Talking with Susan Sullivan About ‘Steel Magnolias’ at the Bucks County Playhouse

There are few actresses more familiar, or more beloved, than Susan Sullivan. For four decades she’s been a regular, dependable presence on television, most notably in eight seasons as kindhearted Maggie on Falcon Crest and five seasons as Greg’s snobbish mother, Kitty, on Dharma and Greg. Since 2009, she’s been playing the title character’s mother on Castle, earning a new generation of fans. And between her regular series roles she’s turned up in movies like My Best Friend’s Wedding, Off-Broadway plays like A.R. Gurney’s Buffalo Gal, and episodes of everything from Two and a Half Men to The Love Boat.

Susan Sullivan. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

Susan Sullivan. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

Now she’s back onstage in Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s ever-popular tale of female bonding in a small Louisiana town, at Bucks County Playhouse. And she’s surrounded by other familiar faces like Patricia Richardson and Jessica Walter, and directed by Oscar winner Marsha Mason.

It’s an exciting project for Sullivan, but at the same time she’s had to deal with the end of Castle. ABC cancelled the show after eight seasons, and the news came out just as rehearsals on Steel Magnolias were starting.

I spoke to Susan on the phone from New Hope this week, just as Steel Magnolias was about to begin previews.

Tim: How do you like the California weather in New Hope these past few days?

Is it always like this? It is [like California], except it’s humid, which is more like New York weather, for God’s sake!

What has the rehearsal schedule for Steel Magnolias been like?

Basically, two weeks of rehearsal in New York, and then we came here, and it’s a lot of tech stuff from Tuesday to Friday. So it’s about maybe two and a half weeks, which is, I guess, pretty much a summer stock schedule.

But when I was really young and first starting out and doing plays in the Borscht Circuit – I don’t know if that even exists anymore – it was one week. I don’t know how you did it. You learned a play, you did a play, and then you learned another play while you were doing that play. It was like forced education.

I can’t imagine what learning an entire play in a week would be like.

Well, it’s a muscle. And it’s interesting because you can keep it going if you work it. Once you let it go, boink, gone!

Have you been doing a lot of theatre on the west coast?

You know, I have. And while I was doing Castle a couple of years ago, I did A Delicate Balance. I played the part of Agnes, which is one of those long, detailed things to remember. And I was able to do it and hold on to it, and it was a pleasure to memorize those lines. I think that’s the secret. And in this play, there’s a delight in certain sections of the play that I enjoy going over just on my own in the shower!

What’s it been like working with your director, Marsha Mason? I know she acted in the play on Broadway.

She is a wonderful director. I’ve had a lot of directors in my time, and she is excellent. I think her real gift is, number one, she’s an actor, so she understands the process; and number two, she is kind and she really appreciates actors and everybody’s different way of working. She just gets it. And she’s smart, so she knows how to give you a note and she knows when to give you a note. That’s very important. Because there are certain times when you just can’t absorb it, and [she knows] not to give the actors a note then because it’s just going to throw them. So she has finesse.

Your character, Clairee, is a more serious character than I had remembered. I had remembered her as a comic character, but when you look at the play she’s actually dealing with something serious in her life – her husband, the town mayor, has just died.

Yes, and there’s a real sense of her arc in the play, and her becoming her own person after having been so deeply enmeshed with her husband, which happens to people, God knows.

And she buys a radio station and becomes a broadcaster.

Yes, and it’s based on someone who actually did all of this and became a big mogul in that area. She discovered that she was a businesswoman of major talent. So it’s nice to have that underpinning in my own mind.

The Bucks County Playhouse is one of our leading regional theatres. You worked in regional theatre at the Cleveland Play House. What was that experience like? Was it similar to your experience in the Borscht Belt, where you were doing a bunch of plays quickly?

No, it was a much more professional environment. It was a perfect way to start my career. And my father, thank the Lord – or somebody – pushed me after two years to leave. He thought I was very tempted to just stay there and be a regional theatre actress, which would be fine, but I think I’ve had an infinitely more interesting life and career because of having the courage – and that’s what it takes – to go to New York after a couple of years. But that was probably where I really learned my craft, because there were excellent actors there, I learned from them, we went on the road – it was a very full, rich way to start. It was a blessing.

They’re famous for their acting company – I know Joel Grey started there.

A lot of very good people. In fact, David Selby, who I was on Falcon Crest with, was there.

And from Cleveland you went to New York?

Yes, because my father told me to – it was probably the only time I listened to him! I was still connected to regional theater – I did the Hartford Stage Company, I did something else. And then the first big job I got, which was pretty quickly, was Jimmy Shine with Dustin Hoffman. Really put me on an interesting journey.

That was his first Broadway show after he became a big star in The Graduate. What was it like working with him?

Well he’s a consummate actor. He’s an actor’s actor. He had a very professional way of working and thinking. So when you’re working with people like that, it grounds you in understanding what it is the direction that you want to take your life. So that was a pretty important little step in my growth.

This has been a sad time for us Castle fans, because the show just aired its final episode last week. What do you feel about the way the show ended? It’s sad that it’s over, but eight years is a good run.

Well, I had predicted it would run eight years. So in some little kind of narcissistic part of my brain, I think, “Yep, I was right!” We all love to be right.

You know, it was kind of a strange dynamic – they put it out into the press and the world that they were not going to renew [Stana Katic’s] contract, which made the fan base of that show so upset. Because the fans renamed the show “Caskett” for Castle and Beckett. They put that name together, because that’s how that romance…

People were very invested in it.

Yes, exactly. And that’s the right word. They were deeply invested.

I went on Twitter the last season of the show, which has just been so much fun for me. I’m now tweeting each day something about the process of doing this play at Bucks County. It’s been fun, because for me, the Twitter thing is a connection to what’s going on in my life. So as I got onto Twitter I realized that these fans were so… it was more than just being hurt, it was like they were devastated by the possibility that [the producers] would kill her and just go on with him. “How could he possibly live and function without her?” I thought, “Oh my goodness, help! Let me out of here!” [Laughs]

Anyway, so that’s the end of that. And sometimes you just have to be pushed out of the net. So I think this is certainly a good push for the younger actors in the show to try to create other things in their career and their life, and for me, at this juncture of my life and career, to possibly create other things. And look, I’m creating something!

Tell me about playing Martha on Castle. She was a wonderfully theatrical, larger-than-life character. What was your inspiration for playing her?

My mom died in the middle of the run, and when I was doing the pilot in New York, my mother was with me in my New York apartment.  And I found a lot of my mother in that character. In fact, I even used a quote of hers when she became the self-help person because she was always giving people advice – “unsolicited, by the way.” So a lot of it came from her. And then, of course, I realized, “Who am I kidding – this is me!” I am my mother – my mother, myself.

So it was a marriage of various elements in my own personality – that kind of solid, wise woman, and then the flibbertigibbety woman, and the narcissistic woman, and then the woman who loves deeply. and then the woman who only thinks of herself. Because we are a series of, as you very well know, Tim, contradictions.

You worked with one of my favorite actors, James Garner – you were Poker Alice to his Bret Maverick in the 1978 TV movie, The New Maverick. What he was like to work with? Was he the sort of person who had a definite process, like Dustin Hoffman, or did he have a different approach?

Well, most good actors have their own process. I think James Garner, because he got so into the world of television, he was using himself – his own quirkiness, his own rhythms, his own wonderful comedic kind of deadpan straightforward delivery. And he was a lovely guy. He was a lovely man.

And that was fun. The thing that I remember from that is [Juanita Bartlett, who] wrote the script, was a rather famous, now deceased woman who was a producer/writer kind of person. And I said one of her lines incorrectly, whatever it was – and she never forgave me! I only knew this through the grapevine! And I thought, boy, you’ve got to really be careful with people’s words. Because – you’re a writer, so you’d know – they’re well-thought out in a good piece of material. So you can’t be just willy-nilly paraphrasing them.

So many of the shows you’ve done over the years still air in reruns. Antenna TV just reran one of your Johnny Carson appearances from the 1980s. What were your appearances on The Tonight Show like? Was it nerve-wracking?

Oh, it was completely nerve-wracking. I was a wreck. In fact, I was asked to do it a number of times that I turned down just because it was so completely depleting of my focus and energy. I’m no longer that way on talk shows or interviews, but I was then. And there was something about that show – it was such an iconic show, and he was such a powerhouse, and he was a little bit unpredictable emotionally. If things were going well, it was fun and easy. If things were not going well on the show – or maybe in his personal life, I don’t know – he was tapping his pencil and he was nervous and [his attitude was] “you better be amusing, darling, or get the hell out of here!”

The cast of 'Steel Magnolias': Patricia Richardson, Jessica Walter, director Marsha Mason, Clea Alsip, Elaine Hendrix, Lucy DeVito, Susan Sullivan. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

The cast of ‘Steel Magnolias’: Patricia Richardson, Jessica Walter, director Marsha Mason, Clea Alsip, Elaine Hendrix, Lucy DeVito, Susan Sullivan. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

I just saw one of your old Match Game episodes on the Buzzer Game Show Channel. Was that show as easy to do as it seemed?

Oh, yeah. Those were very free-form, and I like talking, as you can tell, Tim! I like talking, and I could talk off the top of my head pretty easily. If I’m intimidated I say the worst and the most stupid things, but I think that’s true of everybody. But Match Game did not intimidate me.

You told me earlier that The $20,000 Pyramid was a tough game show to do.

That intimidated me, because I didn’t know the answers and I was a little overwhelmed. I wasn’t even listening to the questions! I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience when you’re sitting there and you don’t even hear what’s being said! So you take a deep breath and pull yourself together – but at that point, I couldn’t do it.

Well, I hope you’ve taken a deep breath and pulled yourself together for Steel Magnolias!

Thank you! In fact, I’ll do that right now!

Steel Magnolias plays through June 18, 2016 at the Bucks County Playhouse – 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 862-2121, or purchase them online.

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