Posted on 04/28/2019 12:03am by Jennifer Madigan
“I was interested in the visual arts and aspired to be a painter or a graphic artist,” Judith Ivey says during an entertaining, wide-ranging interview recently at Lewiston’s Public Theater.
Of course it’s obvious at this point — Ivey’s career spans some 45 years as an award-winning actor on stage, in film and on television — that she chose a different calling.
With abundant directorial credits also on her resume, she brings a cast of Broadway veterans to The Public Theater next month to direct “Fireflies,” a play in which she co-starred with Jane Alexander at The Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ivey starts off the interview talking about the play, which she likes very much. “We get to hear what it is to be older and feel loss and try to find a new place in the world. It’s such a lovely story, and I think it’s important that we honor that people of a certain age still are attracted to someone else, that you can fall in love, your life isn’t over.
“And you don’t get a lot of those love stories, people don’t write them.”
Crediting playwright Matthew Barber on the characters and themes, Ivey says, “This is really special. It’s important to me. I think it’s a sad commentary on society that the older woman is virtually non-existent in most theatrical productions, be it whatever medium.”
Director Judith Ivey gives suggestions to actors during a recent rehearsal of The Public Theatre’s production of “Fireflies” in Lewiston recently. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham
“She said, ‘OK, what about you meet me in my classroom after school and I’ll listen to you read.’ So she took me into the supply closet,” Ivey laughs at the memory, “because I couldn’t even do it in the classroom for fear somebody (would see). . . . Why she put up with it I don’t know, and she cast me. Ended up I was good at it despite of my fear, despite my shyness.“Fireflies” is set in a small town in Texas, and since Judith grew up in Texas, she acknowledges it is another reason she was drawn to the play both as an actor and director. Because in addition to the humor, “the whole culture of small-town Texas is appealing to me.” The central character is a retired schoolteacher, Eleanor Bannister, whose social life has consisted of visits from her nosy next-door neighbor Grace Bodell. Enter a charming drifter. Amorous sparks are kindled and humor surfaces as Eleanor wrestles with the uncertainties of a late-life relationship. Although originally from Texas, Judith says that in her formative years her family moved a lot and her last move in high school, from Dowagiac, Michigan, to Marion, Illinois, was a fateful one. Arriving as a new student, she found that the extracurricular activities in which she was most interested (student government, cheerleading, etc.) were ones where the positions had all been decided the prior school year. “So for a new kid there was nothing. . . . All I could do was go out for the school play — maybe that would be fun.” She recounts her audition and the critical role a teacher ended up playing in her life. “My speech teacher — literally only 10 years ago I was visiting down there — reminded me I showed up in the auditorium for the audition for the play ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner.’ And I saw all these people and I left because I just couldn’t do that. So she stopped me in the hallway and said ‘l thought I saw you at the auditions’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t do it in front of all those people like that.’
“I played Miss Preen, the nurse who comes in after he (Sheridan Whiteside) has fallen. ‘Miss Bedpan,’ he calls her. It was fun — a funny, comic role. I was drawn to it. Ever since then, it (acting) kind of hooked me.”
FROM SHY STUDENT TO STAR OF BROADWAY, TV AND MOVIES
The seventh season of the popular television show “Designing Women” featured Judith Ivey, far right.
“Rosemary Harris. Seeing her on Broadway . . . she changed my life in terms of my aspirations,” says Ivey. “I went to New York in 1977 to audition for soap operas. My agent at the time had a connection, so he had arranged for a group of actors to go and audition for the soaps.”
While there, she had the good fortune to see some Broadway shows. “One of the shows I saw was ‘The Royal Family’ with Ellis Raab and Rosemary Harris, and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’ even though I was a professional actress in Chicago and doing well. Seeing her on Broadway so changed my life in terms of my aspirations.”
By 1982 Ivey had established a flourishing career in Illinois and was extending her reach to theater in New York. In New York City, in 1983 and again in 1985, she twice won a Tony Award for her performances in “Steaming” and “Hurlyburly” respectively, with one of those performances prompting yet another leap in her career.
“Well, certainly the one a lot of people would say changed my career was the role of Josie in ‘Steaming.’ Up until that point I was what we would label a working actress in New York, having great success on stage but yet to be in a feature film or move into theatrical television, and it really did turn things around for me.
“My first film, ‘Harry and Son,’ was directed by Paul Newman and I was cast in that because of ‘Steaming.’ And Steve Martin saw me in the play and requested me to come in, and I got a role in ‘The Lonely Guy’ right on the heels of ‘Harry and Son.’ Then, while shooting ‘The Lonely Guy,’ Gene Wilder was looking for someone to play his wife in ‘The Woman in Red,’ and Charles Grodin, who was in ‘The Lonely Guy,’ recommended me.
Judith Ivey starred in the movie version of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
“Literally in one year I shot three feature films . . . all because of the success of ‘Steaming.’ It was all such a whirlwind.”
Ivey says “Steaming” not only lifted her career to another height but changed her approach to acting.
“I feel I was always a very measured actress and what I would now call stiff and calculated, and (playing) Josie demanded much more free form — almost being a stand-up comedian — and I embraced that. I changed my approach, so now I am incapable of repeating something over and over exactly the same; I always change it up. I rely now on what it is the character is saying at that moment. I am very grateful for that because had I been as stiff as I used to be, I would have been eaten alive by the talented, volatile actors of ‘Hurlyburly,’ my next Broadway show.”
KATHARINE HEPBURN, HELEN MIRREN AND MANY MORE
With that, Ivey’s career took off.
More films followed, working with well-known actors, directors and writers, including “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Miles from Home,” “Compromising Positions,” “Sister, Sister,” “In Country,” “Hello Again,” “There Goes the Neighborhood,” “The Devil’s Advocate,” “What Alice Found” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Ivey then found her way to television. She is often associated with her one-year run as B.J. Poteet on “Designing Women” (1992–93), replacing Julia Duffy, who had replaced Delta Burke in 1991. But she appeared on the “small screen” many times, in shows that include “Will & Grace” as the mother of Dr. Leo Markus, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Person of Interest,” “White Collar,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Big Love” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Director Judith Ivey gives suggestions during a recent rehearsal of The Public Theatre’s production of “Fireflies,” which starts in May. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham
Which medium does she prefer? “The stage for me . . . because you have the audience. You have that exchange. When I started making movies, and a lot of them were comedies, it would be so frustrating to me, because no one can laugh . . . because it will be recorded. So it became a goal that, when the crew, because they were all standing around doing what they are supposed to be doing while you are acting, you’d see a crew guy go (Ivey turns her head, covers her mouth and stifles a laugh), then it was like ‘Thank you, I did well.’”
Her stage work, for which she received four Tony nominations, allowed her to take on some very well-known personalities. Among them, former newspaper columnist Ann Landers and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Ivey says preparing for playing “real people” differs from fictional roles. “Having played real people, especially in this day and age, people can go to YouTube and see them. So playing a real-life person can be . . . it’s interesting. When I played Ann Landers (on stage in ‘The Lady With All the Answers’) . . . you knew her from her writing, not necessarily from her on camera. . . . So I watched a lot of videotape of ‘Eppie’ when she would be interviewed. She had such a very strange (Ivey affects Landers’ speech) way, talked out of the side of her mouth. She had that Iowa flat, oh god, it would make me laugh.
“With Margaret Thatcher, who is much more known on camera . . . I watched and had that on my phone. And watching Margaret Thatcher (Ivey affects Thatcher’s clipped British accent) they didn’t give me prosthetic teeth, and since her teeth are very prominent, I just played with what that would feel like if you had teeth like that, what would your mouth do, and it absolutely allowed you to become Margaret Thatcher,” Ivey says in a sterling rendition of the Iron Lady.
Ivey appeared in “The Devil’s Advocate,” also starring Al Pacino.
Ivey’s growing reputation and body of work found her working with and inspired by some of the biggest names in the history of movies and theater. When asked her role models in show business, she doesn’t hesitate. “Jane Alexander was someone I watched as I was deciding to become and actress.”
Ivey also lauds Katharine Hepburn, about whom she shared, “I actually have a sketch I did of Katharine Hepburn from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ (Hepburn starred as Mary Tyrone in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s famous play.) I so admired her, what she did, her work and the choices she made. Very influential. And Katharine came to see me in a play I did with Jason Robards. They brought her backstage and she was in my dressing room. I was just completely tongue tied. I virtually couldn’t think of anything to say. Thinking to myself, ‘I know, I’m a loser! I’m too intimidated by you. I can’t sit here and act like you’re not God.’
“And of course Helen Mirren. I got to work with her (in ‘The Audience’). I’ve admired her, as well. I was a little star struck. And of course I played Margaret Thatcher, she’s (Mirren) the queen — I just could never truly relax in the first two weeks of it. And then we discovered we were both gardeners and that sort of
calmed me down so we could talk gardening. . . . I gave her a garden-themed basket for opening night. But . . . when we closed the show I was still ‘What can I say to Helen Mirren?’”
SHE REACHES OUT TO LEWISTON’S PUBLIC THEATRE
Ivey’s transition to directing was a consequence of her experience, skill and connections in the industry, and also explains how she ended up in Lewiston, Maine, directing at the Public Theatre.
“My degree is in acting and I had directing classes. But I never really thought I would ever professionally pursue that. Therefore I was kind of surprised when it did happen. I love it, I really love it!” she says.
Director Judith Ivey watches the action during a recent rehearsal at The Public Theatre in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham.
Directing for Ivey developed when she received three separate requests to direct. “So it just blossomed. It just kept going and so I kept pursuing it. Part of the reason I was here (Lewiston), I was thinking, you know I’m only hearing from the same people (to direct). I’m going to reach out. So I made a list of 20 theaters where various friends and acquaintances had said ‘I really liked working there,’ and this (The Public Theater) was one of the theaters.
“I wrote a letter and said, ‘Maybe you know me as an actress only, but I am a director too, so if you’re ever looking for a director. . . .’ Chris (Schario) and Janet (Mitchko) reached back and . . . that began my relationship here.
“(So) the first time I ever came to Maine was with ‘The Ladies Foursome’ (at the Public Theater in January 2016). I had never been to the state of Maine. And then I did ‘Fireflies’ at The Long Wharf (Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in 2017) with Jane Alexander. She has a home in Nova Scotia and she invited my husband and me to come visit her, so this last summer, we came to Maine, went to Acadia and then you get on a ferry and cross over to Nova Scotia in St. John. Then we took a ferry back to Portsmouth, I think, and then drove home. All of a sudden Maine figures in my life heavily.”
Throughout all of this, Ivey managed to raise a family. “(Besides) career and kids . . . the next most wonderful gift to me is my husband (Tim Braine). He was a TV producer. He had his own company, but when I met him he was at HBO, and started his own company when we moved to LA. . . .
“But our lives were so equally balanced in terms of our schedules, so one of us was always at home while one had to travel. That’s probably why I did sitcoms as long as I did, because it allowed him to go to Africa and shoot there, Madagascar and crazy places he would go. So it made family life very easy; two people with show business careers. Show business is not family friendly at all. We did it quite well. Sometimes it was quite harrowing. One reason we left California to go back to New York was because I could never go and do a play of . . . any length of time because our kids were in school and I didn’t want to be yanking them and moving them, you know, back and forth in school.
Judith Ivey portrays advice columnist Ann Landers in David Rambo’s “The Lady With All The Answers” in this 2009 Associated Press photo. The production was playing off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. AP Photo
“So we kept a great consistency in their life. Then, when we moved to New York, my husband opened offices in New York as well keeping one in LA, so he would have to do that sometimes. Then if I did movies, I could be gone for X amount of time and then do a play with a long run, because I’d be home every night. Put the kids on the bus and go to work. It’s a gift. It’s wonderful when you get to have it all. Not everybody has been given that.”
Considering her whirlwind four-decade career in show business, is there anything Ivey personally or professionally still wants to do?
“The Five Mrs. Buchanans,” a CBS television show that began airing in 1994, included actress Judith Ivey.
She pauses in thought. “Well, it actually doesn’t even have to do with show business. One of my fantasies is that I would stop and I would become the professional painter that I thought I was going to be and devote all my time. I do it as a hobby (now). I have a little house on Nantucket, so when I am there in the summer — I am there as much as I can be — I take my paint courses or just go out in my yard and water color, primarily. . . .
“That would be my dream. I feel like I have been given the opportunity to do everything I could do in this profession and I am terribly grateful for all of that, from recording books to TV commercials to some of the wonderful films I’ve been a part of. It’s certainly been a vast array of plays and musicals.”
She adds, “I don’t know, when people say, ‘What role have you not gotten,’ I have to scratch my head to think of what that would be because, you know, for me it’s maybe one left, and that’s Mary Tyrone (in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’).”