She plays the martini-marinated matriarch Lucille Bluth on "Arrested Development," now a Netflix series, and Emmy award-winning actress Jessica Walter is relishing every minute. At 72 she continues to be in demand. She is also the voice of Sterling Archer's mother, Malory, on the FX animated series "Archer." Ms. Walter got her start in soap operas and moved from there to prime time and the big screen. She played Evelyn Draper in the 1971 film "Play Misty for Me," for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actress. She has been married to actor Ron Leibman for 30 years.
Actresses of a certain age complain there are not enough roles for them, yet you seem to have hit the jackpot.
[Laughing] I guess if you hang around long enough, it pays off. I have been very fortunate in getting some of the very few roles that are out there. There aren't enough. I don't think television really reflects American society as far as older people, men or women, really. For a long time they didn't reflect society as far as minorities. You would have TV shows in the old days and you wouldn't see one African-American face even if it was set in Washington, D.C. So I think we have a long way to go with that. There are very, very few roles especially for women over 65, that's for sure.
As a child, were you dramatic?
Did you say dramatic [laughing]? Well, my mother would probably tell you that I was. I was not a wallflower, let's put it that way. I was always interested in being an actress. I always had a passion for being an actress. I went to the High School for Performing Arts, which that movie "Fame" was based on. I followed my dream.
Did the future work out the way you had projected it as a young actor?
You know, I never had a plan B. So this was it. Plan A or die. Of course, in those days, I don't think it was as vital to have a plan B as now.
Are you as comfortable talking about yourself as you are talking about your characters?
I am sort of less comfortable talking about my characters, actually. That whole work process is such a personal, private thing, you know, how you arrive at the character.
Great, so here is a work question: How effective is a wardrobe in helping you become the character?
Oh, vital. You know, they used to say you look at people's shoes and you can tell what they are like. When I work on a character, I go from the inside out, but the outside is very important. Lucille Bluth's wardrobe and her pins, her brooches, her jewelry, her hair-do -- all that stuff was very important for that character. And vice versa if you are playing plain jane. I played Holly Hunter's mother on "Saving Grace." I was on occasionally, and that was a whole other thing -- hardly any makeup, just a little bun or hair just straight, flat shoes.
What about when you are in a recording studio doing an animated character like Malory Archer on "Archer."
I was just there the other day. Blue jeans, no makeup -- It's a lot different because you are not seen. That character -- we are in our fifth season now -- that character is so engrained in my head, in my DNA. It's a blessing. It is one of the reasons it is such a great job. You really don't have to prepare with make-up and hair, which takes at least two hours on TV and movies. The whole show is very broad [with] brilliant writing by Adam Reed, but I think animation is a bit different. You sort of go a little bit over the top. You have to have that extra energy because you're not seen.
How long does a character stay in your head after you finish shooting or walk off the stage?
"Arrested" is a good example because we had not done the show for seven years. It really took about 30 minutes when we were all together on the set to get back into the old specific relationships of the characters. Of course, we were so excited to be there that it took about 25 minutes to calm down. As soon as you saw the people and heard their voices as the characters, you were right back. It was like bike riding -- You never forget. So it took about five minutes for the actual characters to come back.
I understand you are nothing like the character of Lucille Bluth.
[Laughs] I hope I'm not like her. But I think we all have feelings of anger and bitterness and humor. You know, everybody has humor in a certain way and she certainly has a dry sense of humor.
I try to tap into those feelings that she has that I think I can relate to in my own life. Who hasn't wanted to manipulate somebody, whether it's a job or to have someone ask you out on a date? I think everybody has that in them. When actors work, they try to take those things that are inside them and magnify them, those that are right for the character.
So how do you keep a straight face working so closely with Tony Hale [Buster], especially the smoking scene? [Her character is under house arrest in a no-smoking building, so she blows the smoke into Buster's mouth, and he runs to the balcony to blow it outside.]
Well, it's not easy! Tony is so wonderful. He is so great. The smoking scene was supposed to be much shorter. They never yelled cut so we just kept going. I wasn't supposed to light another cigarette but I thought, "Well, I have come to the end of this cigarette." Lucille's reading a magazine, and there happened to be a little cigarette case there, so a lot of it just happens. That's the job. You can't stop until they yell "cut." There are times it is tough to keep a straight face, especially with Tony and you know, his big hand. [Buster had his hand bitten off by a seal. The Army give him a really big prosthetic hand].
When he was running around in the John-John outfit ...
Oh my God, everybody cracked up when they saw that.
Will there be another season or will there be an "Arrested Development" movie?
You know, I have no idea what they have planned. I have heard both. So I really don't know. I know whatever it is, I think everybody is on board. They would love to do more. In the series that is on Netflix right now. They left a lot of open ends for things to happen.
On another topic, you have worked with your husband several times. Is it easy?
You know, it's a double-edged sword. The good part is you are working with somebody you really respect and has great talent. Ron is a wonderful actor. On the other hand, you know each other so well. We did [a play] at the Los Angeles theater center, and I remember saying to Ron in some scene we were doing, "Are you seriously going to do that during the performance?"
There are things, the hamminess each other possesses. Over all, I think it is a wonderful thing to work with somebody you know has your back, is talented and you respect. He's been on "Archer" too, actually, playing Ron Cadillac.
Yes, he plays your husband.
Actually today, Patricia, is our 30th anniversary. We are going to see "Matilda" and go out for dinner.
Congratulations. So I have to ask this: With two actors, is there a lot of role playing that goes on at home?
Well, there's a lot of expressed emotion, let's put it that way [laughing]. Our neighbors downstairs, they are so adorable. They said way after they moved in: "We thought we heard you rehearsing all the time. Then we realized you weren't rehearsing."
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.
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