Actress Barbara Brownell is a true inspiration. She has spent her life performing on the Broadway stage, on film, and in television with a few great surprises along the way, which she discusses with us in much detail.
You have won a BWW award in 2017. What was the play you won the award for and what did you enjoy most about it?
BB: The play was Dull Pain Turned Sharp, written by Brent Beerman and directed by Kay Cole. I played Linda, a woman in her 60s who faces the dilemma of wanting her only daughter to have a grandchild, but is conflicted about a health danger she might have passed down to her. I enjoyed working on a multi-layered character and with a wonderfully talented cast.
You were nominated this past year for directing Laundry and Bourbon/Lone Star. Talk about the plays and what they meant to you.
BB: Laundry and Bourbon and Lonestar are two one acts written by James McLure. While the plays stand on their own, they make a nice companion set because the central conflict in each piece as well as its characters are related closely to those in the other play. They appealed to me because they contain serious themes about friendship, family, and getting through tough times and yet both plays are also delightfully funny. I was blessed to work with two strong casts which made the rehearsal process particularly fun and rewarding.
You have worked in the past with some great directors including Woody Allen. What play did you perform with him, what character did you play, and what was the experience like?
BB: I did Play it Again, Sam with Woody for one year on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre.
My part was Dream Sharon, his fantasy of the perfect woman. When we were in Boston, pre-Broadway, Woody decided to have his dream girl come to life at the end of the play. So I reappeared and he named the character Barbara, after me. Of course, working in a hit show on Broadway opened doors for me. I got a nice role in Going Home with Robert Mitchum and Jan Michael Vincent and was cast in The David Frost Review TV series. However, the most enduring gift is the close friendship I’ve enjoyed these many years with fellow cast member Cynthia Dalbey. I do remember Woody saying, about his writing, “There’s no secret. I make myself write everyday.” And about his directing, “I just cast well, and let them play.”
You also worked on the 2012 film The Master. You mentioned Paul Thomas Anderson, the director who obviously meant a great deal to you. Two of the stars, Joaquin Phoenix, who was competing for an Oscar this year for The Joker, and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman are unforgettable. What role did you play and what do you remember most vividly about the movie?
BB: My character was a wealthy New York socialite who was being put through a Past Life Regression by the Master. When P.T. (Paul Thomas) found out that I was a hypnotherapist and familiar with the process, he sought out my help in shaping the scene. The only line he had written for me was “My name is Margaret O’Brien.” He wanted Philip and me to improvise the rest, and so we did. Many takes actually. It was exhilarating. Watching Philip work gave me chills. Joaquin was in the scene, but only as an observer. My impression is that he was never really out of character, even at lunch. While Amy Adams in addition to being extraordinarily talented, was one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met.
Mention some of the other wonderful directors you have worked with.
BB: I was privileged to work with two giants of the sitcom world, Jay Sandrich, who directed me in both the Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart shows, and Jimmy Burrows, who directed me in Barefoot in the Park where I played opposite Tab Hunter. Both Jay and Jimmy were such creative, inventive, and positive influences. I also was lucky enough to work with Steven Soderbergh in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra where I played Liberace’s sister, Angie. Candidly, the part didn’t amount to much, but I got to see Soderbergh work and how much his cast and crew adored him. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to work with two really talented “up and comers”, Ryan Eggold and Eric Bilitch, who both wrote and directed small, wonderful projects that I had so much fun doing.
This last year you were in the Grammy winning music video of Old Town Road with Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X, a song that set the Billboard record for consecutive weeks as the number one hit. How did this come about?
BB: I started my career as a dancer and continue to dance almost every day, especially line dancing. I auditioned with seemingly hundreds of dancers of all ages and styles, so that when I was cast, I really didn’t know what to expect or what I was to do. The song is a cross-over hit that combines hip hop with country dancing, which we did for hours. As the day turned to night, I was fairly certain that at least I’d be recognizable in the piece, but at 2am, they asked me to stay to shoot stills for the end piece of the video. So there I am, in the final frames, posed with Lil Nas X like a moonstruck couple in a prom photo. I found him to be delightful, if not a little overwhelmed by the sudden fame he was experiencing at the ripe old age of 20. I’ll say this, for all of my credits, from Broadway to the Silver Screen, no part has given me more cred with my grandchildren than my appearance in Old Town Road.
With such varied work on stage and on film both acting and dancing, what do you foresee as a main project for you in 2020?
BB: I’m working on a one person show tentatively entitled I am Barbara Brownell, I Think in which I explore how I navigated a challenging childhood and a lifetime of experiences to forge the person and performer I am today, only to discover late in life, that I’m not actually, biologically speaking, who I thought I was. The show gives me the opportunity to do just about everything...acting, dancing, even a bit of singing. It’s both wonderful and frightening to have complete creative control of something. I can’t very well blame anyone else for the writing, now can I?
Is there anyone in particular in the acting world who inspired you. Who are your favorite stars today ... from yesteryear and in present time.
BB: When I was very young, I did my best to imitate Shirley Temple. I even looked a bit like her, with a headful of curls. She was definitely my first inspiration. Nowadays? I’ve always admired Judi Dench, because she can do so many things so well. I used to love to watch her British comedy series As Time Goes By. And yet she’s just as deft in the classics, in Shakespeare, or in the Bond films, or a musical, or even as a director. All done with such class, but then again, she is a Dame!
Another contemporary British actress I’ve admired is Sarah Lancashire. Again, it’s the range she displays from drama and action to comedy that’s so impressive.
Do you prefer drama or comedy with either plays or screenplays?
BB: It’s hard to make a blanket statement. To me, the most important thing is whether I connect to the piece. Truthfully, though, I prefer work that incorporates both drama and comedy. That’s why I so enjoyed directing Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, for they both manage to tell heartfelt, human, dramatic stories laced with moments of pure comedic joy, with neither feeling out of step or unearned. Of course, as a performer, there’s nothing as intoxicating as getting laughs from an audience, but it’s doubly magical when you sense the audience is also connecting with you emotionally.
Maybe that’s why Neil Simon remains my favorite playwright. Of course, he is widely acknowledged as a genius for his comedies, but I think he is underappreciated as a dramatic writer. I’ve been blessed to perform Barefoot in the Park, Star Spangled Girl, and Come Blow Your Horn, all certainly light fare. But Chapter Two, Lost in Yonkers, and the Eugene trilogy, to name a few, certainly prove his mettle as a serious playwright.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement in your career so far?
BB: I was able to fulfill the dreams of a little girl from the poor side of Bound Brook, New Jersey to make it to Broadway. And to have the chance to work with the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jon Hamm. And to be a senior citizen dancing in a Grammy winning music video. Maybe my greatest accomplishment is that I’m still here.
Sum up your career in one sentence.
BB: It’s not over yet, is it? Ask me again in ten years.