First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson
A veteran character actress reflects on 70 years onstage.
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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.