Q&A: 9 fun, inspiring stories from Broadway queen Betty Buckley
Before the Broadway hall of famer and Tony Award-winning actress Betty Buckley returns to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Oct. 17-19 and the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills on Nov. 2, we had to know what makes this triple threat tick. The TV, film and theater icon is a natural storyteller and opened up about her past, present and future.
1. She loves rock ’n’ roll.
When you performed at the Segerstrom Center a couple of years ago, you performed Radiohead’s “High & Dry” which made me wonder, who are your favorite bands?
One of my favorites for sure is Steely Dan. Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Yeah, I have all of their albums, they are my favorite, favorite band. And then beyond that, The Doobie Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones. I covered “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” by Steely Dan, and of course, I like Radiohead too.
You know, I live in Texas on a ranch and those are two of my favorite driving songs when I’m driving about country roads, I’m singing at the top of my lungs. I’m a rock and roll singer at heart. I’m a child of the ‘60s and I really wanted to go to Berkeley to be a part of the whole music scene out there and go to college. And my father was like, ‘No, you will go to TCU (Texas Christian University) and you will like it.’ So I had to do that, but Janice Joplin was from Beaumont, Texas, so I figured I could eventually do that. But my mother of course had aspirations for me to be more like Julie Andrews. So the truth of me lies somewhere between Janice Joplin and Julie Andrews.
2. She paints and plays the guitar.
Your music tastes are as diverse as your career — singing, acting, writing, dancing. Do you have any hidden talents we might not know about?
I can sketch pretty well. I used to paint and sketch and I fantasize a lot about starting my sketching back up and painting, but I never seem to have the time. But now that I live on this ranch, I come back here in between jobs and I have all these sketchbooks that are unfilled and every now and then, I’ll get the urge and grab my charcoal pencils and sketch one of my animal’s faces or something. I don’t do it on a regular basis and I really should because it was one of my great loves.
The other real aspiration of mine is to learn to play the guitar, which I’ve dibble dabbled in because I had to play the guitar in the musical “Promises, Promises” when I was 22 years old. So I took guitar lessons to learn how to play and I could play rudimentarily, but the guitar player in the orchestra pit filled it in and made it sound like I was really playing. And then for a while I got to work with a brilliant record producer and guitar player, Stuart Scharf, who produced “Spanky & Our Gang” and produced a recording for Roberta Flack, and he became my guitar teacher for a brief period of my life. And I got this beautiful guitar I was learning to play. I would go to him for lessons and he would get really mad at me because I hadn’t practiced enough. And he was like, ‘I want you to come with coffee spilled on your music sheet so that I know that you’re really practicing it.’ One day I went in and I actually had a glimpse that I could play when he was playing with me. We were compiling a blues thing and I was so excited I was actually playing the guitar and creating music, and I composed this piece of music called ‘If I Remember You Right,’ with chords that I’d selected with my guitar, which took me hours because I had such rudimentary skills (laughs). And it came out really nicely and he was very impressed with that so he kept me on as his student. I kept going back to my guitar class and one day he was like, ‘You haven’t practiced.’ And so he fired me! I was humiliated. I was fired by Stuart Scharf as a guitar student (laughs). But that beautiful guitar sits in my home, and I keep thinking one of these days I’m going to learn to play it again.
3. She enjoys good TV.
Do you have any Netflix or television shows that you’re currently bingeing?
I just finished bingeing “The Politician,” which I thought was great. And “Schitt’s Creek,” my new favorite. Unbelievable. It’s the best, I can’t wait for season six. Those two have been my latest favorites.
4. She has “staircase karma.”
What was the most difficult numbers you have had to perform?
Oh, wow. I think the levels of difficulty are kind of relative to where you’re at at that moment in time. Most recently though, learning to do the “Hello Dolly” number because it had all the things that challenged me most. I have staircase karma. The stairs in “Sunset Boulevard”, I ran up and down in high heels and heavy beaded gowns, probably 12 times a night in eight shows a week for two years, a year in London and a year on Broadway, which compromised my knees. I still have a lot of knee pain from that. And then I did the show “Grey Gardens” and Michael Wilson directed it and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? There’s a staircase.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘I had my karma with staircases.’ And then ‘Hello Dolly’ has the staircase. They took me to the Shubert during rehearsals right before the show closed in New York, so I could walk the stairs and get used to them before it went out on tour. I was like, damn, these staircases, what is that about?
5. She meditates before every show.
Do you have any pre-show superstitions or routines?
I have a whole set of rituals I go through before every performance, whether it’s in a show or shooting a film or doing a concert, it’s all pretty specific. For “Hello Dolly,” my day was always get up, have breakfast, read the paper, answer whatever emails I have, and then go work out, take a shower, eat an early supper, meditate and then go to work. And then at the show, I would put on my makeup, my costume, and then do this little pre-show ritual with my assistant, my wig dresser, and my dresser. And then they leave me alone in the dressing room. Then I’d get the five minute call, and I would do this little ritual where I read the key words of things that’s been told to me about the character. And then things I discovered about the character, about where she’s at and what she’s thinking. And then I do my little meditative ritual after reading those key words and prayer. And then I’d go and sit backstage or in my quick change booth and meditate until it was time to get on the cart to go on for the opening.
6. She is living her lifelong dream of owning cutting horses on a ranch in Texas.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grow up?
Well, first I wanted to be the world champion barrel racer and that didn’t work out. So then I wanted to be successful in show business so I could have a ranch and ride and own cutting horses. And I forgot that that was my goal. And then after 9/11, I remembered that. Beyond the grief that we all felt as the world changed after 9/11, was the sense of, ‘Oh my God, none of us know how much time we have left now.’ What was it I wanted to do? So I went on this quest to find my first cutting horse and I connected with one of the top trainers in the sport, a man named Bill Freeman, who at that point had won more money than anyone in the sport and had trained some of the most remarkable horses in the business of cutting. And he said I wasn’t too old at 55 to learn to do that because I had ridden as a child; I had a barrel racing horse and competed in junior horse shows and junior rodeos and stuff. So he took me on as a student and I was commuting from New York to take lessons with him and try different horses. And then within a period of months, he found my first cutting horse, who was a brilliant champion horse named Purple Badger. So I bought that horse and continued for a while to commute from New York and stay at my mother’s and then drive to the trainer’s ranch and ride my horse.
And then I started traveling with him and his wife to cutting horse competitions all over the country. It was so much fun. I did that for about six years with him, and it was amazing. I had my horse for three years and they were really blissful. And then as soon as I got my horse, I realized that I needed to live where my horse sleeps. So I sold my New York apartment and bought this lovely ranch an hour west of Fort Worth. I used to ride my horse around my property and say never was a horse so well loved as you Badger. I bought this property for you. I live in that house and I built this barn for you and I built these fences and these pastures for you.
My friendship with him caused me to change my life and it’s given my life a lot of meaning to have this beautiful place. He passed away three years after I got him from an anomaly, like a brain aneurysm. He was very young, eight years old. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. And that was a huge loss. But I had two other cutting horses and it’s been a great thing. I used to just practice, practice, practice, study, study, study, practice, practice and work. And now the work is to provide me with this life.
7. Her Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in A Musical (“Cats”) sits on her piano at home.
Where is your Tony award at this moment?
Currently I have a little black upright Steinway piano that’s so beautiful. I’ve been hauling it all over the world from apartment to apartment. I had a pianist friend go with me to these various piano stores and play these little upright pianos for me and Steinway had this beautiful little black ebony upright that has the sweetest voice. So I bought it and it’s been going with me from apartment to apartment in New York, and finally sits in my music room at my ranch, and my Tony sits on top of it.
8. She struggles with insecurities, and her heavy-handed father did not approve of her going into show business.
What advice would you give to 20-year-old Betty?
Oh, poor, poor young Betty. Well, 20-year-old Betty was in college and having a grand ol’ time. I guess it’s the 22-year-old Betty who was living in London all alone. It was my first time being alone and I was a leading lady in “Promises, Promises,” and I was very, very lonely. I was learning how to take care of myself, which I had no real skills to do. So learning to be on my own, take care of myself, cook for myself, and pretty much all I did was try to figure all that stuff out and then go do my show at night. So that was a real growth period. I was pretty lonely and really insecure for a long, long time in my 20s. It took me a long time to grow up, and I was really conflicted as a kid because my father didn’t want me to be in show business. He was a pretty ruthless dad, a tough guy; which in the end really prepared me for a lot of weird guys in show business, in terms of producers and stuff that can be ruthless. In my heart of hearts, I’m like, “I’m not scared of you. I had my father who was was tougher than any of you guys know how to be; so if I can survive him, I can survive you.” That’s been basically a kind of mantra.
So it was good that he was my dad in some ways, but it was also difficult. I’ve spent a lot of years in analysis, getting a sense of self and giving myself permission to be who I am and to develop and choose my talent and choose my chosen path without the fear, insecurity and self-doubt. Even at my age of 72, I can still, in a certain set of circumstances, be thrown back into my own insecurities and self-doubt. So it’s kind of a perpetual thing I have to work on. And fortunately I have a brilliant psychologist that I work with. So I would tell young Betty not to be so scared. And I would also encourage her to pick better boyfriends; the ones I picked, wow, I didn’t do too good in that department.
9. She seeks to inspire joy in the world, so she is picky with her TV & film roles.
So, what’s next for Betty Buckley?
Well, I’ve got these lovely concerts at the Segerstrom Center and The Saban in LA coming up. There’s also a new set of concerts coming up that’s going to be announced pretty soon that I’m really excited about in New York, and then I’ve got a two week engagement at The Carlyle in New York in March. Fortunately, several projects have crossed my path since ’Dolly’ was done. I’ve been offered several film and TV things. I haven’t come across the thing I want to do next, so I turned those down, which took some courage. When you’re an actor between jobs, you’re like, ‘God, I hope they’ll remember I’m still here.’
Fortunately all those offers came and it was like a very nice vote of confidence, but none of them were something I wanted. I think the world is in a really difficult place right now and it’s really important to bring messages of hope and truth and joy to the world. Like “Hello Dolly” was a complete immersive experience of joy and hope. And some of these projects, I turned down because they’re without hope and truth. So I’m looking for that thing. Well, I’m not exactly looking, I’m on the lookout for it. I hope that kind of project comes to me where I can really help people to feel better. That’s what I’m doing in the concert work that’s coming up.