Edith Meiser Oral History series :
Elizabeth Ashley in conversation with Rick McKay
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
Bruno Walter Auditorium, 111 Amsterdam Avenue
Monday, January 24, 2011 at 6pm
Actress Elizabeth Ashley is full of life and always working. She laughs when presented by interviewer Rick McKay with evidence of her working track record of recent years with the flippant “I’ll work cheap and I’ll work anywhere”, but you only believe the hardworking part of this equation. McKay says at the beginning and end of this hour-long talk this frosty January evening that he thinks Ashley is the finest actress working on the American stage today. Ashley herself starts listing off others talented actresses, some of whom (like Hallie Foote) are in the audience. All we know in the auditorium is that she has charmed the pants off all of us, to a person.
Elizabeth Ashley grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana knowing that it was not the place for her. Inspired in part by Marlon Brando in the Wild One (1953) — whose character, when asked “What are you rebelling against?” replies “What have you got?” — Ashley flew to New York in the middle 1950s and soon was accepted into the Neighborhood Playhouse. She tells of training by Sanford Meisner and the other teachers there, landing as a replacement in The Highest Tree (where she meets Robert Redford), and casting in Barefoot in the Park (and she suggests her new pal Redford as her co-star). Marriages to James Farentino and George Peppard, and stories to tell of Hollywood wifedom and living with an alcoholic and getting back in the acting game despite being fired by her old movie agent after being told that she was on the OTB (“old tired broad”) list when she was not yet 35. When pressed on some of these harder times in her life, she repeated what seemed to be a mantra for her: “as high as you fly is as low as you go” — the best of times will be met by the worst of times, in equal magnitude.
Ashley finds her way back to theatre through an offer to participate in a revival production of Cat on a Hot Tin Room, first based at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, that moves onto Broadway in 1974. This production involves Tennessee Williams himself, is directed by Michael Kahn, and is a luxurious, actor-focused experience of 8-9 weeks of rehearsal, and time with a playwright who actively rewrites and adores actors. When asked which version of a scene he wanted them to use, Tennessee would reply: “Why don’t you just do them for me and we’ll decide which one we like.”
You can feel that Ashley herself is still smitten with Tennessee and his words. “Sometimes it just has your name on it”, she says of the role of Maggie the Cat in this play. “Tennessee’s language — it’s in my blood.” She goes on to reflect on his musicality. “Tennessee writes in waltz time. He writes arias in threes. There’s a waltz time under there.”
Reflecting on acting for stage versus film, Ashley feels stage is for her. “The camera doesn’t photograph what you say and do, it photographs what you feel and think.” She goes on to say that for her, counter-intuitively “the stage is a private place.” “The stage — I understand it, I can feel it. The audience is my friend, one person.” On the other hand “film is so in your face, I can’t get to the private secret place I can get on the stage.”
This interview is part of the videotaped oral history project funded by the Edith Meiser Foundation, and produced by Betty Corwin. The interviews completed as part of the project are preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.
© Martha Wade Steketee (January 24, 2011)