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Estelle Parsons shares a lifetime of stage work
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Estelle Parsons shares a lifetime of stage work

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

August: Osage County
Paramount Theatre
October 27 -
November 1


Estelle Parsons may not be a name you immediately connect with a face, but she has a career you'll easily recognize. Most notably known for her role as Beverly on the sitcom Roseanne, Estelle Parson has an illustrious career. Nominated for four Tony Awards, her stage work ranges from acting alongside Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera to directing Oedipus Rex with Al Pacino. Her extensive film credits include an Academy Award win (Bonnie and Clyde) and several more nominations. August: Osage County is the current vehicle showcasing Ms. Parson's talents, and the SGN spoke with her before her Seattle appearance.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Your first career choice was to be a lawyer. What was the allure of show business that drew you away?

Estelle Parsons: I actually wanted to go into politics. My father was a politician in the local district. I thought I'd get a law background and, hopefully, do some good in the world. But once there, I didn't want to get involved in "real life." Having a client that could be a murderer or something was too real life; I found it unnerving. I've been involved in community theater and summer stock from ages 6-15.

Andrews-Katz: Your first Academy Award nomination (and win) was for Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Your next nomination was for Rachel, Rachel. Were there major differences in the working styles of Warren Beatty vs. Paul Newman?

Parsons: I did Bonnie and Clyde because I wanted to work with the great director, Arthur Penn. Rachel, Rachel was Paul Newman's directorial debut, and he was very good. We rehearsed the movie for three weeks before we filmed; it was done as theater rehearsals instead of a movie.

Andrews-Katz: You have received four Tony Award nominations before you started to direct shows on Broadway. Do you prefer directing or acting?

Parsons: I like to do both. I like to do anything in the theater; I'm not fussy. I don't consider myself a director in the commercial or traditional sense, only in an artistic sense. I try to have my own concept when I direct. I'm interested in what the actors are doing, not just what they are saying, which is more than most directors.

Andrews-Katz: As a director you have presented several Shakespeare works. How do you devise a new concept for the classics?

Parsons: I had a company for Joe Papp for a couple of years in residence on Broadway. For Romeo and Juliet, I didn't have a concept as much as I just did it. It was all actor-driven. It allowed me to exploit the play and bring out the truth. I always try to be theatrically truthful to keep the audience engaged. When I did Oedipus with Al Pacino, I didn't want people coming in to see some Greek tragedy with everyone screaming and moaning. I wanted to throw them off, so I did it in a style of a '60s "happening" with actors dispersed throughout the audience. It worked. I like being an experimental director that is suicidally good at taking chances. It's a life or death struggle.

Andrews-Katz: You were supposed to play Mrs. Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th film. What happened that prevented you from accepting the role?

Parsons: I've never been able to do horror films. I get so scared just reading them and just can't see my way clear in doing them.

Andrews-Katz: How different is the role of Beverly on Roseanne from the mother you had as a child?

Parsons: There were basically no similarities between my mom and Beverly. My mom was Swedish from near the Arctic Circle and she married the boss' son, my father. She was a real go-getter and I learned a lot about the good values of life.

Andrews-Katz: On Roseanne, when the character Beverly came out as a Lesbian, were there any adjustments on how to play the role?

Parsons: No, you just do it. TV happens really fast and the writers have created something that's very concrete and specific. You just play the character and don't pay attention to other stuff. If the character is written a certain way, you play it that way. Don't think, do it. Again, it's being truthful in acting.

Andrews-Katz: August: Osage County is described as a black comedy but in the styles of O'Neill and Ibsen. How would you describe your character Violet Weston?

Parsons: Oh, I don't think O'Neill or Ibsen wrote black comedies, so I can't compare them. I don't like to describe or talk about my character - I mean, can you describe yourself? - I just create them. It's more for an outsider who is looking at the character I'm portraying to describe how she behaves.

Andrews-Katz: What kind of challenges have you encountered playing Violet Weston?

Parsons: It's very difficult. The playwright really asks you to dig deep and deal with your inner self. Some actors are unable to do so, and, to some degree, we all are unless we make a deal with the devil or something like that. The play deals much more with life. Tracy Letts wrote something more real in style than television or film, as opposed to Ibsen, who definitely wrote for the theater. The actor makes the choice to either bring emotion up from the depths of their gut - to be true - or not. I've had a marvelous time trying to get to the depths of my character. I've been doing it for over a year and every week I still find something new about the ramifications or the resilience of my dialogue.

Andrews-Katz: Your grandson is Eben Britton, the starting right tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Are you a fan of football and other sports, or more of a lover of the arts?

Parsons: I'm not really an arts person. I have always found sports a great relaxation from acting. In my younger days, I was a huge Red Sox fan. I fell into basketball when I hit middle age. When the Knicks got bad, I switched to Michael Jordon and the Bulls. After he left, I came back to baseball and follow the Mets.

Estelle Parsons currents stars in the black dramedy August: Osage County. The play is about a dysfunctional family gathering complete with an alcoholic, pill popping mother and the secrets that should not be revealed. On Broadway the show ran for over 648 performances, was nominated for six Tony Awards and won five, including Best Play of 2008.

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