Mary Beth Peil

Meet Mary Beth Peil, The Dowager Empress In Anastasia

By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Mary Beth PeilPlease tell me about the start of your career. Who, or what, influenced you to pursue a life in the arts?

I majored in Music at Northwestern, with all my early training and performances in the opera department. But I fell in love with classical music and live performance at age 10, when my dad took me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah with the local symphony and Augustana College Choir. Choral singing was – and still is – a very important tradition in Davenport, Iowa, where I grew up. At age 15, I started voice lessons (My mother insisted because she knew how shy I was, and they kept offering me solos in school and church.). I had the good fortune of living across the street from one of the great voice teachers no one has ever heard of – Ethyl Waterman. She steered me towards opera; and to this day, I use her exercises and what I learned from her. At Northwestern, I was mentored and given special awards from the legendary Lotte Lehmann and Pierre Bernac.

Upon graduating from Northwestern, I auditioned for Boris Goldovsky and was invited to do the lead in La Traviata with his opera theatre. So, I came to New York with a job! I won several New York competitions –the most important one being the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

You spent two decades as an opera singer before moving onto musical theatre. You then ventured into film and television. Was the transition from live performance to film and television a difficult one?

Having started at age 22 winning competitions and doing roles that I was perhaps not ready for while raising a family, I became aware of the short-lived career of an operatic lyric soprano. I had always been more excited by the theatrical challenges of opera rather than the vocal ones. So, I started acting classes at the advice of theatre director Frank Corsaro and found myself doing Kiss Me, Kate at Minnesota Opera (an opera company I had worked with many times) 20 years after my first La Traviata and La Bohème. The King and I opposite Yul Brynner followed immediately.

Actually, the next transition was to straight theatre: comedy and drama, with no singing. If it wasn’t for a very loyal and persistent agent who was finally able to get me auditions for theatre, I would never have been able to make that next transition. Getting the auditions was the biggest hurdle.

The transition from stage to film/television was a big learning curve but one I eagerly embraced and didn’t find particularly difficult. By the time I was actually getting that work, I had been studying acting intensely with the master teacher Michael Howard (still teaching at age 91!). A lovely actress, Julie Hagerty (Airplane!), advised me “…just be honest on camera.”  Good advice and not as simple as it sounds.

Mary Beth Peil and Yul Brynner in 'The King and I.' Photo by Henry Grossman.
Mary Beth Peil and Yul Brynner in ‘The King and I.’ Photo by Henry Grossman.

You’ve worked with a number of legendary actors: Yul Brynner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau – do you have a favorite? 

Those three gentlemen are legendary to be sure, but because of their gracious professionalism, I always felt like a colleague and was never intimidated because I was so eager to learn everything I could about musical theatre and film. I devoured everything out of Brynner’s experience both on and off stage (including learning to love and appreciate good wine). He was so generous in sharing stories and experiences. I think the fact that he was aware of his own mortality (he died of lung cancer three months after our last Broadway performance) made our relationship deeper on so many levels. Actually, both Jack and Walter died shortly after filming Odd Couple II. Walter made work seem like play and fun – very important for the repetitive aspect of doing take after take after take on film.  I loved all three of them, but Yul Brynner changed my life both professionally and personally.

You’ve played very different women on two popular television shows: warm, supportive Evelyn ‘Grams’ Ryan on Dawson’s Creek and the head-strong, opinionated Jackie Florrick on The Good Wife. Which role have you most enjoyed playing?

Grams actually started out as a very opinionated, strict disciplinarian who learned from the young people in her life to be the warm, supportive woman she found herself to be after six seasons. Jackie would never be described as “warm,” but she certainly was supportive of her son – warts and all. I love the way fans of the show describe Jackie as “the one you love to hate: nosy, bossy, narrow-minded, judgmental, cold,” etc. There is nothing more fun than playing a complicated, conflicted and flawed character. Howard’s loving her seems to be creating a “thaw,” perhaps proving that we all just need a little love?

Mary Beth Peil in 'M. Proust.'
Mary Beth Peil in ‘M. Proust.’

Have you originated a character on stage before? How does it feel to inhabit a brand new role?

I have had several opportunities to create a character before. I did the world premiere and subsequent productions, including PBS Great Performances, of Summer and Smoke (the opera). Alma Winemiller has been played by many brilliant actors on stage, but to sing her character’s mind and soul was truly thrilling. Other original world premiere productions include: Nan in The Naked Eye by Paul Rudnick; Evelyn Lincoln in First Lady Suite by Michael John LaChiusa; several characters in A.R. Gurney’s A Cheever Evening; the Concierge in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Broadway musical based on the Almodóvar film); and Katherine Grant in 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman. I also originated the role of Céleste in M. Proust by Mary Zimmerman. Céleste Albaret was Proust’ s housekeeper during the last nine years of his life. This was a one-character play with 90 minutes of just me channeling Céleste, with the help of Elizabeth (Williamson, Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director), who was the dramaturg on the project (About Face/Steppenwolf).

Probably the best thing about creating a character for the first time is having the actual creators, writers, and composers in the room during rehearsals.

Do you feel a special responsibility when creating a new character – and do you find it hard to let go once the role for you has ended?

Absolutely, you feel a special responsibility both to honoring the character and to honoring the real creator (the writer),  which is why it is so thrilling to have  that person in the room helping to steer, to agree or disagree, to take suggestions or not take suggestions, etc., together. You always feel a responsibility to the words and music that are given you by someone who has perhaps spent years creating that character, but that is doubled when you are helping in that creation.

The most personal creation, and the hardest to let go, was Katherine Grant in 33 Variations. Moisés (Kaufman) works in a very special way. There is no script – just characters and an overview of the story he wants to tell. Every day we would bring in “moments” – little fragments, with or without words, in a sort of improvised moment to form the life of your character. You created these moments on your own or with other cast members before each day of rehearsal based on all the research and reading you were also doing on your character and the world of the play. I was playing a Musicologist who was an expert on Beethoven and dying of ALS while trying to finish a major paper on the 33 Diabelli Variations by Beethoven. So, between my early training in – and love for – classical music and all the research on ALS, I was deeply invested in Katherine and her story and felt uniquely qualified to bring her to life. In a very real sense, all the actors in that world premiere production wrote their own lines, and Moisés put them all together and made a play out of all of our “moments.” It was very painful to let her go.

Tell us about your role as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia.

To still be singing at age 75 makes me so happy. Had I stayed in the opera world, I would be retired 20 years by now. I have an insatiable appetite for all things Russian: history, music, poetry, literature, art and politics – so, it is fun to have an understanding of this woman since starting my “research” 45 years ago.  Playing the Empress Maria Feodorovna Romanova is an honor and privilege.

Why do you think so many people, especially young women, are so enchanted by the story of Anastasia?

Perhaps it is because I have been drawn to all things Russian for so many years. It seems perfectly logical that anyone of ANY age would be drawn to Anastasia.  First of all, she is the right age: We see her growth from 7 to 17 and then to 27. We see how drastically the world has changed, just as we saw it so beautifully explained and illustrated recently in Downton Abbey. It is a fairy tale full of romance, violence and mystery – a tale of finding true love against all odds. Anastasia is a much more realistic and inspirational character than many of the young women adored by young girls in our “princess” culture today.