At 62, Kathy Baker juggles a busy schedule on screens big and small, and stage. She plays part of a quartet in Joanna Murray-Smith's provocative comedy "The Gift" at the Geffen Playhouse, which opens Wednesday. Her upcoming films include "Saving Mr. Banks" and "Model Home."
"The Gift" is a play about two couples, and you play half of one of them as well as a kind of narrator. But this is a comedy, and you're not really known for that. Was comedy on your to-do list?
I love to do comedy, and I don't think of things as drama or comedy. I think that if it's a funny line, it's a funny line. If it's a funny moment, it's a funny moment. I try to give all my characters a sense of humor, so I guess I feel like I have done comedy, but maybe I'm better known for drama. I loved the funny moments in "Edward Scissorhands," and I did lots of comedies when I started out in the theater. Any challenge is on my list, of course.
What else intrigued you about this play? Did you see Joanna Murray-Smith's "The Female of the Species" at the Geffen in 2010?
I did not. I did not know Joanna Murray-Smith's work before, and when I read it, I thought it was so beautifully written, so smart. I was actually afraid of it. The part is so big, I never leave the stage. I talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and I was terrified of it. And then I read it again that weekend and I realized I was being kind of silly.
How did you get over your stage fright?
I guess just diving in and doing it, and my director, Maria Aitkin, is one of the best directors I've ever had. She gives me the confidence to fall off the building, and she'll catch me. And the cast as well — the four of us are quite bonded now.
You have tons of experience but do you find theater scarier than camera work, where you can always do another take?
I think it depends on the role, what's scarier, but I find this particularly scary because as I get older, I worry about my memory and my stamina. I worry about my creaky physicality. There are a couple of physical things we have to do in the play that I was worried about. It really depends on what's scarier — to walk on a set and know you have to hold your own against Tom Hanks, or if you're going to do an hour-and-a-half play in front of 500 people.
That's a nice problem to have, especially when you're an older woman in entertainment.
Exactly. Maybe we should say the scary thing is to not have those chances.
Other women in Hollywood have told me that the industry disappears for them at 40 until they can play older roles at 50, and yet you've been working all along. Do you feel that your film career is having a renaissance?
I've always believed that if you are willing to play your age that you will work, so it's the thing of continuing to play your age and accepting it when you're younger and you suddenly realize, oh, now I'm playing the mom, oh, I'm playing the grandma. Some parts are smaller.
Then it's a tactical decision for you not to have plastic surgery.
Oh, yeah. I'd like to be the only actress in America to not have plastic surgery. I worry about my face not having expression. I've never been known for glamour, so it's probably easier for me than it is for someone who has been known for her incredible beauty and glamour. I always wanted to be Geraldine Page, who was just a fabulous actress with just a nice, normal, expressive face.
Your big break was actually in the theater, when you originated the role of May in Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" in 1983. Soon after that, you took a 20-year break from the stage.
Yeah, I had kids. I found it easier to do film and television with kids. Also, you don't earn any money. I was supporting my family, and luckily I was able to keep working.
So what brought you back to the theater in 2006 when you joined the cast of Tracy Letts' "Man From Nebraska" at South Coast Rep?
That was just a great offer. Tracy Letts was so much on my mind with "August: Osage County." It was a Tracy Letts play, and it was Billy Friedkin directing. I always wanted to work at South Coast, so I wanted to see if I could still do it.
Is this your stage debut in Los Angeles then?
Boy, that never occurred to me. Get out! That's crazy. Now I'm even more nervous. Thanks.
I'm always impressed by older actors who memorize so much dialogue. Do you have any special techniques?
No, I was worried about that as I got older. My doctor told me that the ability to memorize is a different part of your brain than the ability to remember your friend's name when you see them on the street. But those other things.... I'm always saying to my husband, "Honey, will you hand me the thingy because I have to do the dealy-bob," but I somehow can remember lines.
So what's coming up for you? You mentioned Tom Hanks.
I have a small part in this film, "Saving Mr. Banks." Tiny, tiny part. I play a secretary. We were in San Francisco recently and there's a wonderful Walt Disney museum in the Presidio. We saw the exhibit about the "Mary Poppins" thing and how it took 30 years for Walt Disney to get [author] P.L. Travers to say yes [to the film]. That's what the story's about, how long it took Walt Disney [Hanks] to get P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to agree to give him the rights to the movie. She didn't want animation, she didn't want a musical.