Olympia Dukakis has made a career out of portraying strong, independent women. From Mayor Claire Belcher in Steel Magnolias, to the feisty principal in Mr. Holland's Opus, to ultra-opinionated Rita Mosley in Picture Perfect, to her Oscar winning performance as Rose Castorini in Moonstruck, Dukakis has never shied away from roles that require a little gumption. In her latest film, The Event, Dukakis plays the middle-class Jewish mother of a young gay man who is dying of AIDS. Told through a non-linear timeline, the film retraces her son's final experiences before ultimately deciding to take his own life. It's one of the most revealing and emotional performances we've seen from Dukakis, who conveys so much turmoil in such an understated way.
Co-star Sarah Polley said of Dukakis "Olympia is one of my favorite people I've ever worked with and she is a huge role model for me. I loved every second that I got to work with her, and the performance she gives in this film is remarkable. I don't know when I've ever gotten a chance to witness someone give a performance like that, it was such a privilege."
Though Dukakis is well known for her many film roles, she has perhaps won more crticical acclaim as a stage actress. Dukakis received two OBIE Awards for Bertolt Brecht's A Man's A Man and Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. Dukakis was last seen on Broadway in Social Security directed by Mike Nichols. Her other Broadway credits include Who's Who in Hell, The Aspern Papers, Abraham Cochrane, and Night of the Iguana. Along with husband Louis Zorich, she created the World Theatre in Montclair, NJ and worked as the artistic director for 19 years. She taught acting in the graduate school at New York University for 15 years, and currently teaches acting workshops across the country.
BackStage.com caught up with Dukakis before the release of The Event to discuss her experience with taking on one of the most controversial subjects in America today.
BackStage.com: You've done a number of independent films. Has that been a conscious choice on your part?
Olympia Dukakis: I haven't been necessarily offered really mainstream roles. I find the parts I might be right for seem to go to a lot of British actresses. I've been fortunate that even though I haven't been in any "big" movies in the last couple of years, the movies I have been in have really good parts. It's so important to me that the movies I'm in be about something, so I feel grateful for that. I would like to have a part in a bigger movie from time to time, if for no other reason than that it is more lucrative
BS.com: What made you feel that this movie needed to be made?
Dukakis: For me the movie is much more about assisted suicide than the AIDS crisis. I've had a couple of friends who decided they wanted to end their lives--both straight and gay. But the issue of assisted suicide--the way in which we think of or do not think of death; the way in which we tolerate or do not tolerate different points of view about death; the way in which we attempt to find our way to the human face of death--we tend to get so wrapped up in religious dogma and with legislation, and we don't get a chance to really feel and experience taking on something that is as frightening and as final as death. There's a lot of different points of view and a lot of strong feelings about it--and that dialogue needs to happen beyond the kind of intolerance that we seem to have in this country.
BS.com: Ultimately what do you think the films final message is?
Dukakis: That death is something that each one of us must come to on our own, and that we are entitled to that individuality.
BS.com: What do you look for in a role?
Dukakis: I look for good solid parts that are about something. I look for characters that start at one place and end up at another--that have development. That the events of the character and of the film challenge, confound, support, excite, inspire. Seeing a strong arc is vital.
BS.com: Do you think that it is important for a film actor to have a theatre background?
Dukakis: It's important, but not necessary. I readily see that there are many wonderful film actors who don't have a theatre background. But I think having it can nourish you and feed you in a way that is very different and very important and useful. I would deem it important, but not necessary.
BS.com: What about having any kind of formal training?
Dukakis: Again, some people are very proud of the fact that they've never had any formal training. But on the other hand, training in the hands of the right people can make you capable of doing multiple parts. Not every actor wants to do all different roles; some people don't care either way. For me, it's important.
BS.com: What made you decide to begin teaching?
Dukakis: The very first time I decided to teach was when I was pregnant and I couldn't work anymore. I didn't make much money, just a bunch of us getting together--but after that I got really interested in it and embroiled in the whole teaching world. I taught for 15 years at the graduate school at NYU and now I do short three-or-four day workshops in studios and universities across the country.
BS.com: What's the most important skill that you would like an actor to come away with after taking a class with you?
Dukakis: To be independent and have a good work ethic. To have a strong sense of self and an understanding of his own strong qualities.
BS.com: What do you think of the state of women over 50 in the film industry? Have things improved over the last decade?
Dukakis: No. I think there were much better parts for women in the 1930's for women over 50. Other artistic avenues have opened up--writing, painting, dancing, producing--but acting still seems very closed down.
BS.com: So many actors have been working for years, and are still waiting for their big break. Do you think Moonstruck was your big break?
Dukakis: Definitely. But I don't think you can work for a break, I think you just have to work because you care about what you are doing and are passionate about it.
BS.com: How important are the critical accolades on a professional level?
Dukakis: Oh they are very important on a professional and business level, absolutely. The attention and excitement that awards bring, the increase in salary, all the perks that come with it--it's all very important.
BS.com: Do you any advice for actors?
Dukakis: Just be damn sure that this is what you want to do. It's such a bumpy ride. So keep living your live and doing the things that make you happy and bring you joy. If you work in a way that makes sense to you and you are not consumed with getting ahead, the rest will come.