An Interview with Olympia Dukakis

Academy Award-winning stage and screen actress Olympia Dukakis will be performing in her acclaimed one-woman show, Rose, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts Tuesday through Sunday, January 16-21, as part of the Bank of America Celebrity Series. Written by Martin Sherman (also author of Bent, a drama about a gay man incarcerated in a German concentration camp), Rose is the story of an 80-year-old Jewish woman who tells of her colorful travels from a girl in the Ukraine to a young woman in the Warsaw ghetto to an adult in post-war Atlantic City to a modern grandmother in Miami Beach.

 

Ms. Dukakis, best known for her Oscar and Golden Globe winning role of Rose Castorini in John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck, Clairee in Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, and Mrs. Madrigal in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, is an outspoken dynamo on topics ranging from her career as an actress, director, producer and teacher to her activism in politics and women's rights. At the age of 75, she continues to immerse herself in meaningful work and important causes.

 

A native of Lowell, Massachusetts born to Greek American immigrants, Ms. Dukakis graduated from Arlington High School and earned BA and MFA degrees from Boston University. She was one of the founding members of The Actor's Company at 54 Charles Street, which later moved to Warrenton Street and became what is now the Charles Street Playhouse. She has been married to actor Louis Zorich since 1962. Together they founded and operated from 1971 through 1990 the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, New Jersey. She was on the faculty of New York University from 1967 through 1983, and she has been an active member of several prominent national organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Congress of Racial Equality, Greenpeace, and the National Organization for Women. She is on the Advisory Board for the Compassion in Dying Federation.

 

Her autobiography, Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress, was published in 2003 by Harper Collins. She has three children, Christina, Peter, and Stefan; two grandchildren, Isabella and Sofia; and her cousin Michael, former Governor of Massachusetts, was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988.

 

Below are excerpts from a telephone conversation conducted with Ms. Dukakis on Friday, January 5, 2007. Despite recovering from what sounded like a bad case of the flu, Ms. Dukakis was gracious, witty, open, and passionate in discussing her upcoming role, her life, and her career.

 

BWW: Ms. Dukakis, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

 

OD: Well, thank you for your interest.

 

BWW: Oh, you've got it.

 

OD: (A humble laugh)

 

BWW: Let's start by talking about this wonderful character, Rose, that you'll be playing in Boston in a couple of weeks. You have said that she really resonates for you – that you identify with her in that, for both of you, "there's a joy in not belonging." Can you talk about that a bit?

 

OD: Growing up I was always feeling like an outsider, being Greek in communities that were not very ethnic. I felt like an outsider in the Greek community, too, because women were expected to behave and socialize in a certain way, and I didn't. Also being an actor I felt like an outsider, because not many Greek American women were actors then. But once you realize that you are an outsider, there can be a freedom in that. You can find your own way.

 

The other thing that I relate to with the character of Rose is living with contradictions. She is Jewish, yet she is torn over the Palestinian Israeli conflict when her grandson inadvertently shoots a Palestinian girl. At the beginning of the play she is mourning. She feels what we all feel today.

 

BWW: How have audiences responded to Rose?

 

OD: Oh, audiences have embraced her. It is a magical piece of writing. For me, it all starts with the writing. And this is brilliantly written by Martin Sherman.

 

BWW: You are probably best known for your roles as Rose Castorini, Clairee, and Mrs. Madrigal. Yet you have done everything from being a voice on The Simpsons and playing Clytemnestra in Agamemnon. What of your work stands out for you as being the most fulfilling?

 

OD: The most fulfilling. Well, I've done stage plays that have been remarkably fulfilling, and TV and movies. Tales of the City was especially so, Armistead Maupin's series. Again, it all begins with the writing. And Alastair Reid was a brilliant director, and all the actors were beautifully suited to their parts. Laura Linney and Billy Campbell, Thomas Gibson, Nina Foch, all of them, especially in the first one.

 

Plus the character that Mrs. Madrigal was, with all of the contradictions. She being a man with an aspect of herself being trapped inside. Talk about feeling like an outsider. It takes tremendous courage to go through such an extraordinary transition (from a man to a woman surgically). There is great pain that is involved in having to live as the opposite sex a year before the operation. It's an excruciating journey. I once talked with a woman who had been a man who is now a therapist dealing with sexually related issues. She said, "All my life I yearned for the friendship of women." I just cried. All of us as women feel there is a part of ourselves that is silenced. There are aspects of myself that I was not permitted to connect with or express. In playing this character who went through that fire and came out the other end, I developed an understanding of the human dilemma. It was a wonderful part. (Beat) And the clothes were great, too!

 

BWW: (Laughs) It's always about the clothes, isn't it?

 

OD: Oh, they were something. The caftans, the scarves – it was set in the '70s, so there were so many things that were so much fun. There was one scene in which we were supposed to be smoking marijuana, and I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day but had quit. So they asked me what I wanted to use. So I said the herb cigarettes. They had this vegetable stuff, arugula or something, and it really smelled like marijuana. We all felt like we got this great contact high!

 

I think another beautiful aspect of Mrs. Madrigal, though, is that she sees herself as this woman who runs the boarding house, who helps others, and that's it. Then she unexpectedly falls in love. She is this strange creature who suddenly has this wonderful relationship. But then he dies. It's so romantic.

 

BWW: It sounds like you learn a lot from the characters you play.

 

OD: You always learn. You find out what resonates for yourself. One thing that I like about Rose is that she has a wonderful sense of humor. It takes a lot for her to unravel. Her humor is her way of lasting. It's her survival mechanism.

 

BWW: You and your husband ran the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair for 20 years.

 

OD: Yes, 19 actually. It closed in 1990. My, it's been closed 17 years now - almost as long as it was open. Imagine. (Pause) Well, since I had had the experience of founding and working with the Actor's Company in Boston, the idea of integrating theater into a community has always resonated for me. The Whole Theatre was a way of doing it all again. In New York, your community is other actors. In regional theater, it's the audience. They provide ongoing support, and the theater directly contributes to the quality of their lives. Since Montclair is just 13 miles from New York, I could be involved but still teach at NYU and do theater when I needed to. I've also done a lot of work with the Public Theatre, Shakespeare in the Park, and the Williamstown summer festival. Back then I mostly worked with Joe Papp.

 

BWW: It seems that the Whole Theatre was, in a way, the center of your professional universe for a long time. You'd do TV, movies, theater in New York, but the company was the one consistency. It was always there. Now that it's closed, how do you continue its mission in your work and life?

 

OD: I accomplished a lot with the Whole Theatre. We raised a lot of money for arts and educational purposes. I did a lot of advocacy, and now I have taken that advocacy and use it to pursue projects for myself – both in the arts and politics.

 

BWW: Is Rose one of those projects that combines both for you?

 

OD: Yes, very much so. Terrible Virtues is another project. It has to do with women on trial for reproductive rights. I believe that in the theater you really can't do anything that doesn't have some political consequence. My work has been about finding my own voice and a way to express myself.

 

BWW: What are some of the issues that are important to you?

 

OD: Domestic violence. It is pandemic in this country. Also issues that are confounding the American people in terms of our government. We have to have some dialogue. As artists, we are out there, forward, visible, and we can carry actions forward. We can have an influence.

 

BWW: You have always been very political.

 

OD: Oh, yes I have.

 

BWW: And 1988 was really a watershed year for you. There was the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Moonstruck, plus your cousin Michael became the Democratic presidential candidate. As a Bostonian I remember that vividly and was so proud that two "local kids" had reached the pinnacle at the same time.

 

OD: Yes, we were one generation of Greek Americans.

 

BWW: Do you see yourself as a role model?

 

OD: Not a role model, but someone who encourages Greeks in the arts. Greeks are suspicious of the arts because of the lack of economic security or prestige. It is not encouraged in their children. But now there are not only more Greek Americans out there, but they are not changing their names. When I was starting out, I was pressured to change my name. But I didn't. I was determined.

 

BWW: Do you have any particular advice for young people wanting to pursue this business, especially young women?

 

OD: If you are convinced this is what you want to do, don't be afraid, go forward. When immigrants came to this country, they really wanted what they sought to be a part of their lives, and they fought for it. I was raised with a really strong work ethic, which is good, but the down side was that our parents would always tell us the bad things about the field because they were trying to protect us. You have to know what you want and go for it. Don't let the money be an issue. You can always pay your bills if you're willing to work.

 

At 75 years young, Olympia Dukakis still thrives on her work. Rose is but one more milestone in her life in progress.

 

Tickets for the Bank of America Celebrity Series production of Rose are available online at www.bostontheatrescene.com or by calling 617-933-8600. Performances are January 16-21, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. The Wednesday performance is a special event that offers An Exclusive Evening with Olympia Dukakis with proceeds benefiting the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Heart and Soul Geriatric Care Program and the Celebrity Series' Arts, Education, and Community Program.

 

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