Forget the prairie — Melissa Gilbert has her eyes set on New York.
The once-pigtailed child actress grew up on TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” which ran for a decade starting in 1974. Since then, she’s done her share of TV movies and now stars in an immersive Off-Broadway production of “The Dead, 1904,” which was a sold-out hit last holiday season.
Based on James Joyce’s beloved novella, “The Dead,” which depicts a holiday party in Dublin more than a century ago, this version is set in a sumptuous town house (home to the American Irish Historical Society), replete with marble floors and paneled rooms, where audience members mingle with actors, sip port and whisky, and dine with the cast on a feast inspired by cuisine from the tale. Adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, the Irish Repertory Theatre production opened Nov. 30 and runs through Jan. 7.
Gilbert, 53, lives in Michigan with her husband, Timothy Busfield, a director and “Thirtysomething” co-star.
You can’t possibly eat a full meal each performance, right?
No. I eat very little. It’s difficult to eat in a corset. Not that it’s painful but . . . I belch very loudly. [She laughs.]
I raised four boys and between them and my [former] husband, and the noises they created, my only defense was to belch back. So . . . I let ’em rip.
To those unfamiliar with it, the title — “The Dead” — may seem a bit grim for the holidays.
Yes, though we watch “Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with their visions of death. But this play is much more than its title. There’s joyful singing and bickering and humor and lightness. All tinged with this dark sense of brooding that’s, that’s. so Irish. At any holiday gathering, there are always relatives who don’t get along, there’s always a drunk. This story is a reflection of all holiday parties. It’s such a privilege to do this, especially at this point in my career, when I’m going through this massive reinvention.
Massive. You know, there are moments in female actors’ lives where we do things that are just . . shocking. Like age. Well, in L.A., basically no one does. Which is one of the reasons why I ran screaming from there. I’ve been living in Michigan for five years, kind of hibernating. I let my hair go to its natural color — I have this fabulous Bonnie Raitt white streak in front. I’m glad it has a bit of sass. ’Cause I do. So I sat down with my agents and said, “It’s time for a major reinvention, and that starts with theater.” Because that’s where the opportunities are for women my age. They said, “Well, if you’re serious . . . ” and I said, “I’m serious.” And I’m married to a man who said “Go. Fly. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
Ever miss L.A.?
When my husband, Tim, and I met and fell in love, he said, “I’m crazy about you, but the bad news is I live in Michigan.” I said, “No, that’s the good news — please get me out of Los Angeles.” The only thing I miss is my children. My granddaughter. Some close girlfriends. And my sister and her kids. But beyond that . . . I don’t miss traffic, or smog, or pressure, or Botox, or fillers — any of that stuff.
And how do you feel after going public with your own story of Hollywood sexual harassment?
[In a recent interview, Gilbert has said director Oliver Stone harassed her during an audition for his 1991 film “The Doors,” presenting her with a graphic sex scene he wanted her to perform for him on her hands and knees. She refused and left in tears. Stone claims auditioners knew the film would be “raunchy”; his casting director called the auditions “challenging.”]
I don’t have any regrets. I wrestled with telling it, afraid of the shaming and backlash. However, I think the tide is turning. People are mad.
I worry the public will overdose on this, and tune out.
That’s why it’s important to do something. Now. We need to gather men and women and form a coalition to affect change. It’s not a female-only issue. There are abused men. We need to figure out how to change the culture and the laws that protect perpetrators.
Well, I can see why you were president of the Screen Actors Guild for two terms and why you considered a run for Congress. You’ve got that whip-folks-into-action tenor in your voice.
I‘m just a loudmouth. [She chuckles.] I’m brash, bold. I love that people are finally talking about this. Now let’s change the laws and make things better so it won’t happen again. That’s who I am.