Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are proud to present:
SALLY KIRKLAND — In Her Own Words – On Acting and Actors
(Part I of a 2 part Interview)
When we asked screen and stage icon, poet, painter, professional yoga teacher, and ordained minister Sally Kirkland what word best described her, she told us courage – the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain…without fear. (Dictionary.com) Courage from the French “coeur” meaning heart. After speaking with Ms. Kirkland for well over ninety minutes, we cannot think of a better summation for this incredibly dynamic actor and activist; this woman whose spirituality and compassion runs through every fiber of her being. A woman whose heart she professes is filled with love for all of humanity.
Ms. Kirkland is an Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit award-winning veteran of over 150 films. The first actress to appear nude in a stage play, she was in the 1968 Off-Broadway premiere of Sweet Eros by Terrence McNally. She trained and taught with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. She worked with such famous leading men as Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Kevin Costner. Her first real kiss came in her teen years from a young teen named Ted Koppel and she exchanged poetry with her chum and once lover, Bob Dylan. In everything she does, she is nothing if not bold, authentic, intense, and passionate.
We enjoyed every moment of our conversation which you can read below:
PT: It would appear obvious that when you first were starting out your path may have been different than others at that time and of others since. I also know that you had a very famous mother who worked at Vogue and LIFE Magazine. Was there something in particular about the business that drew you to acting? What intrigued you?
SK: It’s actually a very simple answer: My mother, her name was Sally Kirkland and mine was Sally Kirkland Jr. I didn’t have any identity because she was so famous in New York that initially I was going to be a fashion designer because I was an artist; but then that was too close to her business so I decided to become an actor where I had a shot at having a separate identity.
My father didn’t want me to be an actor. He came from Main Line Philadelphia society and it was completely looked down upon.
PT: And you found a mentor in Shelley Winters.
SK: When I was 18 she found me; I found her, and she got me into the Actors Studio and a few years later I got Bobby De Niro involved with the Actors Studio and we all hung out together. Then Shelley wrote a play for Bobby and me called One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger and Diane Ladd was also in it. And I would teach her all of her lines (Winters) and she would introduce me to the world.
PT: So she showed you something beyond what you’d experienced accompanying your mother to Vogue.
SK: I met through my mother people like Audrey Hepburn, Christian Dior, Andy Warhol, you name it. And I met through Shelley, all of the Hollywood producers, directors, and stars; so between the two of them I was very gifted, very honored, very BLESSED is the word, to meet just about everybody.
PT: Who made the most impression on you?
SK: I met people through my mother starting at the age of 10. Through Shelley it began at 18 and that continued until she died.
Lee Strasberg was my teacher for 20-odd years and I taught for him for 20 years. Like I said, Shelley Winters, Bobby De Niro – I knew Bobby before the world knew him, but I sure got to watch him become a star.
PT: What was Lee Strasberg like as a teacher?
SK: The most intense person that I’ve ever met. And if you weren’t coming from your truth, he would stop you immediately and have you start all over again. So you learned very quickly that method acting was truth. You couldn’t pretend or indicate something — it had to come from your heart and soul.
PT: That doesn’t work for everyone. That worked for you. What kind of person utilizes method acting and why doesn’t it work for everyone?
SK: I don’t know. I was looking up to Marlon Brando and James Dean in film, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Paige in theater. These were all people who were method actors.
PT: They all came out of the Studio.
SK: Yes; and at the time Elia Kazan was with Strasberg. There was Streetcar Named Desire and — what was the amazing performance that Brando did with Rod Steiger?
PT: Oh, On the Waterfront
SK: I mean all of that was – if someone wants to know what method acting is, just look at those films. It is just an extraordinary amount of truth, and sensory work, and emotional recall, and personalizations and “As if.” A lot of people just prefer to learn their lines and speak well and move well. Eventually you realize that you aren’t as touched by them emotionally because they’re not using their real truth.
Right now my favorite actor is Michael Fassbender and he calls himself a method actor. Just look at some of his films, Macbeth, 12 Years a Slave, Slow West, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Counselor, Shame, Prometheus. all the way back to Hunger. I fell deeply in love with him after watching his performance in Jane Eyre. In all of his performances…he is always completely and totally immersed in the character. I know that Pacino and De Niro tend to stay in character whether they are on stage or off for the duration, but not everybody does that. I don’t do that anymore. I prepare for the character totally 100% for as long as I can depending on the production schedule. At the end of the shoot, I try and come out of character immediately. I relax and become myself again.
PT: I have a funny story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman…
SK: I know that story!
PT: About Marathon Man?
PT: About how Dustin Hoffman for the dental scene went through hell and he stayed up all night and he was totally wiped out. And he walked in (a mess) and Olivier says, “Dusty, that’s why they call it acting!”
SK: Olivier was a genius. But there aren’t that many Oliviers in the world. And by the way, I am witness to the fact that he came to the Actors Studio in New York and he sat in the back of the room and he watched and listened to Strasberg.
PT: I’m sure Olivier was one of the few actors who would not talk about technique yet in a very rare interview when they were talking about him doing Lear and how he was able to get to this point where he did every night, he did say that he would imagine himself an animal caught in a trap, and the pain of not being able to move.
SK: Yes, as I mentioned before, in method talk, that’s called “As if.”
SK: We wanted to ask you about the younger and newer actors. How do you think method acting stands today? How it has evolved.
PT: Fassbender is 38; he didn’t happen overnight. He worked on stage for a long time. He works harder than anybody I know. He is often doing two films at the same time. Like when he was filming Steve Jobs he got so intense that he almost got sick – getting into the intensity of Steve Jobs. (I think he is going to win an Oscar this year.) Then with Twelve Years a Slave he passed out after the rape scene.
When De Niro was doing Bloody Mama with Shelley Winters he called me up one day and he said, “You always talk about fasting, how do I do it? I want to get into sensory work for being a heroin addict.” So he dropped 30 or 40 pounds and Shelley said when she saw him in the hole in the ground that he had stopped breathing because the character stopped breathing. And then when he did Raging Bull and he put on all of that weight and I ran into him at a party I was giving him, I went up to him and said, “Hi, my name is Sally Kirkland.” And he said, “Sally, it’s me, Bobby.” I didn’t recognize him because he had so totally transformed himself into Raging Bull, you know. So, these are the actors that I admire.
Of the younger ones, I’m drawing a blank on everyone’s name. But, the kid Eddie Redmayne I got to know a little bit. I told him, way early in the game, “You’re going to win the Oscar this year.” And he said, “You think so?” And I said, “No. I know. Because you put yourself in that character so totally. I suffer a lot from arthritis and osteoporosis and I know what it is to not be able to move an arm or a leg or what not. When you were doing that performance of Stephen Hawking it was completely and totally 100% committed to someone who was in that state.” And it was great to see that he did win.
PT: You talk about dramedy.
SK: Yes, Shelley Winters taught me that. The Actors Studio was pretty dramatic — straightforward drama. But Shelley was so much of a huge force in the Actors Studio and she was so funny eventually she explained to me that you don’t have to do exactly what Lee Strasberg says, you can be funny, too. I did a scene with Dustin Hoffman in his private class and it was something that Dustin’s roommate had written and it was completely hysterically funny, but we played it straight. We played it for drama. And Lee Strasberg was laughing and laughing and you never saw Lee Strasberg laugh. And that was my first memory of Lee approving of comedy and I was only 18 or something, but I ended up dating Dustin a little bit and he became my first teacher in comedy. He kept telling me when we were rehearsing, “Stop breaking up. Stop laughing at me. You’ve got to keep a straight face.” So from that point in my life I kept a poker face no matter what anyone was doing, and then it came out funny. And Shelley would say, and I’ve said this before, that “When the audience thinks they’re going to cry, make them laugh; and when they think they’re going to laugh, make them cry.”
PT: As someone who is very in touch with an emotional side of yourself. You seem to have such compassion and understanding for human nature in general. You’re so successful in bringing that humanity and realism to all of the roles you’ve played. Has that affected the choices you’ve made in terms of the projects you’ve been involved?
SK: Method acting is when you’re so human, when you’re not faking anything. When you’re completely raw. My role in Anna I was playing Czechoslovakian, which was a challenge, but I love playing people who aren’t me. She was an actress, very famous in her country and couldn’t get arrested in this country. She experienced an amazing amount of rejection. And somebody asked me “What did you use when you did Anna?” for which I got the Best Actress Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe, Independent Spirit award, yada, yada, yada. And I said, “I used the fact that Meryl Streep was doing all these roles that I thought I could do just as good.”
SK: And that was a completely truthful answer. Sometimes you don’t always get the breaks that other people get.
(End of Part 1)
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF THIS INCREDIBLE INTERVIEW WITH SALLY KIRKLAND – IN HER OWN WORDS – LIFE BEYOND ACTING
RELEASE DATE FOR PART 2: NOVEMBER 1, 2015.