Stealth national treasure Holland Taylor sparked headlines recently with a declaration about her love life she was surprised to find people considered news. The 72-year-old Emmy winner and Tony nominee didn't name who she's been seeing, but she did matter-of-factly reveal her gender -- no big deal, according to the actress. "I haven't come out because I am out," she said on WNYC's "Death, Sex & Money" podcast. "I live out."
Perhaps, like me, you first become enamored of Taylor in the way-ahead-of-its-time '80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, in which her then-unknown costars Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari dressed as women when not in her company. (It was about cheap housing.) Or maybe you fell for the haughtily acerbic character actress in one of her more than 100 film and TV turns -- toggling between mainstream movies (Legally Blonde) and quirky indies (Next Stop Wonderland), appearing in so many sitcoms and dramedies her career reads like a map of TV cultural touchstones (Hello Ally McBeal... Ciao, The L Word!).
Her long tour of duty setting Charlie Sheen's teeth on edge in Two and a Half Men ended in February, freeing the Philadelphia native to pursue the more elevated work at which she excels. That includes returning to the New York stage for the first time since channeling political firebrand Ann Richards in her tour-de-force creation Ann. For the past months Taylor has been lighting up the stage in Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's prickly and affecting Ripcord, a black-comic tempest in the teacup of an assisted-living facility. That run ends Dec. 6, but its brilliant star spared time to speak after the play opened.
You've been a comic master of a certain haughty kind of tough cookie throughout your career. Are there types of characters you've never been seen as that you long to do?
HOLLAND TAYLOR: The period of my life where I could have played a lot of the roles that were wonderful is long since passed. I'm an older woman now; I'm very confined to what kind of role I could play by that -- although look at this wonderful role that I have [in Ripcord].
Did you always want to be an actor?
It wasn't like a dreamy ambition; it was something that I knew I intended to do -- and I was just lucky in that my parents didn't pooh-pooh it; nobody made light of it or teased me about it. My mother was a serious painter, and a very fine one. I went to public school part of my childhood, and what was available to me as a student, without even any question, were music classes and arts classes and involvement in the arts -- in public school as a youngster! It was part of the curriculum -- and it isn't any more. It's just ludicrous, considering that we are the country with the most wealth, that we're not putting any of our wealth, not a significant portion of it, in education.
Your eloquence could serve you well in politics. Did you grow up debating issues?
We were not a political family; it was just in the background. I'm sure my parents voted for Dewey.
"Republican" meant something quite different in those days.
[Back then people were] very lazy, just not very knowledgeable. I think we all know much more -- the current generation and even my own life, I'm much more knowledgeable than my parents ever were about the workings of the government, about who does what, about how this happened and that happened and what's the history of this. That's very much something that I read about and care about and pay attention to, and I don't think my parents were that way.
Do you channel your outrage into activism?
During Ann I certainly picked up some things that are of burning interest to me that I somehow will find a way to turn my attention to when I'm not actively working in a theater project. I still cannot believe that we do not have the ERA. I actually can't believe it! A friend of mine who had been an aide to Ann Richards when she was governor, and then later became her executive assistant here in New York in her last years of working, said the only time she ever saw Ann Richards weep in public was when the ERA failed. It was just so, so heartbreaking. Because it just expresses such a fundamental ill. I'm not very articulate about it because for me it seems so perverse. How can there be a question about equal rights in pay between men and women? Is it a subject for debate? How would you debate it? It's so absurd on the face of it that it defies conversation.
We're socialized to buy into the notion that women are somehow misbehaving if we speak out -- the prejudice is so fundamental in our culture that when we say even something as simple as wanting equal pay, we're treated as if we're harridans, complaining and shrill.
Imagine saying about a male person, "Oh, they were just misbehaving. Getting out of hand. Getting out of control." There's obviously a lot of unconscious anxiety on the part of in the male ego about what women do or don't do. I don't personally know too many men who have this problem, but obviously it exists, in the very easy rush to outrage over women's expectations about their own rights. Certainly in the South and in the red states some of these points of view that are screamed for and cheered for and absolutely backed by the populace seem appalling to me. I don't know how any of these things can be approached, they're just so unreasonable and so wack-a-doodle.
Paris mandated gender "parité" as law some years ago, though I'm not sure how it's been enforced. And foreign professional women who come here are often bewildered that American women are reluctant to speak up at work. There's also the whole secondary debate about "leaning in," calling women on not being assertive -- but then Hillary acts straightforward and gets tarred as "aggressive."
I'm bewildered about how to respond to certain strong stands that one encounters now in life. It's just like, "How can I even speak to you if that's the world you want to make?" So there is a kind of retreat from the madness.
Do you see a disconnect between your generation and the young people coming up today?
You mean the protests and the political [activism]? I think generations want different things at different times -- in my life I'm sort of more inwardly trained than someone who'd be marching in the street. It depends on how close the issue strikes to home. In life, you are enlivened by what you can understand from a personal point of view. The plight of the elderly, elderly women in this country, is very heartbreaking and very daunting. It's interesting, because I noticed I had to moan and rock-&-roll on myself about playing an old lady in an assisted care facility. The most minimized, disenfranchised person in America is a little old lady -- you know, the subject of fun and humor and lack of care.
You wrote the opposite of a disenfranchised character in Ann. How did that play come about?
It really was a need to celebrate her in some kind of way. I really quite simply thought she was inspiring, not only by what she said but how she lived her life and how she expressed herself and her wonderful humor and a tremendous humanity and warmth that people felt from her. When she died, I was very upset for a long time -- more than would be natural for someone I didn't know. I wanted to do something that would have a major exposure. And as good things happened -- which they did continuously, just piles of wonderful things happened over the years to that production, which made its way from my California home all the way to Broadway in a very big gorgeous production at Lincoln Center, and at Kennedy Center before that to great success, and the old Shubert in Chicago before that -- I remember I would think, "Where did you get the chutzpah to do that?" I guess it came from the subject. I was definitely a creator of it and the energy behind it -- or the interim energy, following Ann's lead -- and I have no thought to ever write anything again. It just was a one-time opportunity to have a very heroic kind of experience in my life. It was quite a ride there, and very taxing. I was profoundly tired for a year after Ann, really, really tired. The journey itself was about [six years] altogether -- and the absence of it in my life was terrible for a while. It was really like a death, the absence was just strange and heartbreaking and confusing. I was just so used to it being part of my life, and also what I would nurture and protect, and then I didn't have it to nurture and protect any more; it was really very empty and very lonely for a while. I'm going to do it in Austin for a month or so this spring. So many Texans would say, "You know, we can't all of us come to New York to see your play." It will be much more a celebrational way of revisiting it, reviving it for the pleasure of doing it -- very different from the drive to get it up and have its own little place in history. Or not so little.
I wish she were still with us. She'd have some choice comments on the political circus we're experiencing today.
I think part of the reason why Bernie Sanders has so captured the public's imagination now is because he just seems like such the real deal, who's somehow held onto a kind of fineness in his character and in his behavior and in what he stands for. He just seems very true-blue. I think people are very captivated by it.
Ironically, when someone like him gets to higher office -- you look at Jimmy Carter, a brilliant and fine person -- and then we punish him for not being a politician.
You cannot win. And also there's the human nature of we love to praise goodness and then turn them into goody two-shoes, revile them. The public whim, the ever-turning public whim of lifting people up and dashing them to the ground.
It's not always easy to stay optimistic. Does Ripcord feel like a harsh world to live in? It's a place of constant conflict.
And yet so ridiculously funny. I decided to do this play before I finished reading the first act, because I wanted to be in that world. The finer writer really does make a world that has his own, or her own, rules and delineations and styles of life.
The experience of acting is such a strange one. It's so elusive and hard to quantify because it's all tied up with your own experience of just being alive. It's not a separate thing that you've created outside yourself; it's your own responses and reactions and your own little person that is going through an imaginative state when you're trying to create a behavior and then manners and the expression of someone else. It really is a rare psychological trick you're playing on yourself. After a lifetime of doing it, it remains an ineffable sensation that's uniquely desirable.
Is there anything I should have asked you?
There's always things that you wish you'd said. For me the most important thing--I think it happens as people get older, a kind of, "Look, I am what I am, and anybody who doesn't like it, too bad. Seek your enjoyment elsewhere."
A slightly different version of this interview originally appeared in Dame Magazine.
(Hungry for more Holland? Try this.)