The veteran star of stage, film and TV opens up about the iconic Texan-American she was born to play — and about the politics you won't hear expressed in "Ann," her one-woman Broadway show.
After all this research and all these hours of playing her, what do you understand about Ann Richards now that you didn’t in the beginning?
A lot of things. But principally, I went in search of her persona, since I was so affected by her in ways that I couldn’t really name. And her persona, obviously, delighted me, attracted me and fascinated me, but it did something more. It inspired me. And made me feel good about life in a positive way. That was sort of something ineffable. So I thought, one of my purposes in doing this play is to reveal this persona in the hopes that an echo of her voice will inspire in a way as it once did. That was my aim. And that is what has apparently happened, hence the success of the play.
The essential things that mean so much to people, they typically are simple and basic. At her core, Ann was a supremely fair person who had a unique and early sense of fairness that began with going to San Diego when she was 11 years old [and seeing the lack of segregation]. There are other instances where fairness was really something that was important to her early. And also the sense that anyone—I don’t say a lot of these things in the play explicitly, I try to reveal them—she says that anyone can govern. Anyone. Everyone should consider themselves someone who can govern, and governing takes a certain something-something. But the fact is that she did not like any exclusion or separations of groups and bodies of people; she was offended morally in her core by these exclusions. She wanted to open up the government to representations of the population of the state.
I extrapolate. This play is not political, it's not about politics. It's not about policy except that her human policy was for inclusion and fairness. The play leaves the boundaries of the Capitol and just goes out into the heart of her observers, listeners and friends. I don't know if she was ever depicted as a straight A student by any means. She did very well in debating, she had a lot of natural skills there. She was kind of a star. Her core message in this really straightforward play is, ‘If I can, you can.’ She always encouraged people to pursue their highest estimation of themselves imaginable.
Do you recall a pivotal moment in your life like Ann Richards’ San Diego moment?
No, because I’m not like Ann Richards. I’m not a big heroic personality with strong core values that dominated. I’m not outspoken, not at all. In my core, I do have values, but they’ve had to be brought out by events, Ann was much more lively, alive and forceful. She was a force of nature. I am just revealing her; I am not like her. I think fairness is very important to me, but I never saw it strikingly revealed.
So, you didn't have a spectacular epiphany about it?
No. The spectacular moment of revelation that I've had in my life was to do this play. That was a big forceful, irrefutable impulse.
That's wild. My friend that I brought to the play was in tears.
Well, you're supposed to be. There definitely should be a tear hanging on.
So, let’s talk about your childhood.
I lived in Allentown in high school, but the high school I went to was a boarding school just outside Philadelphia. It was Westtown Friends, which is truly one of the happiest and enduring memories of my life. It’s a magnificent school. Quakers are just great educators. It was very warm and protective. The campus, which was founded by William Penn, is almost unbelievably beautiful. I lived in St. Davids, which is right outside Wayne. I guess that qualifies as the Main Line, if you want to make that distinction. My father was a corporation lawyer. He worked for Bethlehem Steel and United States Steel and trucking companies, all kind of companies in the Lehigh Valley. We also lived in Washington, D.C., for a brief period. My parents, being great Philadelphians, liked the Quakers for education.
Do you recall when you became politically aware, or if not directly political, of social views, feminism and all that?
I’m generally progressive. I do understand the progressive point of view; I’m all for it. I am amongst the 1 percent and certainly have been for the past 15 years or so and would beg the policymakers to raise taxes on the rich, including me. Most people who have a significant amount of money who are in the 1 percent—in their actual life, in their lifestyle, in anything they do, in anything they enjoy—would feel absolutely no effect by having their taxes raised. At all! It wouldn’t affect their food, their drink, their travel, their home, anything. Whereas if you raise the taxes on people making barely minimum wage, it’s unforgivable. I am over conservatives talking about how there is such a large percentage of people in the country now paying what the conservatives voice as no taxes. They are paying perhaps no income tax, but they are all paying their Social Security taxes because we all pay that. I think it borders on a lie when pundits say these people pay no taxes. They know very well that what they’re referring to is merely income tax. And when you think of someone paying income tax on $10,000-$15,000 a year, it’s really unforgivable. I think our tax system is really so corrupt. So, now you know: I am a heated progressive. I tweet frequently, ‘Tax me more.’ Please! Tax me more.
That makes me think of the theme in Ann of having the government reflect the population, which, right here in Philadelphia, we have to address—with the Pennsylvania Legislature almost all white, still only 17 percent female, and yet more than happy to politicize women’s medical issues all the time.
Fair laws that brought people to the same playing field or the same field at all—meaning things that were established 30 and 40 years ago, meaning civil rights and personal rights—these things are being revisited with passionate and raging anger. I’m talking about extreme ultra conservatives. Like people in the NRA. They’re such a small fraction of actual membership of the NRA who think that people should be able to have machine guns and assault weapons and things that can do mass killings; that’s such a small fraction of even the NRA. And the NRA is such a tiny group, yet there’s people who are perfectly OK to murder a doctor. This kind of really almost hysterical rage, for me, is like the dying of a monster in a Hollywood movie who is going down flailing and screaming and flinging blood everywhere. I think it’s over for this narrowing, intense, powerful and often moneyed group of people who want to go back to when it was an awful time for many groups of people, a time of extraordinary suppression, regulation and control. Really, suppression is the key word. Suppression—to keep them down, keep them out, keep them poor, keep them powerless, keep them the fuck silent. And that slender body of people is screaming at the top of their lungs right now.
Now, I have to say, that my play is not remotely political. This is the first interview where I’ve sort of gone off like this with my own personal opinions. My own personal opinions have nothing to do with this play. This play is about a person and a life well-lived. It’s philosophical, if anything. It is about life. And it certainly does not spout any political views. My political views are quite separate from the play, and no political people are mentioned—the former president, former governor of Texas is not mentioned by name in this play. It’s not about politics any more than a play about Amelia Earhart would be about airplanes.
Much of the play is about Ann navigating the political sphere as a woman. Do you see any parallels with being a woman navigating your career in theater and the arts?
No. I never even thought of it until you just asked. First of all, the theater has always been a welcome place for women. In different times in show business, women have been more powerful than men. Not right now particularly, but in terms of their draw or what they’re paid. The theater is a much more egalitarian world than any other I can think of offhand.
Well, your performance and the play are very inspiring. Can you tell me about feedback you’ve received of people touched by the work?
PW's Summer Guide 2015