Estelle Parsons has got moxy. She knows what she wants, does what she wants and has no regrets about her life. Parsons isn’t the usual Broadway actress, either. She’s 82 and having the time of her life playing the role of Violet in the show August: Osage County, coming to the Wharton Center this month.
CAWLM chatted with Parsons about her role in the play, how she got started in show business and landing the role of Rosanne Barr’s mother on Rosanne.
CAWLM: How long have you been in show business?
Parsons: Since the age of six. I started in community theatre and later did apprenticing for summer stock theatre; I did musicals and then eventually moved to New York and started acting professionally.
CAWLM: What was the first role you ever played?
Parsons: A frog in a children’s play. They had this frog suit I had to wear with a frog head and I didn’t like it because I was completely covered up! I vowed I would never take a part where I was totally covered [again] and never have.
CAWLM: Let’s talk about the show, August: Osage County. What is your take on what it’s about?
Parsons: It’s purely theatre. The audience and [the actors] start on this ride and we’re all involved. This just doesn’t happen with all [plays]. It starts with the opening line: “Life is very long,” and goes from there.
It’s about the American nightmare versus the American dream. Who wants to see a nightmare? And yet it is relatable to the audience. Someone said it “puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional.” It’s about relationships and how you respond to different people.
CAWLM: Why did you decide to take the role of Violet? She’s the “pill-popping, deeply unsettled woman” at the heart of this drama.
Parsons: I wanted to go around the country and be part of such an amazing play. It was a big hit on Broadway, and when the opportunity came for me to be in the show, I took it. I was actually working on another project and stepped away from it to do this. I like being a part of something that is a hit.
That’s how I ended up on Rosanne. My agent called me and said that Rosanne wanted me to play the role of her mother on her show. I don’t watch much television so I had no idea about this show. “It’s the number one sitcom on TV.” Oh; well then I’ll do the show.
CAWLM: How long have you been playing the role of Violet?
Parsons: For a year and a half. And I’m still developing the character! The majority of the credit for my character goes to the playwright. But as I continue to play her, I’m able to bring out more of who she is and find ways to improve how I portray her.
CAWLM: I understand this role is very rigorous. How did you prepare for that?
Parsons: I’ve always been in good shape. I’ve loved running all my life: hiking, tennis, skiing. That’s prepared me for the physical demands. But I’ve also deepened my acting abilities over my lifetime. I can use myself antagonistically or funnily, too, for my character.
CAWLM: What do you like most about your character?
Parsons: I don’t know. Every scene is an incredible challenge. Like quicksilver or mercury, a scene can go either way depending on what the other actors are bringing to the stage at that moment.
CAWLM: Are you working on any other projects right now?
Parsons: Yes; Brecht’s [version] of Measure for Measure, with music by Hanns Eisler. I’m working with Al Pacino on a movie version of Salome that I directed and Pacino was in.
I’m also working on an anti-war piece with a Vietnam vet, and I’m working on Mornings at Seven for Broadway.
CAWLM: You have a lot going on! If you have any down time, what do you like to do?
Parsons: I have a home in New Hampshire and like to go there. I also enjoy swimming and skiing.
CAWLM: Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do?
Parsons: No. I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made. I just do what interests me. My life may not suit some people, but it suits me fine!