Catching Up With Betty Buckley, Singer of Story Songs and Star of Split

Buckley’s latest album is in stores at the same time as the M. Night Shyamalan film in which she stars hits shelves.

We in the theater world know Betty Buckley for her plethora of great theatrical performances: Grizabella in Cats, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Martha Jefferson in 1776, and Margaret White in the infamous Carrie, among many others. But Buckley also has an extensive screen résumé, with appearances in the movie Tender Mercies, TV's Oz, and yes, the original film version of Carrie.

Earlier this year, Buckley played a pivotal role in the new M. Night Shyamalan movie Split, a psychological horror-thriller in which she plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, psychiatrist to Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man who has 24 distinct personalities, all of them varying degrees of evil. A little film budgeted at $9 million, it's grossed more than $270 million worldwide.

Split hits DVD shelves on April 18. A week earlier, Buckley released her latest CD, a double-disc album called Story Songs, featuring tunes by a diverse list of musicians, including Jason Robert Brown and Radiohead. It's a prosperous time for this Broadway favorite, who always seems to have surprises up her sleeve.

Betty Buckley's new album, Story Songs, is in stores now.
Betty Buckley's new album, Story Songs, is in stores now.
(© Scogin Mayo)

Split comes out on DVD on Tuesday. How does it feel to be part of one of the top-grossing movies of the year so far?

It's awesome. I think it's a very deserving movie. It's a great story, really well told. I love M. Night Shyamalan's moviemaking. This is my second movie for him. The Happening was my first. He wrote the part for me, or so he said. And James McAvoy is one of our great actors in the world. I don't think anybody else could do the part like he did. Night is very mischievous, and so am I — and so is McAvoy. We had a really good time working together, and I'm really thrilled for everybody connected with the movie. It's great that it's such a success.

What kind of preparation did you do to play Dr. Fletcher?

I worked with a psychologist for several weeks before we started shooting. She gave me a lot of insight. Night gave me two books to read; then I read a third book that I already had. I've been fascinated by the subject matter since I was a teenager when I saw the film The Three Faces of Eve, with Joanne Woodward, and Sybil. I've been in analysis my whole adult life, so I really have what is the equivalent of a psychology degree. [laughs] One of the things I'm fascinated by is the human mind and how we operate, and how creative human beings can be in response to pain and suffering and abuse. The power of that message, subliminally, I think, is why this movie has had such success. Besides being just a great movie.

In addition, your new album Story Songs was just released. How did you come up with such an eclectic set list?

It's always a quest. It started in the spring with Martha Plimpton calling me to sing "High and Dry" by Radiohead in a benefit for her organization A Is For. I wouldn't have thought of that, even though I'm a huge Radiohead fan. That worked really well. I had written a fan letter to Joe Iconis on Facebook. I love his work; it's so fresh and unique and twisted. He wrote me this new song, "Old Flame," which I absolutely adore. So we had those two. I'd also written to Jason Robert Brown to ask if he had any songs for me, and he sent three, including "Cassandra," which is for a new project. Then I had an idea to do "You've Got to Be Taught," and it seemed like a good segue to pair that and "Cassandra" because of the political nature of both. We went through a lot of material to pick 12 songs.

As an established performer, is it still daunting to write composers fan letters?

Jason Robert Brown is somebody I felt comfortable writing. I've known him for quite a few years, and I recorded "Stars and the Moon" on my CD of the same name, which got a Grammy nomination. I didn't know Joe. I was really touched that he got right back to me and invited me to be a part of his concert but was more honored when he said he would write something for me. "Old Flame" is really funny, and it fits my skill set really well.

What's next for you? More theater? Concerts?

I'm going to start work with my pianist-arranger Christian Jacobs for a new grouping of songs that will debut at Joe's Pub in October. I'm also talking to director Michael Wilson. We've collaborated on The Old Friends and Grey Gardens, and we've got a couple of projects we're trying to pull together. So we'll see what happens.