Since getting her start in television and movies at the not-so-tender age of 43, one might say that actress Mary Beth Peil has spent the better part of the past two decades making up for lost time. How else to explain the fact that when she isn’t busy stealing scenes as Jackie Florrick in THE GOOD WIFE as what the actress herself characterizes as a “Mamma Grizzly” to son Peter Florrick and grand-children Zach and Grace, she can be found on stage eight shows a week belting music from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. But just what is life like juggling Broadway with one of televisions most addictive dramas and is there any hope that Jackie and daughter-in-law Alicia will ever see eye-to-eye? We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Peil to find out just that. See for yourself after the jump.
Having spent the majority of your career in theater what was the impetus for transitioning to film and television?
Mary Beth Peil: The first twenty years of my life were spent on stage, but I was an opera singer. So the first conscious decision was when I did my first musical in my early forties and a lightbulb went off and it was like “Oh I get it, I’m an actress who sings, not a singer who acts,” which brought me to music theatre. And at that age there were not a lot of roles to choose from, it’s not like starting at 23, to start at 43 was a different situation so I decided to take acting classes and get ready for some eventual, hopefully, maybe parlay into some TV and film work and straight theater work, drama on stage. And fortunately, she said, knocking on wood, it happened. In the 90’s I was able to make that transition into doing straight plays, and then into television and film work and here we are.
One of your most famous roles, at least for TV Addicts such as ourselves was the character of Grams on DAWSONS’s CREEK. Is it safe to assume that you had no idea that show would turn out to be what it was?
None of us had any idea. In fact, when I had the audition I only had two pages of a scene. I knew that my character’s name was Grams, I knew that the person I was playing a scene with was Gramps and I knew the name of the show, DAWSON’S CREEK. I went into the audition and said I have no idea what century this is, is it Alaska, Tennessee? They said no, it’s Cape Cod, now! So I tried to hustle up a New England/Bostonian accent and that was the beginning of it. The kids were all very young, the show was a midseason replacement and it was a big surprise to everyone that it took off the way it did.
Being the star of a hit television show like DAWSON’s CREEK must have been quite an adjustment for a long time theater vet?
Well it was interesting because I had never been the kind of actor who was a star per say, or recognized because my favorite thing to do is disappear so people are surprised or don’t recognize me from one role to the next. But I found I was recognized a lot by teenagers, mostly abroad when I was in Europe or South America. I don’t know if it’s about watching American television that makes them notice things more but I would get stopped by young people mostly and now it’s fun to get stopped by an older demographic who appreciate THE GOOD WIFE for its intelligence, brilliant writing and incredible cast of actors.
Are you surprised that a show as smart and intelligent as THE GOOD WIFE would be able to not just survive, but flourish on Network TV, which far too often caters to the lowest common denominator?
I was a little bit. I did know it was one of the best pilot scrips I ever read and I didn’t know — I probably shouldn’t say this — but I hoped the Network would be savvy enough to recognize its value. I knew that if Julianna [Margulies] was involved in it there probably was a future, but one never knows what kind of future in television. It’s a mystery to me, I don’t pretend to understand or want to understand.
Watching you film what is sure to be another classic Alicia/Jackie showdown while on set today, I wanted to ask just how much work goes into making the most of those memorable scenes?
Jackie’s a very complicates person. She’s seemingly one kind of a person and yet underneath maybe another kind of person. It’s so well written that you really can find those layers much quicker and easier then you would on other projects let’s say. And you know working with somebody like Julianna is a ball because she makes it really easy.
Is it difficult to justify the way Jackie treats Alicia?
Jackie has no boundaries. She does not have a good sense of appropriateness, she is a Mamma Grizzly! She’s that way about her son and that way about her grandchildren and she doesn’t think things are being taken care of the way the way she would take care of them.
Will there every be a time when Jackie and Alicia bury the hatchet?
I don’t have any idea what they have in store, but I do feel that they both have so much in common with respect to how much they love their children. The difference being for Jackie, her career was her husband’s career and her son and now it’s her grandchildren where as Alicia has a much more complicated and much harder juggling act which is harder for Jackie to understand, let alone approve of it. So the learning curve is for jackie, and we shall see.
One of the only downsides to having such a talented ensemble is that Jackie hasn’t been around nearly as much this season. Are there any plans to see more of her as the season progresses?
I hope so but you’ll have to ask the powers that be. That being said, I like the way they use Jackie, it’s not like a soap opera. I think if she was around all the time the show might perilously come close to a soap opera. Jackie is used best when she just kind of heightens the stakes every once in a while.
Is there any chance we’ll see Jackie interact with anyone outside the immediate orbit of the Florrick family?
As actors we ask ourselves those questions all the time! I was just in the hair and make room with Archie [Archie Panjabi plays Kalinda] and we were saying, “What could Kalinda and Jackie get into?” Of course, if they’re in cahoots you know the show is in trouble!
Is it a challenge to juggle your day job that is THE GOOD WIFE while performing eight shows a week on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies?
Actually I’m one of the lucky people where they say if you’re doing what you love, you’re never tired. Of course there are times when you overextend or don’t get enough sleep but it energizes me. And I feel so lucky at this age to be able to do both because I’m on Broadway in a great Stephen Sondheim Musical at the same time I get to come in and check in on Jackie.
Is there something that you haven’t accomplished in your career that you’d like to?
There are a few stage roles that I’d like to do and I would love to do a little more film work but I figure the older I get there going to always need old ladies, so hopefully it will keep on happening.
Between yourself, Alan Cumming, Graham Phillips and Christine Baranski there is a ridiculous amount of musical theater talent on the show. Which raises the obvious question, do you think we’ll ever see the musical episode of THE GOOD WIFE.
There’s always a dream sequence! I think it’s very smart of the casting people, directors and producers because music theater people are actually perfect for television because they know how to work quickly and have a sense of rhythm. Plus, their ability to memorize and be precise about props, hitting your mark has been well honed in musical tehater person probably more so than a straight drama person/actor.
As someone who has had a remarkable career in an incredibly tough industry, what advice would you have for those wishing to follow in your footsteps?
That’s a tough one. The first piece of advice I have would be to follow your heart, which is a huge generalization and alway hard to do because sometimes it means making choices that don’t make sense to anyone but you and require tremendous leaps of faith. But the leaps of faith are hopefully for right reason about the work. And whether you’re getting paid for it or not, just keep working, as an acting teacher of mine once said, it’s all about survival. Whoever can hang in the longest.
THE GOOD WIFE airs Sundays at 9PM on CBS (10PM on Global TV in Canada) and stars Julianna Margulies,Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Josh Charles, Christine Baranski, Chris Noth, Makenzie Vega, Graham Phillips, Alan Cumming and Mary Beth Peil. Catch up on past episodes you may have missed for free online at clicktowatch.tv