Susan Sullivan Interview

There's a great recent interview with Susan Sullivan on broadway.com. She talks about her new play Buffalo Gal, about Falcon Crest and about her relationship with Connel Cowan. Have fun reading this:

Susan Sullivan
by Kathy Henderson

An actress needs a strong ego to sign on for a play about aging, with a script that makes fun of her character's fading status as a TV star, inability to remember lines and diva-like backstage antics. "My phone doesn't ring much these days," laments Amanda, the leading lady who's come home to headline The Cherry Orchard in A.R. Gurney's Buffalo Gal, now at Primary Stages. Of course, it helps when the lady in question is played by Susan Sullivan, who makes 60-something look as chic and alluring as 40. Though she has spent most of her career in Los Angeles headlining TV shows ranging from Falcon Crest and The Monroes to It's a Living and Dharma and Greg, Sullivan got her start onstage 40 years ago when she appeared on Broadway alongside Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine. Theater has remained a priority over the years, and Sullivan proudly touts the quality of the L.A. companies she's associated with, Antaeus and Matrix. (For the latter, she recently starred in Honour opposite her Falcon Crest husband, Robert Foxworth, who's back in New York this summer in August: Osage County.) In conversation, Sullivan is warm and reflective, speaking easily about her life and career, including her history of playing high-tone ladies when her own childhood on Long Island was anything but posh.

What drew you this play and this character?
My life! That's the shortest answer I can give you. It very
much parallels on many levels my life—becoming involved with television as opposed to staying where I always thought I would be and should be, which was the theater. As Amanda says in the play, "You called and said, 'Come home and do a play about coming home…'" New York, of course, is my home, and [doing Buffalo Gal] also gives me the opportunity to be with my mother, who is 92 and has come up from Florida to spend this chunk of time with me. So it's personal journey as well as a theatrical journey. And [playwright] Pete Gurney, who I worked with on The Fourth Wall at Primary Stages five years ago, is such a gentleman, so gifted and so elegant as an artist and as a human being. How can you possibly say no to all of that?

Were you able to find humor in the idea of playing, and I'm quoting from the press release, "a once successful television personality whose star is now fading"?
[Laughs] Yes, I could identify with all of that. I mean, everybody's star fades in every business; that's just a natural part of life. You know, this is such a well-written play. The deep
er you go into it, the more you find. It relates to my own life, it relates to the life of the theater and hopefully to the journey all of us take. I think we're all trying, particularly in this hectic and chaotic world, to find some sense of personal integrity. And that's the struggle Amanda faces.

Aren't you too glamorous for this part?

No. You are the only person who has told me that I look halfway decent [laughs]. Thank you!

You're wearing skinny jeans and orange patent-leather mules onstage!
When I'm working—and I've been doing a lot of theater this past year—I don't eat, so I've lost about 10 pounds, which is probably not so good. I'm hyped up when I'm working. Some people eat when they're hyped up and some people don't. I'm the "don't."

Like your character, you've done Chekhov, but I doubt you have Amanda's fear about learning lines.
I must say, I'm having a struggle, not with learning the lines but with saying the lines exactly as Pete Gurney has written them. He's very particular about that, and he has every right to be. There's a sweet little intern writing down notes every night, a
nd I get four or five pages after each performance of exactly where I'm not saying "and," "but" or "it" or, even worse, where I'm adding words. The character says, "Ah, the curse of Hollywood," and that is part of my problem—all these years of learning lines, starting with the soaps, where you had to learn pages and pages. I would learn them, but they were always, as I would say, "free form." Well, they don't want it free form with Gurney or Chekhov [laughs]. I'm trying to be really diligent.

This play takes a rather dim view of television. Did you feel comfortable with that, given the number of series you've done?
Well, at this point in my life, when my character says, "It's so tiring, television," I couldn't agree more. I just did a pilot, interestingly enough, and all that sitting around, all that gearing up, it's just not as satisfying an experience [as theater] in terms of the time you take to create and develop a character. You're sort of thrown in. But having
said that, I wouldn't have the life I have without television. I wouldn't be looking out my apartment window onto the East River; I wouldn't be able to afford to have my mother with me this summer. So television has been very good to me.

What's the TV pilot you just did?

It's called Castle [starring Nathan Fillion of Waitress and TV's Firefly]. I play an old Broadway diva, emphasis on the "old," who is running around in fancy outfits looking for love and excitement and singing "Hey look me over!" It's completely fun, and every actress in town wanted to do it, so I feel very fortunate. Who knows if it will be sold?

Can you imagine turning down a part in a TV series in order to do The Cherry Orchard in Buffalo?
That's a hard one. [Amanda] obviously has enormous guilt and conflict in terms of what her life's journey has been—and now she has the opportunity to come home, do a play and have it take her on another road in life, as opposed to going back [to Hollywood] and doing something she doesn't really feel has any substance or value other than money. I don't have the money issue, and I've found myself being offered things in television and thinking, "Why am I even considering this? There's no reason for me to do it other than [to demonstrate] I'm still in the game."

You mentioned New York being home. Where did you grow up?
Long Island. Freeport, Baldwin—I went to Hofstra University—I'm a Long Island girl.

So, you weren't part of the Upper East Side crowd, even though you've played so many parts like that over the years.
I really wasn't. I remember one of the first parties I went to on the Upper East Side. It was very glamorous; I met Cary Grant at this party. I had made my own dress because I didn't have an appropriate thing to wear. Anyway, someone said to me, "Are you English?" And I thought, "I must really be over-enunciating if they think I'm English!" There was always a feeling of working my way into a world that I didn't really feel authentic in. Somewhere along the line I sort of learned to be part of that, almost unconsciously. I haven't really thought about it, but I see how many characters like this I play.

Is it true you dated Cary Grant?
Yes. He was the age I am now when I met him, and I thought he was an old man [laughs]. He had just broken up with Dyan Cannon and had had a child. He said to me, "Why are you being an actress? They're all neurotic." I said, "Even Katharine Hepburn?" And he said, "Especially Katharine Hepburn!" I said, "Well, what do you think I should do with my life?" And he said, "I think you should become impregnated."

I know. He made it sound so unglamorous and so unappealing, I didn't give it a thought.
I'd rather be a neurotic actress than "become impregnated."

You made your Broadway debut in 1968 in Jimmy Shine opposite Dustin Hoffman. What are your memories of that?
My strongest memory was going out of town, and the extraordinary pressure. I remember being in my hotel room in one of those awake/asleep states, dreaming that there were rats in the room. That's the degree of terror I remember feeling. It was the first time I really understood that I was going to have to have courage to deal with the anxiety that comes with performing. A part of me wanted to stop. So whenever it comes back up, I think, "This is just part of what artists have to deal with, and you must have the grace and the courage to move through it."

How did you decide to go into the theater?
I always wanted it, since I was a little girl. I came from a chaotic family, and by doing little plays and constructing organized drama—as opposed to the disorganized drama of my family—things worked better. That's the psychological aspect of it, but it's also in my genes
. My father's aunt, my great aunt, came over with the Abbey players and was a protégé of David Belasco, so it's part of my background on the Irish side of my family.

You're the ultimate example of an actor who mixes crowd-pleasing TV series and highbrow plays. Is it a fluke that the two sides of your career are so different?
No. If you're doing commercial television and you land on a hit series, it's good news and bad news. When I started Falcon Crest, I was in my late 30s, and by the time it finished, I was in my mid-40s. Those were really good years of my life that were spent making money and having a good time and playing a character that people connected to—but basically it was about entertainment. So if you're going to do theater at all, you want t
o do something that's deeper and of more value. You want to do Chekhov as opposed to Dharma and Greg.

Dharma and Greg was a clever show.
My mother watches all the reruns of Dharma and Greg. I hadn't seen that show or thought about it for five years, but since my mom watches, I peek in on it, and boy, is it timely. It's about people getting together from all different cross-sections of life, and if we don't do that, we're doomed.

Isn't it wild that Robert Foxworth, your Falcon Crest spouse, is on Broadway now in August: Osage County?
We just did a play together, Honour, in L.A. There are lots of wonderful theater companies in L.A., and I'm involved with two of them [Matrix and Antaeus]. When I saw "Antaeus" in one of the opening lines in [Buffalo Gal], I thought, "This is meant to be."

The other big reference in the play is to [Buffalo native] Katharine Cornell. My father once said to me, I think it was when I was doing Rich Man, Poor Man, "Well, Susan, it's not Katharine Cornell." Now I get to talk about Katharine Cornell and be her for a second and a half when I cross the stage.

Have you seen August?
Oh yes. Did you read the article in The New York Times about Estelle Parsons standing on her head? Oh my god! That's such a gift to actors to see that and think "Not only could I be doing a play at 80—to hell with that! I could be standing on my head!"

You could play Violet Weston in August.
I think so. When I saw it, I thought, "That would be an interesting part somewhere down the road," although it looked exhausting.

How do you stay so glam-looking and in such great shape?
It's good genes. My mother eats carbohydrates, she eats sugar, she does not exercise—I keep trying to give her "notes," and she says, "I'm 92! Everybody else is dead!" I am really blessed, and maybe that's one of the gifts of being a little neurotic. I have no desire to eat. Once this is over, I will put the 10 pounds I've lost back on.

Your bio mentions your 20-year relationship with psychologist Connell Cowan, author of famous books about relationships [Smart Women, Foolish Choices], including several about marriage. Yet you two never got married.
Isn't that interesting? He had been married a few times, and I have an inordinate fear of…I don't know what. God knows, he's a shrink and we've talked about it. My parents didn't have a great marriage; I saw some really awful marriages, and I so love the fact that we are deeply connected to each other without it having to be on a piece of paper. There's something about that that seems deeper to me. It's a commitment of the heart as opposed to of the head.

Would you like to do a major classical role in New York?

As opposed to in L.A.? I don't know that it makes too much of a difference where it's done. I think Los Angeles actors, and I suppose I have to consider myself more of a Los Angeles actor now, feel that New York is of more consequence in L.A. But you know what? I see wonderful theater in L.A., and if I wanted to do a part, it wouldn't make any difference whether it was in New York or L.A. or the Cleveland Play House. It's all about the community, that family you put together, because I think audiences are audiences wherever you go.

Are you happy with the level of fame you've achieved, and with how your career has gone?
Yes. I mean, I could say, "I didn't have the career of Meryl Streep" and be miserable about it, but I choose to be happy. I see people who were wonderful actors but didn't stay with it for one reason or another and choose to be bitter; they blame the business or say "I wasn't the right type." We all carry a critic in our head. But when you move into your fifties and sixties, things start to shift a little bit. The things that were important in your thirties and forties, like what people think of you, are not so important anymore. I'm happy with what I've done, and I'm delighted that I'm doing this play. I'm quite interested in where I'm going next.

See Susan Sullivan in Primary Stages' production of Buffalo Gal at 59E59 Theaters.

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