Given Elizabeth Ashley’s propensity for delivering strong, theatrically vibrant performances, one expects her to exude the aura of a grand diva when she’s off the stage. But during my recent interview with the actress, she was nothing short of unpretentious, as well as charming, loquacious, and prone to refreshing displays of self-deprecation. Ashley has survived many ups and down, both personal and professional, in a career that’s spanned more than half a century. She retired twice from what she calls the “acting racket”—once in the early ’60s, just when her career was taking off, to become the wife of movie star George Peppard, and then again in the 1980s to pursue a life of sailing and contemplation. Now 75, Ashley is back, and very much in fine form, in the Broadway revival of the classic George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy You Can’t Take It with You from 1936. The play centers around a quirky and unconventional family whose patriarch is played in this production by James Earl Jones. I spoke with Ashley about her cameo in the production and her association with Tennessee Williams, a relationship that began with her acclaimed 1974 performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an experience which she famously described as “like being kissed on the butt by God!”
Tell me about the former Russian countess Olga, your role in You Can’t Take It With You. She arrives in the play at the 11th hour, doesn’t she?
There’s always been that ancient cliché in the theater that the part you wait for is the character that everybody talks about all during the play, but who doesn’t come in until the last 10 or 15 minutes. You get to say wonderful and witty things and then you leave. In terms of workload, it’s terrific! In the movies they call them cameos, and I’ve done a lot of those. But I’ve never had one of those roles on stage before. I always look at a play like looking under the hood of a car—you have to figure out what part of the engine you are. In other words, why did the writers create this character and place it at a certain place in the play, and what is its function. This character has been discussed throughout the play, and you have no idea if she’s actually going to show up. And when she does, it’s sort of the last kind of real lightness—the amusing, witty stuff—before the play delivers, as the Buddhists would say, its letter to the universe. So it’s really good structure.
Did you draw from any specific experiences for this role?
I have to say I was never very grand, but I tried to summon up my distant memories of diva-ness, although I was never good at that. I mean, any actress my age who’s been on the stage for 55 years…I’m in my seventh decade, as the producer reminded me the other day. And that’s kind of a miracle isn’t it, for actresses in this day and age simply to be vertical that long? But one remembers the five minutes in time when you were the hottest twinkie in the culture, when you were on the cover of everything. So I tried to summon that up. But, really, the play says everything else. I mean, she comes in, wearing Jane Greenwood’s terrific costumes; they would have once been her grand clothes, but they’re a little molted and shabby and falling apart now. Historically, it’s interesting: She had obviously gotten out of Russia, like the so-called White Russians, years before the Russian Revolution. I do remember when I came to New York in 1957 there were a lot of doormen and clerks in stores that were all Russian. They all had stories of the better lives that they had lived before the dreaded Bolsheviks came in.
It sounds like you’re having a great time in the part.
Oh, it’s a lot of fun. You know, when you do those huge great roles that I’ve always done, where you’re having to carry the thing, you’re working in a subjective and involved collaboration with the director and the company. The thing that’s wonderful about this is that in rehearsal I get to watch in a purely objective way—and I have always wanted to work with [director] Scott Ellis. The thing that I love about the theater is the labor and machinery of it. I love the mounting of a play. I love load-in. [In this production] there are stagehands whose grandfathers I worked with when I first started. I like the circus aspect of it a whole lot.
And the interesting thing is I did the play in high school. I was never one of those kids that was in, you know, school plays or any of that stuff. I was one of those ballet kids growing up. But in my senior year I was drafted to play the role of Essie, the ballet dancer. I guess it was because I was the only one in my senior high school class who was a dancer, but darling, that was 1957, so I don’t really remember a lot about it! It was the first time I got to plaster a whole lot of eye make-up and I remember that being the most exciting thing about it for me at the time. I did see the 1983 revival that Ellis Rabb directed, where Colleen Dewhurst played the Countess. Colleen had always been one of those actresses who I just hero-worshipped. So when the part was offered to me, I thought, “Oh, this is just great.”
In Actress: Postcards from the Road you write about coming to New York just after high school and the start of your career…
Oh, gosh, you’ve got to understand that that was—people often refer to it as an autobiography, which it never was—simply kind of a memoir. I was like 34 or 35 when I started working on that book and I knew that my life was changing radically and I knew that I would never remember those things that way again. So that’s why I did it. Looking back, it is more like a teenage diary, you know what I mean.