First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

A veteran character actress reflects on 70 years onstage.

 

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.

 

I also remember how forward he could be. My niece, who's a wonderful girl—she lives in Florida now, and is an occupational therapist—she spent a lot of time in New York City, and came here when we were doing Eh? I just remember this tiny dressing room, and as we were leaving, going down the steps, she just happened to be walking in front of him—I'll never forget this—and he just took his hands and put them on her breasts. And we liked him so much, that was okay! She had a crush on him, too.

One of my favorite movies of yours, still, is Quiz Show. What do you remember about working with that cast?

I adored Ralph Fiennes. And Paul Scofield—oh my God, I had such a crush on him! We were directed by Bob Redford. I came on board after they'd been filming for a couple of weeks. Redford knelt at my feet and started giving me directions. It was scary; he'd say, "This is how I want you to say this line. And put your foot here when you do that. And I want you to move your head over here and say it this way." I thought, "What the f--k am I going to do? To follow such explicit directions—that's not being an actor." For several days he kept at me in this way, "Don't say 'poop,' say 'pooop.'" I finally complained to Ralph and Paul, and they said, "Don't worry. He did it to us, too. He'll move on to someone else. Just wait; be brave." They were right. But the first couple of days were awful. Redford is a man in need of command. 

I don't know what there was about Paul. We kept in touch; wrote letters to each other. He certainly was one of the great British actors—I know nothing about his personal life, but what a charmer! Certainly, one of the great British actors. And Ralph has done so well. Was that film a fair success?

Thinking back on it, it probably didn't do as well at the box office as it deserved to. Maybe it was a little too cerebral.

I've made 35 movies; the blockbusters were The Graduate and 9 to 5. I thought Lily Tomlin was great, but I didn't get to know Jane or Dolly that well. The Addams Family was fun, too. I thought Raul Julia was an angel, a charmer. I'd done a musical with him at Lincoln Center. My Addams character ended up having two to three accents combined; it was very strange. Sometimes, when a character isn't that strong, an accent helps to give them presence. You'll see the same effect with wardrobe sometimes; it's interesting.

Earlier, you mentioned working with Sanford Meisner. What made him special as a teacher?

In 1942, I had a friend—Frank Gregory—who said to me . . . I was at the Barter Theatre in Abington, Va. That was where I started out, like Gregory Peck and many others.

Ernest Borgnine also comes to mind . . .

The crazy thing was, Ernest Borgnine was our driver, nobody liked him very much. Even now, I can't believe his success—he was just a very ordinary, common guy. I was at Barter many years. But Ernie was, like, a joke who became a big star.

But anyway, I had this friend at Barter . . . I had wanted to go to the American Academy. And he said, "Elizabeth, you will study with Sanford Meisner. Luckily, the woman who ran the Neighborhood Playhouse at the time—Rita Morgenthal—came to Barter, happened to see me and offered me a scholarship. I moved into the Studio Club. I went to class the first day and auditioned for Sandy. He told me, "You have talent; now I'm going to teach you how to act." His technique was so internal. I belonged to the Actors Studio but didn't spend much time there, because that was so complicated it was just crazy. But Meisner's technique was so simple: When you read a part, you think, "What does this person want?" That's an action, and that's what Sandy believed was the core of acting. It changed my life. And oh, honey, was he a charmer! He was gay, and like so many gay men we knew, he married, of course. I adored him. Toward the end of his life he was running out of money, and I let him live in my apartment in New York. He was living there with a young man who was taking care of him. He was there one whole summer; I forget where I was at the time. I remember telling my sister at one point that I wanted to get back into my apartment but Sandy was still there. She said, "Don't complain. Remember, he is your god." And she was right.

I never knew Martha Graham. Sandy was available; Martha was a star. But I do remember what she said to me when I told them I was going to go overseas and perform with the USO: "You will be killed."[laughs]

IShe seems to have been direct like that. I remember talking to Joanne Woodward about her; she told me this story about going to Martha Graham for advice when she was agaonizing about how to play the lead in The Three Faces of Eve. Graham's attitude was something like, "Oh, just play it and stop obsessing."

That's right; Joanne studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I met Joanne when she worked on Picnic, because Paul had a small part—but he wasn't in the movie, either! Joanne was an understudy. That was when they met and began to see each other. She and I became friends. The play was at the Music Box Theater in Manhattan, and we dressed on the same floor. A couple of times Paul came into my dressing room—we had these big mirrors—and he'd sit in front of the mirror and talk to me. I'd look into the mirror and see those eyes; I've never seen eyes so beautiful. So blue. He was so good-looking, and such a sweetheart. He wasn't a star, just a very available, good man.

Your parents were not show business people. Where did the impetus to act come from?

I grew up in a very interesting household. My grandfather was German, and he came to America in 1870 looking for his brother. He never found him, and ended up settling in Grand Rapids, Mich. His name was Ferdinand Welter. He had two children: One was my mother, Marie. She fell in love with Henry Dunning Wilson, a tall, elegant man. He had come from a rich, grand social family, and graduated from Princeton. Anyway, we lived with my grandfather, who was very dictatorial. He was in real estate, and owned apartment houses and homes. So we lived very grandly; I grew up in a six-floor mansion.

My grandfather and my dad were always at loggerheads, and my father was rarely around. He had an affair. I escaped, psychologically and in every other way. When I was about 14 or 15, I used to sit on the sunporch at the back of the house, looking at magazines like McCall's and Ladies Home Journal. I'd look at the characters and tell myself stories. They would speak to me. And Mother was so savvy—she caught me doing that and sent me to a place in Grand Rapids that gave acting lessons. Then I ended up at Barter at 19 or 20. So, how did I become an actress? To escape. It saved my life.

My dad and my grandfather never really spoke. We tried to live independently of him for a time and moved to Detroit for four years; that was horrible. We even tried living in another house in Grand Rapids. But we always wound up living with my grandfather because it was so much easier—he had lots of servants. But I had to get away from that kind of environment. When my grandfather found out I wanted to be an actress, he said, "How will she make a living—on her back?"Because in the 1930s and '40s, actors were considered whores and prostitutes.

 

You've had many experiences in different realms—stage, TV film—is there one medium you prefer?

In the beginning, I was very at home on the stage. Then, when I got my first TV role—and that was in live TV—that was a real challenge. It was more internal and more physical. You'd speak in one camera, then hide and run to the next camera to say your lines. When they started taping the shows, that was okay, but not as freeing as live theater. In theater, you want to be internal but at the same time, you have to fill a space. In film or TV, it has to be inside you—the good film actors are the ones whose thoughts you see and feel. You know what they're thinking. In the first films I did, I was so scared and had so many problems. I slowly learned they were completely different techniques.

How did you come to live in Branford?

I was doing a play at Yale Rep: Long Day's Journey into Night/Ah, Wilderness! in 1988. By that time, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst had broken up, and Colleen—who was one of the stars—was dating the play's producer, who ultimately screwed up. So even though the show was a great success in New Haven, it closed on Broadway in two weeks. It broke Colleen's heart. I always said, that's when she became terminally ill. I'd walk by her dressing room and see her staring into space. She felt responsible for the failure.

Anyway, Arvin Brown, the artistic director at Long Wharf, was in the audience for one of our New Haven shows, and invited me to be in Long Wharf's Dinner at Eight that same season. I stayed in a little hotel in New Haven for awhile; as time went on in I got to know some local real estate people. I told them, "I've always wanted to live in the country, but I can't afford to live in Greenwich." So they showed me this place. I looked at five condos and picked the one upstairs, which cost $240,000 in those days. I couldn't afford anything by the water. We've since—my sister lives with me—moved downstairs; as we can no longer handle the climb. For a long time I only stayed here in the summer, because I have a wonderful apartment on the East Side in New York City. I work with Primary Stages at 59 E. 59th Street. I help them financially—their founder Casey Childs is from Grand Rapids. I met him through a dear friend who's gone now. He said, "I want to start a theater that supports American playwrights." I said, "I'm on board." And I've been on the board ever since—30 years.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about working on The Birds.

The Birds was an experience. It was a small part, but I got cast. I flew from New York City to California—towards the end of the flight, some birds smashed the co-pilot's side of the windshield; we had to land before we were scheduled to. A few weeks later, I was walking down the hill from my hotel in LA, looked up and I was being circled by a bird, which plunged into my back. I went to the set the next day and told "Mr. Hitchcock." He said, "I'm not at all surprised." He was a star director.

It was interesting what Dustin said, because I was never a star, but a featured actress like so many people, and a character actress playing minor roles. But it's been a wonderful career; I got to know so many and work with so many.  In the 1940s I was doing something called The Equity Library Theater in New York, when a movie company came to see the play I was in and offered me a contract. But the deal was, my nose was too big and they wanted me to have surgery. My jaw was crooked, and I'd have to have that fixed, too. And they didn't like my name; it was too common. I was to change these things, and they'd sign me to a multiyear contract. I don't know how I managed to do this, but I said, "I don't think so." Imagine! I can't believe I had the wisdom. But I know people who did that surgery, and they all looked alike.

First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

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