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Carol Kane Never Meant To Become Hollywood’s Go-To Eccentric

Known for her unmistakable voice, the Oscar-nominated actor broke through with "Hester Street" and "Annie Hall." Then she got typecast as the resident loon.
Carol Kane, seen here in "Dog Day Afternoon," "Wicked," "Hester Street," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" an
Carol Kane, seen here in "Dog Day Afternoon," "Wicked," "Hester Street," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Taxi."

There’s no mistaking Carol Kane’s voice. Even if we hadn’t coordinated an exact time for our phone conversation, I would have recognized that throaty warble immediately. It’s grown more distinctive since she first appeared in “Carnal Knowledge” in 1971 and earned an Oscar nomination for the bittersweet 1975 immigrant romance “Hester Street.” Paired with Kane’s decadent blond curls, her speech has been a vessel for all sorts of madcap characters, including Simka on the sitcom “Taxi,” an amateurish witch in “The Princess Bride,” a Christmas ghost in “Scrooged,” the aptly named Granny Frump in “Addams Family Values,” an offbeat landlord on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a wine-drunk zombie in “The Dead Don’t Die” and a Nazi combatant on “Hunters.” 

Kane, 68, didn’t set out to be a comedy maven, and at times she has longed for more opportunities to flex other muscles. But when you’re remembered for one particular mode, it can be hard to convince Hollywood to see you any other way. Even she used to doubt her own talents. During our 80-minute chat last week, she teared up thinking about the roles she turned down in the ’70s out of intimidation. 

Along the way, we talked about being typecast, self-doubt, carrying the influential opening scene of “When a Stranger Calls,” befriending Bette Davis, attending Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, Woody Allen and why “Kimmy Schmidt” changed her life.

David Schweizer, who directed you onstage, once described your signature role as the “breathy-voiced ditz.” Why do you think that became your specialty?

I think that’s kind of diminishing. I’m surprised that David would say that because I did two very different plays with him. But, you know, each to his own, I guess. It is certainly an aspect of what I’ve done. Of course, no one likes to be typecast. One does not want to be able to be described in six words after having worked for, luckily and gratefully, a long lifetime. I’ve been really lucky at my age to go back to doing dramatic characters [like in] “Hester Street” or some of the earlier films that I was fortunate to do. I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of variety, and certainly some great breathy-voiced ditzes, like maybe the ghost in “Scrooged.”

Have there been moments when you’ve felt upset that there wasn’t more dramatic work coming your way?

Well, I don’t want to characterize it as upset because I’m so grateful for a great deal of the comedy work that I’ve been privileged to do. It’s really been a treasure, and I’ve worked with so many brilliant people. But certainly one wants to play the full scale. For a while, I was mainly being asked to do comedy, and I guess I did wish that maybe there was more dramatic work. But on the other hand, even when I was doing more film or television comedy, like “Taxi” or “Kimmy” or whatever, then some of the stage work has been dramatic.

Kane in "Hester Street."
Kane in "Hester Street."

You’re right that early in your career, in movies like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The World’s Greatest Lover” and “Annie Hall,” you were playing mostly relatable, everyday people. And over time, particularly after “Taxi” ended, your most popular movies found you portraying zany, over-the-top loons: “The Princess Bride,” “Scrooged,” “Addams Family Values” or even something like “My Blue Heaven.” Did you consistently enjoy working in that more ostentatious mode?

Yeah. Because the movies that you’re describing, I got to work with such great actors and directors and writers, and for me, the writing is just everything. Luckily, in all the work you’re describing, I’ve been fortunate in that they’re just wonderfully written.

You’ve said you felt insecure about your voice, but your voice is the thing you’re most known for. Have you learned to treasure what you can do with it?

I don’t treasure my voice. I am grateful that I can alter it a great deal depending on the role. I enjoy doing that, finding the very specific voice of a character.

Is there a voice that was particularly fun to develop?

Several. I mean, the voice of Gitl in “Hester Street.” The voice in “Hunters.” Certainly the voice in “Scrooged” was really fun. “When a Stranger Calls” was a very different voice than “Scrooged” or whatever, so there’s a whole bunch of them. I think “Scrooged” was really fun because it was so crazy, getting to fly around. It was just really great. And then I had a lot of fun when I was doing “Wicked.” Madame Morrible’s voice was very low and very highfalutin and English. I just love the experimentation and alteration that goes along with different characters.

I watched “When a Stranger Calls” for the first time not too long ago. 

I hope you didn’t watch it late at night!

I did turn the lights out. I’m a big horror fan. You carry the opening scene almost single-handedly, and it inspired the famous opening scene of “Scream.” How did that make you feel?

I know! I’m tickled by it. And one must give credit to Fred Walton, who wrote and directed “When a Stranger Calls,” who created that incredibly suspenseful scene where you don’t see anything particularly frightening. It’s just sounds of the refrigerator and the way he built it up. The pacing of it and everything was just so brilliant, and it tickles me that it became slightly iconic.

John Cazale, Al Pacino and Kane in "Dog Day Afternoon."
John Cazale, Al Pacino and Kane in "Dog Day Afternoon."

I’m guessing you’re not a horror person.

You know what? You are guessing correctly. I’m such a sucker. Now, how come you guessed that? But you’re right. I can’t watch it. I get really scared.

Well, you just sounded so aghast when I said that I would want to watch “When a Stranger Calls” with all the lights turned out.

Oh, God! I can’t stand that you did that! Yeah, no, I am totally chicken. I guess I just get carried away with the possibilities of it being real, you know?

You did at least one other horror go-round with “Office Killer,” which I only recently learned was directed by Cindy Sherman. It’s the only movie she’s made.

I hope it won’t be the only one, though, because she’s so brilliant. I love it. Also, her aesthetic is all true to that Cindy Sherman visual aesthetic. I just adore her, and I had a lot of fun with her. She had very specific taste, as you know, but she also encouraged a lot of freedom. For instance, one fun thing for me: I guess you may have noticed that [Kane’s character] Dorine’s eyebrows were very unique and didn’t match at all. Every day, Cindy painted them on for me. I just said, “You just have to do it yourself,” because they were so creative, those eyebrows, and they changed over the course of the film. The left one had nothing to do with the right one. I think only Cindy could do it.

There’s a funny joke in “Kimmy Schmidt” where Lillian says that Cindy Sherman doesn’t really exist and is just a persona she created.

I know! Isn’t that so funny? Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, sometimes they throw in a reference to other work that you’ve been in. I love that Tina does that. I feel like it’s getting a bonbon, if anybody still knows what that word means, to say what it means to me, as opposed to what it means to Lillian. Like a delicious little treat.

Andy Kaufman and Kane in an episode of "Taxi."
Andy Kaufman and Kane in an episode of "Taxi."

You have a small role in “Ishtar.” For a long time, I was more familiar with the lore of “Ishtar” than the movie itself. At the time, it was called one of the worst movies ever made. It famously went over budget, and Elaine May and Warren Beatty had a falling out. The movie has since been reappraised, but what do you remember about the melodrama that apparently went on behind the scenes?

Well, I remember that I got to go to rehearsal with Elaine May directing and writing. And I got to act with Dustin [Hoffman] and Warren and the great cinematographer [Vittorio Storaro]. I was not aware of behind-the-scenes drama, which I’m really glad about. And by the way, I have to say, on the movies or even theatre pieces that I’ve done, where there’s a great deal of gossip, a lot of it seems to me to be made up. But I also wasn’t there for a long time. I just adore Elaine, and I’ve gotten to do two other works with her.

Is there a greater achievement than befriending Bette Davis?

I don’t know. I’m speechless.

Do you have a favorite Bette Davis memory?

This is such a great memory of how I met her, and how I met her assistant, Kathryn Sermak, in the laundry room in the building I moved into in Hollywood. I was on my way to a movie in Sydney, and I was very young and kind of frightened to travel that far, to know no one. And Kathryn told Miss D, as she called her, about me and what was about to happen, and that very same day a beautiful note came under my door: “I’ve been to Australia. Maybe I can help. Come for drinks at 6.” Signed Bette Davis, whose movies I had watched all my life. I think she’s just the greatest screen actress in my childhood. I’d just read her book, and there was this invitation. She was generous like that, very kind towards me. I went to the Emmys one time for “Taxi,” and she had me in before for drinks and she was just so supportive.

How lovely and how, perhaps, contradictory to the reputation that she earned as this brassy diva.

Well, you know, the thing is, her greatness came along with being a perfectionist. I think many people who are perfectionists, a lot of people don’t understand that that can be the source of what people might think of as distant or tough. But she drove herself the hardest of anybody. I believe, from what I know of her and read that she’s written about herself, she expected the same kind of standard around her. I mean, I didn’t get to work with her, but as far as our relationship, she was nothing but supportive.

I read that you were the only “Taxi” cast member to attend Andy Kaufman’s funeral. Why was that?

I don’t even remember if that’s true, to tell you the truth. It could have just been that I was the one that lived on the East Coast. I’m wondering if Judd [Hirsch] was there, but I really can’t remember. 

Around that time, you ended up at Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding. Was that because you and Sean had made a movie together?

Yes. We made “Racing with the Moon,” and I met Madonna, was it through Sean? Also I think I met her with [Kane’s close friend] Diane [Keaton]. I can’t remember why that would be, but I do remember that to be true. I was invited to the wedding. I don’t know how they got through it, to tell you the truth. The amount of helicopters. It was really one of those things that you just read about but can’t relate to because it’s so crazy.

That’s why I had to ask you about it, because it sounds so cinematic and almost fantastical.

Well, that’s a great word for it. It was fantastical.

When you are at an event like that, where there are paparazzi flying overhead and it becomes this storied legacy that will go down in the pop-culture history books, do you feel like it’s a sign that you’ve achieved some sort of celebrity status?

Maybe for a second. I went with my girlfriend, Sheila Jaffe, who’s also close to Sean. Sheila’s a casting director that cast “The Sopranos” and most of Mark Wahlberg’s movies, and they were close. I can tell you that we never got the illusion or delusion that any of that attention or craziness has anything to do with you. It was very surreal, you know? Like a Fellini movie. You just get in a car and you drive an hour and suddenly you’re in a totally different world. And then you get back in the car and go home.

Whoopi Goldberg and Kane in "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
Whoopi Goldberg and Kane in "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

I wondered if it was similar to the way people imagine getting an Oscar nomination, which you’ve also experienced. There are these singular things that, for the outsider who doesn’t know what it’s like to be famous, seem like a token of your having “made it.”

Yeah, I guess so, to the outsider. It comes and goes so fast, and it’s all an illusion. Just to illustrate that, for instance, I can say that when I was out in Los Angeles staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel going to the Academy Awards [in 1976], I was also on unemployment. Those are the types of things to just drive you crazy. How do you balance those two realities? I think you have to be extremely sane and secure to balance.

Was it easy for you to balance the two realities?

Oh, no. I didn’t do well with it.

What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that it really frightened me. I was too young to cope with it, and I definitely turned down work that would’ve been very important for me to do because I just was too frightened and I was not sane and secure. I did this tiny little black-and-white movie [“Hester Street”] for no money. It was shot for no money, we made no money, and suddenly this thing happened. I was not prepared. I’ve seen, by the way, people that are prepared and are very gracious and can hit that level of success in a much better way than I was able to. 

And when you say that you were ill-prepared or frightened, was it the fame aspect that intimidated you?

Yeah. Totally. And the Groucho Marx thing: not wanting to belong to a club that would have me as a member. [Kane briefly tears up.] I really suffered from that intensely, and that’s why I made some artistic choices that, as you can hear, are very painful to me to this day. But, you know, what can you do? I was 23 years old.

Are you comfortable talking about some of those choices? What was the work that you turned down?

There was a role in a movie playing a true story of an artist. I don’t want to say the name of it because I wouldn’t want to cause anybody involved with it pain. But it was a great, great role and an important true story having to do with the Holocaust. I guess you could say I didn’t allow myself to do it. It was after “Hester Street,” and I was just, to use the horribly overused phrase, too freaked out to accept that it was OK to come my way.

There are so many different nuances to that feeling, and I think a lot of people have what they would call imposter syndrome.

Hey, interesting! I’ve never heard that phrase, but that’s an interesting way to describe it. You don’t want to call it the Groucho Marx syndrome?

I think that’s a far more clever way to frame it, yes. It’s interesting, though: During that same period we’re talking about, you were getting some really impressive work, including a few movies that are resonant to this day. Did you not feel at the time that that was the case?

Well, I know a movie I love that we haven’t mentioned: “The Last Detail.”

Of course. And “Carnal Knowledge.”

“Carnal Knowledge” was the beginning of my life as an actress, really. Anyway, I think that I knew that I was fortunate to be in some very great movies and plays, but I also knew that I had gotten rid of some great roles that I should have taken on. More than one. That is not to say that I reject or don’t value or am not endlessly, endlessly grateful for what I have been a part of as an artist.

Tituss Burgess and Kane in an episode of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."
Tituss Burgess and Kane in an episode of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

You are close friends with both Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, who have very different interpretations of the reputation that Woody Allen currently has. I’m curious what it’s like to watch someone you worked with assume such a complicated place in your friends’ lives, and to watch that person’s reputation sour so gravely.

Well, look. I don’t know the truth of what happened. I mean, it’s something that is just ... I have no idea. The truth is, I have no idea. I think that Woody is a great, great director and has given us all the most extraordinary works of art. And I do not sit in judgment at all. I mean, the whole thing is so distressing. The pain on everyone’s part in the situation is awful. And I think that’s all I can say.

Sure, you don’t have to answer for his allegations. I was just curious because of the connections you have with those two women who play very different roles in his life and have said very vastly different things about him.

Well, the thing I need to speak to concerning him is that he’s a great artist. I am friends with Mia, but I don’t speak to her frequently or see her, whereas Diane is in my life on a daily basis.

Do you think you might have felt more encouraged about yourself when you were young if you’d come up in the business today, given the attention being paid to elevating women in film and television? 

To tell you the truth, I would’ve been more encouraged if I had grown up during the ’30s and ’40s. Even in silent films, there were so many great female writers and directors and actresses. I don’t have any regret. The late ’60s and ’70s were such a rich soil for the work and the birth of independent films. And if it was today, then I wouldn’t have worked with Hal [Ashby], and I wouldn’t have worked with Cindy, and I wouldn’t have worked with John Cassavetes. Or Mike Nichols! But let’s face it. In the ’30s and ’40s and even ’20s, women were just extraordinary. Look at the roles that Bette Davis played. You can’t say things have gotten better than that. Ida Lupino, you know? If you want to talk about the ’70s, look at the roles created for Gena [Rowlands]. I’m glad for any enrichment that has happened, but I guess I don’t quite see it that way.

I also think that if you look at European movies — English movies, French movies — the roles for women of all ages were so rich. America went through a period where, when you turned 40, you had to check with the phone company. It literally felt that way.

Did it feel that way for you?

Yeah. All of a sudden, the scripts that I was getting, [the characters were in their] 50s or 60s. It felt that way for a lot of us. But anyway, like I said, I have no regrets.

When “Kimmy Schmidt” came along, it put you back in that zany, eccentric mode you were known for. Did you see it that way?

Oh yeah. And I will say that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and Jeffrey Richmond — all the creators of “Kimmy Schmidt” — they changed my life. They put me back to work in a way that I hadn’t been in quite some time on-screen. I’d been doing a lot of theater, but they really changed my life as an older actress.

That show accentuated — and doubled down on accentuating after it became a success — the things you’re most known for that might sometimes make you insecure: your voice, your hair, your physicality.

Well, like that line that they wrote about [my hair being] “beautiful spaghetti.” That’s so great. And I did get to do the kind of physical comedy that I love and haven’t gotten to do on TV since “Taxi” and “All Is Forgiven.” It was a meal, and it was just served up to me in the most grateful, generous way.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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