Screen or Stage, Tyne Daly Finds Arts Essential to Democracy

The Emmy- and Tony-winner has choice thoughts on men and #MeToo, too.

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Tyne Daly and Elizabeth Henry in Patrick Wang's film "A Bread Factory."

This fall, audiences can get their fix of Tyne Daly on TV (she has a recurring role on the Murphy Brown reboot), stage (in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs at Primary Stages) and on film — twice. First, she plays a conservative 19th-century woman in the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (coming to Netflix and select theaters on Nov. 16), and then she has a leading role in Patrick Wang’s remarkable A Bread Factory (opening in NY and LA on Oct. 26) as Dorothea, no-nonsense leader of a community theater in the fictional town of Checkford, NY.

A Bread Factory is a two-part film chronicling the struggles of creating accessible art with almost no resources; it celebrates the benefits that theater and the performing arts bring to communities. Daly commands the screen in a performance combining her toughness with her sweet, earthy qualities as Dorothea takes on a group of opportunists seeking to snatch city funds away from her company.

Wang’s sensibility is Robert Altman-meets-François-Truffaut: more than 100 professional and non-professional actors play characters that you believe have known each other their entire lives. As an actor, Daly’s generosity is clear in scenes with younger actors making their screen debuts, showcasing her uncanny ability to really listen to her scene partners.

The six-time Emmy winner and three-time Tony nominee (winning once for her brilliant Rose in Gypsy) has nothing to prove as an actor, yet she keeps pushing the boundaries — in three different mediums. Recently, I spoke with her about the importance of art in a democracy, about the #MeToo Movement, and about the tool she plans to use until her dying day.

Jose Solís: In A Bread Factory, Dorothea is of the mind that the show must go on — giving up means the system wins. Do you, as an artist, identify with her?

Tyne Daly: I think that what Patrick is trying to do is an homage to all those people that struggle along with their artistic ideas without a lot of compensation, of which there are way many more than the people who do get compensated, either by money, fame or recognition. Those ladies toiling away in a small community are heroes to Patrick, from his own life experience. I also participated in community theater when I was a young girl, maybe from 11 to 16, and that was much more what I did than schoolwork. There are people who are so much in love with this work that they do it practically for free; sometimes it costs them. Dorothea is one of those people, and so is her partner, so the show must go on because they breathe that. It’s their oxygen.

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JS: With the Trump administration coming directly for the arts by threatening to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, how has your mission as a political person and as an artist changed?

TD: Well, there’s nothing new about that. Many administrations and particularly Republican administrations, when they go in, the first thing they suggest is that they cut the funding to the arts. But if you look at the portion of the federal monies that go to the arts, you’re talking about a tiny, tiny percentage — an eighth of a penny or whatever it is. It’s really shocking. So that’s not news, the first step of many administrations is saying “we don’t need this unnecessary stuff,” by which they mean music, graphic arts, painting, museums, dance companies, theater. Everything is treated as if it were something extra, rather than something vital.

I come from an acting family, and we were taught to believe that the arts were essential to making whole human beings. We know that if you support the arts in public schools, kids stay in school for the orchestra, band, chorus, debate club and all those things called the humanities. The things that make you a human being. Without the humanities you’re just a worker, an automaton. I’m not surprised this administration is doing this. But I don’t quite know, after 50 years of being in this business, how to affect it very effectively. Until we, as a society, wake up to the fact that we can make amazing, wonderful art with a little support. To this we look to the English, the French and other Western cultures that seem to treat the arts with a little more respect.

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JS: I’m glad you brought this up because in the film there is a sense of Robert Altman-esque community. We meet many characters who could each warrant their own movie, but there is also a sense of belonging to something larger. A reminder of personal rights but also our obligation to others, which is something we sometimes forget about.

TD: I think we forget it regularly and I think if you say the word “community” or “communal,” you immediately are red. Let’s cut right to the chase: anything that seems to be of mutual benefit is immediately suspect as something communistic and not American, and that’s a really distorted view of how life works. I love me some Patrick because in the movies he’s trying to celebrate the theater — and the old theater, the ancients. I can say one of the best times I’ve ever had as an actress in the course of my doing this for a living, was doing the Agamemnon at the wonderful theater they built across the street from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The ocean is on one side, the city is on the other, and the experience was extraordinary because we were playing under the stars — real ones, not celebrities — and the actual stars were looking down at us and they were laughing, saying “Look at these silly damn humans. They’re still telling the same story after 2,500 years ’cause they still don’t get it.” We’re always trying to tell the same old story, aren’t we cute? So when I get two movie scripts about people doing the Greeks, I was charmed and sold on this crazy idea that we could make two completely full movies with musical numbers in 28 days or whatever it was, with a cast of more than 100 people. Patrick’s a magician.

JS: In many ways, you’re also a magician. For example, you have such remarkable chemistry with Elisabeth Henry, who plays your partner. How did the two of you prepare to play women who have been together for so long?

TD: I think force of will. That’s the job: “Hello, good morning, you’re my wife, or my lover, or my dad” — that’s the thing that makes people think actors are phony. They have to instantly commit to be in abiding relationships because it’s the job requirement. Elisabeth is also a lovely lady. She had done quite a lot of work in her community life, but she’d never done a movie before. I told her we’d be fine, and we’d have each other’s backs.

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JS: You’re also in the new Coen brothers’ movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I was so delighted to see you appear in the last segment!

TD: I went in to do some ADR [automated dialog replacement] for all the fits my character has, and it was all my wobbles. I said to the guys “I am playing these wobbles, I’m leaning on them and you can’t have too many girls who have wobbles anymore.” I have a part of my equipment I can use from now till death, and I’m working it for everything it’s worth.

JS: Your character on Murphy Brown, Phyllis, recently gave the title character the push she needed to confront an old college professor about consent. The #MeToo movement has come into play significantly in TV and film, but we haven’t seen too much happen in the theater. Why do you think that is?

TD: We will. Don’t worry.

JS: Where do you think the #MeToo movement is headed next?

TD: Oh darling, I don’t know how to assess it. I know there’s a difference between being “interfered with,” as we used to say in the 18th century — depending on what part of your life you were interfered with. If you were a child, it’s different than being an adolescent or a grown person, [but] the truth is there’s a whole lot of different ways to betray people. It’s basically about betrayal and to be betrayed by grown-ups or people in power, or your boss is incredibly painful and permanent in many ways. It’s not something you can get over with; it just haunts you. And this I know from experience.

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JS: You’ll be back onstage in Downstairs pretty soon.

TD: I’m trying to learn the words right now. I learned them really quickly 14 months ago and now comes the next step, which is deeper. My brain is 14 months older so that doesn’t help at all. I have a week on hiatus from Murphy Brown which I’m using to rehearse.

JS: You’ll also share the stage in Downstairs with your brother, Tim. What are you looking forward to the most about acting with him?

TD: Acting with my brother. I love acting with him, I haven’t done much of it, I love watching him, it sounds like a cute thing to say but I’ll say it again, he’s my favorite brother and he’s my favorite actor.

JS: That’s very sweet.

TD: It’s not sweet, it’s factual.

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JS: The entertainment industry tells us women stop existing after they turn 40. But this fall you’ll be onstage, on TV and at the movies. How have you been able to remain relevant despite sexism in the industry?

TD: There’s a faction of people, both men and women, who wish that women would disappear off the face of the earth at 40, but we don’t. Having some representation of that is great. When I started Cagney and Lacey I was 34 — past my sell-by date in Hollywood in theory, and so was Ms. [Sharon] Gless, and we managed to tell those stories for a while. In fact, I’m having dinner with her tonight because she’s doing her own pilot with Elisabeth Shue and other interesting people. We both have continued because people are interesting for their whole lifespan.

We have a lot of grumpy old men. We look at boys through childhood, adolescence, their menopauses, their tough times, but we only look at a little slice of women between 15 and 35, when they can reproduce, when they’re fecund. Before we have babies, after we have babies — it’s a little sparse. In another century, I suppose I would’ve tried to hang on to my figure and my face and my hair color and pretend to be Juliet well past my sell-by date. Now I don’t have to, and that seems to be some kind of positive change.

JS: It’s shameful that men only think of women as baby-making factories.

TD: That’s a generalization. I love men individually, but as a group they haven’t behaved very well. Just look at the world.

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Jose Solís
Jose Solís has been writing about film and theater since 2003. His work has appeared in major publications including The New York Times, American Theatre, TDF Stages, TimeOut, and Backstage. He is the co-host of Token Theatre Friends and a producer/host on the Maxamoo podcast. He is a member of the Drama Desk, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and the Online Film Critics Society. When he's not at a show, a screening, or writing about all the art he loves, you can find him singing along to any cast recording featuring Kelli O'Hara.