In Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a once successful businesswoman in tight control of every aspect of her life. As she reflects upon her accomplishments, she’s suddenly inspired to engage a young local writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her obituary before the fact. When the initial result doesn’t meet Harriet’s expectations, she sets out to reshape the way she is remembered, with Anne dragged along as an unwilling accomplice. As the journey unfolds, the two women develop a unique bond which alters not only Harriet’s legacy, but also Anne’s future. In one of the film’s surprising developments, Harriet gets a job as a DJ on the radio where she impresses the music-loving station manager (Thomas Sadoski) with her expertise. The Last Word also stars Anne Heche and AnnJewel Lee Dixon. I sat down with Sadoski (The Newsroom, Life in Pieces) to discuss what it was like working with the talented and formidable MacLaine.
Danny Miller: I have to say what a thrill it was for me, being a classic movie lover, to see Shirley MacLaine back in a true starring role that is worthy of her talents.
Thomas Sadoski: Absolutely! It was amazing working with her — when you’re in the presence of true greatness, you know it. My God, she is special.
Do have a favorite Shirley MacLaine film?
I mean, how can you even choose? The Apartment, Sweet Charity, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias, I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite, it’s non-stop with her. If I started down that road, I’d starting going “Oh, but wait…oh, but wait!” And all of that history walks into the room with her.
I always got the impression from MacLaine that she is not someone who suffers fools —
AT ALL! She’s definitely a commanding force on set but she’s earned that. And the thing is, why should ANY of us suffer fools gladly? Isn’t that how we ended up in our current political situation? We’ve been suffering fools for a while now instead of saying, “Oh, that’s just dumb, let’s move on.”
What do you think you most learned from working with Shirley MacLaine?
Shirley is very self-possessed. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness and I learned so much from her because of it. There’s something so great about her attitude of “Life is too short to waste time on this, let’s talk about something else.”
Even though Hollywood still worships the youth culture, I have to say it’s been exciting to see people from MacLaine’s generation get more juicy roles lately. Like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin starring in Grace and Frankie, it’s a good sign!
Yes, goddammit, let’s bring out Jane and Lily and Shirley while we have them, let’s get every last bit of artistic exploration that these people can give us, why would we waste that opportunity?
I go nuts whenever I hear movie executives talking about that coveted 18-24 demographic — and the implication that such people never want to see older actors in important roles, it’s ridiculous.
I agree, and I don’t think it’s ever been true. Except for the fucking MBA asshole graduates from the Wharton School of Business who took over the studios. I miss the David O. Selznicks of the world who understood that audiences appreciate quality. When it all becomes a bean counting game, the opportunities for great people to do great work evaporates.
And yet that kind of thinking still exists — as if young people can’t bear to look at anyone over 40 on the screen.
I never understood that crap either. When I was 18 years old, the actors that I looked up to artistically, the actors I knew that were going to give me extraordinary performances were people like Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine — I was watching the movies that they had made. I was a huge fan of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, these were the people I wanted to watch even if they were no longer getting opportunities. The closest thing I was seeing in my own generation were people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, and occasionally when they would “allow” people like Shirley to star in a film it would be really special. I didn’t give two shits about going to see movies starring people my age.
At least that ageism is somewhat better on the stage where you’ve done so much great work. Have you had the chance to work with some of the greats from past generations?
Yes, so many wonderful actors. Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin, Lois Smith who is just an extraordinary creature of the theater. Then you go back and say, “Oh, there she is in Rebel Without a Cause!” I’ve worked with a lot of them and I loved every second of it, I was in heaven doing that stuff, these are extraordinary people who have a hell of a lot of stories to tell and they do it brilliantly. Being onstage with Stockard and Linda going toe-to-toe with each other during Other Desert Cities was the highlight of my career. And then Stacy Keach would wander in every once in a while and also be incredible.
Was it Amanda Seyfried who brought you onto this film?
Yes! Someone else was supposed to do it originally but he had to pull out at the last minute, right before they were supposed to start shooting. I happened to be in L. A. working on my series and Amanda said, “Tommy’s here, let’s just get him for that part,” and they were like, “Oh yeah, that guy from The Newsroom?” so they called me up and asked if I could make it happen with my schedule. I jumped on board.
Does playing the manager of this radio station who is so knowledgeable about music fit your profile in real life?
A little, but I think I have yet to do the role that is really close to who I am. If ever do that, it will probably be in the theater and something from the Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil world!
Oh, interesting! Do you have one of their plays in mind when you say that?
Well, Alison Pill and I just did a staged reading of Williams’ A Night of the Iguana at the Pasadena Playhouse a few nights ago and it has been a lifetime goal of mine to get my mouth around those words. It was every bit as frustrating and inspiring and challenging as I thought it would be. Good God, could that man could write! That’s the kind of stuff I most want to do.
You’ve done such great work on the stage and in small, quirky films. Were you surprised to find yourself in a network sitcom?
Yes! I want to be doing independent film and theater that pushes the boundaries, things that are honest human experiences. But then somebody said, “Hey, have you ever considered doing a half-hour comedy on CBS?” I never had, but I was getting very sick of hearing things like, “Well, the director and writer love you but the studio says you’re not famous enough so we can’t hire you.” I was so fucking sick of that horrible cycle and I thought, “How do you get beyond that?” So I took a look at the script for Life in Pieces and thought it was really funny. Then they said Dianne Wiest and James Brolin will play your parents,” and I said, “Holy shit, what am I waiting for?” I never thought I could do something like this so it was a real challenge. And I’m learning a lot from those people.
Everything you do, including that series The Slap and that amazing Sarah Silverman film, I Smile Back, always rings so true. I hope you get a chance to do a full production of that Tennessee Williams play.
You and me both, my friend, you and me both!