STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Estelle Parsons, Mary McCormack and Bryan Batt

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Estelle Parsons, Mary McCormack and Bryan Batt This month we speak to Estelle Parsons (August: Osage County), Mary McCormack (Boeing-Boeing; "In Plain Sight") and Bryan Batt ("Mad Men").

Estelle Parsons
Estelle Parsons Photo by Joan Marcus

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Violet Weston, the August: Osage County matriarch who goes for the jugular when dealing with relatives, insists her "best f--king friends" are the pills she persistently pops. "They never let me down. Try to take them away — and I'll eat you alive!"

Estelle Parsons is Broadway's new Violet, having succeeded (on June 17) Tony winner Deanna Dunagan. "All the hallmarks of Violet's character...are present and accounted for in Ms. Parsons's superb performance," New York Times critic Charles Isherwood noted (July 16). "But it is not a facsimile of Ms. Dunagan's unforgettably astringent approach to the role; Ms. Parsons forges her own path into...Violet's drug-addled psyche."

Continued Isherwood, "The challenge of embodying this complicated, terrifying woman seems to burn away the years; if I didn't know Ms. Parsons was 80, I would never believe it...[hers is] a performance to remember, one that may prove to be a crowning moment in an illustrious career."

Did Parsons read the review? She tells me, "I couldn't believe it. I am always striving to be better, trying to achieve more. Let's face it, all my life I've been acting for Times reviews. [Laughs] It was wonderful, unbelievably fantastic!" Parsons was "totally shocked" when it was suggested that she would be perfect for the role of Violet. "One night, I was out with Rondi Reed [who won the Best Featured Actress Tony, as Dunagan's sister] and Laurie Metcalf [who played Parsons' daughter on "Roseanne"]. Laurie's just waiting until she's old enough to play the part.

"Rondi spoke to Anna [Shapiro, the director] about me. I've worked at Steppenwolf [where the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize/Tony-winning play began], but I'd never met Anna. My agent arranged a meeting. There was an offer out to a big Hollywood name, but Guess Who's here?," she says with a laugh.

Estelle Parsons with Amy Morton in August: Osage County
photo by Joan Marcus

Not many big Hollywood names have a comparable background, which includes a 1963 Theatre World Award (Mrs. Dally Has a Lover), a 1964 Obie (Next Time, I'll Sing to You), a 1967 Oscar ("Bonnie and Clyde"), a nomination the next year ("Rachel, Rachel"), four Tony nominations — The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1969), And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (1971), Miss Margarida's Way (1978), Morning's at Seven (2002) — and induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame (2004). She also directs, has taught acting (at Yale, Columbia and elsewhere), and served five years as artistic director at the Actors Studio.

In August set outside Pawhuska, OK, Violet emerges as an instantly memorable character, one with whom Parsons fuses. Long-considered an actor's actor, she not only finds the inner truth of a person, but also can make it clear to an audience.

Though "a little early to have a favorite scene," Parsons claims, "I think the moment that's the most astonishing comes at the culmination of the Act Two dining-room scene, when I say, 'I am a drug addict!' Sometimes it's met with a horrifically loud silence; sometimes with cheers, laughter, and applause.

"Many scenes are agitating, which is what makes them so good. The audience is an integral part of the performance. I love the scenes where she's drugged out. For some reason, that's hard for me, so I relish the opportunity. Once she gets in that groove of not remembering, she's home free. Those are the scenes I look forward to playing."

Early in her career, she spent a short time as a band singer, and Parsons has extensive musical-theatre credits, including Happy Hunting, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Threepenny Opera, The Pirates of Penzance, and Harold and Maude: The Musical (book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Joseph Thalken), at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2005.

Two Massachusetts cities, Lynn and Marblehead, are usually listed as her birthplace. "We lived in Marblehead, but I was born in the Lynn hospital, which was the only one around in 1927." Her parents were Elinor and Eben Parsons. "Eben [Britton] is the name of one of my grandsons. He's a six-foot-seven offensive linebacker, and weighs 300 pounds. He's supposed to go in the NFL next year." (Since Parsons seemingly can do anything, she may coach.)

Jack Lemmon was her childhood friend. "When he was at Harvard, before he went in the Navy, and I was at Connecticut College [from which she graduated in 1949], we were boyfriend and girlfriend. We remained friends. It's such a shame that people have to die."

After graduation, Parsons studied law for a year, but decided against it as a career. Her start in television was on the "Today" show in 1952. "I knew someone at NBC, and 'Today' was just beginning." Over several years, she worked at a variety of jobs, among them reporter, commentator, production assistant, feature producer, and writer. Although she interviewed, among others, Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt, Parsons "was from New England," and disliked asking personal questions.

From 1953 to '58, she was married to writer Richard Gehman, with whom she had twin daughters, Abbie and Martha; since 1983, she's been wed to lawyer Peter Zimroth. They have a son, Abraham.

Asked by "Today" to cover Grace Kelly's 1956 wedding in Monaco, Parsons declined the assignment. "I didn't want to go. I wasn't interested, and I didn't want to leave my twins. I knew it was time to move on." She ended up making her Broadway debut in Happy Hunting, starring Ethel Merman, and (ironically) playing a reporter assigned to cover the Kelly wedding.

Years later, Parsons' most notable TV experience was playing Bev Harris, mother of Roseanne Barr and Laurie Metcalf, for 58 episodes (1989-97) of "Roseanne."

Over the years, Parsons has crossed paths with any number of talented folk. I asked her opinions of some of them.

Ethel Merman (Happy Hunting): "As a kid, I saw her in musicals in Boston — and loved her. Working in a show with her was a great gift for someone starting out. She had confidence and shyness all at once. I found her to be a wonderful human being."

Warren Beatty ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Dick Tracy"): "Warren, I love. He's extremely charming. When we did 'Bonnie and Clyde,' it was his first time as a producer. He has a fantastic mind, and such passion and conviction. I was lucky to work with him."

Gene Hackman ("Bonnie and Clyde," "I Never Sang for My Father"): "Gene, I love. Before we did 'Bonnie and Clyde,' we had worked in the theatre together. We had the same rhythms as actors; people thought we were madly in love. Gene wanted to be a movie star. I said, 'Don't be silly. Stay in the theatre.' Before I got the movie ["Bonnie and Clyde"], Dusty [Dustin Hoffman], Gene, and I were doing a Murray Schisgal play, Fragments, at the Berkshire Playhouse."

Among actors in the company that summer were Anne Bancroft, Frank Langella and Viveca Lindfors. Arthur Penn, who directed "Bonnie and Clyde" (and for whom Parsons has great praise), directed Parsons in The Skin of Our Teeth that summer.

In a 2007 article that Parsons' daughter Abbie wrote, under the byline of A.G. Britton (who plans to expand the piece into a book on her mother), it's explained that the actress (who did not believe in researching roles) extensively researched Blanche Barrow, after Penn offered her the part of Clyde's sister-in-law — even down to discovering that the real Blanche wore English jodhpurs. (The ones Parsons wore for her Oscar-winning role came from wardrobe, and originally had been worn by Barbara Stanwyck in some Warner Bros. movie.)

Of "Bonnie and Clyde," Parsons continues, "Arthur didn't know Gene. He wanted Dick Bradford for the part [of her husband, Buck Barrow], but he wasn't available. I said, 'You should look at Gene Hackman.' Arthur hired Gene. There are a lot of stories about that, but that's how I remember it."

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward ("Rachel, Rachel," "Empire Falls"): "We were at the Studio for a long time together. They're both consummate professionals — wonderful, kind, caring, generous human beings. I just love them, and I'm so sorry that he's ill."

Jackie Gleason ("Don't Drink the Water"): "I knew him through my [first] husband. We met at a great party at Toots Shor's [restaurant]. I loved Jackie and he loved me. He was the most generous man who ever lived. I had a wonderful time working with him."

Barbra Streisand ("For Pete's Sake"): "Sometimes, we would ride to the set together, and she would ask me about acting. I thought: Holy cow, here is this woman who's overwhelmingly gifted in every possible way, and she's asking me about acting. I liked her very, very much."

Tennessee Williams (The Seven Descents of Myrtle): "He really was wonderful. During tryouts in Philadelphia, we went clubbing together. [Producer] David Merrick insisted I attend the Oscars [the night she won]. He thought it would help the box office, but we only ran seven weeks. Tennessee was brilliant! I loved him, loved him, loved him."

Roseanne Barr ("Roseanne"): "She loved having talented people around her — John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Shelley Winters. And she loved and appreciated me. Some headliners want to work with people who aren't as good; they want sycophants. Roseanne was nothing like that. It's always meant the world to me that someone like that is appreciative of whatever gift I have. Johnny Carson kept asking me, 'Why are you so funny?' I kept saying, 'I haven't a clue.'"

Shelley Winters ("Roseanne"): "When she was signed to play my mother, she said, 'Estelle, you're only seven years younger than I am. You've got to dye your hair. You can't have gray hair and play my daughter.' We were old friends. We wanted to do 'Waiting for Godot' together, but Beckett wouldn't let us."

Horton Foote ( , The Day Emily Married): "He has a style all his own. He writes parts for me that just suck me up. I don't have to work. I seem to get to sing in his plays. People do sing in real life. I love Horton. He's a wonderful champion of mine; he makes me feel great! A lot of times, when you're not working, you wonder if you'll ever work again — or why you ever got a job in the first place. Along comes Horton with a play that has a role for you."

Al Pacino ("Looking for Richard," Salome): "I admire his gifts. His way of looking at the world is so individualistic. I love working with him. He focuses on the audience. I feel that one of the reasons that theatre has become a shrunken art form is because the audience has been forgotten. Al's focus is always about what's working for them — and, of course, that's what theatre should be. He discusses a play before and after a performance. The reason that August: Osage County is so good is because Tracy didn't forget the audience."

Her daughter's insightful, beautifully written piece about the actress relates, "I have the experience that time is turning itself inside out — that she actually is not getting older, but blossoming fully...when you enter the world of Estelle Parsons, it is always an incredible journey. And for this I will be forever grateful."

I hope that A.G. Britton's book is published soon.

What roles have given Parsons the most satisfaction? "My three favorites are Miss Margarida, Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, and the Russian-woman artist in David Hare's The Bay of Nice.

"Miss Margarida was an astounding achievement for me. It's been done all over the place, and [playwright] Roberto Athayde has never received a single award. Happy Days is like King Lear for a woman. If you've got an inquiring mind, what can be better than doing Beckett? I did it at Hartford Stage [in 1998], but it's a hard sell for audiences. I did the David Hare play at Hartford Stage [2004]. It's a gem of a play. I loved playing that more than anything. It hasn't been done in New York. Now that [August] is a success, who knows?

"Right now, I'm supposed to be doing Mother Courage in Santa Fe, but it's postponed until next summer. In January, I'm supposed to do an adaptation of Measure for Measure, with [choreographer] David Gordon.

"I never sign [a contract] for more than four months; I don't want to get burned out. But this role [Violet] is so good, I may play it until I just die on the stage. The play's so exciting — it's different every night, because of audience reaction — that maybe I'll be doing it forever.

Jokes Parsons, "And there's opportunity for sequels: September: Osage County, October: Osage County...."

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Currently, Mary McCormack is enjoying professional double exposure, portraying characters from 20th- and 21st-century experiences. On Broadway, she's Gretchen, an early 1960s German airline hostess (the term used then), in 2008's Tony-winning Best Revival Boeing-Boeing. She's a character who lives in Paris, and demonstrates what Times critic Ben Brantley termed a "wide-legged, take-no-prisoners stance."

Meanwhile, on TV, McCormack displays what could be called "a sure-footed, take-all-prisoners stance" in the cable series "In Plain Sight" (USA, Sundays, 10 PM ET), starring as Mary Shannon, a U.S. marshal, described by Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley as a "hardboiled-but-dedicated babe with a badge," assigned to an Albuquerque witness-protection program.

Serving passengers and justice is all in a season's work for McCormack — though her law officer might be on the trail of a longer tenure. Says McCormack, "The characters are so alike, it's weird. They're both strong on the outside, soft on the inside. They hide their vulnerabilities with toughness." Multi-tasking McCormack also manages to juggle her professional lives with marriage (since 2003, to "Brothers and Sisters" producer Michael Morris) and motherhood (Margaret, 3; Rose, 1).

Boeing-Boeing, claimed Brantley, "has no earthly right to be as funny as it is." Admits McCormack, "Onstage, my biggest challenge [in her Tony-nominated turn] is not breaking up. Everyone's so funny."

The action revolves around two Americans in Paris — a visitor (Mark Rylance) and an architect (Bradley Whitford), the latter's harried housekeeper (Christine Baranski), and his three fiancées — none of whom knows that the others exist. Flying in and out of the City of Light, the trio is part of the designer's hectic holding pattern.

Christine Baranski and Mary McCormack in Boeing-Boeing
photo by Joan Marcus

One of McCormack's best moments pairs her with Tony winner Rylance. She strikes such Teutonic terror in him that he literally crash lands in her wake. Gretchen describes herself as "passionate," is fiercely proud of her native land ("Germany is a great country, too!"), and has low tolerance for sweet-nothings: "Don't you Liebchen me!" At one point, she hurls Rylance across the set. McCormack feels "blessed" to have been able to do both play and series, especially since she was pregnant with her second child when the pilot was picked up. "But they waited for me. I've been very lucky." And she was amazed at USA's ad-campaign. "I've done a lot of work, but never had anything so big."

Part of the campaign featured posters of McCormack on the sides of buses. How did her three-year-old react to that? "She found it a little confusing. I'm not sure if she understands TV, but she knows theatre. She has a sense of it. She'll ask, 'Is this a two-show day?' She knows I wear a wig [as Gretchen], and she's seen me do the curtain calls [where the actors dance to Kathleen Marshall's choreography].

"Margaret understands about putting on a show, because she's done [pre-k] school plays." Like Long Day's Journey, I jokingly suggest. "No," replies McCormack. "Man of La Mancha." Convinced that she's going along with the joke, I inquire again (and later even send an e-mail), but McCormack insists, "It was a scaled-down, pre-school version. Bless her, she played a gypsy. She was two. But there will be no professional acting for my daughters."

During our telephone interview, McCormack admits that she's on her way to the beauty parlor. "I'm on the 'Tonight' show [July 17] and I don't want my roots to show," she says with a laughs. On her day off, she flies to L.A. to promote the play and the series. Later, she tells me, "I flew out on Sunday night and back late Monday night. It was pretty exciting."

Born in Plainfield, NJ, McCormack has an older sister, Bridget ("a criminal-defense attorney, a professor, and Dean of the University of Michigan"), and a younger brother, Will ("an actor"). She's wanted to perform since childhood. I'd see Broadway shows for my birthday, or on class trips."

Looking back, she vividly recalls seeing a (1979) revival of Oklahoma!. "I remember not believing all the fun those adults were having." At 12, she started to join in the fun. Though IMDb.com lists her as being in a 1978 TV production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors," it's incorrect. "Once it's on there, you can't seem to change it." She did switch genders to play Amahl ("I looked like an eight-year-old boy") in a regional production of Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera. "None of the boys in town could sing, so I got the part, and wore a hat."

Working regionally throughout New Jersey, she continued her education, attending Trinity College in Hartford, CT. At Trinity, she majored in English and painting, and continued her stage work in musicals.

McCormack's credits range from Sally Bowles in Broadway's most-recent Cabaret revival to playing Howard Stern's wife in 1997's "Private Parts" ("He's kind, funny, talented — and a million things people don't think he is") to being a cast member on three TV series.

"Doing theatre in New York is how I began. When I was cast in 'Murder One' (as Justine Appleton, 1995-97), I was working three restaurant jobs — in one day. I was thrilled to get it. I learned so much doing that series. I'd never been to L.A. I used to watch dailies [scenes shot that day] then; now they drive me crazy. 'Murder One' led to more TV and movies."

Next up was "K-Street" (as Maggie Morris, 2003). "It was 100 percent improvised, the hardest thing I've ever done. George Clooney produced it. It was really different, a challenge."

Kate Harper was the character she played (2004-06) on "The West Wing." Remembers McCormack, "It was a great experience — great actors, great writing."

A favorite moment as Gretchen in Boeing-Boeing "is when she's furious at Mark." Thanks to Matthew Warchus' deft direction, she and Rylance play off each other wonderfully. "Honestly, I'm having so much fun — it's like when I was a little girl and couldn't believe those were adults [in Oklahoma!] — and that was their job!"

Committed to Broadway until the first week of September, McCormack's been asked to stay on. "I'd love to, but I have to wait to see what's happening with 'In Plain Sight.'"

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Nominated for 16 Emmy Awards for its first season (just released on DVD), "Mad Men" is three-quarters of the way through shooting season two. Among the cast of many characters is Bryan Batt, who plays art director Salvatore Romano, and is "loving it. It's great to be given an opportunity to work with top-notch writers, top-notch actors. Everyone's at the top of their game. It's a pleasure to be associated with it."

Taking place in the 1960s, at Madison Avenue's Sterling-Cooper ad agency, characters smoke ("the herbal cigarettes are awful," complains Batt), and drink (tea substituting for alcohol) heavily, and womanize frequently.

Christina Hendricks with Bryan Batt in "Mad Men"
photo by © AMC TV

Series work, says Batt, "is very different from theatre. Onstage, you have weeks of rehearsals. Then you have previews. You're honing, perfecting. Here, you get the script the day before the table read and then start shooting. In the meantime, there are rewrites. You block a scene. They light it. You put on makeup. They shoot it. It's completely different, but I'm having a ball." Sal's most important episode last season was called "The Hobo Code," which referred to a childhood memory of Don Draper (Emmy nominee Jon Hamm). In it, Romano, a closeted gay man, has dinner with a visiting salesman (Paul Keeley) who wants Sal to come to his hotel room. But Sal leaves the restaurant.

"Many people in that era and many people today, still, feel they have to conform," Batt points out. "They have to deny their natural instincts and desires. In 2007-2008 [the first season's schedule], I want to say, 'What's the problem? Go to the man's room and have a good time.' But, in 1960, if Sal were found out, he'd lose his job. We forget the tight morality [of the time], especially dealing with that issue."

Batt has said previously that series creator Matthew Weiner "told me he was looking for a gay American actor to play this role and that he wasn't interested in someone 'playing gay.' All I want for my character is more juicy controversy. What I love about Matt's writing is that you can never really guess what is going to happen, and I know he has great ideas for Sal's journey."

The actor and his partner, Tom Cianfichi (they met in an Ohio production of Evita) co-own Hazelnut, a successful home-furnishing store on Magazine Street in Batt's native New Orleans.

On Broadway, Batt's roles include a candelabrum (Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast), a train (Starlight Express), and two felines — with a hat (Seussical) and without (Cats). Other appearances include two editions of Forbidden Broadway ("Strikes Back" and "Cleans Up Its Act"), Sunset Boulevard, and Saturday Night Fever.

When auditioning for Jeffrey, Batt was asked by playwright Paul Rudnick if he really had been in Cats. Said Batt, "yes, now and forever." Rudnick cast him as Darius (which he also played in the movie version), and which remained his favorite role until now. "I would have to put Sal at the top of the list."

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Various and Sundry

How to Succeed: Hats off and (in his character Bert Cooper's case) shoes off to Robert Morse on his Emmy nomination for "Mad Men". Last year, he told me, "It's a delight to go to work. Senior citizens belong to clubs...I go to the set — that's my club." Having earned a 1992 Emmy for reprising his Tony-winning portrayal of Truman Capote in "Tru", I'm sure he has space for two.

The 60th annual primetime Emmys will be telecast live (ABC, Sept. 21, 8 PM ET)...Nominated for reprising roles that earned them Tony Awards in "A Raisin in the Sun" are Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald...Though "Raisin" is up for Outstanding TV Movie, it was shortchanged in nominations.

Elaine Stritch could score back-to-back Emmys for "30 Rock", giving her a total of four...Bob Balaban is up twice: for his "Recount" performance, and as director of "Bernard and Doris"), which received 10 nominations, including TV Movie, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Susan Sarandon).

Several other Emmy nominees have theatrical associations. Among them: Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins ("Cranford"), Kevin Spacey ("Recount"), Glenn Close and Zeljko Ivanek ("Damages"), Kristin Chenoweth ("Pushing Daisies"), Cynthia Nixon ("Law & Order: SVU"), Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest ("In Treatment"), Laura Linney ("John Adams"), Mary-Louise Parker ("Weeds"), Ellen Burstyn ("Big Love"), Diahann Carroll ("Grey's Anatomy"), Michael C. Hall ("Dexter"), Michael Emerson ("Lost"), Jeremy Piven ("Entourage"), Lonny Price (director, "Company"), John Slattery ("Mad Men"), and Rip Torn ("30 Rock").

Estelle Getty with Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy
photo by Ken Howard

A fond farewell to Estelle Getty, who died July 22, three days before her 85th birthday. An Emmy winner for her expert timing as Sophia (mom to Bea Arthur, who was 14 months Getty's senior) on "The Golden Girls" (1985-92), the role came her way while she was on tour in L.A. in Torch Song Trilogy (her sole Off-Broadway and Broadway credit), in which she was portraying Mrs. Beckoff, mother of Arnold (Harvey Fierstein). Upcoming guest stars on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (USA cable, Sundays, 9 PM ET): Miguel Ferrer and Tony Roberts (July 27); Tony winner Jefferson Mays and John Shea (Aug. 3); Skipp Sudduth, currently Capt. Brackett in South Pacific (Aug. 10)...Chris Noth (Det. Mike Logan) makes his final appearance Aug. 17...Cast as the series' new detective is Jeff Goldblum, most recently on Broadway in The Pillowman.

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(Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)

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