Veteran actress Estelle Parsons is 81 and on the road with 'August: Osage County'

Misha Berson
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — There are at least two things you may not know about Estelle Parsons, the Oscar-honored actress who stars in the national tour of the Tony-honored Tracy Letts play, "August: Osage County."

First, Parsons never retired. She's just been loyal to her first love, the theater, and is working a lot lately on and Off Broadway.

Second, Parsons is a jock. An 81-year old jock.

"I work out," she says in her distinctive cackle, by phone from Portland, where "August: Osage County" was playing recently. (It comes to Seattle this week.)

"I swim or run and do weights every other day," Parsons notes matter-of-factly. "I do yoga too, or get on my bike. It's important at my age. If you don't work out for a week, it's amazing how quickly the body wants to shut down."

Parson's radiant good health and fitness are helping her tackle one of her most challenging roles, in a marathon family drama.

In "August: Osage County" she is Violet, a mother from hell with a drug habit. She torments her family mercilessly during the horrifyingly humorous (and humorously horrifying) three-hour play, which debuted at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. (After transferring to Broadway in 2007, the highly praised work earned Letts a Tony, a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Desk Award.)

Parsons was not in the original Broadway cast but took over from leading Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan, who won a Tony in the part.

"I came in as a replacement, so for a long time I just did Deanna," reveals Parsons. "But I've tried to explore and exploit every word of the text, because Tracy is a writer who chooses every word carefully. And I discover new, true things in the role all the time."

A mother of three (and a grandma), Parsons was a little thrown by Violet — a nastier gal than the genial oddballs Parsons often plays.

Born in Massachusetts, to Swedish immigrant parents, she started out as a stage performer, winning raves from New York critics in such shows as "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Seven Descents of Myrtle," by Tennessee Williams.

Adept at both drama and musicals, she's a four-time Tony nominee. But Parson is best-known for her standout movie portrayals — i.e., in "Bonnie and Clyde" (for which she won her Oscar) and "Rachel, Rachel," scripted by Seattle screenwriter Stewart Stern (it brought her another Oscar nomination). A 9-year stint on TV's "Roseanne" also raised her profile.

In the 1990s, Parsons was a board member of the Method-based Actors Studio, with Paul Newman, her director in "Rachel, Rachel."(She calls the late Newman "a wonderful friend, and an extraordinary human being").

But her approach to acting is more analytical than intuitive or autobiographical. At times, she's made the foul-mouthed, mean-spirited Violet "all villainous. But I discovered the play didn't sustain her to be nasty all the time. Like a of lot addicts, she's constantly reaching out and being rebuffed by everyone. That can make you angry."

After playing so many affable gals, the part "brings up my own darkness," she adds, "which is interesting because I was always taught to be a good little girl. My dark side has been carefully tamped down for 81 years!"

Does she have a theory as to why some people laugh heartily at Violet's shenanigans, while others cringe at them? "Not really. Audiences have their own dynamic. But you can't help wondering, 'Why did I get a laugh tonight on that line but a big silence another night?'

"Sometimes when I say I'm a drug addict, the audience hoots and hollers. Other times they're silent."

But it's that unpredictable live response that makes Parsons a theater junkie.

"Every night I think, 'Here I am, going out to do this big thing in this space with 1,700 people watching,'" she muses. "I can't believe you can spend your life doing this. But somehow, I have."

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