A Conversation with Shirley Knight
By Rebecca Redshaw
Enjoying a career that spans almost five decades, Shirley Knight is one of those actors that always put a special touch on her work. She was nominated for Academy Awards in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH opposite Paul Newman and DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS with Robert Preston. Bringing her expertise to the screen playing Helen Hunt’s mother in AS GOOD AS IT GETS and one of the original members of THE DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD, Knight proves there is no such thing a “small role.” She has raised the quality of viewing on the small screen as well winning a Golden Globe and Emmy for INDICTMENT:THE McMARTIN TRIAL and Emmys for “thirtysomthing” and NYPD.
Shirley Knight is scheduled to be honored at the Fourth Annual Port Townsend Film Festival. In a recent phone conversation, I asked her about her thoughts on her career.
Rebecca Redshaw: Do you have a preference for a particular kind of script?
Shirley Knight: I think the things that I prefer doing are socially conscious material. That’s what art is about. There are only two things that remind us of our human frailty – one is art and the other’s religion. They are the only two things that help us along in life. That’s why I think it’s so criminal when art is one of the first things that they condemn. When they want to get rid of the humanity in society, the first thing they do is burn books and take away funding for the arts. It’s tragic because it makes the human condition much worse.
RR: It’s an interesting time we’re living in right now.
SK: It’s horrific. I was born in 1936 so I was a child during the Second World War and in high school at the time of the Korean War. Then there was Viet Nam and all our aggressions in South America and around the world that I have been privy to in my lifetime. This is the first time in my life that I have felt like I’m living in a fascist environment. I won’t say fascist country because that isn’t fair, but it’s the first time that I felt like I live in a fascist environment where human rights have been taken away and we are universally despised around the world when we used to have a much more decent profile.
RR: What’s on the horizon for you?
SK: I’ve been doing a lot of writing. At the moment I’m reworking a screenplay that my husband [the late writer John Hopkins] had written that we plan to shoot next summer. I’m also writing two stage plays actually and I’m revising about four hundred poems hoping to get them in a shape that I like. I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child, so, I’m very concentrated on that.
RR: Any films scheduled?
SK: I was supposed to do a film in Vancouver. They started shooting but then they stopped it. They’re not sure when they’ll pick it back up. I don’t know if it was a disagreement with the director, I’m not sure. It happens. I was going to do this wonderful film about Georgia O’Keefe and Mabel Dodge Luhan and then the actress that was in it basically destroyed the film which was sad because it was a wonderful film and I love the character of Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was such an amazing woman. But it happens.
RR: The stage plays – would you be involved as a director or actor or both?
SK: The first play is not something I would be in – the second play is one I actually would act it. I might direct the first one, I don’t really know. The first play has four characters – the second play has two and possibly three – I’m working my way through it and deciding.
RR: Your daughters are involved in the business?
SK: [enthusiastically] Yes, they are. My daughter Kaitlin is an actress and singer and, when I say singer, I mean opera. She sang a John Adams opera and toured the world so that gives you an idea. She’s an extraordinary singer and my youngest daughter, Sophie, is a writer. She has her master’s from Columbia and has written for two television series and is writing a play and a movie. She’s very busy.
RR: So, with writers in the house, there’s some quiet time.
SK: They’re great girls who are happy and doing well and that’s the important thing and I have a step-daughter, Justine, who is a doctor of cultural anthropology and art history and teaches at the University of London and University of Bristol – she’s quite impressive.
RR: You were a music major in college.
SK: I studied to be an opera singer from the time I was eleven. I was insane, or I am insane, about opera music. I grew up in the middle of Kansas and my mother and I listened to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday. My mother had studied music and singing and I sang from a very young age.
RR: Any plans to perform in concert?
SK: I used to do recitals but I haven’t done one in quite some time. Singing is very different from acting. It’s difficult to drop and pick up. Like my daughter, for example, no matter what she’s doing even if it’s just an acting role, she vocalizes for at least an hour a day. The voice is a very different instrument. The last recital I did I did some [songs by] Hugo Wolf, a few Debussy songs, a Mozart concert aria – frankly, it was really, really hard.
RR: You’ve worked with an impressive list of directors. Any favorites?
SK: I’d have to say Frances [Ford Coppola – THE RAIN PEOPLE] and Richard Lester [PETULIA] – both of whom I thought were amazing.
RR: Coppola was fairly young.
SK: Frances had already done FINIAN’S RAINBOW and two or three movies. He had not done THE GODFATHER or APOCOLYPSE NOW. We honored him last year at Lincoln Center. It was so wonderful, a huge evening. They showed THE RAIN PEOPLE and I spoke as did Al Pacino and Diane Lane, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. It was quite an evening. I said at the time that in the realm of film that APOCOLYPSE NOW was a work of genius. It was extraordinary and is a work of art. Anyway, I’d love to work with him again.
RR: Your first movie part was a walk on in PICNIC?
SK: Yes, when I was child of eight or ten. I lived in Kansas and they filmed it in Kansas. They did a scene at a lake about twelve miles from my house and they asked for children to sit around the lake where the picnic was.
RR: Did you get the acting bug?
SK: Not at all! It was a horrible day. I’m very pale skinned and my sister and I had to sit in the sun all day. We got sunburned and my mother was furious with them. But we did get to see William Holden which was a big thing – then later, many years later, I did a film with him in Munich and told him that I had seen him as a child.
RR: Do you like going to the movies now?
SK: I do, yes. I just saw WHALE RIDER that I enjoyed very much and I adored BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. And there was one other film I saw – DIRTY PRETTY THINGS – it was wonderful.
I also loved SEABISCUIT. It was one of those rare things – rare and wonderful. They didn’t try to do the book which is always death. But they made a film of the book from the book. And I was so happy that the film was actually about Seabiscuit. I thought it was wonderful that you really wanted to know about the horse. Quite often you’re disappointed but I wasn’t at all, I thought it was lovely.