Over the last four decades, Tony winner Betty Buckley has enjoyed a celebrated career as a Broadway showstopper, creating unforgettable performances in Sunset Boulevard, Cats, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and more. But the versatile, Texas-born performer has also made her mark onscreen, playing sweet stepmom Abby Bradford on Eight is Enough and troubled country singer Dixie in Horton Foote’s acclaimed 1983 film, Tender Mercies. During filming, Buckley and Foote became fast friends, and the actress soon became an honorary “extended family member.” Now, 30 years later, Buckley is playing well-to-do Texas socialite Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff in The Old Friends, a never-before-seen drama by the prolific late playwright, alongside Foote’s daughter Hallie, Lois Smith, Veanne Cox and more. Below, Buckley tells the story of The Old Friends’ posthumous world premiere, shares memories of working with Foote and discloses her feelings about being called a “diva.”
How did you first get involved with The Old Friends?
Michael Wilson is, I think, one of our great American directors, and I had worked with him in Camino Real at Hartford Stage. We became very close friends, and there was this play, The Old Friends. Years ago , when Horton was still living, we did a reading of it for Jim Houghton, artistic director at Signature Theatre Company. But Houghton decided not to pick it up. It’s darker, more complicated and very funny, and I think it surprises people in terms of their expectations of what they think a Horton Foote play is. Michael and I would talk from time to time and say, “We have to get The Old Friends on before Horton leaves us,” but it just never came together. It was odd, because I think this play is so wonderful and provocative—but things have their own time, and I guess its time is now!
How did the world premiere finally come about?
Earlier this summer, Michael called me and said Edward Albee had pulled his play in the summer slot at Signature and Houghton had asked Michael and Hallie to do The Old Friends. They said they wouldn’t do it without me, and I was so excited. I had a bunch of work booked for the summer but I put things aside and changed schedules so I could avail myself to do this. It’s such an amazing experience and a wonderful gift to be here.
Growing up in Fort Worth, did you know women like Gertrude?
Oh, yeah. My character is based on an amalgam of four or five different Texas ladies I observed growing up—some of my peers in high school, as well as ladies that I know currently. I wonder if any of them will come see it and recognize themselves! [Laughs.]
How does The Old Friends depict life in Texas?
It’s small-town Texas, and these people—or at least Gertrude—has a lot of money. It’s in 1965, but I think certain themes, the old relationships, the competition, longing for things you can’t have, alcoholism, addiction… It’s really about human longing.
Speaking of alcoholism, Gertrude is drunk for almost the entire show!
Well, I do have one scene of sobriety after being in bed sick for a week, but the rest of the time, poor old Gertrude is drunk, in her cups, most of the time. I followed a couple of drunk people on the street in the first weeks of rehearsal, just to remind myself of what some of that behavior is. I asked Michael for guidance to be sure I didn’t do it too over the top, to keep it within that pocket of naturalism.
A lot of the Old Friends cast knew Horton Foote—do you share memories together?
Oh yeah, I’m sharing a dressing room with Hallie Foote and Melle Powers—I’ve known Hallie for years and I love hearing her perspectives about her dad. When he wrote The Old Friends, he wrote it in a time in his life when, as Hallie puts it, he was banned from New York, and he moved his family to New Hampshire. He wrote this in response to people dismissing his work as too pastoral and only about small-town Texas. He’s one of our great American playwrights—we all have a bond of deep and profound love for Horton and a complete reverence for his work.
You met Horton Foote on the set of his film, Tender Mercies—what memories do you have of that time?
When I read the script, I was living in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, shooting Eight is Enough in the daytime and doing the L.A. company of Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road at night. And I read it and just wept, because it was the most beautiful script I’ve ever read. It was the kind of script I’d been longing to do all these years I’d studied acting in New York. It was an incredible gift from God. So meeting Horton Foote was just a dream come true.
What was the filming like?
We went to Waxahachie, TX, to shoot it, and my aunt was actually the dance teacher there, it’s about 40 miles from where I grew up. They invited me one Saturday afternoon to watch my dailies after I’d finished shooting, and I was just euphoric. I saw what we shot and I was like, oh my God, it’s taken all these years of studying, but finally, I’ve grown to become the actress that I’ve always wanted to be. It’s one of the greatest parts I’ve ever done, and this role in The Old Friends is certainly one of the greatest roles I’ve ever had the opportunity to play. It’s amazing, it’s a gift.
Your stage work outnumbers your screen work by far. Is this by design, did you choose stage roles over film roles?
I guess some actors can say they’ve designed their careers, but I am not one of those! [Laughs.] Things come when they come, and you’re happy to have the job. I’m very happy and blessed to have the eclectic career that I’ve had, and when I look back in retrospect I’m very delighted by it. I just want to do great projects with great people, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
Do you like seeing new revivals of musicals you’ve starred in, like Drood and Carrie?
Oh sure! I just saw Pippin and was absolutely thrilled by it. They changed the role of Catherine considerably, and I just love Rachel Bay Jones. I’m her fan, I think she was just brilliant in it!
You’ve been referred to as a diva—does this word bother you?
It’s a skill set, it’s not necessarily who I am. It’s what I do. Any time you play that kind of part as an actress, there’s a lot of projection that goes with the territory. People are like, "Well, if she can do that onstage, she must be like that all the time." People lack imagination. When I played a sweet, American stepmother on TV, everyone thought I was Abby Bradford. When I played a drunk country western singer, people thought I was a drunk country western singer [laughs]. When I played Norma Desmond, people thought I was a crazy, raging diva. I’m just a simple girl from Texas who loves horses and music. The rest is all projection and gossip.
See Buckley in The Old Friends at off-Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center.