In her native United States, actress Elizabeth Franz has racked up an abundant number of stage credits in a long and illustrious career.
On Broadway, Franz has been seen in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound, The Cherry Orchard, The Octette Bridge Club, The Cemetery Club, The Comedy of Errors, Getting Married, Uncle Vanya, Morning’s at Seven and Death of a Salesman. The last production, with Brian Dennehy in 1999, marked the third time she’d tackled the Arthur Miller play, and it earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress.
Off-Broadway, Franz has appeared in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (for which she won an Obie Award), The Cripple of Inishmaan, Minutes from the Blue Route and The Madwoman of Chaillot. In American regional theatre, her credits include Long Day’s Journey into Night, Lion in Winter, The Glass Menagerie, A View from the Bridge, The Matchmaker The Wizard of Oz, Great Expectations, Model Apartment and Woman in Mind.
In 2003, Franz was presented with the Drama Guild’s Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater Award.
Off stage, Franz’s credits for film and television have included The Substance of Fire, Sabrina, The Pallbearer, Stephen King’s Thinner, Fish in a Bathtub, Secret of My Success, School Ties, Jacknife, A Town’s Revenge, A Girl Thing, The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket, Dottie, Love and Other Sorrows, House of Mirth, Law and Order, Cold Case, Judging Amy, Roseanne, The Gilmore Girls and soon to be released Christmas with the Kranks.
This week, Franz makes her London stage debut at the National Theatre in Buried Child, the first major London production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in over 20 years. Matthew Warchus directs the cast, which also includes fellow Americans M Emmet Walsh and Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose.
Date & place of birth
Born 18 June 1941 in Akron, Ohio, US.
Lives now in…
I went to New York to train as an actress. Our neighbour had friends there, way up in the Bronx, and I stayed with them for my first year, and then I got digs with four others. Home now is in Connecticut and a house in Vermont. When I do a play in New York, the producers find me a place to stay there. In London, I’m staying over at the White House, near the National, as are the other American members of the company.
I trained at the same place and at the same time as M Emmet Walsh, with whom I am reunited in this production: the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, from 1961 to 1962. After that, we both went to summer stock in Dorset, Vermont, and we did a play a week for 20 weeks. Although we’ve seen each other, we never worked together again for 40 years. Not until, just before coming here, we did a film together, Christmas with the Kranks, playing husband and wife, as we’re doing again now!
First big break
Christopher Durang’s play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All – it was my first time in New York other than understudying. I’d been working at Yale when Chris asked me to do another play of his. I didn’t understand it – though when I saw it later, I thought, “Gee, I wished I’d done that”. With Sister Mary, I loved the role; this was a woman I identified with. When I said that to Chris and Jerry Zaks, who directed it, they looked at me and you could tell they were thinking, “she must be crazy if she understands that woman!”
We ran for two years off-Broadway, but made so little money – it was $42 a week, I remember. I was going to have to leave it, because I needed money to live. Then a soap opera came through, so I was able to work all day on that and carry on with the play in the evening. It was in that play that Neil Simon first saw me. At the time, he was married to Marsha Mason, who insisted that he see it, and that led to my first starring role on Broadway, in Neil’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
Career highlights to date
The original production of Brighton Beach Memoirs was definitely a highlight. I was in it for a very long time, and there were a lot of cast changes, so we were in rehearsal all the time, trying to put new people in. In the three months after Matthew Broderick left, they tried out 17 different Eugene’s! I then did other things, but then Broadway Bound, the sequel to Brighton Beach Memoirs, arrived. I loved that, too, but for the final part of the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, there wasn’t a role for me. They did call me and said they might have to write a part in for me as I was the only one who could keep Matthew straight! He was cracking everyone up on stage!
Of course, another highlight is Death of a Salesman. When I was doing Brighton Beach Memoirs, Dustin Hoffman was auditioning for the 1984 production of it he was doing on Broadway, and I went in six times to see them – once a week for six weeks. The role eventually went to Kate Reid. I was so heartbroken that I didn’t get it, but who would have known that I would end up doing it on Broadway after all? I’m a great believer that there’s always a reason why things happen the way they do. Later, I did a touring production of the play with Hal Holbrook. When it came up again, all those years later, I was only being asked to do it in Chicago initially, at the Goodman Theatre there – there were no plans for Broadway. But then Ben Brantley reviewed it in the New York Times and said he’d not seen anything like it, and Arthur Miller rang and said “I guess I better come up to see it”.
It ended up on Broadway, and I won a Tony Award. I’d previously been nominated for Brighton Beach but hadn’t won. I was so happy, because, when I graduated from drama school, the head there said, “We think you’re very talented, but you probably won’t work until you’re Mildred Dunnock’s age.” I didn’t know who she was, but it turns out she had played Linda in the original 1949 production of Death of a Salesman!
What do awards mean to you?
I do wish they would honour the ensemble more, rather than being so specific for particular actors only. I’m a great fighter for that, because we’re all in it together.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Long Day’s Journey into Night - I’ve done it twice. The first time, in Indianapolis, I met my late husband Edward Binns, who was a character actor in films. I was 32 years old, and I played Mary Tyrone. I’ve always played parts much older than myself. When I did Sister Mary, who is 60, I was in my late 30s. Anyway, my husband made us cut the play heavily. When I was asked to do it again, by Sam Waterston, I was the right age for it. I said I’d like to try all four hours and Sam agreed. I saw then what the play was really all about. Two years ago, my dream life came true doing Morning’s at Seven on Broadway. I’d done 11 productions of it before, but what was a dream was that this was the first time I got to play the youngest sister! It was a great cast - we laughed so hard on it.
Sam Waterston on Long Day’s Journey into Night and Hal Holbrook in our touring production of Death of a Salesman. I love these men because they share so beautifully. They have such great self-esteem and confidence, and it doesn’t get in the way of the work. They don’t mind others getting noticed.
Gerald Freedman and Dan Sullivan (who directed the Broadway Morning’s at Seven); and now, of course, Matthew Warchus. I feel so safe with Matthew, he’s so thorough and so patient.
Anton Chekhov, though I’ve done very little but would like to do more of. And I love Sam Shepard. I did Buried Child before at Providence and Yale, and I always wanted to do it again. I think it’s his strongest play.
What roles would you most like to play still – or play again?
I’d love to play Mary Tyrone again in Long Day’s Journey into Night. And I would also like to play the Greeks. I love them – I’ve already seen Iphigenia at Aulis here and I’m dying to see Hecuba at the Donmar. Tim Piggot-Smith is a good friend.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I think maybe a missionary – and I realise I’m doing the same thing. It’s very close to acting! I was very religious when I was little, and I wanted to go to other countries.
What was the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Stuff Happens – I was so taken with it. I haven’t been able to watch the political conventions, but I saw this on stage and went home and took a shower. I was so disgusted! It’s an amazing play, and I think it’s David Hare’s best. The actors are so generous and so good.
What would you advise the government – British or American - to
secure the future of theatre?
Theatre is the oldest form of communication. If we were just left with movies and TV, there’d be no soul. Regional theatre is so helpful to actors and audiences, but it’s being eroded – it needs support.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Someone who’s made a huge difference, like Mother Teresa. That’s back to me being a missionary again.
I recently read Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins -that was incredible. And then after that I read The Way the Crow Flies by a young writer called Ann-Marie MacDonald. Both books take you on a journey, and you get so hooked on the people that you start identifying with them and can’t get away from them.
I love Italy, and I’ve been several times. I’m going to go to Sicily when we have a few days off – I’ve never been to the South. I love to travel, but haven’t been able to lately, because I’ve been working so much.
Favourite after-show haunts
Angus McIndoe’s in New York and Joe Allen’s in London. Our head of American Equity, Alan Eisenberg, is a great friend of mine, and we’re going to dinner there – because that’s where everyone seems to go here! It’s just a quick walk right across the bridge from the National.
Why did you want to accept the part of Halie in this production of
I have always wanted to do it again. Halie is a very troubled woman who has gone through an awful lot in her life. She had depression, which I can identify with because my mother had it. She didn’t know how to claim for herself. She married a very abusive man, my father, and divorced him two times and re-married him again. This character is much stronger and more determined than my mother was. But my mother also turned to religion to wash her sins away.
It’s great to be working with M Emmet Walsh again on this as well. When we were filming Christmas with the Kranks, he kept saying “what play can we do, I want to get back on the boards”? And I said, have you ever read Buried Child? Then I got a call to go meet Matthew Warchus, and he went to meet Matthew and here we are! We’ve not worked together for 40 years, but now I can’t get away from Emmet!
What does it mean to be making your London stage debut?
I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’ve wanted to work here for years, and out of nowhere, to be able to come to the Royal National Theatre with this part and this director and in this glorious city is incredible. I can’t really believe it - I keep pinching myself. I’ve been to the National before. I saw Anthony Hopkins here in Pravda and a Shakespeare. It’s great to be working here.
What’s your favourite line from Buried Child?
“Perseverance, determination and fortitude, that’s what the world’s built on.”
What’s the funniest thing that has happened during rehearsals of Buried Child?
Matthew Warchus is very, very funny. We were all getting into very dark humour. The character of Bradley has a false leg, and we were trying to find positions for him to hide his leg. Suddenly Matthew said, “I can just see myself on opening night, saying it’s time, and bringing out the chainsaw and chopping his leg off for good, so there are no problems with it anymore!”
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a new play, The Bird Sanctuary, lined up to do in Pittsburgh straight after this ends.
- Elizabeth Franz was speaking to Mark Shenton.
Buried Child opens on 29 September 2004 (previews from 18 September) at the NT Lyttelton, where it continues in repertory up to 15 December 2004.