What do Del Shores, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and a trailer park have in common? A masterful Texas tragedy
The first time Emerson Collins met Del Shores was opening night of the Dallas premiere of Shores’ play Southern Baptist Sissies. Collins played one of the leading roles, and Shores was in town for the opening. So impressed was Shores by the young actor that a week later he emailed him with this promise: If Collins ever moved to Los Angeles, he could perform in an upcoming L.A. production of Sissies. Collins was packed up and moved within weeks.
That was seven years ago, and much has happened in that time for both men. But no period has been more fruitful — or harried — than the last 18 months. In that time, Shores (as writer-director) and Collins (as actor and producer) have toured with Shores’ one-man show, produced several standup DVDs and prepped the Dallas debut of his newest play, Yellow, for early next year, which Shores will direct. All of this has brought the two Texas natives to Dallas numerous times.
But their biggest achievement — and what will bring them to Dallas again later this month — is the release of the film Blues for Willadean, which plays for a week at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas starting Oct. 26. (Shores, Collins and several others involved in the film will attend Q&A screenings on Friday and Saturday.)
Willadean is a battered woman living in isolation in a rundown trailer park somewhere in North Texas. The only contact she has with anyone other than her drunken, philandering husband J.D. (David Steen) is LaSonia, who shares her love of daytime talk shows. Willie tries to make a home out of her hovel, though J.D. forbids her from communicating with their gay son, whom he kicked out at age 16, or even getting a part-time job down at the Value Village. Willie — via Beth Grant’s heart-wrenching performance — engages in a nightly dance, trying to allay J.D.’s vitriol and his left jab while reciting silently to herself the mantra, “I will not shrivel up and die, I will not shrivel up and die.”
The screen adaptation of Shores’ play Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, it was filmed 18 months ago in Georgia in a frenzied two-week shoot that reunited most of the cast from the original Los Angeles stage production in 2003. And what a cast it is: In addition to character actresses Beth Grant (in the title role of an abused wife) and Dale Dickey (as slutty cocktail waitress Rayleen), it also stars this year’s Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as the sassy-talking neighbor LaSonia (pronounced, in true Shoresian style, “Lasagna”).
“It was challenging to make it in the time and budget we had,” Shores says. “We shot it in 15 days with two cameras on 16mm film — my first time as a director to use film. Emerson is the one who said we should shoot this kind of like a Cops episode. It feels almost too gritty. We scouted two or three trailer parks, and that was the most upscale! It was so sad. We didn’t have to do much set design with the exteriors. One had all these years of stickers with Republicans they’d voted for! How can they not see what they are doing to themselves?”
If getting the film made took serendipity, reassembling the cast — filled as it was with in-demand actors — took a miracle. For all of them, it was a labor of love. Shores has a way of generating such devotion. Grant, Spencer, Dickey and Collins join folks like Leslie Jordan, Tate Taylor, Caroline Rhea and Rosemary Alexander as a kind of unofficial production troupe — the Lord Chamberlain’s Merry Minstrels. And it’s a boon not lost on Shores himself.
“I love good actors. I always say, when an actor sings my song, I hear it,” he admits on the phone from his home in California. “And boy! Does Beth Grant sing my songs. These [my actors] are authentic Southerners — Beth’s from South Carolina, Leslie and Dale are from Tennessee … When I hear these words, they say them like I hear them.”
The result is perfect casting.
“When [Del] told me he wrote Rayleen for me, I didn’t know how to react,” Dickey laughs. “I did dress like a bad hippie girl, but that’s where the similarities stop … although I guess sometimes my stories seem about that tragic.”
Revisiting the role has been “familiar but also strange” for Dickey. “There are a lot of blessings about having done a run of these shows before this one. When the film came together, it happened so quickly, so having all of that history was great — it’s muscle memory. It’s amazing how much of it comes back to you.”
Getting Spencer to do the film was a gift as well. “She has already done The Help and we had very little money but she came and did nine days for us,” Shores gushes. “Then we rode along with Octavia all through that process. When she won the Oscar, it was thrilling to all of us.”
For Grant, the passage of several years helped her refine her performance.
“I think I was probably more willing to trust Del and go more to the victim than I was and to let my inside out,” Grant says. “I’ve only heard more stories [of abuse] and met more [battered] women in the interim. I’ve never been beaten by a man, but have had violence in my life.”
Shores based the story loosely on a true story from his life, but it is hardly unique. And that can make it especially hard to watch — even for the cast.
“They get desensitized,” Grant says of abused women. “The ‘victim’s mask’ is on their faces. It takes years if not forever to get that look to go away.”
Grant tears up, her voice cracking, as she recalls leaving the most recent screening of the film and passing by a Greyhound station.
“I saw a woman who was overweight, unattractive with a big black eye carrying a trashbag with all her stuff in it. I don’t know her story, but the way she looked at me, we both knew: She got punched and she was getting the hell out of North Hollywood. She had few prospects but she had to leave.”
Grant insists that, as much as she loved playing Willadean, she won’t be watching the film again anytime soon.
“It is much easier to play that role than to watch that movie. I can’t watch it anymore. I’ve said goodbye to her. I like to think she has a future, because I love her. That doesn’t mean that she shrivels up and dies. By the end, she’s found her spirit.”
Willadean is heavy stuff, especially for those who think Shores writes nothing but gut-busting farces like Sordid Lives and Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will? But even Sordid — and his other popular play, Southern Baptist Sissies — has a dark underbelly, especially in his critique of religious extremism, homophobia and the travails of the working class. Yes, there are many hilarious moments (“She is trash that will not burn,” Spencer clucks), but they punctuate an otherwise somber, observational drama about the 47 percenters.
And a lot of the authenticity Shores is able to create comes from his own background, growing up as the preacher’s son in rural Winters, Texas.
“I grew up with relatives who were Willadean and I didn’t want to lie,” Shores says. “I knew to get this movie made I needed to embrace what was already there.”
“Del has a unique voice,” says Grant. “I tell him, you’re just as much a preacher [as your father] — a different message, perhaps, but as strong as any fundamentalist minister.”
Shores is delighted to be preaching that sermon back in his second home of Dallas.
“We’re doing week-long engagements in cities where we have strong fanbases,” explains Collins, who produced Willadean.
“When everything went down with Sordid Lives: The Series and my finances were a shambles, my fans just rallied, and nobody tops it like Dallas,” Shores says. “The four shows I performed at the Rose Room are my first, second, third and fourth highest-grossing shows.” He plans to film another standup special here again next year.
Until then, though, Shores is focused not only on Willadean but in rebuilding his life after a messy divorce less than a year ago. That includes more touring, filming a “Playhouse 90-style” film of the play version of Southern Baptist (with Collins reprising the role he played in Dallas), readying to direct Yellow at the Kalita Humphreys in the spring and enjoying single life again. But if there’s anyone familiar with trials and tribulations and how to overcome them, it’s Del Shores.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 19, 2012.