The actress discusses her role in Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Actress Jane KaczmarekOriginally aired on March 2, 2017
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Jane Kaczmarek. She made millions laugh as the matriarch Lois in “Malcolm in the Middle”, but she’s got a serious side when it comes to politics. She joins us to discuss how she’s handling Trump’s first 100 days and to talk about her dramatic role in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Jane Kaczmarek in just a moment.
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Tavis: Jane Kaczmarek is best known for her hilarious portrayal of Lois in “Malcom in the Middle”, but the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native is now reviving a dramatic role she first performed at Yale School of Drama, Mary Tyrone in the Eugene O’Neill classic, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Here now a sampling of her latest turn for L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse.
Tavis: So what do you make of that?
Jane Kaczmarek: Well, I remember this was before we opened and I caught myself saying a couple of lines incorrectly [laugh].
Tavis: You weren’t supposed to say that on television [laugh]. None of us would have known that if you hadn’t said that.
Kaczmarek: Well, now they have been corrected [laugh]. I think that’s a good thing about being classically trained as an actress. You keep working on it even though the play has opened [laugh].
Tavis: I like you already because you are transparent, honest, open [laugh].
Kaczmarek: The Midwest, Tavis, the Midwest.
Tavis: Me too. Indiana.
Kaczmarek: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to Madison.
Tavis: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, yeah, exactly.
Kaczmarek: I have to give a shout-out to my Badger pals who are great fans of yours also. Tracy and Marcie and David and Tom and Mary.
Tavis: Love them dearly. Since you went there, let me ask you right quick, how you holding up? I know how busy you were during this campaign and I know that some of us have family members who don’t see this the way we see it.
Kaczmarek: Well, you know, I refer to my family in Milwaukee as my favorite basket of deplorables [laugh]. You know, I think the gloves really have come off in this. You know, the thought of not hurting someone’s feelings or not, I find this president has so hurt the feelings of every human being in this country and the civil rights that he is trampling on.
So I’m not too worried about hurting the feelings of him or the people who support him. And I know we’re not supposed to do that. At school, they’re telling all the children, you know, you have to find common ground. Sorry, there’s no common ground.
Tavis: How have you reconciled yourself to the moment that we find ourselves in? I say reconciled not in terms of accepting it, not in terms of going along with it, but in terms of how you process day-to-day. I saw a comedian the other day make the joke.
Said something like, “I’m just waiting for one day when I wake up and I don’t get a CNN alert that scares the heck out of me.” He didn’t say heck. I’m kind of cleaning up for PBS [laugh]. But how are you navigating every day?
Kaczmarek: Well, Saturday Night Live has been a great elixir.
Tavis: Yeah, it has, yeah.
Kaczmarek: You know, that has been a real rallying cry, I think, for all of us to say, yes, this is just something we never thought we’d be seeing in our lifetime. I have two daughters, though, who I’m very proud of.
My daughter, Frances, in North Carolina School of the Arts, she’s a ballet dancer and she went to hear Hillary and Michelle talk. She’s been in the protests in North Carolina. My Mary Louisa who’s 14 in L.A., in Pasadena. We’ve got a great group of very liberal-minded human rights blessed women in Pasadena and they have been very, very active about it.
You know, I turned 60 — I’m 61 now — but I kind of thought the rest of my days after President Obama was going to be, you know, we are now going to be living in that country we dreamed of, right?
Tavis: We turned the corner, yeah.
Kaczmarek: Turned the corner.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kaczmarek: And I never thought my next 20 or 30 years would be, hopefully, getting back — not hopefully. We will get back to where we’re supposed to be as human beings and as moral characters in this country and in this world.
Tavis: To your point about being in an arts program, I’ve had so many conversations over the course of the last couple of months since he’s in office with various artists of your ilk on this program.
The conversation at some point always seems to go here, so let me take it there now, which is how then do you see perhaps differently than before — I don’t know — your role as an artist, as a citizen artist, in this moment? Does that make sense?
Kaczmarek: Yes, and it’s a scary thought because I think we are often as artists thought of as being the receivers, you know, if you get the job, if they ask you to be on a show, that you are the person who hopefully gets the call.
In “Hamilton”, what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done to shake us up, to wake us up, you know, I always think of the pitch he must have given that he was going to write a rap musical about the founding fathers in this country. There wasn’t going to be a single star in it and they were going to be played by people of color.
Tavis: Yeah, we’ll buy that [laugh].
Kaczmarek: Oh, where do I write…
Tavis: Get outta here, yeah [laugh].
Kaczmarek: Because the conventional wisdom is you need a name, you know, and look what that guy did. And children everywhere, my kids have that soundtrack. You know, they had it memorized back and forth, plus what they learned about history from it.
I think of what Lin-Manuel Miranda did to all of us to say to stand up. Stand up. Speak out. You do have a right to say this is what I want to show you as an actor onstage. This is what I would like you to think about and listen to.
I can’t tell you how moving it is to do this play and to have people write me email saying, “This is exactly what I want to see when I go to a play. I want to think about my life. I want to think about the people I love. I want to think about what I’m doing with my life.”
I think, as an actress, storytelling is what I always loved. I remember seeing “Our Town” with Judith Light at the Milwaukee Rep. And Emily’s speech at the end of “Our Town” is all about what is really important, you know, Mama’s butternut tree, the smell of coffee, clocks ticking. This is right after she’s died.
It’s those small, beautiful, the sacred ordinary, they call it, that is what is really, really important in life. I think, as artists, if we can shake people up, even wake them up, to realize that that sacred ordinary is what they really need to applaud, appreciate and get everyone onboard with, we’re doing our job.
Tavis: Since you mentioned Lin-Manuel Miranda who has, obviously, done a remarkable job and has written himself in the history books of Broadway play success and beyond, I await to see what more he has in store for us.
Kaczmarek: Well, immigrants, we get the job done, right?
Tavis: That’s exactly right. So he’s made his contribution and will do, obviously, a great deal more. In this moment, I am personally happy to see August Wilson getting all the respect that he deserves, thanks to Denzel and Viola and the wonderful run on Broadway and at the theater of “Fences”.
And every time I see Denzel show up somewhere, the first thing he says is when he runs his list, Eugene O’Neill — he works his way up to August Wilson. But he always starts his speeches…
Kaczmarek: With Eugene O’Neill.
Tavis: With Eugene O’Neill. Why and what do you make of the brilliance of Eugene O’Neill?
Kaczmarek: His language was so beautiful. You know, there’s something about “Long Day’s Journey” that you find in August Wilson and great playwrights…
Tavis: Tennessee Williams…
Kaczmarek: The language is so beautiful. I have a quote from Susan Santog about “Don’t live in a linguistic slum.” There are so many brilliant ways — well, poetic — of describing a situation, of describing what you’re talking that now, you know, everything seems to come down to the same da-da-da. We know what it’s going to be.
You listen to the language and the celebration of life that those playwrights had, the storytelling technique is just amazing. It’s why I’m memorizing it. You know, it’s a long play, but it was much easier to memorize than a lot of modern plays because the story continues.
You know if you start here talking about when you were in the convent and hoped to be a nun when you were young, which, unfortunately, many of my friends laugh at when they’re in the audience. I don’t know why they’re surprised with the guy ever [laugh]. But, you know, it’s easier to memorize because you’re really telling a story and you’re really tracking something.
You know, August Wilson, when I was at Yale, Lloyd Richards was the Dean. I was in his first class there and Athol Fugard first came and did “Master Herold” and “Lesson From Aloes” and some great plays. And then August Wilson came and was there forever.
I remember seeing Courtney Vance on Broadway playing the son in “Fences”, which when I see him in “O.J” and everything he’s done, and Angela Bassett, we were all in school together. It’s just magnificent to see this and to see the beauty of that life and those words in a movie like “Fences” because the Broadway production was pretty great with James Earl Jones and Courtney, yeah.
Tavis: Pretty amazing, yeah. Speaking of Yale, so I mentioned in my introduction that you did this play when you were at Yale in your 20s.
Tavis: 26. Okay. So I’ve been dying to ask you…
Kaczmarek: That year when you really know everything [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I wanted to ask you –– I take nothing away from your life’s journey, but what did you know about loss at 26 [laugh], and here you are now reprising this character?
Kaczmarek: You know, actresses tend to be dramatic [laugh]. Before I had children, you know, all you wanted to do was play, you know, what Meryl Streep was doing. You wanted to be in a concentration camp. She was a child. You wanted to be — those things had such — oh, they were what you wanted to do.
Boy, and then you have kids and you get divorced and you understand what that pain is really about. It’s a big difference between the imagination of thinking what that might be like, and I can bring that to the stage as to being this age and having experienced certainly not a lot of pain and loss compared to a lot of people in this country, but in my own way.
I mean, my husband was everything to me. For anyone who’s been through a divorce, it’s such a loss of the children, everything you’ve had, and it’s very easy in this play to tap into that. You know, Stanislavski, the great acting teacher, wrote when he was young, “Use sense memory. If you have to think about someone dying, think of your dog that died or your grandpa and substitute it.”
And when he was older, he wrote, “All you have to use are the given circumstances.” Once you’re of an age, you just have to say the line about having loved and it’s over, and you’re right there. You just know right where that is.
Tavis: I want to ask a question at the risk of you slapping me. So I’m gonna lean back when I ask you [laugh].
Kaczmarek: Hey, this isn’t Lois anymore.
Tavis: I know, but actresses can be dramatic [laugh]. So lest I get slapped, let me ask this. I don’t know how this is going to go over. I’m going to do it anyway. So I love Bradley Whitford. I think he’s a wonderful actor. He’s been a guest on this program a couple of times over the years, so, okay, cool.
So when you talk about divorce, obviously, Bradley Whitford pops in my head for obvious reasons. And I wonder, based on what I’ve read, to what extent, if at all, you blame art, your craft, in part for that — if you’re willing to talk about this.
If you don’t want to, I’ll shut up and move on — to what extent, if at all, you blame art for that and how as an artist you have to assess blame on the thing that both of you chose as your careers. Does that make any sense?
Kaczmarek: Yes, it does…
Tavis: If I’m out of bounds, tell me, yeah, yeah.
Kaczmarek: No, no, no. But there’s a big difference between art and show business.
Tavis: Okay, fair enough. I accept it.
Kaczmarek: You know, Bradley and I were both from Wisconsin. We met in New York. He was doing “Shakespeare” at Lincoln Center with my great friend, Kate Burton. You know, we met and had a very, very happy many, many years. He had gone to Juilliard. I went to Yale. We went to the theater. We had a very similar idea of what we wanted to do with our craft and our lives.
There was also no internet. You know, you would get together in the evening and talk and read and have a cocktail. It was a very different time. We had the great bad luck of both of these shows happen at exactly the same time. I had a great time having difficulty in having a baby.
Finally, I had Frances. She was 18 months. We were trying to have another baby. One day, the phone rang and it was NBC, that “West Wing” had been picked up. The phone rang the next day. It was Fox. “Malcolm” had been picked up. The next day, the doctor called. I was pregnant again.
Tavis: Hold on, hold on. Literally, three days in a row? Gee whiz!
Kaczmarek: And I said to Bradley, “Wow, I wonder if our lives are going to change.”
Tavis: [Laugh] That’s too funny.
Kaczmarek: I was pregnant the first season of “Malcolm” and the great thing about it was both shows were so celebrated that we went to all the award shows together. Our careers were so similar in the acclaim that we were getting from those shows.
Tavis: We couldn’t avoid the two of you [laugh].
Kaczmarek: Sorry about that [laugh].
Tavis: If we wanted to. We loved you both, yeah, exactly.
Kaczmarek: But Brad loves working more than I do. He and “West Wing”, you can understand. That show was just incredible. So I would insist that I was home at a certain time on “Malcom” because I had children to feed and nurse, etc.
You know, I was doing a show with Bryan Cranston who was wonderful, but the rest of them were kids. I didn’t really want to hang around, no offense to anybody. Guys on the “West Wing” were really fascinating people and I think it was a different experience. But it’s so time-consuming and Bradley worked during a hiatus. I wanted to just go to Connecticut, our home, and do nothing.
I think we had a very different idea of ultimately how to spend the day. I’ve really enjoyed being home and raising my kids and being involved in my community. I’m on the board of the Pasadena Educational Foundation enhancing public schools in Pasadena and the Conservatory of Music.
My community is very, very important to me and my children are. Not that they’re not to Brad. I don’t mean that. He’s a wonderful father. But he likes to take exciting work and go away to do it [laugh]. I like to stay home.
Tavis: Let me circle back then, since you went there. Let me circle back to this question. What do you now, in retrospect, make of the way those three phone calls changed your life forever?
Kaczmarek: You know, be careful what you wish for. Wow. I mean, financially, it was just incredible. I mean, when I talk about staying home and choosing work I want to do, I’m able to do that because I’m Polish and I’ve saved every nickel I’ve ever made [laugh].
Tavis: Favorite food, Polish sausage?
Kaczmarek: Oh, Klements Fresh Polish. Bring it back every time I come back from Milwaukee.
Tavis: I figured, I figured, yeah, yeah.
Kaczmarek: And I also was so lucky with “Malcom” that I got a lot of acclaim from it and felt, well, now I did that. Wow, people think this. What do I want to do now? Because I knew I didn’t want to do a TV show again. It’s too time-consuming. Life’s too short.
As I said, I’m at that point in my life now where you really have to think. You know, your days are numbered. What do you really want to do now? Alfred Molina, who’s with me on…
Tavis: Your stage husband, a few times now.
Tavis: Four times, yeah, yeah.
Kaczmarek: Fourth time together. And we’re looking for our next show. I said we’re the Lunt and Fontanne. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were so famous. I refer to us at the Luntfontanneskis. We’re the Polish [laugh], which is great. This is one of the things you realize you’re getting older too because there’s a certain amount of the population that was born who knows who that is.
Tavis: Who get that joke, yeah.
Kaczmarek: Like Colin Whittle and Stephen Grush who played the sons are kind of like…
Tavis: Don’t quite get it, yeah. Since you raised his name, I’m glad you did because there is the journey that you have been on, the journey that Bradley Whitford has been on, but you mentioned Bryan Cranston.
He was here not too, too long ago and I had a chance to say to him — I think he received it and appreciated it — but I had a chance to say to him how just giddy I am about having interviewed him so many years ago.
He’s come back on the show. Unlike some stars who get so big you can’t get them booked anymore, Bryan will come back on the show. And it’s been so cool just to go back through our own catalog of interviews with him…
Kaczmarek: And seeing him with different hair styles [laugh]. It’s always so funny. Wow, what was I thinking [laugh]?
Tavis: But just to watch how his career has just exploded. But you were with him every day back in the day. So like what do you make of seeing your friend, your — I mean, what do you make of that?
Kaczmarek: You know, he has one child, Taylor, who is a wonderful actress in her own right, who I admire so greatly because she took her mother’s maiden as her stage name so that people wouldn’t automatically think she was Bryan’s daughter, which is pretty terrific. And she’s a wonderful actress.
This is the best part to me about Bryan. I went to college, then I went to Yale. I got an agent when I was at Yale. I came to L.A., I got the first job, first audition I ever had. I have had a really — Bryan has worked his [bleep] off. He was going to community college, you know, to be a policeman.
Took an acting class, then he went through — he’s having pictures and resumes, putting them under agents’ doors, having showcases, trying to get somebody to pay attention. When people like that who have that talent and that perseverance make it, the world is a good place.
I couldn’t admire him more and he is so down to earth. I was interviewed for New York magazine. The New Yorker was doing an interview about him and the fellow had said to me, “I can’t get anybody to say anything bad about this guy.” [laugh]
Tavis: Until he comes to you [laugh].
Tavis: I’m being funny, I’m being funny, yeah, yeah.
Kaczmarek: But I think everybody cannot wait to talk about what a great time they had with Bryan. You know, one of the things that really — the kid who played Dewey, the little hamster kid with the ears? He was an only child. His mom and dad were in Boston. His mother stayed with him living in the Oakwood apartments.
Bryan had one daughter, Taylor. They were about the same age and Bryan would often take Dewey and say to the mother, “Go home and see your husband in Boston this weekend. I’ll take Dewey.” Well, Eric was his name. He would give Eric an opportunity to be in a family with a dog and a kid. They’d go to basketball games together.
He said “I really think Eric would enjoy kind of just being in a family situation here as opposed to the Oakwood.” I thought I like those kids as much as any TV mom, but I’m not gonna take one home [laugh]. Bryan did that. I mean, Bryan thought of that. Bryan also knows the lyrics to every song ever, which when you’re sitting around on a set for hours and hours, Bryan entertaining you…
Tavis: You got to do something, yeah.
Kaczmarek: He sings. This is what I’ve been bugging about is doing a musical because he’s got a fabulous voice. He was in Milwaukee doing his book tour and my basket of deplorables [laugh] went to see him.
Tavis: Went to see him, yeah, sure [laugh].
Kaczmarek: You know, he had them backstage. He filmed my mom coming out of the men’s room as a joke. She’s 89. She was like I thought it would be so funny. Just go in there. That’s fine. It says “Men” and then you see Evelyn Kaczmarek walking out [laugh]. You know, he referred to us as the Gregorski girls. He treated them like he was…
Tavis: Like family, yeah.
Kaczmarek: Like family. Yes, he’s a remarkable guy.
Tavis: So you were talking about TV, how hard it is. It is. Those days are long, a lot of stuff to memorize. This in a short play, that’s a lot of material to get through every night.
Kaczmarek: You know what? This cast is so well-suited. One of the things we’ve really tried to do with “Long Day’s Journey”, which I’ve seen many productions of it and I’ve never seen this, is that Fred and I, Alfred, really wanted to play it for love of this family.
These two, Mary and James Tyrone, were absolutely crazy about each other and that she gave up, you know, the ecstasy of religion hoping to be a nun and going to the convent school for really the ecstasy of the flesh when she married this guy, you know. And it turned out to be a bargain she wasn’t ready to take on because that led to children, obviously. That is where babies come from if you didn’t know that.
Tavis: Thank you for telling me that.
Kaczmarek: As my mother refers to it, the marital embrace [laugh]. We’re very Catholic.
Tavis: I see [laugh].
Kaczmarek: But it’s this desire to get back to what that love was when you were young and you first met. And when you start here and you see a family that really might have been wonderful and you see it disintegrate, it’s a great journey to go on.
If you start this play when everyone is already miserable and hating each other, it’s a long three hours. People said this really goes by pretty quickly and it’s not just because I talk fast [laugh]. I do, but it’s an interesting way of telling the story that I’ve never seen.
Also, Mary Tyrone is from the Midwest. You know, she’s often played by very ethereal women, all that fog and everything, but James Tyrone says in the fourth act when he’s talking about her, “She was full of mischief. She was a rogue. She loved the love of loving. Your mother never could have given up the flesh to be a nun.”
And I thought she was a lot like me, not the ethereal women who often portray her. So what I’ve really tried to do is put in the Catholic girl, me, with a lot of Midwestern energy who becomes a morphine addict in 1912 [laugh].
Tavis: And there you have it [laugh]. “Long Day’s Journey” at the Geffen Playhouse through March 18. It is, of course, a Eugene O’Neill classic. I’ve enjoyed this immensely. You have to come back again.
Kaczmarek: I will. Well, let’s do this. We can talk about theater in L.A. and Eugene O’Neill [laugh].
Tavis: Jane, I love you. Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight…
Kaczmarek: So much fun. Thank you.
Tavis: Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith [laugh].
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