Sally Kirkland - actress, "JFK" / "The Owl & The Pussycat" / "Norma Jean, Jack & Me" / EdTV
Cinequest 10 Film Festival - San Jose, CA - March 2000
Sally Kirkland - actress, producer, humanitarian, minister, radio talk show host - she is all these things and more. The quintisential working machine. Sally has been around "the industry" for quite some time. She has been an acting coach for Barbara Streisand and Robert DeNiro. She has been in countless films of all genres - most famous of which, to grab at out of thin air, "The Owl And The Pussycat", "JFK" and "EdTV". Much of Sally's work has gone underrated as she puts a lot of effort into her craft. She is also on Governor Gray Davis' California Alliance Towards Education to help better our children. And she is even a minister - yes, able to marry and baptize people. Her life has been one constant fame wheel - her godmother was Shelly Winters, mother was a key important figure at Life Magazine during its heyday, and, for you rock fans, one of her godkid's mother is the common-law wife of infamous rock guitarist Michael Schenker (MSG, UFO, Scorpions).
We had an opportunity to talk with Ms. Kirkland during the Cinequest Festival in San Jose, CA. The interview that we did is broken up over three parts as we talked over the course of a few days. Such being, this is why continuity of subject may be varied. She had a lot to tell us about Hollywood and her own career and background, fascinating as it is.
Part I:
K2K: A long while back, there was a story where you had wanted to work with a particular director and you had supposedly said, "I don't care if I have to do it nude, I want to work with him." Was that correct?
SK: Well, I was the first nude actress in the history of nudity in American theater, in 1968, with "Sweet Ares" by Terrence McNally. That was before "Hair" and before "Oh, Calcutta". I did it at the time because, I said to the New York Times "You can't carry a gun on a naked body and I'm against the Vietnamese war." My activism and sexual revolution in New York was a factor. Now that I'm over 50, I look at things a little bit differently. I think that PG-13 is so ridiculous. There isn't enough protection for children and young teenagers. If I made that comment, it was in a context that - if the soul was naked, it didn't matter about the body, because it was about the vulnerability and the openess, the nudity and nakedness of emotions.
So, when I have done certain roles, for instance I produced "Come Cheating Hearts" with James Brolin, I had a nude scene that was completely a nervous breakdown. It was sort of like "Last Tango In Paris". It was there but it wasn't what you looked at. Probably what my comment meant was that I don't care about the circumstances if I can tell the truth. I would care now, that I'm my age. I would think very carefully, especially with my godson living with me.
K2K: Actually, I wasn't meaning it, nudity, in a pornographic sort of way. I think what you had meant, at the time, was that you really wanted to work with this particular filmmaker - no matter what it took.
SK: Oh. I do feel very strongly about filmmakers. If there's a certain filmmaker, then I will do whatever they ask me to do. Oliver Stone, we created that little role in "JFK". It wasn't in the script. I told him, "Hey, I want to work with you so badly. Just tell me what to do." That's along the lines of, I'm sure that I would've said the same thing about [Martin] Scorcese. Now, I'm over 50 and I look at things very carefully. Do I really want to just do gratuitous nudity? Do I want to do gratuitous violence? No, I don't. I've turned down quite a bit.
K2K: The comment was made about 10 years ago.
SK: OK. Let's be real clear about that to keep it in context. If I made it 10 years ago, that was shortly after "Anna" and I was doing "Revenge Of Karen Costner" and "Cold Feet". I was doing a lot of real sexy characters. I was getting that out of my system. I really think that women should be allowed to be more European, in this country. In Europe you can be Sophia, you can be these older women who are considered very sexy.
K2K: Catherine Deneuve?
SK: Well, Catherine Denueve IS perfect. The others were imperfect. I've always made the statement that European women have given themselves the permission to be sensual where in America you're one or the other. You're intellectual or you're sexual - God forbid if you're both. I like to be both. Also, I feel the industry needs to pull it in a bit now for the children. That's what I feel. I don't want to blame anyone. I certainly was one of the instigators in the 1960s of freedom of expression. I feel that now we have to think carefully. We're not going to have God in the schools. I'm on Governor Gray Davis' California Alliance Towards Education to bring the arts back to high schools.
When I was a youngster, I had art, drama, dance, singing, and now it's a stretch to have trained teachers on those subjects. That's my thrust now to bring those back. I'd like to see his (pointing to her godson) generation have a fair shot at not only the arts but being protected against unnecessary violence and gratuitousness.
Part II:
(This portion starts right after a screening of the film "Norma Jean, Jack And Me". A fan of the film had just commented about Sally's fine portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.)
SK: When I was growing up watching Marilyn Monroe, I learned that you can be very beautiful, very glamorous and very vulnerable and not give up your soul just because you were a movie star. I always told, Sandra Bullock was my student when she was younger, I always told her it's important that we hold on to our insecurity, the wisdom of insecurity. I didn't even know that Cyrus was going to write those lines that Marilyn says about "You have to hate yourself. Loathing cleans out the pores." I had no idea that he was going to write that, but I've always believed that insecurity was what would keep you always in your innocence, no matter what the business did.
Alan Watts wrote a book called "The Wisdom Of Insecurity". If we really tune into "it's OK to be vulnerable", then that's our greatest strength, getting through life. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and if people come at us with negativity, our strength, our armor is that the Sword of Truth. Rather than the Swords, it's the Sword of Truth, which is our vulnerability. So, I think that Marilyn, what she gave the world, and in many ways Kennedy too, was that they had dreams and they didn't allow anybody to take away their dreams. Maybe they died for it. I choose to think they were angels. They came in to do what they were going to do. I don't mean literally angels. I think that souls agree to come in and do what they're going to do and then leave when they're going to leave. So there's nothing tragic when a soul leaves. I think it was already preordained.
A lot of times, when little children die or there's some tragic death, something will happen to shift the consciousness of humanity at that time. Souls have agreed to come in and live out a certain script and to leave and to affect change - whether it's in one family or a million people. In the case of Marilyn and John Kennedy, I think they did affect change. So to do a movie where you play these two historic figures, I thought that the fun thing was that Cyrus allowed us to bring in an element of what they would have been like had they mellowed, had they gotten older and gotten out of the public eye and just able to be folks. There's a certain feeling of soul with that. You can feel their soul. They weren't under the gun to be in front of the world. They could just be human.
K2K: (In reference to the film) Didn't they seem just a little dysfunctional to you?
SK: Yeah. They did seem dysfunctional. Didn't you love "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolfe?" Virginia Woolfe being the feminist writer. Uta Hagen being one of the more brilliant actresses that we've had, and my acting teacher, along with Lee Strasberg. She's still going strong in her late 80s, I think. Anyway, this play is reminiscent of Edward Albee's writing where everyone is dysfunctional, and loveable. The Kennedy/Marilyn generation was a drinking generation.
(The conversation switches as actor Gary Mosher talks to Sally about how he enjoyed her embodiment of Marilyn.)
SK: I think it should be judged on the basis of a performance film. It's a good film but it's also a performance film. Very rarely do you get an opportunity to do like what you would do in a play, in a film. Like "Last Tango In Paris" with Marlon Brando and Marie Schneider, that would've held up on stage as a play. I think you can really tell a good actor if you can put a camera on them and they can just talk and emote and react and you don't have to keep cutting away from them, because they are the language and the behavior. It's all a tour-de-force performance.
In "JFK", when the film opens up and you see this woman being thrown out of a car and she's screaming all kinds of obscenities, that's me. Then you see the documentary with Jackie O. and Jack and then you go to the hospital and there's this woman bandaged up, screaming about "Kennedy's going to be assassinated" and this and that, that's me on withdrawal. There's the reporters and doctors with me. Then I give out this blood-curdling scream which pretty much sets the tone of the film. Then they come back to me and are going to have to testify that I'm dead, on the way, on that same road where you see me. It was a small cameo role, but the interesting thing is that Oliver [Stone] created it for me. The back story on that is that I told him, "I've got to be in this film." and I sent him and Kevin flowers. So Oliver called me up and said, "Come to my office and tell me what you want to do." He said, "These six women were assassinated." I don't remember the names. He said, "Improvise all of them." So I improvised and he said, "The one I liked best was Roe Shirami." He had his people who work for him do research and send me all the information. She was drug runner and a hooker. She had a child. She was doing whatever she could to support herself and that child. She did not want Kennedy to die. She was the first person to go public and say, "The President's going to be killed." She wigged out. Newsweek opened up their review and said, "One of the most authentic moments in the whole film was Roe Shirami." If you check out the Newsweek article. They don't mention me by name, but they give it all to my character.
(Gary Mosher, at this point, states, "They did an injustice by not nominating you for "EdTV".)
SK: Those boys were so fun to work with - Matthew McConoghy and Woody Harrelson - and Ron Howard just let us play. He let us improvise. Ron Howard is amazing. Everyone should have a moment with Ron Howard in their life to give you faith in our industry. He got a bum rap for this film "EdTV". He deserved so much better than what he got with "EdTV".
I'd like to tell you that I have a new film coming out sometime this year called "Wish You Were Dead" with Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, Carey Elwes. I play Cary's Texan mother. Dysfunctional as hell. Funny. Very funny. I am so funny. I am SO funny. I went to the looping and I cracked myself up.
K2K: OK, just to clarify, who is your mom?
SK: My mom is Sally Kirkland, Sr. and she was 22 years old and manager of Lloyd & Taylor's. By the time she was 30, she was one of the top fashion editors of Vogue. Then she was the only fashion editor of Life for 25 years and the first woman that made Sr. Editor. She put Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Faye Dunnaway, Jackie O. on Life as fashion icons. She was the first person to announce the mini-skirts and no-bra look. She was the first person to bring Italian fashions to this country. She was a genius, my mother. The only thing that I could think of to do was to be an actress. She was pretty well known.
Part III
(This final portion of the interview was done after the awards ceremonies at Cinequest where Ms. Kirkland was doing some self-hand massage in lieu of the acupuncture that she enjoys. We started by discussing holistic living and Sally's involvement in the arts.)
K2K: Do you practice Budhism?
SK: I am a trained in Hindu Yoga and I'm an ordained minister of the Church Of The Movement Of Spiritual Inner Awareness. I have been for a quarter of a century. It combines Eastern and Western philosophies, Christ sits at the head of it but it is inclusive of all religions. It's the cessasation of "againstness". It's inclusive of everyone's path. It teaches soul transcendence this lifetime. I was brought up Christian, where it was 'Heaven and Hell', then I became an Athiest, then I became a Buddhist, then I became a Hindu where I understood that I was incarnating for thousands of lifetimes.
This path that I'm on [is] run by a man named John Roger, whose books include "Life: 101" and "Spiritual Warrior". Our church has been legal since late 1960s. I've been involved since 1972. I was ordained in 1975. I have married thriteen couples. I'm about to do a marriage next month. With my ministry of light, part of what I do is work on the California Alliance For Arts Education.
I didn't go to college, not that I don't think people should, but I didn't because I was Off-Broadway when I was 17, with James Earl Jones. For me, my salvation has always been painting, dancing, directing, producing, playing piano, writing poetry - creativity. So, I met with Gray and Sharon Davis, prior to him becoming Governor [of California] and I offered to be his 'point person' to bring awareness to celebrities, that it would be great if we could get a lot of media energy on how you could graduate from high school without cutting the arts in your cirriculum. So he put me on this committee, the California Alliance, and I've been going around the state making speeches. A lot of my joy this year has been to give away awards to young people, no matter of race, creed or color, because they were a terrific violinist or a terrific dancer. I went to San Diego recently and saw the most amazing 20-year-old opera singers - Latino, African-American, Asian - amazing opera singers. I thought, "Too bad that the world doesn't know about this." Then I gave awards, recently, I was the presenter, to people who have gone around to schools and done performing arts with no budget, just to bring arts into the school system. So I get to tell some of those kids that, as an acting teacher, I've taught Sandra Bullock and Dwight Yoakum and had something to do with the careers of Rebecca DeMornay and Amy Madigan. I've taught Phillip Michael Thomas and I've coached [Barbra] Streisand and [Liza] Minelli.
K2K: You coached [Barbra] Streisand?
SK: I coached her on a film before "Yentl". I've done three projects with her [including] "The Way We Were" and "A Star Is Born". In "The Sting" I think [Robert] Redford had me teaching him his first Yoga class. I was his stripper girlfriend 'Crystal Field' in "The Sting". In "The Way We Were", I was the communist girlfriend, in "Private Benjamin" I was the lesbian girlfriend of Eileen Brennan with Goldie Hawn. "A Star Is Born", I was a Rolling Stone photographer. My point is that, over the years, I've taught five thousand people acting and lately I have a lot of energy on these kids, having the same break I had as a high school girl. I was vice-president of Dramatic Club. I had art as a major, along with English, French and History. I had dance, modern dance. In English I was allowed to write my own poetry, which I eventually got published.
So I find it appalling that we are even dealing with amunitions and guns and having to say to the NRA, "Do you think maybe you got the message that kids shouldn't be killing each other?" We should distract them from what they see on TV, the shocking, tragic violence, and put their minds on the arts where they can take all that energy and put it into expressing themselves. If there is a kind of talent among youngsters, then why don't we the people, our government and state, put money into teachers?
K2K: Tell me about Shelley Winters. She was your godmother?
SK: She was my godmother. I lived with her from about the ages of 18 to, on and off, into my late twenties. She was my mentor and my guide. I lived with her in New York and L.A. She taught me about survival in this business. She taught me about knowing what's going on politically and socially, so that you're not just learning lines, you're trying to address some of the social issues and stand up for the little guy. She taught me about 'dramedy', about how when the audience thinks that they're going to be touched, you make them laugh, when they think they're going to laugh, you make them touched. She wrote a play for me and Bobby DeNiro called "One Night Stands Of A Noisy Passenger". That was my first play reviewed. Diane Ladd was also in it.
I met Bobby because he was dating my roommate. I met him in the '60s when he was dating Susan Terrell, my then-roommate. One night she couldn't go out and so I went out with him and he took him to see "Greetings", which was a open curtain-raiser for a feature at the 8th Street Playhouse. I was blown away. It was Brian DePalma's student film. I said, "You've got to come to the Actor's Studio." I brought him to Shelley Winters, my godmother who was one of the moderators of the studio, along with Strasberg and Kazan and Corman. She recognized right away that he was a talented human being, even before he saw his work, because of his intensity. She got permission for he and I to work on scenes as working observers. She had just made me a member, talked Lee Strasberg into allowing my audition to get me in. Bobby was very good and we worked almost every week for a period of time. This was in the heyday of the Actor's Studio in the '60s. Then Shelley took us both by the hands to ICM to her agent to sign us up, but the higher ups at ICM said, "Who are they?". We both got turned down by ICM in 1968.
Then Shelley brought us both to Roger Corman and he hired us off for a film called "Bloody Mama" but he didn't know that Gene Corman had already put Diane Varsi in the ingenue role, so I did not end up in "Bloody Mama", I ended up in "Big Bad Mama, Crazy Mama". We were very, very close friends then in that whole time frame. I think he liked me because I had always been very social and he was always shy. I really thought he was a genius and I told everyone. We were both in our 20s. He was always very intense. If you pushed his buttons, you'd know it. He's Italian. He has that caution. He seemed to know that because of my work with Strasberg and Shelley Winters, I could match his intensity and I was forgiving of it.
Anyway, when I was teaching at the Strasberg Institute, he came by as a guest speaker. Someone said to him, "Mr. DeNiro, how do you relax?" and he would say, "Talk to her." That was my cue to say that I taught him Yoga, which I did even though I have no idea if he even practiced it again. We had a group of actors, sort of an actor's co-op group, with him, Raoul Julia, James Keach, myself, we all hung out at Raoul's house with his wife in the late '60s. I was always telling everyone, "Hire Robert DeNiro." One day Francis Coppola, who I met with Al Pacino - took me out to dinner, whatever, it wasn't much of a dinner because he was into pizza and wine and I was two years into celebacy, brown rice and studying to be a swami - he said to me, "Who would be good for the 'Godfather' if Bob Evans turns down the job?" I said, "Personally, I think you'd better go with Al Pacino." but you could distract him for a while by bringing him Bobby DeNiro. So I got Bobby his 'Godfather' audition and they loved him. They wanted him and Al to be in the 'Godfather'. By the way, you don't hear this story in the so-called 'Vanity Fair' stories. This is the story that happened. What happened was, Bobby was so smart that he never wanted to play second fiddle to anyone. He would rather be a lead in a $5. film than second fiddle in a multi-million dollar film. I'm exagerrating. He basically told Robert Evans and all of them, "Thank you very much for being interested in my being in the 'Godfather'. I would do the lead but I won't do anything else."
Well, ultimately everyone knew that Francis was going to get Al, we all knew it. It was just this game he played, a waiting game, with the financiers. "Doesn't look like a movie star. He's too short. He's too..." Al was supposed to do a film called 'The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight". Finally Bob Evans persuaded all the head honchos at Universal to let Francis have his way, Al Pacino was doing 'Godfather'. Bobby was smart enough to run over and get the part in 'The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight'. So Bobby starred in that and Al had to walk out of the contract. "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight" starred Lee Taylor Young, who has become my girlfriend now for the last 25 years. Bobby says to me, when you go to L.A., look up my friend Lee Taylor Young who just starred with me. I called her up and said, "Bobby told me to call." Right away we became friends. We've been best friends ever since. We're both ministers in the Church of The Spiritual Inner Awareness. So Bobby put us together. He helped me read for about eight female leads in his films. It would always go to the other girl. I don't know, that's what it is. So far, I haven't been in a movie with him, but I have been onstage with him. I haven't been in a movie with Al, I have been onstage with him.
I dated Dustin [Hoffman] for a while. I haven't been in a movie with him but he got me a test for 'Lenny' to play Honey. Bob Fosse told me that he thought my work was brilliant in 'Coming Apart'. That's coming out on DVD. 'Coming Apart', first nudity, first everything. It was 30 years ahead of its time. They made 'Don't Look Back' with Julie Christie after and actually stole one of the scenes of the breaking of the mirror and everything.
Anyway, what am I saying except that I have a photographic memory and I was there at the beginning of a lot of extraordinary careers. I consider that a gift that spirit put me in the right place at the right time to see greatness and to experience greatness. Even though I'm not in Susan Sarandon's or Meryl Streep's position right now in the sense of recognizability of my work, the work is out there. If you'd bother to go onto my website and check out everything that I ever did, you'd say, "Oh my God, this is craft. This is real craft."
K2K: And you have some great stories...
SK: I have some great stories and I will get around to writing a book. I haven't done it yet. I have had various attempts. I have 154 pages somewhere.
K2K: What was Dustin Hoffman like? Not the romantic tabloid stuff.
SK: Great. Always great and always very funny. So funny. No, I just dated him for a second. We were really good friends. He's a great guy. He said that he would only act with me if I wouldn't force him to do Tennesse Williams or play Stanley Kowalski. So we brought in his roommate's play and we did a scene, his first, for Strasberg. Dustin did this scene with me and it was my first lesson in comedy. He cracked me up so much that I couldn't keep a straight face. He said, "You've got to keep a straight face no matter what I do."
K2K: Kind of like being around Robin Williams.
SK: Robin was my scene partner when he was an unknown actor at Harvey Lembeck's class. Harvey put us onstage practically every week. I asked him if I could manage him, because I managed five actors at that time. He said, "No, I'm not ready. I have to put in another year." So I went off to do another Roger Corman film, his only for TV, with me and Tanya Tucker called 'Georgia Peaches'. When I came back, Bobby Hoffman had picked up Robin for guest-starring in 'Happy Days'. He went off to do Mork. So there I was saying to Robin, "Let me manage you. I'll get you Merv Griffin next week." He said, "No, I'm not ready." I leave town one week and in that week, he gets his start. So I have this ability, if I may say so, to spot talent.
I taught Sandra Bullock when no one knew who she was. I talked her out of quitting. I put her in a showcase.
K2K: Who are some of your influences?
SK: My favorite actresses were Geraldine Paige, Anne Bancroft and Kim Stanley. I made a conscious decision back then that I would rather be the best actress who ever lived than the most famous one.
K2K: You've done quite a bit outside of acting too.
SK: That's Shelley Winters teaching me to be accountable for what's going on.
We went on to talk about other trivial Hollywood info and then meandered our different ways as the day was going on and there were other interviews to still do at Cinequest.
Written by Philip Anderson Cinequest Photos © 1999 Philip Anderson and Tara Hauff

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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