In 1999 you played a lesbian in Tea with Mussolini. What was it like working with those wonderful women?
Oh, God, well that was three months in Italy. A month in Florence, a month in San Giamanni, and a month in Rome. And here you’ve got Cher, Maggie [Smith], Judi Dench, and Joan Plowright. As a teenager, I was mad for Maggie. We were on location at these old villas. It wasn’t like the stage where they have people assisting them. So when we first got together in Florence, I would be running around trying to get teacups so I could serve them. And I would even save their cigarette butts. Joan and Maggie were there first, and Judi came about two weeks later, and then we were all together, and Maggie would say, “Darling, don’t you want Judi’s cigarette butt?”
Those are the kinds of things that would happen. I probably looked like Miss Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies. I would run up and put up an umbrella over Maggie, because it was so hot. No matter what happened, no matter how many times you went to dinner with them…’cause they’re so English…you’d feel like the next day was just like day one.
It would be so challenging on a social level. We were in Rome then, staying at an English hotel that had a big terrace where you can have dinner. So, because I didn’t know what else to say, I’d say, “Did you have dinner on the terrace last night?” Honestly, [Maggie] waited two long beats and looked straight at me and she said, “Why?” And I was dumbfounded, and out of my mouth shoots, “Because we like to picture what you do when you’re away from us.” If I could imitate her it would so much better. She waits two long beats again…no smile, nothing…you don’t know if she’s kidding you…she says to me…dead serious…she says, “Who’s we?” And I’m just a puddle by this time. I don’t know what to say. How to say it. Or anything. That went on a lot. She was just absolutely amazing. Of course, I loved every moment of it.
And Cher, too!
Cher was there for only about a month. [Most of] her scenes were shot in one city. They arranged it that way, so she wouldn’t have to be there for three months. But Cher is just outrageous. At one point, she turned to me all of a sudden and said, “Doesn’t Maggie just scare the shit out of you?”
And [Franco] Zeffirelli is incredible! When we shot that scene when the Fascists come in and throw all the tea things out of the second-floor window, there was nothing downstairs roped off so that people passing by wouldn’t get hit. When the actors would get to the window, they would stop because they were afraid to throw the stuff out. And Zeffirelli would say [imitating him], “No, no, no, no, like this.” And he would go to the window and throw everything out with great abandon. Wham, wham, wham. Absolutely divine, it really was. It was like a playground.
He would always want me to improvise or to liven up something. He doesn’t understand the vernacular, so, of course, when I would, he would say, “Cut! Cut! Cut! We can’t have this vulgarity.”
There’s a scene in the train station when Cher’s character and my character run into the young teenager coming home from school. Cher’s character says something like, “You’re so handsome now,” and he says something like, “Oh, I don’t know,” and Elsa [Cher] says, “If a girl tells you you’re handsome, you’d better enjoy it. That’s how you get the girls,” or something like that. And I ad-libbed, “Don’t listen to her. What does she know? She won’t even give me a tumble.” Zeffirelli goes, “Whoa, whoa. Cut! Cut!” The whole thing was just great.
What was it like working on The Prairie Home Companion with Meryl Streep?
OK, well that was pretty divine, too. First of all, you have [Robert] Altman, and then you’ve got Meryl on top of that.
You and Meryl together were great. And then on the Oscars, the two of you were just tremendous [presenting a special Oscar to Altman]. Did y’all improvise?
Jane basically wrote the text, a really nice intelligent couple of pages about Altman and why he was so gifted and well thought of and everything. We didn’t plan who was going to say what. We both knew the text, and we just started talking, just like we did in the movie. We knew the stories and would just fill in whatever part was yet to be said. We were basically ad-libbing, because Jane actually wrote the thing that morning. And I was just trying to fax things back and forth to Meryl just so we were both together. We had no way to memorize it, and we didn’t want to anyway. We wanted it to be as free form as we could make it. And, Blase, maybe Meryl wasn’t as nervous as I was, but there’s nothing more embarrassing than being stupid on the Oscars. They make you pay for it forever.
So, let’s end with your trip to Houston in early October. What can we expect with “An Evening of Classic Lily”?
It’ll be really informal. I’ll do a dozen or so characters and talk about Houston and talk about Washington and just sort of fool around. Pretty off the cuff with the audience.
So it will be a really fun evening.
Yeah, but not just fun. That would be the first thing. It would be really informal and accessible, and then hopefully really funny and interesting.
I have to say that I just can’t imagine it being otherwise.
All right. [Chuckles]
I really can’t.
From your lips to the goddess’ ears.
Blase DiStefano interviewed David Pitts, author of Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings—The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, for our May issue.