The award-winning actress talks about her latest projects, including her recurring role on the hit ABC series, Once Upon a Time.
Actress Barbara Hershey
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Barbara Hershey to this program. The star of notable projects like “Chicago Hope,” “Black Swan,” and one of my personal favorites, given that I’m from Indiana, “Hoosiers,” she now stars on the very popular ABC series “Once Upon a Time.” She also just starred in the Lifetime project “Left to Die.” We’ll talk about that. But first, here now a scene from “Once Upon a Time.”
Tavis: So most of the fun on this show happens in the studio, and the audience can’t see or hear it. So the clip is playing and David, on that camera right there, David, my camera guy, says, “Oh, I love this show, I love this show.” (Laughter) I said, “Dave, what do you like about it?” “I just love the fantasy, I love the fantasy.”
So I leaned over to you while the clip was playing, and I said, “This must be the nastiest person you’ve ever played, and you said –
Barbara Hershey: What did I say?
Tavis: “There are different kinds of nasty.”
Hershey: Oh, there’s different kinds of nasty, right, right, yeah. (Laughter) I’ve become a connoisseur of nasty.
Tavis: Yeah, a connoisseur of nasty. So what is it that Dave and other people are connecting to with regard to this series?
Hershey: I don’t know, I’d have to ask Dave. For me she’s just extremely psychotic and passive-aggressive.
Tavis: That explains it. (Laughter) (Unintelligible)
Hershey: It’s also imaginative stuff, and I get to go like this and someone flies across the room, or I tear hearts out of people, little things like that that –
Tavis: So evil.
Hershey: Yeah. I just turned someone into a fish the other day. It’s just – you can’t say that very often in your life.
Tavis: So when this came across your desk, were you immediately attracted to it or did you have –
Hershey: I’ve always loved fantasies. I always have. I always felt that fairy tales were rooted in something deep. I always thought that they were sort of the newspapers of the soul, in a way, in that they’re the core –
Tavis: I like that – “the newspapers of the soul.”
Hershey: Well, what they’re about. Even though they’re magnified and told in these extreme terms, they’re all about the human condition. This character’s all about bad parenting, I think, and ambition gone wild and people misplacing their hearts along the way. But they’re interesting themes.
Tavis: For those who have not seen the series, how would you describe the show?
Hershey: It follows the form of fairy tales, but it then goes in completely different directions and it goes back and forth between modern times and these fairy tales. Now the fairy tale lands have different time zones within them, and even the actors, because it’s only revealed to us a few episodes ahead of the audience, so it’s sort of like running after a moving train sometimes. You don’t know yourself where they’re going to take the character.
Tavis: As an actor, do you like that?
Hershey: I like it as an experience. I also like the beginning, middle and end, where you can create an arc for a character or if a film is about something, you can actually lead your character toward that end.
Whereas here, it’s such an ongoing thing. But there’s something kind of experimental in that and sort of you just have to bend. They just throw things at you and you have to go oh, okay, she says that – wow, okay. We don’t know any more than the audience. So it’s a whole different kind of grab bag.
Tavis: You’ve bounced back and forth over the course of your career between television and film. What feels safer for you at this moment?
Hershey: “Safe” is an interesting word, because I’m never really looking for safe. I don’t know. I always go for the role, and there are wonderful films and there are wonderful TV and there are bad films and bad TV. You just go – I just have always gone for the best that was offered. That’s basically been it. I’ve always tried to go for variety. If I haven’t played a part or hadn’t seen it before, I go for that. So that can happen in any medium.
Tavis: Are you seeing enough stuff now that comes your way that you find unsafe?
Hershey: (Laughs) It’s always been a hard – I’ve always felt like I’ve been a dark horse as an actor that way. I never felt that I – I’ve never been in a huge hit, for instance, or I’ve never – so I’ve never been at a place in my life where there’s always a lot coming.
I’ve had better times and worse times, the roller coaster of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt complacent about oh, well, things are coming my way now, and I’ll pick this one. It isn’t like that. I’m always just looking for the best that I can find.
It’s harder, of course, as you get older. It’s harder because they automatically do that to you.
Tavis: Tell me more – I’m curious, Barbara – tell me more, by your own admission, I’m curious about how you have navigated that journey, because this is a tough business, and I have such great respect – you and I were talking before we came on camera – about acting versus real-world stuff, and we’ll come back to that in a second.
Hershey: (Laughs) Yeah.
Tavis: I do want to come back to that.
Hershey: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s very interesting, that.
Tavis: But how have you navigated this career of ups and downs?
Hershey: I’ll tell you, the one thing that isn’t dependent on whether I’m hired or not is my love of acting, and it’s been the one thing that’s been a golden thread inside me, so that no matter what, I can be disappointed, and I just let myself feel that and go through it. I don’t block it.
Then I just recover. But it’s my love of acting. That is there, always, always, always. So that can’t be taken from me, no matter what. So that’s always gotten me through all of is.
Tavis: Now to that conversation we had before we came on the air. So the minute you sat down, I barely had a chance to say hello to you, nice to meet you, glad you’re on the show, and you immediately went serious on me. (Laughter)
Hershey: Well, that’s my nature, I guess.
Tavis: Yeah, you went serious on me about politics and about the election, about my work on poverty and all these other things.
Hershey: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So I take it that you’re a pretty serious person.
Hershey: Oh, yeah, but, I’m like you. You like a variety. You like a laugh too. But yeah –
Tavis: But this real-world stuff matters to you.
Hershey: Yes, and I also think – I mean, acting at its best can dip into some things that are very real and deep too.
Hershey: Though it’s kind of on an entertainment level, which is important, as well as the other stuff. But yeah, I’m pretty passionately involved in life in all the spheres.
Tavis: Did this campaign feel like fantasy to you, or at least at moments?
Hershey: Yes. The bubble, yes. No, it was quite frightening and quite a relief, and I was really proud of America not letting itself be bought in that moment. It was important. So that was really nice.
Tavis: To your point about the role that art can and does play in advancing conversations about the real world in the guise of acting, have you ever sought out specifically roles that allow you, through the character, to make statements, to advance issues or causes?
Hershey: No. I’ve always felt –
Tavis: This project on Lifetime –
Hershey: Yeah, oh, that, well, that was a true story, and that was –
Tavis: Yeah, precisely.
Hershey: – and that poor woman was thrown in –
Tavis: This is in Ecuador, yeah.
Hershey: – in Ecuador in prison for drug trafficking she did not do, and wasn’t even brought to trial or anything, just put in prison indefinitely, and the American government didn’t help in any way. Just left her there.
Yeah, so that was quite eye-opening, to talk to her and to experience that. But I think for me, it boils down to a kind of empathy about all kinds of people, and I really do believe that if we’re willing to look deep enough and hard enough inside ourselves, we can find each other.
You can find anybody. In there is something really beautiful to get to experience as an actor, and hopefully you help an audience get to feel things. It can be entertainment. It can be light and fun. It can be something that just distracts from their lives, but it can also be something that you can’t really even talk about, but that touches all of us.
Tavis: Speaking of touches and speaking of empathy, the older I get, the more impossible it is to get through the full episode of “Beaches.” (Laughter) I just can’t.
Hershey: That says so much about you.
Tavis: I can’t take it. I can’t take it, man. My poor heart just –
Hershey: Oh, that’s so wonderful.
Tavis: I can’t go all the way to the end. I just – (makes sobbing noise).
Hershey: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Tavis: No, I just can’t do it, I can’t do it.
Hershey: Well, see, that’s good.
Tavis: It’s a great movie, though. That is a great – you’ve done a lot of great stuff, but that project, man, it rips my heart. I can’t take it. (Laughter)
Hershey: Well, I’m still ripping hearts out, (laughter) just a different way.
Tavis: Yes, you are. The project on ABC is called “Once Upon a Time,” starring one Barbara Hershey. It’s a wonderful cast, written by the people who did “Lost,” as she said earlier. So if you’re into that kind of fantasy thing, as many of us are, as David is, (laughter) you’ll want to check it out. Barbara, good to have you here.
Hershey: It was wonderful.
Tavis: It’s a delight to have you here.
Hershey: A real pleasure.
Tavis: Pleasure to meet you. That’s our show for tonight.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.