Actress Annie Potts

The Emmy-nominated actress explains how she navigated her career after Designing Women and the influence her Southern and church upbringing had in her decision to take the role in the new comedy-drama GCB.

Not only has Annie Potts created several iconic female roles on the small screen, including in such shows as the long-running sitcom Designing Women, Love and War and the drama Any Day Now, she also has theater chops and numerous film credits. She received a Golden Globe nod for her turn in Corvette Summer and voiced the memorable Bo Peep in Toy Story I and II. The Emmy nominee is an aluma and former board member of Stephens College in Missouri and recently returned to series TV as the societal matriarch of Dallas in the new comedy-drama GCB.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with Emmy-nominated actress Annie Potts. For years she’s been a powerful figure in film and television, including a role on the hit series “Designing Women.”

This year she’s back in prime time on the new ABC series “GCB.” The show airs Sunday night at 10:00 and also stars Kristin Chenoweth.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with actress Annie Potts, coming up right now.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: So pleased to have Annie Potts on this program, finally. The Emmy-nominated actress has enjoyed so much success over the years in both film and of course television. In 2009 she also fulfilled a lifelong dream of appearing on Broadway, thanks to her wonderful role in the acclaimed play, “God of Carnage.”

She is back now in prime time on ABC, the series “GCB.” The show airs Sunday nights at 10:00, and so here now a scene from “GCB.”

[Clip]

Tavis: You and these Southern belles.

Annie Potts: Yes, well – yes, I am one. (Laughter) I haven’t been able to avoid it.

Tavis: Obviously you enjoy doing this, though.

Potts: Well, I do. I do, and I don’t have to have a Southern accent, but when I am employed to use it, it is like sinking into my bedroom slippers. It’s like, oh, yeah, that’s better. (Laughter) Yeah, this is – I’m comfortable in this.

Tavis: How much thought did you give to taking this role, because again, we’ve seen you in this Southern belle – not this particular role, but we’ve seen you play this type before. So did you give much thought to whether or not you want to do this again?

Potts: Yeah, about three seconds. See, Bobby Harling, who wrote “Steel Magnolias,” wrote this. When I first saw it, it’s taken – it’s based loosely on a book called “Good Christian (blank).” I saw that title announced in one of the trade papers here and I thought, I believe there might be something in that for me. (Laughter) Something maybe kind of juicy.

So in fact that was the case, and so I was – I love it. I’ve had enormous privilege and pleasure to play these great Southern women. I come by it, it’s my – I spent some time studying that growing up, and I love to play them.

Tavis: For those who have not seen the show, tell me about your character.

Potts: Well, she’s sort of the Auntie Mame of Dallas. Lots of money – oil, of course – and my daughter has run off 18 years ago because I didn’t approve of her husband.

Meanwhile, my husband’s dead so I’m a widow, and anyway, there’s a big scandal and she has to come back home and live with me, and I’m thrilled to have her.

There is a community of people that – the hub of our show happens around the church, Hillside Memorial. We don’t single ourselves out as any particular denomination.

But it’s all about hypocrisy, really, in religion, and I think people are taking a shine to us I think in part because we, in these economic times, people just love to see rich people make fools of themselves, because yeah.

Tavis: Well, any time.

Potts: Well, yes, that’s true, but especially now, because people start thinking oh, if I just had more money I’d be okay, and then you see people like this and you go hey, maybe not so much.

Did you think – and I don’t know that there is; you tell me – did you think, though, that there might be some pushback from the church, whatever that means? I ask that because this thing, seems to me, can only have been done in Texas, but Texas is also the Bible Belt, and just starting with the title alone, much less the stuff we see every Sunday night, did you ever think that this would be a -

Potts: Well, I figured – you scandal works for TV.

Tavis: Yeah, it does.

Potts: It helps to have that. I think that a lot of people got up in arms. Newt Gingrich declaimed us. Of course, he hadn’t seen it. Somebody said to me later it was like, “Hey, now that’s what you want in a president, somebody who just judges something, goes, ‘Well, that is anti-Christian.’” It’s like, well, you didn’t even look at it. That’s who we want dealing with world leaders, isn’t it? Ooh. (Laughter)

Anyway, so we wore that as a badge. It’s like, “Hey, Newt Gingrich said we are just terrible. Tune in.”

Tavis: God, I – who was that, was that Dan Quayle that “Murphy Brown,” was that “Murphy Brown?” Yeah, “Murphy Brown.”

Potts: Oh, yes, he made that show.

Tavis: And Dan Quayle back in the day, yeah, yeah. He made that – exactly.

Potts: Yeah, Rush Limbaugh came after us, too. The usual suspects in that kind of conservative fashion that would – and of course our creators are Christians. They’re just what they wanted to single out, I think, is the hypocrisy in it.

I’m getting a lot of letters and tweets and things from people who are Christian people who are happy to see the hypocrites called out. It’s like, “Yeah, y’all go.”

Tavis: I know you were raised in the South, obviously.

Potts: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: We discussed that earlier; at least intimated that earlier. Were you raised in a church?

Potts: I was, I was.

Tavis: So how does all this strike you, then, this outing of the hypocrites of the church?

Potts: Well, I think all true believers love to have hypocrisy routed out. What do they say – sunshine is the best disinfectant? Put it out there. Call it what it is. Satire is always helpful for society. That’s its use.

Tavis: I want to come back to the Broadway thing I mentioned earlier, “God of Carnage.” Before I get to that, though, when, how – I’m always curious with persons who’ve been doing this for a while – when, where, how, take me back to the moment where you knew that acting, that being a thespian, was your calling.

Potts: For me, when I was little I grew up in the country, in rural Kentucky.

Tavis: You were born where?

Potts: I was born in Nashville because that was the closest hospital.

Tavis: Right, but raised on Kentucky. It’s right on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

Tavis: I’m glad you cleared that up, because I’m a stickler for doing my research and I kept reading she was born in Tennessee, she was born in Kentucky; she was born in Kentucky, she was born in Tennessee. You can’t be born in both places, so now I’m glad you cleared that up.

There was no hospital close enough to your town in Kentucky.

Potts: Right.

Tavis: You went to Tennessee to be born and then came back home.

Potts: Right. Yeah, it’s just 50 miles away.

Tavis: All right, I got it now.

Potts: So I grew up there in this little postcard down with a courthouse in the middle and each Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian church right on the square, Catholic church down the way a little bit, you know. (Laughter)

But we grew up in the Presbyterian church and my parents always said we were Presbyterian because the Presbyterians believed in a little bit of everything, which I gathered later meant that it was okay to have a drink. (Laughter) Which they certainly enjoy doing.

But anyway, there was nothing to do there, and so they sent us off in the summers up to summer camp, up in the mountains and North Carolina, and the one we went to had a wonderful little drama program, and the woman who ran that, Sylvia, who I’m still in touch with today – I love you, Sylvia – she called me.

She said, “Would you like to audition for the play? We’re going to do ‘Heidi,’ and I thought you might be right for the role of Heidi.”

I was like, “Oh.” So I auditioned and I got the role, and at the end of the summer she pulled me aside and she said, “You know what, darling? I think you might have a little light.” I was like, “Oh.” Nobody had ever told me that I had a little light.

That was it for me. I went home and I was like, “Well, that’s what I’ll be.” I didn’t have a lot of support for that kind of thing in the little town that I was in, so I just set myself the goal to read a play every day, so I went through the Good Night Library – that’s what it was called, that was our little library right off the town square. (Laughter)

I read everything they had. I read it all. So by the time I got to college to get my degree in theater, I was certainly well read.

Tavis: If nothing else, huh?

Potts: If nothing else.

Tavis: Well-read, with a light.

Potts: Well, of course they were like, “I think you’re going to have to change your accent. I was like, “Oh.” Okay, anyway, so I dropped that.

Tavis: How – I’m glad you raised that, because obviously in this business sometimes you own it and sometimes you let it go. As you said earlier, the accent, and sometimes it comes in handy.

How big a hindrance, how big an obstruction is that in this business today for these young actors who are coming on who do, in fact, have accents?

Potts: Well you have to neutralize it, otherwise you have no flexibility. That became – you have to – well, if you want to be in the theater, you have to have that – not that phony thing, although that comes in handy every once in a while if you’re doing something like that (laughter), but you at least have to have good American stage speech, excellent American stage – you have to be understood, and if you have a Southern accent or you don’t articulate very much and things kind of slide out and everybody’s like, “I don’t even know what they’re saying.”

So of course you have to do that. It’s part of training.

Tavis: So to the point earlier, after all these years from those humble beginnings, you apparently still have this love affair with the stage. As much as we have come to know you on the screen, this love affair with the stage still exists, I take it.

Potts: Oh, well, first love, you know? First love, there’s nothing to rival it. As my children were growing up, they really didn’t mind me going to work at 5:00 in the morning too much, but they kind of liked to see me to tuck them in. They never liked me being in theatre much because I couldn’t do that.

But then they got old enough where they didn’t really care if I tucked them in anymore, so first chance I got it was like, “It’s been awesome kids.” (Laughter) “Mommy’s got to go back to the theater now.

Tavis: I’m glad you told that story, because I was about to ask how could you be in love with something so deeply and so drawn to something, and it took you that long – ’cause it ain’t – pardon my English – it ain’t your gift or the lack thereof – took you so long to actually get to Broadway?

Potts: Well, it’s because I loved my children more.

Tavis: I take that.

Potts: I had to mother them, but really kind of as soon as they were kind of up on their own, then I went back to it.

Tavis: Since your kids, according to your story now, Annie, were so integral to the decisions you made about stage versus screen, how important have your kids been to the decisions that you have made to do, to not do, to accept, to not accept, certain roles?

Potts: Everything. Everything. You are of course bound to be there. I didn’t have my children for other people to raise, although I certainly leaned on a lot of other people to help me do that. But the consideration always was first what was going to be manageable for them.

Part of it was like, hey, we’re a circus family. We travel, you have to kind of get with it, but kids like to be planted. They like stability, they like – and it’s one reason I did series.

My oldest son was getting to be school age and we’d been running all over the country, sometimes living in hotels, didn’t have a kitchen, and he was starting regular school, he wanted to be on a soccer team. So I took “Designing Women.”

Tavis: Nice segue. Thank you.

Potts: And you know what? (Laughter) It turned out – it worked out for me.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, it did work out. I’m glad you went there. I was last night, as I often do at night when I’m done reading and stuff, turn the TV on and there’s always an episode of “The Golden Girls” on, like episode after episode after episode.

I like “The Golden Girls” because the writing is so witty and it was so funny and so clever.

Potts: Great.

Tavis: Not unlike “Designing Women.” But I was thinking last night, in preparation for our conversation today, about how significant “Designing Women” was then in terms of a woman ensemble cast. We’ve seen that kind of framework come and go, but as you look back on what you all were able to do in that particular show, what do you think of that work, in retrospect?

Potts: Well, I think it was a groundbreaking show. I think the kind of rule of thumb is that women can’t be beautiful and funny, and I think there was four beautiful women on that show who were all really funny. Not only that, four beautiful women and a Black man. People had never quite seen that combination.

Tavis: That was a little funky.

Potts: Oh, it was awesome. That still shows all over the world. Meshach Taylor, who played Anthony on the show, he was in South Africa and during or just as apartheid was on the way out. He learned that that show had been quite beloved there because it was so promising to them, that they could see people working together like that.

Tavis: You’ve worked pretty regularly in your career, thankfully. But when you have been on a show that is that popular and it goes away, how do you navigate forward?

Potts: Well, I always have plenty to do. I quit in 2002 because one of my children was having some trouble in school, and he was diagnosed with a learning difference, and I could not work 15 hours a day and address the issues that he needed to be addressed.

At that point I had done 17 seasons straight of TV, so I was a little tired, although I’m such a workaholic I’ll just go till I’m hanging from my straps. But what stopped me was the kid needed attention and I didn’t have the time to give it to him.

So I went and I said, “I can’t.” I was doing “Any Day Now” for Lifetime.

Tavis: I want to talk about that, yeah.

Potts: My favorite. My favorite show. I was down here at the theater in town, they were doing “Clybourne Park,” I don’t know if you – did you see that?

Tavis: I haven’t seen it yet.

Potts: Well, it’s fabulous. It’s won the Pulitzer Prize. But I looked at it and I had a wonderful writer, Nancy Miller. She did 88 of those. She did one a week. It was – with that – anyway, I loved that show. It was my very heart, and I reluctantly had to go, and it shut the show down. But I had to take care of my kid, so. He’s great. He’s in college now, doing very well.

Tavis: So obviously you don’t have regrets about that, you made the right decision for your family and for your child. But how do you emotionally process walking away from something, something that you love, knowing that your walking away is going to shut down the project? Again, you have no regrets about it, but how did you come to that decision?

Potts: It was hard, but all I had to do was look at his beautiful face and know that I needed to do what I needed to do with that. I thought, I can pick up my career later, but I really can’t blow this. I can’t blow what this kid needs, because that can’t be picked back up.

Tavis: I’m not saying you made the wrong decision. Clearly, you made the right decision. But you can’t always pick your career back up later. That’s why I’m asking how difficult a choice that was, because I know people who have taken a break and tried to come back, and they can’t get arrested in this town.

Potts: Well, that’s exactly what happened to me, now that you mention it, and I had had such a breezy career, really. I just went from one thing to the other. I was never out of work or people wanting me for work for a minute.

So I thought, okay, I’ll get the kid on track and then I’ll come back, and something awesome, maybe not as fantastic as this, but I’m totally a workaholic. I’m one of those people, I love my work so much I arrive every day at every job I’ve ever had, it’s the best day of my life. I’m so glad.

I’m happy to see you all today. (Laughter) I’m just – I’m like a racehorse. Just give me a track. I’ve just got to run. I thought, well, it’ll be there for me, and so once I got the kid all situated and everything, it was like okay, whew, I can go back now.

It was like, “Really? Well, we kind of forgot who you were.” It’s like, “What?” I didn’t know quite know what it was happening. It was like, “Well, you are 50, or whatever,” and not everybody can pick that up. It’s not easy for women in their fifties. There’s just – it’s a rate of attrition. There’s just – and the roles that are there, you’re either insane or you’re a drunk or both.

That could be fun for a minute, but I do think that there’s a little more breadth to the character of women in that age group. But there just wasn’t a lot and so a friend of mine, a dear friend of mine, called me. She’d seen “God of Carnage” and she said, “I saw a play last night.” She said, “You should do that play.”

I went, “Oh, what is it?” and she said, “It’s ‘God of Carnage,’ and really, you’re perfect for it.” About six months later I saw a little, tiny article in “The New York Times” that said they were turning the original cast, they were fantastic, Marsha Gay Harden, Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis.

So I saw the (unintelligible) call my agents, and I said, “There might be something in that for me. I haven’t seen it.” They said, “Oh, we’ll check it out.” So the director sort of, I don’t even know why, it might have been divine intervention, said he would see me, and I got the role.

So I fulfilled my lifetime dream of going to Broadway at 57, my Broadway debut. It was so awesome. (Laughter) It was so great. It was like if somebody had told me when I set out that it would take me 45 years to get there, I don’t know if I would have been able to soldier on. But it was – the waiting kind of made it sweeter, I have to say.

Tavis: Timing is everything.

Potts: It is.

Tavis: Timing is everything. My time is just about up, speaking of timing.

Potts: Really? That flew by.

Tavis: It moves really fast. My staff doesn’t even know this, because I haven’t told them this story, but this is my 20th year now in the broadcast business as a talk show host on TV and radio, so as you know, once you do this long enough, if you’re fortunate, at some point some TV show, some movie director, calls you to ask you to do a cameo or to play some small part in a series.

Potts: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Years ago, the very first call that I ever got to play -

Potts: Yourself?

Tavis: Not myself, I played an etymologist, was on a TV show – first time I had a speaking role. I got my SAG card to do this. Guess what show it was on? “Any Day Now.”

So I’m going to dig this photo out at my house. It’s on this – you walk in my house in my office, it’s on the wall.

Potts: Really?

Tavis: A picture of Lorraine Toussaint grilling me on the stand. I’m an expert witness in a case that she was trying on “Any Day Now.”

Potts: Wow.

Tavis: Now, I’ve been fortunate to do many of those things since when it fits into the schedule, but the very first time I did that was on “Any Day Now.”

Potts: That’s – wow.

Tavis: So there’s my “Any Day Now” story.

Potts: See, I’m telling you – that show was awesome in so many ways. So many.

Tavis: Yeah, I loved it, so.

Potts: I wasn’t there that day.

Tavis: No, you weren’t. So this is our first time meeting. So after all these years of being on your set that day, you were – it was a scene with just the two of us; you were off that day. But it was – my friend Obba Babatundé played the judge. It was a great, great scene. So thank you, after all these years, for creating a show that I had a chance to be on.

Potts: Hey, listen, maybe we have something in the future.

Tavis: Maybe so. And I love Lorraine, she’s a great actress.

Potts: Awesome.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Potts: Thank you.

Tavis: The show is “GCB,” Sunday nights at 10:00 on ABC, starring Annie Potts. Good to have you on.

Potts: Thank you.

Tavis: I enjoyed this. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

[Clip]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

 

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Last modified: April 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm