A Chat with Linda Gray (“Expecting Mary,” “Dallas”)

This weekend marks the opening of “Expecting Mary,” a film about a young pregnant girl who ends up having to leave home to truly find a family. (I just made that up. Just now. I clearly should be writing taglines for a living.) The actress playing Mary – Olesya Rulin – is perhaps best described as an up-and-comer, since her highest profile roles to date have been “High School Musical 3” and a 6-episode stint on ABC Family’s “Greek,” but the same certainly cannot be said for many others in the cast: among those who turn up in the film include Elliott Gould, Lainie Kazan, Cloris Leachman, Della Reese, Cybill Shepherd, Gene Simmons, Fred Willard, and…yes, the title of this piece has given it away, but we’re going for the dramatic pause, anyway…Linda Gray, who was kind enough to take a bit of time to tell me about the film as well as to answer quite a few questions about the experience of playing the iconic role of Sue Ellen Ewing on “Dallas.”

Linda Gray: Hello, Will Harris! I was expecting your call!

Bullz-Eye: (Laughs) Well, I’m glad to hear that! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

LG: Thank you very much!

BE: I must admit that I have yet to see “Expecting Mary,” but based on the cast alone, I’m certainly interested in doing so.

LG: (Laughs) Well, I think it’ll be one of those delightful movies where you laugh and maybe cry, and, you know, you’ll be entertained, for sure.

BE: Well, first off, let me ask you how you came to be involved in the film.

LG: It was because of the writer, Dan Gordon. Dan is an extraordinarily wonderful writer, and if you Google him… (Laughs) …you’ll find out all kinds of wonderful things that he’s written. But Dan Gordon had come to see me in London when I was doing “The Graduate,” and when he saw the play, he gave me a video – at that time, there weren’t all that many DVDs – of “Terms of Endearment,” and he asked, “Would you like to do this as a play?” And I took a deep breath, because I’d already stepped into an Anne Bancroft piece, and I thought, “Oh, boy, how do you go into an Academy Award winning role by Shirley MacLaine? But I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” So he got the rights from Paramount and Larry McMurtry to do it as a play, and we toured it in the provinces of England. It was kind of an off-off-off-off-Broadway kind of a thing… (Laughs) …just to kind of see how it worked, how the scenes played together and how the characters worked. So we did that, and I did it for almost six months, eight shows a week, and cried my eyes out every show, until I came to him and said, “Look, I love your writing, but…can you write me something lighter? This is too heavy for me!” (Laughs) So, anyway, we sat down and started throwing around ideas, and…I didn’t want to have a J.R. guy in my life. I said, “Okay, here’s my wish list: I don’t want her to be the wife of someone like that. I want her to be a little bit zany.” I wanted her to be a little Lucille Ball, a little bit of something that people hadn’t ever really seen me do. I wanted her to have a big heart, and…well, anyway, we hashed it around, and he came up with a former Las Vegas showgirl, and I said, “Yes!” And we kept going, and it was, like, “What if we did this? How about that?” And it was a lovely, lovely collaboration. But he’s the genius with writing. We just bounced ideas around, and he took them in and molded them into the script, which was, well, genius.

Nothing really good happens unless you have a good script, and he orchestrated it beautifully, so that…when you see it, you’ll see that each character has their moment, and they all shine in their scenes. And that’s what attracted all of these wonderful actors. Actors vibe to a script like that, so here comes Cloris Leachman and Della Reese and Lainie Kazan and Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould… (Laughs) I was, like, “Oh, my gosh, look at this cast!” Everybody kept saying, “Yes!” Nobody said “no.” It was just all about arranging their schedules. It was an 18-day shoot, which may surprise you when you see the film. It surprised us! (Laughs) And it was just…charming. I think what happens when you get professionals together, really good actors that have been in the business for a long time, and they know there’s an 18-day shoot…Dan Gordon was a first-time feature film director, which was an interesting thing, but the good news is that, as a director / writer, there weren’t many scenes that he had to tweak on the set then and there, but when there were, you didn’t have to wait to find the writer and say, “What do you think of this?” It was instant.

We benefited hugely by that, because…there’s one scene you’ll see where I’m holding this baby pig, walking, and Olyesa Rulin, whom I love and adore…she’s the young girl in the film, and I want to adopt her, but I haven’t told her parents yet. (Laughs) But we’re walking, I’m holding this pig, and she looks at me and says, “I thought we were supposed to walk this pig.” Well, the reality was that the ground was 134 degrees. It was so hot. We shot it last summer, at the end of July and the beginning of August, and the ground was so hot that they wouldn’t let us put the pig’s feet down on the ground! So I had to hold the pig, and it makes my character, Darnella, even more zany. I’m holding this pig as I’m taking her for a walk, and Olyesa says, rightfully, “I thought you were walking the pig,” so I say, “Oh, he hurt his little foot!” That was Dan. He wrote instantly that the pig had a hurt foot, but he likes to be out and about, so I had to hold him and carry him. (Laughs) So there are those kinds of little things that nobody would ever notice, but they’re there because Dan was there to write them on the spot!

BE: I’m suddenly reminded of W.C. Fields’ line about never working with children and animals…

LG: (Laughs) Oh, I think it’s absolutely true! I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of animals, and I agree. It’s, like, “Oh, my gosh, this is crazy!” Because they get all the focus. Everybody that I’ve talked to about the movie, they talk about the pig…and the pig isn’t even in the film very much! (Laughs) But, yes, everybody was just enamored, and they washed him in lavender soap. Actually, it was a girl, but in the film, it’s a male pig. But, yes, they washed him in lavender, and he smelled beautifully, and he was adorable.

BE: You touched for a moment on your character’s former career, but tell me a little bit about Darnella.

LG: Darnella? Oh, we love Darnella. (Laughs) She has an indomitable spirit, and whatever happens, whatever life throws her way, she bounces right back. And she was in Las Vegas during the ’60s, and she was one of the women who walked around clothed…not nude, but clothed, with feathers and the headdress, and she just looked pretty. But then Las Vegas changed. She was there during the Frank Sinatra era and all that…and, actually, in the script, Frank Sinatra had given her a T-Bird, a ’56 T-Bird, and that’s still what she drives now. But her world has shrunk. Las Vegas has changed, they wanted more nudity, she was getting older, so she was kind of left without a job. Now, she lives in a trailer park…literally, in a trailer…in New Mexico, but she still performs in a little tiny Indian casino in New Mexico. She still has a stage, and she still gets dressed up, along with two other showgirls, but the stage is only about six foot by six foot. (Laughs) So her world, even though it’s shrunk, she hangs onto the glamour. And it’s not a sad thing. It’s just her world.

She still dresses a little showgirl-y in her real life, a little over the top, so the clothes were a huge focus. So I hired my girlfriend, who I’d worked with before, and she and I hit all of the Los Angeles hotspots for cheap, tacky clothes. (Laughs) I suppose that’s the best way to put it! And we put them all together, and we giggled and laughed. We didn’t have much money to spend…and that was another thing about the film. We didn’t have designer clothes at all. Some clothes I even bought at the farmer’s market! I saw them hanging there at some kind of a display when I was buying, I don’t know, vegetables or something… (Laughs) …and I said, “Oh, look at that tacky thing! That would be perfect for Darnella!” And we picked that one up, and I think that was $20. I also got a leopard skirt for $24, and beaded skirt for ten bucks. It was a hysterical wardrobe. (Laughs)

BE: So who do you share most of your screen time with? Is it Olesya?

LG: Yes, I spend most of the time with her. She’s pregnant, hitchhiking across the United States, runs away from a very, very well-to-do, hands-off kind of mother who’s divorced and remarried. She’s in boarding school and with nannies and all that, so…it’s just for spite, I think, but she gets pregnant, and then the mother says, “You’re going to get an abortion,” and she goes, “Nope! I’m not!” The mother says, “You’re going to embarrass us with our friends,” and all that, so she just ran away. She said, “Well, then, just tell your friends that I’m dead,” and she ran away. So she starts hitchhiking across the country, and she ends up in a truck with Elliott Gould.

BE: There are worse places to be.

LG: (Laughs) Exactly! And then they stop at this casino in New Mexico, and then Darnella meets her, and she invites her to stay in her trailer, and there’s a bonding that happens. But the girl continues on, goes to L.A. to see her dad, who’s played by Gene Simmons, of KISS, and it doesn’t go so well, so she comes back to this new wacko family she’s found. Cloris Leachman is her neighbor in the trailer park, and Della Reese owns the trailer park, and…you know, it’s quite odd. (Laughs) It’s kind of a weird assortment. But she finds love there. She finds that this is what a real family is, where they love and care for each other…and they care for her, unlike her mother. So her mom and stepfather come out, and they try to bring her back home, and…well, anyway, she ends up having the baby, but the rest you’ll have to see! (Laughs)

BE: You haven’t really done a huge amount of film work, having enjoyed a tremendous career on television. Is it nice to get the chance to do a movie once in awhile?

LG: Oh, sure, I love it! But, you know, an actor is an actor, whether it’s stage, television, or film, so it doesn’t matter. We just love to work! (Laughs) So if there’s a wonderful theater piece, you bet. When they invited me to London to do “The Graduate,” that was a definite “yes.” To work in the West End in London, that’s rather the epitome of an actor’s life, you know? Because you’re on the boards, and…I remember the first night of the first week I was there, actually opening in London at the Gielgud Theater, and I remember looking down at the floor all the time. And the kids would ask, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just thinking of all of the feet that have walked across these boards.” Vanessa Redgrave had just left…I was in her dressing room, in fact…and, you know, John Gielgud and all the greats of the theater world had been walking on and across those boards. I was mesmerized, thinking, “Wow, and now my little feet are on here!” (Laughs) It was just very charming, and I was very respectful, because of the craft of the work and the education that they have as actors.

BE: In regards to you playing in “The Graduate” in the theater, I thought it was funny when I learned…and this is one of those facts that I’d have thought was made up for your Wikipedia entry if I hadn’t seen you talk about it before…that that’s your leg on the original movie poster for “The Graduate.”

LG: (Laughs) I know! You know, it was just, like, “Wow, that’s full circle!” It was very strange, because…I was paid $25 for that! I worked for the photographer many, many times before, and he called me and said, “I have to do this shoot. Would you do it for me?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do it!” And it maybe took an hour, because in those days we were paid by the hour, and my rate was $25…so that’s what I got and I was happy to have it! (Laughs)

BE: Talk about iconic.

LG: Yep!

BE: Well, I have some “Dallas” questions for you, most of them from our site’s resident “Dallas” obsessive, Ross Ruediger…

LG: Oh, I love it!

BE: …but I think I’m going to have to call you back on my other phone first, because this one has just beeped at me to tell me that I’m almost out of energy.

LG: Okay, sure!

(After a frantic but ultimately successful search around my living room for my other phone, I called Linda back, and we resumed our conversation.)

BE: Well, first, I feel like I should offer you a glimpse into the lives of TV critics by telling you that, at the end up the TCA’s summer press tour, the evening descended into a bunch of us standing around, tossing back drinks and talking about our favorite “Dallas” moments.

LG: (Laughs) That’s hysterical!

BE: Okay, here we go: what was it like for you to be caught up in the madness of “Who Shot JR?” mania, and do you have any specific recollections from that summer? Also, were you worried it might’ve been Sue Ellen who’d done the shooting?

LG: Well, I knew it wasn’t, because I had… (Hesitates) I had a double whammy that summer. There was a strike, so it was the longest summer of all, but you literally could not go anywhere without…I mean, my kids and I, we would run up to the supermarket, and I couldn’t get down an aisle without somebody, people I didn’t even know, saying, “I know you’ve been asked this a hundred times, but…who shot JR?” And I thought, “If I hear that one more time, I’ll go mental!” So it really was a long, hot summer. It was horrible! (Laughs) But…and the trivia people out there will know this already…I had already recorded a voiceover, in a recording booth, where Sue Ellen says, “Kristin, it was you who shot JR!” So I recorded it, and I knew who it was before the long, hot summer, and nobody else knew but me! Well, and the producer and the sound guy. (Laughs) I also remember that years ago…let’s see, I think it was the week before, where I was in New York doing publicity for the show, and I was invited to be on “Good Morning America” with David Hartman, and David said to me, “Does anyone know? What about your children? Do they know?” And I said, “Well, they made guesses…and one of them actually got it right!” And that was the end of it…but when I got off the show, I thought, “Oh, my God…” It was such a frenzy that I thought the press would call my house, talk to my children, and say, “Who did you guess?!?” (Laughs) But it never happened. Nobody called…thank God! But I went into a panic. I called home and said, “If anybody asks you, do not tell them who you guessed! You can’t say a word!” But nobody called. I was blessed.

BE: Before you did find out that it wasn’t you, were you surprised? Or, ultimately, were you surprised that Sue Ellen never shot JR? (Laughs)

LG: Oh, she should have shot him long ago. (Laughs) The poor little passed-out wife…why did she have to wait for somebody else to do it? But the series would’ve taken a different turn, so I’m happy that she didn’t do it.

BE: Sue Ellen spent an awful lot of time in a state of intoxication. Did that take its toll on you after awhile? Did you ever reach a point where you just said, “Okay, I think that’s enough”?

LG: Well, yeah, I went to the producers in yea r eight and said, “Look, I’m really tired of this.” Not as an actor, but, you know, I was getting bored. It was a time in society where women were starting businesses, they were lawyers. But Sue Ellen was a reactor. She was a victim of whatever JR did, and she’d do something. She’d have a drink, she’d have an affair, saying, “Okay, I’ll show you!” It was a male show. Women were like bookends. We were there, we were dressed up and looked pretty, but we were reactors to whatever the men did. Our show was written by men, directed by men, men were the stars…it was very odd. So I went in one morning in year eight, and I said, “Look, I’m really tired of this drinking and having affairs, and if I start getting bored as an actor, then the audience will get bored, too, because it’ll come through.” And they kind of agreed, but they were patronizing me in the beginning, saying, “Oh, but, darling, you do it so well…” And I went mental. I was, like, “Oh, great…” I wasn’t happy…and I told them. I said, “I want you to do something about it.” So they came back, and they said, “Okay, next year, you won’t drink and you won’t have affairs.” And I said, “Okay, perfect.” But they said, “But we’re going to take you down first.” And that’s when I got scared. (Laughs) I said, “Oh, dear. What do you mean you’re going to take me down?” And they said, “Oh, you’re going down.” So, long story short, they took me down. I was drinking whiskey out of a bottle with a bag lady. But that was the best time of all! I mean, that was my favorite season! (Laughs)

BE: Which is funny, because Ross said that the scenes of Sue Ellen hitting rock bottom are “some of the most vivid memories from my childhood. I was terrified for her!”

LG: Yeah! But, see, it really hit a lot of people. It hit a lot of people really hard. I’ve gotten wonderful, wonderful letters from people who were alcoholics who were cheering Sue Ellen on, but when she hit rock bottom… (Trails off) I wanted it to be down and dirty. I wanted people to know that this was the effect of alcohol, that alcohol could do this bad thing and that this could happen to you. And people paid attention! Those were my most memorable and most passionate things on “Dallas,” because it was more than acting scenes. It was powerful, life-changing scenes. For a lot of people.

BE: The first season that Sue Ellen was a truly strong woman, though, was the one that got written off as a dream.

LG: That’s true.

BE: Were you disappointed or scared at the time that all of that character development might end up being thrown out the window?

LG: No. I did it, it was on film. Next! (Laughs) No, but, you know, you do your work, and they can say it was a dream, but it was on film and it impacted many people, so I don’t care what they said, and I don’t care how big a dream it was. It was my best work.

BE: What were your thoughts about the season where Sue Ellen took revenge on JR by making a movie about him?

LG: Oh, I loved it! Yeah, I liked it a lot. I thought that…well, you know, I think a lot of times – and it’s been proven in recent history – these men get a little bit too big and need to be humbled a little bit, and I thought that was a good way for her to do it. So I liked it. I didn’t mind it at all.

BE: Ross had wanted me to ask you about working with Ian McShane that year, but I’m guessing it must’ve been relatively enjoyable, since you ended up doing a 2-part episode of “Lovejoy” with him as well.

LG: Well, you know, I love and respect Ian. I think he’s one of our better actors, and we had a great time together. We really did. When you work with consummate actors, there’s an ease to it. They know what they’re doing, and there’s no messing around. They’re just solid. And that’s what I love and respect about Ian. You know, when I saw him on “Deadwood,” it was, like, “Whoa! Go, Ian, go!” (Laughs) It was fantastic! I really have great love and respect for Ian.

BE: Did you continue watching “Dallas” after you departed?

LG: Kind of off and on. It wasn’t out of anything other than the fact that I had more time. You know what I mean? I had time to do other things. When you’re in a series for that long, it really takes over your life. It really does. So you have time to see your friends, you have sort of a normal life, whatever that is. (Laughs) But, you know, you get back to one. People don’t realize that you’re on a major treadmill of life, and…it’s life-changing. And sometimes all of that life-changing stuff isn’t so good. It just takes you and unplugs you from life. You do your best, you tread water… (Laughs) …and you keep hanging in there, but it’s the good news / bad news thing. The good news is you’re working and doing your craft, but the bad news is that you’re working to the exclusion of a lot of other things.

BE: Do you still keep in touch with Omri Katz, who played John Ross on the show?

LG: I see him occasionally, which is really sweet. It’s very, very sweet to run into anybody from the cast.

BE: Do you know anything about the proposed TNT “Dallas” series?

LG: Not a thing. People ask us all the time about that, but…I think it was around a year ago that I got a call from someone at Warner Brothers who asked, “If TNT and Warner Brothers were to do a ‘Dallas’ featuring John Ross and Christopher Ewing, would you be interested in being in that series?” They called Larry, Patrick, and myself. And all of said, “Yes, we would be interested.” End of conversation. But for us to be interested is not reading a script, signing a contract, talking about money, nothing. Nothing has come to pass. All we said was, “Yes, we would be interested.” But we wouldn’t be interested if it was a tacky show or if it was made in a bad light. It would really have to be a great script, and the characters would have to be great. Even though we would be the older generation, we had a powerful impact on television, and we don’t want to come in and some, like, T&A show or something. We’re not doing that. It would be all about the script and what they’d be doing with it, so a lot of dialogue would have to go on.

BE: I’d think that there’d be a big battle between what viewers today want and what people who want to pay legitimate tribute to the show want.

LG: Exactly!

(Writer’s note: This conversation took place a mere 24 hours before TNT formally announced that it was indeed moving forward with the “Dallas” pilot, but given Linda’s obvious and understandable reticence to commit to the project without a great deal of discussion, I think it’s fair to say that, at least as of this writing, she’s still not on board.)

BE: Now, if somebody told you in 1978 that, as late as 2010, there would still be talk of you playing Sue Ellen again, what would you have thought?

LG: Oh, dear! I would’ve probably thought they were a little loopy. Looney tunes. (Laughs) I mean, yeah, that’s an interesting question, one I’ve never really thought about, but, uh, that’d be a biggie! In 1978, the idea that I’d still be playing the character in 2010…that would’ve been interesting!

BE: So I see that you’re in a movie called “Flight of the Swan,” one which reteams you with Larry Hagman. What’s the status of that?

LG: Well, the last I heard, “Flight of the Swan” is supposed to be premiering in Greece on October 22nd. But I play James D’Arcy’s mother, and I’m never in a scene with Larry. In fact, we were never in Athens at the same time! (Laughs) I was there for about three weeks, and Larry was there for, I think, only one day. I never even saw him!

BE: I’ll start wrapping up here with a couple of non-“Dallas” questions. First, were you surprised that “Models, Inc.” didn’t last longer?

LG: Yes, I was so disappointed. I don’t know why it didn’t. Everybody liked it. I still get people coming up to me all the time, saying, “What happened to ‘Models, Inc.’? I loved it!” And I don’t know what happened!

BE: And, lastly, what do you remember about the experience of working on “Dogs”?

LG: Oh, dear God.

BE: (Laughs) That good, eh?

LG: That wasn’t so good. I had to be mauled by Dobermans and some other horrible thing, and they had to gouge my hands, and…it was disgusting. I didn’t like it. I mean, I don’t like doing things like that. And my kids came down to the set, and I was, like, “Oh, my God…” It was not my kind of film, let’s just say that.

BE: I’ve never actually seen it.

LG: Don’t. Do not see it. Don’t bother. Ugh. It’s so yucky. I don’t like it.

BE: Best to remember you as Sue Ellen, then…?

LG: Yes. Please. (Laughs)

  

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