Emmy-winning actress Holland Taylor came out at 72, just as her career was at its peak. A look ahead for the woman who became Ann Richards
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
The last few years have been a whirlwind of attention and acclaim for Holland Taylor — not so unusual for a starlet on the rise, but when you’re a woman “of a certain age” (she recently turned 73), it’s something of a watershed.
Taylor is best known to contemporary audiences for her withering role as America’s least empathetic mom Evelyn Harper, which she played to arch perfection on 12 seasons of Two and a Half Men. Even before that show ended, she was already taking New York by storm in Ann, her one-woman show (which she also wrote) about the late firebrand Texas governor Ann Richards, which netted her a Tony Award nomination in 2013. And she made news again just last fall, when she came out as gay and revealed, initially, only that she was dating a much younger woman. Her paramour turned out to be TV star Sarah Paulson (The People vs. O.J. Simpson), making Taylor one of the most envied lesbians in America. (She politely declined to discuss her relationship with Paulson.)
But she’s not done with Richards quite yet. She’s playing the role again, appearing at the Zach Theatre in Austin through May 15. So what keeps bringing her back to the role as Texas’ most notoriously colorful liberal politician … or think she could do it in the first place?
“Right away, I knew I was in the ballpark physically to have a shot at seeming like her, and, of course, I knew that was essential,” Taylor says. “When I realized it should be a play, because of her aliveness and her potency as a person interacting with the public, I was off and running. I have seen a thousand plays and been in a hundred. I know what works and what doesn’t. I determined that I had to do the research myself anyway, so why not write it myself? I still marvel at my nerve, but I never felt cocky about it — on the contrary, I always felt like a vessel. I would bring the good news. I would serve at the pleasure of the governor.”
Feeling the draw to do the show was one thing; having her general appearance was a bonus. But embodying a character as singular as the great icon of Texas politics — herself a giant in a state known for its outrageous characters? That was something else altogether.
“I had to mash myself all out of shape quite a bit over the years [to get the character down, including] my face,” Taylor says. “I had no feel for the central Texas twang of hers, no feel for any Texas sound, and I’m not a good mimic, particularly. So the dialect was very daunting to learn, and my face and mouth had to work in ways they never had. Sometimes it was hard to get my face in line with the sounds I needed to make with ease, and rapidly.”
She’s had quite a while to perfect it. Ann got its first public performance in Galveston’s historic opera house (“one of the loveliest theatres it has ever been my pleasure to play,” Taylor gushes) almost six years ago, and she’s taken it to other
Texas cities as well, before moving to Broadway (where she received a Tony nomination as best actress in a play).
“My first run of the play, when it was called Money, Marbles, and Chalk, was in Galveston. We had an invitation for it all to begin there from its prescient director, Maureen Patton. As intimidating as the prospect was, we figured we would learn the most from Texas.”
That was May of 2010, and audiences loved it; it was “received just as warmly that winter” in San Antonio, and then moved on to Austin the following spring. And she admits: Playing it in Richards’ old stompin’ grounds, where it opened again this week for a six-week run, can be the most exhilarating … and worrisome.
“There are people [in the audience] who actually knew her!” she gasps. “[The first time I was in Austin with it], I was not terrified, but very keyed-up. Austin surely would be the most exacting audience, but also, as it turned out, the most wildly enthusiastic. Our run at the Paramount was gangbusters, sold out totally and riotously fun to do. But I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to get it right. It seemed everyone in the house either worked for her, was a good friend, was an absolutely loving fan or was a member of her family. I wanted to please them very much.”
After delighting audiences as far back as TV’s Bosom Buddies, and through her role as a cougar-ish judge of The Practice (which won her an Emmy), Ann might be a capstone for her career.
“’Capstone’ is the right word for it,” she says. “Some reviewer said it was the ‘performance of a lifetime.’ I find it very satisfying to hear those words. It gives me a sense of accomplishment that almost brings tears to my eyes. I think I feel that way, because I could just as easily be at my age — with the career I’ve had thus far [not including Ann] and generally people would assume I was content, and certainly fortunate considering how dicey it is to have a life-long career in show business. I have been lucky. But the arrival of the vision and the drive to create this work, has given me the chance to give my all, to knock myself out in a sense, to expend a vast amount of my time, my heart, my mental capacity, my gifts, my resources, and my just plain physical strength to make something … something of value. Something that exists in people’s memories, something that stands free of me. I guess that’s as close to giving birth as I got, and I’m blessed in that achievement. An achievement made with the help of many — so I have new friends and associates in my life, permanently, who have made everything so much richer.”
With such a high point professionally does she feel — at 73 — she has more to give?
“We must all believe that of ourselves, dontcha think?” she winks.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2016.