Photo: Scogin Mayo

‘Split’ the Difference: An Interview With Actor Betty Buckley

The Tony-winning actress is the emotional center of M. Night Shyamalan's new film Split, and like the movie, there's more beneath the surface.

“It’s really about the director,” said Betty Buckley when asked, during a recent interview with PopMatters, what attracted her to M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. In the film, Buckley portrays Dr. Karen Fletcher, a psychologist working with Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) who has dissociative identity disorder and more than 20 personalities.

“I had worked with Night in his movie The Happening,” Buckley said. “He told me when they sent me the script for Split that he had written the role for me.”

She said that Shyamalan is “very passionate … a brilliant storyteller, a great master of cinema.” Buckley considers working with him “a privilege” and also expressed praise for her co-star. “James McAvoy,” she said, “is one of my favorite actors of all time. It was a thrill to create the scenes between the psychologist and Kevin’s myriad of personas.”

Dr. Fletcher — a strong, accomplished, mature woman — is the type of character that Buckley is pleased to find in a script. “Night made a giant step forward when he wrote this part for me,” she said. “He let me be the cornerstone of the truth of the movie, kind of the emotional center, and the narrator of the film. He gave me a strong character who is a real contributor to the world.”

The role of a capable female with sympathy for the ostracized protagonist of a psychological horror film is familiar to Buckley. In her first movie, Carrie, she portrayed Miss Collins, a high school gym teacher who becomes a protector of the tormented Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). More than a decade later, Buckley — who is also an accomplished singer — was Carrie’s mother in the Broadway version of the film.

“That’s another story about child abuse,” Buckley said, drawing a parallel between Carrie and an element of Split. “I’ve been fascinated by this. I’ve studied human psychology my whole life. Some people say artists tell the same stories over and over again, there are certain themes to your life that you’re called to portray, and I’m starting to see that.

When we did our first press junket in early January with the international and national press for Split, people were mentioning to me that there are some similarities between Miss Collins and Dr. Fletcher … I see this aspect of me as an actress being called to serve the story of child abuse.”

Buckley is also experienced at portraying motherly figures, especially on the stage. In addition to her role in Carrie on Broadway, she was Mama Rose in Gypsy and Edith Bouvier Beale (known as Big Edie) in the musical adaptation of Grey Gardens.

Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie, were immortalized in the legendary 1975 documentary that revealed their fall from high-society New York to a life of poverty inside their crumbling East Hampton mansion. The two women have been viewed in conflicting ways: were they brilliant and eccentric or mentally ill?

“It’s a fascinating story,” said Buckley, regarding Grey Gardens and the psychological state of its main characters. “It’s also a story that reveals how cruel our patriarchal system can be to women. These women were not allowed to express their artistic natures, and they were both artists, and they ultimately manifested an artistry about life. They were very strong, passionate, outspoken women in a period and in a social milieu when that was frowned upon.”

Although they lived in squalor and isolation, Big Edie and Little Edie seemed to block out their circumstances by focusing on their respective talents. In the documentary, their fireplace mantle is adorned with a homemade sign emblazoned with “The Great Singer, Edith Bouvier Beale”. On a certain level, the shunned mother and daughter believed they were stars — and eventually, that is what they became.

“You are what you believe you are,” is also a theme in Split, as Kevin’s multiple personalities manifest unique traits that are both psychological and physical.

“Night based all of that information on fact,” Buckley explained. “I think that’s one of the riveting factors of the story for us to consider. The research that science has done on the human mind is that we’ve evolved to a certain place, but there is still so much more potential for the mind that we have yet to uncover … there’s a lot of research on meditation. The practice of meditation can reveal to you more of your mental capacity. Athletes learn about that in terms of perfecting their sport, about the capacity to visualize and focus — it’s spirit/mind/body. We’re not helpless … we are capable of infinitely more than we give ourselves credit for.”

Another theme in Split is that broken people are more evolved. Buckley agrees.

“Sometimes we look at our scars and our wounds as obstacles that must be overcome,” she said, “and I think it makes people stronger if they’re willing to take that path to healing. I think it makes you stronger to know that you’ve survived things that were painful, or if you’ve survived suffering or abuse, to the degree that you grow as a person. People who have suffered know more about compassion … pain and suffering create the potential for evolution. I think that resonates with a lot of people.”

Buckley’s performances also resonate with audiences, and she is known as “The Voice of Broadway.” She has numerous albums to her credit (her latest, Story Songs, will be released in February); she was Norma Desmond in a production of Sunset Boulevard; and she starred as Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Cats, for which she won a Tony Award in 1983. She fondly recalled portraying Grizabella and working with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn, describing her role in the iconic musical as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Her portrayal of stepmother Abby Bradford in the TV drama Eight is Enough, however, was more problematic. She took on the role in the late ’70s, after Diana Hyland — the actress who played Tom Bradford (Dick Van Patten)’s wife — died during the first season.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Buckley. “They had only done six episodes when Diana, unfortunately, passed away. But they were a team, and they were this huge hit. I was 28 years old, just this young actress out of New York … and they expected me to step into Diana’s shoes. They promised me a lot of things about the character, that they were going to allow her to have this independence. She was supposed to be hip and fun and interesting, and then suddenly they got me in the show and put me in muumuus and stuck me in the kitchen … and I was like, ‘Are you kidding? That’s not who the American woman is, trust me.’

“So I had some conflicts with the producers of the show, which ultimately paid off — we became a collaboration where they allowed me to take the character to a more realistic place. But it was an interesting period for me. It was like going to school in big business show business. It was my first experience of Hollywood and how it functions.”

Since then, she has become a teacher of acting, singing, and her knowledge of the entertainment industry. “I feel responsible for sharing what I’ve learned,” Buckley said, and adds that she, too, is always learning. Her role in Split, for example, required extensive reading, research, and hands-on preparation.

“I worked with a psychologist in New York,” she said. “We went scene by scene, line by line, what Dr. Fletcher would be feeling at certain moments and what was her appropriate professional decorum regarding what is best for her patient.”

As in Split, Shyamalan’s breakthrough movie, The Sixth Sense, features a major character who is a psychologist. The two films have been favorably compared by reviewers.

“I loved The Sixth Sense,” Buckley said. “I love all of Night’s movies, to be honest … I’ve enjoyed watching his journey as a storyteller and a filmmaker. It’s a great honor that he selected me to be one of his collaborators.”