August 8, 2002
An interview with
by Lynn Trenning
Penny Fuller has arrived in Charlotte, and will play Amanda in Charlotte Rep's first show of the season, The Glass Menagerie. ArtSavant talked to her on August 7.|
Youíre from Durham, North Carolina. How long did you live in the Carolinas?
I spent a lot of time in Southern Pines and I went to high school in Lumberton. In between, I was in the north and spent some time in Florida.
What outlets did you find there for an aspiring young actress?
Not many. In Miss Stephensí French class, I played the lead in a French play. I also played the lead in the senior high school play. I always always always knew I wanted to act. I was either going to be an Egyptologist or an actress. I had a great uncle in New York who was an actor. I always knew.
When you ventured to New York after college at Northwestern University, were your parents horrified?
No, my mother might have been frightened for me, but I think my family were secretly all frustrated artists of some kind.
What struggles did you find particular to a southern girl acting on Broadway in the early 70s?
Because Iím schizophrenically north-south, sometimes I used to wish I was something. Iíd see my girlfriends who were Jewish or English and Iíd think ĎIím not anything.Ē But then I saw Leeroy Reams doing his one man show and thought, ĎIím a southerner.í It has never gotten in my way except maybe for my female conditioning. Itís hard to grow up in the south and then become entrepreneurial. I was taught you can have things that fall in your lap if you manipulate yourself well enough to attain them. But you canít just go out and get things.
Tell me about performing at Shakespeare in the Park.
I played Celia in As You Like It and Lady Hotspur in Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Lady Ann in Richard III. This was in the early days. I was offered an understudy part for Hamlet but I turned it down and the director did Martin Sheen as a Puerto Rican. It was that deconstructive period.
It is free and people can go and get some idea of what theatre is like, because it is bigger than television. Some theatre has become like television, and some audiences have become passive, because theyíve become used to television, and they literally lay back in their seats. Audiences have to be participatory in the park. Central Park has it all. It has this majestic largeness, and you are outside, sitting with strangers, and you are getting the most beautiful language written in English. As an actor, you know you may be introducing people whoíve never been to the theatre to a whole world theyíve never seen.
You were in ďAll The Presidentís Men.Ē Were you at all interested in politics at the time, and how did you feel about being in a movie that captured such a significant moment in American history?
It was awesome, because the movie was taking place at the same time as the event. Now it is more common, but at that time it was amazing for something that momentous to be done contemporaneously, instead of with hindsight. It was one of the great adventure movies of all times. And it is true. My character had a pseudonym, and I said, "Bob (meaning Redford), why, if sheís a journalist, why did she sit on this story for long?" And Bob said, ďLetís see.Ē So we called her, and she said, ďI guess I just didnít have the same taste for the jugular as those two men.Ē It was such a great line that it made it into the movie.
Did you experience a quintessential ďbig break?Ē
Well, kind of. I have a strange career. I had two kinds of breaks. Iíd been doing very well but Iíd never had a show of my own. Iíd be an understudy or a stand by. I auditioned for Applause and I didnít get it. Then they decided to replace the girl they'd cast and bring me in. It was like an ďinĒ thing in the business. Everyone was thrilled that I finally got my own show. But the role didnít lead to bigger things, because the character was an actress, not a personality.
Later, I was living in California, and doing well, given that I was a New York actress. And I realized I had everything. I was an English type actress. I did musicals, I did dramas, I did little night club acts. In England you can do all kinds of acting within one small country. In America you have to travel 3,000 miles to do everything. I was able to have a wonderful, varied career.
After my daughter graduated from high school, I had my second break. Michael Bush found me and gave me a job and ďpermissionĒ to come back home to New York. He gave me a part in Three Viewings by Jeffrey Hatcher, a divine little play. I couldnít have made up a better part for me to do. It was just perfect. It was a monologue, and I prepared in nine days. That tells you how good I was for it, and how right he was to find me for the part. I kept telling everyone to just trust me. (Michael Bush hired Penny Fuller 10 days before the show opened, replacing another actress.) Then the Manhattan Theatre Club gave me a another job and I did a musical and a comedy and a drama, and now Iíve done them all.
You won an Emmy for Elephant Man, and a Tony for Applause, and have been nominated numerous times. Were you surprised by the nominations?
It felt weird last year being nominated for Dinner Party because it was an ensemble piece. It was an impossible play in which to do a good job without a great ensemble cast. Applause was not surprising because the play was so unique. The television awards are so out of your control, because there is so much on television. You wonder how anyone notices you.
Did you attend the events, and are they fun?
Yes. The first time was fun. Later, itís fun to get all dressed up, and the sun is baking and the makeup is running and you think Ďwhat am I doing here?í The events are so long, and you have to time your bathroom breaks, and there are people everywhere. But itís still fun.
Youíve acquired a British accent for several roles. Was this difficult for you?
I donít think I have a problem with that. Iím musical, and I have a good ear. I notice that my daughter is even better than I am. My mother was a pianist and my father was very musical, so I think it comes easily. But itís like doing a southern accent for someone who isn't from the south. When I was rehearsing for New England (by Richard Nelson), we were playing English people, and I thought, "Penny, you are terrible, you arenít thinking English." It isnít just an accent. You get to things differently, from a different neural place.
What's the biggest difference between working on a sitcom, such as ďMad About You,Ē and a drama like ďER?Ē
ďMad About YouĒ was shot on film. I find television, taped with an audience, difficult. Itís not really like a play - the cameras are in the way. And you donít have the same intimacy with the camera as in movies, because the audience is in the way. The most difficult thing about doing sitcoms is I wasnít on it all the time, and there is a rhythm there whether you are on it all the time or not. So you have to keep up with them. When you have a guest role, you are on a train that goes zippity zippity. On a drama that may also be true, but usually your character has some kind of a problem, and they have to play to you. It isnít an ego thing, itís just a rhythm thing. On one you are the caboose, and the other you are the engine.
When you left California to perform in Three Viewings, did you move back to New York?
Not yet. I put my daughter in college and did the second play, subletting apartments. I went home between Three Viewings and New England. On November 6, 1996, I moved into my new apartment. And Iíve had the best parts of my life since that first Three Viewings. I am just very fortunate. I ainít rich and I ainít got a TV series but Iíve got the career Iíve always wanted.
Youíve switched back and forth from the stage to television and back again. Why is that?
When you are a certain age you can work in television. One of the reasons I came back to New York was that all I was getting was ďmothers.Ē Mothers are fine, but finally I said Ďno more mothers unless they have namesí. A lot of it is modern culture, where you are not allowed to be older, you are not supposed to grow old gracefully. Respect for experience and age is next to nonexistent. Look at Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. We love them, but how many other older actresses?
I am a leading lady in theatre, but more of a character actress on television. On television I can be more of a comedian. That is part of what I do. I donít just play one kind of role. In Applause my character was an actress, so that thing that thing that makes you say Ďthatís Penny Fullerí had to be obfuscated. But the funny part is that I do that too. I create characters, rather than expose my own character. In a way, it allows me to be involved in broader and more interesting work, but sometimes it takes away from huge success and money. But Iím very happy and very fulfilled.
What is your history with the Humana Festival?
I was there for the first time just this spring, in a play by Tina Howe, called Rembrandtís Gift. It is a circus. When they finally get going, there are all these plays and all these people. Here you are in this sunny little southern town, and then somehow theatre from all over the world comes to Louisville! The people there are the most wonderful, knowledgeable audiences.
You will play the the role of Amanda at Charlotte Repertoryís season opener of Tennessee Williamís The Glass Menagerie. What aspect of playing Amanda is intimidating?
What Iíve tried to do is not even think about it. The trouble with playing these great parts is everyone knows how it ought to be, and I donít want to. Iím trying to arrive as a ďvirgin.Ē I donít want to be defensive, and I want to keep as many preconceived notions out as possible. I donít want to study it until I am in Joe Hardyís direction. I want to come to it with a fresh palette.
What is it about working with Michael Bush that you hope will translate to this production?
Michael Bush is a producer/director who knows the business part, but he is also an artist. He understands what goes into the process to make a piece of art. He knows the inner workings and outer workings. He knows process probably better than anyone. About ĺ of the way through rehearsals I say, ďI donít know anything.Ē And now I realize that is part of my process before I burst into bloom. Michael knows that each person has their own process, and heís able to nurture that.
Youíve worked alongside people as famous Lauren Bacall and Jessica Lange. Is there a general difference between being onstage with famous people vs. non-famous people?
When you are actually working, probably there are just good actors and bad actors. They are scared, brilliant, brave and terrified, just like everybody else.
Youíve recently starred in Neil Simonís The Dinner Party, alongside John Ritter and Henry Winkler. Is it fun to work with Simon?
This is my third play with Neil. For a funny man, he is very serious. Heís a genius and an expert in what he does. Excellence is always wonderful. His ability to write and rewrite is awesome. Dinner Party is a great departure for him. I admire him a lot.
It doesnít seem like youíve received very many lousy reviews in your career. Do you read what is written about you?
No. Not really. Sometimes after the show is over, but I donít want to know, because even a good review interferes. The best thing is to stay clear of it. I got a really bad one when I was young, and it taught me how to take it. Itís only one personís opinion. But you get outside looking in, not inside looking out.
What else are you working on now?
Iím always working on my songs, and Iím hoping to have a one women show of songs. When your only reason is that you want to, you can get diverted. I just returned from a 6-week tour of Europe as part of a Fox Fellowship. And I still have some more funding, so maybe I'll go to Moscow to study theatre for six weeks.
Do you have any relatives still living in North Carolina?
Cousins in Southern Pines, and ex in-laws in Lumberton, and lots and lots and lots of friends.
Thanks, Penny. Iíve enjoyed talking to you.
~ Lynn Trenning