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Sharon Gless on Ageism, TV Stardom and Finding Lust on the London Stage in A Round-Heeled Woman

Sharon Gless on Ageism, TV Stardom and Finding Lust on the London Stage in A Round-Heeled Woman
Sharon Gless in 'A Round-Heeled Woman'
I can’t tell you what a horrible thing ageism is for women in our country.

Sharon Gless has appeared three times on the West End but never before to the waves of empathy she is eliciting in A Round-Heeled Woman as Jane Juska, an American woman in her 60s who decides to kick-start her sex life via a personals ad in the New York Review of Books. Adapted and directed by Jane Prowse from Juska’s account of her erotic and emotional re-awakening, the show has transferred to the Aldwych Theatre through January 14, 2012, following an off-West End debut production at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. spoke to the friendly 68-year-old Emmy and Golden Globe winner one recent lunchtime, just days after Gless and her Cagney & Lacey co-star Tyne Daly had packed the British Film Institute in London for a 30th anniversary celebration of their era-defining TV cop show.

A Round-Heeled Woman marks your third London stage appearance. That’s quite a lot for any American performer, much less someone who only began acting onstage in your mid-40s.
I’ve been very fortunate that when they started invited Americans to be on the London stage, I was one of the first [as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery]. I came back four years later and did eight months [in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, opposite Tom Conti]. We had no idea with this play that it would get to the West End but the [initial] reviews were so generous that the Aldwych invited us into town. We made the move in, like, two days, so people don’t know we’re here yet. That’s the downside of moving that quickly—they need to find out we’re here.

It’s fascinating that you have played London so often but not Broadway.
That’s just the way it has panned out. I’ve never been invited to work in New York. But the Mecca of all theater is the West End, so I’m not really complaining. People have said I should take this one to New York, but that’s not my job. I don’t know how to move things around.

Did you pursue this story? You seem so at home with the material
I pursued it as a TV series, which is what we originally thought it would be. We took the project to Showtime, where I had done Queer As Folk for five years, but the response was the usual: “Older woman having sex? Eww!!” [Laughs.] Happily, people don’t think that way here, where you have Judi Dench, Julie Walters, Brenda Blethyn, Joan Plowright, Helen Mirren—all these wonderful older actresses who are still highly sexualized. In America, ageism is a huge problem.

You can feel the audience connecting with the show on a very immediate level.
I think the Brits really get it. They’ve got a great act going of being conservative…

…but it’s just an act, trust me.
I know; this place is fun! But I can’t tell you what a horrible thing ageism is for women in our country. All the big motion picture stars can’t get jobs except for Meryl Streep, so they are flying to a medium they wouldn’t touch, TV. And the fact that I can still do that, and am starting my sixth year in April on the highest-rated cable show in the nation [Burn Notice], fills me with gratitude every single day. Believe me, I don’t let it go unnoticed.

A Round-Heeled Woman begins with Jane Juska specifically craving sex only to have her quest deepen considerably from there.
Yes! It’s not just about sex, although sex is initially the reason that she takes out her ad. What happens is that Jane is forced to face other demons that come with trying to find intimacy with men and with being haunted by her father, her son, her husband— all the men who’ve turned on her.

How directly do you connect to Jane’s story, given that you have been married for 20 years to [Cagney & Lacey executive producer] Barney Rosenzweig?
I totally am drawn to Jane’s courage; never once did she say, “I’m stopping,” even though some of what she went through was very heartbreaking for her. She had a dream, and once she committed to it, she didn’t give up. That’s sort of the way I am about this play! [Laughs.]

It’s worth noting that Jane doesn’t go the dating route of the internet or social media.
Everyone does the internet, and that isn’t who Jane is. She doesn’t want trash; she wants to attract an intellectual and ends up getting 63 responses—though obviously she didn’t sleep with all of them! Jane’s in London now; we just had breakfast together and are doing a Q&A after a matinee; she’s a delight!

The play has a cast of six, but I wonder whether there was ever any thought of it being a one-person show, enabling you to take it anywhere in the world.
First of all, my ego is not that big, and I didn’t want to do imitations of all the men and women that Jane encounters. Also, I really love working with actors; no one’s ever happier than I am to see my co-stars come on stage.

What made you turn to the theater to begin with, given the success you were enjoying on TV?
Immediately after Cagney & Lacey, I got a call from Elaine Stritch to come and play her kid in a money-raising production of Watch On the Rhine for StageWest Theatre in Massachusetts. I said, “I don’t know theater,” and she said, “I’ll teach you theater.” And I thought, “Who better than Elaine Stritch?” [Laughs.] I love the theater if I love the project, but I don’t want to do theater just for the sake of doing it.

How extraordinary that you finish within a week or so of Tyne Daly starting performances minutes away as Maria Callas in Master Class [at the Vaudeville Theatre].
I’ve seen [Master Class] twice; you’re in for a treat! I’ve never missed anything Tyne has done on stage since I’ve known her. I saw Gypsy four times. One night, she said, “Come with me,” and took me out on the stage of the theater in New York. I looked out [at the house] and said, “Oh my god, doesn’t this scare the shit out of you?” And she said in the most delightful yell, “Yes!” [Laughs.] We’ve been asked several times to do a play together. There’s another play by Terrence McNally that she is interested in me doing with her, A Perfect Ganesh.

What’s next for A Round-Heeled Woman? Any talk of a film?
Liv Ullmann came to see it and whispered in my ear, “This is a little picture.” We know that, too, but we want first to get it going as a play, which is why we’ve so far done San Francisco, Miami, and now here. I believe [producer] Brian [Eastman] could tour with this piece the way they’ve done with The Vagina Monologues.

The thing about a film, though, is that Jane’s various sexual encounters would exist in close-up.
And there would be more nudity. All I’ve said on that front is that I won’t stand up. I may do something [naked] lying down, but gravity is not my friend!

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