A conversation with actress Shirley Knight Special

Posted Jul 14, 2014 by Mindy Peterman
With an impressive list of stage, film and TV roles spanning 50 years, Shirley Knight is a true success story in the world of entertainment. One particular role she takes great pride in is a recent one: Marie in the independent film "Redwood Highway."
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Shirley Knight is an actress with a long, illustrious career. She has won three Emmy awards and has three times been nominated for an Academy award (the first time when she was only 19). In 1975, she won a Tony award for her role in Kennedy’s Children (she beat out Meryl Streep that year), and a Golden Globe for her role in the TV movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial.
Now Knight can be seen in the independent film Redwood Highway, co-starring with Tom Skerrit. It is a film she is proud of. “I’m so happy I did it,” she told me in our recent phone conversation in which she spoke candidly about her life and career.
You’re from Goessel, Marion County Kansas. How did a young woman from the plains states start a Hollywood career in the ‘50s?
I grew up in the middle of Kansas in probably one of the smallest towns ever. We had thirteen houses, a two-room schoolhouse. Mrs. Rhodes taught [grades] one through four and Mr. Rhodes taught five through eight. So it was a very small community. My sister and I sang at church. Our entertainment was the radio. It was way before television. And we would listen to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday. My mother’s family was very musical.
When it came time for me to go to University, I went to a Christian church college in Enid, Oklahoma to study music. Then I transferred in my junior year to Wichita State University. While I was there I was working as an assistant society editor, since I was also very interested in journalism. In those days, this is 1956, 1957, there was no such thing as teaching acting in the universities. And I knew I had to learn acting for my singing. Toward the end of my junior year, I saw an advertisement in Theater Arts magazine that said you could go to the Pasadena Playhouse for six weeks [to learn acting]. $200 room and board. So I got on a train, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and went to Los Angeles, then to Pasadena.
I guess I had kind of natural talent. I looked very young. I was 19 but looked 15. At the end of the course we put on a play, The House of Bernarda Alba, and I played the youngest girl. It was very sad and I cried. At the end of the course I decided that I was not going to go back to Kansas. I was going to finish my university courses at UCLA. I had good grades and I got in. [While in school], I got a job as a receptionist at Vic Tanny’s and lived at a place called the Hollywood Studio Club, [a residence] for young women who either wanted to be actors or singers.
I got a phone call from a man who had seen me in the play I had done at the Pasadena Playhouse and he asked me to come in to his agency and meet his boss. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, all these very, very famous women. His boss took one look at me, and I looked like a child, very skinny, and said, “Why do we want her?” The other man said, “I think she’s got something.” And his boss said, “Okay.” He took me to MGM, and they offered me a six-month contract. He took me to Warner Brothers and they did the same thing. I felt more comfortable at Warner Brothers. I can’t explain why except to say MGM was so kind of grand.
What was your first film?
It was a movie about a 15-year-old girl. The irony was that it was from a William Inge play called The Dark At the Top of the Stairs. William Inge is from Kansas. I looked like a 15-year-old girl, so it was a perfect fit. I did the film and cried a lot when my boyfriend in it was killed, and I was nominated for an Oscar. So I called UCLA and told them I wouldn’t be coming now but maybe next year. I wonder if they’re still waiting! I doubt it (laughs). That was the beginning and I’ve never been out of work.
What did your family back in Kansas think of all of this?
My father was my date for my first Oscar nomination. When I didn’t win Dad said, “You know you can always come home.” I think he thought that the fact I didn’t win meant that was [the end of] it.
You were featured in many of the most popular television shows of the day including Playhouse 90, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye.
I was very pleased. There are things, of course, I was offered and didn’t do that I wish I’d done. In general, I think it’s been a very good ride. The main thing, I think, that helped me more than anything was that I moved to New York after I was at Warner’s, and studied acting. When I was doing Sweet Bird of Youth, Geraldine Page and Paul [Newman], and the whole cast were so experienced. I felt like there’s something they knew that I didn't know. Paul said to me, “It might be helpful to you to come to New York to study with Lee Strasberg.” So I did.
It’s good that you were mature enough to realize there was so much to learn about your craft, and to ask for advice.
Exactly. Honestly, it’s hard to get better at acting if all you do is film and television. Because when you’re doing a complex character, for example, Blanche in Streetcar, which I did two productions of because I wanted to finish my work, it takes a long time to get all those intricate feelings and so on about a character. One of the shows I won a Tony for, Kennedy’s Children, I did that play for seven months on Broadway and five months on tour. I was in San Francisco, and I had one more place to go, which was L.A. At the end of the play I sat down and said, “Okay. I’ve got her. I’ve got her completely. I know exactly who she is.” I had had eleven months of rehearsal.
If you don’t do something, whether it’s classes or theater or whatever, what happens is you get frustrated. When they say, “Cut! Cut!”, you know you can do better, you can do more. So it’s really frustrating and I think that often that leads to people acting out and, perhaps, not behaving as they should.
I think the other thing that’s so important, and I say this to students, you have to know what you’re food is. If your food is I want to be a famous actor, I want to win an Oscar, I want everybody to know who I am, you’re going to starve to death. It can’t be about that. Your food has to be I did that scene last week, and I did it this week, and I was better, and not compare yourself to someone.
I’ve heard young actors say, “Well, I don’t understand why I didn’t get that part. I was better than so on and so forth.” The other thing is there’s so many people in the marketplace now. So it’s so important to work really, really hard. You have to audition. You know what happens when you audition? You go in and do a scene, and for those five minutes you’re doing what you love. So embrace the audition. I get to do this. I get to work at my craft for five minutes. That’s a blessing. That’s how you learn.
Was your role as Phyllis Van De Camp on Desperate Housewives a role you particularly enjoyed?
That part was so much fun. I loved it so much. I especially loved the scene where [Phyllis] put’s [Rex’s] tie on and at the funeral Bree takes it off. I just thought that was so clever. The writing was so clever. I had so much fun with those girls.
You know, I was offered the role of the wife in [the original] Dallas but I knew I wouldn’t survive if I had to do something for ten years, playing the same role.
On an episode of the show House, you played the patient of the week, Georgia. That character was and still is a fan favorite.
Oh, my god, how fabulous was that? I loved playing an old woman. They had to put all this stuff on my face. I was supposed to be 84. The whole thing with [House] and falling in love with him. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that part. And [Hugh Laurie] is so amazing. People would stop me on the street. They’d look at me and say, “Were you on House?” Just for a minute...
The other thing that makes me laugh is that I never got to do comedy. Then Harold Ramis put me in a comedy called Stuart Saves His Family. Then James Brooks said, “Oh, she’s funny. I think I’ll put her in As Good As It Gets, so on and so forth. Now, Adam Sandler has decided I’m funny. He put me in a movie called Grandma’s Boy. Have you heard of this film?
Well, it’s an R-rated movie with myself, Shirley Jones, and Doris Roberts. It is terribly fun but ridiculously naughty. But it is a favorite with high school and college boys. And I forgot about it because it’s about 10 years old. So what happens is, I’m walking down the street in New York and kids of, let’s say, 12, 13, 15, 18, film me on their machines. They hold up their iPhones and say, “I got you! I got you!” He puts me in this absurd movie and it was so naughty, and the first scene is ridiculously awful. I went to a screening of it because I hadn’t had a chance to go to the premiere, and I took my daughter Caitlin and her husband. It was in New York and we go to this private screening, just the three of us. The first scene happens and my daughter turns to me and says, “Mom, didn’t you read the script?” Now he puts me in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and I just finished Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. So I saw [Sandler] the other day and said, “Are you trying to ruin my career?”
Most recently you can be seen in the independent film Redwood Highway.
I was so pleased to be offered the film because when you get older you’re mostly relegated to playing supporting [roles]. So to play the role where I was the film was really wonderful. All of the people were terrific. There’s something about the film that I think is quite profound. It seems like a simple story about this woman, her looking over her life, as it were, and going back and trying to understand her failings and her unhappiness, and that thing that we all do where we hold on to things that we can’t change. I can’t change the fact that my husband (writer John Hopkins) died suddenly. I can’t change that. So I’m very pleased that it is finding an audience and also striking a chord with people, and that people are moved and care about her and her dilemma and also her journey, and that in the end she’s okay.
I’ve done about nine independent films that have never seen the light of day. You go into them thinking, “Well, maybe somebody will see it.” You do your best work and then the poor little film gets dumped. This one, I think, is going to carry on. I think people feel very moved by it and all the people at the festivals, they all stand up and are all real positive about it. It’s a wonderful feeling. I’m so happy I did it.
You are in almost every scene of that film and, of course, did a lot of walking. Was it a challenge to make?
Well, it was and it wasn’t. I would say the most difficult part was where I had to walk on the beach. Walking in sand for a long way, that part was tiring by the end of it, and we still had some more scenes to do. Apart from that, because you do it in stages, it was just a lot of fun. And the weather cooperated. Sometimes you do a film and you just know it’s going to be okay. It rained when we needed rain. It didn’t rain when we didn’t want it. It was kind of serendipitous.
You’ve accomplished so much in your career. Is there something you haven’t done yet that would still like to?
Yes, I would like to play King Lear. But it takes time to play that part. I’m actually working on a one woman show. I think what I’m going to do in my show, in case I never get to do [the play], is one of the monologues from it.