July 30, 2001
An interview with
by Lynn Trenning
Ann Walker is in Dallas, Texas, where her latest performance as Odette Annette Barnett in Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies just opened last Friday.
What do you do on your days off when you are in a strange city?
Well, actually we are going sight seeing today. But they also gave us a club membership, so we can work out. Tomorrow night we'll go over to Fort Worth and take a tour of a theater.
How long have you known Del Shores?
About ten years now. I guess I always knew him. I saw Cheatin' as an audience member. And I thought, this guy writes how I talk, and I identified with all of his characters, I have to get to know him. So I struck up a friendship with a friend of his. Then I bailed him out a little bit by being an understudy in Daughters of the Lonestar State, which I never do. It was about a group of women who didn't want anyone different from them to get in. It was another of his diatribes on the bigotry of the society we live in. He is good at holding things up to standards of truth, and showing that something isn't right. And then he saw that I could do what he liked with these Texas women, and he wrote a part for me in Sordid Lives. He has been very kind to me. He's very kind to everyone he works with.
Do you feel you are working within a gay community of theater attendees?
No. It has been amazing to me. In L.A., we had many more gay audience members than here. Yesterday at the matinee, it looked like half the Baptists in Dallas came to the play. We had standing ovations at every performance, and full houses. It has gotten to be a hot ticket. I don't know if it is just the gay community, or if these people have gay people in their family, or it they just want to understand it better. It would be nice if that were the case.
Many of these people who are gay, when we come out to see the audience afterwards there will be couples crying. People really seem to identify with at least one of the four gay characters in the play, and they really want to share their lives with us. A guy came yesterday who had tried to commit suicide. It is just a sad state of affairs when parents decide not to love their children. Parents don't want to acknowledge what they may think is a defective child. One of the actors in our play is estranged from his parents because he is gay. I know how close I am to my kids, and I can't imagine anything that would make me not love them or not want to be with them.
How do critics treat your Del Shores performances differently than other productions you've been in?
Well, I've been very lucky. Pretty much everything I've done has been well received by the critics. I try, when I read a play, to consider how the audience will feel about the material. Del Shores is considered to be a bit radical, he puts things in front of people that they may not want to see. This play really hits the subject matter many times in many ways. My and Leslie Jordan's characters are the comic relief of the play, because you just can't have the anguish of these four boys poured out without a counterpoint. So reviewers see that, can't help but like our characters, and eat it up. It helps them sit through all the pain and anguish. Reviewers see the audience react.
Del Shores' plays have been very well received. Leslie and I both won the L.A. Drama Critic's Circle Award. I see it as a lifetime award. And Del won the GLAD award.
What is the difference between performing Southern Baptist Sissies in L.A. and in Dallas?
Well, here in Dallas, they get every nuance of the city that we talk about. We refer to Ponder, and every time I say it the audience responds, like when I say I lived in Denton on Truitt Street, which isn't the best part of town. That line provided information for the audience in L.A., but here they know it isn't a good neighborhood. I think the Dallas people know these people in the play, because they see them everyday, and the L.A. people just know that this is what they left.
I'm very proud of the work done in the play, because three of the men are not gay, and I think it is very difficult for a straight man to play this role. They are all very brave. We've had a little hate mail on our web site, but no one seems to have infiltrated the audience.
Do you practice any religion?
I go to the Church of Religious Science. I'm quick to say this is not Scientology. It speaks to me. We have to be nice to people, and it's agape. We have so many negative thoughts that come into our heads, we have to get rid of them. This church is rather new age-y, and it embraces Jews and old women and transexuals and gays. It accepts everyone.
How does it affect your performance, in this play that is so critical about religion?
My personal religious belief has always been live and let live. If your religious makes you happy and doesn't make you feel less as a person, it is fine. I was brought up scared of church. One time I smoked a cigarette on a field trip with a girlfriend, when we were in about 7th grade. We got caught, and we knew we were going to burn in hell. So we got off the bus at a little church and we prayed and prayed and prayed for god to forgive us. And I joined a church! At 13 I felt I was washed of my sins, and I look at it now, and I think how many sins could a 13-year-old have had? There are so many conditions put on people in religions. And I see all the hypocrisy. All the people who couldn't wait to get out of service to smoke a cigarette. So now I believe in the Golden Rule.
Do you think Del Shore's plays are in any way initiating a healing process between the church and the gay community?
Wouldn't it be lovely? I can only hope that is the case. And that the people who have been ridiculed by their family and the church can find some solace in this work. But they are the ones who still have to go out and live on the front line. When people tell you to be ashamed of the way you feel, it is hard to get up every day.
That's another reason I like to take this play on the road. We got insulated in L.A. with our own little problems, but when you take this play to a new place you see how deep the pain is, and how closeted people are.
In Sordid Lives, you play LaVondra DuPree. Do you smoke on stage the whole time?
I did, but we smoked herbal cigarettes, because it was a small house, and I'd quit smoking at that time. You know, in L.A., no one smokes. In Southern Baptist Sissies we just pretend to smoke. And people love it! We have cigarettes and lighters and we hold them on stage and we pretend and it worked great. The audience loved it.
I was interested to read in Sordid Lives that Shores dictated the costumes, down to the character's jewelry. Did you follow that?
Well, here is the deal. We created that! He told us to write down our costumes. It gives you a sense of where to go with the costumes. He loved my big yellow shirt with ruffles. It was white, and they died it canary yellow, I looked like Big Bird when I swooped on the stage. It was revealing and tight. I'm the trashy sister with the heart of gold.
You played this role in Los Angeles for fourteen months. How do you stay interested enough to be good during every performance?
It's not hard. It's the easiest thing in the world. Sissies is harder. I think it's because I'm in three big scenes in Sordid Lives. In this play I'm offstage a lot, and Leslie and I really don't have a story line, which makes it more difficult.
Tell me how playing the character on stage differed from playing her in the recently released movie.
As in all theater, you go from beginning to end. There is no interruption, and you get to go from a to z. In the movie, it is segmented and broken up and it's a bigger challenge to keep the intensity up take after take after take. But because most of us had been in our roles for a long time, we didn't have to dig as deep as the new actors because we'd played it for fourteen months.
I enjoy plays more than movies because of the immediate response of the audience. You can just play it out. You are in charge. It is your medium on stage. It is the director's medium in a movie.
Do you read criticism of the work you're in?
Always. I can't not. Good or bad, I have to know what they have to say.
Do you feel like the critics have judged the movie version of Sordid Lives fairly?
No. They were laughable. They were so bad, they were so, so scathing. I've seen the movie many times with many different audiences, out at film festivals, out in the hinterlands. The response of the audience was always so positive, they were so excited about this film... then to release it in L.A. and to have the critics write what they wrote was unbelievable. A Texas review said these characters do not exist in Texas. I thought the other critics were misguided, but to deny that these characters exist! Where do they think Del gets this stuff? The reviews just dismissed the movie, and that is sad. As though it had no redeeming factors at all. The only thing I saw was, because there was a low budget, it was a little grainy. It was shot digitally and transferred to film. But the characters in the play are trashy, so it works. All you have to do is listen to the audience, hear how people identify with it, and know it struck a chord.
Is there a good reason to do movies instead of stage besides the money?
No. Money is it, for both television and film. You get paid what you are worth, but you do that so you can do theater.
I saw you on the HBO show Arli$$ as a rather bossy agent. Tell me your favorite television roles.
The agent on Arli$$ was a good role for me. Marshall Law, Quantum Leap... but they are just a day, or two days. Until I get my own series, these things are just to pay the bills.
Do you think Del Shores will continue to write plays of this ilk?
I think he will, when he has something to say. His mother just died. So maybe there will be something about families and the process of dying.
And will there be more roles written especially for you?
I hope so, that when he writes something he'll keep me in mind. This role in Sissies wasn't written for me, but the women who were his first choices turned it down because of the religious overtones. I turned this one down three times, but Del kept after me. My daughter was leaving for medical school and I told Del that since he wrote it for another actress, I was not what he wanted. It turns out I was what he wanted. He just didn't know it.
We are like a family. We fight like a family and we love like a family.
Thanks for talking with me, Ann.