Lesbian Powerhouse Amanda Bearse On Hollywood, Breaking Barriers and Putting on Her Party Face

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Amanda Bearse chats with AfterEllen about her new play “Party Face” starring Hayley Mills, and reflects on her ‘Married…With Children’ days.

Amanda Bearse

It’s a chilly 49 degrees in Manhattan when Amanda Bearse pops the door open to let us in from the cold, and right away I feel at home. She has a warm demeanorshe’s the kind of person you could just chat with for hours. And the play she’s directing, I’ll soon discover, has that same feel. Party Face is inviting, and the family dynamic is uncannily relatable. Academy Award winner Hayley Mills  brings a generous platter of classic charm to this savory soirée. The script is brilliant and funny, and the cast has great comedic timing. Toward the end, Party Face pulls at your heartstrings. Dare I admit, this tough New Yorker teared up (just a little bit).

There’s something about the mother/daughter relationship that’s so hard to confront, and even harder to capture. This group has done it well. Even through the nitpicking, we finally see the overbearing mother for the vulnerable person she is—just a peek—and we can’t help but love her. And we finally see the unconditional love the daughters have for their mother—just a glimpse—captured in one breathtaking moment on stage. The all-female cast is wonderful and hilarious! As I sit down to chat with Amanda Bearse in a quiet area of the theater before the show, I have no idea what I’m in for just yet. You’ll have to go and see for yourself! For now enjoy this fun conversation with Amanda, served best with a hot cup of tea.

AfterEllen.com: On the way down here, my I wife and I were recalling catching episodes of Married…with Children when we were kids. And the thing that stood out, is that the women were supposed to be the butt of the jokes—the popular female stereotypes of the time: the nag, the bimbo, the shrew— but in the end, it was really the women who stole the show.

Amanda Bearse: Thank you!

AE: In the 80’s and 90’s, there was so much rampant misogyny and homophobia on television (and there still is now)… What was it like, as a woman, as a lesbian, working in such a male-dominated field?

AB: Well it is a male-dominated industry, and hopefully that’s going to change. Little by little it has. Married…With Children afforded me my second career, for which I’m very grateful, because I went behind the camera on that show. And I was able to do that because we had this long run… and they’re only going to pay me so much money so they said, “Is there something else you’d like to do?” [and I said] “Well, frankly yeah.” And I grew up doing theater, and I love crew, and I always paid attention to, and made connection with crews, as much as I did with cast. And so, it was sort of a logical place for me to end up. So my acting career is actually quite short relative to my directing career. And at that time, there were only about a handful of us women doing multi-camera directing. So I feel pretty fortunate in this male-dominated (white especially…were not talking about people of color…women or men) industry. And fortunately, with our rights as gay people in this country, there has been progress. We still have miles to go before we sleep.

AE: So many miles!

AB: But the stories—and everybody has stories to tell—the stories of women and the things that they suffered, especially in Hollywood-land, are important stories to tell. And I’m a #metoo. Not nearly suffering as much as some. I was more familiar with just bullying. There are a lot of of bullies in Hollywood. And that’s actually probably the catalyst where I said, “You know what? I don’t want to do this full-time. I have a young child. I want to go and grow her and work part-time, because I’m done with this way of life and having to deal with these awful men”. But nevertheless, on Married…With Children—which was a horribly misogynistic, homophobic, anti-everything show—I was treated with a lot of respect from the producers, writers, the creators of the show. And also, they’re the ones—even though I negotiated to direct—that could say, ‘OK we’ll pay you the money, but we’re really not gonna let you do it’… But they did… And again and again and again and again… And so that’s why here I am, decades later, still behind the scenes.

AE: That’s amazing. My father-in-law loves to quote Al Bundy.  That’s actually where he borrowed the nickname he gave my wife: Pumpkin. He even says it in the Al Bundy voice.

AB: Well, and that was part of the success of the show, is that back in the mid-80s, the male demographic watched sports and news, very little in entertainment television. Now mind you, this was the world of three channels, plus PBS. But three major networks and they said there’d never be a fourth. And then along came what they called at first FBC—which is now FOX—and Married… With Children became the anchor of that network, and of course now the industry is digital. But before the digital age, the cable network universe came in to being. So it’s changed. I’ve been in television more than half the life of television, and it’s seen such a change in evolution, not always for the better. Sometimes simpler is better.

AE: I agree. In my house we watch a lot of older shows because there’s so much graphic violence now. If it’s TV-MA we avoid it.

AB: What do you watch?

AE: A lot of FRIENDS reruns. There’s always FRIENDS playing in the background at our house.

AB: Yes, it’s great. Because it’s smart.

AE: Yes. And the stuff that comes out now has so much violence against women. Now everything you put on starts with sex or rape. Nowadays, TV feels pornographic.

AB: A lot of it is. And you become anesthetized to that. But I love FRIENDS, and Marta Kauffman and I,  we were actually in school together in New York. And she was a year ahead of me at the Neighbor Playhouse—and David Crane, her writing partner—and they’re just so intelligent and the writing was so… not only was it funny, it was smart funny, which Married…With Children really wasn’t. It kind of had a lower bar than that demographic.  That doesn’t mean that smart people didn’t find it funny and enjoy the show. But… the Bundy family… we weren’t coming from a place of intellectual and deeper thought. And if anything Marcy—and Steve, my first husband more so than Jefferson—we really were aiming for that, or thought we were that… (laughs) and then we would just get lowered down to their level every single time.

AE: And now let’s talk about Party Face, your Off-Broadway debut. Congratulations!

AB: Thank you!  It’s so exciting. It’s very full circle for me to come back into the theater, where I came to New York to study, and then I went off on this television mostly—little bit of film—career. So this is just very joyful.

L to R: Standby, Alison Cimmet, cast members, Brenda Meaney, Gina Costigan, Klea Blackhurst, Hayley Mills, Allison Jean White and director Amanda Bearse. photo: Henry McGee

AE: And with Hayley Mills! Over Christmas I coincidentally watched The Parent Trap—The original. It’s one of my favorite classic movies. 

AB: I mean I love Parent Trap, but Summer Magic‘s my favorite Hayley Mills. Now Hayley Mills, seriously, I was eight years old and I had a her LP: Let’s Get Together. And way back then, that’s all you had. So you would see a movie in the theater and then some of them would make it on television years later. Some of them would maybe have an annual, or every two years you would see it again. But what you had was all that was available. And for me, it was that LP. And I would just stare at it, and flip it over and read everything I could, and just stare at it. And I told her this, and she was very kind about it.

AE: And now you’re working together. Life has so many interesting patterns. How did you all connect to do Party Face?

AB: Here’s the deal about that, seriously, and I had no idea this was going to circle around—that our work was going to intersect. Unbelievable! Because what she reflected for a young girl in the 1960s and 70s was a smart, precocious, sometimes tomboyish—There was nothing like that in media and very little in literature. But Hayley was this really unusual part of my childhood, that when it stopped—and I go into my own teens and, you know, start coming into my own self—you know, she was out of that consciousness. So the fact that we were able to, first of all, reach her with the script… that she responded to it the way we hoped she would, and then that she embraced it, and met us all on an even platform, to come together, to fully realize who these women are. These are five strong female characters, of a certain age, and of course she is the matriarch in the show. But she’s funny! She is just unbelievably funny. And she’s a dream. So not only did it turn out to be this kind of weird thing where “I used to just stare at you! Just stare at you, as a kid because of what you reflected back to me” as a precocious kid that I was, as a tomboy girl that I was, that it’s OK! That I’m not the only one!

AE: Speaking of tomboys, it’s 2018, and there’s still only ever been one “butch” lesbian actress to ever get cast as a main character on a mainstream television show. And she plays the butch prototype— a caricature, a punchline. Lea DeLaria.

AB: Oh, I know Lea.

AE: Small world! And she’s actually complained about that. Did you ever feel like you had to conform? I wonder what that’s like for lesbian actresses. I wonder if there will ever be a place for “butch” lesbian actresses… Or realistic depictions of lesbians—(as in not the whole femmes-only, sexually-flexible, male-fantasy “lesbian”). 

AB: I hope so! I hope so!  It really is in the writing. And it’s in the power. And getting that writing realized in a production way. But it’s happening. It’s not there yet. It’s inherent in the writing, and then the opportunities that need to happen—that need to be offered. And I’m hopeful. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. And sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back… I was not “out” for most of my acting career, so yes, I did have to conform as a young actress, because I wasn’t fully integrated (as a lesbian) in my career. I felt that I had to leave out a huge part of myself at work. Future representations of lesbians in entertainment is dependent on the writers out there working in the industry. All good work begins in the script, and if the writing isn’t there, and the development of these projects isn’t supported, then the public will not see it.

AE: Back when you “came out” publicly there were real consequences to coming out, and to this very day in 2018, I don’t think people really grasp that coming out still has consequences. I’ve personally lost jobs, in both New York and LA, when people I work for find out that I’m a lesbian. What kind of real impact did coming out have on your career?

AB: I had the support of my working family. I’d been living my life out loud privately. And so everybody knew I was gay at work. And then I had the support—and with that—of the producers, writers, studio, network. There weren’t any secrets about it. But when I made the choice, and that was around the birth of my daughter that I decided to tell my story my way. Because this is before social media, and so the tabloids press is what was out there to sort of bastardize a story—They’ll take a little bit of truth and then really fabricate it, slant it, and just skew the perspective on it. And the birth of my daughter was a very sacred time of my life, and experience, and I wasn’t going to let that be the only story out there. So that’s when I decided, at that point in time, to come out professionally and publicly.

I didn’t realize until I saw this epic E-True Hollywood Story on Married…With Children (that was like four hours long) that there was stuff raining down from above that they sheltered me from… meaning negative points of view. The studio and the network had my back, my producers really had my back. It was never indicated to me that there was a rumbling, or any kind of backlash.

Here’s the other thing, I had already focused my career behind the camera, so even though I was still on camera, and continued to be for some years while the show ran, I purposefully stopped acting after Married… With Children. I really wanted the powers that are in Hollywood to take me seriously as a director, and Hollywood is all about limitations: You do this, you don’t do that. We know you as that. You’re not that. So I shut that door completely. I also, by shutting that door completely, didn’t fully test the waters… Women are always looked down upon in a male-dominated industry. And that’s starting to shift, you know, it’s Women’s March and Power Puff Girls.

AE: How would you compare all of the experiences you’ve traveled through—From All My Children, to Married…With Children, to Party Face and everything in between?

AB: Yes. I started on that soap [All My Children]. That was my first job. This is a very different feeling, this type of work here in the theater—in the respect and mutual respect—than what I experienced in Hollywood. Married…With Children is not a show that would get on the air today—because it’s so universally offensive—although at the time (and it was about timing) people were ready for a voice that just laid it out there. There were two creators of Married…With Children, and one especially wrote a different voice than the other, and that’s who wrote a lot of Marcy’s voice, which is intelligent and sort of, believe it or not, initially, some normalcy to implant on the show. The show just got so crazy by the end of the run that we were all basically cartoon characters, just live action. We were the live-action Simpsons.

L to R: Cast members, Gina Costigan, Alison Cimmet, Brenda Meaney, Klea Blackhurst, Allison Jean White, producer Morgan Sills, producer Jan Warner, Hayley Mills, director Amanda Bearse, producer Robert Driemeyer. photo: Henry McGee

AE: You directed the awesomely funny Big Gay Sketch Show, with Rosie O’Donnell as the producer, and that show pretty much launched Kate McKinnon into lesbian stardom! Did you guys ever have lesbian dinner parties?

AB: I can’t say that we did! I didn’t live in NY. So I think if I’d had a home here that might’ve happened. I can’t say enough wonderful things about Kate, and she was still in college when we cast her in the show. I just feel like we were lucky enough to see a glimpse of what all is there, but it took another 10 years for her to end up on SNL and really blow up in the way that she’s done and deserves to be. She is incredibly talented, extremely bright. She’s gifted. She’s lovely. I can’t say enough good things about her and I told her that when I was working with her… And I would say “It’s just a privilege and I’m first in line in your fangirl forum”. And she has a lot of grace. We have a little email connection, but it’s been years since I’ve seen her.

AE: I think it’s time for that dinner party!

AB: It is! It is! And I want her to come to the play, because I think she’d really love it!

AE: I have to ask! What’s your sign?

AB: I’m a Leo, but I have a Gemini rising and Gemini moon. so my mercurial kind of crazy nature is really from the Gemini.

AE: Are you down to do a quick speed round?

AB: Sure!

AE: Cats or dogs?

AB: Dogs. But my wife has a very large cat. My daughter has two cats. And I have three dogs. So I’m surrounded by animals!

AE: Subaru or VW?

AB: Mini Cooper.

AE: Doc Martens or heels?

AB: Ha! What do you think?! Doc Martins are too heavy for me right now, so we’ll say Penny Loafers.

AE: NY or LA?

AB: New York. *said with a lot of certainty…My kinda gal.

AE: Tea or coffee?

AB: Coffee.

AE: Go out or stay in?

AB: Mostly in. Except in NY. It’s crazy here!

AE: FRIENDS or Seinfeld?

AB: FRIENDS.

AE: Vanilla or chocolate?

AB: Vanilla.

AE: Oprah or Ellen?

AB: Ahh…Oprah.

 

Ladies! If you want to go check out this show we have DISCOUNT tickets, just for you, our loyal AfterEllen readers! Click here for tickets: Party Face Discount Tickets

 

My wife and I, fangirl-ing with w/Amanda Bearse & Morgan Sills

جوليا ديانا —Julia Diana Robertson is an award-winning author and journalist. You can find her at www.juliadianarobertson.com 

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