Best known as Professor Stromwell in “Legally Blonde,” Bunny in “The Wedding Date,” and Evelyn Harper in “Two and a Half Men,” Philadelphia born Holland Taylor attended Quaker schools, then majored in drama at Bennington College. After fifteen years of “disappointments and near misses” in New York and California, Holland was cast as Ruth Dunbar in the 1980s sitcom “Bosom Buddies” with Tom Hanks. It was Holland’s breakout role and it led to many TV and film offers, including her role as Kathleen Turner’s book publisher in “Romancing the Stone” and her Emmy winning performance as Judge Roberta Kittleson in “The Practice.”
In “Kepler’s Dream,” Taylor is Violet von Stern, paternal grandmother to Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas) and an anchor in the story of a young ‘tween struggling to mature amidst suspicions, betrayals, and heartbreak that have burdened her family for generations. In this one-on-one interview, Taylor reveals some insights into her career and the challenges she faced in bringing Violet to life.
What attracted you to the role of Violet in “Kepler’s Dream”?
Holland Taylor: Actually, it was the idea of the book, a book that takes you to another world, that has its own richness and history. I would respond very much to owning a book like that. It’s like having a first Shakespeare edition or a Guttenberg Bible. I find those things pretty potent. I also liked that she was a complicated woman. In America, grandmothers, and mothers to a certain extent, are often generic, warm people. I don’t know too many generically warm people (laughs). The women of my generation are pretty specific, complicated, fiery and individually interesting but mostly not warm, cuddly people. So it’s very nice to encounter a very real part that’s complicated and prickly. You jump for something like that because today’s writers are more often men and usually not old people; so when they write an older character, they either don’t think about it much or they don’t know about it and don’t take the time to imagine it much. So you encounter a lot of superficial writing. And that’s just a bore and obnoxious.
Violet seems to be the anchor in the eye of the hurricane that surrounds the family and its secrets. How did you prepare for the role?
HT: I found everything in the text, so I really tried to open myself to the possibility of every scene and the things that she would be relating to in every moment. Violet is a person who is somewhat guarded. She doesn’t want to spend time with people that don’t interest her because she’s a curious intellectual and in her own library world. She doesn’t have a lot of time for human encounters and more time for animal encounters. And nature—look where she lives. I didn’t have to go far afield from my tastes and predilections. Normally, I wouldn’t rely on that but this really is very close. I deeply love that part of the world and relate to horses and animals. Since I’ve never had children of my own, my natural response to children is not as easy. So all of that worked naturally for me. It was built in as they say.
You have this immense body of work. Do you gravitate to roles of women in respectable authority or do they gravitate to you?
HT: I think they gravitate to me. I tend to play a lot of wealthy people. I’m not wealthy and wasn’t wealthy when I was cast in these roles. But it caught on and that I was this well-spoken person. It’s hard to break that mold. It’s not fun to play those parts because you’re playing a person that is witty, sophisticated and educated. Sometimes they hire you and they want you to “bring it to the party.” They won’t write it. Say it’s a young man writing a script, a political drama, a world that he knows about. Maybe he doesn’t personally know any intellectual older women who are sophisticated and witty. So they’ll hire an actress who can play that but they don’t write the text for her. But the thing is, it’s got to be on the page—as they say, if it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage. So often you get hired to do something that the writer hasn’t bothered to do or couldn’t do. And that’s not a fun job. But every once in a while, you get a script where the writer really knew the kind of person he was writing—the age, the knowledge, the wisdom and the sophistication.
Are you an avid reader of historical books like “Kepler’s Dream?” What are some of your favorite books in your library?
HT: No. I’m a generalist in my reading. I don’t have one area of expertise. I like Indian history, artifacts, and pottery. People don’t realize how many thousands of tribes there were and how many more Indians covered our country. It’s more than one can possibly imagine. When I was in Santa Fe doing “Kepler’s Dream,” I was thrilled to visit some reservations during my time off.
Jumping into different roles, most actors are very skilled at concealing who they really are. How are you like Violet von Stern and how do you differ?
HT: I’m a lot like her. So it was no trouble jumping into her. On the other hand, I’m very different from then-governor Ann Richards. One actor friend of mine famously said that I just disappeared. And that was the greatest compliment I ever got.
Do you have a favorite character in film or TV that you miss playing?
HT: I love playing the judge on “The Practice.” Like Violet, she was really smart and capable, and I like smart, capable people. Most of my women friends are smart and capable. For some reason, it’s been a long time in our country to not even be thinking about the sexes being differently qualified for anything. I don’t think they think that way in Europe. But here, there’s still a big misconception about women. There’s going to be a new era of respect and caution around women, where men will have to be as respectful as they are to their comrades. If they aren’t, there will be hell to pay. The women’s march let the universe know that women are infinitely more powerful and in-sync than they ever imagined. It was a global protest, the most successful in history. The revolution that’s occurring now in regards to behavior between the sexes is going to be a violent change for good. There will be a sticky period where perfectly regular men and women will find things awkward for a while. Normal flirting will probably be unsteady for while.
What would you say was your greatest role?
HT: The greatest role I ever played was off my typical role. It was the governor of Texas, Ann Richards. She was very smart and very brilliant. She was a warm, down-home Texan and very powerful. Instead of being powerful and cold. I wrote the play and the preparation was immense. I have a good relationship with Ann’s family and children. I met her former husband, a splendid man. Of her friends, many of whom were on her administrative staff, I know five or six of them really well and they know me and we are friends. So I got a whole new big family to feel close to.
Auditions are a necessary evil for most actors. What do you like and dislike about them?
HT: They’re all so different. Each is its own animal. When an audition goes badly, you learn how you could have handled it differently, but you’ll never have the same opportunity again. So the lessons learned are lessons you just have to swallow. You say to yourself, “I didn’t handle that right—the conversation, the way I entered the room, my lack of succinctness or preparedness.” But all you can do is just show up and be as relaxed and open as you can so you can handle whatever comes. If you’re asked to do something you really don’t understand, have the courage to say, “I don’t get it. I’m not sure I know what you’re asking me to do.” Better that than just stumbling ahead.
Film vs. stage. What is the main challenge actors face in delivering a great performance?
HT: I know more about stage than I do about film. While I’ve done quite a few films, the stage is my natural habitat. I know the picture they’re seeing. And I know where I fit into that picture. In the movies, I don’t know lenses or what angle people see anything from, or what timing or how much they will see. But acting is acting, so the adjustments you may have to make for being on camera or on stage are not tried and true. Trained film actors make all kinds of adjustments that I don’t know to make.
What advice would you give today’s struggling young actors?
HT: Go to a school. If you’re young, you’ll do framework, scene work, and you’ll be exposed to literature. Go to the movies and the theater all the time. It’s a challenge. Everybody’s path is different.
What’s next for you? More TV, film, stage work?
HT: I did a show called “Mister Mercedes,” a Stephen King project—although I don’t like watching thrillers. I also did a series with Michelle Dockery, Terry Kinney and Ann Dowd called “Good Behavior.” And that was a lot of fun. I also did “Speechless” with Minnie Driver.