Shirley MacLaine Gets Her Mean On in Bernie


Actress, hoofer, singer, activist, author and New Age practitioner/philosopher, Shirley MacLaine has worn many hats during a remarkably rich and varied life. Her thirteenth book, I'm Over All That and Other Confessions, was published by Atria Books in April of 2011. Currently working on a new volume, MacLaine also graces the big screen this month in her 52nd feature film appearance.

Bernie is director Richard Linklater's black comedy based on the true story of a much-loved small town Texas funeral director (Jack Black) who is accused of murdering wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), for whom he became a constant companion. Loaded with Linklater's trademark deadpan wit, Bernie is a delight from start to finish. The Castle Rock/Millennium/Mandalay Vision release also stars Matthew McConaughey and arrives in limited release April 27, going wide May 4.

Shirley MacLaine sat down recently to discuss her latest cinematic outing, as well as a host of other subjects befitting one of Hollywood's great eclectic personalities. Here's what transpired:

You've played some tough cookies before, but never someone as overtly nasty as Marjorie. I was thinking 'I wonder if Miss MacLaine is one of these actors who has to find humanity in every role she plays or if she can just play any part, regardless of how evil the character might be.'

(laughs) That's a good question. If I found humanity in the character I think it would pertain more to a drama, and this is a comedy. I have no idea how I do that, honestly. In Steel Magnolias, parts of Terms of Endearment ... somehow I've zeroed in on the comedic overtone of evil. (laughs) Whoa! That's good. Remember that at the end of our talk. "Comedic overtones of evil." I'm going to do a chapter on that in my next book.

Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie and Jack Black as Bernie.

I saw that you got to spend some time with Marjorie's nephew. Did that help you flesh out her character?

Yes and no. He didn't understand her, not that anyone really did. He was originally looking to write a piece on me "becoming" Marjorie and I don't do that. I don't do the Meryl Streep thing. I can't give up my own identity. I need to be in cognizant awareness, maybe not total control, but awareness of who I am and whether there's a fly on my arm.

That's an interesting way to put it. That said, do you have to find a part of yourself in most of the characters you play?

Oh, no. No. But I've had enough experience in life probably that I've met people all over the world who have some aspect that I can zero in on with whatever character I'm playing. Maybe with Marjorie I touched some of the behavior patterns that I would like to indulge in myself. (laughs)

I'm sure you've encountered people in Hollywood who were as unpleasant as Marjorie.

Yeah, but in Hollywood, they don't ever let you know it to your face. You've got to go find it out. I'd say people I've been involved with, interpersonal stuff, family stuff where you're really close and you just think they're so full of shit. And if you could say that when you feel that way and be so irascibly, unbelievably difficult in response, I think I tap into that stuff. (laughs)

We tend to let our guard down around family more.

Yeah, it's more real. It's more honest. In Hollywood you could never get to that. It might jeopardize the next movie.

I thought that you and Jack Black looked like you were having a great time together.

Oh, he's the best. He's just so fucking talented. You have no idea how talented he is. No one knows yet how well he can act.

Bernie and Marjorie living it up.

The comfort level between the two of you was palpable. It really felt like you communicated in an unspoken language.

Yeah, it was literally such a pleasure. Even though I'd have to get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and I'd be cursing it, that would all go away when I realized 'Oh yes, I'm going to see Jack.' So it was a pleasure to get up early to work with him and I hate getting up early. I'm truly on Vegas time.

How about working with Richard Linklater?

He's an enigma. I got clear at the press conference earlier today that he is a practitioner of ambiguity. Because every question I ever asked him or that anyone else asked him, his answer was "Well, I dunno..."

Is he a director who gives a lot of direction or just stays out of the way?

Stays out of the way. Exactly. Of course I'm schooled in the old school method: taking what I think the director wants, then reworking it through my own brain and heart. A lot of them didn't say much, like Vincente Minnelli. So there can be great profundity in a director not saying anything.

You're on the new season of Downton Abbey. Tell us about that.

Oh, that is something. (laughs) I can't talk about the scripts and stuff, but you know the environment ... it seems like we sat around a big table for about two and half weeks and I was surrounded by these extraordinary actors. I adore Maggie Smith. The comedy of class, played so straight, is a wonderful thing for an actor to sink their teeth into. We shot out outside in the wind and the rain and it was bloody cold, but we kept going because everyone was so committed to the show. I was also feeling so moved that these great actors couldn't revel in the fact that they were in the biggest television hit in the world. So I asked 'Why? It's not Upstairs, Downstairs, but it's similar. What's going on here? Why am I so obsessed with these seventeen soap opera stories and what they've done and what has Julian Fellowes glommed onto that he may or not be aware of?

Did you come up with an answer?

Well, my answer is too technical and too complicated and it comes from my friend Robert Harling, who wrote Steel Magnolias. It has to do with the rhythmic capacity for the intake of information in this technological civilization we're living in.

I liked the chapter on that subject in your new book. I agree with your take.

Yeah, but Bobby says that the audience is capable of the sixteen relationships, but only a certain amount of seconds worth, otherwise they get bored or they don't get enough. And Julian has somehow landed on the right timing. Of course everything else is so beautifully done, but Bobby says there's something technologically perfect about it.

I'm Over All That really grabbed me from the get-go because we have the same mantra in life, which is "Why?" You've written many books prior to this. Tell us how this one was born.

I was having lunch with my editor. "Why don't you write about..." "No, I'm over all that." "Well, what about..." "No, I'm over all that." After that happened about four times he said "That's the title. Now write it." (Laughs) This one I'm writing now, we were sitting with Judith Kerr and my editor, and we started talking about the state of the world and saying "What if...?" about many things, and then I realized that was my title: What if? It's a good excuse to talk about anything that's interesting to me.