Olympia Dukakis | Interview
Art and politics go hand in hand for actor Dukakis.
Stage and screen personality Olympia Dukakis is a rare breed: an American actor who got famous after 50. Although she became ubiquitous in the late 1980s, appearing in the films Moonstruck, Working Girl and Steel Magnolias, her lifetime passion for the theater keeps her in the business even at age 76 (a number she’s unafraid to disclose).
This week Dukakis comes to Chicago to direct her pal Carmen Roman (of the American Theater Company ensemble) in Botanic Garden. We asked New York–based, politically active Dukakis why it’s important for actors to direct, and why it’s important (to her) for Hillary to win.
Time Out Chicago Your Moonstruck Oscar in 1988 came at the same time you were campaigning for your cousin, Michael Dukakis, against George Bush Sr. Does the political moment we’re in right now—coming out of a two-term Republican incumbency—feel similar?
Olympia Dukakis Oh, no. I think things are much more desperate now. Although at least the idea of dialogue is beginning to sound like it’s not antipatriot.
Time Out Chicago You said recently in an interview on NPR you were leaning toward Hillary. Are you still feeling that?
Olympia Dukakis I am. I’ve had discussions with people in Chicago who have a predisposition towards Obama. It’s a really interesting discussion.
Time Out Chicago Do you think you’re predisposed to Hillary because you’re a New Yorker?
Olympia Dukakis No, I’ve known Hillary for many, many years. I’ve introduced her over the years at events, so I’ve listened to her talk extemporaneously. Apart from being incredibly capable and smart, and erudite and informed, I’ve heard the depth of her caring. That has meant a great deal to me. That, plus since she’s been in the Senate, I think she’s really gotten to understand the idea of coalition and collaboration, figuring out how to do things and work with people who have very divergent views.
Time Out Chicago How do you rationalize that she voted for the war?
Olympia Dukakis When the [Senate vote happened], I was someone who believed that we were in such danger. I bought into what they told me, too. I think there were many of us who found it hard to believe our government would not be straightforward about it. So I don’t fault her anymore than I fault myself for believing what came out of Washington. Do I think she wants war? Absolutely not.
Time Out Chicago You have a distinctive name that indicates your heritage. Did anyone ever ask you to change it for Hollywood?
Olympia Dukakis Do you know how many Greeks are keeping their names? Sure, my agent asked me to change my name because I couldn’t get auditions because they would say, “She’s ethnic.” Forget the possibility I could play someone named Mary Williams. So it’s been a real problem.
Time Out Chicago Which you overcame.
Olympia Dukakis Not necessarily. Take a look at these women working today, you’ll see very few people with ethnic backgrounds. They’re all Northern Europeans or Australians, mostly coming from British and Irish backgrounds.
Time Out Chicago You also didn’t change your name when you got married.
Olympia Dukakis Why should I? I worked with it. That was mine. I’m not giving it away.
Time Out Chicago How do you know Carmen Roman?
Olympia Dukakis We met here in New York. We’ve been part of an actor discussion group for over a year now. There are between ten and 20 of us that show up once a month and talk. It’s expanded and we’ve been talking to playwrights.
Time Out Chicago What discussions are you having?
Olympia Dukakis It’s about the movement that’s come out of the last three years where the [stage] director has taken so much prominence. If you look at movies, you’ll see. It’s “a Coen brothers production.” That’s been in film since the ’60s when this auteur theory came in and directors started to write their own movies. They wrote and directed and participated in producing. The actor is being trained to serve the director’s vision, not as a collaborator, but as a laborer. In California, they refer to the actors as the talent, which is the same thing as referring to the props or the set pieces. And that kind of thinking has moved into the theater.
Time Out Chicago Why is auteurism a problem?
Olympia Dukakis Because when the shows open, it’s the actors that come every night and make the play. In order to do that, there needs to be a real feeling of collaboration. So it’s kind of a tricky situation here.
Time Out Chicago Can you give me an example?
Olympia Dukakis The last play I did I was told not to talk to the playwright. We could only talk to the playwright through the director. The playwright couldn’t talk to us. The people in charge are pretty much the people who are in charge.
Dukakis takes charge of Botanic Garden at Victory Gardens Greenhouse.