentally. So I just keep doing what I do and lo and behold, I’m getting older and older.
Erstein: At this point in your life, after all the successes you have had, what is there left for you to achieve?
Parsons: I think it’s terribly important to work. Work and love. You’ve got to work at working and love in your life if you want to have a full life and I do. I don’t believe I’m going to meet 36 virgins when I die, or 36 hunks.
Erstein: You studied with Lee Strasberg. Does that mean you are a Method actress?
Parsons: Not really, because when I went with Lee I was already a functioning actress. Because I’d been working since I was 6 in community theater. So I never think of myself as a Method actress, but I think principally because I’m comedic. I do have this comic gift, which I really love using.
Erstein: But how do you build a character? Do you think about similar experiences from your own life?
Parsons: I don’t think about anything at this point. Everything just floods in on me. So I have a completely different problem than I had when I was younger, trying to “find” things that worked for me in terms of theatrical energy and emotional energy. That’s what the Method did, and it was very advanced training in those days, where you really learned how to tap into the emotions you need and how to do it eight times a week. I learned all that with Lee. Before that, I could just act, like most people.
But because I had this comic gift, that really never did figure into the Method work, did it? I don’t think they ever think of me that way — “Oooh, she’s such a great actress” — because they have a different attitude towards people who are funny.
Erstein: Isn’t the technique the same?
Parsons: Oh, it’s all the same process for me, but people laugh at me. At me, with me, either one. It all depends on the material. I try to exploit whatever material I’m given. Playwrights usually like me, because I try to bring to life what they wrote. And the Roseanne people loved me and so did Roseanne (Barr). I just went in, learned the lines and Rosie started laughing and the writers couldn’t wait to write for me.
Erstein: When people recognize you on the street, is it usually from Roseanne?
Parsons: Oh, yeah. Television watchers. I’m not a television watcher. I have one. I do watch sports, but I’ve never seen a reality show. I’m afraid if I got hooked on television, I’d never do anything else. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I don’t know how I could fit it into my schedule without it drowning me.
Erstein: Why did you pursue making movies?
Parsons: I’ve been in theater all my life. I really just did that movie Bonnie and Clyde because I wanted to work with (director) Arthur Penn. I had worked with him on theater projects and I would go anywhere, in any medium, to work with him. And then after that I was able to get jobs to put my kids through school.
Erstein: Winning the Oscar probably didn’t hurt.
Parsons: No, no, it’s good. If you’ve got that stamp of approval, it’s really helpful. That’s where awards are helpful. They know you can do what you’re supposed to do.
Erstein: Did you ever imagine Bonnie and Clyde would be the phenomenon it became?
Parsons: Everybody was down on their luck. I got $5,000 to do it. Arthur and Warren (Beatty) were down on their luck from Mickey One. Faye (Dunaway) was just starting out. I asked (Arthur Penn) to hire Gene (Hackman), he had someone else in mind for the part. So, no, I never thought anything about it.
It really struck a chord with everybody around the world. Really, it was the start of the repudiation of rule by law. Look where the world has gone steadily from that particular period. I had gone to law school, I was going to be in politics, and when they spit in the face of that Texas Ranger, I thought, “Oh, my God, what kind of movie am I in?”
Erstein: What are your memories of Oscar night that year (1968)?
Parsons: Oh, yeah, that was fun. I was in a show by Tennessee Williams in New York, so I wasn’t going to go. I’m afraid that awards kind of take you out of what you do. It was always fun for me to come out onstage and nobody would know who I was. And then they’d love what I did and I loved that I could have that discovery for people. I never wanted to be thought of as very good, because them they’d arrive with an attitude of “Show me,” y’know?
Erstein: But David Merrick, the producer of the Williams play, insisted you go?
Parsons: Yeah. And so I went and I was totally tired out. Somebody from the agency took me. It was a wonderful night and I loved getting it. It didn’t mean anything to me, because I really didn’t want to have a movie career. And I knew I was going right back to New York. What it felt like to me was just getting a wonderful piece of candy.
Erstein: That young Parsons gal is pretty good in Bonnie and Clyde.
Parsons: Yeah, I thought that was amazing. But you see I was so excited then to be working with Arthur. He changed my life. I thought I was in the wrong business, because I was never on the same page with the director. Ask Bill (Hayes, her director at Dramaworks), he can tell you that. I kept thinking, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing? I don’t seem to have a relationship. I don’t seem to be the kind of people actors are.” All they did was talk about theater, which didn’t interest me half as much as what the world was doing. It wasn’t as interesting to me as my life.
Erstein: What might you have done if not acting?
Parsons: I think, “I could run that business,” and then I think, “No, Estelle, you couldn’t run that business, you could play the person who runs that business.” Because as life went on, I realized I’m really bad at real life, but I’m really good at pretending I know what I’m doing.
I thought if I didn’t act, I could play tennis or be a tennis instructor. Or I could be a ski instructor. Those are the three things I really loved to do in my life. No matter what else I would do, I would be watching the clock. But acting, I could work all day and all night and not know it. The same with skiing and tennis.
Erstein: Do you have a favorite stage role?
Parsons: Of course I think of Miss Margarita’s Way, a piece that has interested me the most. In the first place, because I’m interested in politics and that was about totalitarianism. And because it was direct to the audience. My other interest is people and because it was direct to the audience, every night it was different. It was just an extraordinary experience for me as a person.
Erstein: Have you ever played in the Palm Beach area?
Parsons: I worked at the Royal Poinciana (Playhouse) twice. I did a revue with Dorothy Loudon and Bob Dishy there. I had a song as a librarian, “I’m in Love with the Back of His Head.” My kids were 6 and now they’re 59, so that was a while ago. And then I came back and did the play Angel Street.
Erstein: When the offer came from Palm Beach Dramaworks to be in My Old Lady, had you ever heard of this theater?
Parsons: Oh, no. I told my agent about it and he said, “Oh, I know Israel (Horovitz), I’ll find out about it,” and the next thing I knew, I was coming down here.
It’s a much better play that I initially thought. After that debacle with Israel, I didn’t have high hopes for it, but the characters are wonderful. There’s a lot to feed on.
My idea of a perfect life is just hanging out and waiting for the phone to ring. They ask, “Will you do this?” and I say “Yes.”
Erstein: Why should people come see My Old Lady?
Parsons: In the first place, the acting is going to be terrific. Myself, I’m no slouch. But the other members of the cast too, and sometimes that’s unusual, when you have a headliner, so to speak. But the other members of the cast are extraordinary. Angelica Page — she was Angelica Torn, but now she calls herself Angelica Page — what a pedigree. But she’s an astonishing actress and the part in this play just suits her like a glove. And Tim (Altmeyer) also is a member of the Actors Studio. I’ve worked with him in plays in New York and I hired him when I directed Salome with Al Pacino. He’s just a consummate actor. It’s unusual you get three actors really strong in their craft to work together. You can imagine what a delight it is.
My Old Lady opens Friday and runs through Jan. 4 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets (except opening night range from $55-$62; opening night tickets are $77. Call 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.