Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Olympia Dukakis started her acting career in the 1950s, made her TV and film debuts in the ’60s, and has been bouncing back and forth between them ever since. But if there’s a specific turning point in her career, it’s her Oscar win for 1987’s Moonstruck. Dukakis has continued to earn acclaim for her performances over the years, including Steel Magnolias and Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City, and she can currently be seen in the ensemble film A Little Game, now available on DVD and VOD.
Olympia Dukakis: They sent me the script and I liked it. And I liked the people, and I especially liked the director [Evan Oppenheimer], so… that was it. Up, up, and away.
A.V. Club: So who is YaYa, aside from the obvious grandmotherly connotations of the nickname?
OD: Oh, I don’t know. Who is she? [Laughs.] Well, you know, she’s up in age, and she wants to somehow have an effect, and she wants life to have some kind of meaning. That’s about it.
AVC: In a film like this, with such a big ensemble, do you enjoy the opportunity to just kind of get in, mark your mark, and head out?
OD: Oh, absolutely. And it was one of the nicest group of actors I’ve ever worked with.
AVC: The “little game” in the title is chess. Do you have a background in playing chess?
OD: Oh, no. I don’t have any background. I played checkers when I was a kid. Does that count? I don’t think so, but there it is. I was much more physical. I wasn’t into board games. I wanted to be out on the street, playing this and that and doing this and that. Sports was the big thing for me.
AVC: Was there any aspect to YaYa that you were able to bring to the character that wasn’t originally in the script?
OD: Well, I always kind of flatter myself if that happens. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you one thing that I really loved about the film, though: being called YaYa. I have grandchildren, and they call me YaYa. I was talking with a friend of mine, and she said, “I’m not gonna have my grandchildren call me YaYa!” I said, “Why?” She said, “I don’t know. I just don’t want that.” But I had such a wonderful YaYa—although I only had her for about the first 11 years—that I was eager to be called a YaYa! So it was great to be called that in the film. It’s a personal thing, and maybe it’s a little silly, but it’s true. [Starts singing.] “They called me YaYa…”
AVC: It looks like your first on-camera appearance was an episode of Dr. Kildare.
OD: Oh, yes! You’re right about that! We were talking about Raymond Massey the other night. Somebody was talking about him—he was a difficult man to work with—and the very first television thing I did was with him! Raymond Massey and… oh, who was the guy who actually played Dr. Kildare. Richard Chamberlain!
AVC: Would you believe that the episode is online?
OD: [Stunned.] That episode is online? Oh, my God. I’m trying to remember my character. Isn’t that the one where I have an operation about my hearing?
AVC: That actually might be the episode of The Nurses that you did right around the same time.
OD: Oh, you know, I think you’re right!
AVC: Because on Dr. Kildare you play a woman whose husband has been in a car accident.
OD: Okay, right. I remember it was a good director on that, too. I can’t remember his name, but I remember him. And I remember that I really liked him.
[The director in question was Lamont Johnson, whose last feature film as a director was Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, starring Michael Ironside. –ed.]
AVC: You mentioned that Raymond Massey wasn’t exactly easy to work with.
OD: Oh, no, he wasn’t. He was very standoffish. Very ex cathedra. Do you know what that means? It means he sits in a chair and looks down at people. Very judgmental. I guess he was sick of young actors. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how did you first find your way into a career in acting?
OD: How did I find my way? I started a theater in Boston, with people I graduated from graduate school with. It was called The Actors’ Company. I did that for a couple of years, and then I came to New York in ’58, and I realized that I had to learn to hustle. [Laughs.] In ’71, I started another company called The Whole Theater Company. But when I first got to New York, I hustled, I got an agent, and I just kept at it. Slowly, slowly, slowly. But I got an Obie [in 1962] for Mann Ist Mann, a [Bertolt] Brecht play that was done on 42nd Street, in one of those theaters, and that kind of got my foot in the door.
AVC: Did you always have a desire to jump in front of the camera, or was that just incidental?
OD: No, I always interested in theater. I didn’t know anything about acting—or very little—for the theater when I went back to graduate school, so I had to learn. I didn’t know about show business. I was interested in having these extraordinary experiences in plays. It was kind of a way of finding out who I was. The play was the vehicle through which I found out who I was. I got to tap into whatever the play was asking me to tap into. So it became a way to self-discovery. It was an interesting time. Movies, though, I never even thought about. I just wanted to play the great parts. And I have, actually.
OD: Oh, yeah! That was an interesting movie to do, because it was fraught with tension on the set. I mean, I didn’t have that much experience in working on movies at the time, but I just couldn’t believe how tense everybody was, and how everybody was kind of watching their flanks. It was really interesting. That was the first time I looked at ambition running amuck. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that just because it was a whole crowd of up-and-comers trying to one-up each other?
OD: Yeah. I mean, that’s a wonderful energy, actually. But it’s also wearying.
OD: Oh, yeah, well, what made that fabulous was [director] Norman Jewison. And the writing. It was quite a unique little experience I had there. Not that I thought anything was going to come of it. As a matter of fact, one day we were sitting around talking, and somebody asked Cher what she thought was going to happen, and she gave it the thumbs-down. [Laughs.] Nobody really expected too much out of it. And then look what happened. And that’s because we were all stupid and didn’t understand what Norman Jewison was really doing. The guy’s incredible, you know? And I actually knew it when I was there. He never talked about acting. For one scene, he came up to me and said, “That one line in there… Can you just throw that away a little bit more?” And that was it. But he knew that if I was gonna do that, then the whole thing was going to change. And instead of talking about that change, he just figured out what was going to happen if I did it. That’s pretty fabulous. He was something else.
AVC: Do you remember when everybody started to realize that the film was something?
OD: Well, you know, we were in the car, [Jewison] and I, and he had asked me to come to a benefit for him in Canada. He was going to show the movie, and he wanted me to come. And I was so grateful to him for that experience and so admiring of him that I went. And he said, “You know, you’re gonna get an Academy Award for this.” I looked at him like he was stark-raving mad. I thought, “This little movie and that little Italian lady are gonna get an award?” I said, “You really think so?” He said, “Yeah!” I thought, “He’s just being nice because I came up here to do the benefit for him.” [Laughs.] “He thinks he has to say something nice to me.” And then all that happened. It was just amazing. The writer [John Patrick Shanley] got it, I got it, and then Jewison didn’t get it. Can you imagine?
AVC: At this point, I believe I’m required to ask where you keep your Oscar.
OD: Well, I’m sitting in my office right now, and over on the fourth shelf of the bookshelf, it’s up there with the comedy thing [an American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Female Performer–Motion Picture Or TV] and… the Golden Globe [for Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture] is on the third shelf, for some strange reason. But there’s also a Cable ACE Award [for The Last Act Is A Solo] up there and… well, anyway, a bunch of stuff is up there. So it’s up there with its buddies. [Laughs.]
OD: Oh, Leslie Nielsen! I… vaguely remember that movie. But did I play myself? I don’t think so. That’s the last thing I would ever do! [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, in fairness, all you really did was walk onstage and present an award.
OD: The Naked Gun 33 1/3… Oh, Lord. I barely remember it, I have to be honest with you.
OD: The Equalizer? Where are you pulling these things from?
AVC: I try to keep people guessing.
OD: [Adopts a Southern accent.] I played a judge. I remember that one pretty vaguely, too. We’ve practically had a world war since then! What’s the matter with you? [Laughs.] I didn’t do much episodic TV, because I wasn’t much good at episodic TV.
I tried to do a series, though. My husband shamed me into it. He said, “You always say you want to do these things to learn. Why don’t you do one of these series and learn about that?” He wanted me to take it because it was a lot of money! [Laughs.] That’s why he wanted me to do it! It was with John Goodman and Ed Asner. It was called Center Of The Universe, and it was unbelievable, it was so painful. I finally decided that the reason the universe had sent this to me was because I had to figure out how to live with humiliation! Ed Asner said to me once, “The problem is that you come here to act.” I looked at him like he was crazy. He said, “No, no, no. You come here to have a good time. That’s what this is about. Just come and have a good time!” And I tried to do that! Actually, it helped a little. It did help a little! But John Goodman was punching holes in the scenery, he was so upset. I mean, it was really wild, wild, wild. Fortunately, it didn’t last that long.
AVC: Well, at least you got the experience.
OD: Yeah, the experience of how to live with humiliation! [Laughs.] You know things are bad when your friends call you up and say, “You know, you’re the best thing in the show.” I thought, “Oh, my God, it must be really bad if they have to prop me up like that!”
Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City (1993) / Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City (1998) / Further Tales Of The City (2001)—“Anna Madrigal”
OD: Oh, now, see, that’s my favorite of all! That’s the one!
AVC: With that project, did you have to audition, or did they come looking for you?
OD: No, Armistead’s partner at the time woke up and told him, “You’ve got to cast Olympia Dukakis!” He had a dream about me and saw me in the part. Can you believe it? It was like magic! [Laughs.] But that’s how it happened. It was really a fabulous experience. Of course, I knew nothing about [being transgender]. Me and millions of other people knew nothing about it. So I started to read biographies. There were only two of them out there at the time. One was by a Danish person, and another was by an American. So I read about it as much as I could, about how treacherous it was. The journey. The passage was. I mean, really painful and difficult, psychologically and physically, with the operation.
But when I finally got on the set, I turned to the producer and said, “Look, I’ve got to talk to somebody. I’ve got to talk to a human being who’s gone through this.” So they did that for me. They found someone. She came, and when she opened the door, she was, like, 6’2”, with hands that could wrap around a football, but a soft voice. Lovely breasts. She walks into the room, she sits down, and… she was a sex therapist, and she evidently helps people with these transitions. And I asked her, “What was it that you wanted so much that made it possible for you to go through this incredible journey? I mean, I’ve read about it, but…” And this is what she said to me: “All my life, I yearned for the friendship of women.” And I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but not that. And that I knew. And I totally understood. To have your voice silenced, to not be able to be able to speak and be who you are… Who doesn’t know about that?
So that’s how I was able to play Anna Madrigal. And it meant a great deal to me to be able to do it, personally. And eventually I understood what it meant out there in the world. I didn’t know there were all these individuals who felt so… acknowledged. I mean, I had no idea what it would mean to people. I only thought in terms of my work and my acting. So then I obviously became involved in fundraising and publicity and so forth, but… that affected me. Not only as an actress, but as a human being living my life. Yeah, that was an important one.
OD: That was the Woody Allen thing, right? Yeah, I did that ’cause it was two tickets to Sicily, and I went with my husband.
AVC: There’s nothing wrong with that.
OD: No, there’s not.
AVC: You’re technically uncredited, but… did you play a cop in Death Wish?
OD: I did! I did! And the lead detective in the film was my husband in Moonstruck, Vincent Gardenia! I was the room with him. And I remember we shot it at the Public Theater, in one of the big rooms or something.
AVC: Was that a case where you were already in New York and the part just happened to be available?
OD: Yeah, they sent me over, and the director [Michael Winner] was, uh, not necessarily liked by the actors. I mean, he made me turn around, and he wanted to see me, and… he treated me like a piece of meat during the audition. But it was, like, one day, so I could take the money and go home and say, “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” [Laughs.] You can’t put that on, I suppose.
AVC: Sure we can. It’s the Internet. Why not?
OD: Oh, okay, then put it on! [Laughs.] I don’t care. It’s true! It happened! It‘s not very flattering, but there it is.
AVC: It kind of rounds you out as a character.
OD: It’s a laugh! It makes me laugh about myself. Look, we had three kids. I wasn’t going to let his stupidity and rudeness deprive me of the money. We needed the money.
AVC: You’ve been a part of several great ensemble films, but Steel Magnolias is definitely among the most popular. Is there a particular moment that stands out for you?
OD: I think on the bench with Shirley [MacLaine], when I was poking her. She couldn’t believe it. She finally pushed me off the bench, and I was laughing. That was all ad-libbed.
OD: Oh, yeah! You know, it’s interesting how that all happened. I did a play at the Public Theater—I think it was The Marriage Of Bette And Boo—and Nora Ephron saw me in that, and she told Mike Nichols, and he put me in the film they were working on [Heartburn], but they cut me out of that movie. But he liked me, and he called me in to audition for the Jewish mother in [the play] Social Security. I went in, I got the part, and that’s what Norman Jewison saw me in that led to Moonstruck. And I had said in some interview that I owed Mike Nichols, that I tracked it back to him, and he called me up and wanted me to do that day’s work as payback. [Laughs.] So that’s why I did it, not because the part was anything. I thought, “He‘s right. I do owe him!”
OD: I don’t know how I found my way into Bored To Death, but thank God: it was wonderful! I mostly worked with Zach [Galifianakis], but I did work a little with Jason [Schwartzman]. And then this year I did a movie with Jason. It’s called 7 Chinese Brothers, and it’s a terrific movie. We improvised the whole time. I mean, we must’ve done eight to 12 takes… and I hate to do takes. But I didn’t even know how many we’d done at the time, because we were having such a great time.
AVC: It sounds like Bored To Death was the polar opposite of Center Of The Universe.
OD: Oh, yeah, that was good. I loved it. What happens with people who are, like, stand-up comics, they don’t really laugh. They look at you and they say, “That’s funny. That’s funny.” That’s what Zach would do. I remember doing something on the floor, writhing and carrying on, and when it over, he said, “That was funny, Olympia.” That’s all. Just, “That’s funny.” So, yeah, I had a good time. I was on the second and third seasons, and I worked a couple of weeks on each.
OD: They had hired me for that prior to the Academy Awards, and they said that if I got the Academy Award, they’d pay me $50,000 to do that. I remember the figure exactly. So that was my first job right after I got the Academy Award. Or maybe it was Working Girl. But I liked the director so much. Amy Heckerling, she was terrific. She didn’t do the third one, but she did the first two.
AVC: Is there a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
OD: Whoa, what a question! [Laughs.] Probably Cloudburst. Oh, it’s a terrific film. A terrific film! It’s done great in Europe, but they screwed it here. Kimmel Entertainment wouldn’t sell it to distributors. They made a quick sale. It went to Lifetime, who put it on at 3 in the morning. What happened is that the guy on Kimmel who liked it died, and they passed it on to somebody else, and that’s what happened. That’s what I understand, anyway. Maybe it’s even darker and stupider than that. I don’t know. But that film is one, and Tales From The City. PBS refused to show it because of Jesse Helms. That, I thought, was outrageous. And what they did was, they took that series that Helen Mirren did about the detective [Prime Suspect], which was fabulous, a terrific series, but that was about pedophilia and this, that, and the other thing. And they couldn’t show two guys who loved each other and had fun with each other? Unbelievable. I really did as much yelling about that as I possibly could at the time. But it didn’t do any good.
AVC: In Cloudburst, you and Brenda Fricker had great on-screen chemistry.
OD: Oh, we did. We had a great time together. Her character dies at the end of it, and… the journey that both women take is so interesting. [Thom Fitzgerald] is going to do a sequel called Sunrise. [Hesitates.] Sunburst? I don’t know. Either Sunburst or Sunrise. Cloudburst? Sunburst? Who knows? He may even change that. I don’t even think he’s written it yet.
OD: Oh, Sinatra. You know, I turned that part down twice.
OD: Yeah. And then they came back with so much money that I’m embarrassed to even tell you what it was. I’d thrown it into the wastepaper basket. [Laughs.] And my assistant at the time, who dines out on this story, [remembers] when they came back with this extraordinary amount of money, I said, “You know, I think the universe wants me to do this, so I think I’d better do it.” The reason I didn’t want to do it, though, was because I didn’t think there was a part there. I could do it, but there was no beginning, no middle, and no end. Because, you know, he had a mother, and they had to put her in. She was something of a force in his life.
So I thought, “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna approach it?” So I thought, “Well, she has to sound like she’s from Jersey.” So I had a friend who was married to a woman who had a very strong Italian New Jersey accent, so I went over to her and said, “Read all these lines for me!” And I recorded them, and I learned the accent. [Laughs.] And that got me a nomination for a Golden Globe, if you can believe it.
AVC: Did you have any interaction with Sinatra himself?
OD: Oh, I did. But not on that. I know the person who wanted me to do that, though, was Sinatra. They would never have come up with that money if it hadn’t been Sinatra. His daughter Tina produced a movie [Young At Heart] in which he makes an appearance at the very end, and he came in with a Winnebago, with a big bar in the Winnebago. It was amazing. He was wonderful, very convivial on the set. But he couldn’t remember his line. His line was one word: “No.” And he couldn’t remember it. He had… It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, but he had something where there was a shortage of oxygen going to the brain. I don’t know, they tried to explain it to me. But he was very sweet. When we finished the scene, he came over to me and, by way of telling me it had been very good, he said, “Look, I’ve got a little money. You wanna run away?” [Laughs.] That was his way of telling me that he thought it went really well.