Tyne Daly’s transformation into grande dame opera star Maria Callas begins at her dressing table at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Guided by an ultra-detailed blueprint from makeup designer Angelina Avallone, the famously press-shy Master Class star has invited Broadway.com for a backstage chat while she brushes on thick black brows and cat-eye shadow, shades her jawline and lines her lips. By the time she takes the stage, this no-nonsense Tony winner (for Gypsy) and six-time Emmy winner (for Cagney & Lacey, Judging Amy and Christy) is every inch the glamorous diva. While applying “the paint,” as she calls it, Daly shared her take on the heroine of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play and reflected on her five-decade stage and screen career.
Your transformation into Maria Callas is so striking—and you’re doing it all yourself!
You mean the paint? It’s character makeup because my face and Ms. Callas’ face don’t have a lot in common except dark eyes. She had very large, exaggerated, lupine features, and I have little blobby Irish features. We make the nose more important and emphasize the eyes and the mouth. It’s a look from the '70s, so it’s interesting to play with.
What’s fun about playing a diva? Everyone thinks of you as so down-to-earth.
My joke is that the preparation for playing a diva is just hellish because you have to pay a lot of attention to yourself: You have to get massages; you have to get a lot of rest and go away to spas. It’s going to a place that’s outside my comfort zone as an actor. I never played the “decoration,” I always played the one who suffered. And then I got very lucky in my middle career, when I started playing the hero, which at that point was quite rare for women.
What did you think when Terrence McNally asked you to do this?
I thought he was nuts. I don’t think of myself as ideal casting for a very glamorous person—but glamour is only part of who Callas was, and this isn’t a documentary. Some of it is about representing a woman who actually existed, and some of it is about using that woman to stand in for artists and what they do. She was a very accomplished musician, one of those voices that when you hear it, you know it’s Callas. [McNally] saw something that he thought I could bring.
What do you admire about Maria Callas as a person?
She had the talent to back up her ambition. She saw what was necessary to make a career for herself in the opera world. In many ways, her exterior personality was an image and a construct, but she really did deliver the goods in the roles she played. She became a celebrity long after she had proven her worth as an artist. It’s hard to say “artist” in this day and age—people think it’s pretentious—but the skill sets required of opera singers are just extraordinary. They have to speak all sorts of languages, including music, and really know that music if they’re going to approach it with seriousness.
What do you have in common with Callas? People think of you as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
That’s the roles I play. I know a lot of fools, and I love them [laughs]. Heck, I’m an actor. I know a lot of clowns, which is wonderful. What do I have in common with her? Some things, I’m sure. But I made a marriage of more than 25 years [to actor Georg Stanford Brown]. I have three children. She never had any children, and she was a nun to her career. And, again, she lived a very glamorous life. I’ve led a life that’s avoided that as much as possible. We had publicists in L.A. whose job was to keep us out of the papers.
You do have a reputation of avoiding the press.
I’m pretty old school about that. I wish it was possible to do the work and not have to talk about it, but it is traditional in the theater to go into the village square and bang the drum and say, “Come see this show, come see this show.” This is the 21st-century version of that. I wasn’t very good at it in the 20th century, much less the 21st. I don’t think I belong here in terms of my sensibility. I’m much more fascinated by the work of a century ago. But this play comes out of a wonderful American playwright, and I’m very happy to be celebrating his work.
Does the role of Callas remind you of [Gypsy’s] Mama Rose in its demands?
It’s a mountain, that’s for sure. And you spend a lot of time on the stage with the story being driven or reflected by your character. Gypsy is an old-fashioned musical with 11 numbers, and seven of those belong to the character of Rose. This play is constructed in many ways like an opera: It has a recitative, it has arias, it has trios and different rhythms. There’s also music in it. Happily for the American public, I don’t have to sing any opera, but there are three wonderful singers who sing at least two complete arias, and cabaletta and cavatina, all those terms I’ve learned. Don’t I sound fancy? [Laughs.]
Arthur Laurents [who died in May at 93] directed you in Gypsy. What are your memories of him?
Arthur was a taskmaster. He was a very smart man. He was a difficult man. He was old school—tear down and then build up—and he put me through all of that, but he also taught me. When he gave me an offer to do the play, my first thought was, “OK, Arthur and [composer] Jule Styne and [lyricist] Sondheim, lock me in a room and tell me everything you know.” After a while [in show business], all you want to do is be around people who are smarter than you and know more than you. As you get older, that becomes harder to find, but when you have an opportunity to work with someone who has so much experience, it’s thrilling.
You’ve been in Actors’ Equity for 50 years. Did you feel at home on the stage right away?
Well, I went into the family business, in a way. I observed my parents [James Daly and Hope Newell] on the stage when I was a little girl, and I thought it was fantastically interesting. There was this wonderful trick of going to the theater with my parents and sitting in the audience under the watchful eye of an usher, and then these other people would come on the stage: They spoke differently and had different clothes and hair. Afterward, they would come back and they were my parents again. It was magic. From the time I was eight years old, I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Your brother [Tim Daly] and daughter [Kathryne Dora Brown] are also actors. It must be satisfying to know that three generations have gone into the family business.
It’s funny. About two years ago, I took my granddaughter to Japan during a break in her sophomore year of high school. She’s an artist, and she was interested in that scene coming out of the east. We met potters and kimono makers and woodworkers, and they said, “I am a kimono maker and my father was a kimono maker and his father was a kimono maker.” I look at these older cultures and say, “I don’t think I’m going to have to apologize anymore for going into the family business.” There’s a tacit [assumption] in the theater business, at least in this country, “Oh, your dad got you in.” And that’s not completely false: I did have advantages over people who had never been involved in the business in terms of introductions and knowing how to get an agent. But after that, you have to deliver.
You earned the six Emmys yourself.
Do you mind being asked about Cagney & Lacey?
Oh no, not at all. By the time I got that show, I had worked in the theater and television for a long, long time, and Cagney & Lacey made me famous. I’d be an ingrate if I denied Cagney & Lacey. And Christy, which was a source of one of those other Emmys, was a fascinating project. We were on location for a year in Tennessee.
Would you like to do another musical?
I’m actually about to do a new musical, It Should Have Been You, beginning two days after I finish this play. It’s about a wedding. David Hargrove wrote the book and the music. It’s being directed by David Hyde Pierce, and we’ll do it at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick [New Jersey], a place that produced a lot of Arthur Laurents’ shows. I’d like to do Dear World. I’d like to see what happens with a musical version of The Visit. In terms of living in New York, musicals are the form I fell in love with, and I’d love to do another one.
See Tyne Daly in Master Class at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.