Ms. Ashley's Profession
World-wise Actress Elizabeth Ashley Returns to Washington
Elizabeth Ashley is back in town, and it’s about time.
It’s been eight years since the volatile, gifted and outspoken actress graced a Washington stage, and a lot has happened since then.
And yet, in some ways, as you visit her for an interview in the apartment on Massachusetts Avenue where she’s staying for the run of the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a lot of things haven’t changed.
She’s as brash, direct, self-deprecating, emotive, blunt as ever, so much that you do what you’ve done in three previous encounters: you proceed gingerly, on the lookout for possible landmines, but with an anticipation that is not disappointed.
It’s been eight years since she starred as Regina in “The Little Foxes” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. A lot has happened to Ashley since then, not all of it pretty. Her domicile in New York was destroyed in a fire, along with most of the contents within. “I lost everything,” she says. “That’s an experience.”
Later, she was injured in a boating accident. And, she recently turned 70.
“I don’t worry about it,” she said, nor does she noodle the subject. She seems to embrace it, which would seem to indicate a certain abandonment of vanity. “I did the wild, intense, youthful period, I embraced and left behind middle age. Maybe when I was young, you think about looks. I was a cute young thing, I guess. But if you spent your life worried about how you look, you’re going to be in trouble at this stage.”
She was more than cute, she had a way about her, pitch black hair, deep brown eyes, a challenging persona, and a tremendous acting gift which she nurtured with work, constant work, flourishing most effectively and sometimes brilliantly on stage, especially in a legendary production of a Michael Kahn-directed revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which she played Maggie the Cat and triumphed by way of reputation, performance and, of course, billboards.
Now, she sort of drapes herself on the couch in her split-level apartment, smoking cigarettes, wearing a loose blouse, slacks, hair in a ponytail, bare feet tucked under, her hands and arms doing a lot of talking. Two dogs are in tow, one recently adopted from a local shelter, the other a pug named Che Guevara.
“The name is meant to be ironic,” she says. “This is the least warrior-like dog I have ever seen in my life.”
Clearly, she loves him too, and the name probably has something to do with an affinity for outsiders and maybe even revolutionaries. Who knows?
In all the eventful times of the past few years, there’s been a constant that’s scattered throughout her life and career, and that’s a deep and abiding professionalism, a respect for the work, not just her own but her peers and fellow actors. She has not been still or shy, probably not ever: Callas in “Master Class,” Mattie Fae in the epic “August: Osage County,” a matriarch in the late Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” and a small but recurring role in the highly praised HBO series “Treme.”
No matter what personal drama went on in Ashley’s life, no matter what amount of indulgence and excesses may have been initiated or experienced by her (three marriages, including an intense bout with the late Hollywood star George Peppard), the work was her grounding point, her rock. She went into everything with 100 percent effort, playing or acting hurt, if you will, and elevating many projects to a higher level. Her presence on episode television like “Miami Vice,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Law and Order: SUV,” “Homicide” and the recurring role of the bawdy, loud, hypnotic member of the cast of the Burt Reynolds sitcom “Evening Shade” were all enriched by her professionalism and her gifts.
“You can’t just collect your paycheck,” she says. “I don’t do that. I don’t coast.”
She was a razzle-dazzler early on in the theater when Broadway sparkled at its brightest in comedies like “Barefoot in the Park.” She shone briefly in her youth in films like “The Carpetbaggers” with Peppard, but always there was the theater, the sail and life boat of her working life.
She sounds more like a pragmatist, one who still cares quite a bit, even though she describes herself as a cynic. She often talks in sports metaphors, especially of the pro football variety, and loves to talk about old football stars, many of whom she called friends, including the Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.
And now she’s back, watching the tragedy in the Gulf unfold from a great distance, more or less, but also brought back by tragedy. She’s taking on the role of Mrs. Warren, which was originally to be done by Dixie Carter, who passed away recently from breast cancer.
“Dixie was a tremendously classy lady,” Ashley said. “She even thought she could do it although everyone knew she was ill. But when she went back to the hospital for tests, [the cancer] had gone everywhere.” Ashley worked with Carter’s husband Hal Holbrook on “Evening Shade.” “We all knew each other, were friends. Dixie was elegant, she was extremely intelligent, she was witty, wry, she was sophisticated without being affected, she was generous … she was the best of breed among us all.”
Her presence came as a result of following once again one of her credos: “When the mighty Kahn calls, I go.” That would be Michael Kahn, who asked her to take over, and she did with no debate or agonizing “In that kind of situation, you don’t negotiate, you don’t chit chat, you don’t hesitate. You go.”
In the Shaw play, she plays a woman who runs a number of high-class brothels, much to the embarrassment and dismay of her daughter. “Children,” she says. “I told my son Christian once that I wasn’t a very good mother, no Betty Crocker, no, but that now that he was grown up, I’d be very interesting company.”
It’s always interesting to listen to her talk about fellow actresses like Betty White, Vanessa Redgrave, Carter, Estelle Parsons, the local chameleon Nancy Robinette. She is unstinting and disarming in dishing out praise, respect and awe, a rare quality in the business.
These days, she talks of herself as a “mechanic, an old pro” or “a survivor,” although if you’ve ever seen her in action on stage, she is considerably more, and always has been. And if she’s without vanity these days, she’s not without great gifts or ego.
To me, it seems she’s always told the truth, which requires several things: trust, courage, and swagger, qualities that could fit both a Hall of Fame actress or quarterback.
"Mrs. Warren's Profession" runs through July 11 at Sidney Harman Hall. Click here for scheduling and tickets.