Actors play roles. They pretend for a living. And while the role they play originates in the fertile brain of a writer, is then interpreted by a director, and has to be adjusted to the overall concept of a film, in practice the best actors are truly the co-creators of the characters we finally see on the screen. They strive to become a fictional person in manner and motivation, but they often undertake extensive independent research into the life of the character (often digging beyond the script into what is referred to as the "back story"), and draw upon personal emotional memories in a quest for bone-deep authenticity. (An actor who claims to understand a character more deeply than the director or even the screenwriter is not necessarily exaggerating.) The distinction usually drawn between stage and screen acting is one of scale: theater performances have to be projected to the audience over a distance, while film acting has to look authentic even in microscopic close-up. An actor working in movies faces the additional challenge of maintaining these hard-won real-life textures in a highly technical, mechanized medium, in which body language and even line readings have to be coordinated with camera movements and anticipated editing rhythms. Under the circumstances, great acting can seem magical, a triumph over daunting odds.
Elizabeth and Quilly
"Our principal characters are Elizabeth Barney and her sister Quilly McGrath, women over 50 who live in Elizabeth's apartment. This is during World War II, times are hard, so to make ends meet Elizabeth agrees to rent out a room to a young man -- Husband Witherspoon --who's coming up from the South to look for his girlfriend Lou Bessie. And as the story unfolds so do our emotions."
"As the play is written, it's very easy for Quilly not to have a life. She'd have a mouth but not a life! Deborah has a mouth and a life so she envisioned her character Quilly with a life, and she created it very beautifully. Quilly is so animated and so verbal and just gregarious in nature that it really points up the absence of spontaneity in Elizabeth. But it really wasn't absent, it was just dormant."
"So enter the young man who opens a door to possibilities, and now Elizabeth is going out in the evenings, going to movies, drinking champagne and all kinds of things that she never did before. Her spirit is lifted not by the evenings out per se, but by company in which she can express herself. There's no tension between her and this man, and that's a relief because she's lived with so much tension, so many pent up feelings. She can talk about country things. His awkwardness, his country ways don't bother her at all, she finds them very charming because her happiest memories are of growing up in the country. The thought of returning to that life with him, oh my god, it's just thrilling for her."
"The language of 1943 Harlem is very interesting. These people had come from the South and had been in Harlem for a little while. Except for Lou Bessie, they're not trying to discard their mannerisms. Lou Bessie is desperately trying to reinvent herself, to become someone other than she is or was. Elizabeth and Quilly are not like this. They're more settled in life and in age, and they still retain traces of their speech patterns, although they've lived in Harlem for so many years. They're very well-mannered women -- sometimes Quilly is, Elizabeth always is. They know how to greet and welcome you. Lou Bessie just walks right in looking for what she's looking for, but it isn't because she's a bad person, it's because she's needy."
"The most challenging scene is the final scene. And that's because there is so much going on internally with Elizabeth. And the challenge for me was to understand what those things were and to trust that my feeling and understanding of them was enough. Not to try to do anything."
Sisters in Real Life
"There's a dynamic in sister relationships that I've seen attempted in a number of productions, but I've never seen one more beautifully and poignantly written than this relationship that we find in The Old Settler, it is so truthful and so very honest."
"My sister and I have never quarreled about a man, thank God! Lord knows we have had our fights with bobby pins and bobby socks but never a man. We have had our disagreements through the years about one thing or another. Not a lot, though. My sister and I don't have that kind of relationship. Ours is a relationship that is fueled by our professional pursuits and development. We've always had this in common."
"Fleshing out these characters, we talked a lot about the two sisters. My sister and I know these two sisters, because we have parallels in our family, we have aunts that we could look at pairings of and see where there would be similarities, or if nothing else, just the apparent differences of personality. So we had a lot to draw from. Oh we would laugh about that!"
Transforming the Play
"There was an opportunity to bring this play into television form. It still is a play but in television form, so that meant that we could open it up. Things that the characters only spoke about in the play we could actually create scenes to reveal what they talked about, so that as an audience we would see it first hand. This was wonderful, and really challenging."
"The play as it's written takes place in the apartment only, and we were able to create a set that allowed us to move through all the rooms. We really moved through that set, and it's beautiful because it has a real life, it has real motion to it. Deborah is a master at choreographing that camera, and it really works."
Working With Ms. Allen
"Along with paying attention to all details, Debbie pays attention to details in design, she pays attention to every phase of production. It's really wonderful to see."
"Debbie is a hands-on director, she has a vision of what she'd like to see but she's not closed to what the actors bring, and she likes those surprises. Her development is very technical on one hand and she's so spontaneous on the other, so it's a very interesting way of working with actors. She looks deeply into a character's thought, feeling and motivation, deeply into what they're not seeing, and she helps bring actors to that point, too."
"It was amazing to watch Debbie juggle rolls as actor, director, producer, because she's so aware of everything around her. I know, I saw the child fix a light that was behind her without even turning around. She senses and feels where everything is. She understands where she wants people to walk and how their body should be positioned for the camera. Let's face it, this is a very technical medium: It's beautiful to get into your character and to have your emotions, but that doesn't mean anything if the camera can't see it. And yet you're not playing for the camera, so there's a fine line to be walked and she walks it very well."
Ms. Allen on Directing Ms. Rashad
"I am Phylicia's best director. I directed her in her first movie Polly. I know Phylicia so well. I know when she is giving me what I know she can give and when she is holding back. I know when she is acting and when she is being. I can say, 'let it go, don't act... don't show me, just be.' She will take the note with no ego. And I think she enjoyed having someone close to her helping keep a mind and an eye on her that way. I'm looking at what she's doing, at her hair, at her make-up. We have a shorthand. I can say things and she says, 'got it, got it.' She takes direction very well from me. And at the end of the day we love each other very much."
Phylicia Rashad stars as Elizabeth in The Old Settler, the first production in the new PBS national television drama series PBS Hollywood Presents. She is also co-executive producer of the drama.
Phylicia Rashad is known to millions of fans worldwide for her roles as Claire Huxtable, Bill Cosby's on-screen, high-powered attorney wife on The Cosby Show, and Ruth Lucas, Cosby's on-screen "better half" on Cosby. In a remarkable career that began on the New York stage, she has won widespread acclaim as an actress and singer. The recipient of two NAACP Image Awards as Best Actress in a Comedy Series for her work in both Cosby shows, she has also earned two People's Choice Awards and two Emmy nominations.
Ms. Rashad's numerous credits include the television movies Free of Eden with Sidney Poitier, David's Mother, False Witness, and Jailbirds. Her work in The Old Settler makes this her third film--after Polly and Polly: Comin' Home--directed by her sister Debbie Allen. She appeared in Kwyn Bader's independent film Loving Jezebel and received another NAACP Image Award nomination for her work in Tim Reid's feature film Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. She has also guest-starred in such series as A Different World, Murder She Wrote, Touched By an Angel, and Bull. Her most recent feature role is in Jordan Walker Pearlman's independent film, The Visit.
On Broadway, Ms. Rashad has appeared in the hit musicals The Wiz, Jelly's Last Jam, Into the Woods, Dreamgirls, and Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. Her most recent off-Broadway credits include Everybody's Ruby, and the New York and Los Angeles productions of The Vagina Monologues. She created the role of Angel Allen in Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta, where she also appeared in Medea. Featured in the critically acclaimed world premiere of Blue at the Arena Stage Company in Washington, D.C., she will reprise her role in the New York production of the play, which opens at the Roundabout Theatre in the spring of 2001. An accomplished and versatile singer, Ms. Rashad also performs on the nightclub circuit and as a guest soloist with major symphonies across the United States.