Letting rip

“In our country, to run for president is an appalling and ludicrous experience”

Actress Holland Taylor opens up about her long career, where she gets her nerve and the “corruption and ruin of being a politician in America”

Holland Taylor at her home in Los Angeles. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Two years ago when Holland Taylor brought Texan firecracker Ann Richards dazzlingly to life in an original play she’d written, Ann, some Broadway audience members were understandably surprised. The Philadelphia-born Taylor had spent her long career playing mothers, lots of mothers, on television and in movies — flirting with George Clooney, brazenly matchmaking Hope Davis, exasperating Charlie Sheen, disowning Rachel Shelley for her profligate lesbian ways — plus the occasional haughty boss, challenging a secretly cross-dressing Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, acquitting herself as David E. Kelley’s hypersexualized notion of a female judge.

Yet Taylor, whose comic gifts could make her the love child of Maggie Smith and Madeline Kahn, always implodes clichés, bringing impeccable timing and a mad, euphoric gleam to whatever version of a woman she embodies. These days, in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s new comedy Ripcord, Taylor commands the stage with acerbic precision and unexpected poignance as half a female odd couple, battling to the death over a prized piece of property in an assisted living facility.

The 72-year-old actor spoke with Women in the World by phone.

Ripcord at the Manhattan Theatre Club

When the cantankerous Abby (Holland Taylor) is forced to share her assisted living quarters with new-arrival Marilyn (Marylouise Burke), she has no choice but to get rid of the infuriating woman by any means necessary. (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Women in the World: You’re the gold standard for a certain kind of imperious, patrician character. Did you imagine you’d play this role the bulk of your career?

Holland Taylor: I didn’t really, and I’m not entirely sure I understand it. I joked when I used to be in one of [A.R.] Pete Gurney’s plays that it was because I wore good shoes! But Abby in Ripcord, I don’t see as patrician; she’s been a schoolteacher all her life, and well-educated and a big reader — she has a stringent standard, she’s quite moralistic and a little bit judgmental, but I honestly don’t see her as being superior.

WITW: It’s a defense mechanism for what we discover are traumas from her past.

HT: It seems like an ordinary life to me — I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have serious traumas of some kind [laughs]. I really see life as being a series of struggles.

WITW: A cheery note! You do infuse even your darkest characters with humor. When you were little did you imagine this was what you’d grow up to be?

HT: I knew really at an early age that I wanted to be an actor; there was just never any question. The era I grew up in, I’m sort of surprised that I was encouraged. And not because of any early great success — I think you do learn over the years to do what you do; that’s what being a professional is: someone who’s very practiced at what they do. And I’ve had a lot of practice [laughs]. I think one reason why the British actors are so enviably good is that they have enviably more opportunity to work than we do.

WITW: There seems a respect for the arts there we don’t have in the U.S.

HT: I was recently involved with something for the Americans for the Arts, and it is so challenging to read the actual figures, how much government money goes to funding for arts in our country — it’s something absurd like $30 million, for the nation. That doesn’t even buy a building.

WITW: It doesn’t reflect what I think the citizenry wants.

HT: In our country I get an enormous feeling of protest of what the government’s stand is on many things. The abortion issue, and civil rights in other areas — across the board there’s a popular surging towards good, healthy governmental support for the right things and a shock at the absence of it. It’s mind-boggling how the people in the government whose business it is to assess these things, it seems like they’re willfully turning away from every wisdom about the subject, [for instance] about our need for the arts in our development. I don’t know who they think’s going to be running this country in 20 or 30 years, if not these people who are getting such a bad education now.

WITW: Willfully turning their backs on public programs, yet hideously intrusive in private matters, particularly where female autonomy is concerned.

HT: It is a kind of willfulness. You see it in climate change. The people that are voting on these issues, or putting a lot of money behind these things, literally do not care about any generation but the current one, which is just extraordinary. I think the average Joe on the street takes more responsibility than that.

WITW: We need Ann Richards to call them on it. I felt bereft at the end of Ann that she’s no longer with us — we desperately need people like her.

HT: There are so many men and women that are captains of commerce or major figures in other fields who have all the qualities to be a nation’s leader, but they don’t have any interest, because to be a big politician in our country, to run for president is an appalling and ludicrous experience, where you’re endlessly criticized and dumped on by your lessers as well as your equals. It’s just a free-for-all of the most extraordinary bad behavior from the media and from everyone else around you. I know politics is a messy business, but somehow the messy part seems to have gotten so huge, so overwhelming that the politicians live a life like movie stars. Certainly the Congress has seen fit to reward itself very handsomely for its work. A lot of people of really fine quality won’t expose themselves to the kind of corruption and ruin of being a politician in America.

WITW: Our tabloid culture is particularly dispiriting for its scrutiny of female candidates. Hillary Clinton continues to receive such an endless barrage of contempt, the kind of treatment I don’t think any male candidate has received.

HT: Ever. But she’s simultaneously reviled and revered. There’s no reasonable, calm acceptance of anybody’s value anymore. The attention span of the public, the commerce behind everything that is entertainment, including the news — it really is going for the lowest common denominator. When you watch anything that can be called a talk show, the frenzy of volume and the short little clips — you have to be under 14 to have a mind that works fast enough to follow it.

WITW: Steve Jobs broke us: creating these addictive inventions that program us to function in two-minute increments.

HT: Machines for being alone.

WITW: Even in a crowd. Was politics something that was discussed in your family?

HT: Not particularly. I know that my parents were Republican, but it was a different era. They were very definitely consumers of the ’50s and ’60s living the American life and wanting it to stay exactly as it was, thank you very much. I relish, I have to say, the diversity of modern life in American, certainly in the big cities.

WITW: Do you live in New York or on the West Coast?

HT: I live on both — you cannot have a career without being able to work in both worlds. For me that’s been one of the principle challenges that’s made life kind of rigorous, that you can’t be two places at once. But I’m used to being separated from friends and loved ones constantly by me having to be on the other coast from where they were, all the time, back and forth. If you’re happily settled and life’s going along very well, you will get a job on the other coast [laughs]. You can count on it.

WITW: Does the career you have match what you pictured it would be?

HT: I never thought that I would be doing television or film to the degree that I have; I thought I was just going to be a theater actress in New York. I often would do a pilot with no thought to it turning into a big series at all but every so often they do turn into a long-running series, and then you’re stuck. And so you end up buying a house, and then you have a house! But why shouldn’t you buy a house — you’re in your 50s, you have to live somewhere. And then you want to go do a play — when I did Ann, I was all over the place and my house sat in L.A., and that’s how it goes. When I would find it chafing I would say, “This is the job you wanted.”

WITW: What do you like most about acting?

HT: It’s a very bizarre and strange thing to do. There’s a certain feeling I get every so often, where your backstage life, your own personal life, and the onstage life just sort of overlap; it’s like a hologram experience, a double exposure: for a moment in time, the images lock together and the transparency that is your life slides over and meshes exactly with the transparency that is the other life, and they lock together to form a whole image. In that moment it’s like this ineffable trick you’ve played on yourself — an illusion which you are aware is an illusion. It’s like walking a tightrope and being confident up there: I’m doing it. I’m crossing from one point to the other over space. And then it just dissolves into nothing.

WITW: You created that illusion brilliantly with Ann.

HT: I have to say it was a kind of miracle event in my life, and hardly predictable — not even understandable from a distance, given my history. I never had any desire to be a playwright, or indeed to write anything. I like the act of finding the right way of saying something, but I had never wanted to write a play, until I had a subject. I wanted to celebrate her in a big national way, which is kind of an amazing thing for me to take seriously as something I would tackle, given my years, I mean, it’s like, “Where did you get the nerve to do that?” I guess I got it from her! She was just a fire and people sat around the fire and wanted to gather at the fire. And I just thought, “Well, if I create an echo of her, then it will create an echo of that feeling.” Hopefully some flavor of her will remain. Certainly she was a real rarity — almost an impossibility in today’s world. When I was writing the play, I didn’t do very much in the way of entertainment, but when I would eat a meal at home I would always watch a snatch of television just to have some amusement, and I remember Apollo 13 came on. Tom Hanks is an old friend from when we worked together thousands of years ago in Bosom Buddies, and I remember seeing him in Apollo 13 again and thinking, “I wish I could do something heroic like that.” And then I thought, “You are.”

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 15: In this handout photo provided by The Hartman Group, Emmy award-winning actress Holland Taylor stars in "Ann," an intimate portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards, on Broadway at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City. "Ann," written by Taylor and directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, opened on Broadway March 7 and has been extended to run through September 1. (Photo provided by The Hartman Group via Getty Images)

Holland Taylor in “Ann,” an intimate portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards. (The Hartman Group via Getty Images)

WITW: I hope you get as much pleasure from your work as we do on the other side of the aisle.

HT: I don’t have any sense of myself doing what I do because I want to do good. I have to do what I do — and the fact that good can come from it in these ineffable ways — what will inspire someone, what will lift someone up, what will guide someone, you never know. When I would have a difficult audience, when I had the experience that the audience is not enjoying it, I’d say, “First of all, I actually have no idea what your experience is,” and whatever your mood is that is telling you that this is a rocky night, that may have actually nothing to do with the reality. You walk out and you meet someone afterwards and they say, “That was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Ripcord runs until December 6, 2015 at the New York City Center.


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