Art Talk with Holland Taylor
Holland Taylor. Photo by Linda Matlow/PIXINTL
"Art makes everything else in life work. Without art, we are broken." --- Holland Taylor
You may not recognize her name, but you'll definitely recognize her face and that distinctive voice. Over a decades-long career Holland Taylor has racked up an impressive array of theater, television, and film credits---from her breakout role as Tom Hanks' boss in the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies to her Emmy award-winning portrayal of the libidinous Judge Roberta Kittleson on The Practice. She's also played scene-stealing roles in the films Legally Blonde, The Truman Show, and The Wedding Date, to name a few, and these days she's regularly raking in the laughs as the less-than-maternal mom on Two and a Half Men. What you may not know about Taylor is that the Philadelphia native has been touring the country in her one-woman show about the late Texas governor Ann Richards. And just a few months ago, Americans for the Arts honored Taylor with its Citizen Artist award for her work as an actor and a philanthropist on behalf of organizations such as the Actors Fund, Broadway Cares, and the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. We talked with Taylor via e-mail about becoming a playwright, the indelible influence of Stella Adler, and why she has difficulty calling herself an artist.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
HOLLAND TAYLOR: My young fantasy about the artist’s life didn’t relate to my own life at all. It was always a dreamy affair of some wonderfully immense paint-flecked, faded studio in the south of France, a simple life without constraints, a free life where people and friends would come and go. There would always be a family retainer, invariably French, who would be surprisingly tolerant and affectionate, and who would cook and handle the minutiae of life. And in that clarity---art would be possible.
My own life, on the other hand, seems to be overrun by soul-killing minutiae, and the unavoidable burden and boredom of preparing food. Forever.
As a young actor, I knew there could be very great art in acting, but I didn’t see myself as anything but a modestly gifted denizen of that world, and I correctly felt I would only develop over time, a long time, since the actor’s opportunities in America seemed, in my youth, disastrously circumscribed by the vast distance between the two places to work---New York for theater, and Los Angeles for film and TV. In that very strict view of the world, I stumbled along, lucky to get enough work to make a living, since opportunities for women were statistically something like 1/10 of those for male actors. But stumble I did, occasionally finding myself in a play the writing of which lifted me to a place where the highest imaginative and intellectual effort was required.
And perhaps it is that “fraud” syndrome so typical in performers---but I never perceived myself as up there with the grown ups of my profession, even well into my thirties. I didn’t think what I was doing, was “art.” Maybe just “art-adjacent” once in a while.
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience with or engagement in the arts?
TAYLOR: I was surrounded by it in a very real way as my mother was a painter, a conventional but nonetheless gifted portraitist. She was very occupied with it, had a large studio attached to our house, painted daily if she could, and took an esteemed painter’s class in school, which I attended with her on weekends, a kid’s class. She was also a hobbyist potter, with a professional kiln in the basement, made her own tiles for the mosaics, which amused her to make, and she was even a high-level tailor, able to make complicated coats and suits. But she was a serious and worthy painter, and, even at a young age, I understood her level of skill and art and I admired her. Her art books were everywhere, and I read them, too, so this was really the atmosphere I breathed. Looking back, I realize now that I unconsciously compared myself to her in that I did think of what she did as art, but not necessarily what I would do as an actor.
After all, a painting is a creation, a separate thing: there it is, outside you. It has boundaries and dimensions, it can be thought of quite separately from its creator. Not so acting; swirled together with its maker, the performance is hard to quantify, hard to assess, hard even to define. After all, at the most vulgar level, it’s walking and talking and occasionally chewing gum at the same time. Sometimes a woman’s beauty alone can make the performer ineffably persuasive. Was Garbo a great actress? Who the hell cares? She was transformative. And Laurette Taylor who could look like a pile of laundry---she left people shaken when they were in her audience. Who’s to say it’s any different?
NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?
TAYLOR: The thing that changed my career in a profound way is recent. The decision,or choice, or compulsion, to launch into years of creating a play and performing in it has revolutionized my career and life. It wasn’t dreamed of, planned, hoped for, or even decided. It just happened.
Other than that, earlier in my life, when I was in my late thirties, I began studying with the great Stella Adler, who forever altered my sense of the accessibility of acting, and also my sense of myself as a worthy performer. Her book, The Art of Acting, full of doable truths on a very real earth, is a must-read for the actor.
NEA: To date, what has been your most significant or transformative arts experience?
TAYLOR: I’ve had two. The first was a unique moment during the long run of a play. I appeared in several iterations of A. R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour, directed by the superb Jack O’Brien. Nancy Marchand, a very seasoned and great actress, was in the cast. The moment occurred with her. We played probably 450 performances---in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. Somewhere in the middle of it all, there was a moment in the play when I moved away from her character, whose unhappy daughter I played. The move was always the same: a walk on a slight diagonal across stage, from sitting next to her on the couch, to take a seat in my father’s chair. As I drifted across, slightly tipsy, I looked across the playing area, and there was the darkness of the wings, the shadowy form of the stage manager at his stand. To my right---the back of the set, and behind it, the dressing rooms, my stuff, the stage door, the parking lot, my car, my life, and to my left---the audience, the glow, the electricity in the air between us. As I traversed the two realities, unsteady from wine I had not drunk, I thought, “I love acting.” Forever after in that run, at that same moment, every night, I had that same thought and feeling.
The second transformative experience was creating a play, a whole production, really, out of whole cloth, in my late sixties. This was something I never imagined I would ever, or could ever, do. It was---is---an enormous undertaking, and thus far has been successful by any standards. It started with a little click in my head, “You are going to write a play.” And I took every step thereafter that needed to be taken. It’s been a big effort. We have played six cities over two years, just finishing a bright and shining run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. We are preparing for a New York engagement, and Deo volente, after that, we will tour some cities in America.
NEA: You have said that Stella Adler was a very importance influence on your acting career. What are some of the things she taught you that you find yourself returning to time and time again?
TAYLOR: Stella Adler was a towering personality, a captivating actor, a real intellectual, and a great sensual beauty, all in astonishing combination. A Russian Jew born at the turn of the century, she was the granddaughter of the great actor of the Yiddish theater Jacob Adler, whose funeral in New York drew tens of thousands on foot. Stella’s enormous sense of history and moment in life gave me a wonder about the world, and my postage-stamp place in it, which I never had before. I studied with, and indeed became friends with, Stella Adler---therefore I existed! A relationship with her had that genuine potency.
She taught us all that if we did not understand the culture, history, and social moment of our characters, we could not play them. She was very impatient with actors who did not steep themselves in any culture they could beg, borrow, or steal. She also taught that the past of the character---creatively imagined---was what gave the actor the character’s present. “It’s not about how you say the words!” she would scream. Everyone loved being frightened of Stella.
NEA: You have alluded to your one-woman show about Texas Governor Ann Richards. Can you please talk in more detail about how that project developed, and what it has taught you as an artist?
TAYLOR: My life was seemingly taken over by Ann Richards a few months after the governor’s death. I had always admired her but had no idea how potent a figure she was for me until her very unexpected and early death. I realized I was as sad for America as for myself, and that her richness as a person was worth memorializing in some vivid way. And the only way I creatively could was by acting her. I also realized early on that to research her was to prepare to write the play as well, and one morning, in one astonishing fifteen minutes while driving to work, the five or so organizing principles and dramatic structures and even theatrical stunts of the play flew into my head so vividly that I had to pull over to a service road and sit there as the thing blew up in my brain. It has all unfolded exactly as it was conceived that morning, except I could never have imagined that I would actually capture her to the degree that has moved her friends and children. The essence is the presentation of a persona; it is not partisan or even political. The play is not about what she did, or what she said---it is about who she was. I went in search of what in her was so very inspiring and moving to everyone---men, women, children. That was the task of the play. To find it, to reveal it. The years of involvement and effort on this has taught me as an artist that what gets results is work. And more work. And never looking back.
NEA: We are celebrating Women’s History in month? What does it mean to you to be a woman artist?
TAYLOR: I genuinely don’t consciously think much about being a ‘woman’ artist, per se. (And as I have said, I don’t automatically class myself as an artist in the first place.) There may be fewer roles for women, and this is more a function of our time in history, our culture, and the current dominance of men on the writing scene. But actresses are surely as valued as men are; they are simply fewer in number. This will change as society creaks its weary way. It is not something to be changed by fiat.
As for women’s issues in the arts, I always feel the art comes first, not the message, and I draw back from polemics and politics disguised as something else. A story of a person who is a woman that is simply true reveals women more than a story designed to put forth a woman’s point of view. This is probably a matter of my personal taste more than any general truth, of which I have few to offer.
NEA: You were recently awarded the Americans for the Arts Citizen Artist award. What does it mean to be a citizen-artist? What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
TAYLOR: I went to enormous difficulty to get back to Washington only days after I closed in Ann, because the title of the award being offered me there was utterly thrilling. I have never felt so honored and validated. Playing Ann Richards has meant much to people: she is so inspiring, comforting, and wise, such that I began to feel I was indeed serving in some way, that the presentation of her became a gift that was my privilege to give. So in that sense, to me, “citizen artist” meant “servant artist.”
I think artists either function in a community or not, but the performer can scarcely avoid it. I don’t think there is a given role. Actors may be role models, but they do not always represent a model of any value. Having the chance to play Ann Richards has been a gorgeous, unique chance to feel the brush of greatness that is not ‘mine own,’ but loaned to me, for a moment.
NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
TAYLOR: Attention. Appetite. Acknowledgement. We never know what means the most to us till we lose it. This rich, powerful country is so impoverished right now, and getting poorer as we speak. Money floods---hemorrhages---into defense, and seeps insidiously away from education and the arts, the things which are our real nourishment. We are something like 25th in education in the world! Big, rich America! Where will our workforce be, of what will they be capable in ten years when they are scarcely qualified for modern jobs right now? This picture is daunting enough from the point of view of our economy alone. But the subtle starvation in the arts in America is as dangerous. We are bringing up a generation of cultural, and therefore moral, paupers, and we don’t see it yet. But we will.
I remember once working such long hours for several months of filming that I had truly no life. I read nothing, saw nothing, just put one foot in front of the other, filming something of no substance. Toward the end of the shoot, someone clicked on a radio as I was hastily changing my costume for a scene. Out of the tinny machine came an aria from Madame Butterfly, and I stood in silence, stunned to tears by the beauty and succor of art, which, somehow, I had simply forgotten! It was a moment that flagged for me where the soul is fed.
NEA: What’s your advice to young artists, whether they’re actors or painters or poets?
TAYLOR: Do the thing itself. Don’t pay much mind to critics or what anyone says about it. Just do it, in any form possible, and watch others doing it. Take it in viscerally, get it by osmosis. Don’t ever read your own reviews, certainly not the good ones. Critics are fine when they say, “This is a remarkable performance, (book, painting, poem, sculpture) and you should see it,” but when they deconstruct it, and say why it is what it is, when they invade it and basically try to dominate it, and rob you of your own response---what purpose are they serving?
NEA: At the NEA, our tagline is “Art Works.” What does "Art Works" mean to you?
TAYLOR: It means art makes everything else in life work. Without art, we are broken.