Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with stage and screen actress PATRICIA KALEMBER
Appearing in What the Butler Saw at the Westport Country Playhouse
Patricia Kalember is a veteran stage and screen actress. She has starred in the acclaimed television series Sisters and has had recurring roles on Thirtysomething, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Blue Bloods. Her film credits include Jacob’s Ladder, Signs, The Company Men, Limitless, and many more. She currently is appearing in What the Butler Saw at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Patricia is a trooper. Connecticut being infamous for crazy weather and for power outages (among other things), forced her to drive her car to where there was service just so she could chat with Pillow Talking. We are so happy she did!
PT: We are so happy to have the opportunity to speak with you. Thank you for granting us this interview!
PK: Of course, you’re welcome! I just hope you can hear me okay. Sorry about this, somebody ran into a utility pole on Valley Forge and I have no power which means no landline.
PT: Oh geez! (Wayne) Well, I know you were raised in Westport. We live in Connecticut, too, even though I’m from New York. We’ve had some power mishaps because of the storms last week so we fully understand.
PK: Yeah, so sorry. So I’m sitting in the parking lot of Peter’s Weston Market (laughs).
PT: We’ve actually had to leave our neighborhood and go sit as you’re doing in parking lots!
PK: Yes, and I don’t know if you have well water but no electricity is one thing but no water is, not okay!
PT: For sure. Well, as you must know we work with a lot of theatres and not only review their shows but also interview people like yourself, so it’s really a lot of fun for us.
PK: Good, so you’re going to come see us next week or the week after?
PT: Yes. Westport has been doing such great work. We interviewed Michael Urie and saw him in Buyer & Seller and then we saw and interviewed Eric Bryant and Rajesh Bose from The Invisible Hand, which was simply awesome.
PK: Yeah I thought The Invisible Hand was really good too.
So let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
PK: I was born in Schenectady (New York) but my dad worked for GE so we moved around a lot. We bopped from Schenectady to Detroit to Louisville to Westport for a few years and then back to Louisville so I was mostly raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Then I went to Indiana University and got a BA in Theatre and then moved to Philadelphia and did the MFA program at Temple University in the acting program and then I started working in regional theatre. I did Cyrano de Bergerac with F. Murray Abraham down in Baltimore then did The Front Page with Terry O’Quinn and then moved to New York and have since just been doing what I can (laughs).
PT: When did you know that theatre was for you – or rather that acting was for you?
PK: You know I think I always wanted to but I was accepted to Vanderbilt University because I had this sad view that I was going to do pre-law. It got to be my senior year and they were doing Guys and Dolls; I finally got up enough courage to audition and I ended up doing Miss Adelaide in a bad blonde wig and that was it. So I didn’t go to Vanderbilt. At the last minute I was able to apply to Indiana University because a friend of mine told me the theatre department was great and it was – and that was it for me.
PT: (Stephanie looks knowingly at Wayne who says) Well I can tell you as a media attorney you made the right choice. I always say, “Nothing will kill a deal faster than a lawyer.”
PK: Right, right!
PT: (Stephanie) And he always tells people how he sort of fell into law school but his passions have always been creative which is why things come around to where they’re supposed to be.
PK: Interesting. Yeah it’s a very interesting thing. My kids – I have three – they’re all creative. Even our oldest son who is getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Indiana University – he does research, so even though he’s in the sciences he’s got that artistic bent. And then our oldest daughter is in Chicago – she’s writing and works in fashion. Our youngest one is a musician at NYU.
PT: (Wayne) Oh wow, I went to NYU, that’s cool.
PK: Did you go to Stern?
PT: (Wayne) No, I didn’t go to the business school, I actually went to get my Masters in Law, believe it or not; but when I graduated, I worked extensively with the Tish School. We used many interns.
PK: He’s in the Gallatin Program [individualized study] and like a lot of his friends who are at the Clive Davis school of music, he really wanted to get an education which I admire him for.
PT: Well NYU is a great school so you don’t have to worry about that, he’ll have a great education.
PK: All right, well, two more years, two more years.
PT: Well we know your filmography and that you’ve done a lot of film and television. What’s the difference that you find between theatre and film and TV? Do you find you gravitate more to one or the other?
PK: No, you know what, it’s really interesting because my husband and I have had this discussion because he’s English and he does a lot of theatre and struggled about 15 years ago with the idea that acting for the camera was different. I’d say to him, “Honey, acting is acting is acting.” It’s not about the reality [of the situation], you’re just there telling the truth. It’s just that when you’re on stage, A: you get to control your performance which is huge for an actor and B: you have to push it out to about 300 people, so there just are certain techniques. But you’re still telling the truth – it’s just your venue is a lot smaller when you’re doing film.
PT: Right. And that brings us to the question that a lot of people are interested in – process. We have a lot of actors and musicians and writers in our readership, a lot of creative people, and they always want to know if you’re a method actor or how do you approach a role. Do you have a process and if so, what is it?
PK: Yeah, I do – actually I have more of a philosophy. I want to print out T-shirts saying, “Actors ’R’ Us and we justify anything,” because I think that my job as an actress is to take the material and feel it out, which means figuring out who this person is. Like when I hear an actor say, “Oh my character would never do that,” I want to take them by the shoulders and shake them because human beings are crazy and deep and unpredictable and if you can’t find that, you’re cutting off something that you might actually be able to explore. So I find it tends to all slot in a bit eventually. You go with as many avenues as you can and if the playwright has done their job like Joe Orton, Lord knows he has, you get it, you find out, you figure out what it is as you work your way through it. Then it takes four weeks to put it together as a piece and present it to an audience – that’s why we need four weeks of rehearsal. It’s interesting because in film you don’t need rehearsal because they basically capture what happens in a rehearsal room in the moment on camera. The reason why you need so much time in theatre is you’ve got to be able to recreate that effortlessly in front of an audience, you don’t have a camera to just throw it out there for you.
PT: (Wayne) I think Stephanie had asked you this, do you have a preference today in terms of theatre or film or TV?
PK: No, I really do like doing it all, and TV these days is not what network TV was when I started which was really – remember those days when it was basically filler for commercials? But there was a lot of great stuff out there. I was lucky to be on some good shows.
PT: (Stephanie) Oh yeah, Thirtysomething was one of my favorite shows ever. Thirtysomething was very similar to a lot of the shows today – it was such a great ensemble cast and really just got deeply into the stories of all of the people. It wasn’t a fluff show, you know. I can see people binge watching that one because there was just always something really great happening in every episode it was great.
PK: Thirtysomething was such a well-written show. I felt really lucky (back then) because I actually felt like I had the quality that people are getting now on Netflix and HBO and the lines between film and TV are also dissolving which I think is great. They were very smart because they would actually hire amazing writers and they would let them have their take on the show for the episode, they really rarely rewrote the work of their writers.
PK: Oh thank you, well it was different, it had a different feel to it. Dan Lipman and Ron Cowen had their own particular voice. It was a quirky show, we had a lot of fun though, I adore the girls – I’m still friends with all of them. We see each other every once and a while and commiserate about how hard the business is.
PT: (Stephanie) Not like the Desperate Housewives stories that you hear all the time on the rag magazines in the grocery store!
PK: Yeah, it’s really upsetting actually and I am avowed feminist – I don’t think it’s a dirty word – and I really am upset that when it’s like, “Oh there’s a bunch of women on the set they must be pitted against each other.” It’s so not true and it’s not the case. I think it’s when it’s controlled by men and you [intentiaonally] pit women against each other that kind of nonsense happens but not if everybody’s working towards the same goal.
PT: Well I guess that’s the key – of course it doesn’t work when there’s someone who isn’t [working toward the same goal], which can happen I suppose.
PK: Yeah, well that’s fear, that’s just fear and if there were enough people to get together and go, “Oh calm down its okay, it works out.”
PT: (Stephanie) It’s kind of like the conversations I have with my daughters – one just turned 17 yesterday and one’s 19, almost 20 – and I think of the catty stuff that happens with girls. When we get to be mature women we’re supposed to let that stuff go and it doesn’t always happen!
PK: It really is unbelievable. Yeah, I don’t know, I think you’re either a good egg and a good person or for whatever reason, you’re not kind to people and I don’t have a lot of time in my late-middle age for unkind people of either sex.
PT: (Stephanie) Exactly. (Wayne) Right, right. You brought up when you get together you talk about how hard the business is, how have you seen the business evolve over the years from your days on Sisters and Thirtysomething? I know you talked a little bit about Netflix and network TV but the business in general, how do you see that it has evolved?
PK: Well I tell you what’s interesting, what has happened to the rest of the economy really hit our business in much the same way – so you’ve got people making 25 million, like I did a movie with Liam Neeson and Ed Harris and I was pay scale and they got paid 20 million for it. It’s just how it goes. Chris Rock made a joke about it, he’s was talking in an interview and he said, “Whenever a film says to me, ‘We don’t have the money,’ really what they’re saying is, ‘We don’t have the money for you.’ ”
PK: That just made me laugh so hard because it’s so true. It’s been a bit of a problem and I think it’s going to take directors and producers and maybe some stars to get together and say, “I would like a pay scale on this project.” You can’t have that much difference between the lowest paid person on the show and the highest paid person on the show. I don’t know if anybody would ever do that but wouldn’t that be interesting.
PT: It would be. I forget who we were talking to, but they’d said that the days where you sold millions of records are gone because of the downloads and whatnot so that now you have the Taylor Swifts who make 30 million a pop – and is the highest paid person at 110 million a year –and then you have everyone else at the bottom. There’s no middle road and I think that’s across the industry not just with acting but with music and all entertainment
PK: It’s the American economy right now. It’s very interesting. Actors like myself used to be able to be “middle-class actors” – you’d get a couple jobs for the year. I’m not complaining. I’m so lucky, so fortunate to be able to make a living doing this for as many years as I have, but I know a lot of my friends are taking pensions early because there’s just a level where it has become just a hobby instead of your business.
PT: Right, right. We’re actually working on the memoirs of Sally Kirkland and Sally is still working, she’s amazing, she’s still out there auditioning and getting jobs.
PK: God bless her.
PT: (Stephanie) Yeah she’s a pistol. She’s had a very interesting, exciting life.
PK: Well Paxton Whitehead is in his seventies and when you see the show [What the Butler Saw] you’re going to be in awe because he’s got a ridiculous amount of lines that he learned and he’s hysterical. I think actors like that and Sally are like role models, it’s what you want to become.
PT: So I’m glad you brought up What the Butler Saw, so what attracted you about the play?
PK: I’ve worked with Joey Tillinger before and I had never done Joe Orton. I’d done farce before but I’d never done Joe Orton and honestly I saw a production of What the Butler Saw at Indiana University done by students and just didn’t get it. I thought it was just crazy and to see it unfold and done with people the proper age and the proper culture, it’s an amazing piece. It’s really out there – he really was intent on blowing up as much as he possibly could about English society, which if you were raised in English society you’d understand why he’d want to do it. There’s just a duality to their culture that he really didn’t have a lot of patience for so he uncovers the id and it’s terribly funny and terribly disturbing; so every day I have a new appreciation for his dialogue and what he’s done.
PT: We’ve read a little bit about it which makes it sound like this really campy, over-the-top piece –which compared to at least the last show Westport did [The Invisible Hand], they’re taking things in a completely different direction and it sounds like such a fun one.
PK: Sure, no it is but I have to tell you, if you do it campy it dies. We’re doing it for real and I think it’s infinitely funnier that way. There’s nothing worse than seeing farce when someone thinks it’s funny or they’re doing comic acting you just want to kill them.
PT: So I guess the description of it is a bit different than how it appears on the stage because it sounds like it is crazy, funny, over-the-top – but it’s done very straight is that what you’re saying?
PK: Exactly. Some of the stuff in it is completely absurd but yeah, it hit me, too, when we’re in the third week of rehearsal and we’re getting ready to go into tech – so I’m reminding myself as I say that to you that, We’re not doing a comedy, we’re not doing a comedy. Hopefully it’ll be funny when you see it though.
PT: So you’re coming up to the tech rehearsal and the show opens next week. You’ve kind of answered this already but what do you hope that audiences will take away from the play?
PK: I hope they’ll find it incredibly funny but also go home and think about it afterwards because he really is tweaking the psychiatric community, also. I mean he wrote it during the time R.D. Laing was writing about schizophrenia – that madness is to be exploited and schizophrenics have their own reality who are we to say they’re mad? It’s that kind of exploration of what’s mad and what’s not because society says you’re mad doesn’t necessarily mean you are.
PT: Right. (Stephanie) I gravitate very much toward psychological pieces. I have my masters in psychology so usually when I review, obviously as well as when I’m just watching shows in general, I really look for that human element or the relationship elements and I’m always very intrigued when playwrights and other writers include psychological aspects. That’s really cool to know.
PK: And I also think some writers are instinctual. Like I really think Joe Orton is painted as more representational. Like if you asked Basquiat what he was painting, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you and I kind of feel Joe Orton’s the same way. He really was channeling something very specific and he left it up to the rest of us to figure out what it was.
PT: Very cool. Now you said your husband is English, what kind of take do you think he’ll have on it?
PK: Oh he’s so funny, I’m surprised he hasn’t done this show before, so we’ll see. Half the cast is English actually. Paxton’s British, Sarah Manton is English, so we have good role models.
PT: Well we’re certainly looking forward to it.
PK: I know, I hope you like it.
PT: Well we only have a couple more questions and we’ll let you go – we’re sure you want to get back home! What advice would you give young people coming into the business?
PK: Hmm, I would actually advise them to – if they have an inclination to write, write. If they have an inclination to form their own theater company, to do it. To not depend on just working as an actor. I think especially for young people it’s more important than ever to either create your own work or find a group of people that you relate to and do your own art.
PT: Yes, and it’s something that we’ve heard a lot, and again I think it goes back to the whole evisceration of the middle class, that you have to be a generalist and do many things.
PK: The millennials, they’re the entrepreneurial generation, I’m the only one that’s going to be able to do this. They’re not going to work for GE for 40 years like my father did or stay with Rubbermaid for 50 and get a watch at the end. They know it’s fluid and I think they’re the ones going out there and doing their own thing.
PT: One of the last questions, what do you think of the impact of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, for actors and performers and musicians has been?
PK: Well I’ll tell you what’s interesting about it, it has created celebrities. Like I do know casting people who want to find a show for the latest YouTube sensation. And entrepreneurs who’ve made their own movies – they’ve put them out on YouTube themselves because the studios aren’t really creating anymore. They’re picking up on what everybody else is doing. So I think it’s a method to fuel that platform. I’m not a big Twitter person. I love Facebook. I’m happy to see Instagram but for some reason Twitter, maybe it’s all the trolls I don’t know, I don’t get that one.
I’m doing a recurring [role] on Power which is a Starz series which 50 Cent and Courtney Kemp [Agboh] are producing. You probably saw the article in The New York Times with Joe and Lucy Walters. I’m playing his Long Island crack mother on his show and I keep thinking I probably should tweet about it but 50 tweets too much and they’ve all got theirs so I’m letting them do it. I think I’ll just be the old-fashioned actor and do pretend cocaine and do my thing.
PT: (Wayne) I commute to New York City and I see the billboards for the show everywhere.
PK: Yeah. Number one for black audiences, and it’s really interesting that it’s taken three seasons for The New York Times to pick it up. We will sit at read-throughs and they’ll talk about why this isn’t this getting the Golden Globe and a lot of it has to do with the fact that not enough white people are watching it.
PT: (Wayne) Yeah but I think it will. I mean it’s got a great rating, I think it’s above 70% on Rotten Tomatoes.
PK: Yeah exactly. I think eventually it will and this season was really great. They had some great stories on this season. Okay, so now, so you asked me before about film and theatre, and there’s the last episode that I was in where he kills Lucy there was all kinds of stuff between her and me and competition with her that they ended up cutting out because it wasn’t furthering the story. If I was doing a play for the audience, they wouldn’t be shown what it is they’re supposed to feel and that’s a huge, huge difference.
PT: Right, it is. Except that some marketer millennial will say, “Let’s put it on a DVD and sell it exclusively to Target.” (laughs)
PK: (Laughs) With the outtakes, sure.
PT: This has been a great interview. We’re really looking forward next week to seeing the play, too. We have a signature last question if you don’t mind. If you were to sum up your life to date in one word what would it be?
PK: Oh, man. Okay. My life in one word? My whole life?
PT: Great. Do you want to elaborate?
PK: Generosity – the gifts that the world has given me are huge, huge, and also as a motto to live your life. Generosity and kindness but yes, I feel the world has been very, very generous with me.
PT: Excellent, excellent! Well we can’t wait to see you in Westport. Incidentally, what was it like going back home?
PK: There’s no commute and the theatre’s beautiful. I love that theatre, it’s just fabulous.
PT: It is, we love it, too.
PK: I look forward to seeing you next week and thank you for the interview.
PT: Oh thank you, Patricia! Hope your lights come on soon!
PK: Oh yeah right, I’m going to go home and see, I’ve got my daughter’s dogs too, they’re crazy!