Famed actress Elizabeth Ashley is back in Houston, preparing for her starring role in Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate at the Alley Theatre. Art Attack had a few questions for the actress known as much for her candor as her longevity and famous voice.
Art Attack: Are you doing Dividing the Estate in Houston at the Alley with Hallie Foote and director Michael Wilson because you love the part of Stella in Horton Foote's play, or because it gives you a chance to work with friends? Or all of the above?
Ashley: I love and respect this play. While it's always a plus and a huge bonus when I get to work with artists that have been close friends and colleagues for many years, friendship, as valuable and treasured as it is, is never a good enough reason to invest the time, energy, exhausting, creative imagination and dangerous passion demanded for excellent and hopefully thrilling work on the stage. It's like lending money to family. It doesn't tend to work out well.
AA: Are there any parts of Stella in you?
Ashley: Absolutely! I tend to be a control freak and a compulsive "know-it-all." Ask anyone who has known me for a long time. They usually take my advice, or at least eventually acknowledge that I'm right -- just ask me!
AA: Have you known anyone like her?
Ashley: I had a great-great aunt from Georgia who, in her youth, was an infamous "Southern belle," and by the time I knew her, she was the quintessential "grande dame" -- defined by Oxford Dictionary as "a usually elderly woman of great prestige or ability." I think that describes Stella Gordon perfectly!
AA: How would you describe your character?
Ashley: See the above.
AA: Should we like her?
Ashley: I love and respect her. It's not my concern whether the audience likes her. My job is to embody her so truthfully that the audience recognizes her in the world and in themselves.
AA: Should we like the Gordon family?
Ashley: I don't think an audience "should" do anything. They've bought their ticket and volunteered the gift of their time and attention, and it's my job to involve and compel them and, hopefully, to some degree, illuminate something about the human condition that we all share.
AA: You're known for doing Tennessee Williams plays. How would you compare his work/outlook on life with Horton Foote's?
Ashley: Both are great, great playwrights whose work focuses on the ways in which all of us, flawed human beings that we are, live in a world that will inevitably break our hearts, how we survive or not, and the price we pay for the journey.
They tell their stories in very different worlds and languages -- but both artists will cause you to fall out of your seat laughing and a second later burst into tears, your mind spinning, your heart in your mouth and feeling something you've never felt before in a different way that you've ever imagined.
It doesn't get better than that!
AA: Do they speak to the same kind of audience or different ones?
Ashley: Every audience is different, in the same way that people are different individuals, audiences are people who have volunteered to sit alone in the dark (no popcorn, coke, talking out loud, walking around, etc.) and experience "they know not what." It's an act of pure faith and hope -- one of the few left in our culture!
AA: How important is it to be Southern to understand this play and do a good job of performing in it? Are people who aren't Southerners as well, Southern gothic, as Southerners (and their plays) are?
Ashley: Do you have to be British to love Shakespeare? A great story, well told, is a great story.
AA: Would you do another film or TV at this time?
Ashley: I've just done two seasons of the HBO series Treme, which I've loved doing, but I've been a "stage whore" for 55 years and that's what I'm best at. It's what I understand and love.
In some sense, it comes naturally to me. Acting on film is more difficult for me. I guess I like "doing it in the dark," live, no second chance. It's like flying without a net!
AA: What is it that you like about being on stage? Do you ever mess up at all?
Ashley: See the above. After doing it for 55 years now, I try, not always successfully, to "mess up" as little as possible. But it happens.
When I look at another actor onstage and see the whites of their eyes as the blood drains from their faces, I usually figure I "messed up" somewhere!
AA: Did your famous voice come naturally or did you develop it?
Ashley: I just have fat/thick vocal cords and have always had a sorta "croaky" voice. But, I suppose, smoking has had some effect on any "soprano-ish" range I might have had in my youth.
AA: Any regrets about parts not taken over the years? Or parts that were taken?
Ashley:I regret everything and nothing!
AA: 9. You've been acting for more than 50 years. How do you keep going?
Ashley: Fifty-five years, to be exact. Like most actors, what the hell else could I do? Also, like most actors, there's that rent to be paid.
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AA: Are you glad you started your acting career when you did or would you rather be starting out now?
Ashley: I wish I could have been an actor at the turn of the century, before film and TV, when you constantly toured and had your own train car and lived like a gypsy and weren't welcome in some hotels -- and the very fact that you were an actress meant you were, in conventional circles, a "scarlet woman," when that really meant something!
Kids now have to contend with this tacky "celebrity" scrum-world that they are encouraged to take seriously as an element of their profession. I feel so sorry for them and would never enter that world again -- even the little bit of it that I experienced when I was young was soul-numbing!
Dividing the Estate runs October 7-30 on the Hubbard Stage of the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For ticket information go to www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700.