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Estelle Parsons | Interview

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Estelle Parsons can't imagine why she was cast as Violet Weston. Huh.
By Novid Parsi
Published: January 27, 2010
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein; Photo Illustration: Jamie DiVecchio Ramsay
In 2008, Estelle Parsons took over the notoriously demanding role of pill-popping, bile-spewing matriarch Violet Weston in the Broadway production of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer winner, August: Osage County. Along with the raves came wide-eyed write-ups about the 82-year-old’s workout regimen (yoga, swimming, bicycling, running). Now the Oscar winner (Bonnie and Clyde), onetime Roseanne mom and longtime theater vet stars in the touring production of August, which has its homecoming this week.
You’ve said people identify Violet with their own mothers: “I do, even though my mother didn’t take drugs.” Violet’s such a nasty mom—how is she like yours?
In a mother-daughter relationship, there’s competitiveness and disappointment. I’ve been a successful actress and she didn’t need to be disappointed in me, God knows, but she was disappointed in me and everyone.
Why was she disappointed in you?
I married the wrong guy…. Her diary said—I was four years old—“Estelle broke a chair today, I’ll have to speak to her father.” So that gave me a little glimpse that I wasn’t the easiest kid.
I don’t think breaking a chair’s such a terrible thing for a four-year-old.
You don’t? No, but she did. [Laughs]
The play looks at generational repetition. Your daughter Abbie wrote an article about you a couple of years ago. What’d you think of it?
I don’t like it when people write about me. I don’t like to think about myself, I don’t like other people to think about me—which I know is crazy. I don’t find life very easy, I just find it painful.
Painful? How so?
It’s just, I’m never without thinking life is kind of sad and awful.
No wonder you play Violet so well.
[Laughs] Maybe. I’ve never understood why anybody would think I’m right in this part.
Abbie wrote that you were known as the Queen around the house.
Oh, I don’t know what that means. But probably it’s true, huh? It’s hard, I was a single parent. I don’t recommend it ever to anybody. I got divorced when they were two.
So Mom was right about your first husband, Richard Gehman, after all?
I wouldn’t say my mom was right, but that was a terrible marriage. He was a terrific writer; he was legendary in New York. I do have to give him credit because when I didn’t want to be on The Today Show anymore, he said, “Why don’t you go on stage? You’re always talking about doing that.”
How were the early years on Today?
Great pioneer days. I was one of eight people who put it together. Then I was the first woman sent out to do political reporting for a network. The early ’50s.
Have you found your inner Violet?
Sure. I was brought up to be a good girl. Now I realize how awful I am [Laughs] when I am awful. I’ll say something nasty to a waiter and then I’ll say, “Oh, Lord, that’s Violet peeping out, isn’t it?”
Does she peep out around family?
I had a little episode, yes. My grandson [Eben Britton] is in the NFL, and he was talking to us about football. Someone asked a question to Eben and his mother answered it, and I said, “Oh, shut up, Abbie!” She flounced out of the room, and I had to go apologize. I was quite shocked at myself.
Abbie again.
She’s a feisty piece.
She also wrote, “People who work with [Estelle] have been terrified of her, myself included. There’s no room for halfway in Estelle’s creative world.” Fair?
Very fair. I try to bring a playwright’s work to life. A lot of actors are interested in bringing themselves to great careers. I guess I’m contemptuous of everybody who doesn’t work as hard as I do.
You must have a lot of contempt.
I haven’t been easy to get along with. I hope I’m getting better at an advanced age. [Laughs] I was so angry at most of the cast when we started this tour. It was a great revelation that, though it didn’t look like they were caring so much, they’ve become superb. I couldn’t be more proud. So I’ve lost my contempt, which is a very good thing.
Did they sense your contempt?
Well, probably. I tried to stay by myself, but sometimes I’d say bad things to them. They’re used to me, I suppose. I don’t know what they think of me. Maybe you should ask them. [Laughs]
August: Osage County plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre Tuesday 2–February 14.