Q&A: Penny Fuller
An actor for all seasons—and all stages, Fuller shines this month as teacher and performer at the O'Neill Theater Center's Cabaret and Performance Conference.
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You talked about touring in the Lillian Hellman play, but I wonder, have there other experiences you've had on stage that you thought were outstanding?
Well, playing in Romeo and Juliet. I did that when I was 30. That was in San Diego in real, live rotating repertory. I don't think they even do that anymore. I played Juliet one night, Viola in Twelfth Night the next night, and a part in Henry IV, Part II the next night. It was wonderful exciting to have three different roles to play.
I once had a teacher in Los Angeles who said, "Write down what you want, what your career concept is." I thought about it, and I wrote down, "I want to be a British actress in America." About two years after I wrote that I was back in New York—thank you Michael Bush—doing a play, and I thought, "What have I done lately?" and I was amazed at the range of work I had done. The variety was what was so thrilling for me. A couple of years ago I got to play the part of my dreams, which was Desirée in A Little Night Music.
The few musicals that I've done—I've done, maybe, nine—have been really great acting parts, not just personality parts. Like Applause; like Rex, in which I played both Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I; A Little Night Music; Do I Hear a Waltz?
As you mentioned earlier, you replaced Elizabeth Ashley in Barefoot in the Park. You recently acted with her again on Broadway in Dividing the Estate, directed by Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage.
Yes, she played my mother. People said, "How does she feel about playing your mother?" I said, "We're actresses." This fall, we're going to reprise our performances at the Alley Theatre in Houston. I told her she should play my part this time, and let me sit in a chair and die early. Lucille, my character, is the hardest part in the play because she's quietly holding the world together, and Mama just sits there and reigns over everything, and dies. So Liz is upstairs reading magazines during the third act, while I'm still trying to hold the world together.
Ms. Ashley and I have been friends since 1963. We have been through it, onstage and off-, together. She has been so supportive and wonderful to me. In the first round we did of Dividing the Estate off-Broadway at Primary Stages, she'd work on my wig because she accused me of having no wig skills. So when we went to broadway I told my agent that I wanted it in my contract that she do my wig, and he thought I was serious. Liz and I are quite different, but we are strong, professional, idealistic comrades.
I also wanted to ask you about Sally Aiken, your role in All the President's Men.
I'm just so proud to have been part of that extraordinary film. And it was made about five minutes after the actual events. It's a gret thriller, besides being a huge political and historical statement. When we were getting to shoot my scene, I said to Robert Redford, "Why do you think this woman, who was supposed to be such a great reporter, sat on that story for so long?" [Ed. note: The story in question centered around the Canuck Letter, a forged letter to the editor of New Hampshire's Manchester Union Leader, that played a large part in ending the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie. It's covered at great length in both the book and the movie.] He called the real woman my character was modeled after, Marilyn Berger, and asked her that question. She said, "I guess I just didn't have the same taste for the jugular those two guys had." And we put that line in the movie. That's what I say.
It seems that these days the press as a whole has lost that taste for the jugular, at least when it comes to stories that matter . . .
I think that may be because of All the President's Men. I think that that movie, and the way it glorified investigative reporting, made stars of Woodward and Bernstein, and somehow it all went wonky. Everybody said, "I'll do anything to get that kind of attention."
Why did you become an actress, do you think?
I think it was an artistic impulse. I think all artists have this "thing," and it comes out in different ways: painting, poetry, writing, whatever. I was an only child, and nobody was paying much attention, I guess. It wasn't like, "love me, love me, love me," more like I had something to say. And I can say it through these characters. That probably sounds really corny or neurotic. I think that's why it's important for me to do pieces that I like, that I believe in, and why I hate doing acting jobs just for the money, though I think I have . . . People who don't find an outlet for that artistic impulse, that urge to express the self and the larger-than-self—that's a crime.