Five Burning Questions with True West Star Marylouise Burke
February 20th, 2019
by Josh Ferri
Drama Desk Award winner Marylouise Burke co-stars as Ethan Hawke & Paul Dano's mother in Roundabout Theatre Company's critically-acclaimed revival of Sam Shepard's True West. Though she's often spoken about throughout the play, her character doesn't actually enter until late in Act II, and she immediately changes the alchemy of the show with her fantastic performance. BroadwayBox caught up with Marylouise to discuss crafting this performance, working with her co-stars, and becoming a popular internet meme.
1. You enter True West during the height of the guys’ dysfunction, and yet your performance is so grounded. How did you find the tone you wanted for the mom in that scene?
Well, it wasn’t easy. That entrance carries a lot of responsibility with it. The writing is remarkable. The beginning lines are small talk and they don’t really get into it right away. The mother’s writing is really sparse so I had to work a lot with James [Macdonald], the director, on it. It has to be informed by the history, I think. A major thing was the fact that this has been her life with their father—cleaning up messes like this. She has been coping with this for so long, and at the cost of so much pain, that she’s almost numb. She goes into survival mode. She’s there with her sons and has to make the best of it. So, she goes into asking questions and this notion of going to the museum to see Picasso as some kind of little ray of hope. It was that idea of playing her like this is something she’s had to deal with so many times before in her past. I think there’s something strong about that. It’s kind of delicious. I just love doing it.
2. You received the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance in 2014. What did it mean for you that your career was acknowledged in that way?
It was such an enormous affirmation because when I came to New York in 1973 it was that downtown scene that I became a part of for many, many years. It just meant so much that I was being honored by that history. Thinking of the renegades that I worked with then and how much they influenced me. To be in that room with these generations that are coming after me and seeing them be present and honored was very lovely.
3. Which of your 60+ screen credits do people recognize you for most often?
Sideways. People will come up and say to me, “He shouldn’t have stolen that money from you.” [Laughs] And I say, “I know…” That was just a glorious role and I had that memorable scene, and it’s usually what people will mention.
Then also there is that commercial where I say “that’s not how it works” which has become a meme! [Laughs] Isn’t that funny? I’ve done so much artsy stuff but now I’m known for “that’s not how it works”.
4. What was the most striking thing that came out your lengthy discussions with director James Macdonald and the company during rehearsals for True West?
James really wanted to look at this as a family play and more than just two great roles for guys going up there and doing flashy stuff. He wanted to come at it in a different way and examine it in that way because there’s so much pain there in this family. That was something that we kept returning to. I listen to a lot of it backstage and I’m amazed because I find new things all the time.
5. You’ve been acting in New York since the 1970s. How has your approach to choosing your work changed during your career? When do you know if a project/character is right for you now?
I think that what changed first was my financial situation. When I no longer had to take a job that I didn’t particularly want to do in order to earn my insurance that week or in order to earn my unemployment credits. When my finances became more stable, I was able to say, “no, this isn’t for me” or “that one doesn’t feel right”. Now, I think it’s mainly either intuitive about the role (where I think I can bring something to this) or it’s the people I want to work with. That’s what’s so exciting about this project. I had worked with James before in London a year ago doing Annie Baker’s play John, and I knew I wanted to work with him again. And I didn’t know Ethan well but I had done a play with him in 1991 at the Public Theater, and I admire a lot of his work and choices. Then Paul just reminded me that we were in a production of Inherit the Wind when he was a little boy.
Don't miss Marylouise Burke in 'True West' at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre through March 17.