features + interviews

mercedes ruehl: “all these things ride into town on your voice”

NYPL-PA + League of Professional Theatre Women:
Mercedes Ruehl + Andrea Chapin
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
Bruno Walter Auditorium, 111 Amsterdam Avenue
Monday January 13, 2014 at 6pm

(L-R) Andrea Chapin, Mercedes Ruehl. Image by Martha Wade Steketee

(L-R) Andrea Chapin, Mercedes Ruehl. Image by Martha Wade Steketee

The Oral History project at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center recently held the latest in a series of public interviews produced by Betty Corwin. These interviews are filmed and preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, where they are available for viewing.  It is even more fun to attend these tapings in person. I have attended several: Elizabath Ashley and Christine Ebersole and Kia Cothron have inspired me with their erudition and observations in the past. This night’s conversational offering, in part sponsored by the League of Professional Theatre Women, involves two old friends: arts and culture writer Andrea Chapin who questions her pal, actress Mercedes Ruehl who charms us all.  Ruehl’s careers off Broadway, on Broadway, and on film are deep and varied, and she addresses many aspects of her life and career in this conversation.

On standing in her light. Ruehl recalls her first show in “the big leagues” with Joe Papp. She was terrified, and needed to approach a chair in the center of the stage. She stood behind it, to the edge, and Papp said “you have to get around and go to the light; that’s where the light is.”

On preparing for the moment. Ruehl recalls with respect and awareness the long years of working around the edges of professional theatre. She was 31 or 32 when things broke for her, she notes. “You have to keep pressing through despair.”

On focus and on dancing. Ruehl muses on a 2013 documentary about the lives of backup singers called 20 Feet from Stardom while making points about tenacity and focus in any professional field. Quoting singer (and annual Christmas guest on the Letterman Show) Darlene Love, Ruehl notes that in acting, as in singing, “you try to keep it right as long as you can.” When acting with others, and it’s going well, “you’re just dancing, like a good jazz trio, playing it differently all the time.”

On scaling the walls. When asked about the blonde goddess standard of Ruehl’s initial years in the business, Ruehl noted, ruefully, that “the blond goddess still pertains.” She says this with resolution, yet security that she has indeed found her own place in acting hierarchy. “Casting agents can be your best friends … and they can put up walls. You have to scale those walls.”

On being a “fascinator” and surviving it. Ruehl spends a bit of time describing her adventures leading to being cast in Edward Albee‘s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? She was first introduced to Mr. Albee by Irene Worth — her co-star in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, on Broadway 1991-93 and released as a film with the Broadway cast in 1993. This first introduction at Albee’s loft apartment was a failure in Ruehl’s eyes. “I was trying to be a fascinator,” she says, and she didn’t think she’d make any kind of impression. They met a second time when she auditions for Albee’s The Play About the Baby, for the role that ultimately went to Marian Seldes. She felt she was trying to be a “fascinator” again, missing the mark. Then a call for a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Guthrie in Minneapolis with Patrick Stewart aroused her interest, though she feared her prior impressions on Albee would doom her chances. Much to her surprise, they had run the idea of casting her as Martha and Albee agreed. She had a very young son with her at the time and noted that “everyone, even the baby, ran lines with me” as she prepared to pass muster with the playwright. As it turned out, the only performance he could attend of this out-of-town production was the dress rehearsal. It was, she realized, her “it’s now or never moment.” And he was happy with her performance.

On developing a metaphor to act with. Ruehl notes that at the core of each of Albee’s plays is always a metaphor, sometimes a metaphorical creature everyone agonizes over. When you’re in one of those plays, she notes, you have to emotionally connect with a metaphor — “you have to decide what that baby is” — whether you’re playing Woman in The Play About the Baby or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  “You can’t break your heart over a child that doesn’t exist.”

On humility in the rehearsal room. Ruehl notes that she has been full of opinions and not always graceful about expressing them, as “the wise ass English major.” She has “learned the hard lesson of diplomacy” over time. “I’ve had to learn humility in the face of writers and directors.”

On finding a character’s voice. Ruehl describes her way into the role of Bella in Lost in Yonkers (opened on Broadway in 1991 and movie released in 1993) through Tom Hank’s character in Big (1988) — in which a 13-year-old boy becomes a 20 something man based on a magical wish. Ruehl plays the mother of Hanks’ character and observed his arc first hand. Bella in Lost in  Yonkers is a developmentally delayed grown woman, who appears normal but is emotionally stunted. She repeats her conversation with her Yonkers cast: “Let’s play the high end of thirteen.” Later she returns to the topic of Bella’s character and fighting to find the key. Early in rehearsals she remembers telling herself, “I’m not going to sleep until I have this voice.” In rehearsal, when they were struggling and not quite getting to the core of the play, it was “like a machine and the engine isn’t turning over.” They ultimately found the key, the emotional pivot in the play and in her character, in  a moment of angry tears.

On playing real people on stage or on film. Reuhl has played Frieda Kahlo, Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s Occupant (2008), and Peggy Guggenheim in Woman Before a Glass (2005), and she found her way into each of them through their voices — on film (Nevelson and Guggenheim) or out of her imagination (Kahlo). Now, Reuhl notes, she is considering playing Diana Vreeland in a revival of Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson‘s one woman show Full Gallop. “All these things ride into town on your voice.”

On New York versus Los Angeles. “I’ve always felt safer in New York.” Of Los Angeles in general, she comments on the “brinksmanship” and adds with a smile “then there’s the freeways.”

We are treated to palpable charm and grand professional and life lessons by this veteran actor, who came to her success in her early 30s and appears to have enjoyed every moment. A marvelous evening.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 21, 2014)

 

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