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.

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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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American Idol: how serious are you?

To the contestants on “American Idol,” if you’ve made it to this week’s Final Four, you’re either on the verge of winning it all, or of being a pretender and fading into the show’s collective oblivion soon. Mentor Jamie Foxx signified as much when he had t-shirts made up that said “contestant” and “artist,” and told each one of them that they had to earn their artist shirt this week to prove they are ready. Corny, yes, but effective and correct. The theme this week was songs from movies, which is about as vast a catalog as there is.

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Three departures

I’ll inevitably miss some important stuff this week, but I wanted to quickly acknowledge the passing of three interesting figures who all made their presence felt in the world of movies and who’ve all left us in the last day or so.

* Zelda Rubinstein is best known as the diminutive character actress who appeared in all three “Poltergeist” films in the 1980s as well as numerous other productions and was also known as an activist on behalf of AIDS sufferers and little people.

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* Left radical historian Howard Zinn often rubbed me the wrong way in his articles but that can be a valuable service to a reader, too. In any case, there was no denying his provocative intelligence or his appeal to the  leftish masses and his status as a genuine hero to innumerable activists. His most famous book, A People’s History of the United States — which I would admit to having not read yet, except I could have my progressive ID card revoked for the omission — was referred to as a great book in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Ironically, Zinn, a World War II bombadier and afterwards something close to a pacifist, detested Damon’s next film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

* Last but definitely not least in terms of cultural impact, the most famous of all literary recluses and the creator of the biggest movie hater in history of letters, J.D. Salinger, has passed on. Holden Caulfield may have hated Hollywood and his creator may have shielded him from adaptations, but, my God, how many of the cinema’s best known young male leads have a bit of HC in them? The Hollywood Reporter obituary I linked to mentions “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Graduate,” but it goes far beyond that. It’s kind of hard to even imagine, say, Wes Anderson’s first two films if The Catcher in the Rye had never existed.

The final irony of course, is that, without Salinger’s passing, we may finally see adaptions of “Catcher,” notes Dylan Stableford. And, what about all those books Salinger reportedly wrote but never published? Hollywood’s hunger for new properties from literary big names should never be underestimated.

  

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