First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

A veteran character actress reflects on 70 years onstage.


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You may not recognize the name, but you’ve certainly seen that face. Branford actress Elizabeth Wilson, who turns 91 this month, has racked up 60 years’ worth of prestigious Broadway, TV and movie roles. She won a Tony for her performance in David Rabe’s 1972 play Sticks and Bones and co-starred with George C. Scott in the very briefly aired—yet now recognized as trailblazing—1963 CBS series “East Side, West Side.”  A veteran of 35 films, Wilson is perhaps best known for playing movie “mom” to a couple of up-and-coming leading men: Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s The Graduate and Ralph Fiennes in 1994’s Quiz Show. Currently, she’s excitedly awaiting the September release of Hyde Park on Hudson, a film that cast her as one of the most formidable matriarchs of all time: Sara Delano Roosevelt, fiercely protective parent of only child (and four-term U.S. President) Franklin, played by Bill Murray. Revolving around the 1939 U.S. visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the film concerns not only FDR’s relationship with Sara, but his extramarital affair with cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney).

You have quite a different look in this new movie.

It was amazing, Pat—they put a white hairpiece on me, took all my makeup off and basically blanded my face. Because Sara Delano had a lot of money, I had the most beautiful wardrobe—the clothes and jewelry I wore! I didn't know the history of the Roosevelts that well, though I was always a big fan of the president. I didn't realize that she kept Franklin's family going financially; they all lived with her in her mansion in Hyde Park when they weren't in the White House. I was told she was a bitch; a very difficult lady. Fortunately, the story isn't all like that, because she loved her son. When he had polio, she took such good care of him.

This story takes place when King George and Queen Elizabeth came to America in 1939. How did you get the role?

I have a wonderful agent—he's been my agent for 50 years—named Clifford Stevens. I think it was in late May of last year that I got a call from his office, telling me that there was a movie they wanted me for in England, and that he would send me the script. It was an actual offer, which was really remarkable, because usually they want to see you and have you read. I loved the script. It was written by an American playwright, Richard Nelson, who was on the set for a few days when we started. We started filming in May, and I was there for seven weeks. They were just incredibly kind to me; I've never been treated quite so well.

The movie also concerns an affair FDR was having with his cousin Daisy . . .

Yes, and she's played by the wonderful actress Laura Linney. I was very moved by the script because I became a great Roosevelt fan. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the 1930s and '40s. Mine was a Republican family, but when FDR came into office, I fell in love with him. I've been a Democrat ever since. He was different—there was a warmth about him, and he was so bright and funny. I like Barack Obama a lot, though he's not quite as charismatic, if you will. FDR really had it. Actually, during the time of this movie—I don't think we realized it then—Mr. Roosevelt had two girlfriends in his life, played by Laura and Elizabeth Marvel. In one of the first scenes—I was frankly a little shocked—he takes Laura Linney in his car, up the driveway away from everybody, unzips his pants and takes her hand. But they don't photograph his body, they show his face. It's a little more discreet. According to this movie, Eleanor had girlfriends. It's so crazy.

I understand you went to London to make the film.

Yes, the film was made in London because it cost less, and it cost less because the British cast and crew could work independently of their unions. That's something you could never do here. The movie was still expensive; I believe the budget was $6 million. The cast was half-British and half-American, the crew all British. She had a crush on the director, whose name is Roger Mitchell. Honey, he was something. So friendly and available. And I've had some wonderful directors, like Mike Nichols. I liked Roger. The only thing about him was—and I've never had this experience before—he liked to do many takes. I never worked with anyboy who liked to do so many. Every time we'd start a scene, the actors would kid one another, trying to guess how many takes would be involved. One day, I had a scene where I walked from the living room, to the dining room, to the kitchen. The scene was about 8 or 9 minutes and the crew had to follow me through each time. Roger did 20 takes. It took all day, and when I came home that night I thought I'd die, I was so tired. You take experiences like that personally and think it's your fault, though really it's not. I think that's why the film's release was changed from April to September; Roger is probably still fiddling with it.

I know you've said you found Bill Murray hard to figure.

I wasn't alone in that. He's so famous, and he's done so much . . . From the beginning, when we had a reading, he never spoke to anyone, just read. Everybody else was so friendly. I think it was about the third or fourth day of readings that he just walked into this little room I was sitting in, sat on my lap and began swinging back and forth. And I had had hip surgery and two knee surgeries, and I was screaming. It really hurt. He was sort of smiling; he did that three times over the course of the shoot.

I got to know all the other people, but Bill is a very aloof, strange fellow. It was very interesting that Roger and the producers chose him to play Roosevelt. At one point, he did say he had a reason for wanting to sit on my lap, because he was my "baby" and was supposed to be paralyzed. He kept saying, "I'm your baby, I'm your baby."

How did your acting career get started?

I came to New York City in 1942 to go to school, entering the Neighborhood Playhouse and studying with Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. I graduated in '44. The next year, she went to Japan—while the war was still on—with the USO, was gone a full year. We left from San Francisco and sailed across the Pacific, which took a month—we had to be careful of the japanese submarines. We spent a couple of months in New Guinea. Then slowly, as the war waned, we played the Philippines and Japan. It was unbelievable; I now realize how nervous my family was—it was like I was going away to fight the war. But we did a play called Where's Charley?  There were 6 men and six women in the company. Sometimes we performed before two or three people hanging in the trees in the jungle; sometimes before hundreds and hundreds of troops. What an adventure!

Picnic was my first Broadway play in 1951. It was a wonderful experience, a big success. We went on tour with it when it closed in Manhattan. I played one of the schoolteachers; whic was a little tiny part. I understudied Eileen Heckart, and I'm still a great friend of Luke Yankee, her son. For nine years now I've gone to Kansas for the William Inge Festival. When Josh Logan decided to do the film, he cast only three people from the play: instead of Heckie, he cast Rosalind Russell, and he didn't cast Kim Stanley, the greatest actress I ever knew. But he wanted names. But he did pick Rita Shaw and me to reprise our stage roles as schoolteachers.

You've worked several times with Mike Nichols. When did you meet him?

In 1961, I did a play with Jason Robards, Hume Cronyn and my dear friend George Grizzard, called Big Fish, Little Fish. It was directed by Sir John Gielgud. That's when Mike saw me. He and Elaine May had come from Chicago in 1961, and were doing their two-character act. So he saw me, though I had no idea he was out front. I lived in the Village back then, which was lovely, and a few days later I was walking down the street and this couple who knew me yelled out, "Hey! Mike Nichols saw you in your play! He likes you! He really likes you!" Five years later, he cast me in The Graduate. I did seven roles in all for him, including Catch-22, Regarding Henry and Day of the Dolphin. After The Graduate I wanted to keep working with Mike, so I understudied Maureen Stapleton in Plaza Suite—she was often sick, so I went on for her. Before that, I briefly understudied Annie Bancroft in The Little Foxes, who was absent a lot with a drinking problem.

You know, I saw The Graduate again about three years ago, and I was shocked. Apparently, the rules were different then about what you're allowed to do in a film or play.

The seventh work I did for Mike was the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. We did it at the Uptown Circle in the Square in 1973 with George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson and Julie Christie—we became friends, she's a dear. Mike knew that George and I had a crush on each other, we'd worked together a lot. So the character I played—Mike is wonderful about casting—liked George's character. And the chemistry really worked. Every director has a different technique, and Mike's great gift is in casting; it usually involves people that he knows. And now, he has Death of a Salesman on Broadway; I have two dear friends in that. I talked to Mike just recently. He knows who's right for a particular role, and he's not controlling.

I think directing might be a great job for a control freak. Speaking of The Graduate, what was it like working with Dustin Hoffman?

Before we did The Graduate, I did an off-Broadway play with Dustin, called Eh? Alan Arkin directed it, when he was married to Barbara Dana, who was also in the play—she's just about my best friend in the world. Dustin and I became great friends; he was a charmer, so bright and so funny. I had a big crush on him. When we filmed The Graduate, we all stayed together at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. After that, he became so famous. We continued to be friends for awhile, then word got back to me that he said, "She"ll never become very famous. I don't want to move around with people who are not well-known; I don't want that stigma. I only want to be with well-known, successful people." Then he stopped calling and seeing me. I was heartbroken. He did that with a number of people. When I think about it, I still . . . But that's not unique, there are other people I've known in our business who think they have to stay with the folks at the top, or they're going to be moved around. So I haven't talked to him in over 40 years. I know he's in a TV series now, but I don't know anybody who knows him.

First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

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