Face to Face With Estelle Parsons

Face to Face With Estelle Parsons

Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde)—86 years young—returns to Broadway in The Velocity of Autumn this month, playing an 80-year-old woman who would rather blow up her Brooklyn brownstone—with her in it—than end her days in a nursing home. Is this a classic case of typecasting? As rehearsals were about to begin, I visited the actress in her Upper West Side apartment, where she opened up about her life in the theater, keeping fit, playing Roseanne’s mother on TV and raising her twin daughters as a single parent. This much was clear from the outset: Estelle Parsons is anything but your typical octogenarian.

FL: I hear you’re something of a gym rat.

EP: Yeah. I go five days a week. I go way over to the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue. [laugh]

FL: Don’t tell me you walk over?

EP: I don’t usually. I sometimes do in good weather, but mostly I don’t. I have a trainer twice a week, and then I bike [on a stationary bike at home]. Today, I biked for an hour. I don’t usually bike that long, but I was finishing up Sycamore Row by John Grisham. So, I thought I’d bike for an hour today. I do yoga here [in her apartment]. And swim.

FL: So that’s how you keep going?

EP: That’s how I keep going. That’s what keeps me going. Because—what is it? endorphins or exdorphins—stuff like that. You have to keep moving. You have to be a moving target, right? Otherwise you’re dead.

FL: You made a face a few minutes ago about starting up with the script [for The Velocity of Autumn] again.

EP: Oh, yeah.

FL: Is it a difficult process?

EP: Well, I thought I knew it after six weeks at Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C., where Velocity played its pre-Broadway engagement in September and October 2013]. We thought we could do it again; we won’t need a big rehearsal [period]. But, of course, it pretty much goes out of your head, and then you have to start again.

FL: Are you hoping to find new things in your character, Alexandra?

EP: It’s a very interesting play, and it’s all there. Once you start doing it, it’s all there. I don’t think it will be any different to audiences [in New York], but I think for myself it will be fuller. It’s not a subtle piece [laugh]. A lot of loud talking on my part. On the other hand, it’s about a very difficult relationship between the son and his mother. A very painful relationship. In the play, the son doesn’t come back for his father’s funeral. My cousin back in the ’30s, when he was a teenager, ran away to join the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to earn some money during the Depression, and he came back. But that’s the only person I’ve known who actually ran away. Where I come from [New England], people don’t run away from home. I know another guy who joined the Navy, but that was different: There was a war on. In high school, everybody was joining up for something.

FL: What is there in the play that you relate to?

EP: Oh, don’t even ask. Every word. Even every “and” or “but” you can relate to. It’s very deep and very painful. Alexandra’s on the way out [she’s 80]. She loves her son the way mothers can love sons. He was very special to her all his life. She hasn’t seen him for like 20, 30 years. And he doesn’t come back because he wants to see her. He comes back because he wants to prove to himself that he’s not a loser, which he more or less is. It’s very painful. But it’s also very funny. Eric Coble’s really a comedy writer. He’s not an O’Neill, he’s not a Tennessee Williams, but the audience just sucks it right up. They love it. They laugh and laugh. You can walk across the stage two or three times waiting for them to finish their laughing. And, of course, I love that more than anything, being able to make people laugh like that. Once, when I was doing Miss Margarida’s Way, a man on the aisle fell right out of his seat onto the floor. And I thought that was the greatest award that I could get. I made this guy laugh so hard, I made him fall on the floor.

FL: How do you go about choosing a role? You have at least 30 Broadway credits. So far.

EP: Yes, I did [Edward] Albee’s Malcolm, [Tennessee] Williams’ The Seven Descents of Myrtle. I’ve done just about everything. But that’s what I try to do. That’s what I like to do. If I’ve done a character, I don’t like to repeat it. My agents thought I wouldn’t like The Velocity of Autumn because it’s an older woman on the way out. But I found out, five pages into reading it, the idea of Alexandra blowing up her house and being ready to depart and take the house with her rather than change her lifestyle is something I hadn’t read about older people before. Usually they’re nice little old ladies. Not always. I played an Appalachian woman who’s 101 in Grace & Glory Off-Broadway [1996]. But Alexandra seemed feisty to me in a way you don’t always get to see. I had no idea what Velocity was going to be about. I don’t pay much attention to that. I just look for a character that I want to create, that is somebody I haven’t created, different from anything I’ve ever done. So I didn’t pay much attention to the play, which turns out to be this huge audience pleaser. Everybody can relate to it. People in their middle years and even teenagers. At a talk back in Washington, this sweet girl about 17 got up and said, ‘I’m going off to college and I so identified with the play because I love my siblings, I love my home and I don’t want to leave it. I feel just like this woman: I don’t want to leave home. I don’t want to make that huge transition.’ It seems to fit everybody. And, of course, middle-aged people or people of any age who are taking care of parents and grandparents are making these really tough decisions. Old people are the ones laughing because they love it: Everything [my character says] is so true.

FL: I have a bone to pick with you.

EP: Oh yeah.

FL: Two years ago, I sat through Nice Work If You Can Get It waiting for you to come onstage. You kept me waiting two hours before you finally made your entrance.

EP: I know.

FL: But when you came on, wow.

FL: That was a nice little credit. I had a great time with that.

FL: How did it come about?

EP: It was just like this play. My poor agent called up and said, “[Director/choreographer] Kathleen Marshall wants you to be in Nice Work If You Can Get It. You won’t want to do it.” Then we did a reading. I called him up and said, “I don’t know if I want to do it or not now that we’ve read it because Judy [Kaye] had this wonderful part and I didn’t have any songs.” My experience with musicals was always that I, when I was starting out, I started out with a small part and then it would get bigger and bigger. I had that in mind even though I’m not starting out in musicals anymore. But then when I did the reading, I thought this part is not going to get any bigger. It is what it is. My agent said, “I’m sorry it’s too late. You’ve signed the contract. You’re doing it.” Well, I had the most fun. I had a wonderful time. I went in late during the second act. And all the people in musicals are so cheerful. It’s very unlike doing a play, where people tend to be, I don’t know, who they really are. But once you hear that music, you’re happy.

FL: Your first Broadway show was the musical Happy Hunting with Ethel Merman [1956]. What was that like?

EP: She was wonderful. That was a lovely experience. That was one where they fired another actor and gave me his part. Lindsay and Crouse [Happy Hunting's book was by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse] said, “Estelle, you’re going to have the most wonderful career.” So, it was a good beginning.

FL: Have you had the career that Lindsay and Crouse predicted or that you wanted?

EP: I never wanted one. [laugh] But I have been very happy with everything. You know, I never had a picture of what I wanted. After the Academy Award [for Bonnie and Clyde, 1967], they wanted to manage me. What did I want to do? They’d produce what I wanted to do. But I could never think of what I wanted to do really. I had a lot of kids, I mean only then, but I had twins I brought up as a single parent. I had to work, so I worked. If I had a choice, I don’t know. But to keep acting because I have to keep up my lifestyle? None of that.

FL: So, you never really considered “going Hollywood”?

EP: No, no, no. I never wanted to do movies. I only did Bonnie and Clyde because of [its director] Arthur Penn. I was working with him in the theater, and that was very meaningful to me in my development as an artist. I would have gone anywhere in the world to work with him. In fact, I waited about six months to do another theater piece with him because I was so excited to work with him and what I was able to do with him as a director. When I saw Bonnie and Clyde years later, I thought it was really incredible. My work had such a dimension to it, which, listen, it didn’t always have. That particular movie and what I was able to bring to it was really because I was so excited to be working with Arthur. After [Bonnie and Clyde], I had all these offers from Hollywood. And my agent said, “Oh, you have to take them.” I was doing Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny down on Second Avenue. I said that would be silly: I’m going to give this up? I don’t care if it’s the biggest flop in New York. I was doing the American premiere of Brecht’s Mahagonny. That was far more important to me than a movie playing the mother of a druggie, even though it was a very good movie. I’ve liked the theater my whole life. I had lunch yesterday with a young actress who, I think, isn’t quite sure what she wants to do. It became so clear to me talking to her that all my life, when I wanted to act, I’ve been interested in theater because it’s an actor’s medium. The others are really directors’ mediums. And I’ve never liked people telling me what to do. I’ve always liked to do what I’ve wanted to do. [As to movies], I don’t like the lifestyle: You go to the studio at six and get home late. You’re too tired to even eat dinner. I don’t like that lifestyle. I like to work a few hours at night, entertain people, smoke and drink and all that. That’s fine. So, I sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Phone rings, “So-and-so wants you to do such-and-such.” I say, “Sure, I’ll do it.” That’s my dream of an ideal life. [laugh] It works pretty well.

FL: Is there a role that you wish you had played?

EP: Yeah, I know what you mean. I don’t think so. I had a lot of opportunities, maybe two or three is a lot in the theater, to play Mary Tyrone [in Long Day’s Journey Into Night]. I love O’Neill. [But if I could do a play of his] that I haven’t done, it would be Mourning Becomes Electra. I really didn’t want to do Mary. I worked on it a little bit at the Studio [Actors Studio], and I felt this little naïve Irish Catholic girl who becomes an addict, I’m not really interested in that. And I stopped working on it.

FL: And yet you obviously don't give up easily and like to work.

EP: I do. I think as I get older I keep busy because all the kids are gone, you know. They’ve been a huge distraction in my life. When the twins were in high school, it was clear they didn’t want me around, so I’d better be around! You don’t want them coming home to an empty house all the time. Even though you’re not going to have a big interaction with them [laugh], At least you’re there. So I did stop working for a couple of years. My son [who Parsons and her second husband, Peter Zimroth, adopted when she was 55] had a lot of physical problems and dyslexia. So I stopped working for about four years then to get him straightened out and into school and therapy and all that. That was hard at that time. That’s when I did Roseanne. When she said, come and do the show, I said that would be great because I couldn’t work in the theater. It was too much. Even though you’re only working a few hours a night, it’s a full-time job. I mean, you get up in the morning, and you’re thinking how you’re going to be at night. Am I tired, not tired, what should I do all day? You’re always preparing for the night. So the only time you’re really comfortable and happy is after the show. People come by [after a performance] and say, “Oh, you must be so exhausted, you must be tired.” Well, I’m ready to have a little life then because I spent the whole day going to the gym and waiting to go to my performance. The only relaxation comes in the middle of the night. It’s a weird life. Kids and eight shows a week are really hard to do. I had to do it when I was a single parent. When my son came along, I just said, no. And then Rosie [Roseanne Barr] said, “You can come whenever you want, and we’ll fix the schedule.” So I did that during the years I couldn’t work in the theater. It was great because I could keep my hand in. Wonderful people on that show, wonderful fun and my son’s father really had to come home from the law office and bond with him because I wasn’t there.

FL: Has Broadway changed over the years?

EP: You know, in the Sixties I worked on Broadway all the time. A long run at that time was about four months. I never took more than a four-month contract because I thought it couldn’t really be fresh, and I wouldn’t want to do anything longer than that. Four months was a successful show. Once I started acting [in plays], instead of musicals, I would go from show to show. I made a decent enough living to support my kids and never worked in movies. A few TV shows. I was one of the people who started the Today show in 1950. When I started out, that was what you did: You came to New York, and you wanted to work on Broadway. That was my idea of making it, to be above the title on Broadway. At that time you [took a show] out of town [prior to opening on Broadway], and you’d be in Washington, in Philadelphia, in Boston. They stopped doing that, and Broadway was just not as interesting any more. That’s when I turned to Mahagonny down on Second Avenue and moved Off-Broadway.

FL: Is Broadway getting better?

EP: I couldn’t say. Someone urged me to do August: Osage County [Parsons played the demanding lead role of Violet Weston for a year on Broadway, beginning in June 2008]. I’m very glad I did. I had a wonderful time. Now I’m working on Broadway again. It’s a wonderful community. I’m back where I started. It’s changed a lot, but on the other hand, considering the rest of the world, it hasn’t changed at all. You’ve still got a lot of people that get together, they’ve got to get along, they’ve got to show up and there’s no substitute. You can’t do a show on your iPhone, and you can’t build a set on your iPhone. People have really got to interact, which is the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s always invigorating and very exciting.

FL: Looking back …

EP: I’ve done a lot of stuff, a lot of junk in my life, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The fact is the really interesting work that I’ve been in has been at the Actors Studio. People say, “You’re out of work so much.” I’ve never been out of work. The minute I’m not doing a money job, I’ve got projects at the Studio. I’ve been working on a female Lear there for a couple of years. You can do so much exciting work there that you don’t get to do commercially. Stretch your instrument, and say, “Jesus, did I do that? Where did that come from?”

» The Velocity Of Autumn, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., 212.239.6200