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by Pat Cerasaro
Today we are talking to a notable presence on Broadway and in Hollywood who has appeared in countless celebrated entities - ranging from her Tony Award-winning work in BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE and in the original cast of Harold Pinter's BETRAYAL on Broadway along with dozens of other credits; to starring in feature films like THE PRINCE OF TIDES with Barbra Streisand, and, perhaps most famously the MEET THE FOCKERS franchise; to her latest star-turn, that of featured player in the hit original Gershwin revue NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT - the elegant and accomplished Blythe Danner. Discussing her various roles in a number of wide-ranging projects that she has taken on over the course of her idiosyncratic career thus far - such as memorable turns in three Woody Allen films (HUSBANDS & WIVES, ALICE and ANOTHER WOMAN) and the classic movie musical adaptation of 1776, all the way to her most recent work with Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller and the Fockers clan in the FOCKERS films as well as THE LUCKY ONE with Zac Efron, DETACHMENT with Adrien Brody, TV pilots old and new and much more. Additionally, Danner shares memories of appearing in the 2001 revival of Stephen Sondheim & James Goldman's FOLLIES, as well as her work on WILL & GRACE with recent InDepth InterView participant Eric McCormack. Most importantly, Danner offers her thoughts on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT as an entertainment experience, Gershwin music in general, her co-stars Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara, choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall as well as what drew her to the hit revue in the first place. All of that, working on one of 2012's most memorable films, DETACHMENT, collaborating with Ryan Murphy and Jonathan Groff on the daring (if ultimately unsuccessful) pilot for PRETTY/HANDSOME, thoughts on her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow's Emmy-winning work on Glee and much, much more awaits in this career-spanning conversation!
More information on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT on Broadway is available at the official site here.
Also, be sure to check out this week's FLASH SPECIAL: S'ROMANTIC! Top Ten Gershwin Love Songs available here.
Won't You Tell Me How?
PC: Over the course of your career, especially since the film version of 1776, you have seen movie musicals fall in and out of favor so often...
BD: I know! I know. I have.
PC: What do you think of the current Glee generation and the popularity of that, a TV series which famously featured your daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow (in an Emmy-winning role)?
BD: Oh, I love it! I think it's great. Believe it or not, I'm still new to a lot of the newer musicals because I suppose I still have one foot stuck in the old days - I mean, one of my very favorite musicals is SHE LOVES ME, and I love WEST SIDE STORY and I just have not been a fan of the musicals of the last couple decades. So, actually, it makes me feel guilty that I haven't seen as much as I probably should have - it's just that Bock & Harnick and Rodgers & Hammerstein and so many of these other ones are just my favorites and I adore that music so much.
PC: You prefer the Golden Age sound.
BD: I think that I was just being a snob and not going! [Laughs.] But, I have to say, when I went to go see this show - NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT - I had a friend with me and they weren't feeling very well - a little under the weather - and I said, "Oh, we have to see this, though," because I do love Matthew and Kelli so much. As I'm sure you know, Kelli was in FOLLIES with me years ago...
PC: She spoke so favorably of that experience - and you - one of the times she did this column, actually.
BD: Of course. Of course. I adore Kelli. And, getting back to the story: you know, I just love Gershwin! So, we went to see it, and, five minutes into it I was just turned - I absolutely adored it!
PC: What a wonderful experience.
BD: Yeah! It just turned us right around! It was so much fun.
PC: Joe DiPietro wrote a really fun conceit for it, as well.
BD: Yes. I was thrilled to accept it! It was such a delight - such a delight. But, of course, getting back to your original question about the resurgence of the great musicals with Glee and SMASH and all of that, I think it is just wonderful. I think they are all great shows and I think that the younger generation is now steeped in more kinds of music again - stuff that isn't just rock or whatever we call it these days.
PC: It's hard to keep up for everyone, I think, insofar as the terminology.
BD: Yeah, it is - "alternative" or "alternate" or whatever it is that the kids call it! [Laughs.]
PC: "Contemporary" works.
BD: Yes, that works best! Yes. Actually, of all the songs, my little grandson was singing something from WEST SIDE STORY and I said to him, "Where did you hear that?" He was singing, [Sings.] "When you're a jet / You're a jet all the way," and so on. So, he said, "On GLEE!" So, I was immediately so thrilled to hear that because I could tell him all the lyrics - I actually wrote them all down for him because he asked me to. So, for a moment, I felt like I was "in" or something! [Laughs.] And it's all thanks to Glee - and WEST SIDE STORY.
PC: You actually worked with Ryan Murphy previously on a pilot called PRETTY/HANDSOME, which was fantastic - as were you in it.
BD: Oh, gosh, you even saw that?! You don't miss anything, do you!
PC: Jonathan Groff was remarkable in that, as well.
BD: He was. Jonathan is a great, great guy - and a big talent.
PC: What did you think of that project, looking back a few years ago? It was so unique.
BD: Wasn't it, though? It really was unique. It was quite wonderful. But, you know, I really don't think there is anyone more imaginative or creative working than Ryan. I really don't. My daughter adores him and I love that she has been on Glee - I know she has just had a ball doing that.
PC: Would you be open to appearing with her on the show someday?
BD: Oh, believe me, I am - I am up for anything! Even though I'm an old lady, I love it. Singing and dancing will never grow old for me - I'd like to do that until I'm... actually, I think I'd like to drop dead onstage. I think that'd be just great. [Laughs.] Honestly, I do!
PC: That's the way for a real true blue performer to go, I guess! It has happened before - an actor in 70, GIRLS, 70, I believe; David Burns.
BD: Oh, yes! That's right! Oh, wow - I remember that, actually, when it happened.
PC: Speaking of deceased Broadway notables, do you have memories of working with Arthur Laurents? You appeared in the TV adaptation of his INVITATION TO A MARCH.
BD: Yes, he had asked me to do a couple of things over the years. With INVITATION TO A MARCH, though, that was done as a PBS special - HOLLYWOOD THEATER TELEVISION or something I think it was called; gosh, that was so long ago, though! That was before I even had children, I think. So, it was done as part of an old program that had been on for years - I remember that. He asked me to do something else after that but I think I was having a baby at the time so I couldn't commit to it! [Laughs.]
PC: What a shame! You would do well with some of his roles.
BD: I actually can't remember what it was, but I remember him being quite charming to me whenever we would see each other - lovely.
PC: You seem to have fabulous rapport with many of your collaborators. On that note: tell me about sharing the stage with Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara in NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT.
BD: Oh, well, Matthew and Kelli... just phenomenal. Phenomenal. When Kelli and I first worked together she was an understudy [in FOLLIES], I think, so it has just been amazing to see her ascend like she has - just fly and take off in flight like she has. I think I have seen everything she has done on Broadway.
PC: What are your favorite performances of hers so far?
BD: Oh, I loved her in SOUTH PACIFIC - I thought that was just wonderful. THE PAJAMA GAME, too. I think she was and always is just phenomenal. And, she's so sweet, too - she hasn't changed at all since FOLLIES. There is no diva about that gal!
PC: None at all. How did you first become involved with NICE WORK, actually?
BD: Well, Kathleen choreographed FOLLIES and I think she remembered me from that and remembered that I sort of hobbled around and warbled a little here and there...
PC: What a way to put it!
BD: [Laughs.] But, as you know, I don't have to even sing or dance in this at all, so she knew I could do it! Seriously, though, I'm sure it was because of working together on FOLLIES.
PC: Did you discuss with her perhaps adding a reprise or a little musical moment especially for you?
BD: Oh, no, sadly I don't think they could do something like that - but, actually, it's funny you say that because now that I am up there doing it, I feel all warmed up and ready to go every night just about when we end. It's like: "Can't you give me a song?!" But, of course not - it's been running now almost a year. And, it's still very fresh and there's always some nuances that are different and that always keeps it fun and fresh and keeps everyone on their toes. I love that - I always think that the most fun you can have onstage is to try to find something each night that is a bit different from the night before; not just arbitrarily doing it differently, but playing off what your fellow actors are giving you every night. That can trigger something fresh and something new.
PC: What's your favorite moment in the evening - both in viewing it and participating in it?
BD: Oh, well, I have several favorite moments in just watching it - that's one of the treats of being in it, is getting to hear those glorious melodies every night!
PC: A definite bonus.
BD: Just wonderful. It's so funny, too - there are lines that are just infallible and guaranteed a laugh. It's a joy to do those. For instance, you know, like: "Oh, Beth, darling. I saw you onstage once and I didn't know if you were dancing or having a seizure." That always gets a great response.
PC: What other lines are your favorites?
BD: The political lines always get a big response - "He was your father because I didn't want you raised as a Republican." I love that one.
PC: A little Marilyn Truman from WILL & GRACE!
BD: Oh, yes! Exactly. Exactly. There's also another political joke, too - I love the exchange with Matthew about working in the Senate being a lot of work and Terry [Beaver] says, "Nooo, it isn't!" [Laugh.] That always gets a big response every night.
PC: Speaking of politics, THE BEST MAN's Eric McCormack expressed that enjoying working with you on WILL & GRACE. I was curious if you'd be open to appearing in a reunion, should it arise?
BD: Oh, of course! Anything anybody sends me these days I am usually up for. You know, I am so fortunate at this age to able to do all of these things and be asked to do them - seriously. I feel so fortunate in that regard.
PC: You can do it all - and do.
BD: You know, I see so many friends of mine who are around my age who have decided to just sort of pull away and I think, "No! Keep at it!" I think that's what keeps us young. You know, before we started today, I was reading the paper and there were so many dreadful, sad, awful things and I thought, "Oh, Lord! Aren't I lucky that I get to go to the theatre every night and be lifted up and hear that glorious music and see the young kids out in the audience and have that spiritually uplifting experience that only theatre can offer."
PC: Indeed. On the topic of TV: GILDED LILYS is another pilot you participated in recently. What can you tell me about that DOWNTON ABBEY-esque project?
BD: Well, unfortunately, I don't believe that that sold - actually, I know it didn't - so that won't be airing, I don't think. That's something that we made last Spring in Boston. I don't know the timing of it, but I think that one idea sort of inspired another idea and they just sort of went with it - this all was inspired by the Astor family and it was very historically true to them, but it just didn't get picked up.
PC: Lost opportunities are a dime a dozen with TV pilots, it seems.
BD: I know! I know. I have been around long enough now that I don't really get down or mope around about any of these things, though - you just move on to the next one and I have been lucky enough to always have a next one.
PC: Such as: DETACHMENT, which was a masterpiece. It was one of my favorite movies of last year.
BD: That was good, wasn't it?
PC: Undoubtedly. What was it like for you working with Adrien Brody, Tony Scott and that amazing cast?
BD: Oh, Adrien was just wonderful - so wonderful. I had quite an experience working on that and it turned out that it was something quite special, I think.
PC: Is it true you filmed quite a bit of material that did not make the final cut?
BD: Yes, there are quite a few things that did not make it in. But, you know, gosh, those actors! I was just astonished to see them all and be with them - Bryan Cranston and Marcia Gay Harden and Lucy Liu and James Caan; the whole cast was just wonderful and I was so pleased to have been asked to be a part of it.
PC: It is so depictive of so many schools these days - astonishingly so.
BD: Yes, I know. It's very raw - very, very raw.
PC: Proving your enviable versatility: the MEET THE PARENTS/FOCKERS films are listed among the highest grossing comedies of the last twenty years. Do you enjoy the popularity of the films, particularly with the younger generation coming up now?
BD: Oh, yes - I love it the most when I am the subway and some young person will look across the way at me a little funny and then sort of timidly say, you know, "Mrs. Focker?!" And I'll say, "Well, I'm Mrs. Byrne, but you've got the right movie." [Laughs.]
PC: You had previously worked with Barbra Streisand on THE PRINCE OF TIDES...
BD: That's right. It was a lot of fun to get to work together again.
PC: What have been some of your favorite recent films that you have viewed yourself?
BD: Oh, well, one that I loved fairly a lot was one I saw recently called A LATE QUARTET. I thought it was just wonderful - it's not been getting a lot of attention and I think it should, so that would be a good one to mention.
PC: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are all superb in it.
BD: One of my favorite actors to work with is Christopher, actually - we have done a couple of things up at Williamstown together. We did A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE together once and I have to tell you that he was the funniest Stanley I have ever seen! [Laughs.]
PC: I bet!
BD: He was just fantastic - fantastic. Then, we did Chekhov's THE SEAGULL one season there, with my daughter. We have done a couple of other things, as well. But, yeah - I would go anywhere to work with Chris. I think he is just great - he always is.
PC: Speaking of Williams, would you be open to doing THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE someday? You tackled SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER.
BD: Oh, yes! Yes - of course. I'm open to anything like that - I really am. Anything. At first, I thought you meant the other one [SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH] that Diane Lane just did and I was going to say, "I am too old for that one!"
PC: THE LUCKY ONE's Zac Efron would be a great Chance in that, though, would he not?
BD: He would! And, oh, Zac is just lovely - he is very, very talented and we had a great time doing that one down there; THE LUCKY ONE. He is very, very sweet - a real sweetheart.
PC: Your own work in Williams is thanfully well-represented on video thanks to the DVD of ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTENGALE that is widely available.
BD: Oh, honestly, I think I was just terrible in that! [Big Laugh.]
PC: No way! I think you are sublime in it - truly!
BD: Oh, gosh, my son had just been born and the whole time we were doing it I felt like, "Where am I? What I am I doing in this?" But, you're right - people do like it! Other people have said they liked it, too. I don't know why that is. [Laughs.]
PC: BETRAYAL is another celebrated performance of yours in a play by a legendary playwright - in this case, Harold Pinter. What are your memories of that experience?
BD: Well, it was the American premiere and I think that Peter Hall really wanted the English cast to be over here, but we all had a very good time working on it anyway. Then, I remember Harold came over and worked with us for a while, too - and that was really liberating because he allowed us to try stuff out. Of course, in the end, you always have to do exactly what he has written, but to understand what lies underneath he gave us great freedom in rehearsal. [Pause.] It was thrilling. Thrilling. It really was.
PC: So, is Pinter all really in the pauses, then?
BD: It is - very much so, I think. I will tell you that the only direction he actually gave us was that at this one point in the play, he said, "That silence is longer than the other pauses." But, yes, when we rehearsed, he allowed us to be free - very free.
PC: Would you say Woody Allen allows a similar sort of freedom with his film projects, given you've done quite a few?
BD: Oh, well, I had so little to do in most of those films, but I think that he definitely knows what he wants and I have enjoyed working with him on all of those projects, of course.
PC: HUSBANDS & WIVES and ALICE are two of my favorite Woody Allen films, actually.
BD: Oh, good, good, good - I think those are good movies, too. I actually play Mia [Farrow]'s sister in ALICE, so that was the one I got to do the most in, which was nice - at least I got more to do than in the other ones. [Laughs.]
PC: There is some remarkable rainy day photography in that film. It's very atmospheric - and loaded with theatre actors, too.
BD: Well, it's funny you mention that, Pat, because when we were filming that movie whenever the sun would come out he would tell us all to go home!
PC: How Woody is that!
BD: [Big Laugh.] It is. It is. He really would, though. But, yeah - I guess Woody just needs that moody New York light or else.
PC: Looking ahead, will be you be back on Up All Night in its new format?
BD: I don't know - I don't know quite what's happening with that; they are trying a new format with the three-camera thing, though, I have heard. All the actors working on that are wonderful, so I would definitely do it again.
PC: Also, what film appearances can we look forward to coming up from you?
BD: Well, I have two little indies that are supposed to happen, so I am just waiting right now to find out if they do. I have to say, I'd love to do something on the stage next, though - that, to me, as I said, is where I want to be; that's where I want to be when I kick the bucket!
PC: You have a big birthday this month, after all!
BD: I know! I know. I do - it's sort of looming over me and barreling down the road now, ready to smack me right in the face. [Laughs.]
PC: Wow! What a way to put it!
BD: It's quite an experience! Quite an experience, I must say - to turn that age . I am so happy that I will be onstage in NICE WORK that night with all my wonderful cast-mates, though, so that is a wonderful, wonderful birthday present to receive.
PC: And what a delightful gift this has been for fans of yours, Ms. Danner. Thank you so much for this today.
BD: Oh, thank you very, very much, Pat. You are so great to talk to and this was a lot of fun. Bye bye.