I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Academy Award winner Linda Hunt speaks with Craig Gholson and Vincent Caristi about her roles in The Year of Living Dangerously, Silverado, and the Public Theater’s production of Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Linda Hunt is best known for her Academy Award-winning role as Billy Kwan in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. More recently, she starred in Lawrence Kasdan’s tongue-in-cheek Western, Silverado, and has just finished a run in Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon which opened at the Royal Court in London last summer and at the Public Theater this past fall. As Aunt Dan, Hunt spins a heady and obsessive fantasy with Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, paving the way for her protege, Lemon, to take the ideals of right-wing capitalism to a Fascist conclusion.
Craig Gholson What did Aunt Dan do to you? What happened when you went home with that character?
Linda Hunt I’m not a consciously political person, I suppose, except in a psychological sense, in an emotional sense. I understand very little of politics in terms of governments and foreign policy and so my response to them, and to the play, was intuitive and not intellectual. It was Dan’s self-serving, aggressive spirit, that there’s-only-room-for-me spirit, that was very hard for me, exhausting. And the fact that she was so deeply isolated. If you talk that much there isn’t enough room for anything else to come in at you. I think in retrospect, I experienced a tremendous sense of isolation while playing Dan. And a tremendous need to keep feelings down, to keep feelings in their place. To deal much more from the head.
CG It’s curious that you would find that self-assertiveness hard to come in touch with because I would describe all your other roles as being characters with an incredible sense of power, with a moral sense of right and wrong—and of what to do with it in the world.
LH Power is one thing if you have a very rigid sense of morality backing it up. But Dan doesn’t know … she has a rigid sense of morality, it’s just totally cockeyed.
Vincent Caristi You think it’s totally cockeyed?
LH I do. I don’t think Wally (Wallace Shawn) does, but I do. It’s very hard to put the source of one’s power into that role, it’s like choosing to put the positive piece of yourself into something you feel is not right.
CG What were your first thoughts when you read the play?
LH That I had to do it. It’s just what happens with most extraordinary material. I felt that when I read The Year of Living Dangerously, too, I had to do it.
VC Did you feel those characters were a part of you that had to be expressed, that hadn’t yet been?
LH Well, I was fascinated by the structure of Wally’s play. A friend of mine who is a documentary filmmaker gave a course recently on the deconstruction of the documentary. I think Wally’s play, in a way, is a course in the deconstruction of the well-written play. (laughter) It’s brilliantly written but not according to any rules we know of and I was in love with that aspect immediately. Also I was dying to play Dan because I felt it was an enormous leap for me and indeed it was. Never mind the psychological or emotional obstacles there were for me, just technically it was an enormous …
CG What were the technical difficulties?
LH Just how much of the play hangs on the character’s back and how much verbiage that boils down to—to be able to make that much verbiage live and be truthful and have variety in it and … It’s the artifice. It’s not that which happens in ordinary time but stage time. It’s about controlling language and telling how it moves inside.
CG It seems you would be ideally suited. There are very few actresses who seem to be as texturally conscious as you are.
LHDan gives soliloquies, not scenes at all. There are no scenes. Sometimes Lemon was there and I talked at Lemon but Lemon never talked to me. And Susie was there in the garden and interjects but Dan is a bully! Dan is an intellectual bully, and when she needs to be, an emotional bully, too. So that’s what I mean by kinds of power, Dan was into a kind of power that I didn’t easily understand or know how to do … technically just learning all that stuff was hard. I’d never been in a position where I had to work on memorizing the text as a separate issue from the rehearsal process. Usually I memorize lines as the rehearsal process goes on. But there was just too much. It’s like working on Shakespeare, you can’t walk a first-days rehearsal of Hamlet or Richard III without having the text already living inside you.
CG Did you not approach Mother Courage that way either?
LH No, I didn’t. And that was the first time I thought, well, Hunt you’ve got to find another way … you have got to start spending time with texts just in a very technical matter-of-fact way before rehearsals. I didn’t do it with Aunt Dan and Lemon because when the time I had set aside to do that came my father was dying. So it didn’t get done. In fact, doing Aunt Dan and Lemon happened on the cuff of all of that … my father had died two weeks before I left for London and it was …
VC Did that feed you in any way?
LH I don’t think so, I don’t think I could allow it to. It was too new. The loss was far too new. I didn’t know where to put feelings like that as far as Dan was concerned. I didn’t know how stuff like that figured into her geography.
VC How much did you know about the political situation in Java when you were playing Billy in The Year of Living Dangerously? How did the film effect your thoughts?
LH And I will disappoint you again by saying that my political education was not furthered by playing that character.
VC It wasn’t? What I’ve learned from doing Normal Heart has scarred me—made me incensed. Weren’t you inquisitive as to why Southeast Asia is suffering so? Billy Kwan died for a cause, didn’t he?
LH He died unnecessarily for a cause. He died to put a banner outside a hotel window which wasn’t going to do anything anyway. I don’t think that’s what’s interesting about Billy—that he died for a cause. What’s interesting about Billy was his view of the world. His view of friendship and responsibility, his idea of love and loyalty. He’s a creature of great passion and has a tremendous capacity for emotional twistedness, you know. His relationship with Hamilton, the journalist, was a very confused one … he took Hamilton under his wing, fed him stories—he was Hamilton’s guide in every sense. And in the end he screams at Hamilton: I created you! I’m afraid that to me politics boils down, every time, to some kind of individual truth and the individual truth of Billy Kwan has to do with the fact that he never had the woman he loved and that he was disappointed by people. His was a life of such loyalty, major loyalty. I don’t know how to act in a political sense, I only know how to act through my understanding of people’s personal histories.
CG The characters you’ve portrayed all seem to have a very strong ideology. There’s also some sort of sexual ambivalence, it’s a very interesting mixture of the personal, the private, and this ideology which seems to be one of the ways you make them human …
LH The supra-personal.
CG Billy Kwan is supra-personal. There are layers upon layers of sexual ambiguity in that role.
LH Yes, and the fact of my playing it.
CG Exactly. It’s like two mirrors facing each other and reflecting each other’s image forever. Your part in Silverado is the sexual opposite of the male Billy Kwan role. This time you get to be a flirtatious vamp. It’s the Miss Kitty role. I don’t know that a casting director would cast you with that role in mind, but it’s wonderful to see that aspect.
LH Well, Larry Kasdan actually wrote it for me. We didn’t know each other at all and we had lunch together at a time when he had gotten half of the Silverado script written and was just beginning to write that part. So he came to meet me and we talked and it went on from there …
CG It is a wonderful role, it’s so blatantly sexual to me. Do you think it is?
LH Oh, I think it is, and I felt that way when I played it. The clothes and the period have something to do with that. The clothes are so gorgeous and they’re so sexy and when your torso is all tucked in like that … there’s something … well, boots and long skirts …
CG Because it was very much a “man’s” film. Weren’t you and Rosanna Arquette the only women in it?
LH We were among a handful of women.
CG Well, that’s got to do something for your hormones.
I saw Austin Pendleton last weekend. He did something in conjunction with Samuel Beckett’s birthday, and he told a story about you, when he was out at BAM doing Waiting for Godot, I’ve forgotten the director’s name.
LH The director had been Beckett’s assistant.
CG Anyway, he said they were having a devil of a time finding Lucky and Austin suggested you. And the German was adamant about not casting a woman in a man’s role. Austin pleaded with him to allow you to come in and read for the part, which you did, and your reading was absolutely staggering. It was so wonderful, in fact, that the German director changed his mind. He sent off a two-page telegram to Beckett pleading for permission, saying that you were Lucky. The next day he got a telegram from Beckett with his reply—No. Do you remember that?
LH Oh, do I remember it. Well, Beckett has very definite views about his work and he controls it.
VC Do you think a writer should be able to do that?
LH Oh, I think Beckett should be able to do that.
CG He did allow female versions. I mean Maureen Stapleton did …
LH Well, Kim Stanley, who lived a long while out in Santa Fe teaching. I think that’s when they did it. She got Maureen to go out there and I don’t remember who else and they did a lady’s Waiting for Godot.
CG That was okay with Beckett.
LH Evidently, evidently. I mean …
CG Were you completely shattered?
LH Yes, I was, completely shattered, Yes, I was. It was a time in my life when I came very, very close to some remarkable opportunities and they got away from me for one reason or another. And each one was just a staggering disappointment.
CG That role ultimately went to Milo O’Shea.
LH Yes, and I never saw that production. That German director, whose name neither of us can remember, had done a production with Beckett at, I don’t know, maybe with the Berliner Ensemble, I’m not sure, and his function as a director at BAM was to literally recreateBeckett’s production of Waiting for Godot. That’s why it was so important to reach Beckett and get his okay and why he was so sure that Beckett wouldn’t say yes.
VC Just a recreation of what they were doing at the Ensemble?
LH Yes, yes. Austin Pendleton, who played opposite O’Shea, and I had a long conversation about this. Because it was so difficult, there wasn’t any room for any individuality or discovery with a new set of people.
CG It was just a grid that you were locked into. You had to complacently follow.
LH But Austin said that through it, through the disciplined application of himself to that grid he had a tremendous breakthrough finally, one night.
CG Two weeks into production the character finally just dropped on him. It was the night Austin was going to quit. I mean it’s a typical Beckett thing to provoke, Austin had thought, “I can’t go on—I’ll keep going on.” Then it happened that one time and he spent all the other nights wondering if it would ever happen again. But at least there had been one moment when he knew it was possible.
LH I had a moment in Aunt Dan and Lemon that I’d never had before or since, just once when I was somewhere in the midst of what we called the “hut scenes” the early scenes between Lemon and Dan when Lemon was young. I suddenly realized that I was on stage and the next moment I realized that if I was realizing that I was on stage that then there had been moments before that realization when I hadn’t known that I was on stage. I think it was just whoosh—I just took off like jets had suddenly come out of my feet. I just had such a feeling of freedom, when I clicked, when I realized that I had actually been on stage, for I didn’t know how long, without being aware of being on stage, the top came right off.
CG That had never happened before?
LH Never, ever, ever, ever.
CG And did it happen again?
LH It hasn’t happened since. I’ve talked to several friends, actors about this and no one seems to have had this experience before. I had it and I mean it was infinitesimal, I’m sure it had only been a matter of moments where I had lost consciousness of being on stage.
CG Why do you think that Austin Pendleton was such a great teacher for you? What was it that he brought out?
LH Austin has a finely developed sense of being in the present on stage. Using everything that is happening to you and editing nothing. I’m a very precise actor. I sometimes want too much control on stage. I would edit myself on stage. If I had a thought about the way I had just done something my precision would insist on stopping to absorb that thought and I would stop the whole flow of what I was doing …
VC Of concentration.
LH Yes, of concentration, and of juices, to take in, to make some sort of adjustment to what I’d just done that didn’t seem right and to try and make up for it.
CG And this wasn’t in the rehearsal process?
LH No, with Austin, in class work, one would get up and do scenes. But I had trouble with this on stage, as well. I had a great need to learn it at that time and anyone who is open to it learns this when they study with Austin. It is learning to let all the stimuli that surrounds one, whether it’s your own thoughts, such as—oh, my God, that was terrible or oh, my God, that went particularly well tonight or catching something out of the corner of your eye or hearing something—I mean acting onstage is like an explosion each night. And what comes in at you all the time as you are trying to organize and ride …
VC And remember that you have an objective.
LH Yes, remember that you have an objective, and create something which is a tremendous act of organization and concentration. Austin taught me that all of the stimuli, everything that you are vulnerable to when you’re out there has got to be taken in, has got to be acknowledged and the minute that you do, the minute that you say, yes, I see that, yes, I’m thinking that, yes, I need to swallow, yes, I’m feeling that, yes, I could kill him, yes, I’m tired, yes, I’m in an awful mood … the minute that you take all of that in it becomes part of the material that’s distilled into the performance. And if you spend any energy keeping it out, you’re dead. I knew that, but Austin taught me to trust it. This was his great gift to me.
CG What is it that you look for in a director?
LH Someone who is very, very grown-up.
CG Do you often find it?
CG How would you go about determining whether somebody’s grown-up or not?
LH It’s very hard to. You usually don’t find these things out until you’re in rehearsal and under duress and then you realize, uh-oh, I see, I’m not with a grown-up here.
CG Do you have a list of people you’d like to work with, directors, I mean.
LH Uhm … well, I’d love to work with Peter Brook some day. I would like to continue my association with Max Stafford-Clark. I would like to work with Les Waters who did Caryl Churchill’s Fen.
VC He recently did Rum and Coke at the Public, I think. Certain directors work from great intellect.
LH Max Stafford-Clark does.
VC And some don’t, they work from emotions, constantly.
LH Or visual stimuli.
VC Do you think that when you’ve discovered your own metaphor in the play, that is, why your character was written into the piece, what the reason is for you to be there, then you clearly have certain objectives in mind and a director really just has to move you around or design the set? Do you know what I mean?
LH Yes, I do know what you mean. I would never use that phrase, your own metaphor, that’s wonderful. You’re right, if you don’t know why you’re there, why your character exists, if you don’t understand the inevitability of your character and the function of your character, then you really are dependent on the director. If you have that, at least, then you are less dependent.
CG The play, the place has to become an organic whole.
LH Yes, the place and function of your character relate to the place and function of all the other characters. I had trouble with that in Aunt Dan and Lemon, understanding relationships, because it’s a play in which the relationships are all so oblique and so difficult. I had a very, very hard time in coming to grips with that.
VC You never know what the background will look like in film. Do you think that’s the different in film?
LH Yes, I think so.
VC Do you think that a film director is more a visual artist and the actors are, I hate to say, props?
LH But, of course, actors mostly aren’t directed in films, it’s everything else that gets directed. The celluloid itself gets directed when it gets cut. Actors are coaxed into things in film.
VC What do you feel about that? I’ve done lots of television and I’ve always felt like the cream of the crop because they’re too scared to give you instruction. But TV is episodic … I would imagine that in film you rehearse so you know where the film is going. What sort of statement you want to make.
LH Well, the only time I’ve rehearsed for film was for Silverado. I went out and rehearsed for two weeks and then had a break of two months before going back to shoot.
VC But it helped you get a feeling of who your character was.
LH What it really did was give me two weeks with the other people, when we didn’t have to be shooting. We could just be together, we could be reading the script together and we could be getting to know each other and just have the time to watch and listen to each other. Which, when you don’t have rehearsal, you don’t even have a chance to do that let alone begin to take a scene apart and figure out what it’s about and what the event of the scene is and what you’re doing in it.
CG That seems a much more theatrical approach. I don’t see the value.
LH That’s because film directors don’t know how to direct, you see. They don’t know how to rehearse. They don’t understand what that process is. It’s questionable whether that process, what we go through when we rehearse a play, is applicable to a film. But some process like it, some variation on that theme seems to me would be of great value. We’re going to rehearse three or four weeks on Mark Magill and Jill Godmilow’s On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and I think it’s a highly rehearsable film because at the center of it is this relationship.
CG That’s the film in which you play Alice B. Toklas.
LH Yes, yes. So there’s a lot of investigation that needs to be done particularly with Gertrude and Alice. That film has scenes, it’s incredible. I can hardly wait to work on it for that reason.
CG I wanted to compliment you on your willingness to … for someone of your stature you are particularly open to doing a wide variety of parts …
LH Which kind of stature are you talking about? (laughter)
CG Your Academy Award stature. You know, you’re going to be doing basically a low-budget film. I don’t know if your agent has some plan for you … I mean if you work like that.
LH I’m the only one who has any plans for me.
CG Good for you. I think that’s wonderful, the way it should be.
LH Again, that’s the way I live. It’s not some idea I have in my head.
VC Do you mean to say that you have already created your career before it happened?
LH Well, I was referring back to the talk about politics when we began and not being a political person. I can’t really be patted on the back for what appears to be a political stance because it isn’t. It’s just the way I am, you know. I’m afraid of allowing it to be consciously political because I think then it would become self-conscious.
VC Did you buy a worker’s paper from Vanessa Redgrave during the filming of The Bostonians? (laughter)
LH No, I was not offered it.
VC You were wonderful in The Bostonians. Was that a wonderful experience?
LH No, not really.
VC Your character in that film is the only one who didn’t need sisterhood to be a feminist.
LH Absolutely, she didn’t have to defend a point of view because it wasn’t a point of view, it was a way of life. There’s a difference when something comes because of the way you live as opposed to something being an idea in your head.
VC Do you find, as an actress, that when you decide to play a role, especially a period piece, that as soon as you put on one of the costumes you find a piece of the character there as well?
LH Well, it doesn’t work quite that automatically. I’m helped enormously by clothes, by environment. One of the wonders of working on films is that you get to go and work on location and the location hands so much to you on a silver platter, it really does. In the case of Silverado, which is a Western that takes place around the turn of the century, it was amazing to walk around in these exquisite dresses and see mud accumulating on the hemline. No one said, oh, my God, you’ve ruined the costume!
CG Except the continuity girl, I’m sure, who had to keep the mud the same in each shot.
LH But it was a revelation to me. When you get dressed up to go out in New York for an evening of … I don’t know, dinner or theater or opera or what have you—you come fresh from your bath or your shower and you’re beautifully perfumed and manicured and pedicured and made-up, the hair done, the right dress, the right stockings, the right shoes … all of that. I mean there’s a sense of cleanliness—“I am not dirty.” But the sexuality of being in those clothes and being dirty, dirt under my fingernails and mud on my skirts and my boots being filthy—that did not detract in any way from people’s attractiveness and sexuality. You didn’t need to protect your clothes the way you do here and now. You know, because there was no protection. The streets of Silverado were dirt and lined with horse-shit. And you didn’t put on your dungarees and your t-shirt to go out and do your shopping in those days. You wore your everyday clothes—black lace and taffeta. And then at night you put on silks and you did the same thing to the silk.
CG I’m interested in the period we referred to when you said you had a number of very big disappointments. You’d obviously reached … wanted to work, you were proficient. What did you do physically and emotionally to sustain yourself at that period?
LH Well, I collected unemployment. I tried to create my own projects. Long Wharf supported me in that. They had only one theater at that time—1972 through ’78, roughly. They had a Monday night series, our dark night, and they would always do some special event in the theater. I very much wanted to do St. Joan. I still haven’t done a classical one. I put together an evening based on all of the existent writing on St. Joan, going back to Shakespeare and forward to Brecht and in between, Voltaire and Vachel Lindsay and Mark Twain who wrote a wonderful fictional biography using the nom de plume of her Lt. At Arms or something … and Schiller. Long Wharf gave me the theater on Monday nights for several months.
CG There was no Pulitzer Prize awarded in drama this year. You obviously read a number of plays as a matter of course. I was wondering if there was a play that you think should have won the Pulitzer Prize?
LH Aunt Dan and Lemon.
CG Do you think the controversial nature of the play excluded it?
LH I have no idea.
CG It’s always so shocking when the Pulitzer committee does not choose a play, because they don’t withhold the Pulitzer for fiction or non-fiction. It’s such a capricious and arbitrary decision when it pertains to drama. It shocks me.
LH I think drama is the orphan child not just of the Pulitzer but just in general. I mean in terms of money people are willing to invest in it including the government and I think that attitude of critics is so uncaring and unthoughtful.
CG Who do you think is a theater critic who actually serves a purpose?
LH Bernard Shaw, Harold Clurman—they’re all dead. Kenneth Tynan.
VC You know as we speak I keep thinking that the work one does as a stage actor vaporizes. I’m about to do my first movie. My character has no lines. It’s called Good King Harry and is about a man who starts his own country … for illegal aliens. His name’s Harry Kasmeir, he’s a Jewish guy from New York and he calls his country Kazmania.
CG Sort of like The Mouse That Roared.
VC Yeah, I hope it’s funny. Do you go into a film thinking that … you read it and see it, you really see it don’t you?
VC I wonder if I’m seeing the same thing they’re seeing.
LH Oh, I never wonder, I’m always sure that I’m not. (laughter)
Vincent Caristi originated the role of Baby San in Tracers which he played at the Odyssey in LA, the Public in New York and the Royal Court in London. He has just returned to New York from Los Angeles where he appeared in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.
Craig Gholson’s fiction has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Between C and D and the East Village Eye. His first play, The Floor of the Sistine Chapel, is currently in development with director Peter Glazer. Two one-act plays, Chaos in Order/Order in Chaos, will be presented at BACA this fall.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee