Film and television audiences trust Annie Potts. From Janine Melnitz (Ghostbusters) to Mary Jo Shively (Designing Women) to Mary Elizabeth “M.E.” Sims (Any Day Now), the Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominee has repeatedly proven herself in comedy and in emotionally complex dramatic terrain. In AfterMath, Elliot Shoenman’s new semi-autobiographical play about a family cast adrift by a father’s suicide at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, she deftly juggles both.
Directed by Ovation nominee Mark L. Taylor (Supporting Actor, Secrets of the Trade), the show represents a theatrical homecoming of sorts for the Kentucky-born Potts, who received the 2010 Governor’s Award in the Arts from her home state last year. Both she and Taylor attended Stephens College in Missouri along with Rogue Machine founder John Perrin Flynn.
“It’s a little unique because Stephens is a college for women,” laughs Taylor via phone regarding their alma mater. “When I was there it had 2,000 girls and 20 guys. Plus a very good theater department. I met Annie and John, then walked away with a great wife I’ve been married to for 30 years [casting agent Judy Taylor]. So it was all good.”
Potts and Taylor got to know each other much better decades later, when Potts brought Taylor in as a dialogue coach for her Lifetime series Any Day Now. “He was great with the kids and really, he was directing all the acting,” she emphasizes over tea at her 1934 Spanish Hacienda style home in Tarzana, which has also been owned by actors Robert Young and Robert Wagner. “Directors are so busy with just moving the cameras around, you know? So we worked together for several years doing that.”
Potts knows more than a little something about directors. She has been married for more than 20 years to producer/director James Hayman (Ugly Betty, Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy). Much of that time has been spent in this sprawling single-story houseÂ with sons James, Harry and Clay (by former husband Scott Senechal). All are away on the Monday morning of this interview — Hayman in Canada shooting a television movie and the boys at boarding school, college or living on their own. Potts is a new empty nester.
“I didn’t think I was going to survive it at first,” she admits. “I was just heartbroken. We had been working on this [AfterMath] project for a couple of years. Mark said, “˜Let’s commit to a date and do it.’ I had an opening in my schedule and was like okay, let’s do it now. It has been great to have that to focus on and not think about the absence of the pitter-patter of Converse All Stars running down the hall. For the first time in 30 years, I don’t have children in my house.”
What she does have is the pitter-patter of numerous four-legged ones only too eager to greet visitors upon arrival, especially a large brown female Labradoodle named Trouble. Or a friendly white Westie named Hamish. Not to mention Betty the Cavachon or Snacks the Pomeranian. Potts’ assistant Bruce Dent, whom she’s known since they were teenagers in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun, escorts the furry ambassadors elsewhere on the premises.
Potts is noticeably under the weather. Dressed in a black turtleneck under a black cardigan, grey corduroy pants, black comfort shoes with her hair hidden beneath a hand-wrapped, rose-colored turban, she keeps a safe distance, warning “you do not want what I’ve got.” When asked why she didn’t reschedule, the veteran trouper replies, “the show must go on.”
Leading the way over terra cotta-tiled floors through white adobe archways to the living room, Potts chooses to perch on a short hassock opposite a couch that features a throw pillow bearing the phrase, “Today is the tomorrow that worried you yesterday and all is well.” The space exudes a casual old Hollywood elegance, blending a carefully chosen mix of eclectic furniture pieces and artwork with colorful accents. Likewise, the star’s candid answers are alternately soulful and acerbically funny but never frivolous. Those in her extended circle describe Potts as both a loyal friend and the “real deal.”
All of it is on display in her latest stage role as Julie Goldstein, a woman whose math professor husband Bob jumped into the Hudson River, leaving behind a terse suicide note: “I can’t take it anymore. Take care of the kids and sell the car.” Co-starring LADCC Award winner (Eleemosynary) and Ovation nominee (The Concept of Remainders) Meredith Bishop as her TV-weather-reporting daughter Natalie, Daniel Taylor as rebellious college-age son Eric and Michael Mantell as family friend/handyman Chuck, the kitchen-sink dramedy dives deep into the emotional family wreckage still surfacing several years later.
“On the face of her you go, oh the widow, the widow from the suicide,” explains Potts. “But she is tough. I did not want to pull any punches on that and go out of my way to make her a nice person like they might want to see on TV. Or as the network might ask, “˜well, could she just smile a little more and not be so shrill?’ It has been a very rewarding collaboration in that way. There was help to support making big choices.”
“We have some shorthand, which came in very handy for both of us,” Taylor concurs. “So it’s just been great from that angle. To have someone as talented as Annie and to be able to have such great communication is like, “˜wow!’ Talk about a blessing. It makes my job pretty easy.”
“Mark and I had nothing to work out within our relationship,” Potts replies. “It’s like, ‘don’t fuck with me. If that is good, let’s keep it and let me know that. If it’s not right, then scold me on it.’ I felt safe in that way. We all like to feel safe. That way you can jump out there on stage and reveal things; otherwise you will keep them closeted, I think.”
The Potts/Taylor collaboration history mirrors a 20-year one enjoyed by Taylor and playwright Shoenman, co-founder and artistic director of LA’s Inkwell Theater (not to be confused with Washington DC’s Inkwell Theatre). Shoenman is a former Maude and The Cosby Show writer who won an Emmy as executive producer and show runner for Home Improvement. Shoenman’s and Taylor’s kids went to elementary school together, and when Shoenman started writing plays, Taylor directed them. Sunset Park (co-written with Marley Sims), Moment in the Sun and Old Glories were all staged at the Zephyr Theatre, where the two men met current AfterMath producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger.
Potts came to see their shows and told the duo she wanted to work with them. Shoenman had written a book about his father, a Holocaust survivor who committed suicide, called Nobody’s Business. Taylor suggested he consider turning it into a play. Shoenman was initially reluctant but called the director back a short time later to say he had found a way to convey elements of the book without it being his specific story. Pages flew back and forth between the two. Potts saw an early draft and was impressed.
“I thought this idea was a wow because it was Elliot’s story,” she offers. “It is very personal for him and I think those kinds of things always have a little more potential depending on the circumstances. Together we forged a really strong collaboration. The material was all there. It was just about Elliot writing and re-writing all along. Lord knows he has been through 30 years of therapy trying to deal with the aftermath of his father’s suicide. I think it was really, really tough to do this. And then find the funny in it, you know?’
“It has been a real joy,” Taylor admits. “Elliot and Annie didn’t really know each other. Because I have shorthand with both, to see them connect has been an amazing thing. I’m kind of in awe of it all. For three people to mesh and to pretty much be on the same page is rare.”
The trio did two private and one public reading at Flynn’s Rogue Machine. The old Stephens College chums wanted to perform the play there but scheduling conflicts ultimately prohibited it. Taylor and Schoenman approached former Zephyr pals Toliver and Guidinger who then brought it to the Odyssey. Sold-out houses have been resonating with the piece ever since, particularly the potent confrontational scenes between Potts and stage offspring Daniel Taylor, the director’s real-life son.
“Daniel is very talented but I don’t think he has done anything this demanding,” Potts explains. “It has been great to watch him grow and really commit himself because Eric is a fairly unlikable character. This is very tough material and we do it at warp speed with everything overlapping. It’s like doing this, (she illustrates a rapid hand-clapping game with an imaginary partner) but with emotions and going that fast. If one person misses one thing then the next 10 minutes are a mess.”
Potts had her first taste of that kind of rapid fire, tag-team rhythm when she made her Broadway debut in November 2009 in God of Carnage, replacing Hope Daniels as Annette alongside new cast mates Jimmy Smits, Christine Lahti and Ken Stott. By then Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus had directed the play several times. “So he was very familiar with the material and had really figured it out. We were asked to have no gaps and not stop for laughs, only those indicated in the script by the word “˜hiatus,’ which is French for a pause. I had never been asked before to not stop for a joke. He said, ‘We don’t care about the funny. The funny will take care of itself. You just play the play.’”
Potts thought AfterMath had the same potential and wanted to try a similar approach. Both shows are 80 minutes long with no intermission. “It’s not a sitcom. Why would you stop? You can skid a little bit but you can’t stop. It is a very precise thing. I don’t think you can replicate authenticity unless you have the freedom of that speed. The way people in life interject and interrupt. It’s not film and that has always just driven me crazy. You can’t overlap there because of the sound, but in theater you sure can.”
“It’s one of the things we really worked on,” Taylor emphasizes. “We went through the play and I would say, “˜Here, free rein, go for it,’ but always trying to be cautious. We can really let the train roll here as long as you remember to listen. But it’s a challenging piece for all of them.”
While neither Potts nor Taylor has dealt with suicide in their respective families, both have experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of a parent. Potts’ mother had a sudden aneurysm during a routine doctor visit in November, seven months after the early passing of Potts’ former Designing Women colleague Dixie Carter due to endometrial cancer.
“Within seven months, I lost one of my best friends [Carter], my mother and sent both my kids off to school,” Potts states. “My mom had a very long life and she hadn’t been ill. One moment she was talking to the doctor and the next, she was out. Like flipping a switch. My sister and I were in the next room. She just got yanked off the planet. It was a lot of loss to deal with, but being the actor I am, I stuff that away in my little reservoir. It’s the rainwater so we can have something to drink later. That is what actors do. My reservoir is full.”
The last time LA audiences saw Potts on stage was in Diva at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006. Before that you’d have to travel back to 1978 for a production of Vanities at the Cast Theatre. In between were 17 consecutive seasons on numerous network television series including an Emmy nomination for Love & War, feature films and raising three boys.
“I have people say, ‘isn’t it so hard to do this project?’” laughs Potts. “I reply, are you kidding me? It’s like ‘patty cake’ compared to what I have been doing. Even if you do two 80-minute shows a day, with makeup, I have put in six hours. I’m exhausted? This is what I did before lunch for most of my career. I am a real workhorse. I like to work 12-15 hours a day and go to sleep exhausted. If I don’t, then I feel I have fallen short of what I ought to have been doing that day.”
With that TV schedule, Potts says there wasn’t time to “do art” and she needed to “pack away money” to educate her children. “Not that the shows I was doing weren’t artful. Actors have to get what they can while they can. Not many of us even earn a living wage. They were great shows to do and I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I also had two babies during that time, almost like a wildebeest — have the baby and hope they can catch up with the herd.”
Doing theater wouldn’t have allowed her to tuck her kids into bed at night. Potts says she didn’t want them to be raised by others. But she did dream of the stage as a child growing up on a farm in Franklin, Kentucky. “When my schedule opened up — my euphemism for I wasn’t getting any paying work — I was like, I can do that now. And isn’t it what part of putting my acorns in the tree hole was for? So I can do what I have always wanted to do? What I was meant to do? Of course, I was 57 when I made my Broadway debut.”
A woman who watched her make that debut was the same one who set her feet upon the acting path. While attending summer camp at 12 in North Carolina, Potts was asked by Sylvia Bernard who ran the camp’s theater program to audition for a fully mounted production of Heidi. Potts got the title role. When the play closed, Bernard took the fledgling actress aside for a talk.
“Sylvia said, let’s sit for a while,” Potts recalls. “And she said, ‘you have a light. I think you should pursue it [acting].’ Nobody ever told me I had a light before. I thought then that is what I will do. She came to see me last year on Broadway. We have stayed in touch. I said, ‘I would never have had any of this without you.’ It’s true. You live for those people that come into your life. You never know. Just by saying one little thing, “˜pursue this, check that out,’ teachers have an enormous sphere of influence.”
Potts returned to her hometown and read every play in her local library and at the high school. When she was 13, the Kentucky Arts Council decided to fund local community theaters and put real directors in those settings. The Piccolo Playhouse was born in the basement of The Good Night Library. Potts recalls doing shows like The Curious Savage, Where’s Charley? and The Fantasticks. In a video interview as a 2010 National Award recipient of the bluegrass state’s annual Governor’s Award for the Arts, she said the building contains “sacred spaces to me. That’s where I was first able to practice my art.”
From Franklin she attended Stephens College and did summer stock under the direction of Jack Chandler in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Auburn, New York. Chandler was a taskmaster who blocked every move in the script even before rehearsals began. “He was a beast to work with but I adored him. He taught me to think small, that everything mattered. Every time you put your hand out, it mattered. Because I was very pliable at the time, I thought that was the way to work.”
She married college sweetheart Steven Hartley and the two actors went on the road to make money for a go at New York. That dream ended when both were in a severe auto accident while in New Mexico. Potts broke every bone below her waist. Hartley lost a leg. They spent time recovering in Santa Fe, where Potts took a job costuming while still in a wheelchair and on crutches. She saw a tiny ad in the newspaper announcing that representatives from CalArts were coming to town looking for graduate school candidates. Potts auditioned on a walker. Both she and Hartley were accepted on the spot.
“The guy said, do you think by fall you will be walking?” she explains. “I said, I think so. That was our best bet and how I got to California. I came to do graduate work in theater. What they failed to mention was CalArts had only been operating a couple of years. They really didn’t have a graduate program, which was problematic. There were about three of us, so I was put in acting class with people who literally had never been on stage before. I thought this is bullshit because by then I was walking with a cane. I was like, I may be crippled but I have skills.”
The couple found their way to the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, where she appeared in several shows including Cymbeline and The Merchant of Venice. In 1976, a former teacher gave Potts her first professional acting gig on the national tour of Charley’s Aunt starring Roddy McDowell, Vincent Price and his wife Coral Browne. All three took her under their wing. McDowell became a mentor, inviting Potts and Hartley to his weekly salons where they met stars like Ava Gardner.
“She was dazzlingly beautiful,” Potts remembers. “Her eyes were this color.” She points out a tile displaying a vibrant emerald green. “Ava had on jeans and a denim jacket. Her hair was just put up on top of her head in a chopstick and she was about the most glamorous thing I had ever seen in my life. After several drinks with my then-husband, she ended up doing yoga next to the pool. Head stands.”
McDowell got Potts an audition with casting agent Toni Howard who, upon hearing her read, gave the actress a starring role in a 1977 TV pilot for Hollywood High. Six months later Potts starred in her first feature film, Corvette Summer, and earned a Golden Globe nomination. “It seemed so easy to me then. I thought, I don’t know what people are talking about. This place is a snap.”
The role that landed her at the center of the pop culture landscape came in 1984’s megahit Ghostbusters and its 1989 sequel Ghostbusters II starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis. As wisecracking New York secretary Janine Melnitz, the Southern-bred Potts found herself with an alter ego who was hard to shake. In fact, she recently lent her voice to a 2009 video game version of the now iconic film.
“After Ghostbusters, I didn’t get any work for a couple of years because they said you are too ethnic, too New York,” she says. Then I did Designing Women and they said no, that Southern thing, it’s too much. You know, we are actors. That is what we do. We pretend we are somebody else from someplace else and all that entails. I am always happy to go in and read. It’s like, do you need proof I can say this in this way?”
Potts admits that until her AfterMath character came along, she hadn’t done the “New York thing” in a long time. “Julie is very different, I must say, from anyone else I have played. That I can remember anyway!” she laughs. “But it is fun to do. Once in awhile there is a little slip and my children would say, “˜we are hearing that in your voice. Please don’t if you are not on stage.’ It freaks them out.” Potts smiles mischievously. “It is hard to keep her from elbowing in every once in a while. She is pushy.”
Advice for Young Actors: Love it or Leave it
Potts attends a lot of theater in Los Angeles and doesn’t understand why name actors prefer to ply their trade on stage in New York rather than LA. “I would certainly like for that stigma to be broken. I don’t think there is any reason. This piece was developed right here in Southern California. I think it is wonderfully written and certainly a fantastic role for an actor my age. What’s not legitimate about that?”
She does concede that Hollywood’s youth-centric slant is less kind to women of a certain age. Summer stock pal Judith Ivey told Potts when she went to do Carnage that “older women are honored here. She was talking specifically about New York and theater. That is not the case in LA. You are kind of the last chair in the makeup room and it’s like, can somebody take care of her?” she laughs. “In theater, people come to see seasoned actors. They say, let’s go see that person do that. You don’t hear that much in the movies. Maybe for the men and maybe for Streep. But of course, she is the exception to almost every rule.”
Potts mentors budding performers and teaches master classes at her alma mater where she is a member of the board. She tells them they must first learn their trade on stage. When her middle son asked her to provide an agent introduction, she bought him a guidebook for young actors. If she could make it on her own, so could he — provided he wanted to act badly enough.
“He is at a college studying theater now,” she explains. “He needs that. I think everybody needs that. They need to know when a stage manager comes to your dressing room or the first assistant; they knock and say, we are ready for you. Or it’s half-hour or it’s curtain. And you say, thank you. Thank you. I don’t think it is helpful to tell kids anything else.”
Potts also warns them not to pursue acting unless it would devastate them not to perform. “Don’t even try. Because that is what it takes. I would die without this work. My soul just shrivels. People hear the word ambition and think it is some sort of Macbethian term. I was always ambitious because I loved it so much. And it has been hard to stay in the game. I came back after two broken legs, which ended my musical comedy career. But I regrouped because I knew it would kill me not to do it. If that is not your foundation, I don’t know how you would advance. Broadway last year. Black box on Sepulveda this year. It’s all the same to me. I just love it.”
Performing at the Odyssey drove home that point to Potts’ own kids. “It has been interesting for my children, who have grown up in trailers on sets, and who are used to people scurrying around being super-nice to me and them. Can I get you this, can I get you that, come into the makeup room, etc. They come to this little theater and see I am cleaning up the cups myself. I share a dressing room and it’s funky. My little one came yesterday and he was like, this is it? And I said, yeah, this is it. Isn’t it great!”[News update: On March 1, it was announced that Potts is set to play an affluent Dallas matriarch in ABC’s dramedy pilot Good Christian Bitches based on Kim Gatlin’s book. The show stars Leslie Bibb as Amanda, a former high school “mean girl”and recent divorcee who returns home to find herself the center of gossip by churchgoing wives. Potts will play Amanda’s overbearing mother, Gigi. According to Deadline Hollywood, it was one of three offers fielded by Potts.]
*** All “AfterMath” Photos by Ed Krieger
AfterMath, produced by Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger, plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm and 5 pm; plus Sat. 12th at 3 pm through March 13. Tickets: $25-$30. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles; 310.477.2055 or odysseytheatre.com.