Two-time winner and six-time Tony nominee Frances Sternhagen has just reopened in Joan Vail Thorne's critically acclaimed The Exact Center of the Universe at the Century Theatre. Originally presented by the Women's Project and Productions, the show moved to the Century with only one cast change. The success of the show, and the buzz about Sternhagen are inseparable. From her award-winning roles in The Good Doctor and The Heiress to her Off-Broadway portrayal of Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy, Sternhagen consistently brings the most appropriate life and emotional sensibility to her characters. Recently, Ms. Sternhagen talked with Playbill On-Line about her long career in theatre, film and television.
Playbill On-Line: Having helped define theatre in New York for so many years, you've done many memorable roles, but is there one that got away - a dream role that you never had the chance to do?
Frances Sternhagen: Not really a dream role, but I always wanted to do a Chekhov play, one of his top three or four. I really wanted to do that, but I was too old by the time I felt I was ready to do it. But I don't think that way so much now, because the plays I'm asked to do -- those that fit my age category -- are all new plays. You know, in the old days, people didn't write for old people. People often died so young that they didn't write about older people. Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond was one of the first plays about older people as people and not just in relation to younger people, meaning somebody' s mother-in-law or grandmother.
PBOL: How about your colleagues? Is there an actor or actress you would simply drop everything to work with?
FS: [Laughs] Not any particular person, no. But I've worked with some wonderful people and usually I've found that you don't really know how wonderful people are until you've started working with them. There are a lot of very good actors and actresses around. I can't think right now who I'd go absolutely nuts working with, but let's see, I've worked with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tommy Hulce, Peter Firth and all those people in Equus. And there was Kathleen Chalfant, whom I love, and I worked with Helen Hayes. Gosh, I hate to leave people out, they'll say, "Hey! What about me?"
PBOL: You've had success in theatre and in films. Does it help to start in either one?
FS: There are lots of movie stars who have not done a play in their lives. They start with movies and they stay there. This is not true as much in England and in Europe because the cultural centers there are all pretty much in one place. A lot of European countries have had a theatre tradition all through history, as long as they've had theatre. Whereas in our country we imported anything to do with theatre for a long time. Then we started this movie business on the West Coast. Actually, it started in the east, but moved west. The two media, stage and film, are divided by three thousand miles. In this country, there are people -- stars -- who have never had any stage training background, because that's not necessarily what they want to do. They want to be in movies. And I think that isn't true nearly as much in England, where it's all located pretty much in one spot and pretty much has been. They have a tradition we never had. Our tradition was vaudeville and things that were imitative of British theatre. Then we started with film in the '20s. There is no reason you can't do stage and film. You have Chris Plummer and another example is Barnard Hughes and his wife. But the point is they're all wonderful stage performers. On the other hand, we have a lot of people who know how to talk, but can't project, so they can't be in a play. You have to work at it.
PBOL: But there are also economic issues that influence an actor's choices, aren't there?
FS: I once asked Sean Connery, "When are we going to get you back in theatre?" And he replied, "Why should I?" Which makes sense, really. He enjoys playing golf and doing movies. When you just make pots of money in films, being in a play seems to be an awful lot of work. When you get to Sean's age, I can see where you think, "Why should I work so hard? Nobody in theatre ever pays as much as movies." PBOL: Yet, you've made a wonderful career that way, by working hard.
FS: Theatre is a one-time thing and for the people who are doing it, it's a little like being a massage therapist. If someone is good, you can't just do it and have it on tape. I really enjoy doing theatre, and I'm really lucky. Anyone who can earn money for what they love to do is a very lucky person. They're blessed.
PBOL: It seems the film business benefits whenever it embraces theatre talent, and the popular assumption would be that theatre stars look forward to making Hollywood money when they can.
FS: It's really gotten out of control. There are pots of money, we get told, but the star of a movie is often making so much they can only pay the featured players a lot less than they made five or ten years ago. They have a thing they call your "quote," which is what they tell a producer you earned the last time you worked in a movie. Nowadays, you have to sort of forget about your quote because the star is making most of the money going to performers. Some of the salaries you hear about for athletes, or even new performers making $20 million for a picture can seem crazy. You sometimes wonder, "What are they doing with all that money?"
PBOL: You hope they're doing good, or at least living well.
FS: I think people like Ted Danson, bless his heart, are doing very good things. Ted started a foundation for the protection of oceans, and the publicity he does is tremendously valuable. There are many well-paid performers who are making valuable social contributions. Off the top of my head, I think of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and even Ed Asner had a high profile as an activist. But there are a lot of performers, especially young ones who are getting paid so much I don't know that they know what to do with it. There seems to be a certain lack of balance. I'm not saying stars aren't worth more than featured players, because stars do have to bear the brunt of all the publicity stuff. But it seems to be out of hand.
PBOL: So, let me ask you about the foundation you would establish. Where would you direct charitable resources?
FS: If I had a foundation, I would try to support efforts to protect the environment, and do things for the benefit of poor women and children, or education. I think almost anything that contributes to education and building schools for education is a worthy cause. It's so important. Tom [Ms. Sternhagen's late husband, actor Tom Carlin] went to Jesuit High School and as a punishment for breaking the rules or not doing what he was supposed to do, they made him learn a poem. "It was the best punishment I could have had," he once told me. Tom had a wonderful memory of poems. On the other hand, I don't remember anything from one day to the next, but he did. He was also a voracious reader. I love to read, but I'm kind of slow.
PBOL: Looking back on your career, is there anything on your resume that you just couldn't wait to take off? Any particular regrets?
FS: Oh, I don't know. I guess really commercials and soaps, not because they're not solid and valid and good, but in order to go into commercials, on the whole, you have to audition a lot. They usually want to keep seeing you, especially for voice overs. The soaps are very hard work, you have to learn a lot overnight. I think people who do soaps are to be given a lot of credit. If I was given the choice I would still do a soap, but I don't think I would work on a soap all the time. The pace and pressure is incredible. I did them when I was younger, there were a couple I really enjoyed, they had nice casts, directors, and story lines. Early on, I had some very good advice. I remember it was my first day on a soap and I was a little contemptuous of the material, which was pretty silly of me. So, I went to the stage manager, who I knew, and he simply said, "Well, think of this as a '30s melodrama." And I thought, "Perfect! It has that wonderful kind of wide-eyed excitement." I learned that if you think of them as children's theatre, that's another way you can approach things in order to keep up your enthusiasm. The '30s sensibility is sort of fun, and it's loads of fun to play the bad guys on soaps.
PBOL: Frances Sternhagen as a villain?
FS: [Laughs] On one, I ended up going around threatening everyone with a pistol until I was put in the insane asylum. Now, they had started off by telling me I was this nice woman, the mother of a son, and that nobody could quite understand why my husband left and had amnesia. Then, in midstream they gave me this background of an affair my character had been in with her husband's best friend.
PBOL: But you've continued doing television, like "Cheers" (Cliff's mom) and "ER," (Dr. Carter's mom), so it's something you still enjoy doing. How difficult is it to do television and theatre?
FS: These days, they take themselves a lot more seriously. When Tom was doing them he could do a Broadway play at the same time. Now they say no, because they might need you for taping until 11 PM. In order to do a soap you have to make up your mind to sign a contract for six months and not do anything else. I must say there are some wonderful performers on soaps and they do them very well. It's rather nice to know where you're going to work everyday, and to know there is income coming in, and that the show is not going to close suddenly in a week.
PBOL: There is that, isn't there? Always that sense of insecurity in show business?
FS: There's a downside, that's true. Earlier, I spoke of the three thousand miles between the coasts. You know, there are people who started out as very good actors here in New York but they have found they can't leave California once they have a house, or the promise of jobs and then because they have kids in school. The question they have to ask is, if they pull up stakes and move to New York to do a play, what happens if the play should close? I know that Judith Ivey, who is good in everything, usually doesn't have her kids come to join her until she sees a show is going to run for a while, because it's hard to move and it makes things difficult from time to time. But she's a wonderful stage actress and I think it's great she comes back to work on stage.
PBOL: For an actress of your standing and with your considerable experience, is there some criterion you've developed in choosing plays?
FS: I think it's a combination of things, but most of all I have to like the script and feel it has positive value. That said, I've made mistakes about things I've read. There have been times when I thought, "It's so negative!" Or, times when I thought a script's message seemed anti-humanity or anti-life. When I sense that, I find that I don't want to do the project. Sometimes I think it's my age that prevents me from judging some things fairly. I read things sometimes and whether it's because it's so full of four-letter words or people being mean, I say no. Later, when I actually see it done, I realize it has a positive value that I just didn't see.
PBOL: What about the people involved with a project, how important are they in making your decision?
FS: Well, certainly the director and the writer have something to do with that, and especially if the director and I have a sense of mutual respect. It goes both ways. John Tillinger wanted to do The Exact Center of the Universe when he heard I wanted to do it. Then you might have a case where you hear via the grapevine or via friends that so-and-so is doing a play, and you like the director, who is so and so, and if I read the play and like it, then I want to do it because the combination of material and director and very good. Certainly now, with The Exact Center of the Universe, we're very lucky. The cast enjoys each other and everyone gets along. We have only had one cast change since we moved to the Century -- Bethel Leslie had to leave and Sloane Shelton came in. Sloane's very good, I've worked with her before. She's a wonderful actress.
PBOL: And when you're not working, what do you do for relaxation?
FS: Ballroom dancing is what I've been doing most recently. I try to do it at least once a week, maybe twice, it depends how tired I am or what other things are going on. I've been in competitions and it's fun. I used to do it as a teenager and now ballroom fills the bill because it makes you feel good and it's great exercise. It's a nice activity when you get to be a certain age, because you can keep doing it. There's a big sign on 14th Street and Second Avenue that asks, 'What do you do after total hip replacement? Ballroom dancing!' There's a picture of an elderly lady with a well groomed man, and I know just how she feels.
-- By Murdoch McBride