Chance to witness a true Hollywood star

This interview got off on the wrong foot... well not exactly the wrong foot, but with a misunderstanding. I made the mistake of saying in my opening remarks that I had re-watched the film version of Frankie and Johnny the previous evening to reacquaint myself with the story prior to our conversation. Well it seems it was the wrong thing to say because my remarks were greeted with a shriek of disapproval. It would seem that everyone has had similar thoughts and I really shouldn’t have bothered because the play and the film are entirely different.

While, both are written by playwright Terence McNally, the film has been opened up to play out in the diner where Frankie works as a waitress and Johnny is a recently released prisoner, working as a chef, the play is entirely centred on Frankie’s New York apartment.

In the film, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, we meet the pair’s work colleagues, in the play they are a cast of supporting characters which remain firmly offstage.

The landing of Kelly McGillis is a major piece of casting for the Middle Ground Theatre Company who is bringing the play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune to both The New Wolsey Theatre and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Both Kelly McGillis and co-star Rolf Saxon are no strangers to big screen success. McGillis was one of the major screen icons of the 1980s. She soared to the heights of big screen stardom opposite Tom Cruise in the ultimate 80s blockbuster Top Gun before dancing with Harrison Ford in an Amish barn in Witness and championing Jodie Foster’s fight for justice in The Accused.


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Meanwhile Rolf Saxon, Britain’s resident American actor, has himself played opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible and Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment. While both stars have enjoyed their big screen success, it’s clear that their love of the stage is what brings them to this side of the pond.

For Kelly, who has enjoyed a thriving stage career in the States, says that British theatre offers an intimacy that the larger New York theatres lack. It is an intimacy which benefits a play like Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. It’s a bittersweet comic-drama, a story about a New York waitress who is afraid to commit to a relationship for fear of getting hurt. Ex-con Johnny, on-the-other-hand is sure that he has found his soulmate. His problem is convincing Frankie that she has nothing to fear.

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The play is a delicate mix of funny and tender, dramatic and sad. Kelly McGillis says that its a joy to play and her role can withstand endless investigation. “I am exploring new facets of the character each night. Frankie is a fascinating part to play. She has a lot of depth. It’s brilliantly written and I am just loving the opportunity to play her every night and discover something different about her.”

She said that the play has a more brooding atmosphere than the film and at times has a slightly claustrophobic air, as the action never leaves Frankie’s apartment - the place where Frankie and Johnny return to after their first date together.

“For me the fact that the play doesn’t leave the apartment is important because both these people feel very trapped within their worlds. It’s a story of two people who are very damaged by life. They come with a lot of baggage - which many people do - and they are trying to figure a way into a relationship with all that baggage attached. For me the strength of the play is that it doesn’t have a pat happy-go-lucky ending but it does have a hopeful ending. It’s a thought-provoking piece which should get people talking.”

She said that the play was more realistic about life and relationships than a lot of public images would have us believe. “We all enter relationships, and I don’t just mean romantic ones, where we have to accept the other person as they are, with their brokeness if you will. We are all damaged to some degree by life and by our experiences. By accepting others it allows us to grow as humans and that’s what I think this play is about.”

She said that she hadn’t seen the play before she was offered the part. After her agent passed on the offer of a British theatre tour, she read the play and she said she was gripped by the opportunities that the part offered. Also the opportunity to do a theatre tour in the UK was something that was very appealing.

“I love to travel. I haven’t spent much time in England before this, although I did spend a couple of months living in Southampton when I was having a boat I’d bought fitted out. I’ve also been to London a couple of times but that’s about it. So this tour is a fantastic opportunity to see Britain and get paid for doing it.”

So does she prefer theatre to film or TV? “I don’t prefer one to another. It’s just different media for telling a story, a different media for an actor to play a part. I don’t prefer one way over another, I just want to be able to earn my living from my chosen profession. I like the variety. It keeps things interesting. Sometimes it will be incredibly artistic and other times it won’t.”

She said that there was a perception that she had an on-off relationship with acting but that wasn’t true. She had always wanted to be an actress from a young age and still got a huge thrill from performing but she did admit she did drop from sight during much of the 1990s.

“The truth is I got married, had kids and suddenly there were different priorities which had to be addressed. Life happened,” she laughs. “Raising kids was a pretty big priority. People say I disappeared from the stage or the movie theatres but I didn’t stop wanting to be an actor. I was busy raising a family. The kids grew up and I went back to work.”

She said that she doesn’t regard her time away from the stage as downtime either. “All an actor has is the life experiences he or she can bring to a role. The more you live life, the more experiences you acquire and the more information you can bring to the parts you play.

“Take Frankie and Johnny. You couldn’t play either of the parts in this play unless you had experienced some of the ups and downs or life. Knew about the fears and insecurities that plague us all from time to time. This feeling of being alone in a big city. This desire to protect yourself from emotional harm by shutting out the world. This is all grown-up stuff.”

She said that contrary to popular belief, America did have a thriving theatre scene but it was unfortunate that the big Broadway spectaculars seemed to steal all the publicity. “I think there is a lot of theatre going on. Regionally there has always been a lot of really interesting smaller theatres but sadly I think because of the economic situation a lot of the smaller venues are having to close. Broadway is the place that gets all the publicity and all the money but if you look beyond that, then you will find a lot of smaller, more interesting work going on.”

She added that what was exciting for her was the fact that Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune brought a very American sensibility to this side of the Atlantic. “It has a very American feel to it, so I feel right at home over here doing it. What is interesting is that some of the audiences get a lot of the American references and some don’t and I haven’t quite worked out yet why that is. But, I do find audiences over here are very engaging and very generous. We have had some very educated audiences who have gotten the fact that the tone of the play changes as if goes along.

“People start off laughing, which draws them into the story and helps form quick attachments to the characters. Judging the tone of the piece is quite a delicate thing. I think that Terence (McNally) has written a very clever play because it goes from being very funny, to very intimate, to very touching and then goes back to being very funny. It’s like a well-written piece of music with highs and lows, different movements and themes playing around, but in the playing of it all I can do is just be as truthful as I can to the character. I have to let Terence McNally’s writing do the rest.

“I think it’s really incredible to have an audience laughing one second and being really moved the next. Also the audience is different every night, so the reactions are different. It’s like having a new character in the piece every night.”

Speaking of her early successes playing the civilian instructor in Top Gun, opposite Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins and Anthony Edwards, playing Rachel, the young Amish widow in Peter Weir’s beautifully filmed police corruption thriller Witness and finally appearing as Jodie Foster’s Oscar winning movie The Accused as the single-minded district attorney determined to bring a gang of drunken rapists to trial.

She said that she doesn’t regret such a high profile beginning to her career. I venture that perhaps she may have liked to ease herself into this series of blockbusters rather than emerging almost straight from drama school into this Hollywood treadmill. “No I don’t regret it. Everything has happened in my life, exactly the way it should. There’s no point in thinking I should have done this or I should have accepted this role or turned that one down. I don’t live like that. You just have to accept your decisions as you make them.”

She said that because she was so young, she said that the scale of their success and the attendant celebrity did come as something of a shock. “I think I was psychologically unprepared for everything that happened. I accepted the roles because it was work. But, at the time I had my heart set on being a theatre actress. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be making a hit movie or even three hit movies. That wasn’t a reality to me.

“And I found being in the public eye very strange. People wanting to know things about you. It was a little weird. But, having said that I learned some incredible lessons about myself and the world around me.”

She said that she realises that celebrity culture has always been part and parcel of the Hollywood system, and so to some degree you have to buy into it if you choose to work there but she adds that the inexhaustible nature of showbiz journalism has changed beyond all recognition during the past 20 years.

“I think there is a bizarre need to know everything about everyone and I personally don’t want to know everything there’s is to know about someone’s life. Where’s the sense of mystery? Where’s the dignity in that? I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that.

“I think it’s my responsibility revealing what I want to reveal and revealing it when I want to reveal it.”

This is an oblique reference that Kelly came out as a lesbian in April 2009 on SheWired.com. It was a statement managed by her, rather than being a press interview where she had no control over how it was reported. She said that she had been coming to terms with her sexual identity since the age of 12.

As for her professional life, her next project after finishing the tour of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune is an appearance as a nun in a new post-apocalyptic vampire road movie called Stake Land. “We shot the movie last year almost next door to where I live, so I was up for it and it was huge fun to do. That was another life experience. I had never done a horror movie before and it was tremendous fun. It’s all about trying something new and just living life to the full.”

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from March 22-27. Tickets are available on 01473 295900 or online at www.wolseytheatre.co.uk and at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester from April 5-10. Tickets are available on 01206 573948 or online at www.mercurytheatre.co.uk

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