Finding the Way In
Betty Buckley’s career is a series of lessons.
Betty Buckley is a perpetual student.
She has performed in every medium, from theater to film to television to concerts, and each new endeavor challenges her to learn something.
One of her best known roles, Grizabella from the iconic musical Cats, required that she study not only the music and vocal skills, but also to find the soul of the character.
Buckley explains, "Well, it was quite a process to learn to do it. I'd been studying with a great, great voice teacher named Paul Gavert for 13 years. He was quite a genius teacher. My job assignment was to stop the show, because they knew the song could stop the show as the great Elaine Paige in London had done so in the original company.
"I had stopped shows before as a young singer growing up in the business, but I never knew why. It was always kind of random. Sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn't. I was at a point where I had been studying for a long time, acting, storytelling, singing.
"It was through the exploration of learning how to do "Memory" and how to become the Glamour Cat, Grizabella, who is down and out on her luck and nearing the end of her life. It took quite a lot of prayer and meditation and concentration and lessons with my teacher and following the guidance of our great director, Trevor Nunn, who also wrote the beautiful lyrics of "Memory," and listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber and the work with Gillian Lynne, our choreographer, who was quite a genius.
"She just passed away recently. It was a real loss in the musical theater community."
Other teachers in her quest for the essence of the role came to Buckley through following homeless women around New York City. She says, "Trevor had told me that Grizabella embodied everything that we, as a culture, fear most, the loss of her glamour, her beauty, death and dying, her illness. She was heading towards death. In 1982, we, as a community, were just starting to become aware of the huge problem of homelessness.
"The universe quite generously, through an answer to my prayers and my meditation about guidance about how to play the role, had these lovely homeless women cross my path whose hair was the color of my Grizabella wig, whose makeup was white and pasty with smeared lipstick but still trying to retain a sense of their own glamour, even though they were really down and out and on the streets.
"That was the final touch of inspiration that gave me the perspective as to how to find my center and sing the song. Before I encountered those gifts from the universe, so to speak, I was trying really hard to do the song the way everybody told me.
"What I observed in those women was their serenity and their kind of centeredness in themselves as though to say, 'I know who I am. I wish we could spend time and connect, but I know you're busy and won't choose to see me. This is who I am.'
"It helped me understand the depth of humanity in every single person. Grizabella, to this day, is one of my great teachers, the character Grizabella. I think she's like a soulmate, a friend, and one of my great teachers.
"Through all the years I've been singing her song, every time I sing her song, I enter that space of being her. She continues to give me new insights as to life and how to see life and have compassion for all of life and all other beings. That's kind of it in a nutshell"
Fast-forward to one of her most recent roles, Madame Marie L'Angelle, in AMC's Preacher. The character is a Voodoo sorceress, grandmother to the lead character, Jesse Custer, the Preacher of the title, personal friend of Satan, and consumer of souls to maintain her youth and energy. Suffice to say, the character was a fun challenge for a student of psychology and human interaction. It didn't hurt that Buckley was already a fan of the show.
"I was a fan of the television show, the first two seasons. In season one, I just randomly came across it channel-surfing one Sunday night. I became really intrigued with the show and thought, 'What is this?!'
"[I'm a] huge fan of Ruth Negga and Dominic Cooper and Joseph Gilgun, who plays their sidekick, a vampire. Then I noticed it was produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I thought, "Well, that's weird." And that the Showrunner/Producer was Sam Catlin, who did Breaking Bad.
"I just thought the iconoclastic nature of the show ... I mean, it took a few episodes for me to get what they were doing and what it was about. I just think the acting is great and the work of the filmmakers is great, their whole team. I'm really intrigued with the style of the show, which is serious but very funny. It's really iconoclastic social commentary on everything, culture, religion, notions of good and bad and humanity and everything.
"I'm a student of universal spiritual philosophy and comparative world religions. I've studied that for years and I find that really fascinating. So, I really liked, when the show is at its best, how it's, as I said, provocative, but it forces you to reexamine your belief system about spiritual beliefs. It's parody, too, and social commentary. I really became a huge fan of the show."
As luck would have it, the Producers were fans of Buckley's work, as well. "I was at my ranch in Texas in January. I got a call from my agent saying they were interested in me for the Madame Marie L'Angelle, the grandmother to Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper.
"I was just ecstatic because it's not always that I get to be considered for a show that I'm a huge fan of. I was really, really thrilled. When I got the role, I was just dancing around my living room. I was so happy!
"Almost immediately after I was cast, we went right away to New Orleans and started shooting. I had long conversations with Sam Catlin, the Producer/Showrunner and Head Writer, and Michael Slovis, our Producing Director, and our great Costume Designer, Jill Ohanneson, about how they saw the character. I read the graphic novels that the show is based on, and I took the scripts to my psychologist, because I wanted to give a really accurate portrayal."
Giving accurate portrayals of interesting women is becoming a staple of Buckley's work. She says, "At this point, I have a little collection of ladies with aberrant psychologies. I really enjoy playing those roles almost more than anything, because that's what I really studied to learn how to do.
"When I was a young actress, I studied the career of the great Kim Stanley and watched her work really scrupulously, and the wonderful Geraldine Page. I wanted to be a real truth-telling actor like those two ladies and really do really truthful, raw, emotional work.
"I've been a student of human psychology since my early 20s and have at this point, through my own psychoanalysis and working with major psychologists on scripts and stuff, I have really, in my experience, the equivalent of a master's degree in psychology.
"I still take all my scripts to my psychologist to make sure I'm getting an accurate portrayal. For the film Split with M. Night Shyamalan, I was one of the co-stars with James McAvoy. I played his psychologist and he played a character with multiple personalities, with DID, dissociative identity disorder. I wanted to give a very accurate portrayal of a psychologist who worked with DID patients. So, I worked with her on that.
"But out of all these different ladies that I've played ... most fortunately, I've had a really blessed, eclectic career. I never played a Voodoo sorceress who survives by consuming other people's souls. I love the metaphor of that, because I think there are people who survive in our country by living off the backs of other people and their soul, their energy, and they don't care.
"I wanted to really paint an accurate portrait. It was challenging, and I had to work fast, because I got the part and immediately went to work. It was really, really fun. I knew the style of the show from just watching it, fortunately. if I hadn't known that, it would be a very different thing. They were so welcoming and so happy I was there and very collaborative. It made it all very lovely. The four months I was working on the show was truly one of the best jobs I've ever had."
Another recent job that Buckley enjoyed was her stint in Supergirl on the CW. "I did three episodes for them this past spring. When Preacher called, they let me out of one episode to go shoot my Supergirl stuff and then the last episode, so I was available to shoot. I did one episode last year. That was a delight.
"Melissa Benoist is just an amazing girl that plays Supergirl. She is a super girl. I worked most primarily with the lovely Odette Annable, who played the villain, Reign. I played her adoptive mother, who tries to reconcile with her daughter through the show. Jessica Queller, the writer/producer, is the Showrunner of Supergirl. She's an amazing person. I really enjoyed working with them and the whole crew in Vancouver. It was a blast."
Buckley's next project promises to be both fun and challenging. She is playing Dolly Levi in the new touring company of Jerry Zaks's Broadway Production of Hello Dolly! Buckley says, "I'm in rehearsals for the First National Tour of the new Broadway Production of Hello, Dolly! directed by Jerry Zaks. The show closes on Broadway at the end of August, and I take it out on the road for a year.
"We go to Utica, New York to tech the show. We leave September 10th. We tech there for approximately two weeks to a month and then we do two performances there September 25th and 26th. We officially open in Cleveland October 5th for three weeks. Then four weeks in Chicago and then several weeks in Florida. Then we have three weeks off.
"Among other cities, we'll be in L.A. for three weeks at the Pantages Theatre the end of January, 2019."
Buckley has had very little down time this year, but she isn't complaining.
She says, "In the first week that I was doing Preacher in New Orleans, my agent called and said, 'Scott Rudin, the Producer, wants you to take the Hello, Dolly! production on tour next fall.' I was like, 'What?" Now, there's a show!' I'd seen it with Bette Midler and I thought she was incredible - Jerry Zaks's production, Santo Loquasto's design, the ensemble. Everything about that show was one of the greatest pieces of musical theater I've ever seen.
"I was weeping, as was the entire audience. We stood and wept with joy and rapture at the end of the show. I was turning to my companions saying, 'This is truly one of the greatest pieces of musical theater I've ever seen!' It's funny, because I had seen the show from the time I was a teenager. I'd seen it in our local summer stock theater, I'd seen it on Broadway with Pearl Bailey when I made a vacation trip to New York my senior year in college.
"So, I'd seen the show, but I never understood the show. I never connected with it, as a young person. The storytelling that has been illuminated through Jerry Zaks's genius was just perfect.
"I was truly overwhelmed with the offer and intimidated, because it was never a role I'd thought of for myself. But it's been such a gift this year to go from playing this evil, evil Cajun sorceress with very dark needs and dark intentions to this utterly delightful, joyous human being who celebrates life so completely, Dolly Levi, and celebrates love. She's like a magician in terms of putting people together in relationships and a lot of other things.
"It's been kind of a schizophrenic year so far. I'm immensely grateful. I also just realize that because Bette Midler made Dolly Levi look so effortless, I didn't realize how incredibly difficult and what a massive role this is. It's huge. She just never stops talking, and she dances! I didn't realize that either, because, again, Bette made it look so effortless.
"It's very challenging. It'll be very challenging to do it eight times a week for 44 weeks, but it's a real gift of a job and I'm very grateful.
"I'm very grateful to still be on the planet and still being asked to do my work in the world, definitely. Really grateful."