Sept. 07--At a recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, actress Beth Grant typed in the address of her childhood home in Long Leaf Hills. After the interactive display virtually transported her to the Wilmington neighborhood with a flurry of music and visuals, Grant wrote a short note to her younger self:
"You're going to be OK."
Sitting opposite the actress at the swanky SoHo House restaurant in West Hollywood, where she was joined by her husband of 28 years, Michael Chieffo, and Julliard-enrolled 21-year-old daughter Mary, it's clear that "OK" is an understatement.
"Last year was my best year ever," Grant said with a mix of pride and amazement. "I had 10 jobs last year, and I got to do a Faulkner movie, and I became a regular on a series -- at age 63."
That series is "The Mindy Project" on Fox, which brought its stars to mingle with reporters at SoHo House. Grant, once a guest star on the show, joined the comedy full time this spring at the end of its freshman season.
The Faulkner movie is "As I Lay Dying," written, directed by and starring James Franco, who, coincidentally, will appear on the first two episodes of "Mindy" this season.
And among those other projects is a short film with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, a feature directed by Emmy nominee Jason Bateman and guest appearances on "Secret Life of the American Teenager," "Grey's Anatomy," "The Office" and "Justified."
"I've worked really hard to get here," Grant said.
Local, but not for long
Born in Alabama, Grant moved around with her family through several Southern states before landing in Wilmington as a young girl.
She quickly fell in love with the climate and the coast.
"I would just love to get in that 80-degree water," Grant said. "When I was there in the '60s, there were no houses on any of those islands. We would sail up the inland waterway and go over to Figure Eight and picnic and skinny dip, just us girls."
She was active in the drama department at New Han over High School, but she spent most of her time backstage, acting in only a couple of productions.
"I didn't get cast there. Isn't that funny? And yet they voted me most talented. I've always wanted to go back to New Hanover and talk to the drama club."
She didn't land many roles at East Carolina University, either. But one she did -- as the lead in the debut of Romulus Linney's "Holy Ghosts" -- took her to New York City.
Hollywood beckoned soon after, and Grant landed a small but career-launching role in "Rain Man" as a harried mother who lets Dustin Hoffman's character into her home so he could watch "The People's Court."
The next 25 years yielded roles in "Flatliners," "Speed," "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," "Donnie Darko," "Little Miss Sunshine," "No Country For Old Men," "Crazy Heart" and "The Artist."
Grant earned a reputation for squeezing powerful performances into only a few minutes of screen time.
Frequently, Grant's conversation at SoHo House is interrupted by former co-stars just wanting to say hello.
When Garret Dillahunt of "Raising Hope" stopped by to give Grant a hug, the actress, after introducing all of her tablemates, launched into an anecdote from when she worked with Dillahunt 15 years ago on the quirky, short-lived TV series "Maximum Bob."
It's a reminder of just how many credits Grant has to her name, and how respected she has become among her fellow actors.
Grant said she hopes that respect reflects her hard work and her dedication to her characters' needs.
"I've worked with the biggest directors in the world. And I go over and ask them if I need something or if I don't understand something. 'Rain Man' was my first feature. I was (playing) a mother of six kids. I said, 'That woman is working her butt off ... Can I have a diaper to use as a dry cloth like I have been drying dishes and come to the door with a diaper?'"
Director Barry Levinson thought it was a great idea, and crew members were dispatched to find a diaper.
"I always fight for my character," Grant said. "Even from the very beginning, I've always felt like that's my job. You can do it in a nice way. I'm Southern and we were raised to have good manners. But I also don't settle for less. I can't. It's just not in my makeup."
The Beth Grant project
A few days before the gathering at SoHo House, Ike Barinholtz asked visitors to the set of "The Mindy Project" to play a game.
"Turn on your TV at night, one of the movie channels," said Barinholtz, a writer and actor on the show, "and count how many minutes until Beth Grant appears in one of those movies."
It usually only takes five minutes to spot her, he said. And much longer than that to forget her.
On "Mindy," Grant plays an absent-minded nurse named Beverly who is prone to saying completely inappropriate and crazy things to obstetrician Mindy, played by star, writer and producer Mindy Kaling.
"We really love Beth," Barinholtz said. "She's really a great person. She's just funny. We always look to the support staff to be ... a whole spectrum of weirdos to bounce her problems off. Beth gives us one we really didn't have, which is the old bat, who could be 48, could be 79, could be 104."
After guest starring earlier in the first season, Grant was brought back full time after the show did some minor retooling.
"I was so excited and moved, and I honor Mindy and her voice so much," Grant said. "I'm going to tell this silly story, but after I guest starred, I was so enthusiastic and just like, 'Oh, my God, I've never heard a voice like this.' She's writing and producing and starring in it, and her energy ... Like, I take a nap at lunch. She goes to a writers' meeting.
"So I came home that day, and I was all enthusiastic, and my Emmy magazine had arrived with her picture on the cover, and I said to my husband, 'Give me a piece of cardboard.' And I taped it on there and made a dream board that I would be able to be of service to her voice. I mean, I never meant to be a regular ... So I put it behind the china cabinet, and I forgot about it."
When the call came several weeks later that Kaling wanted her to become a series regular, Grant said she was so excited she almost fainted.
"I really couldn't speak for several seconds," said Grant, who calls Kaling a "comic genius" reminiscent of Robin Williams.
"To watch her -- I'm learning so much. I'm old enough to be her mother and then some. I'm in awe of her. She really is a leader."
And, Grant said, Kaling has great chemistry with Franco, who guest stars as a doctor in the Sept. 17 season premiere.
"I think he had a really good time," Grant said. "I'm sure he didn't have any idea what he was getting into. He does a real parody of himself in these first two episodes."
Grant said she's "always rooted for" Franco, and she counts playing the ailing matriarch Addie Bundren in Franco's "As I Lay Dying" as one of her great achievements.
"She's an iconic Southern character," Grant said. "Doing Faulkner directed by James Franco? It doesn't get much better than that."
But it could.
Grant said Franco has approached her about portraying playwright Tennessee Williams' mother in a film he wants to direct. And Grant's been tinkering with her own one-woman show.
"If I ever get it done, I want to bring it back and do a fundraiser for Thalian Hall," Grant said. "Maybe someday."
In the meantime, Grant will continue to turn in memorable performances on both big screen and small, one unique character at a time.
"That's kind of my career," she said. "I'm slow and steady like a turtle."
Jeff Hidek: 343-2371
On Twitter: @JeffHidek
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