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No Ordinary Zoe

Michael Buckley catches up with Zoe Caldwell, an actress for all seasons. logo
Zoe Caldwell
"I knew at a very early age," writes Zoe Caldwell at the beginning of her jewel box of a memoir, I Will Be Cleopatra, "that my job would be to stand in front of people, keeping them awake and in their seats by telling other people's stories and using other people's words. I knew this because it was the only thing I could do." Internationally acclaimed, Caldwell has succeeded in telling stories exceptionally well. Her job, she believes, is "to not get in the way of the playwright's words. We're in big trouble when you hear actors talk about themselves as 'artists.' We're more like priestesses and priests. We take the word from the playwright to the populace. If you don't get in the way too much, the audience will understand exactly what the playwright wants them to know. If you start bringing your own life into it--saying, 'Oh, my God, if I dig deeply enough, I can remember a time when I was so hurt...blah, blah, blah.' That's fine. Write your own play!"

Having created roles in only six Broadway plays, Caldwell has earned Tonys for four: Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea, and Master Class (as Maria Callas). Her other Broadway credits are The Creation of the World and Other Business and Lillian (as Lillian Hellman). Off-Broadway, she starred in Colette, Dance of Death (opposite Robert Shaw), and A Perfect Ganesh.

"I never planned to write a book--ever, ever, ever," Caldwell insists. "I don't think actors should write books." Fortunately, Bob Weil, an executive editor at W.W. Norton, persuaded her to do so. "I wrote it in nine months, because nobody told me it should take a long time," she says of the compact, 218-page memoir. "Had they told me it should take three years, I would have stretched it, just to do the right thing! But people seem to be enjoying it, and that gives me great pleasure." Since Caldwell ends the book 35 years ago, before her crème de la crème triumph as Miss Jean Brodie, might there be a sequel? "No, no, no! I wouldn't write a second volume," she insists. "Everyone knows the second volume. It's the first volume they didn't know--and I didn't think they'd even want to know. But they seem to. Isn't that great?"

The Australian-born actress made her professional debut at nine, playing Slightly Soiled in a production of Peter Pan. During her teens, she did extensive radio work. After that came many years of performing Shakespeare, Shaw, and the classics--starting Down Under and journeying to England, Canada, and the U.S, she progressed from walk-ons to leads. Broadway beckoned in 1966 when she was asked to substitute for a vacationing Anne Bancroft in The Devils. (She relates in her book that she prepared for her performances as a hunchback nun while walking to the theater: "I would walk one block with curvature of the spine and one block upright.")

In 1977, Caldwell made her Broadway directorial bow with An Almost Perfect Person. Her work as a director on the New York stage also includes These Men, Othello, Macbeth, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, and Vita and Virginia. On television, the actress has been seen in the title role of Sarah, playing Sarah Bernhardt for British TV (1976); recreating her role as Medea for a 1982 telecast; portraying Carlotta Monterey O'Neill in a 1985 PBS presentation, Eugene O'Neill: A Glory of Ghosts; and a 1990 Disney Channel film, Lantern Hill. Amazingly, Caldwell has appeared in only one feature film to date: Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, in 1985.


THEATERMANIA: Which roles have given you the most satisfaction?

ZOE CALDWELL: Cleopatra--number one! Also, Maria [Callas] and Medea.

TM: When you did a TV interview with Charlie Rose at the time of Master Class, I remember you pronouncing that last role as "MED-zha."

CALDWELL: Eileen Atkins told me to say "MED-zha." Being so obedient, I said it that way. But it felt so funny in my mouth that I've gone back to "Meh-DEE-ah."

TM: At your book signing, you described yourself as "a peasant," quickly adding "a mighty sophisticated peasant."

CALDWELL:'s the truth.

TM: And you said that you received compliments on your Aristotle Onassis in one scene of Master Class.

CALDWELL: Some people liked my Onassis more than my Callas! They thought they were giving me a sort of slight, but I loved it.

TM: What other roles stand out in your memory?

CALDWELL: I had a marvelous time as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, but that's because I was working with Edith Evans and being directed by Tony Richardson. I'll tell you another part I really loved playing--Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. I did a lot of research for that. That's why I'm so burned up with myself for being such a fool with Mother Courage--a lazy fool, who got herself into trouble by not being prepared. [Of the role, which she played in a 1964 Canadian production, Caldwell writes, "For the first and last time, I did no homework."] That's the reason that I would like to play Mother Courage again--to sort of finish it off. The only reason I'll do a play again is if I feel I haven't succeeded in really exploring it to the best of my ability. Judith [Anderson] could never understand why I didn't want to play Medea forever and ever and ever and ever. Of course, she also wanted me to play Hamlet, which I had no inclination to do. I directed Hamlet, and I loved doing that, but I had no desire to get into pants. There are "pants parts" that some women love to play; I don't have that desire.

TM: Speaking of pants and parts, is it true that Barry Humphries created the character of Dame Edna for you to play?

CALDWELL: It's the truth, but it didn't last very long. It was so clearly his work. We were in the same company [in Australia], and were trying to come up with material for a revue; every Christmas, we did a revue. He came up with Mrs. Edna Everage of Humoresque Street, Moonee Ponds. In England, she became a Dame, because the Royal Family adore her.

TM: You claim in your book that you don't write letters, but I have a letter that you sent to me following an Audra McDonald interview to which you contributed. That claim in the book made me begin to think that maybe someone else wrote it, so I checked your signature in the book against the letter, and the writing's the same.

CALDWELL: That's my handwriting. I do write letters when I'm moved. Eileen Atkins rang yesterday from London. She had just read the book, and was marvelously complimentary. But she said, "What is this bit about not writing letters? You write the most stunning letters." I said, "Well, yes, but I can't just sit down and write, 'Thanks a lot for the bunch of flowers.'" I've got to make a letter, and that's so hard to anticipate. For a long, long time, I didn't write letters--but, as I grow older, I do. As I move into my later years, probably you'll be having so much mail from me.

TM: You've been married to producer Robert Whitehead since 1968. May I ask why your older son, who was named William Edgar, is called Sam?

CALDWELL: We named him William Edgar after his two male grandparents. The birth announcement read: "William Edgar Whitehead, commonly known as Sam." We just liked the name Sam. He's a good writer.

TM: And what does your younger son do?

CALDWELL: Charlie--Charles Albert--is a producer. He's a "personal" producer, which is very tough to be these days. My husband was a producer when it was a very personal business: A producer selected a play, then worked with the writer, then the two of them selected a director. Now there are 24 producers listed at the top of a program.

TM: Your husband has directed you on occasion...

CALDWELL: That was super. We had a great time together. We talked all the time about what we were doing; we traveled together, did research. When we did Medea, it was as though we did a little university course on Ancient Greece. We had stacks and stacks of books--and, of course, we went to Greece.

TM: I suppose the two of you rarely miss a play. You must see everything.

CALDWELL: Well, not everything, but as much as we can. These last two years, we haven't been so good [in attending] because we haven't been so well. You need a lot of energy to attend plays! That's the great thing about New York audiences: They bring such a lot of energy to the theater. It's tough to get the tickets, it's tough to get there--and when they do, it's "Show me, show me, show me!"

TM: In Rita Gam's book of interviews, Actress to Actress, you are quoted as saying: "I am of the theatre and I'll be playing parts till I won't be able to remember words." Are there any projects you're currently working on?

CALDWELL: No, but I'll be back--even if it's only two lines.

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