Betty Buckley on Using Psychologists to Understand Characters and Herself

By Michael Musto
August 29, 2016

Texas-born Betty Buckley has long possessed great pipes and a lush way of approaching an assignment. A   star on TV’s Eight is Enough starting in 1977, Betty went on to win a Tony for her tattered Grizabella in Cats (which is currently being revived on Broadway), among many other Broadway credits she’s brought her indomitable spirit to. She recently played “Big Edie” in the revival of the Grey Gardens musical, in Sag Harbor and L.A., and next year, she’ll be seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, about a schizophrenic kidnapper played by James McAvoy. But New Yorkers will more imminently get to see Buckley perform at Joe’s Pub in her show called Story Songs, happening September 22-25. As she prepared for that gig, I did some vocalizing with Betty in the form of a lovely conversation.

Hi, Betty. I heard you were great in Grey Gardens.

We had a great time and Michael Wilson’s production was genius. Multimedia, video, film footage and live video stream—and Rachel York was amazing.

What will you do at Joe’s Pub?

A new collection of music, which I do every year. The majority of songs are by contemporary Broadway composers, with a few standards thrown in. The centerpiece is a song Joe Iconis wrote for me in the spring. He invited me to be part of his Joe Iconis & Family concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below in May. He wrote it a week before. It’s called “Old Flame”, a wonderful character piece and so funny. I’ll also do a couple of songs by Stephen Schwartz and a couple by Jason Robert Brown.

Is there a connection between two of your famous roles—Grizabella and Norma Desmond [in Sunset Boulevard]—in that they both live in their memories?

Yes. And Edith Beale too. It’s a theme.

So you’re the go-to person for that type of thing?

I’m one of them. It’s in my bailiwick.

When you played Edie, did it bring back any of the other two roles for you?

Not in the moment, but when somebody asks me after the fact, I say, “Yes, it’s a theme.”

You also played Mama Rose in Gypsy (at Paper Mill Playhouse in 1998) and she at least is forward facing, though in some ways crippled by the past.

Yeah. I think they’re all women on the edge. Michael Wilson, one of my favorite directors in the world—I’ve worked with him five times—he sees them as outsiders, the disenfranchised. He calls it the fugitive kind. He wrote the cast of Grey Gardens the most wonderful email.

Ooh! Please send it to me! [Betty did send me the email, which I’ll share at the end of this interview.]

So you live on a Texas ranch?

A horse ranch. I like it a lot.

And it’s accessible for work?

It’s a short little flight to New York or L.A. I moved 14 years ago this November. I talked with my agents and managers and said, “Do you think this will seriously affect anything?” and they said “No.” It has affected my ability to do workshops where people aren’t able to fly me in and put me up. But in the case of Michael Wilson, when we did The Old Friends at the Signature Theatre, he said he had to have me do it, so he flew me in and put me up, and that was wonderful. Sometimes I don’t get to do things at their inception, which I miss. I come in later and everybody’s like, “We perceived it this way,” and I’m like, “I’m here now.” [laughs]

You’re coming up in an M. Night Shyamalan film.

It’s my second movie with him. He’s awesome.  He’s my other favorite director. She’s a psychologist [trying to help McAvoy’s character]. It’s a great part in a wonderful movie and he said he wrote it for me.

How do you work on a part—instinctively, or with lots of preparation?

In the case of the movie, I worked with a psychologist. I worked with her on Grey Gardens too, to get a psychological portrait.  I’d go through the script with her. I know a lot about psychology now because I‘ve been through therapy for years and years. I’d just go through the scenes and see how she would view them if they were a client or patient. How the psychologist would be feeling and how she’d handle it. I also worked with a lady I was in long-term analysis with on Sunset Boulevard.

Can you say something specific that you got from her about Norma?

No. You saw it onstage. There you have it.

I was just wondering what came from her and what from you?

It’s all a combination. It all comes from me, but with guidance from experienced, professional people. With Sunset Boulevard, I did a lot of research. Books and footage of silent film stars. I took a lot from Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, and from Gloria Swanson, of course—the original Norma Desmond [who had been a silent film star herself]. These girls were very, very young and had such wealth and were treated like these goddesses in this golden age of the silent movies. Many of them did not make the transition. Norma became like an adolescent who is trapped and is now a 50-year-old woman, but in her image is still this child who was indulged and spoiled. This young girl who was trapped in a gilded cage and could not understand how the world turned its back on her when in her mind she was exactly the same. With her ex husband fueling her fantasies, she didn’t know what reality was.

Many of us have thought, “Why does the world treat me differently than years ago?”

In my mind, I’m still 12.

In my mind, I’m turning 12 for the first time. You were great as the title character’s mother, Margaret White, in the legendary 1988 flop Carrie, but it went downhill in the high school scenes. Do you think it was fixable?

Yeah, I think it was. I think they proved that since. Terry Hands, the director, didn’t have a feeling for the Americana aspects of the story. For him, it resonated as a Jacobean drama. He tried to make it that in a classical way, and that was not really the story. [Choreographer] Debbie Allen was trying to educate him and they kind of lost their way. There was a lot of stuff that needed to be cut and a style of work that needed to brought. Songs that should have been cut, different shaping.

You have never been any kind of cookie cutter Broadway performer, that’s for sure. You march to your own drum.

Thank you. It’s all I can do.

Is there a price for that, though?

Sometimes. I’m from Texas, and Texas women are notoriously outspoken. I had to learn via this wonderful psychologist I was in analysis with how to tone that down. There’s a certain charm to that when you’re young. You can kind of get away with being brash. But as time went by, sometimes they didn’t get my sense of humor or sometimes I was telling the truth about something and they didn’t want to hear it. I had to learn to tone it back. Some of my collaborators don’t want to know what I think. [laughs] In some cases, it’s too bad that they didn’t. Just because somebody was a brilliant director or whatever, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have insecurities, and I wasn’t aware that they didn’t want to know what I had to say, or were insecure. Along the way, I had many terrific experiences with collaborators as well. With Trevor Nunn, I was very careful as to how I presented my approach to Norma Desmond, but he afforded me the opportunity to present that interpretation. In London, they closed the show down and started it again—we went into a rehearsal process. The creative team saw Norma as a specific way I didn’t wish to play. But I didn’t just say “I don’t want to do it that way”. I went in there carefully over a couple of weeks, presenting ideas.

We’re all always learning how to maximize our experiences through our behavior.

Yes. I had to have a teacher.

Thanks for educating me. And now, everyone, here’s Michael Wilson’s email about the fugitive kind:

“Greetings Kitties! There aren’t sufficient words to express my GRATITUDE, LOVE and tremendous ADMIRATION for the LIFE and DIGNITY you have given your characters and their strange—yet because of your relentlessly truth telling work—all too familiar story of love, loss and dreams deferred. We are all of us now forever bound by this experience, your COURAGEOUS and ACCLAIMED journey through the darkly funny but ever moving ‘dragon country’ of the Beale ladies and friends. Being at such a loss of words, I offer the following prayer from Tennessee Williams, who knew better than anyone that Fugitive Kind like us, always follow their kind: ‘God bless all con men and hustlers and pitchmen who hawk their hearts on the street, all two-time losers who’re likely to lose once more, the courtesan who made the mistake of love, the greatest of lovers crowned with the longest horns, the poet who wandered far from his heart’s green country and possibly will and possibly won’t be able to find his way back, look down with a smile tonight on the last cavaliers, the ones with rusty armor and soiled white plumes, and visit with understanding and something that’s almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered…’ Until our next rodeo together… En Avant! Love, Michael”