I feel like I've lived more than three lives!
The “collected stories” of Linda Lavin would be a heck of a lot juicier than anything her character in Donald Margulies’ play of the same name could dream up. Lavin arrived in New York in 1960 and quickly caught the eye of director Harold Prince, which led to a scene-stealing turn in the musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. Eventually she won a Tony (for Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound) plus three other nominations (so far) and two Golden Globes for the beloved sitcom Alice. Her romantic life has been tumultuous, with two divorces (from actors Ron Leibman and Kip Niven, who unsuccessfully sued her), but in fairy-tale style, Lavin is living happily ever after with a much younger man, Steve Bakunas, an actor/director/artist/designer/drummer who swept her off her feet and married her five years ago. They’ve got a great life in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they run a theater company together, and Lavin can pick and choose parts in New York. No wonder she sounds joyful during a telephone chat about Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway premiere of Collected Stories, in which she's won raves as short story writer Ruth Steiner opposite Sarah Paulson as an ambitious protegee. To quote one of her favorite characters, everything really is coming up roses for Linda Lavin.
You’ve starred in Collected Stories four times in the past 10 years [at L.A.’s Geffen Theatre, in a PBS film version, at Lavin’s Red Barn Theater in North Carolina and on Broadway]. What’s that like?
It’s as if you’re a violinist revisiting a piece of music you’ve played for 20 years. Each time you work with a new director or in a new venue, it will awaken in you a part of yourself that you didn’t know a couple of years before. My personal and spiritual and emotional and intellectual growth play a part in understanding the character.
What do you identify with in Ruth Steiner, the writer you’re playing?
Many things. Her passion for her work—I have that. I love what she says about everything [in art] having to have a reason, and how important it is not to deny your creative impulses out of fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or of not being good enough. My life is much richer than hers—I’m not isolated; she is. I’m not alone; she is. And so my compassion for her is one of the things I treasure. Donald Margulies’ writing is truly amazing in that his characters always say what you hope they’ll say. He’s an amazing writer in terms of how he searches for the truth.
What’s it been like to do such an intimate play with three different co-stars?
Very, very interesting. First I did it with Samantha Mathis, who was wonderful. In Wilmington, Isabel Heblich, a dazzling actress, was 21 when she did it with me four years ago. We also did Doubt together. I brought her up to New York to audition [for the Broadway production], but they wanted someone with more of a name, and they were right. I’m thrilled to be working with Sarah Paulson, a dynamic, brilliant young woman and a passionate and highly intelligent actress. We’ve connected on a personal level of caring and understanding that’s very rare. I could not do this performance without her.
It sounds like you’re happy to be back in New York.
Oh my god, yes, and this is my happiest time of the year. I’m out walking right now. When [director] Lynne [Meadow] asked me to come and do the play, I said, “Only in the spring.”
Do you enjoy theater awards season?
I love awards season! It’s like prom season. I was here two years ago with the Paul Rudnick play [The New Century, for which Lavin won a Drama Desk Award]. I love being able to see everybody and have lunches and dinners and cocktail hours and celebrations. I bought a bunch of clothes, and I’m going to everything.
You arrived in New York exactly 50 years ago…
Oy! Wow, that’s exactly right. Thanks for reminding me [laughs]. I graduated from the College of William and Mary [in 1959] and went to Boston to work at the Charles Street Playhouse. Then I came to New York with Olympia Dukakis; we were roommates for my first six months. I worked at Bloomingdale’s in the handkerchief department and did office temp work; I started auditioning and doing revues and nightclub acts in the Village—all the clubs had the name “Downstairs” in them. Yeah, 50 years ago. It shocks me. I still think I’m 35, but that can’t be, can it? What happened?
How has the Broadway scene changed?
There are more plays now than five or 10 years ago, but when I first got here, there were many more opportunities to audition for plays and musicals. I tell you, I would not want to be starting out now. I was really lucky to come at a time when you could audition for off-Broadway and Broadway choruses, summer stock and theaters outside of New York. But this season seems to be very vital and alive. I still feel young and vital!
Do you feel as if you’ve led three lives?
I feel like I’ve led more than three lives, kid! [Laughs.] Absolutely! When I walk up Columbus Avenue, my old stomping ground, or talk about my past, it’s like I’m just starting out—or in the middle, leaving New York in the ’70s when it was so frightening and bleak and finding a life and career [in Los Angeles]. I had no idea that was going to happen. Friends and relationships and marriages and children… then I moved to a town [Wilmington] where I knew no one and started over and met the love of my life [Steve Bakunas]. And now we own our own theater in a vital arts community.
How did you meet your husband?
I had been in Wilmington for five years and had restored three houses in the historic district and one at the beach. Steve moved there five years after I did, and a mutual friend thought he could do some work with a foundation I started for inner-city girls. We traded messages several times, then I went to an opening of a theater and he was seated right in front of me. He turned around, and the moment I saw his gorgeous face I thought, “I’m so glad I had my hair done today.” [Laughs.] He’s very handsome and very, very talented. He’s painting up storm here in the city; he’s an actor and a director and a builder. He’s rebuilt seven houses in the neighborhood we’ve restored.
How did you fall in love?
We met on a Thursday night, November 17, had coffee the following Sunday night, and we’ve never been apart since. He came for Thanksgiving and washed all the dishes and asked all the right questions. Then I did The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife [in 2000], and he came to New York with me and we’ve been developing a life together ever since. Magic!
You’d been through some not-so-great romantic entanglements…
That’s a very good way to put it! [Laughs.] I had just come out of a 10-year period after my second divorce, and I didn’t think I would ever get married again. Steve and I were together for five years, and he suddenly showed up in Chicago, where I was doing an Arthur Miller play, with a ring and a proposal. Nobody was more shocked than I! I just sat there crying and said, “I know what I want to wear.” I was thinking four-inch heels and a suit. And he said, “You have to answer the question first.” He comes from a big, wonderful family, and he’s been a wonderful husband and friend.
Running a theater together sounds like so much fun.
It’s like a mom-and-pop business, but it’s a theater, not a grocery store. We’ve done nine plays, and we’re starting our fourth season in the fall. We just got the rights to do God of Carnage, and we’re doing Allergist’s Wife with me as the old lady, the part Shirl Bernheim played in New York. We have 2,500 people in our data base and only 50 seats, so there’s a huge audience desire. I act in some, direct some; Steve designs and builds all the sets and he directs and acts in them too. It’s totally self-supporting. I wanted to be in a community that could use the services I could provide, and we’ve found that in Wilmington.
You’re also playing Jennifer Lopez’s grandmother in the new movie The Back-Up Plan. What was she like?
Very nice, and she’s so beautiful. Oh my god, you just can’t believe it. That skin! You just want to lick her. She’s just edible, delicious. Her husband, Marc Anthony, is darling, and she has these adorable babies. Everybody in the movie was wonderful. It was a great experience. I’ve never been able to say that I’m opening in a movie and a Broadway show in the same week!
Your life sounds like such a lovely contrast to your role in Collected Stories.
I’ve never been more willing to be happy, I’m not struggling anymore, the way I was when I was young, and I’m not looking for the next opportunity. I’m riding on the opportunities. I have an amazing grace about my life. I’m very, very fortunate.
See Linda Lavin in Collected Stories at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.