The mind boggles when attempting to summarize the careers of Austin Pendleton and Ann Whitney. They are two of the finest actors ever to grace the stage in Chicago, and have each built a formidable résumé of unforgettable roles over the last several decades. Twenty years after they starred together in the Steppenwolf production of Inspecting Carol opposite Jane Lynch, the duo reunited onscreen in writer/director Alex Thompson’s wonderful short film, “Calumet.” Pendleton plays Ira, a devoted husband eager to bake a birthday cake for his wife, Irene (Whitney). Only through the course of their conversation does he realize just how little he remembers of his recent past, though he can easily describe cherished events that happened ages ago. As the cake cooks in the oven, he and Irene bask in the warmth of their shared recollections—until the dinger goes off, signaling how memories can fade as quickly as they materialize. It’s a deeply moving vignette well worth seeking out on Amazon Prime.
In anticipation of the film’s theatrical run next week in Chicago, as part of the “Love and Loss” short film compilation, I spoke separately with Pendleton and Whitney about their extraordinary careers. The veteran performers had so many priceless stories to share that I decided to present them in the following two-part article, featuring numerous highlights from their work onstage and onscreen. It’s worth noting that both actors also will appear in Bradley Grant Smith’s upcoming feature, “Our Father,” starring Allison Torem, the sublime star of “The Wise Kids,” which was directed by Stephen Cone and also featured Whitney. Cone went on to direct Pendleton in his next movie, “Black Box,” a provocative ensemble drama set in the world of theatre. Pendleton recently shared the Los Angeles Film Award for Best Ensemble with his co-stars from Jamison M. LoCascio’s searing apocalyptic drama, “Sunset,” also available on Amazon.
The more you research these towering talents, the more fun facts crop up. Pendleton has performed in Shakespeare in the Park with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, gave Philip Seymour Hoffman one of his first acting jobs and is always one of the best things about every film he’s been in (and yes, that includes everything from “Short Circuit” and “The Front Page” to “Christmas With the Kranks”). Whitney’s first film role was for Paul Schrader in 1987’s “Light of Day,” starring Michael J. Fox, Gena Rowlands and Joan Jett. She went on to be in several Chicago-set blockbusters such as “The Fugitive” and “While You Were Sleeping,” though she may be best known as the drugstore clerk in “Home Alone” who attempts to help Kevin (Macauley Culkin) figure out whether his desired toothbrush was approved by the American Dental Association. The look she gives him when he insists, “Will you please find out?”, never fails to make me laugh. Anyway, without further ado, here are my conversations with these ageless icons…
PART I: AUSTIN PENDLETON
How did you land the role of Motel in the original Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof, where you acted opposite Zero Mostel and Bea Arthur?
I had worked in another show with Jerome Robbins before that, and he was actually auditioning me for Perchik, the revolutionary in Fiddler. He liked to audition people a whole lot, so I went in maybe six times reading for Perchik. It was the opposite of the other role I did for Jerry, and that excited me. The last day I was there, they asked off-handedly, “While you’re here, will you read for Motel?” I hadn’t prepared for it at all, and said, “Sure.” The role was kind of bland on the page, and my agent said, “You either have to make an offer or tell them, ‘Not right now,’” because I was going to be in the company of Lincoln Center for their first season, where I’d work with people like Elia Kazan. The next day, Jerry called my agent and said, “Okay, Austin’s got the part of Motel,” and I went, “Oh crap!” I wanted Perchik. A week or two after that, I was hurrying toward a singing lesson, and Jerry was hurrying in the opposite direction. He told me, “Okay, now that you have Motel, we are going to totally rewrite the part.” Motel became a whole different person. At the beginning of the play, he has no self-confidence and is totally at a loss, before gradually finding it within himself to stand up to Tevye.
Then the rehearsals became postponed, so I could’ve done the Lincoln Center season after all, but that’s okay. Suddenly we weren’t going into rehearsal for eight or nine months. I was the first person cast—only because my agent put pressure on Jerry—and so I spent those eight months taking singing lessons, acting classes, speech lessons, everything you could possibly take. Jerry would call up and say, “We are going to Williamsburg tonight for an Orthodox Jewish wedding,” and so I did that three or four times. He’d also let me sit in on the design meetings just so I could overhear them. It was a fabulous eight months, but I was a nervous wreck thinking, ‘Now they have rewritten this part for me. What if I’m no good?’ We rehearsed for eight weeks before we went out of town, and when we opened, the show was not well-received. People were saying, “This isn’t going to work,” but Jerry just kept working on it. He didn’t make any sweeping changes, he just kept making many, many small changes. In other words, we didn’t freak out. The first New York reviews of Fiddler were not across the board raves by any means, but the audience loved it so much that it ran and ran and ran. Now whenever it is revived, it is called one of the classic musicals of all time. If only people realized how much trouble it was in.
Your performance in the play has been immortalized, now that generations have grown up listening to your rendition of “Miracle of Miracles.”
That song was written right at the last minute. Before the show opened in New York, we performed it in Detroit and Washington. The song was written while we were in Washington, and it went into the show right before the end of our run there. We only had a handful of previews on Broadway, so opening night of the show was about the eighth time I had sung that song. I had another song before that, and they gave that song to Perchik, because they couldn’t think of a new song for him. I sang it in the first act, and then he sang it with a slightly revised lyric in the second act. Finally Bert Convy, who was cast as Perchik, said, “Why don’t you just write another song for Austin?” And so they tossed off “Miracle of Miracles.”
I played Motel for a year until my contract was up the following August. I left the show along with Bert and Zero Mostel, though a lot of people renewed. Hal Prince was the producer, and when he asked if I was going to renew, I told him, “I’ve been asked to go out to my hometown—Warren, Ohio—and direct my mother in a community theatre production of The Glass Menagerie.” Hal said, “Well, I’m not going to get in the way of that, so I’ll make you an offer.” The offer he made me was almost unheard of in those days, because Broadway contracts were kind of iron clad. Once you left a show at the end of your contract, and you didn’t renew, that was it. He said, “After your contract is up in August, you can go to Ohio and come back in three months. If you decide to come back, you have to sign for another year.” So I thought about it, and figured it wouldn’t be worth coming back to the show without Zero, since so much of what I was doing was conditioned by playing onstage opposite him. I slipped a typewritten note under Hal’s door that said, “I’ve thought and thought about it, and I’ve decided not to take you up on your wonderfully kind offer.” He was totally understanding.
You’ve gone on to work with so many great directors throughout your career, such as Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”), Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) and Steven Zaillian (“Searching for Bobby Fisher”). Are there any in particular that stand out in your mind?
Otto Preminger was unforgettable. He basically taught me most of what I know about film acting. “Skidoo” was the first film I made, other than tiny parts in some things, and it was also the first big part that I had onscreen. Preminger realized I had done a lot of theatre, but I was new to the game on a film set, so he would tell me how to play for the camera while ignoring it, and how to regard every take as opening night. He was very patient with me, and very supportive. Some of my other favorites would be Billy Wilder, [Alan J.] Pakula, Jim Ivory and Jonathan Lynn, whom I made four movies with.
What was it like working with Orson Welles on Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22,” and did it influence the character of Welles that you wrote in the 2000 play, Orson’s Shadow?
I was on the “Catch-22” set exactly as long as Orson was. He said he could only do two weeks, so I was there for that same amount of time, because we were together in all of our scenes. He had an irresistible quality, though he was absolutely impossible, and gave Mike Nichols such a bad time. He would sabotage takes and was just being a very, very bad boy. Orson lectured Mike Nichols, in front of the cast, about comedy?! He would make it clear that unless he—and everyone else—played the scene the way he wanted to do it, he would continue to blow takes until it was the way he wanted it. I’m surprised those scenes turned out as well as they did. He had wanted to direct the film himself. During the course of the shoot in Mexico, I made a few smartass remarks about him to the press. When I came back to New York, I saw some of his movies that I hadn’t seen before at revival houses and realized that he was much more than a one-hit wonder. Then I felt for him.
A few decades later, I got a communication from Judith Auberjonois, the wife of the actor Rene Auberjonois. I had known them both from our time in the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She told me about her idea for a play about when Orson directed Laurence Olivier in Rhinoceros, and asked if I’d like to write it. I don’t usually like writing plays about people whose work you can go out and rent, but I decided to do it, and it took me three or four years to write. One reason I wrote the play was the idea that maybe, after all these years, I could make it up to Orson. This was, of course, years after he died, but I thought this could be my opportunity to give a more dimensional portrait of him than I did in those interviews. It opened at Steppenwolf in Chicago in their small theater, and several years after that, it played off-Broadway for about a year.
You’ve been an ensemble member at Steppenwolf for many years. How did you first become involved with the company?
I first went out there by a fluke. A producer wanted to do a play that I directed in New York called Say Goodnight, Gracie. The play was a success in New York and I didn’t want to go to Chicago and do another production of it, but the New York producer insisted that I direct it. Then the Chicago producer said, “Well, okay, but then Austin has to use the members of this new company in Chicago called Steppenwolf.” I thought, ‘Oh give me a break! Steppenwolf? They named themselves after a rock group? That is so sad! Or else they’re naming it after a Hermann Hesse novel, which is pretentious.’ Our child had just been born, and I really didn’t want to do this, but the New York producer said, “You’re going, that’s all there is to it!” So I went grudgingly out there.
At that time, Steppenwolf was in their very early years. It was a company of just twelve people, but what a group they were. I was blown away, so that experience began my relationship with them. Then they began inviting me to direct other things and occasionally act in things over the years. I’ve never done a show out there that I didn’t enjoy doing. I loved Chekov’s Three Sisters, and liked the most recent one that I did five years ago, Tribes. I acted with Laurie Metcalf in Educating Rita, which we then brought to New York. Detroit I liked a lot. What the company is just keeps evolving. It’s no longer that group of twelve hearty young people, all of whom are brilliant, putting on plays together in little theaters, which is what it used to be.
Your direction of Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes earned you a Tony nomination. The scene I’ll never forget from the film adaptation is when Regina sits coldly, waiting for her husband Horace to collapse from a heart attack.
That is a famous stage direction. It reads, “Regina has not moved throughout this scene, she does not move now.” It’s as effective on the stage as it is on film. You just do what it says. [laughs] I had already acted in that play with Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott in a production directed by Mike Nichols, so I knew the play very well when I was asked to direct it. Mike’s production remains the best revival of that play, even though Lillian Hellman hated it—and Mike was one of her best friends. Whenever she got angry at my production, she would say, “Well, at least it’s not as bad as Mike’s,” and I’d say, “You forget that I was in Mike’s?” Finally, one day, she said, “Just watch the film,” and I said, “I’ve watched it several times. It’s a terrific film, obviously, but I think Mike’s production was even better.” She said, “If you had told me that in our interview, you would never have gotten this job.” [laughs]
The critic Walter Kerr wrote a brilliant review that accurately described Mike’s production. As for Elizabeth, she was a dream to direct. She had been a movie star for so long. When you are in the movies, you simply do what the director says and they shoot it, and she had worked with a lot of the best directors. I had no concern about her being in the play because I thought some of her great screen work was in films adapted from plays—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—where you have to sort of think a different way than you usually do with a screenplay. She owned the stage in exactly the right way.
In 2013, you acted in “Black Box”—a film by one of my favorite directors, Stephen Cone—which directly explores the psychological process of theatre.
I generally don’t like to see movies that I’m in. If I know I’m going to see them, I get self-conscious about it when I’m doing it. If I think I’m not going to see them, then I’m not anywhere near as self-conscious. If I can possibly avoid seeing a movie I’m in, I get out of it. I did see “Black Box” because there was a screening of it and there was no graceful way out of it. I love that movie. Stephen is extraordinary. I also saw the film he made before that, “The Wise Kids,” and I’ve sort of offered him an open phone line to call me anytime he would have any need of me. He writes the scripts, and for me, it’s always about the script. If the script doesn’t speak to you at all, you should probably not do it unless you need the money. And then again, to be fair, sometimes you take something just for the money and you don’t respond to the script at all, but once you begin to do it, you do connect with it. I’ve probably turned down things on low budget films that if I did them, I would’ve had a great time. Usually when I turn down a film, it’s because I already have another commitment, or I just don’t want to play another 80-year-old.
What I love about Stephen’s work is it’s so much about the pauses between words. What is left unsaid is often most revealing.
That’s very well put, and not everyone who writes screenplays really writes like that. When there’s unstated personal stuff about a character, I find it productive to leave that to the actor and not probe them about it. Part of the potency of an actor’s performance is the privacy of it. If there is a part of a character that is mysterious, the actor is obviously going to their own understanding of things to define it. If an actor asks me questions when I’m directing, I’ll try to answer them, but I also say, “Look, if this doesn’t work for you, try something else.” An actor can draw upon something that is actually from their own life, or they can imagine themselves in the situation of their character. If their imagination is evocative enough, it will work for them, but it’s definitely not the director’s job to interfere with any of that. All the director says is, “Here’s what I want you to do,” and then sometimes if it keeps not working, you will say to the actor, “Whatever you are using for this from your own life or your own imagination doesn’t seem to be working for you. So let’s talk about the scene.” Perhaps I will say something about the scene that will encourage you to go to something else in your life or your imagination. What a director should not do is try to be included in that privacy.
That approach also empowers the audience to connect with the character in a way that is more meaningful than just being told, “Oh this is why he’s pausing here…”
It certainly does. The audience wants to believe that on one level or another the event onstage or onscreen is really taking place in front of them. That’s why they’re paying to see your show.
When I interviewed Stephen about “Black Box,” he told me that your character, William, is “watching these kids have a freedom that he never had.”
The thing that I had to connect with there was the feeling that I didn’t experience everything that I could’ve in my life. Everybody has that feeling in some way. The things that you go to, as an actor, change for you every year, every month. Something that worked for you six months ago might not work at all for you now. When I did Three Sisters, I went to something—it’s called a substitution—that was red hot in my life then, and the performance just happened. I had to almost step out of the way of the performance, and it went great. Then eight months later, I got the same part in New York with a whole different cast and director, and it was like pulling teeth for me to get to it. The substitution I had used before didn’t occupy the same place in my life.
You’ve shared a similar story about auditioning for Alan J. Pakula’s “Starting Over.” They loved your delivery of a particular line, but you found it impossible to replicate during the shoot.
Yeah, that was rough. [laughs] I knew Charlie Durning very well. He was also in the original company cast of Fiddler, but his part was cut in Detroit. We kept up over the years, and ended up acting in a whole lot of movies together in the 70s. After sharing all our scenes together in “The Muppet Movie,” I called him from the LA airport to say how much I loved working with him, and he said, “When you get to New York, you should try to get yourself in the Pakula film,” and that was “Starting Over.” Like everybody else, I was a fanatic fan of Alan Pakula as a director, and then when I worked with him, I became a fanatic fan of him as a person.
I auditioned for him once, and when he asked me to meet again, he said, “I don’t want you to audition. I just want to ask you why you want to be in this movie.” I said, “Well, to be honest—I like the script, I like the part—but the real reason is I want to work with you. Every actor I know who has ever worked with you has been fascinated by that experience. I think ‘All the President’s Men’ has more good performances in it than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. I just want to see what it is you do.” He said, “I just wonder why you want to play this part. You usually play these crazy characters, and this is just a regular human being in ordinary life.” And I said, “Well maybe that’s another reason why I want to be in this movie.” [laughs]
The first time I saw you was as Max in “The Muppet Movie,” who could’ve just been the villain’s henchman, and ends up quite endearing. In a way, his character teaches young viewers how to stand up to a bully.
That was added to the part after I had gotten it. I was supposed to be in a Bob Fosse movie, “All That Jazz,” but I got offered this film instead. I had a long talk with James Frawley, the director of “The Muppet Movie,” on the phone. He asked me what I thought of the part, and I said, “It kind of has only one dimension.” He said, “You are absolutely right, I’m going to add a whole other dimension to it,” and he did. It’s hard acting opposite puppets because, you know what, they are pieces of cloth! [laughs] That’s what they are, so you have to really concentrate on them. Usually in a film, once you’re in a scene, all you have to do is look in your partner’s eyes, whether they are on camera with you or right off camera looking at you, and if the actor is good, that takes you somewhere. That does not happen when you are acting opposite a piece of cloth, no matter how brilliantly designed that piece of cloth is. It’s not a pair of actual eyes looking at you.
On the other hand, that script was so good, as was the director. The set was very tense because the director was a very intense guy. I haven’t heard of him since, but he was brilliant. He was operating at a different level of intensity than Frank Oz or Jim Henson. I don’t like relaxed film sets because it gets too relaxed. “What’s Up, Doc?” was a really intense set. Peter Bogdanovich was driving us through this very fast-paced dialogue, and the concentration that that took was just incredible. That intensity also made us an ensemble because we were all in the same boat. I was staying at a hotel in Los Angeles, and when I got back to my room, I would literally open the door and crawl toward the bed. When you see the film, it looks effortless, but the effort it takes to get something to look effortless is really something.
“What’s Up, Doc?” is one of the funniest films ever made, and when I first saw the film, I was struck by how your character, Frederick Larrabee, bears an uncanny resemblance to Wes Anderson.
Yeah, and this was long before Wes Anderson was anywhere to be seen! That’s a brilliantly written role, and Peter wondered whether he should cast me. I met him on the set of “Catch-22,” because he was interviewing Orson Welles. He said, “This part is not like your part in ‘Catch-22,’” and then I said—and this is a whopping lie—“Oh I just did ‘Catch-22’ as a favor for Mike.” I didn’t think he’d believe a word of that. And he thought, “Okay, why don’t we give him a chance?”
I assume the onset intensity was fueled by Peter’s attempt to bring a classical screwball energy evocative of “Bringing Up Baby” to each scene.
That’s totally what it was, and a classical screwball energy is very exacting to achieve. He would do long takes without any close-ups, so everybody had to get their lines right. He couldn’t cut away to a close-up to fix something, so the pressure would just build up and everybody would be praying, “Oh please don’t let the person who screws up their lines be me!” We would all talk at top speed, we’d get through the scene and Peter would go, ‘Cut!’ Then he’d say, “Well, it’s gotta go faster than that,” and we would all collectively collapse. [laughs] It was one of those experiences that was intense and exhausting and also kind of thrilling. Between shots, when they were preparing the lights and everything, we—including Barbra [Streisand]—would all sit around in a circle and talk.
Streisand later directed you in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”
The only times I’ve been around her have been those two times. When we did “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” it’s like we picked up on a conversation that we dropped 24 years before. I love her, to begin with, and she also is electric to act with. She’s so there, even when she’s also directing a scene. One of the aspects of her brilliance is how deeply she connects with whomever she’s talking to in the scene.
Considering your experiences of working with female directors, what are your thoughts on the need for inclusion in the industry?
My response to that is just to say, “It’s about time.” Think of all the things that we’ve been deprived of over the years. Women are wonderful directors—I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an exception to that—because women know more. That’s a stupid generalization, but when it comes to what it takes to be a director, the range of knowledge that women have, of human experience, is very valuable when it comes to tackling any dramatic material.
Why have you cited James Ivory’s “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” as your favorite film in your career?
Because it just is. Almost everything I did in the film was during that one afternoon in the house in Kansas City with Joanne [Woodward]. I kept pinching myself. James Ivory is breathtaking as a director, and it was just so concentrated. He likes to do a lot of takes, and I was like, “Just keep taking as many takes as you want,” because that meant I’d keep acting opposite Joanne. With every take, there were new rich things that she was doing, even when she was off-camera. She was so marvelous. I think it would still be my favorite film that I’ve made, even if it wasn’t such a splendid time I had making it, even if it had been a hard time making it. I just love that movie. I grew up in the midwest. My parents were not like the Bridges at all, and though the time period in the film was a little before when I was growing up, it captured that kind of midwestern propriety in mid-20th century America. There is no other movie that is really about that. It was unique.
A year later, you played a stuttering lawyer in “My Cousin Vinny,” which was such a big hit that it typecast you for a while.
Thankfully some people in the industry got behind me and put me in roles that were not like that, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand and Oliver Stone. When I did get parts like that, I tended to turn them down. But “My Cousin Vinny” is a classic.
Like “What’s Up, Doc?”, it’s transcendently funny. It doesn’t matter what era it came from.
I know, and you can never predict that. There’s a kind of chemistry thing that occurs. I don’t think anyone thought with either of those films that they would be classics that would live forever. In fact, if people think that when they are making a film, the film doesn’t usually turn out very well.
I would’ve seen a whole film about you as Joe Lieberman, your character in HBO’s “Game Change.”
I had a very long scene in it with Julianne Moore that they cut because the film was too long. But I had a very good time making that film.
You really see in that movie how the rise of Sarah Palin foreshadowed the election of Trump.
Well, I haven’t ever seen the film but I’m sure I’d see those parallels. In fact, they oughta reshow it!
What first led you to begin working with Alex Thompson on his short film, “Calumet”?
I had been working at Steppenwolf a lot, and about ten years ago, Alex began to get in touch with me. We would talk by phone, and I agreed to be in that short film. It was only after we were planning it that we met in person. Then we made the film in Chicago while I was directing a play at Steppenwolf in 2013. Since then, I had a couple of scenes in one full-length film that was made, [“Our Father,”] which Alex produced. We’re in touch a lot, and he’s planning a couple of other films, one of which he wants me to be cast in as the lead. I like Alex a lot. I would automatically be interested in almost any project he has because I like working with him. I think he’s gifted. Working with Ann was great because of our previous history. We had already become very good friends while acting together at Steppenwolf, so I had this whole connection with her going into the project, and that really helped a lot. The shoot lasted only a day or two, and it was a beautiful experience. Alex did a fair amount of takes and each time he wanted the moment to happen organically. That’s true of any good film director, and he’s very good.
Does it often help to have that history with your co-stars?
It helps, but it is not essential at all. It actually depends on the actor. If you like the actor and you have a previous connection with them, that’s just a double bonus. I’ve had terrific connections with actors I’ve worked with on films who I’ve never met before or even heard of before.
Was it important for you to research Alzheimer’s prior to playing Ira?
I like to go just from the script itself, because otherwise you start trying to play your research rather than playing the script. This script has done its own research on whatever the script is about, and then you just go from there. That tends to be what I do as an actor as well as a director. I find if I’m doing too much research, I’m trying to shoehorn a lot of other things into the legs of the scenes. That script very accurately captures the reality of Alzheimer’s, and the research on that disease could take years. You don’t want to squeeze all kinds of things that aren’t pertinent to this particular story into the script.
Alex Thompson and Stephen Cone both have a wiser, world-weary sensibility that one doesn’t often attribute to their ages
Yeah, those guys are going to be forever young and forever wise. Those attributes don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, they often don’t go together. Some people who are forever young are forever stupid. Some people who are wise remain that way all their lives. It gives them an older feeling even when they are very young. It plays itself out in all kinds of different ways with people. That has been my experience.
Austin, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Well, thank you. You’re a wonderful interviewer.
It was easy to come up with questions, considering the career you’ve had. Someone should write a book about you.
So long as it’s fictionalized… [laughs]
PART II: ANN WHITNEY
The word “retired” is always put in quotes when people write about you because you have never appeared interested in quitting acting over the past four decades.
I’ve always liked storytelling, and a lot of times, you don’t get a good story in a commercial or sometimes even in a movie. I’ve made some movies that I really love, my favorite one being “Sugar,” but the plays have been the most challenging. I think I’ve grown the most from doing those more than anything else. In a play, you have more time to connect with the other actors and you have more time to rehearse. It all starts with the table reads. You think you’ve read it a hundred times already, and then you get to the table with other people and other voices and you think, “Oh my god, that suddenly means more than what I thought it meant.” You learn so much from each other in a play. I think it’s the closest thing that comes to being on a football or basketball team, where you have to cover for each other and pick each other up when you fall down and make a mistake. It results in the building of a different family.
I recently interviewed Denzel Washington’s son, football player-turned-actor John David Washington, and he said the same thing.
It’s true! When my daughter was 12 or 13, she would stay awake with a book and a flashlight under her covers until I came home after doing a play. She used to say, “Mom, mom! What went wrong?”, and I thought that was so funny. Many years later, I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, “Well, if everything goes right in a play, it’s like a movie, where they fix everything before they put it on the screen. But you have to fix it when you are on the stage, in that moment.” I could spend our whole conversation talking about what went wrong in plays that other people either got me out of or I just got out of myself somehow. Audiences tend to believe that anything you do onstage is supposed to happen. I was in a production of A Trip to Bountiful, which my daughter—when she was growing up—directed me in. On the stage was a barrel that had been cut in half so that it could sit on the floor and you could sit or lean on it or put your drink on the lid of the barrel.
At one point, I was supposed to lift myself up and sit on this barrel while speaking with the sheriff, and suddenly I realized in the middle of my speech that my butt was sinking down into the barrel. Before I knew it, I was up to my armpits and knees, so the sheriff said, “Mrs. Watts, are you okay?” and I said, “No, get me outta here!” Then we continued with the play. There was only one entrance to this theater, and when I went to leave, there were people at the front door waiting for me. They said, “Oh that was such wonderful show,” and then one woman said, “Are you supposed to do that barrel thing every night?” What I should’ve said was, “Oh yeah, we rehearsed it. That was something the director dreamed up,” but instead I said, “No! That was a total mistake.” [laughs] I think they would’ve bought it.
In Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Sugar,” which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, you play Helen Higgins, the woman whose family houses a Dominican immigrant, Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), as he struggles to excel in baseball.
I loved that actor. He was a sweet man. The filmmakers went down to the Dominican Republic and found him. They have baseball colleges down there and big league teams get a lot of their players from them. He wasn’t really a pitcher. He was an infielder or maybe an outfielder, and they turned him into a pitcher. I loved that you didn’t have to care about baseball or know about baseball in order to enjoy the movie because it’s really about this guy’s journey through something brand new. When he goes to the diner for the first time by himself, he orders an egg, and the waitress asks, “How would you like that done?” He looks bewildered and says, “French toast.” Then she brings a plate of eggs done about ten different ways. It was so classic and so sweet.
In everybody’s life, there is always somebody coming up behind you who is maybe prettier or younger or smarter or a better actor or a faster pitcher, whatever it is, and you are always looking over your shoulder to see who is after your job. I thought that was so well-portrayed here. He knew that he wasn’t going to get back on the bus at the end. Instead, he goes to New York and makes a whole new life for himself, while still playing baseball with retired baseball players. I thought it was so wonderful to see that he made it.
How did Northwestern University start you off on the right foot, acting-wise?
I came from a little town in the middle of Illinois—Bloomington—and at that time, the only place to do theatre was in New York, because Chicago didn’t have anything but traveling companies that came through. We didn’t have 150 storefront theaters when I was at Northwestern in 1948. I had this teacher who wore her hair pulled back really tightly so it almost looked like a face lift was happening in the front. I was a little scared of her because I was a little scared of everything then. In Acting 101, our final assignment was to perform a scene that she assigned, and then we’d have a private talk with her. After my performance, she met with me and said, “You did very well in that, and I’m happy with how you are progressing. Tell me more about yourself, just as a person. What is it that you are really interested in?” I must’ve had a list of 25 things I was really interested in—many of them had to do with getting married and having a family, and going to New York and becoming an actor, or “actress,” as we called ourselves then. My mom wanted me to be a nurse, and I always thought I could be good at that. I like kids and I always used to do summer work with them, so I thought perhaps I could be a teacher.
After listening to all of this, my teacher said, “That is very interesting to me. I want you to think about pursuing one of these things that you’re interested in as a vocation and keep acting as an avocation. Because no matter where you are—doing your teaching or your nursing or whatever it is—they will have a community theatre, and if they don’t, you start one.” Instead of saying, “Oh no, I’m going to New York and become an actress,” I said, “Oh, okay.” I changed my major from acting to speech therapy, now called “communicative disorders.” I figure if you can say that, you don’t have one. [laughs] By the time I started acting again, I was married to a wonderful man, had three children and a new baby. They did a play at my church about the life of Jesus and how his family was upset with him for going off and being this cockamamie preacher when he was really needed back home building furniture. My husband was cast in the play, so I’m over in the house, which is half a block away from the church, nursing this new baby and thinking, “How come he’s in the play?” I was jealous, but the play was very successful and we started a little community theatre group.
Your professional debut onstage was in the 1982 premiere of Ara Watson’s A Different Moon at Next Theatre, where you starred opposite Ann Dowd, also making her debut as the pregnant lover of your son.
She is an incredible actor, but this time, she made her own decision about her character. At some point before opening night, she decided that her character would be mentally challenged. We had no idea she made this decision until opening night, and it changed everything. Suddenly, it appeared that my son had taken advantage of a girl with special needs. Ann would leave the theater about 20 minutes before curtain and walk around the neighborhood. Then she’d come back with a rock or a stick or a leaf. She’d come up to me and say, “I’m giving you this rock,” and I’d say, “Oh thank you, Annie. I’ve never had a rock like this.” She’d say, “Oh that’s alright, I love you.” [laughs] When Ann was having a scene with the son or somebody else, the woman playing my daughter would be backstage saying, “What is she doing? What is happening?” The director talked to her, but Ann could not do it any other way. That’s how the play got changed from being about female bonding to being about the ways we treat people who are mentally challenged, and how we should be open and kind and generous to them—a good message to leave with our audiences! You see Ann in the stuff that she’s doing now as a grown-up, and she’s remarkable. I’m proud to say I worked with her.
Your brother, McLean Stevenson, found success on the early seasons of “MASH.” Did his experiences impact your decision to remain in the midwest?
I really wanted to focus more on staying here. I wouldn’t have wanted to move to California or New York like Mac did. There is a lot of theater here in Chicago, and this was always the place that I fit the best. I had been out to California a couple of times to audition for stuff which I didn’t get, and one time I was house sitting for Francis Guinan, who is one of the original Steppenwolf guys. I collected all his mail and was coming back to go to a wedding in Chicago with my husband. We ended up going to the show that they were doing at Steppenwolf, the name of which I don’t remember, and it was bizarre. There were people leaving in the middle of the first act, and even more leaving at the intermission. They’d go up and pound on the desk of the ticket taker and say, “I want my money back, cancel my subscription! I’m never coming to anything here again. This is just trash.” And I thought, “Well I think this is trash too, but I can’t leave. I have to give Fran his mail.” [laughs]
At one point, a nun came onstage with a big platter. She lifted off the lid and on the plate was a big pile of steaming feces. I don’t know what it had to do with the play, but it was just so off-putting. Then I had to go downstairs and see Fran. The other woman who was in it—she was also an original Steppenwolf girl—threw her arms around me and said, “Thank you for coming down! Nobody ever comes down to see us. We thought this was going to be such a funny play and it’s just awful. I’m so embarrassed we’re in it.” and I wanted to say, “Well I didn’t come down to compliment your acting…” [laughs]
In addition to your great stage work, you’ve appeared in many memorable Chicago-set films, my favorite being Chris Columbus’ “Home Alone.” I saw that film so many times as a kid that I know every line of your scene as the drugstore clerk by heart.
That film is a gift that keeps on giving. Every year they show it around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I will have little kids look at me in the grocery store and whisper, “There’s the ‘Home Alone’ lady!” Whenever I walk in the door at a particular IHOP, there’s a waiter who does that pose with both hands on either side of his face like Macauley Culkin. In my scene, when I call over the pharmacist, Herb, the focus is really on Macauley and the guy from next door with the bandage on his hand. As you’re watching that, Herb and I are having a little improv. I ask Herb, “Do you know if this toothbrush is approved by the American Dental Association?” He says, “I don’t know—tell him that it is!” And I say, “Your father and I are not gonna bail you out of another lawsuit after lying to a customer.” By then, Macauley was on his way out the door, and I say, “Jimmy, stop that boy!”
That was the first day of the shoot, and the crew was so excited because it was snowing like mad outside, and they wouldn’t have to make snow. I remember that very well. Macauley was adorable, very sweet and very professional. His parents kind of got ahold of him while he was growing up, and he said yes to some not good things. Then I saw an interview with him rather recently, and he is now a grown-up who can put that all aside. I thought he seemed well, and I felt really good about that. He was a little sweetheart on that set, and I thought he was really a good actor in the film. He was really inventive.
Speaking of Steppenwolf, you’ve appeared in some memorable shows there, such as Rondi Reed’s 1988 production of Stepping Out, where you acted opposite Irma P. Hall and Deanna Dunagan.
I love Stepping Out. I remember my agent calling me and asking, “Do you play the piano?” I said, “No,” and she said, “Oh that’s too bad because Steppenwolf is doing this play and they were asking if you wanted to play the pianist.” I hung up, and my poor mother up in heaven was saying, “I told you you should’ve learned the piano.” [laughs] About an hour and a half later, I got a call from someone at Steppenwolf asking me to audition for the part, while reassuring me that piano skills weren’t mandatory. So I got cast, and the day we got onto the set, the sound guy was there and I heard him talking in the corner with the director, saying, “What do you mean she doesn’t play the piano? What the hell were you thinking?” And Rondi said, “I just knew that you could fix it somehow.” They thought through a million ideas, all of which had too many things that could go wrong, like a tape recorder in the piano. We had to hire a pianist to sit behind the wall of the set, right behind me. But it was a wonderful show with great people. Most of the cast didn’t know how to tap dance prior to the show, and we all learned how to do it together. I was very excited when the play moved to another theater.
As for other memorable moments from plays, I was once cast as Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol at the Goodman. That was great fun. The guy that played Mr. Fezziwig had a hearing problem, so at one point, when we were supposed to join him for the dancing at the Christmas party, he’s at one side of the stage and I’m at the other. He is watching me intently, and so when it was time for us to move, I just very grandly lifted the front of my dress so my feet would show, bouncing a little bit, and he knew that we were supposed to go out. [laughs] I also loved doing “Tartuffe” at Northwestern. It was directed by Sean Graney, who is really off-the-wall. I heard a rumor that there was a slide on the stage, so when I gave my headshot to the student stage manager, I asked, “Have you heard anything about a slide being in the play?” She said, “Oh yeah,” and I said, “Well, can you tell me anything about it?” She said, “Yes, it’s blue.” That doesn’t help me! [laughs]
My character wore this wild dress that was narrow at the bottom but had big hip panels and big puffy sleeves. This slide had a ladder that was straight up and down—fifteen feet to the top of the slide. In order to get up the ladder, I had to hike my dress up almost over my waist, and then get both legs over the top to slide down this thing. There were six other characters down at the bottom to catch me if I fell off sideways. It was a huge laugh for everybody, so it was worth it. In one of the rooms where we exited and entered, Sean had filled it with balloons. He just does wild and wacky things. It was really fun and so challenging to try to keep up with the college kids on that show.
One of my favorite films of recent years is Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids,” where you play Ms. Powell, a woman who dutifully attends church every Sunday with her granddaughter, Cheryl (Sadie Rogers).
That was a good one. When we filmed that last scene where we are all standing there together, looking at the nativity scene, everybody in their real life and as their characters were terribly moved by that. It was very meaningful.
What role does faith play in your own creative life?
I will always say a prayer and hope that I can help tell a story that is important for people, whether it makes them laugh or feel moved or think about something. I look at the world and I think, ‘Oh my god, what is going to happen? Are we in Armageddon now with all the fires and the earthquakes and volcanos and—I don’t want to get political, but…our leaders?’ You think, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’ I don’t think so, but it makes me all the more motivated to give people something that will enrich their life in some way. I have a friend who says, “Don’t think globally. There is nothing that you and I can do globally, but we can help the person two doors away from us who can’t get the wheelchair out of a doorway.” We are always presented with something that we can do for somebody else that makes their life better. I hope that the films and plays that I’ve done have done that. Things like “Home Alone” always keep coming back to me because they made people laugh and smile and I want to do more of that.
“Calumet” is a key example of how cinema can enrich people’s lives by making them feel less alone. Your character, Irene, gently humors her husband, Ira, until she reveals the reality of his memory loss.
Yes—with that startling opening of the refrigerator, and you realize that the cake they’re making had already been made the previous day, and my husband has no recollection of it. That script was brilliantly written, and I loved the ending. The dinger on the oven goes off but heck with that. We’re holding hands and kissing and we just want to be close and intimate with each other as long as we can be. Austin was so brilliant in that. It was fascinating just to watch him move around.
In what ways were you able to relate the film to your own life?
My husband became ill after we were at Westminster Place in Evanston for about two or three years, and he wound up spending his last year in the care center. There were times like the scenes in the movie, where we would sit together and hold hands or we’d lie our heads on the same pillow. I miss him something terrible, but he was ill, and for a lot of the time, he wasn’t himself. He kept wanting to come home, and would ask me, “Why can’t you take me home?” I don’t mean to sound spooky or anything, but I believe this was God putting words in my mouth because I never could’ve thought of this by myself. I said, “Bill, you know what? Whenever I’m with you, I feel like I’m home. When we’d go on trips together, I felt like wherever we were, I was home as long as I was with you.” The easy thing would’ve been for me to go on an awful rant of, “Well you can’t go home. I can’t take care of you at home by myself—blah, blah, no, no, negative, negative.” I think it was God Himself telling me, “This is what you say.”
I once saw a plaque in a catalogue that I decided to cut out and keep. It showed a little sketch of a country road. Nobody was in it, and below were the words, ‘When it’s sad to look back and you’re afraid to look forward, look beside you—I will be there.’ I have two sons and they are both immeasurably wonderful in different ways. One of them asked me, “What do you suppose that saying means?” And I said, “I think it means God. It might mean you, Michael. Maybe it’s my mom. I think it’s whoever I need it to be beside me, walking through this life.” That’s how I felt about that, and I’m sure my character would’ve felt that too, at least I think so. I would’ve made her feel that way.
“Calumet” will screen along with four other high-rated short films from Hewes Pictures as part of the “Love and Loss” compilation at The Factory Theater in Chicago, running from Thursday, August 23rd, through Wednesday, August 29th. Also among the selections is Alex Thompson’s “Irene & Marie,” starring Olympia Dukakis, Rose Gregorio, Burt Young and Louis Zorich. For more information, click here. Both films are also currently available for streaming on Amazon.