When it comes to playing political wives, Stockard Channing gets our vote.
For seven years, Channing had a recurring role as first lady Abbey Bartlet, a role she played to Emmy-winning perfection, on TV's "The West Wing." Now she's playing the acid-tongued wife of a retired politico who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ronald Reagan in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," a provocative drama of family secrets and frayed relationships that opens Thursday at the Booth Theatre.
Channing, 67, recently spoke with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo about her latest role, as well as "Grease" and wearing Marilyn Monroe's wig.
I've never met Nancy Reagan. I don't know what she talks like or any of that. I just go from the text. Polly was a sort of protégé of Nancy Reagan and they were friends and mingled with the same sort of crowd. But Polly is a tough, more flamboyant character from what I know of the public Nancy Reagan. She's Texas, Southwestern, Jewish, self-made, whatever you want to call it and has a certain tempestuous element.
When you first read the play, were you surprised at the big secret that comes out?
When I read it out loud with other actors, I was very taken by the emotional life in the room, and that's a tribute to the other actors who play these five family members. And that's what really convinced me to move forward with it. It lifted even though we were just sitting in an office, not a theater, no audience, no nothing.
You've had some cast changes since you did the show at Lincoln Center. Has that changed how you perform the material?
We always felt we were a quintet. If you have a jazz quintet and two people drop out and two people come in, it's always a little bit different, but they fit in. You're still playing the same music in the same style. The effect on the audience is the same.
You don't usually read reviews, do you?
I don't. Word creeps back whether they're good or bad, and I know that these were extremely good from the first go-round. As someone once said to me, if you read the good ones, you have to read the bad ones. So why read them at all? They'll just make you more self-conscious.
"Grease" is probably the word for people of a certain age when they think of you. Are you surprised at how that film seems to keep getting new generations of fans?
I think that's technology. The VCR, then the DVD and the Internet. Before that kind of technology existed, that kind of market penetration was pretty hard to achieve. I've only really seen it twice -- when it first opened and then when it was revived in the theater. I'm the last person to ask about that. It's a sidebar in my life. It's a big one. It's amazing, people who are 8 and 78 are exposed to it, but I have no connection with it. It's something I did a very long time ago one summer.
One of my favorite roles of yours is a really offbeat one you played in the TV movie "The Girl Most Likely To."
That was my first big job. It was fantastic. It was written by Joan Rivers. She told me the inspiration for that movie. When she was younger she had a weight problem. When her date came to the front door, he literally turned around and walked away from her. Years later, when she was famous and living in Beverly Hills, she was at a party and there was this man. He was a dentist or something, and she realized that if she murdered him, no one would ever make the connection. And that's where she got the germ of an idea. Revenge is a very appealing topic for people.
I remember you started out ugly and had this amazing transformation.
We worked five days a week and we shot it in 12 days, and I had two makeup men -- one was Marlon Brando's best friend, who was his makeup man, and the other was a beauty guy. And I would sometimes change back and forth three times a day. When I was a blonde, we used Marilyn Monroe's wig from "Let's Make Love." Everything was bold about it and dopey and crazy, and it all worked. To this day, often as many people mention it as mention "Grease," and they all think they're the only ones who saw it.