Talking with Olympia Dukakis

The Oscar winner dishes on marriage, her career and her new film Cloudburst.

CL: Cloudburst is your third film with director Thom Fitzgerald. How did he talk you into coming back for a third film?

Olympia Dukakis: I would do any movie with him, no matter what it was, except I don’t want to do them in Halifax in the wintertime. He’s a wonderful director and the scripts are all really interesting and open up dialogue for issues I care about and the audience becomes engaged.

You and Brenda Fricker are completely believable as a couple that has been together for 31 years. Did you know her before hand, and where does that chemistry come from?

I did a movie with her in Borneo. We didn’t have any scenes together but we were there at the same time. Now we email. I claim that I’m the one who came up with [her casting]. I am taking full credit for Brenda Fricker. … She’s a fabulous actress, very feisty, very honest.

I’ve done some cursing in my time, but you really throw down in this movie. Is that all in the script? How much room do you have to improv?

There was a lot of it in there, some I got to add, like giving [one man] the finger. [Ed. Note: In just one scene, Dukakis says the C-word, oh, 25 times in the span of a minute). They say it’s the most out-there part I’ve ever done. It was not difficult. [Laughs].

I appreciated your attention to detail on the physicality of your character. There were times where you reminded me of my wife’s grandfather. Are you grabbing traits from specific people you know? What’s your process for coming up with all the little ticks and nuances that make Stella tick?

I got scared a couple of times in post-production when I thought, “that looks like a man.” It was quite extraordinary. … [Fitzgerald] was on to me about that hair. He wanted it a certain way. And God knows if it started to look in any way acceptable or average, he was on to it.

Have you seen the film with an audience yet? I’m guessing the screenings can get pretty raucous.

I haven’t actually seen it with an audience but I’ve heard that they just howl.

Cloudburst is playing as part of the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival’s monthly film series. Stella is a gay character that falls outside of what we’re used to seeing in movies. What has the response been from gay & lesbian friends or the LGBT community in general?

No, but I’ve been out of the country.

As someone who’s straight with three kids, married to the same guy for decades, how do you approach playing a gay character? Is it any different than playing an ethnicity or occupation that’s not your own?

Hum. I’ve never been asked that question. I mostly go for the human being. Like when I did Tales of the City, it was really controversial and I played a transsexual. I just try to deal with the human being that’s there. The fact that her sexual proclivities may be different than mine is just sexual. I didn’t think of it, we all have different things that turn us on. So in this, Brenda Fricker is it for me.

[Cloudburst] is a love story in a very particular time when the idea of partnership between people of the same sex is not accepted. My character’s defensiveness is part of that. She’s going to be in your fucking face with it, because that’s what she did with the disapproval. She became stronger and more belligerent.”

People still love the string of movies you did in the 1980s and 1990s, starting with your Oscar winning turn in Moonstruck, but continuing through movies as diverse as Working Girl, the Look Who’s Talking series, Steel Magnolias and Mr. Holland’s Opus. Is there one role that stands out for you?

Tales of the City, man! I’m telling you! Tales of the City is certainly at the top of the list. I don’t know anything I have done that engaged me more or meant so much to me. I read a couple of books about transsexuals at the time. There were only two books out, a Danish tennis player’s and someone else’s. I said to the producer, I’ve got to talk to someone. I want to talk to a transsexual. So he found me a woman who was a transsexual born a man who was now a sex therapist. She came to my apartment and walked in the door 6’2”, enormous hands and the softest voice. We sat down, and I said I’ve read about these operations, I know how difficult and painful they are, I know about the psychology. I’d read the facts, and I said to her, what was it in you that made it possible for you to endure all this physical and psychic turmoil? And she said, “All my life I yearned for the friendship of women.” It blew me out of the water. I don’t know what I expected. Her to talk sexually, I don’t know what. That really put my feet on the ground and I knew. With Cloudburst I knew I had to find that place that meant so much to this woman.

It was real. It had to do with human beings. It didn’t have to do anything with sensational. I’ve also wanted the friendship of women. I’ve also tried to speak out of he places that have been silenced.

Lifetime recently announced a remake of Steel Magnolias featuring all black actresses in the leads. You’re role (Clairee Belcher) is going to Phylicia Rashad. Have you heard about it? Do you think the former TV Mrs. Cosby is a good fit?

No I hadn’t heard, but I think it’s a wonderful idea. I approve!

At an age when most people are retired and hitting the early bird, you’re still going strong, and doing more than just acting. In the last few years you directed Botanic Garden in Chicago, co-adapted and starred in a play based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Montana, Executive Produced the 2009 movie Montana Amazon, and popped up on Law & Order: SVU last year. Where do you get the energy?

I really like it. [Laughs].

Ok, last question: I mentioned earlier that you’ve been married to the same man for decades. This year is actually your 50th wedding anniversary. First off, congrats. Second, how in the world do you keep a marriage and a family together for that long?

I’m looking at my husband right now. Why don’t you ask him?

[Dukakis tells her hubby Louis Zorich the question and puts him on the phone.]

Louis Zorich: Well, Olympia had a lot a lot of money and I didn’t, so it was a perfect fit. [Laughs] Very early on we decided that whatever the other person wanted we would support 100 percent, and that’s really the basis. Even if we didn’t believe in it.

Olympia Dukakis: Ultimately it worked. Most recently I went to Cyprus and I did a show and went to Tel Aviv — a one woman show called Rose — and I was going to be gone a long time. My husband said to me, “Go. Go have an adventure.” How can you leave a man like that?

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