PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Kate Burton

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A Tony Award nominee for her turn in The Constant Wife, Kate Burton has already begun playing another spouse in The Water's Edge.
Kate Burton
Kate Burton Photo by Aubrey Reuben

At the conclusion of a recent chat with Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, this reporter posed to the notable theatre leader if he'd ever gotten out of an interview without answering about his wife. His response: "You actually waited longer than everybody else: The last one I went to, he started with my wife." He added, "That's fine, I have no problem, I love my wife!"

Such is the circumstance when you are married to the three-time Tony Award-nominated actress who has taken on dynamic female roles in Hedda Gabler, The Elephant Man, The Winter's Tale, Three Sisters, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Constant Wife (all in just the past five years). All that, added to her recurring television roles as Ellis Grey on "Grey's Anatomy," Rose on "Rescue Me" and a noted turn in the HBO drama "Empire Falls."

The Switzerland-born star spoke with Playbill.com about her work on stage, television and upcoming films during previews of her latest portrayal, in Theresa Rebeck's The Water's Edge at Second Stage Theatre in Manhattan.

Playbill.com: Upon exiting Second Stage Theatre, I overheard an audience member utter to an usher "That's some play!" How do you tell people about the show without divulging any of the many revelations in the plot?
Kate Burton: I just say it's about a woman and her children who are visited by her estranged ex-husband and what happens after that. The thing is, it's kind of a family drama, a modern day family drama that deals with enormous issues. It's very [like a] Greek [tragedy].

Playbill.com: Has the role of Helen grown for you since you first played her in the 2004 world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival?
KB: I guess so. I had a real connection to this character when I did it at Williamstown two years ago. The truth of it is, we had much less time to rehearse it, we would be done by now; we had three weeks rehearsal and two weeks of performance. So, we really went at it hammer-and-tongs, though a very kind of deeply emotional way. That was very good, but it would have been hard to sustain over more than a couple of weeks. Playbill.com: You've done a lot of work with classic texts. Is the approach different on a modern work?
KB: Basically, you approach it as any text. I truly believe, very much so, that the text tells you everything you need to know. And if it doesn't... [laughing] there's something wrong with the text. But, the truth of it is I've been truly blessed to play some of the greatest roles ever written for women of the classical genre and I've been very lucky to play some of these great modern women — Beauty Queen of Leenane and this play and I did a Brian Friel play called Give Me Your Answer Do! — these phenomenally interesting women's roles. I would say there's not really a big difference — certainly with this [play] it's interesting because nobody knows this play, so they don't have anything to compare it to. The biggest challenge is the emotional roller coaster that this woman has to go on. It literally goes from zero to 300 in the space of like 10 minutes. That's really challenging.

Playbill.com: In your bio in the Playbill, you dedicate your performance to Susan Forrest Reynolds.
KB: Susan Forrest Reynolds is one of my dearest friends, she is a mother with me at the Trinity School in New York and anybody who knows Susan Forrest Reynolds and her story... It's not a similar story but there are echoes and I thought of her a lot.

Playbill.com: You've been quite busy doing stage work and TV and film, do you try to keep a balance?
KB: I'm trying very hard, it hasn't been easy lately, fortunately we're not rehearsing the play anymore. So that has really made my life easier. This week, before the Tonys, is always a really brutal week and so I just really am taking the time to not overschedule, taking the time to make sure I have time for myself, exercising every day, eating right, not going out after the show. I'm just really having to pace myself but it's working, I'm happy to report.

Playbill.com: Can we expect to see you on the small screen again?
KB: "Grey's Anatomy" may come up. I may have to do a couple of those or maybe not. I don't know what's happening with that exactly, but I know I'm on the show next year. And ideally, it would be great if they could just have me do it in the fall, but my part in that show is easy to do in a day or so. Please, I have no complaints. And I'm on "Rescue Me" again. I'm just doing a few episodes, I actually have finished up with that, but I have four episodes.

Playbill.com: Your bio also lists some upcoming films.
KB: Little tiny films. I have "Lovely by Surprise" which is a wonderfully interesting movie that I did down in Memphis, Tennessee with a terrific director called Kirt Gunn and it stars Carrie Preston who was in Festen — not to be rhyming — Reg Rogers, Austin Pendleton, Dallas Roberts, just all theatre people, it's really cool. A great little movie, you could see it online actually, if you go to lovelybysurprise.com. "Quid Pro Quo" — I just did a day on that movie but it was a very interesting movie by Carlos Brooks with Vera Farmiga. A very interesting script about a guy who is a paraplegic and this kind of mystical, magical thing how he is suddenly not a paraplegic. "The Night Listener" — I play Robin Williams' producer on his radio show. Then I also have "Sherry Baby" with Maggie Gyllenhaal. I play her step-mother. I haven't seen it though I've heard [it's] very gritty and I don't really go to gritty movies.

Playbill.com: "Sherry Baby" isn't about the Four Seasons, is it?
KB: No. Too bad, I love Jersey Boys. Although my husband is one of the producers of The Drowsy Chaperone so I love that more.

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