The actor: Lesley Ann Warren, a classically trained dancer and Actors Studio alum who started her career on Broadway as a teenager, and later had a thriving career on TV (where she starred in the hit 1965 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and appeared for one season on the classic secret-agent series Mission: Impossible) as well as in film, where she made a name for herself playing quirky, often damaged women. Warren was nominated for an Academy Award for one of those parts, as an easily confused moll in Blake Edwards’ gender-bending Victor Victoria. Edwards’ classic comedy is now available on DVD from Warner Archive (as are his films S.O.B. and Skin Deep).
Victor Victoria (1982)—“Norma Cassady”
Lesley Warren: I had my hair in braids and a baseball cap on and my agent at the time, Ron Meyer—who’s now the head of Universal—called me and said, “You have to go in and meet Blake Edwards,” and I said, “I can’t! I have no makeup on.” He said, “You have to. He’s leaving for London tomorrow, you have to go meet him.” So I went in, and we sat and talked for about 15 minutes, had a lot of laughs, and then he just said, “Do you want to do this role?” And I had not read the script, but I had seen Breakfast At Tiffany’s 11 times, and I had seen Pink Panther, and Days Of Wine And Roses is a genius movie, so I said, “Yes, I want to work with you on whatever.”
And then I went home and read the script, and in the script, Norma wasn’t blonde, didn’t have an accent, and didn’t have a dance number or a musical number. She was pretty much a classic chorine of the time. So I started to think about what I wanted to do with this role, and I made up this whole history for her. She grew up on the Lower East Side in a family of 14, and she had to yell to be heard. She worked at Woolworth’s and read the movie magazines and wanted to look like Jean Harlow. I created this character in my head, and then I called Blake—he was already in London—and he said, “Yes.” He sent his hair and makeup people and the costume designer Patricia Norris over to my house, and we created this character. When I walked on the set in hair and makeup for the first time, I thought, “I’m either going to be fired, or he’s gonna love it,” and luckily for me, he loved it.
For me, she was very real. That’s why I did that fabricated history, to fool myself, so she was a real person and had a real background and real reasons why she behaved the way she did. It was all for me. I know that some people work differently, but I have to work from the inside out. It doesn’t matter how big the character is, there has to be a truthful core. And that’s how I was taught; I studied with Lee Strasberg in New York, and he was my teacher for 10 years, so that’s how I was trained, and that’s what I know. On top of that, if you have comedic sensibilities, you intuitively know how to bring that forward on top of a real person. What Blake would do a lot with me was, he would let the cameras roll and I would improvise, so a lot of what’s in the movie is improvised. But I couldn’t do that improvisation successfully if I didn’t know who she was on the inside, operating from a real core.
The A.V. Club: Even though there’d been controversial subject matter in cinema in the decade leading up to Victor Victoria, the gay themes and cross-dressing in that movie were still daring for the times.
LW: Mmm-hmm. I think Blake wanted to address gender-identity issues, and he did so in a very sophisticated, somewhat oblique, but artistic and really visionary way for the time. I’m thinking of that dance number where the men have their masks and they turn one way and they’re women, and one way and they’re men. Many of the references to gender confusion and gender identity, I think he explored so beautifully.
AVC: You weren’t involved in any way in the Broadway musical, were you?
LW: No. He asked me to do it onstage, and at the same time, I was offered a show called Dream, which was with all of Johnny Mercer’s music from the ’20s to the ’60s. I felt like I had done Norma, and I was so proud of what we accomplished, but I wanted to do something different. But we were playing simultaneously at one point on Broadway.
The Happiest Millionaire (1967)—“Cordy”
LW: Oh, I’m smiling right now. I was a baby; I think I was 18, or maybe 18 and a half. I had just done Cinderella, and I was touring a Broadway show. I had been asked to come out and do a screen test, which, in those days, was a real screen test. They put me up at the Beverly Hills Hotel for two weeks. I had rehearsals, I had to do costume fittings and hair consultations and makeup, etc. Then at the end, you do this full onscreen test, with dance numbers and musical numbers and acting scenes in costume. Getting that job, that wonderful role and incredible experience, was just a huge accomplishment for me. I got to know Walt Disney; he was very much present. This is a man who knew what hair ribbon I was wearing, as well as what they were serving at the commissary, as well as what the animators were doing. He was a genius, and he had such vision, such a hands-on approach to everything. So to be picked by him was such an unbelievable honor for me.
AVC: What was the reputation for people who had been Strasberg-trained in Hollywood at that time? Did that open any doors for you, or was it more difficult?
LW: You know, I didn’t feel any repercussions from any of it. I was in class when I was so young, with people like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and Sally Field and Faye Dunaway and Al Pacino, on and on and on. Geraldine Page was in The Happiest Millionaire, and she was an icon of mine in the Studio. When I was 16 and I’d just gotten into the Actors’ Studio, I was invited by Lee—he was directing a production of Three Sisters with Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, and Shirley Knight. All actresses that I idolized. I got to sit in at rehearsal, and it was mesmerizing. So for me, the fact that my first movie was with Geraldine Page was astounding; and in Cinderella, Jo Van Fleet was the wicked stepmother, and she was an Actors Studio alumnus. So it had no negative repercussions, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever people may think or not think is, of course, their business, but it gave me my complete foundation to do the work I’ve been able to do.
Mission: Impossible (1970-1971)—“Dana Lambert”
LW: When Barbara Bain and Marty [Landau] left, the producers were determined to go younger. They wanted a much younger image for the new female character; they wanted my freckles to show. [Laughs.] They were very supportive of what I brought to it. I was not happy doing a TV series at that time, especially that kind of series. Although I did become very close with Leonard Nimoy, and he went on to direct me in his first directing experience on television, Night Gallery, which was great. But I didn’t like the technological aspects of Mission: Impossible; I wanted it to be more acting. And even though they gave me some really wonderful characters to portray, I had a yearning to do something else. So I was the one that actually left after a season, and I think the next thing I did was a movie called Harry And Walter Go To New York, with Jimmy Caan and Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton, Michael Caine. That was just a glorious experience, with an alumnus from Actors Studio, Mark Rydell, directing. And that’s what I wanted to do more of at that time.
It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman (1975)—“Lois Lane”
LW: I came from the musical stage. My first show was 110 In The Shade. I started as a ballet dancer and then sort of gravitated toward musical theater, so any time I got asked to sing or dance, it was a joy for me. It was a great deal of fun, sort of this odd hybrid at the time, because they just weren’t doing musicals on television. And I can’t remember the time frame, but some time after that, I went and tested in London for Superman the movie, with Christopher Reeve. More Lois Lane. [Laughs.]
Choose Me (1984)—“Eve”
AVC: You were in two Alan Rudolph films in 1984. Was there some kind of special circumstance that led to you working with Rudolph back-to-back?
LW: Right, and then I did another movie later on with him called Trixie. My agent submitted me for that role in Choose Me. I met Alan Rudolph and his producer Caroline Pfeiffer at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. We had drinks, and I came in like Eve, dressed with that classic, sort of vintage-y feel, and we had this wonderful talk, and right then and there, he said, “Do you want to do this movie?” I had already read the script, and I loved it. I was actually advised to not do it, because it was a confusing script to read. It was one of the first real independent movies at that time, and I had done Victor Victoria, so people were wanting me to do bigger projects. But I really, really loved it, and had a phenomenal time doing it. It’s one of my favorite movies.
What happened on Songwriter was that I was already doing that movie, but with a different director. Sydney Pollack was producing, and I remember a week into shooting, I got a call from Sydney, and I thought, “Oh no. Oh dear.” He said, “I want to tell you that we’re replacing the director,” and I said, “You’re kidding, why?” He said, “They weren’t happy with the way things look.” I said, “Well, why not replace the cinematographer if you’re not happy with how it looks?” He said, “Trust me, just trust me,” and I said, “Well, who’s directing?” And he said, “You’ll see, you’ll see…” And he surprised me with Alan Rudolph. It was really interesting, because from the first day of Alan’s dailies, they looked extraordinary. So it’s interesting how much impact a director will have on a cinematographer and the look of a film. It’s definitely a collaborative situation.
I was terrified, terrified in Songwriter, because there I was, New York Jewish girl, singing country-western onstage with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. I mean, forget it. I was so terrified. [Laughs.] Alan was amazing. He just kind of hand-held me during that entire experience.
The Limey (1999)—“Elaine”
AVC: You mentioned how a director can affect how a film looks in ways that maybe the actors don’t realize at the time, which brings to mind The Limey. That’s a film Steven Soderbergh changed quite a bit after it was shot.
LW: Yeah. Other than the one scene, which we shot in three different locations, the movie was shot in a very linear way. It wasn’t until I went to a screening with everybody else that I saw how Steven had edited it in a way that made it seem like these were fragments of Terence Stamp’s memory. Some of it was like a dream. I loved it, and I asked Steven, “Why?” He said that upon seeing it edited in a linear way, he realized what was missing was the whole aspect of fragmented memory that he wanted to explore.
Color Of Night (1994)—“Sondra”
LW: Oh, that was a real heartbreaker. My participation was mostly in the scenes with the therapy group, and each of us was supposed to have had a relationship with the Jane March character. Our director, Richard Rush, struggled with what went on between Bruce Willis’ character and Jane March’s character, and how he had envisioned that to go. It was a tough film—it was tense, it was difficult. I think Jane was only 21. Even though she had done The Lover, she was a young, young, young girl, and she had a lot of anxiety about doing all that nudity and all that erotic stuff. Even though she knew what she had signed on to do, it doesn’t matter; somehow when you get to the point where you have to do it, it’s a different experience.
I remember one night when we were shooting our little love scene in somebody’s house, and we were upstairs, shooting past the allotted time that the city had allowed us to shoot. I don’t remember what that was, maybe 10 or 11. The police were called, and the crew just said, “Keep shooting, keep shooting! Keep kissing her, keep kissing her!” [Laughs.] We’re half-undressed, with these police officers coming up the stairs. “Keep shooting! Keep shooting!” [Laughs.] It was a little crazy-making for sure, but exciting in a way. All the characters were so intense and neurotic in their own issues, and it was fraught with a lot of high anxiety just because of its material.
Will & Grace (2001-2006)—“Tina”
LW: I loved doing that character on that show. First of all, I love that show. I got a call from Max Mutchnick, one of the creators. I didn’t know him, and he called me at home and said he’d love me to do this role, and I said, “Well, tell me about it.” He said, “All I can tell you right now is that she’s got this great laugh.” [Laughs.] I was like, “That’s it? That’s all you can tell me?” Literally, the next day was the big table read in front of all the writers and all the network executives, and all I had to go on was this laugh that I had to create. Somehow, in that reading, I did it. Everybody laughed, and I felt great, and this character kind of emerged out of that one laugh. It was great. It was fantastic to work with Sydney Pollack as Will’s father, especially because of Songwriter, and he’s just a phenomenal actor as well as being a brilliant director. I loved every part of it. I loved watching Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes; they’re two geniuses. It was a great experience.