It makes sense that an actress with a name like Holland Taylor would become an expert at playing witty, patrician women on stage and screen. An Emmy winner for The Practice and four time nominee for playing Charlie Sheen’s vain mom on Two and a Half Men, Taylor has also worked steadily on stage, including stepping into the infamous 1983 flop Moose Murders during previews. She’s now back on Broadway in much happier circumstances as the author and star of the solo play Ann, which opens on March 7 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Taylor has mastered a Texas twang as Ann Richards, the (very) plain-spoken politician who became governor of the Lone Star State in spite of her liberal Democratic views. The vivacious actress chatted with Broadway.com about her passion for Ann, her Broadway memories and why she will “always” adore Charlie Sheen.
Why was it important to you to tell the story of Ann Richards on stage?
I just felt completely compelled to do it. She was such an adored person because of her values, her depth, her character and her humor. The loss when she died was so affecting to me, something I simply couldn’t get over. [Creating a stage biography] was completely inappropriate in terms of the fact that I didn’t know her, but it was something I felt I had to do. There was never anyone more perfectly suited to the stage than Ann Richards!
The Vivian Beaumont Theater is a Texas-sized Broadway house. Is that intimidating?
We’ve always played big theaters because Ann is a big lady! In Chicago, we played the great Shubert, which is now called the Bank of America Theater. That’s about 2,000 seats, well over the size of the Beaumont. The centerpiece of the play is the governor’s office, and it’s a massive set. What excites me now [on Broadway] is doing it on a thrust stage because I’ve always been in a proscenium theater. Ann would wade into crowds, so she’s telling me, “Girl, you’ve gotta get out there.” [Laughs.]
Writing and performing Ann must have been a huge juggling act.
Last year was killer, playing four cities and rewriting between three of them. When you have to learn a script that is 32 single-spaced pages with maybe 150 changes in it, you really do want to set yourself on fire. But I’m fueled by the purpose of this project, because Ann Richards was truly a visionary.
What most surprised you about yourself during this process?
That I’m crazy! I’m being funny, but not entirely. As an actor, I’ve always been a hired gun, and I respond to beautifully written plays by people like Pete Gurney [The Cocktail Hour] and Simon Gray [Butley] and Jon Robin Baitz [Last Summer in the Hamptons]. Even on television in The Practice—and I learned a lot from Chuck Lorre on Two and a Half Men about how to slim down a script and make a joke work. I am a responsive, interpretive person, and fine writing is thrilling to me. Writing something myself from the ground up is not something I would think to do, but in this case, I had a persona to present, and I realized that I had picked up a lot about what works on stage through osmosis, just from years of doing it.
Let’s talk about your wig [designed by Paul Huntley]. Does it transport you into the character?
The wig is truly a breathtaking creation. Even on the head form in the dressing room, it’s Ann Richards [laughs]. It gives me terrific confidence, and so does the dialect. It’s one thing if you’re introducing a character from history, but she’s very well known, and people want to hear what they remember. “Shoot!” is not a word I used to say, but it’s in my vernacular now.
What are some of your favorite stage roles?
Oh goodness, it is so varied. Breakfast with Les and Bess [as a gossip columnist based on Dorothy Kilgallen] and Butley were very important for me. I was quite young when I did Butley [in 1972], and I learned a great deal from Alan Bates. Breakfast with Les and Bess was the first play I had carry, and in a curious way Moose Murders was also influential. I went on in the lead part in less than a week after Eve [Arden] left, and I made a pledge to myself: “I’m gonna rise above absolutely everything that happens. If I can’t change it or make it work, then I’m gonna just hold my head up and rise above it.” I should be saying that every day! [Laughs.]
Moose Murders just got revived, and the reviews weren’t much better than the first time around. What’s your go-to Moose Murders anecdote?
I’ve drawn a veil over much of it, but one thing that’s literally unforgettable is the night I said the play’s not-great blackout line and the lights did not go out. And the curtain didn’t come down.
So, the cast was just standing there?
Yes. Everybody started sneaking off the stage like rats. I put my arms out in that gesture to line up and bow and yelled, “Come back here!” Oh, it was unbelievable. Could anything worse happen? No. Not much.
You mentioned Two and a Half Men, which has been in the news the past few years for various weird reasons. What was your experience like on that set?
It was very low-key. We didn’t have long hours. We had run-throughs on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and we had to work very quickly, so everybody kept their nose down and did the work; we weren’t sitting around yakking that much. Charlie [Sheen] was always prepared, until those last few weeks when we were very worried for him because he was obviously going through a really sticky patch in his personal life. I’m not going to offer an opinion about it except to say that I think being a movie star as a very young guy, and the son of another movie star—I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But until then, it had been a set of normalcy and stability and concentrated, skilled work. You won’t find anybody more skilled than Charlie. He makes it look easy, and so does Jon [Cryer].
What about [screen grandson] Angus T. Jones?
Angus is a darling boy, and we were working with him when he was, what, six? He was like a little corn muffin, a little shrimp, a very bright kid. Charlie had a particular fondness for him and always paid attention to him, and Angus doted on Charlie. Angus has always been unusually polite—not artificially so, but genuinely so. He’ll ask you, “How was your summer?” and he really wants to know! He’s just a completely lovely young guy. What he’s going through now in his life I don’t know, because I was only on the show once this year. And Charlie is Charlie. I will always love Charlie. I will always care very deeply about him.
Well, it's great to have you back on Broadway, raising hell in Ann.
It’s a joy to perform because of the heat and the light coming from her. We keep the intermission short because I can’t wait to get back in the glow that is Ann Richards. I think, “Let me get back on stage in that light again.” And it’s all her.
See Holland Taylor in Ann at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.