Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are proud to present
An Interview With SALLY KIRKLAND — In Her Own Words — Beyond Acting: Teaching, Yoga, Religion, Sandra Bullock, Michael Fassbender, Bob Dylan & More.
(Part 2 of a 2-part interview)
Sally Kirkland is, without doubt, a stage and screen icon. Ms. Kirkland is an Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit award-winning veteran of over 150 films. As if that is not enough for anyone in one lifetime, Ms. Kirkland also is a painter, poet, acting coach and teacher, yoga instructor, and an ordained minister! In Part 1 of our interview, she discusses actors and the art of acting — Pillow Talking Blog — An Interview With Sally Kirkland — Part 1
In Part 2, Ms. Kirkland explores her journey through life beyond acting. Get ready for a fascinating, candid and thoroughly entertaining look at this incredible and captivating woman.
PT: Your views and insights on actors and acting are fantastic and we’ve received such great feedback on your interview. In this second part we want to go beyond acting and talk to you about the other sides of Sally Kirkland and your fascinating journey through life.
So, for the first question, we know that you’ve taught acting for many years. How do you see the issues facing young actors today as different from when you began acting?
SK: I don’t think enough people do theatre. I think everyone should do years and years of New York theatre. I did ten straight. And then I did theatre out here (LA) and then I went back and did more theatre in New York. I sense when I’m in a lot of movies with young actors that they haven’t had a lot of theatre training and I think it’s sad. I can tell it right away.
SK: If in LA, I tell them go audition for the Mark Taper Forum. I tell them get into showcases where you’re on stage. Get on as many stages as you can. I have one student who just auditioned for a national company of Rent. He had to sing and act and he would do it all for me before he went to the audition. He has done a lot on stage. But he will get his break because he’s that talented. I was in a film recently where I couldn’t even hear the actors. And that’s one thing you learn real quick – projecting yourself. I feel every actor should do Shakespeare.
Television has become so important too. It didn’t used to be. When I was a young actor, Strasberg wouldn’t let us do television. It had to be film and theatre. I remember going to him one time and saying, “I can’t pay my rent. Are you going to pay my rent if I don’t do TV?” And he said, “Well, it can’t be that bad.” And I said, “It is that bad. But I’m on Charlie’s Angels tomorrow night and if you will watch it and tell me that I didn’t turn in a great performance then my name isn’t Sally Kirkland.” So he watched it and he came to the Actors Studio the next day and said, “Sally Kirkland has just proven a very important point to me. She did film acting in an episodic TV show. She was great on it.”
PT: That was an incredible compliment from Strasberg.
SK: Yes. So from that point on we were allowed to do television. So many film stars are doing television now that it has become so competitive. I don’t know…the things that I tell young actors, just to get on as many stages as they can while they are waiting for film and TV breaks. I tell them to get five characters up their sleeves, to work on a lot of monologues and be five totally different characters. Be young character actors
PT: Well we know that you pretty much found Sandra Bullock as a young girl.
SK: I don’t know that I found her. [Well, I did find her (laughing)]. I mean she always had the talent that she had. She and I had the same manager and he sent her to my acting class in New York. I noticed that she seemed insecure. She had no idea how talented and beautiful she was. She told me how her boyfriend wanted her to quit acing and get married. And I said, “No, no, no, because I think you’re going to be a big star.” And again, she said, “You think so?” And I said, “Yeah, because you’re vulnerable and people are going to want to take you home with them.” Anyway, I had her do this part where she had to battle between career and love called The Trip Back Down, by Jim Bishop. And this, director Dan Adams, saw her in a showcase I put on performing the role and gave her one of her first films called Religion, Inc. I also had her play Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Barbara Miller, the head of Warner Brothers Talent called me up one day, and said, “This woman, Sandra Bullock has got your name all over her resume. Can you tell me about her?” And I said, “Yeah, hire her immediately. She’s going to be a big star.” So she got the series Working Girl from that. I taught her everything I knew. In fact, I even taught her yoga
That’s pretty much with everybody who works with me. If somebody says, “I want to study with you,” they get yoga, they get Shakespeare, they get comedy and they get a lot of drama. I’ve coached Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr and many others.
PT: I’ve heard Hugh Jackman read for Les Miserables, he literally had to do hours upon hours of singing and reading. He finally said he had to go put his children to bed. He was finally cast.
SK: (laughs) That’s a great story! I always like it when they want to spend a lot of time with you. I treat it like an exercise with my acting instrument. And of course, the thing many young actors don’t know is if there is a director in the room, he or she will want to know that you’re going to take direction. De Niro once told me, “Come in with a blank canvas and let them paint it. If you come in with your canvas already painted, they may think they can’t change you.” And that’s really good advice and I think that’s why my friend, Michael (Fassbender), works so well with directors. He had such a good working relationship with Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave. And before that film, he and Steve (McQueen) worked so brilliantly together in Hunger and Shame. You can sense that he just gives himself 100% to his director to mold him. I know he keeps working with Bryan Singer too on all these X-Men movies. Under Danny Boyle’s direction, he is drop dead brilliant in Steve Jobs. He should win the Oscar this year for Best Actor.
When I did Anna, the director didn’t want me for the longest time. I kept going back and going back and going back. I even sent him flowers and letters. I remember standing in the rain waiting for him to come out of his office so I could beg him, because I knew no one could be better for the role. Eventually I got it. But it was not easy. I really went through a process for that. My manager had called me up and asked, “Can you learn Polish in two weeks?” and I said, “Tell them, ‘yes’.” (Eventually it became Czechoslovakian.) I literally would go to the Heidelberg Bar and sit and talk to Czechs and Hungarians and Poles, anyone from Eastern Europe. Then I had my Czechoslovakian back door man come over and I gave him a bottle of wine and had him read all of my lines with his Czech accent. I did all these crazy things like getting into taxi cabs in New York and I speaking with a Polish or Czech accent. They would talk back. They never asked me – they assumed I was what I was
This is what actors like De Niro, Pacino, and Fassbender do. You enjoy the challenge of becoming something that you’re not and then you give it 100% and you still use your soul. No matter how angry or cruel the character is, you find their humanity somewhere. In the case of Michael playing the part in 12 Years a Slave, he literally passed out after the rape scene. And I can understand that. He’s such a kind person and so sensitive and sweet as a human being; and here he is playing this tyrant. Somebody once said to me (it might have been Strasberg), “If you give yourself 100% to an acting role, you go through all the emotions. It’s no different than climbing Mount Everest, you just use a different set of tools.”
PT: What roles have you had the most fun with?
SK: I really loved Ron Howard’s film EDtv. I really got a chance to be funny and touching, too.
PT: I’ve heard Ron Howard is really great to work with and has a great sense of humor.
SK: Yes, he loves actors. He was an actor. I loved doing Cold Feet with Tom Waits and Keith Carradine and Rip Torn and Bill Pullman; Jeff Bridges did a cameo. That was great…that was a comedy. I loved working with (Robert) Redford in The Sting; I got to be kind of funny. Probably Anna and The Haunted (for which I got a Golden Globe nomination) are my favorites. The more serious roles are probably the most fun for me because I get to be so dramatic. I did years and years and years of drama on stage; Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and everything.
PT: Are there any roles that you turned down that you wish you hadn’t, in hindsight?
SK: Well, I once turned down a half a million dollar offer and to this day I’m wondering if I that had been smart, but I felt the film was anti-woman.
On the other hand, Ron Howard’s film Parenthood I was on the short list for the Dianne Wiest role and Ron Howard met with me and he said, “Will you read?” and the William Morris Agency had said, “You’re an Oscar nominee, you’re a Golden Globe-winner. You don’t read anymore; you just meet.” And everything in me wanted to say yes. I knew all the lines by heart, but I’m listening to the William Morris Agency in my ear and so I said, “Ron, if you haven’t seen Anna, I will send it by messenger within the hour. And after you watch it if you still want me to read, I will.” And he said, “Well, Sally, I’ve got to go to New York tomorrow.” I just was stupid. He went to New York and cast Dianne Wiest because she read (and, of course, she’s brilliant).
So ten years later when it came time for EdTV where I was going to play Matthew McConnaghey’s mother, I said to Ron, “How much time do I have with you?” And he said, “Forty-five minutes.” And I used every single minute of that, and he directed me, and I got the part. And all I did was read, and read, and read, and read, and improvise, and read. And so, that was a huge lesson for me. And from that point on, I read for everything, whether I get it or not. It’s nice when people offer you jobs and you don’t have to read, but if someone wants to read me, I’ll do it just because I want them to come to know my work, and my ability to take direction and all that.
I tell young actors, treat auditions like they are experiences. Like you are having one more experience with your acting instrument. And maybe you’re not going to get this role but somebody in the room may see you and think of you for the next thing.
PT: You sound so vibrant. Everybody has ups and downs. What drives you?
SK: I’m a Scorpio. (She laughs.)
PT: (Stephanie) Wayne is, too. Your symbol is to the Phoenix, the mythological bird.
SK: We’re supposed to rise from the ashes. I have a radio show called Healthylife.net. Among other things, I love to hear about astrology. I keep reinventing myself; I keep dying in order to be reborn. Rising from the ashes.
PT: You are involved in so very many things outside of acting and the spiritual side of yourself. What are your other passions?
SK: I am a complete movie fan – I see at least four or five, sometimes six movies a week. I am a member of Cinefamily. They show European films and cult films. I also am a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences which screens films every weekend.
I also am a painter.
PT: I’d love to ask you about your art. You spent some time doing some very dark pieces I know your mom wasn’t very fond of.
SK: (laughs) Yes, she used to come in and say, “All of your people are bleeding.” (laughs). Instead of painting outlines in black, I did it in red and it would drip. It looked like all these women were lying there bleeding. She found all my paintings depressing. That was only one side of her; she really encouraged the artist in me. She was proud that I was a painter. She showed some of my drawings to Christian Dior and he wrote a note to me saying, “Never give up. You’re gifted.” I’ve had about four art shows and I have sold paintings. It’s all wonderful. I’m not doing it now for some reason, but I will get back to it. You can see my art on http://www.SallyKirkland.com.
PT: We know that you very spiritual.
SK: Yes. I meditate every day. I do service. I have been a caretaker for cancer patients and AIDS patients and heart patients and other homebound individuals with terminal illnesses. Many times I’m there with the person in the capacity of a minister when they are in need of spiritual support. (Many times I have been there when people have transitioned.) I am an ordained minister with the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA) www.msia.org.
So when you have a spiritual life, it’s all consuming. The way I see it, if you get rejected in some way in the entertainment industry, then you just immediately turn around and do another service project and get out of your ego and get into helping people.
PT: What made you become a minister?
SK: Long story. I started off in a church school. I always had this relationship with Christ. When I was twenty-something a number of things disillusioned me and I lost my faith. I became an atheist. When I was 22 or 23…the short version is that I tried to kill myself. I was pronounced dead and had a life-after-life experience.
When I came back into my body, I did not have the same consciousness. I had had an experience with Christ on the other side. So from that point on, I consciously didn’t want it to be about my ego; I wanted it to be about, “How can I do whatever I do in my life in order to help people?”
And then a few years later I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. I became a student of Swami Satchidananda and the Integral Yoga Institute. I was trained as a yogi and taught three classes of yoga a day. I taught yoga and acting for 35 years. I remember at one point I was teaching Elia Kazan and his wife Barbara Loden; Dick Benjamin and his wife Paula Prentiss, Robert DeNiro and Raul Julia. (They would all come to my yoga class.) In the sixties, I taught Merv Griffin and David Susskind yoga; in the 90’s, Oprah.
I had come to LA to do the part of Pony Dunbar in The Way We Were and I liked it in LA. I remember was going to the Sathya Sai Baba Center and teaching yoga. I learned about the Christ consciousness there and the Bhagavad Gita and reincarnation combined.– I liked that concept a lot. I liked the idea of reincarnation
Then through Sathya Sai Baba I met John-Roger who became my teacher for forty years. He only recently passed over a year ago. He was the closest thing to Christ that I ever thought I could meet. So I studied with him all those years and tried to put into practice everything I learned. His teachings are about Soul Transcendence. Some of the things he said really blew my mind like when he said “no soul is lost.” I thought, well, I’m home. I’d been brought up in a high Episcopalian Catholic upbringing with the concept of Heaven and Hell.
I began to realize that I loved everybody. And that even if somebody was becoming really angry at me or doing really stupid things, I would see the angel in them. I wouldn’t see all that other stuff. That didn’t mean that I would have to hang out with people who were negative, I could just go where the love is. I love that John-Roger convinced me that this could be my last lifetime. I could complete all my lessons in this lifetime and then go home to God. If I did come back in another body, it could be by choice to help people; not because I didn’t learn the lessons.
PT: How long did you cross over?
SK: It was probably just a matter of minutes, but I was in a coma for a couple of weeks. They told my parents that my brain was a vegetable and they should pray for me to stop breathing. I did stop breathing and my heart did stop for a period of time. I was put on a machine. It’s such a long story…
That was a time when I was going through my disillusionment with God. Before I took the sleeping pills, I said to Christ, “If you exist, I need a miracle. I need to know you exist. And if you don’t, I need my dignity. I want to get out. I can’t handle this human pain.” I was literally on the ledge of a 13th story building ready to jump (having taken 100 sleeping pills)
When I was awake, even with a tracheotomy, I was very aware that the miracle I had prayed for had come true. That all these doctors were saying that they never saw anyone live through what I had lived through!
Nothing like that will ever happen again. (I don’t want to go back 2000 lifetimes.) Because when I was on the other side I experienced the ecstasy and the bliss of the other side and I remember Christ saying to me, “You can stay here or you can go back and tell your friends about it.” So that was profound. So I guess I came back to tell you about it.
PT: What an incredible story! We know that you also are a writer.
SK: I used to be a poet but I haven’t been doing that recently either. I used to always write poetry. Bob Dylan is a huge force in my life and I used to send him poems. We knew each other well; I used to see a lot of what I said reflected in his new songs (that may have been my imagination, but “Sally” showed up in a lot of songs). So I like to think that we were each other’s muse for a while.
SK: We both respected the artist in each other. I did date him for a while and I learned to be a workaholic from him. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing, but I’ve never seen anyone do what he does; he goes to a different city every day and performs. He taught me to keep working no matter what. I’ve been acting now for 56 years.
We both are the same age. I met him when I was 21 then got to know him in the 70s. I came to California because Bob Dylan came to California around ’72 or ‘73. That’s how profound an effect he had on me. So, you know his songs were very important to me in terms of social activism and humanity. I wrote poetry – I would send my poetry to him all the time. .
PT: Ok, time for a really tough one. Tell us about your first kiss.
SK: My first kiss was Ted Koppel. I went to Ivy League schools and I dated Ivy League boys but somehow I met Ted who was from the opposite side of the tracks. He invited me to the McBurney School prom and that night I got my first kiss. He was madly in love with me. I remember when I was on all the talk shows and I would drop that piece of trivia and on his show one night, his co-host or anchor said to him, “Is this true what this actress, Sally Kirkland is saying about you?” and he said, “Yeah.”
SK: I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up (this was when we were both teenagers) and he said, “President of the United States.” And I said, “Well, that’s great.” And he said, “I never will be because I’m a German Jew.” And I said, “But this is America. You know, where anything can happen.” So I wasn’t surprised that he did so well because he was graduating when he was 15 or 16.
PT: What haven’t you done – that you’d like to do?
SK: Probably I’d like to direct a small film that would be a character study…and cast it. I’d like to write “the book.” I’d like to do the role that’s going to get me the Oscar.
PT: There is no way to do this interview justice. You’ve done so much and there’s so much left to explore. Sally, you really are an amazing individual!
SK: Well, I thank you so much for your time and your interest. Now I have to do something I really enjoy – go watch the Dodgers!