She’s an Essential Performer: The Interview with Piper Laurie

The first thing I think of when I think of Piper Laurie is ‘Movie Star’. This label is perhaps a bit inaccurate when considering her expansive body of work over seven decades, that stretches across nearly as many artistic mediums – acting in film, television, theater; sculpting, painting and now, with the release of her memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, writing. When it comes to contemporary acting, however, distinct flashes of Laurie’s style can be glimpsed, albeit fleetingly, in the performance styles of starlets such as Carey Mulligan and Michelle Williams — women who are striking, intellectual, maybe a bit bruised, maybe a bit tough – tremulous gamines with hearts of steel. Piper Laurie began doing that in the 1950s as a contract player working with stalwarts like Douglas Sirk, and continued refining this type into the1960s with her iconic turn as Sarah in The Hustler (1961).

Known largely now for its stinging treatment of pool shark culture and the cool, The Hustler shined a spotlight on the hunky king of that world, Fast Eddie Felson (played of course by a never-hotter Paul Newman). Upon closer inspection, there is such an edgy nastiness to the film that makes its purposeful nihilism still feel shocking. Shocking not because of the frank dissection of its characters’ narcissistic, deliberately hurtful behavior and desperation (though those are incredible moments), but instead for how shockingly tough, scrappy and new the punched-in-the-guts emotional impact feels every time Laurie appears on screen to temper the overall machismo with her patented brand of tough cookie feminine energy. There’s real danger in this film, a thrilling sense of risk-taking.

The Hustler still feels that way more than fifty years later. Fresh. Exciting. Deadly. The film works largely thanks to Laurie’s contribution to the incredible ensemble that includes not only Newman but also towering greats George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. The doomed, tragic romance between Laurie’s Sarah and Fast Eddie grounded The Hustler in a stark and bitter reality that hadn’t been depicted for the screen previously. After being nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the film, Laurie soon found that Hollywood was an inhospitable place for women who didn’t necessarily fit into just one mold as an artist.

Rather than take work that wasn’t up to snuff, Laurie did something that might have been considered, again, a little shocking: she stopped playing the leading lady (or, in her words “perky starlet”) and promptly left movies for work on her own terms. The result was a daring collection of female characters who were not only close to the edge, but some who, in fact, went over that edge a long time ago. Colorful, memorable roles in films like Carrie (1976, for which she makes our Essential Performances list), Children of a Lesser God (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990) solidified her reputation as a singular talent. When one digs a bit deeper into her body of work, into films like the 1979 Australian drama Tim opposite Mel Gibson or the Truman Capote-inspired realms of deeply-Southern magical realism in The Grass Harp (1995), the breadth of her characterizations is impressive, there is always a deliberateness to her portrayals, and each is impeccably constructed and thoughtful.

Female movie stars of today may possess the basic, bare minimum tenets of Piper Laurie’s blazingly original screen persona, but very few can claim the kind of honed, strong chops she can. They just don’t make them like this anymore, as the saying goes. However, as her revealing biography points out, a thirst for learning and a constant search for new ways of creatively expressing oneself can take a performer to spectacular heights, and she done both opposite some of the greatest artists ever to work, counting Maureen Stapleton, Jean Simmons, Kim Stanley, David Lynch, Douglas Sirk , Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Sissy Spacek and Brian De Palma amongst her closest collaborators. She no doubt also taught them a thing or two as well, which means the future is indeed bright for the Carey Mulligans and Michelle Williamses of the world after all.

Ms. Laurie recently spoke with PopMatters about Hollywood’s Golden Age, some of her friends who appear across our series, the upcoming Carrie reboot, and more.

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Congratulations on Living Out Loud. I enjoyed it very much. Have you always been a writer?

No, I’ve never written before! I figured it was time, and I needed to do it and I just wanted to get all the stories down, and straight, and the way they really happened before somebody else came along and tried to figure out who I was.

You open with a line from Emile Zola. What is the significance of that and the book’s title?

It just appealed to me at the time. It felt like it fit with what I wanted. My take on it was probably different from his because it’s what I would like my life to be. It was something to aspire to. The freedom to live your life the way you want it to be.

Your career began at a pivotal time in cinema history when the way movies were being made was quickly changing. What were your initial ambitions?

Well, I wanted to be a really good actress and I had planned on going to New York to work in the theater. I screen-tested before, several times, and they failed them. So I was sort of surprised when Universal decided to exercise the test option contract after the screen test that I made with Rock Hudson. It was so flattering, that they wanted me, and that they were going to pay me for doing what I loved to do. I got trapped into something that I wasn’t expecting. I knew nothing about the kind of movies that Universal made at that time. I was forced to lower my standards. I didn’t really lower my standards, it was just agony I must say, to have to play the parts in the movies that they gave me. On one hand I was grateful that I was getting a name, which I later had to live down, but it was certainly not what I had aspired to.

Do you ever revisit those movies, like the ones you did with Douglas Sirk?

No, I haven’t seen them for years. I don’t think I ever saw any of them more than once. You know, modern people enjoyed them…

The Hustler is such a favorite of mine and I’ve recently revisited it. Talk about a movie that stands the test of time… when you were constructing your character for this film, what about playing Sarah was most intriguing to you?

Well, I think not necessarily playing her, but the whole project: the meticulous, vibrant script and the opportunity to work with Robert Rossen and to play opposite the actors that were starring in it. The overall project was really the appeal, not necessarily her part. Those sad creatures require almost to dredge up a lot of sadness in one’s life and that’s never fun.

Speaking of great ensembles, I wish I could have seen you do The Glass Menagerie with Pat Hingle and Maureen Stapleton, I’m such a fan of that play and of Tennessee Williams.

It was really a lovely production! That’s what I’ve been told by enough people so I believe it! (laughing)

What were the challenges of performing this demanding role for the stage? Did you for example take to the language naturally?

You put it very well. I think most actors respond to his language. That’s why so many of us like to work on his material. I’d worked on a lot of things, plays, in my acting classes before I even went to Universal and became a professional actor. Tennessee Williams was a very important person to me. I got to meet him and know him a little bit while we were rehearsing and during the play and he came to many of the performances. The Tennessee Williams one-act play, This Property Is Condemned, was made into a movie that had nothing to do with the play, it was a completely different story. It was basically a two-character play, the main character was mainly a monologue, a 14-year-old girl. I played the main character, I worked on that in my acting class, and used it as an audition piece when I went to Universal.

They were going to give me three minutes, they were going to start the play, and I expected them to stop me, but they didn’t and I ended up doing the whole 25-minute play. And they signed me, and I made a screen test, and they put me into junk. Anyway…. Tennessee Williams is a fabulous part of my life and actually I just came back from the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans where I was on a number of the panels and did a reading, the Katharine Hepburn role [from Suddenly, Last Summer] from when she first appears in the movie. There was a whole afternoon devoted to Williams.

I’m so interested the women you mention in your book. Maureen, Kim Stanley, Jean Simmons, and Estelle Parsons. How did your associations with these talented women impact you?

Greatly (laughing). Maureen was just… so human and tortured and dear and intelligent. Brilliant. As gifted as she was, that’s how intelligent she was as well. We spent a lot of time together while doing the play and then afterwards as well. She was a generous human person, who had a hard time with life and made a lot of bad choices like a lot of actors do. But I loved her very much, she was a wonderful person.

Piper Laurie in Carrie.

It is striking just how prescient Carrie is in its depiction of bullying and teenage horror. I have to ask – what are your thoughts on the planned remake and Julianne Moore tackling Margaret White?

Oh, you know, I hope that they have fun like we did! Or like I did anyway. I wish them well and I know that they did another version of it on stage recently, and I did get to see the first of the previews. They had a different take on the story, and they had every right to. I loved our movie, our version of it, because I think that Brian De Palma brought a joyful sensibility to it, there was all that freshness. Even though it was about a lot of misery, there was still joy in all of those young people, in all the characters. There was flamboyance about Brian De Palma’s work, I think. I know he certainly made me feel comfortable. I think the people involved with the new version will do their own take on it and I wish them well.

I had a chance to research some of your filmography that I hadn’t seen previously and was so impressed with some of the more underrated titles. Particularly I loved watching Tim, with Mel Gibson, which had so many great observations about gender, age and atypical relationships. In the book you touch on working with Mel, but I was so fascinated with your character, she seemed so much different from anything else you had done until that point. What did you hope to express through Mary, your character in Tim?

You know, I don’t really approach a part with what I want to express, I think my ambition during filming is to respect the material, to fulfill the nature of the character as written. I don’t feel I can take charge and be the playwright. I just saw her as a very decent woman, and a generous one. I don’t really think I had a motive to be a certain kind of person, I just wanted to fulfill the story.

What was the personal significance to you of being a woman of Jewish descent playing a Nazi like Magda Goebbels with Anthony Hopkins as Hitler in The Bunker?

It was very interesting to do the research on Hitler, Goebbels and his beautiful wife, who I was playing. I had a knot in my stomach the whole time I was reading. I had, even as a child, a violent response to Hitler as, I suppose you can call him a ‘human being’, though I really don’t think he deserved that title. He was alive at one point, he was a person, but I just had nightmares about him when I was a little girl. It was kind of treacherous getting into this material and trying to empathize with people who were very close to him. Magda Goebbels was very close. He trusted her. She was the only person who could cook something for him and he wouldn’t demand a taster to see if it was safe to eat. So I approached it from another’s point of view and tried to imagine her as being a mother, a human and the feelings that she probably had about her children and being in that underground place that they had at the end.

I wanted to ask you about film criticism since you were married to one of the great film critics, Joe Morgenstern, and also knew Pauline Kael. What changes have you observed in film criticism throughout your career?

For a long time, for many years, there were very few critics, most people who wrote about movies were called ‘reviewers.’ I suppose they still exist, they were the people who would spoil the movie by telling the story. It had no values at all [talking] about performance. It was just all very superficial. I think there are a lot of real critics now, I guess that’s good (laughing). I don’t like reading reviews myself about a movie I’m going to be seeing. I like reading the ones I respect after I see the movie, that’s really fun to do.

Twin Peaks

What did playing Catherine on Twin Peaks, and her Japanese businessman disguise Mr Tojamura, allow you to do as a performer that you’d never done before?

I didn’t expect it. When I was little girl, I used to get into elaborate disguises. I remember there was an old folks home across the street, in this huge Victorian house, and the people would always sit out on the porch and rock or spend the afternoon. With the help of my sister, I got into the disguise of an old lady, powdered my hair, bent my body over, and put on some old clothes and clunky shoes. I actually had a following there! (laughing) My sister and some of the kids in the neighborhood thought ‘this is pretty bizarre and interesting!’ (laughing) I pretended to be an old lady and of course all of the old folks knew that it was a kid doing this and they went along with it, but I remember there was one man who tied my shoelace for me! I found such joy in being able to change who I was. It was fun, it’s why I loved Halloween, because we could wear costumes. So, to be handed the opportunity by David Lynch, to do that in the show, was pure heaven!

You’ve been awarded three career Oscar nominations – what did these Oscar nominations mean to you when you were first nominated and how did your perception change as you collected other awards and nominations?

Well, the first Oscar nomination for The Hustler was meaningless to me. Because I didn’t have the perspective of the movie, I was too subjective when I viewed it. It wasn’t what I had expected. When I’d see a scene, I’d remember that my shoe was too tight or that we were having difficulty or had to shoot it a lot of times. You know, I just remembered all of the things we’d experienced on the set, rather than looking at it objectively as the story was going. I thought it was bullshit, frankly, that I had been nominated and I just didn’t believe in it. I didn’t even go out to California for the ceremony. I watched it on a little set with my mother-in-law and my husband. Then, later as I started getting nominations, I was a little more relaxed about myself, I was able to enjoy the fun and that my peers thought I had done a good job. I never really enjoyed going. I pretended I was enjoying going to the ceremonies, but it’s always difficult.

What about when you win and you have to give speeches?

I’ve won things a few times. Once I won my Emmy, when I wasn’t there, not because I didn’t want to go but because I was doing a play somewhere. James Woods accepted for me and that was fun. The only other time I was present and actually won was the Golden Globe for Twin Peaks and that was hell, I’ll be honest with you! (laughing) When I heard my name, I really didn’t expect to hear it. I didn’t even bother to tidy up before the broadcast started. It took forever before I got to the podium, I don’t even know what I said. It was stupid, I’m sure! (laughing)

[Editor’s note: it wasn’t at all.]

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For further insight into film and performance, be sure to check out Piper Laurie’s refreshingly honest memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud.