Sally Kirkland has had one of the most fascinating careers and lives of any Hollywood actress. Her Golden Globe-winning turn as ANNA (1987) is just one of many committed, heartfelt, vivacious performances in a career spanning over five decades. I spoke to Sally about some of the highlights of her career.She was the fashion editor for Vogue in 1947, and then she became the first and only fashion editor that Life magazine ever had, from 1947 through to 1969. My mother put people like Jackie Onassis, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn on the cover, and made total fashion icons out of them. She was also a senior editor, and so she got to play a part in who went on the cover of the magazine, whether it was to do with fashion or not. I was the most outgoing of all the kids of the editors, so I would get asked questions like ''Who are these mopheads?'' And I would tell them ''They are The Beatles! For Heaven' sake put them on the cover!'' I had to educate them about was going on with my generation. My mother was allowed to bring me into 'The Tower,' where they would have all the potential covers on the wall.
Can you talk about your mother, who was also named Sally Kirkland and was a famous fashion editor?
Can you talk about your mother, who was also named Sally Kirkland and was a famous fashion editor?
What was it like to be the daughter of such a famous woman?It was extraordinary for me to be the daughter of someone so hip, and to know what the fashion trends were going to be way before my friends. She was the first person to bring Italian fashions into the country post-War. She was the first person to announce fashion trends like the mini-skirt, the no bra look and hippie chic. Irving Penn, who died recently and was one of the most famous photographers that ever lived, would get together with my mother when she was at Vogue and do things like get stepladders and have a different model on each step. She was the first person to use multiple models in double-page spreads. I was lucky because I got to go to Paris for the collections and meet people like Chanel, Rubinstein and Givenchy, and go to Italy and meet all the designers. She was a brilliant woman - she spoke Italian, French, and Spanish.
My name was Sally Kirkland Jr. so I had a huge insecurity problem about being the daughter of a famous woman whose byline was Sally Kirkland. On the other side of the coin, growing up with her was very magical. I'm sure I would never have been an actress if it was not for her being so totally in the public eye and putting me at age 5 in front of the camera to be a model. I would do shows with the likes of Carol Lynley, Sandra Dee and Tuesday Weld, who were also child models and were the same age. Because of my mother I got to meet Jackie Onassis. I was playing her in a stage play called 'Fitz n' Bisquit', and in the story Jackie doesn't want her husband to be the President. In one scene she is on their sailboat and she puts a rope around her neck, and throws herself overboard, in an attempt to kill herself and make a statement about how she didn't want to share with him with the world. It was a very emotional role. Jackie knew both the playwright and my mother, and she came backstage to tell me how touched she was and how great she thought I was in the play. I think we were even crying together. That's the sort of thing that wouldn't automatically happen without my mother being who she was.
After being a child model, did going into acting seem like a natural transition?I was always in front of the camera so it did seem like a natural transition. The fashion show runways led to me being comfortable onstage, and being filmed by so many photographers made it easy for me to get in front of a film camera.
How did Shelley Winters become your godmother?
She was my godmother not in the religious sense, but in the sense that she sort of adopted me when I was eighteen. My mother was so busy that I never saw her, and my father couldn't stand that I was in showbusiness. Shelley's daughter hated that her mother was an actress and didn't want to be one herself. Shelley took me in and helped get me into the Actors' Studio and into the unions. I remember she had Martin Luther King and his wife over for dinner once when I was there, which was quite an experience for an eighteen year old. She would have me help her learn her lines for all of her movies, from about 1961 onwards. Shelley would take me with her when she went on The Johnny Carson Show, and I would sit in the green room and watch her. The reason I threw water in Rush Limbaugh's face when I was a guest on a chat show and he was being insulting was because Shelley had done the same thing on a chat show. I got my aggressive chutzpah from my mother, but I learned how to survive men and the film business from Shelley.
She was really concerned that I didn't know enough politically, so she made sure I read all the newspapers every day and followed all the news stories. Lee Strasberg told me to go to the opera, the ballet and the museums and take in all the arts, but Shelley told me that ''You're not talking with any kind of awareness of what's going on in the world. You've got to start being conscious of what's happening internationally, socially and politically.'' She was a very political person and she helped the Kennedys a great deal. I inherited all this from her and became an activist fairly early on in my career. I was the first nude actress in American theatre in 1968 when I did the play 'Sweet Eros', and there was nowhere I could go in New York City without people knowing who I was. They were all so shocked. This was before 'Hair' or 'Oh, Calcutta!' When the New York Times called me and asked me ''Why are you doing this, Ms. Kirkland? You're a Shakespearian actress with Joseph Papp and you're taking off all your clothes.'' I told them ''I'm opposed to the Vietnam War, and you can't carry a gun on a naked body.'' This quote appeared in history books of the '60s. I was very much part of the generation that was having a sexual revolution in the arts. Tom O' Horgan, who directed 'Hair', was my director with the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, and he was experimenting with all his very outrageous theatre. I remember around the time of the Columbia riots, I was in a play called 'Tom Paine' and all the college kids would come, and afterwards we would have debates with them about whether anything had really changed since Tom Paine's day.
How did your time at The Actors Studio affect your outlook towards acting?It was the place to be at that time. They had really famous people there, and totally unknown people like myself. The older talent would observe the younger talent, and we would learn from them. At the time I was there, Lee Strasberg was teaching the acting sessions, and Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman were teaching the playwright and directing sessions. The actors were allowed to sit in on the playwright and directing sessions and vice versa. We were being seen by the most brilliant writers and directors in New York, and so most of my commercial work came out of being in The Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg told me I was the youngest person he ever took in. I learned The Method, which is basically 'truth'. I had gone to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and learned how NOT to act. It was very indicative in that worst way of British acting where you speak well and move well, but it isn't coming from the heart. The British actors nowadays are very Method. My favourite actor is Michael Fassbender, who is German-Irish, but he's totally Method. With the Method, you use your own personal life and your imagination to come up with the character. You use emotional recall and you use 'personalisation', where you use someone from your own life for the character you're playing or playing opposite. There's also the 'as if' method, where you imagine how you would act in a given situation outside your own experience, eg. murdering somebody. And there's also 'sensory work', where you work out every possible experience that could happen to you, like how it feels to drink alcohol, or have rain on you, or give birth. You have to do tremendous research on all the possible situations that a person can go through. I just turned 72, but figure I started learning all this when I was 17. It's almost like breathing for me now.
What did you find rewarding about acting when you started?I started when I was 10, and I was very very shy, and it was a way for me to hide behind characters so the real Sally Kirkland wouldn't have to emerge. As I did it more, I grew to love playing so many different kinds of women. Actually, because I went to all-girls schools and was 5'9'', I would be cast as the leading man until I was 18! It gave me a lot of power, and I got to do Shakespeare very young. When I did ANNA, for which I won the Golden Globe (Best Actress in a Drama), I was reaccessing my male voice from when I was a young girl playing men.
How ambitious were you when you started acting?I wanted to be the best actress in the whole world and I really saw a difference between being the best actress and being a celebrity. I already knew what being a celebrity was because I kind of inherited that. I had to learn how to be a great actress. I had a great teacher in Shelley, who taught me about 'dramedy': when the audience thinks they're going to laugh, make them cry, and vice versa. If you check out Shelley's performances, she does that almost every time. It's a way of being unpredictable so the audience doesn't know where you're going to take them.
Even though it was a small role, it would have to be THE STING (1973). I had a scene with Robert Redford, and the part was enough for me to sink my teeth into and for people to remember me. Over the years, a lot of people have told me that their favourite Redford moment is when he is watching me strip with that huge grin on his face, holding a champagne glass in one hand and a bunch of roses in the other. Redford turned up for rehearsals and watched me in the wings. He said to me ''Wow! Where did you learn how to do that?'' I had been taking dancing lessons since I was 11 or 12 years old. We already knew each other because we had worked with each other on THE WAY WE WERE (1973), and had even double dated once. The director, George Roy Hill, actually wanted to cast Valerie Perrine for the role, but I think she was too famous at that time. He wanted to go to Vegas to find a new Valerie, but Redford told him he should use me. I didn't know that story until the day of the rehearsal. I asked him if he had had anything to do with me getting the role and he just shyly looked down at his shoes and said ''Oh, I just thought you'd enjoy it.'' Redford was lovely. He treated me like I was a star, which he didn't have to do.
How was working with Mel Brooks for your cameo in BLAZING SADDLES (1974)?It was such a small role and I had just done THE STING and THE WAY WE WERE, so I asked Mel Brooks if I could do it uncredited, which was a stupid-ass thing to do! Every time I saw Mel and Anne Bancroft at some social function, they would come out with my line: ''Tuna Surprise!'' At that time I was still intimidated by Hollywood, coming out of New York theatre, and this was an hilarious experience. I was there when they were filming the horses coming through the wall. Working with Mel was like working with Jim Carrey on BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003). They were both always telling non-stop funny stories when we weren't filming, and they're both very sweet, kind people. I became close with the lead, Cleavon Little, and we hung out a lot in his dressing room.
I loved working with Tony. He was the most easygoing, fun guy. If he had demons, one would never know it. It's so tragic what happened to him. I think he made me look more beautiful than any other film director has ever done. Tony later told me it was between Faye Dunaway and myself. I came in for the audition with him and Kevin Costner, and I began telling Kevin how I loved him in NO WAY OUT (1987), FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) and BULL DURHAM (1988). Kevin interrupted me and said ''Sally, don't you remember me? I was the stage manager at the Raleigh Studios when you were making HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982) with Neil Young. I learned from you, Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper and everybody.'' I was very humbled because I didn't remember him at all! I think REVENGE is an underrated, beautiful movie and one of Tony Scott's best. I think whatever problems the film has are because there were too many chefs. Ray Stark wanted his say, it was Kevin's first time producing and Tony had his ideas. I don't know if all of them came to an agreement ultimately, but Ray Stark stepped in to oversee the edit of the theatrical version.
Did your friendship with Costner lead to your role in J.F.K. (1991)?
No, it was through Oliver Stone. He and I already knew each other socially. Back in the '70s, being from New York, I was so bored in L.A., so I used to get millionaires to lend me their houses and I would throw parties in honor of my friends Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Bob Dylan. Oliver used to come to these parties, and he would also come and speak in front of the acting classes I was teaching. When I heard he and Kevin were making J.F.K., I told Oliver ''You've got to put me in this movie. My mother knew J.F.K. and Jackie, I lived with Shelley ... I feel like I'm family!'' Oliver told me all the parts had been cast. I wouldn't give up and told him 'You're Oliver Stone! You'll think of something!''A couple of days later he called me and asked me to come to his office and improvise four different women for him. There was the journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, the daughter of chat show host Irv Kupcinet, a doctor and Rose Cheramie, who worked for Jack Ruby as a stripper and other things. In my audition, I started off in my white suit playing Dorothy Kilgallen, and by the time I got to Rose Cheramie as a stripper, I was down to my G-string and tassles, which I was wearing underneath the suit. Oliver told me that the character of Rose had a kid, so she was working as a stripper, prostitute and drug runner for Ruby in order to raise him. On top of all that, she was suffering from heroin withdrawal at the start of the movie and had just found out that there was a plot to assassinate JFK. She's completely hysterical. I really went for it in the audition, screaming and crying. Oliver said ''How did you do that? You did all those emotions so fast!'' He was blown away and pretty much hired me on the spot. We all had to sign these waivers saying we wouldn't talk about the film until after it opened. What was great about the film was that the Newsweek review said the most authentic performance in the movie was mine, although they mentioned my character and not my name! Oliver was amazing to work with. He was very intense, as am I. I told him I wanted him to take me to a strip joint so I could get a feel for the character, and we went to one that definitely could've been The Carousel, which was the strip joint owned by Jack Ruby. I asked the strippers if they would let me strip, but they said it was against the union so they couldn't let me do it. It was a really exciting movie to do. You could feel that electricity that you were dealing with John F. Kennedy, conspiracy or otherwise. People were fascinated to see where Oliver was going to go with this film. I remember going to the Academy screening, and everyone gasped in the first scene. It was such a shocking opening.
I had a good time making the film. I loved Neil, and working on the movie was like a commune experience. He was really great with actors, and is of course a brilliant creative genius. Neil also has a great sense of humour, and when we met for my audition, we discovered we were both Scorpios. We had a lot of fun with that. I remember Dennis Hopper and I would follow Neil around like groupies in San Francisco. There was this blending going on where Neil's music for the film ended up on his album Trans (1982), and Neil's song 'My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)' ended up in Dennis's film OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). Neil shot one part of the film on location in San Francisco and Taos, New Mexico, and then the other a few years later at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. That period in between was very important for me because in that period I gave up all drugs.
What was working with Dennis Hopper like on the film?
Dennis is a great actor and I adored sitting at his feet, listening to his stories. When it came to doing our scene together, where he was a chef and I was a waitress, he started throwing a knife at the wall, which wasn't part of the script. I kept thinking ''Neil, please step in and stop Dennis from killing someone.'' But it was Neil's first time directing and he didn't know how to deal with a situation like that. The AD would speak to Dennis, but Dennis was bound and determined to keep throwing this knife at the wall. Eventually I went over to him and said ''Look, you're my friend, but there's teenagers on the set and what you're doing is dangerous. You even asked the prop master to sharpen the knife, which is against Screen Actor's Guild rules.'' But he kept doing it nonetheless. In the end I reached up to grab his fist to try and stop him, and the damn knife came down and severed the tendons on the first finger of my right hand. I had a curled up, crippled hand for over a year, and even to this day the finger doesn't look like the rest of my fingers. Neil was really sorry about what happened and even said ''It's okay to sue me Sally. I have insurance.'' I did that, but I somehow I ended up losing the case because nobody wanted to believe my story about the amount of drugs Dennis was on. Dennis and I did reconcile later on, and he played my ex in EDTV (1999).
Did you enjoy working with Ron Howard and Matthew McConaughey on EDTV?
Ron Howard is one of my favourite directors, and gave me a 45 minute audition! I had a huge crush on Matthew (as I did with Jim Carrey on BRUCE ALMIGHTY). He treated me like a queen from beginning to end, and he brought Sandra Bullock with him to see me in a play I was acting in, complete with champagne. Just recently I got to celebrate all his award wins with DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013).
How was the experience of making BEST OF THE BEST (1989) with Eric Roberts?
I loved doing that one. I was always a fan of Eric Roberts, and I've done two or three things with him. He is such a committed actor. He really learned how to do Tae-kwon-do. Eric did all his own stuntwork. I really respect his talent.
Is it true you nearly played Sean Penn's mother in AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)?
Can you talk about your most acclaimed role, as ANNA?Other than becoming a soul initiate and a Reverend in the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, playing ANNA would be the best experience of my life. It was a role where I knew I was going to be able to use my entire acting instrument, be it dramatic, comedic or improvisational, or learning a new language. I'm happiest when I'm being fully utilised. I've done so many cameos and I feel great whenever I work, but one always wishes to be the leading lady. When I read Agnieszka Holland's script, and saw her film ANGRY HARVEST (1985), I knew that whoever played Anna was going to win awards. It was such a well-written role, and there were so many emotional changes to the character. The casting director, Caroline Thomas, really fought for me because initially the director, Yurek Bogayevicz, didn't think I was right. I had heard rumours that Vanessa Redgrave's agent was trying to get the role for her, and names like Shirley Knight and Lee Grant were being bandied about. I was relentless in getting the role. I would stand in the rain outside Bogayevicz's apartment waiting for him, so I could persuade him to cast me. I sent him flowers all the time, and wrote him long letters. When I finally got the call to do an audition, I was at the airport waiting for a plane to Australia. I was going there for a week to teach acting to a hundred people, sponsored by Insight Seminars. I told Yurek that I couldn't just not go. The students had paid good money for me to teach them, and they were connected to my spiritual path. I thought ''If he really wants me, he'll wait a week.'' Yurek couldn't believe it. I knew that if God was in my corner, they'd wait for a week, and they did.
How did you end up putting on a special presentation of ANNA at The Actors Studio before your audition?Lee Strasberg had just died, and Al Pacino was moderating. I put on a half hour of the script without Yurek's permission. My students from class played all the supporting parts. Maggie Wagner, who is the niece of Mark Rydell, played the Paulina Porizkova part. I had Pacino, Robert De Niro and Shelley Winters in the audience. It was an amazing day. It was so intense for me trying to cut my teeth on the role in front of my peers. After it was over, Al came over and said ''You know, I think you should go to Long Island for the weekend and just relax before your audition on Monday. You've got it down perfect.'' When Yurek found out what I had done, he was furious. In my audition, I would have been ready to act out the whole film for him, but he told me to throw the script away and jump on one foot and tell him a nursery rhyme. So I did 'Humpty Dumpty' in a Czech accent, which of course is in the movie. Paulina Porizkova had already been cast and helped me get the part by saying yes when Yurek asked her if she wanted to work with me. I think Paulina was a little intimidated by me at first because I was really in character and Anna was a bit of a monster. I know Yurek came up to me one day and said ''Sally, I think you should go to a psychiatrist.'' I said ''No, I'm just fine. Your Anna should go to a psychiatrist.'' He gave me a love letter really when he cast me. People are sometimes shocked at how intense Actors Studiosstudents can get. We want to hold on to our characters off-camera. Paulina helped me with my Czech and I helped her with her acting. She was the number one model in the world at the time, so if we needed cars moving off the street she would just wink at the policemen and they'd rush over and move them! You wouldn't believe what Paulina got done for the movie! We needed someone to score the movie and she just happened to be engaged to Ric Ocasek from The Cars. So we got Greg Hawkes from The Cars to do the music for nothing.
How was the experience of winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama?I did an acceptance speech and invited all 88 members of the Foreign Press home with me! I also talked about helping peace in the world by having artists from different countries work together. This was before the Berlin Wall coming down, so now it feels like I was really in the moment before the big moment. It was also amazing winning the Independent Spirit and L.A. Film Critics Circle awards, and being nominated for the Oscar.
Can you reveal one of your success stories as an acting teacher?One of my students in New York was Sandra Bullock. She didn't realise she was going to be a star. She didn't see what I saw the minute I saw her. Sandy had this insecurity about her, and her boyfriend wanted her to get married. I told her to tell her boyfriend to come over and talk to me! I had her do a scene from a play called 'The Trip Back Down'. It was a scene between a racing car driver and his wife, and was all about career vs relationship. I said ''Sandy, even though the roles are reversed, see if you can use your relationship with your boyfriend to make the scene work.'' I also had her do 'The Tempest', 'Everything I Learned from Harvey Lembeck' from 'Theatre Games' which was comedy improv and all that. We put on a showcase, and the director Dan Adams saw that and put her in her first movie, which was originally called RELIGION INCORPORATED but later released as A FOOL AND HIS MONEY (1988).
What are some other films you're proud of?THE HAUNTED (1991) is a good film, and I was nominated for a Golden Globe for it. I play Marilyn Monroe if she had lived to be in her fifties in NORMA JEAN, JACK AND ME (1998). HIGH STAKES (1989) is another one I'm proud of. I play a stripper in it, and it's kind of a precursor to PRETTY WOMAN and STRIPTEASE. Bob Dylan gave me two songs free of charge. Bob is the person I love the most in the world, alongside my spiritual teacher of forty years, John Roger.
I spoke to Sally by telephone on 27th November 2013 and would like to thank her for her time.
Thanks to Kennet Karlsson.
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