Even when she’s munching through a tuna salad, it’s clear that although Julie White was born in San Diego, she was raised in Texas. “The Great State of Texas,” she emphasizes.
White recently replaced Jean Smart, the victim of a broken foot, in LA Theatre Works’ radio theater production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall. White has known Nauffts, a dear friend, for years and had taken part in workshop readings of his play, but she was committed to another project when Next Fall made its way from Off-Broadway sensation to Broadway. A tragic tale of two men in love and two parents in denial, it won a 2010 Outer Critics Circle Award as best new American play and a Tony Award nomination for best play. The West Coast premiere of Next Fall occurred last fall at the Geffen Playhouse.
Regarding her role as the mother of the younger of two men, White says, “I’m more Western, but this character is more Southern, like Florida or Georgia.” But geography doesn’t matter much in this case. “My family’s way of dealing with tragedy is trying to keep a good face on it, keep everyone entertained. This character talks about this, she talks about that, as if she could talk the devil out of the room.” There is no need to act, she maintains. “No, you just put yourself in that place.”
That place frightens White, a single mother whose daughter Alex, now 25, has made it to college. “One thing I’ve always been fascinated with, is how do people go on when they lose a kid? This play is about the moment of loss.”
Sitting on a couch in a vacant studio at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, we touch on David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2007 Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole, which shares a similar theme. “I couldn’t see it. I chickened out. I should’ve seen Cynthia [Nixon] and [John] Slattery do it on Broadway, if I was going to see it. I always think of Lockerbie and all those super kids” [35 Syracuse University students were killed in the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland]. “They were the future. How did their families go on? Or those people from Cantor Fitzgerald and Aon [Corp.] in the trade towers with the ink on their MBAs not even quite dry. I just wonder how do you get through”¦ how?”
She doesn’t suggest an answer. Rather she turns on a dime with a joke. “I’ve lost husbands, but only through neglect. They’re both still alive. I just don’t know where they are.”
She’s funny. Quick-witted. So sharp. It’s easy to see her as the 2007 Tony-winning actress for her role as the amped-up, controlling Hollywood agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed which enjoyed a run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008. But it’s White’s relationship with playwright Theresa Rebeck that provides the foundation for much of her career.
“It’s been almost 19 years since I did Spike Heels. That was when we met. Then we did Family of Mann and the play she wrote for me, Bad Dates and, more recently, The Understudy which she wrote for me after a bad break-up. You can’t have a better friend than a playwright when your heart’s a little broken.”
White abuses the notion that she is Rebeck’s muse, although she admits Bad Dates “really was all about my dates. Theresa is her own muse. I just think I’m a good interpreter, a conduit to the audience from her psyche.”
New York City has been White’s home since she was 19, her first “choice” as an actor. But she brought her daughter, Alex, who was then six, to Los Angeles to shoot the Brett Butler TV sitcom Grace Under Fire. “I had been raising my daughter with blinders on. And when she got to be about 12 and was having this real happening social life, I thought I had to get back out there and go on a date. I went on some really terrible dates.”
She tried the dating scene in LA through four seasons of the show and stayed long enough for her daughter to go from first grade to ninth. “Theresa came out to visit and I was sharing some dating horror stories. And because she’s the most prolific and genius plotter, the next thing you know she comes back to LA with 40 pages. The next time she comes out she’s got a two-act play. We did a reading of it, and my friend John Hickey was staying with me and he said he wanted to direct it. We called Williamstown and they said, sure, we’ll do a workshop of it, and the next thing you know we had a play.”
Her most recent marriage ended four years ago and she hasn’t yet found the motivation to date again. “That marriage was bad,” she drawls. “I’m not having another man in the house for a while. I think I was shell-shocked.” She lingers on the seriousness of it only for a moment and then turns again to humor. “It’s embarrassing. I was telling Theresa, you go to a restaurant, meet someone, shake hands and within 35 seconds you realize the horror of at least a couple hours of making conversation with someone you know you’ll never see again and you so wish you had never gotten out of your sweat pants. It’s awful when you long for a piece of SkyLab to fall on the restaurant just so you can get out of the dinner.”
Yet she knows what she wants. “The kind of men I like really love women. They like and respect us. But they’re probably married, so I have to wait like in musical chairs for her to drop out for some reason. I am a footloose and fancy free woman. I don’t report to a 9-5 job. I play golf. I travel. I’m fun. I just want someone to travel the world with me. Is that too much to ask?”
It is not the only thing that may be too much to ask for. She struggles to control her destiny. “It’s tough in this business to do that,” she says. “I’ve developed shows. I did one for HBO called Women’s Studies. It’s about a women’s studies professor at Vassar and the fate of feminism. It was super funny, but no one picked it up.”
She also developed a show for CBS. “It was about a drugstore on Congress Avenue in my hometown of Austin called Good Drugs.“ She laughs at the irony, lamenting that it’s another project that still lies dormant.
“Alec Baldwin said that great thing about when he was young, 30 people had to die before he could get a job and now a hundred people have to die.” She guffaws. “I think there are really very few people in show business who are making “˜career choices’. Usually actors don’t have that much power.”
At some point, she says, success is measured by your ability to control your talent and not have to do things for money. “I was friends with the great, hilarious playwright Herb Gardner. He used to say, when you get those TV shows, you have to save your money so you can buy your talent back. So I’ve always tried to keep my expenses low so I wouldn’t have to go get another one ofÂ those.”
She is made richer by her recurring role in the Transformers movie series. “There’s always that question how much money is enough. What am I going to do, say no? The world needs saving! There’s robots out there and somebody needs to run away with their hands in the air!”
Ad-libbing her lines in the first movie, White says, may have enabled the audience to fall in love with the family dynamics. “They kept pulling us back out there, even though they don’t really need us ““ they just need clankin’ robots. But every man, woman and child in China wants to see them, so I guess they’ll keep making them. Kevin [Dunn] and I just show up in our matching track suits and say something stupid.”
Yet Transformers is not it. It is not enough. “I’m really sad that there’s no Harry Potter for American actors. I know I would’ve ended up a teacher. I would’ve been a Gryffindor.” She admits to trying to wheedle her way into The Hunger Games movie series. “But I failed. The thing is every British actor is in Harry Potter! I would love to be in something epic. Don’t you think all those hobbits look back on The Lord of the Rings and say, dude, we did that!”
White remembers seeing another iconic movie, Titanic, with her daughter, mother and grandmother 15 years ago. “Four generations of us in that theater seeing a story that started with an old woman. It was the last movie my grandmother Ruby ever saw. We were just blown away by it. Who doesn’t want to be in something that stays around for posterity?”
Theater is too ephemeral. “You do it and it’s gone. So if you get something that’s going to be around forever you want it to be something that defines its time. I think Titanic really defines that time.”
Then, as if on cue to not languish on too serious a moment, White sits up. “My grandmother was so funny. When she heard Celine Dion sing, she leaned over and said, “˜Is this that Whitney Houston girl?’ “˜No grandma, it’s Celine Dion, but you were really close’.”
Ephemeral or not, White had an opportunity to work on yet another play by her friend and neighbor Rebeck ““ the world premiere of Poor Behavior at the Mark Taper Forum last fall, in the role that Sharon Lawrence performed. “Theresa writes a lot with me in mind, but it’s really the Theresa character. I was going to do that show, but I had done a pilot for ABC and they hadn’t released me. They finally did at the beginning of July and I said I’d do it. Ten days later USA offered me another pilot which was going to shoot in New Orleans.”
The production schedule overlapped with Poor Behavior’s tech, previews and opening. “I could’ve conceivably flown back and forth but if there was bad weather, which there was, I would’ve been so panicked. She was so mad at me but she did forgive me. Eventually.”
White recently wrapped up shooting Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which she plays Elizabeth Blair, who became known for her letters from wartime Washington. The film stars Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. And after this short commitment to Next Fall, White returns to the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York to develop Alfred Uhry’s Carl’s Sister, based on the book Apples & Oranges by Marie Brenner. But developing a film ““ the film ““ still calls. “I would like to tell a story about women I grew up with and that part of Texas I was raised in. But I may not have the strength and courage to produce. I know people who do it, and it can be so much work for a lot of heartache.”
She switches into an old lady’s voice. “I just want to learn how to decoupage.”
But first, perhaps, a date. What would the right date look like? “Oh,” she muses, “about 32.”
Next Fall, presented by LA Theatre Works. Opens tonight. Six performances only. Plays Thur.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Jan. 22. Tickets: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall on the UCLA Campus, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, Westwood.Â 310-827-0889. www.latw.org.