5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Phyllis Somerville


Her name is Phyllis Somerville. And if it isn’t immediately familiar to you, take a moment and study the face. Yep, that’s right: She plays the role of Marlene on Showtime’s deliciously seriocomic The Big C, co-starring with the likes of Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, Gabourey Sidabe and John Benjamin Hickey. Somerville is also an overnight sensation after 40 years — yes, you also read that number properly — in the business. But then, isn’t that the world of the actor? You toil during stage work for decades, amassing a list of credits so long it seems preposterous to try to type them all out, and you toil for decades doing film work, same story. Beyond the glitz and glam, it’s called being a working actor. Then one day something clicks. You are not just working anymore. You’re working for keeps.

Marlene, who plays the neighbor of Linney’s character, would surely have something to say about this.

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Yet Marlene isn’t the person we’re talking to today — Somerville is. I’ve personally met her twice — both times up at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. And a more down-to-earth, genuinely delightful colleague doesn’t exist. She’s kind, she’s amazing — and she’s absolutely right to fully enjoy this moment as The Big C conquers our culture.

According to a press release I received when pitched about interviewing Somerville, she was the first person cast after Linney. That’s says a lot about how the industry views her. It’s a view borne out by her extraordinary work.

Start watching The Big C on Monday nights at 10:30pm if you haven’t done so already.

And now, 5 questions Phyllis Somerville has never been asked — and a bonus question:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
After a screening of Little Children, a man came over and asked me if I would talk to his teenage daughter. She had listened to the Q & A and had this question: “Has anyone ever asked you why the love between May and Ronnie is so much deeper than the love between Sarah and Brad?” By George, she got it.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Most idiotic is a tough one to answer. I know, as a civilian, I’ve posed some idiotic questions to politicians, clergy, scientists, athletes…oh, I could go on. They have been quite gracious about my idiocy.

Sometimes a question that seems good the first time you’re asked seems silly the 40th time you’re asked.

For example, “Why are so many older actors working?” I don’t know. Maybe because we stayed.

Or “Will people laugh at a show about cancer?” I hope so. My late father had written a script for his funeral. In his final days, he asked his children to do a run-through for him. We did, laughing and crying at the same time. Some folks think that’s wonderful. Others shake their heads and make a face.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
After a performance as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, a woman asked how I found the courage to be an actress with my handicap. That may be a compliment.

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4) Given the boldness of The Big C‘s theme, has there been a moment when, in reading a script, you’ve been astonished by the dialogue? Of the episodes you’ve taped so far, what was your hardest moment to act? What was your most emotionally accessible moment?
Not astonished. I was almost always surprised at what happened next. That’s good writing. As to being emotionally accessible, good writing is emotionally accessible.

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One of my favorite moments was when Laura and I sat in the beach chairs, sipping tropical drinks, feet resting on Thomas the dog, talking about not being friends.

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I did worry about how some of my relatives and friends back in Iowa would respond to the saltiness of my speech. They did seem to get over the time I said that other C-word on Sex and the City.

5) In your gut, what do you know about the theater that you didn’t know 40 years ago? Is there a particular hurdle or challenge on stage that you hunger for-other than, of course, a great role?
I better understand all the clichés, wit and wisdom I heard long ago listening to older actors in the Green Room. They said:

Go for the snapper not for the mackerel;
Don’t let the audience get ahead of you;
Don’t do their work for them.
Tell the story;
Kill your darlings;
If they laugh at something in the rehearsal room, maybe find something else;
Have the courage to play a cliché;
Faster and funnier

One of the toughest things for me is having the guts to screw up.

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I want to do another musical. They scare me, but they are so much fun to play.

Bonus question:

6) What have you learned working with your co-stars on The Big C? Equally important, what have they learned working with you?
I have learned a great deal from every member of the cast. For that I am grateful. However, I would prefer not to talk about it here. I’ll tell them in person. I have no idea if they learned anything from me.