“The reality is you don’t arrive, you don’t have a crone ceremony and suddenly get wisdom.” — Olympia Dukakis

“I recognize that the real pulse of life is transformation, yet I work in a world dominated by men and the things men value, where transformation is not the coinage. It’s not even the language! Winning is everything in Hollywood. The ‘deal’ is everything. I understand the competitive thing because I had a real battle with it as a young woman. Because of my ethnicity, I felt I had to prove I was better – not as good as, but better – than others. Thankfully, it became clear to me that when I compete, I lose my connection to the passion I have for my work. Every once in a while, I come across a man who has the desire to collaborate and be conciliatory. But if I want to continue acting and have the potential for financial prosperity – something that came to me very late in life – I have to live with these competitive values.” — Olympia Dukakis

The quote above comes from an extraordinary interview with Dukakis I came across – which is actually a chapter in the book In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life, by Margaret Wolff. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Husband and wife Louis Zorich and Olympia Dukakis in The Seagull, Williamstown Theater Festival

The first thing I thought of when I heard the sad news of Olympia Dukakis’ passing was the compulsive sighs emanating from her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck. She would let out these little exhalations of air from time to time, sometimes in conversation, sometimes not, standing at the stove cooking, a mournful short quick sigh. It was a “tic” of the character – we all have “tics” like this – but Dukakis didn’t do it as a “tic”. The character needed to let tension and anxiety. So much was in the sigh. A lifetime was in the sigh.

Only a great actress could pull it off.

The second thing I thought of was an interview she did for a wonderful book called The Actor’s Chekhov (about the company of actors who came to Williamstown Theatre Festival every summer while Nikos Psacharopoulos was artistic director, people like Christopher Walken, Laila Robins, Blythe Danner. It’s a fantastic book, particularly for student actors because these people know how to WORK. It’s one of the best “acting process” books in my entire collection, because none of it is theoretical. It’s ALL practical.

As a young actress, the following passage blew my mind because it showed just how detailed you had to be when going through the script, how you could take NOTHING for granted. You had to be so curious! Don’t be obedient and passive: you must be active as an actor, you must ask questions about every single thing your character says.

This is one of the BEST examples I have ever seen of how to ask questions in the early stages of working with a script.

Listen to how Dukakis tries to figure out why her character says one line in particular. It’s a seemingly banal line, a “nothing” line, filler, just chit-chat. (But, as my very first acting mentor Kimber Wheelock used to drill into our heads: In acting, nothing can be “just”. You aren’t “just” sad. You aren’t “just” walking out of the room. You are sad. You are walking out of a room for a reason. Any time you hear yourself saying the word “just” – and this doesn’t just go for actors – take a second to stop and ask yourself why. You’re lying to yourself somewhere Find the lie, and remove the “just”.) So here, watch how she goes about solving the problem of the moment. You have to know why you’re saying something because once you know the WHY you then know the HOW. Otherwise you’re just being GENERAL. Human beings do this naturally, without thinking. We are SPECIFIC as humans, we aren’t GENERAL. You don’t have to think, “Wait, why am I saying this again?” as a regular human being. But actors do. Actors have to make choices. What seems like a throw-off line is a huge PUZZLE to Dukakis, and it was a problem she needed to solve. Not just for herself but ALSO for the audience. Chekhov wrote a “moment” here – it’s not random, NOTHING is random – so what IS the moment (a) and (b) how do I PLAY that moment?

Olympia Dukakis, along with her acting career, was an acting teacher all her life. You can see here why she was such a great one. I cannot even explain how much the following anecdote influenced me in my own work. Transformative:

Something very interesting happened the first time I did Paulina in The Sea Gull. She comes to them in the third act, and says, “Here are the plums for the journey.” And when I was researching it I thought, why is she giving him plums for the journey? It always seemed like she was a batty person! And then I began reading what it was like to go on a journey then. There was a long time on the train, it was very difficult, the food was very bad, people would get diarrhea, constipation. And when I read that I knew what it was! Bowel movements! So, I mean, I could play that! That’s something that’s a private thing, you don’t announce it to everyone. I mean, if I came up to you and you were going on a trip and I said, “Here’s some Ex-Lax,” I wouldn’t make a big announcement! I would try to be confidential about it. So that helped me with how the moment should be acted. But even then, I thought the audience doesn’t know this, they don’t know that that’s what plums are about. The line should be prunes! An audience will know prunes.

Now the word in the text is plums, there’s no getting around it, the specific literal translation was “plums”. At least that’s what I was told again and again by Kevin McCarthy. Because Kevin had been in that production with Mira Rostova, he considered himself the big Chekhov expert among us. He didn’t think it should be changed. As usual I didn’t go up to Nikos and say, “Listen, I think we should change this, blah blah blah.” I just did it one day in rehearsal. Nikos fell over with laughter! Kevin was apoplectic. But I felt – it’s not the specific word, that’s true, but this is the spirit of it, this is what’s intended, this is what Chekhov wants the audience to know the woman is doing.

Nikos waited till Kevin had given me my scolding and left the room and then he came over and said, “Keep it in.”

Olympia Dukakis came and spoke at my grad school. One of the things she said really struck me. She was 70 years old or something like that, and someone asked her something about becoming famous later in life, and the gist of the question was that since there weren’t as many elderly actresses, it might be easier to become famous later because there was less competition.

Dukakis – nobody’s fool – and actually rather scary in an exciting way – said, with no bitterness, but her tone was like “let me just shred up that illusions for you right now, kiddo”: “Listen, every script that comes to me has been offered to Gena Rowlands first. I get the script and Gena’s fingerprints are all over it. Any role I get it’s only because she’s turned it down.”

The way she said “Gena’s fingerprints” had such a tough hard edge – it was very funny the way she said it. “Lemme guess. Gena turned this one down, right?” In her tone was massive respect for “Gena”. Of COURSE they’re gonna offer it to Gena first. Olympia wasn’t complaining, wasn’t saying “I should be first in line.” She was acknowledging reality: As long as Gena Rowlands is topside, I will always be second choice.

It was a good lesson. As an actor, you can’t trip about things like that. About being a director’s second choice, or third choice, or whatever. Competition never ends, not even when you’re old. You’re never “in the clear”. Be good at what you do. Be grateful Gena turned it down.

No, thank YOU.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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