The Tony- and Emmy-winning actress explains what attracted her to the character she portrays in her latest stage play, Other Desert Cities.
Actress Stockard ChanningOriginally aired on October 17, 2011
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Stockard Channing to this program. The Tony and Emmy-winning actress and former “West Wing” star, of course, now headlines the critically acclaimed stage play “Other Desert Cities.” The production opens in New York City at the Booth Theater on November 3rd. Here now, a scene from “Other Desert Cities.”
Tavis: Ouch. (Laughter) Sounds to me like somebody’s on the precipice of doing something that Mama ain’t too happy about. I’ll let you explain the play, though.
Stockard Channing: Well, the thing is I can’t explain all of the play because it really is a mystery play.
Tavis: All right, mm-hmm.
Channing: Because every one of – there are five characters in the play, and I would say four out of those five have secrets, and they really are not what they seem, including Mama. (Laughs)
Tavis: Right. How would you describe what it is, though? How do we get folk to at least be interested enough in it to want to go see it without giving it away?
Channing: Well, frankly, it is true, this is a family living in – the parents live in Palm Springs, the father is a retired actor, they’re both Republicans, friends of the Reagans. My character is a long-retired screenwriter, very right-wing, but in an old-style Republican way, a Reagan Republican way.
They have three children, the eldest of whom in the ’70s was implicating in a bombing and recruiting center, who was a wild kid, a young man who subsequently disappeared, killed himself, leaving behind two other siblings, the youngest of whom is now a TV producer. I’d say probably that character is in his late twenties.
The middle sister, who I’m talking to at that point, was a novelist, very successful and very screwed up, especially after her older brother’s death. Both children are I would say more left-wing or more contemporary than the parents are.
So it is a family play, and the daughter comes to Palm Springs at Christmas Eve to tell them that she’s written a memoir which hopefully will exorcise the ghost of her older brother, which brings up all these issues – privacy, if you will.
I think the most fascinating thing about doing the play is that every member of this audience literally changes their mind about these characters and who they are, and not one of them is exactly who they seem, with the possible exception of the daughter, who literally is kind of nervous breakdown for five years, who is someone who represents the thing of telling everything.
That if you reveal everything, everything’s going to be all right, and that, in just a small “p” political way, is really the issue of the piece.
Tavis: That was very nicely done without giving it away.
Channing: Thank you. I have no idea what I’m talking about. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, I’m just glad you were here to do it and I don’t have to do it, without giving stuff away. You do a lot of Broadway. You like plays.
Tavis: What was it about this – now that you’ve explained it, what was it about this particular script that attracted you to this particular character?
Channing: Well, I’ll be honest, I got the play, they sent it to me about a year and a half ago, and I said, “Could we just have a reading of this?” because I didn’t really think I could do it justice. This character is quite far away from who I am, what I believe in, et cetera, and it wasn’t until we sat down, five actors, including myself, and read this out loud that I realized that there’s tremendous power, and the passion of it, how moving it is, that these are five people who honestly love each other.
It is not some get the guests kind of evening, you know what I mean? The complexity of my own character, I really didn’t realize when I read it on the page. It was only the more we performed it, especially in front of an audience, and I felt what was happening to an audience I was very glad I made the decision.
But any time you sign on to something you don’t know what the end result’s going to be.
Tavis: Yeah. When you said that you didn’t think you could do it justice because it’s so far removed from who you really are, I assume you’re talking in part about political ideology.
Channing: I am, I am, and that’s important.
Tavis: Tell me why you think that makes it difficult to play as opposed to what many actors tell me, the challenge of doing something that is so far away from who they really are.
Channing: Well, ultimately, it was a challenge. I just didn’t know if I could meet the challenge.
Tavis: I got it.
Channing: So it wasn’t until I sat down and opened my mouth and said those words, the first words out loud, and played with the other actors, and then started to lift, that I realized it wasn’t just me trying to do something that might be a challenge, it was something that was going to work, and it was going to work for an audience, because you could feel it in the room, how much power there was.
Tavis: When you get to this point in your career, where you’ve played such a variety of characters over the years, are there things that you are specifically looking for, to our conversation now, that really do challenge you as an actor? Things that you have wanted to do or not done or thought that you couldn’t do but you’re looking for that challenge as you grow into your craft?
Channing: As I said, I don’t think it’s a question of a challenge as an actor. I want to go working with good people on something that’s good, because otherwise it’s a big waste of time. I don’t have that much time. (Laughter) If you look at something and you say, “Well, that’ll be interesting for me to play,” well, that’s just guess what? If the production isn’t really up to it and the other actors and the direction, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, it’s just a waste of time.
Tavis: Yeah. How are you deciding these days whether or not – speaking of a waste of time – whether or not your time is better spent on the stage, on the screen, big screen, little screen? How are you deciding what is not a waste of your time at this point in your career?
Channing: Well, anything that really feels good, which is (unintelligible) because we’ve done it once and now we know it works. Now we’re going to come back and do it again on Broadway, in a Broadway house, with two different cast members, so that’s a challenge.
But it was a group challenge. I think even if you’re on a screen or you’re in a play, it’s always a group effort. It’s not just the actors, it’s the editor (makes noise). So you go into something saying, “Well, that worked, so I’m going to continue that. I want to continue that.”
So when they said, “We want to bring it to Broadway in the fall,” I said, “Well, yeah.” It wasn’t even – I didn’t even hesitate, because it was so solid before.
Tavis: Is there a certain pressure you feel, or quite opposite that, a certain joy in the opportunity to take something to Broadway?
Channing: Sure. It’s always great to have another chance at something, a shot at, and it’s like you’re – I always said about this particular production that we were a quintet, we really are a band, and a lot about being an actor is like being a musician.
When it’s tight and you’ve really got it, it’s like being a musician or being an athlete, (unintelligible) athletic thing if you’re in the zone. That’s pretty alluring. That gives you a couple of hours that are really good for your life.
So the chance to open this up to a broader audience is really irresistible.
Tavis: “The West Wing,” still in reruns everywhere.
Tavis: As you look back on those years, you think what about the work on that show?
Channing: Oh, my only – if I had one frustration in being on “West Wing” is I wasn’t on it enough, because I was in and out. I was very grateful because I could do a lot of other things while I was connected to “West Wing,” but every time – I’ll never forget, because every time I was ever on that set I was so knocked out by everybody around me, and if you’re going to be in a popular thing on television it’s pretty great to be in one that you respect so enormously. All the people I worked with were so – the caliber was just up there.
Tavis: Since you opened this door I’m going to follow you in.
Tavis: If you don’t want to go in, you can slam the door.
Channing: What did I do? (Laughs)
Tavis: You mentioned earlier at the top of the conversation that the character was different from you politically, ideologically.
Tavis: I want to just ask a broad question here, which is politically, what do you make of the state of things, the state of affairs in our country political right now? I deliberately don’t want to color it any more than that.
Channing: I think that there’s works in progress and I think one has to be patient. That’s my particular feeling. I’m sort of, as a citizen of this country, I’m kind of appalled by the lack of progress in our Senate and the House of Representatives. I just feel the obstructionism is extraordinary.
I hope that the American public understands that we have three levels of government. We have the (unintelligible) the executive, but there’s legislative and the judicial, and the legislative obviously need to be just doing their job.
But listen, everybody’s got their own opinion. All I can do myself is vote, and that’s it. That’s it. Or I can – but I think that we have to take the broadest picture possible and understand what the – that character of mine in that play, she says to her daughter, “There are consequences to our actions,” and that is the most – a friend of mine who is a vast liberal said that to me in terms of telling his child, “The one thing you can do for your child is to tell him there are consequences to our actions.”
I thought that was a very interesting thing, that these two human beings, she says it from opposite backgrounds. But the point is that there are consequences, and you have to go just slow and steady, get through those consequences. So if you’re going to place a vote out of some – because you’re in a snit, there will be consequences to those actions.
I think everybody just has to calm down and look at what’s going on, and you play it as it lays. This is what’s going on. If someone feels really strongly that it was a Tea Party person or there’s a Republican, then sure, they should vote for who they want to.
But I don’t – I think what really pains me is people who are just miffed because they didn’t get what they wanted in a situation that is so complicated and so fraught, and that kind of thinking disturbs me, because that’s not a positive action. That’s just a kind of sullen – that kind of attitude I think one should examine in oneself.
Tavis: With Stockard Channing we go from theater to the real world back to the theater. I like how she brought that back to the play. Very nicely done.
Channing: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Very nicely done. Very nicely done.
Channing: Thank you. (Laughter)
Tavis: The producers are happy about that, and I ain’t got a problem with it. The play is called “Other Desert Cities,” it opens on Broadway come November 3rd. Stockard Channing, good to have you on this program.
Channing: Okay. (Laughs)
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