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Interview: Ann made her do it

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Last week, actress Holland Taylor, who readers may know from television shows like Two and a Half Men (she plays Charlie Sheen’s and John Cryer’s mother), The Practice (for which she won an Emmy), and films like Baby Mama and Legally Blond, sat down with the Current to candidly discuss Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards, a one-woman play she hopes the 45th Governor of Texas would “more or less” approve of. But before we begin talking about the play she’s written, Ms. Taylor and I enjoyed a brief exchange about photography.

Are you a film man, or a digital?

I shoot film.

God bless you … The average Brownie snapshot is more beautiful than anything you can take today with any camera because there are 400,000 grays, and blacks, and whites … And the surface is like glass. It’s a hard surface you could break with your fingernail.

Like when you can see three-dimensional raised layers on a Polaroid.

The emulsion, the stacking of the image. I miss that. I miss it terribly.

I’m curious when and how you became fascinated with Ann Richards.

Well, I think I was sort of devoted to her before I even knew I was. She was a presence in New York, and I wasn’t aware of her as much when she was governor, although I was very aware of her when she got elected. I thought it was the most romantic and exciting look of anything … to come out of Texas. To see the pictures from that inaugural day was really thrilling.

I agree.

Then, of course, after she was Governor, she became a national, even an international figure … I was very aware of her … She was a figure in my life that was going to always be there; that was my plan. My plan for her was: You are always going to be a presence in my life, and you’re going to be a very comforting figure, and (laughs) you’re going to be someone who will tell me what it’s all about, and your attitude will be an attitude I’m going to want to adopt. That’s my plan for you. And then she died. And I knew she was unwell, but before I even had time to come to terms with that, she died. And she had just turned 73. That is `an` absurd age to die. And she was also very vital, at the top of her game, speaking at important gatherings of people … And we needed her. We need her voice. I was just very unnaturally mournful, considering I didn’t know her.

So you never met her?

I did meet her, I had lunch with her, but … I don’t understand people who say I know someone, or they’re my friend because I had lunch with them. I didn’t know her. So my mourning seemed excessive, and some months later, I realized I really had to do something creative about her ― in order to use up this energy. And I thought about it in a very prosaic way for a while, you know ‘movie-of-the-week’ for television or something. And then one day, I’m literally driving to work, and I was struck with the realization that she should be rendered in a stage play because of her connection with an audience and because of how alive she was. And because she loved the theater. You know, she loved a good show. I just thought, even very early on I thought, ‘Imagine her sitting in the fifth row with Liz Smith, her great friend in New York ― who is actually who had taken me to lunch with her ― imagine her laughing, which she loved to do, and being tickled by seeing herself replicated, in some way or other, and that she would elbow Liz and say, you know, ‘This is good. This is good. This girl is the bomb.’ She had actually, I know that she watched a television show that I’m on … somebody told me that. So it had a real reality to me, the idea of making a play that she would like … I think that is my task. I want to write a play that she would enjoy seeing ― about herself, and that she’d say, ‘Oh, this girl’s got it more or less right.’ Because more or less right is good enough, you know. This is a theater piece. This is not a history. It’s not about politics, although it includes `politics`. It’s not about what happened historically when she was governor, in fact it’s not about her being governor. That’s just one part of it. It’s about her personhood, and how she grew into being who she always was.

I read that you workshopped it in Galveston.

I did, but it was a full production. It was just as big as it is here, in fact we’re having to reduce our set to fit into this because of the unusual `dimensions` of this theater, we have to not use certain elements of our set.

Like what?

Some backdrops and stuff, this theater doesn’t have the depth, the physical depth of the stage, so we can’t have these wood archways that evoke all the wood in the Capitol, and there’s, you know, enormous, fabulous, wood door frames and window frames and stuff. We had these archways, and we had three of them that gave it a certain depth. And we can only use two of them. So, things like that. So it was a very big production in Galveston and I don’t know where I got the nerve to do that.

How was the play received in Galveston?

Wonderfully ― from the minute we began. I think because there’s an enormous eagerness for her, to have a taste of her, the flavor of her, to be able to celebrate her. There’s a big appetite for her.

I interviewed Sandra Bernhard a couple of weeks ago; she was here for a tour called ‘Kiss Me on the Lips Texas,’ and I asked her if she could name a few Texans she’d like to kiss on the lips, and Ann Richards was the only name she came up with.

Oh, that’s great. That’s so great. I love her, I think she’s one of our most gifted actresses. And like Tom Hanks, because she is so accessible, and so friendly, people don’t realize how wonderful she is, and the skill. She’s gifted, really gifted, but she makes herself seem like an everyday gal. And she ain’t an everyday gal ― anymore than Tom Hanks is an everyday guy.

So how do you find time to juggle all that you do with television and a personal project of this magnitude?

To tell you the truth, it’s like being pregnant. If you really knew what that entailed, would you do it? No, sir. And I’ve been pregnant with this play for three years, and frankly I have done my job on the television show, but that is not a full-time job, and everything else is gone. I don’t see anybody, I have no social life to speak of, I don’t travel ― which I used to do; I used to go to England twice a year to see plays, you know, 10 or 15 plays. I used to go to New York once a month to see plays and friends ― I have hardly done that for three years; and I hardly read a magazine. I’ve read material about her … in my research. I’ve traveled to Austin, five or so times. I’ve traveled to a number of cities to spend time with her staffers and friends. Her closest friend, one of them, surely the closest, lives on Salt Springs Island, near Vancouver Island in Canada, so that’s a big trip. She was so critical. And then after we met, we spent a great deal of time on the phone and still do. Another friend of hers who was her Chief of Staff lives in Dallas, and actually she and I both took a trip to meet in Santa Fe with a third Ann Richards person from Austin. So one came from Austin, one came from Dallas, and I came from Los Angeles, and we spent a weekend together in Santa Fe to talk about nothing but Ann Richards. It’s been a very big effort. And, yeah, to the exclusion of all else. And that’s been fine. I mean, you tend to look back on something like this, and you couldn’t imagine not doing it. But if you looked at it beforehand, you’d say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know that I want to give up everything,’ (laughs), and you don’t really have much to say about it.

So are there plans to take it to Broadway?

Oh, well, you know, that’s where plays go if they have a life and if they become viable, and people enjoy them, they go to New York.

That’s exciting.

But we’re having a very good time in Texas. Frankly, I have requested of the people who are of interest in the play, ‘Look, I just want to play it in Texas, because Texas is giving me everything. Texas is giving me Ann.

That’s great.

And I would not have thought that from the get-go ― in fact the contrary. My original long-range view of this was that I would do it at some regional theaters, which would support me in the production ― we would develop it at regional theaters. I would eventually do it in New York; after I did it in New York, because that would be limited ― maybe four months or so, you can’t do something like this― and then I would do a selected tour to cities that I wanted to go to that I thought would be really interesting ― and great cities like Chicago, which is the greatest theater town other than New York that there is. And then I would when I was unbelievably secure and confident, which I hoped I would become, I would take it to Texas. Because I figured, Texas, she’s theirs. So then, what happened was, the woman who runs the Grand Opera House in Galveston read the play. My agent had worked with her on other productions. And she said, ‘Oh, I have to be the first one. That’s it. I’m doing this play. I am presenting it. I’m going to present you in this play.’ And my first reaction was abject cowardice. I said, ‘Oh, God. What?! Start it in Texas? What? I mean, I can tell you, I will be working on the dialect, which is not natural to me, forever … But then I thought, what would Ann Richards do, if offered such a proposition? So, my way was clear. So now, having started it in Texas: I was afraid to come; now I’m afraid to leave.

That’s great.

I’ve been given the most warmth, the most heart, fun, interest, and it’s very interesting. The audiences, obviously I’m not exactly like her, I don’t have that kind of skill, and it’s not meant to be a replica. It’s meant to be, it’s a creation, it’s a dream of her, you know, and the audiences have understood that. This is not a movie about her, this is a play; this is the magic of the theater. And so, they’re willing to stretch their parameters of what they’ll accept as a representation of her. They’re willing to be very elastic about that, because they understand this is theater.

Is there singing involved?

No, and it’s just as good. It’s just as well there ain’t, ‘cause she couldn’t sing at all.

And how many people are in the production?

One … There are voices.

And it was originally titled Money, Marbles, and Chalk?

Yes, and we don’t know that we’ll stay with Ann. I called it Money, Marbles, and Chalk because it really is a play. It’s not a rug-and-a-chair one-person show; it’s a real play. It’s a theater play. Other actors will play this part. This is not just going to be mine. And it’s a literary piece. It’s something that is well structured, and well written. And I’ve seen many, many, many, many plays in my time, and I have written a play here. So that said, I wanted a true title. And “money, marbles, and chalk” is an old expression that’s been used in a blues song. It is associated with politics; and Ann did say it. And it means ‘I’m all in. I’ll bet the farm on this. I’ll give my all. I will bet everything ― my money, my marbles, my chalk. And there is this blues song. But as much as Ann may have used it, in a very off-hand way ― I have an interview where she uses that phrase ― it was associated with L.B.J. So I thought, it’s really his … And then I also thought, additionally, this play isn’t about a politician. She may have been a politician; that’s only one aspect of her. I think, you know, any play about L.B.J would be about a politician. This play is, even though it features a section of her as governor, this is bigger than that. This is a wider range than that. And really what it comes down to is just Ann.

Is this your first time in San Antonio?

Yes, and boy, coming to San Antonio at Christmas time; it is so pretty and charming. Although I have a complaint: I hear they take these lights down. Are they crazy? Why would they take these lights down ever?

I’m not sure, that’s a good question.

I was in Chicago last year at Thanksgiving, and they had the Christmas lights up, and as you know, Chicago is cold and windy and has a very difficult winter. And there are great boulevards with thousands of trees with little white lights, and the charm of it was just tremendous.

I’m curious, how would you describe to someone that’s never seen you on TV or in films the type of characters you generally play?

The only reason I know the answer to this question is that I’ve been interviewed a lot about the characters that I play. I don’t see myself the way other people see me. I really don’t. I am cast as supremely confident, and strong people, and arrogant people, and selfish people. I hope I’m not selfish. I hope I’m not arrogant. And I don’t feel extremely strong. And I don’t feel powerful. In fact, sometimes I say, ‘I’ll be lucky to get through that door.’ So it’s an odd thing that I play these characters.

Other than Ann Richards, is there anyone ― or any type of character ― that you’ve always wanted to play?

Well, it’s funny, I’m getting my wish without realizing I was … I’m often cast as very bitchy, mean, self-centered, selfish people … and socialites. Probably the role I enjoyed the most, or one of them that was way up there was the judge on The Practice. Because she was so intelligent and she was such a good judge. And I love the idea of playing someone who ‘s really accomplished in a field. And then, additionally, I wanted to play someone who was really a fine, remarkable person, instead of shallow or a superficial person, like many of the people I play. And I guess I’m getting that in Ann. But I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just knew I had to play her … Ann made me do this. That’s the answer.

“Ann made me do this,” and also “What would Ann Richards do?” Do you find yourself saying this?

All the time now. Whenever I feel whiney and complaining and cowardly, or negative, I say, ‘Ann would just give you such a look. ‘Grow up. Quit that whining.’

I’ve got one last question and you don’t have to answer it, but can you share a funny story about working on Moose Murders?

Oh, sure. God, I hadn’t thought about a funny story. The whole thing was funny.

Or anything that would sum up just what…

Oh, yeah, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you one. When I did Moose Murders, first of all, I took over for Eve Arden, which was already incredible. Now, I had just done a workshop of a play in New York … called Breakfast with Less and Bess. I had done this workshop for 16 weeks for $35 a-week, and I had run up terrific debts. And I really didn’t know what the hell I was going to do to recover. I knew about this play Moose Murders because they had wanted me to play a supporting role in it and I’d read it, and I knew it was very funny, but a disaster as a whole play, and I didn’t think it was going to have any life. And other things about it made me think it was not going to last but a minute. Then, when Eve Arden left it, they asked me to do it. That I’d be asked to replace Eve Arden in anything was astonishing, so that was very flattering that they thought I could do that. But I knew it would be very, very hard work, but I knew that the other cast members had been with it for months and they were just beat down by the problems with it. I was coming in fresh: learn it, do it quick. It would close, I’d live, and I’d get out of debt. So I thought, the old-fashioned computer where the cards come down with the answer? When I got that offer, the computer went ‘Whiz, whiz, clink, bang, snap, zazaza. And when these cards came out, they said, ‘Take the job, take the job, take the job, take the job.’ For various reasons. It would show the industry that I had grit. And that I could learn a part in a week and star in a play. I had to. I had to get out of debt. So forth and so on. And then I’d be able to do the other production of my workshop, which was going to come around full circle. So I did take it, and it was a very, very, very difficult job. And on one of the previews, this is what happened: This play ends with a “blackout line,” which is just like what it sounds like: a funny line that gets a big laugh, and then the lights go out, and that’s the end of the scene. The play as written ends with a blackout line; it was just so-so funny. And so then, when the play is over, you say the line, the lights go out, the curtain comes down, they know it’s over, the curtain comes up, we take out bow, and leave, okay? On this night in question, which was a night when press was there ― there as a preview right before opening ― I said this blackout line, got a so-so laugh, the lights did not go out, and the curtain did not come down.

Oh my God.

And there we were ― shit-faced. They all ran like rats off a ship, leaving me standing there. And I literally yelled at them, ‘Come back here! Come back here!’ We had to take our bow … I’m sure all of our faces were burning; there was really no way the audience knew it was over. I had to say, ‘It’s over.’ And honey, it was over.

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