Stage Legend Mary Beth Peil: A Leading Lady On Film at Last

Broadway's grande dame shines in a film about aging, longing and the generation gap.

Photos: The Orchard.

Leading roles for women in film are rare. A recent study showed that female characters are actually in decline, with roles given to women over 50 even harder to find. Which is why Ari Gold’s film The Song of Sway Lake, which opened Sept. 21, feels like a pleasant surprise. It stars Mary Beth Peil as Charlie Sway, a woman grieving the loss of her son by trying to escape back into the past. Charlie surrounds herself with meaningful mementos, including her late husband’s letters (Brian Dennehy plays him in voiceover), and she often seeks refuge in her home by the lake that bears her family’s name.

Enter her rebellious grandson, Ollie (Rory Culkin), who breaks into the home with his best friend, Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), to steal a valuable record that he plans to sell to the highest bidder. When he is discovered by his grandmother, the two are forced to come to terms with the generation gap that keeps pushing them apart.

Peil began her career in opera where she originated the part of Alma in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. She went on to star in Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway, and played the final Anna to original King of Siam Yul Brynner in The King and I. Contemporary audiences know her work on Dawson’s Creek and The Good Wife. 

I spoke to the 78-year-old Peil about playing, possibly for the first time, a leading character in a film (she made her on-screen debut in 1992). She also recently departed her role in the Broadway musical Anastasia, for which she earned her second Tony nomination. She shared her thoughts on the current political climate as well.

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Jose Solís: Why did you want to play Charlie?

Mary Beth Peil: The role is an older woman’s dream role. The chance to play your age and still delve into the world of romance and recalling when you were younger while coming to terms with the fact your life is less than happy, in the lovely way depicted in the film, is a rare opportunity for a woman of a certain age.

JS: In many ways Charlie made me think of a Tennessee Williams character. Since you’ve done Williams before, I wondered if you had any of his heroines in mind?

MBP: That’s a wonderful observation. I must say I did not have any of the characters concretely on my mind, but there definitely is that sense of lost opportunity or time in the past not well spent, that so many of Williams’ characters had. Or that longing to do it all over, make it better this time. Thank you for observing that, it rings totally true to me.

JS: That scene when Charlie and Nikolai share an intimate moment is straight out of Streetcar…

MBP: Yes! I just got goosebumps; that’s a Blanche scene.

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JS: The film showcases the tension between people of different generations who, more than not understanding each other, simply don’t want to even try.

MBP: I love that observation: it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t want to. That’s something not usually spelled out so clearly; we usually look at these kinds of family relationships and go “if only they would see it this way.” But the characters in the film are really stuck in their groove of resentment — in Charlie’s case, of grief.

JS: Why do people of younger generations sometimes believe that the art of an earlier time can’t touch them?

MBP: I could write a book about that one. It’s been a lot on my mind as of late because I feel the age of social media has changed people from this generation who are coming up in the theater. The age of social media has made them feel they don’t need to connect with people from earlier generations — at least that’s my own reading of it. It seems they have access to each other and their own information so readily, and so quickly, that it seems satisfying to them. Before social media, it was just different. People would sit and want to hear stories and ask for advice.

JS: In the film, the characters eventually begin to open up to each other. What art would you recommend to people like Ollie?

MBP: It would be music, and of course in many ways that’s what the movie is about. I would pick some of the same music Charlie would pick. She’s from a slightly older generation than I am, [but] because of my classical training I would try to get him, or anyone of that age, to listen to classical music I know they would have no concept of.

JS: In The Song of Sway Lake, you worked with Elizabeth Peña, who passed away too soon in 2014. What was that like?

MBP: I loved Elizabeth. We got the rare opportunity to spend a lot of time together. We were sort of in quarantine up in the Adirondacks, by this beautiful pristine lake. Elizabeth and I had adjoining cabins, so we shared the same front porch, ten steps from the lake. We were there for a month together, so we would have coffee and orange juice in the morning, and we returned together in the evening. We really got to know each other as friends, in a way that’s almost impossible in a movie or TV set, where everyone’s usually very isolated. You only meet the actors you’re doing scenes with and everyone else is either home or in their trailer. I am very grateful to have spent time with Elizabeth. She was a great talent. She is greatly missed.

JS: Being an actor who does film, stage and TV, what’s it like to see yourself in a movie like The Song of Sway Lake, knowing you can’t watch one of your stage performances?

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MBP: It’s very foreign and weird. I’m not totally comfortable with it. Theater is so ephemeral, but the thought of something being there forever…let’s say it’s not my favorite thing.

JS: You played Jackie Florrick on The Good Wife for over six years. Did being on a show like that give you insight into how to survive in politics? I know the rest of us feel pretty lost these days, given the chaos we’re in.

MBP: The Good Wife was pre-Trump, and politics since have taken us over in a way that we wouldn’t have imagined when we shot the show. You may think I’m crazy, but I have two feelings about the political situation and dealing with it through film, TV and theater. We are witnesses to this; my generation would wonder what it was like to grow up in the turn of the century, the Belle Epoque era. People also wondered what it was like to grow up in World War II. I feel we’re living a parallel universe right now and it’s our duty to witness it — and to keep it from driving you crazy, you need humor. Otherwise we’d go insane.

JS: You left Anastasia on Broadway after an 18-month run. Last year I wrote a piece for The New York Times about how I related to the musical because of how it deals with immigrants. What was it like to be part of that show for so long?

MBP: I remember that article. We all made note of that because Anastasia was royally snubbed by the Tony Awards. I was fortunate enough to get a nomination, and so were Linda Cho’s costumes. The immigrant situation, which is an age-old story, figures so prominently in Anastasia. I spoke with a psychiatrist who said that he felt every person portrayed in the show is going through some sort of PTSD because of their status as immigrants and refugees. The immigrants who are trying to go into Europe or America are under horrendous situations of PTSD. You have a better comprehension than me, but I don’t understand the cruelty of not letting people move where they need to move.

JS: Similarly, the world of Anastasia takes place right before World War I. When given the opportunity to play a part, do you prefer doing something that touches on issues that are important to society?

MBP: Are you asking for my wishlist?

JS: Definitely.

MBP: At this point in time I would love to do something set in the Belle Epoque, because the world literally changed culturally and politically in so many ways. I love a good costume piece, which I guess comes from my opera days. I’d love to do a nice, juicy, old-lady Maggie Smith period piece.

JS: Downton Abbey: The Musical!

MBP: There you go, let’s put that out into the universe.