Kenneth Lonergan on The Genius of Elaine May

Elaine May in ‘The Waverly Gallery’ | photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Elaine May doesn’t do press, especially interviews. In fact, she hasn’t given an extended solo interview since a Life magazine profile in 1967, shortly before the release of Luv, a Clive Donner film she starred in with Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk. Which means that, for the entirety of her brilliant directorial career (1971-1987) and, nearly all of her sporadic career as an actress (1967-present), May hasn’t been on the record about, well, pretty much anything. Still, like any good outlet, we tried. We are devoting an entire issue to her after all—and on the off chance that she decided to grant her first extended interview in 52 years to a small online film journal on the occasion of their 75th issue, it seemed worth trying.

It didn’t work, of course, but since we never really thought it would, we figured we’d chase down the next best thing as well—someone who worked with her recently, knew her socially prior to that, and deeply appreciated her artistry. Kenneth Lonergan, one of the finest American playwrights and directors of this generation, worked with Elaine May last year on a Broadway revival of his 2001 play, The Waverly Gallery. The revival, which ran for 109 performances at the very same theater where Nichols and May performed to packed houses nearly 60 years ago, was an astounding success, and ultimately earned May a Tony award for Best Actress earlier this year at the age of 86. 

When we reached out to Mr. Lonergan, he was happy to make some time to discuss Elaine May, her career as a director, collaborating with her on The Waverly Gallery, and the advice and support she gave him while he was working on his (still vastly underseen!) masterpiece, Margaret

How did you first come across Elaine May?

I actually came across her before I realized who she was. When I was a kid, she and Mike Nichols did these television commercials, little cartoons with their voices. So I’d grown up with her without really realizing it. And then when I was in high school, Matthew Broderick’s mother introduced me to her comedy albums; the first one I heard was Examine Doctors, which is just really great. I used to watch a lot of movies with Patsy and Matthew at their apartment and we re-watched The Heartbreak Kid and then I saw A New Leaf, and she just became part of my mental landscape from that point on.

And did you like The Heartbreak Kid immediately, or was it something that grew on you as you grew older?

I loved The Heartbreak Kid right away, but I’ve seen it many times, and it’s one of those movies that just keeps getting better and better the more you watch it. I guess I didn’t quite appreciate how masterful it was at first, and then the more you watch it the more you realize how remarkable it is—I really don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. I don’t know anything else that’s quite as horrible and quite as funny all at the same time. The scene where he breaks up with his wife, there’s nothing like it—emotionally devastating and incredibly funny simultaneously, without easing up on either end. It’s horrible horrible horrible, but it’s really funny. And it’s completely real also, it’s just incredible. I’m sure they rehearsed it but she really uses this remarkable combination of structured improvisations, she puts everything in place and then allows everything to happen. I assume it was all scripted but—

Yeah, that’s actually the only one of her films that she didn’t write—

She didn’t write it, but I know she did a lot on it. I mean, I’m a big Neil Simon fan but he never did anything like that. When he gets serious he tends to become a bit saccharine. I think his real greatness comes through his sense of humor, while she attains greatness through her sense of humor and what she sees as more serious business. I think she blends them really well. As far as I know though, it wasn’t a very happy collaboration.

No, not at all! They battled quite a bit.

And I think she ended up being right, of course. He didn’t like the darkness she brought to the material and I think she didn’t want it to be quite as Neil Simon-y.

She really draws out silences at certain points, as well as framing things in a way that reshapes some of the lines. She does a lot to make it not a Neil Simon movie. 

I know! It’s interesting though because he’s now fallen into disfavor, which I assume will last the usual 10 to 20 years and then everyone will rediscover what a genius he was. I mean when he’s funny, there’s nobody funnier and it’s interesting that she’s able to take what’s so great about him and then add this really dark and terrible shading to it. So I can see why he wouldn’t have liked it too much. But the end result is just…dazzling.

You mention the darkness she brings, but she has this compassion for her characters as well; it never really seems like she’s judging them, even though they’re making some very awful choices.

It’s interesting for sure. She has a very unflinching point of view about them all, but there’s moments of warmth that just makes them all the more surprising and touching in a way. I mean, to even have sympathy for Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid is a very hard thing to do. I guess you don’t really end up feeling too sorry for him, but you certainly see that he’s thrown his life away while he’s busy throwing away everyone else’s lives. And then he ends up in this Nordic Christian desolation. He gets everything wants, and it stinks. (laughs)

So, do you have a favorite Elaine May movie?

I love all four of her films, but they’re all so different. I think A New Leaf is a perfect movie also. I do wish she were in more of them though because I just love her acting so much.

Did she talk about these movies when you were working with her on The Waverly Gallery? I mean this was all more than 40 years ago for her now…

Oh yeah, she talks about them a lot. I mean she had these terrible studio battles, with Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf she had terrible trouble with the studios. I think they actually re-cut both of them?

Yeah, for A New Leaf she actually turned in a 3 hour cut, with Matthau murdering a lawyer. She’d said she wanted to see if she could get an audience to identify with an actual killer.

Yeah I think in one way she’s really unhappy that that got cut out, but on the other hand you can’t watch that movie now without marveling at how great it is. I’d love to see her ideal version of it though—of all four of her films actually. 

She’s actually very much smarter than everyone else, so you can see why they had trouble with her in Hollywood. And also, her diplomatic skills are not great. I don’t think she’s one of these people who is masterful at handling other people in difficult situations. You know, you’re in a bind because you’re in complete creative control until you’re not, and then you’re battling these very powerful forces. And I don’t think it could have been very easy for her being the only woman in the room. 

But there’s something about her work that’s unsullied by the wiliness of a great careerist. It’s very strong and very original—and you can tell it’s been knocked around by people that didn’t understand what she was trying to do—but it doesn’t have the slickness that I think you see with some other directors, who are often great directors, where you can see that they’re compromising here or they’re compromising there, and they’re trying to get along with everybody, and then at some point the fire just goes out of what they’re doing. Not completely and not every time, but you get this smooth surface that is usually the result of learning how to deal with other people too well. It’s something you gotta do, but I think if all this had been happening nowadays, she would have gotten a lot more chances. I’m not sure of that, but…I mean they give you a lot of chances if you’re not a girl. 

And in terms of the diplomatic part, is it that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, or that she’s more just aloof and in her own bubble or—

I don’t know, I’m really not sure because working with her last year, she’s very easy to work with. She’s extremely tenacious and stubborn and on her track, but she’s a very good collaborator, and she’s very appreciative of everyone around her, the other actors, the director, the production—so it’s not that she herself is difficult to work with. I’m just speaking from the result, which is that she was kicked out of Hollywood for a so-called “debacle” that I think would not have been as great a sin on the head of a male director at the time. But on the other hand, the fact that she’s made 4 movies instead of 40, either she wanted out or she was kicked out. She’s really more like Orson Welles…only nicer. 

In a piece for Variety recently, you wrote that “In Elaine you realized you were watching…the sinking of a foundation which was to support a spontaneity,” and I just love that. Can you say a bit more about what you meant by it?

It’s very concrete things. She fixates on things that in a lesser being you’d think were quibbles. One thing she kept saying on set was “I start the scene and I’m holding the pictures but there’s no place for me to put the pictures down, so I’m not sure why I’m in this corner of the room? And when I turn to look at these other pictures, I’m not sure why I’m turning that way.” 

Now that probably sounds, to the uninitiated person, like total actor bullshit—but it’s really not. Because if you think about what it’s like to be in a real room, when you think about your physical self in any kind of actual situation, you’re usually doing things for a reason. There’s a reason why people get up from a chair and move across a room, and in real life we don’t think about it. I often notice when I’m watching a play that people don’t tend to sit around as much as they do in real life. Mostly when people greet each other, in most situations, the first move is everyone sits down. But what you often see in plays is people coming into the living room and then getting up, because the director is concerned it’s going to be boring to watch them sit and talk—and maybe it will be, but it doesn’t exactly make real sense a whole lot of the time. 

So if you want [Elaine] to come in and sit down and then you’re asking her to get up in the middle of a conversation, where no real human being would get up, she has a problem with that. And without being a pain in the ass, she really understands—she needs something to get her out of the chair. Once she finds that, she’ll get out of the chair and not have to worry about it, which leaves her completely free to let whatever’s going to happen that night, in that scene, happen. So she’s very much alive and in the moment, because everything she’s doing has a solid foundation.

Is that some kind of deep Method thing then?

I don’t know, I’ve never seen it done quite that way – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody mark through an entire play that carefully and be that unwilling to fake it. She very methodically needed to know everything that was happening in terms of the big and small changes in the scene, in terms of giving her a platform from which to be completely spontaneous. She wouldn’t just walk in and see what happens. She’d walk in because she’s coming from this place, that hour of that day to that place, and then the other person comes in and she sees what’s going to happen.

And she’s open to whatever they might bring?

Yes, very much so. It was very educational. She’s trying to give the scene a shape that she could rely on. She had a hard time because the special challenge of her role is that the character has dementia, and also everybody is ignoring her, and she very much wants to talk to them. So she had some very special challenges in front of her: she had to talk to people who weren’t looking at her and weren’t answering her, she had to interrupt people while they’re turned away talking to somebody else and figure out why she wouldn’t wait until they’re done, she had to repeat herself many, many times…just a lot of tricky things to do. She said to me pretty early on, “I think the thing about playing somebody with dementia is that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, it’s all the same.”

And did you feel like it was an entirely different performance night to night, or was it fairly consistent within a certain range?

It was different night to night, but always within the margins of the play. It’s a cliche, but a cliche people aim for: it was as if she were doing it for the first time every single time I saw it. 

Even having written the play and knowing it so well?

Yep. And it got deeper and better as it went along, which is always the mark of a really great stage actor, doing a long run and being fresher by the end of it than you were when it started. 

And also the way she worked with everybody else, everybody had such great respect for her. She’s also very frail—or at least gives the appearance of being frail, I’m not sure if she actually is—so you kind of want to help her out. Everyone was so on her side and it was a very close and happy cast. 

There’s one scene where she has to have a very big breakdown, and it says in the stage direction that she cries. But very early on in rehearsal she said, “I have to warn you, I’m not an actor who can cry on cue. I’m not that good.” And for awhile she was worried because the scene wasn’t making her cry—but as we all suspected, the more they played the scene and the more emotional the scene became, the less that became a problem for her. And eventually she said to me “All I really have to do is look into Joan’s face and she’s so wonderful that it just makes me break down.” So it just became part of what happened on stage. It’s a bit of a mystery how all of this stuff works. I don’t think it’s magic but it’s a funny process. I don’t really know how they do it, but it was incredible to watch. 

So did you get the feeling that that whole process took a lot out of her?

You’d think so! But she told me it was one of the easiest jobs she’s ever had. “Everyone keeps asking if the schedule is punishing, but the truth is that it was great…I knew where I was going every day, I got up, did what I was going to do, went to the show and came home. Now the show is over and I have a million phone calls and messages and things to do and I’m overwhelmed completely.” So I think she really liked the regularity. The toll it seemed to take on her physically seemed to be pretty insignificant. 

She would have been around 85 years old when she was doing this, right?

86. And her part is impossible to memorize, for anybody. It’s repetitions, non sequitur, and asking people to repeat themselves, plus there’s a lot of overlapping dialogue. It’s a very difficult part. Everybody I’ve ever seen play the part has had a problem with it—but once she got it, she had it.

And for you, having known about her since you were a kid, it must be pretty gratifying to play a role in her getting all of this renewed attention lately?

Oh, extremely gratifying. I’m very proud of having had anything to do with her reemergence as the titanic figure that she is. I’m so happy for her. I’m so happy that people have started paying attention to her again. People who know anything about the history of movies or theater or television in the last 50 years know all about her, but in general she’s not as well known as she deserves to be. So if I had anything at all to do with bringing her forward again, it feels like a huge accomplishment. 

Was it your idea to cast her?

I had asked Elaine if she wanted to do the play 5 or 6 years ago, maybe more. I’d been thinking of doing a revival, which would have to depend on the actress playing that role, and having met her socially, and having had her help me out with Margaret a lot, I thought it made sense to ask.

She helped you with Margaret?

She was a tremendous help with Margaret in some of the darkest moments of the editing process. She saw the movie several times and gave me a lot of advice. Oddly enough, having just said she’s not great at negotiating with studios, she gave me a lot of help with that at a crucial moment. I ultimately wasn’t able to turn things around, but she gave me some very good advice about how to try.

You mean in terms of the film itself, or in dealing with the studio?

Both. She gave me her thoughts about the film creatively but she also gave me a lot of help—there was a period of several months where I actually thought everything was going to work out, and it was largely because of her advice. And either I wasn’t smart enough to make enough use of it, or they were too dead set against me for it to turn the tide, but she was really helpful and supportive. 

And of course Jeannie (Berlin, May’s daughter) was in Margaret, so our paths crossed a lot. So after all that was over, I asked her if she wanted to do The Waverly Gallery, but she demurred at the time. She was worried she wasn’t going to be able to be as good as Eileen Heckert—who was in the original version in 2001 and was fantastic. So she loved the play, but she passed. And then we went to her again and Scott Rudin really persuaded her to do it, and I think she was at a place at that time where it seemed like a more viable prospect for her to do.

Given that The Waverly Gallery is a play based so much on your personal family experience, did she want to know a lot about the real people behind it?

It came up very naturally, but yeah. It’s based very much on my own grandmother and my own family, so it was a natural enough discussion to have, because during rehearsal you’re always talking about what you know about the characters that might not be obvious in the script. It’s not that you insist on it, but there’s a lot you can tell people that fits with what they’re acting, which is often what they’re looking for. So I could tell Elaine quite a bit about my grandmother—not to tell her “You have to be just like my grandmother,” but to say that, you know, there’s a lot to draw on that could be helpful.

And was she interested in incorporating that into her performance?

Very interested. There was a certain style of conviviality and sociability, a certain way of entertaining people and being a hostess, that my grandmother had and I think it was helpful for Elaine to discuss with me. Her own mother was very much somebody who was a social engine and got people together and entertained them, but there was a difference in the approach that I think she discovered at some point. She told me later on that “I started out with my mother, but I realized she’s really not like my mother”—because I think her mother was very shy but quite an entertainer with a great sense of humor, whereas my grandmother was a bit more of a facilitator and just liked to get people together. So with Elaine these types of conversations happened pretty continually, and I was always careful not to insist it had to be that way, while still trying to provide a platform for her to take off from.

At one point in the Variety piece, you use a word I imagine you don’t use lightly, which is “genius”—that she’s a genius at pretty much everything she does.

Well I mean, genius is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but I think whatever it means, if Elaine May is not a brilliant improviser, nobody is. If Elaine May is not a brilliant actress, nobody is. If she’s not a brilliant writer, nobody is. If she’s not a brilliant director, nobody is. So whatever that word means, you can apply it to her in four different categories at least, and probably more. She’s also, in conversation, an extremely insightful and original thinker. 

Think of another polymath, Noel Coward, for instance, another brilliant person. I think he was a wonderful actor, but I wouldn’t say he was a brilliant actor. He was a competent and able one, and a brilliant comedian, but he didn’t have quite the emotional depth that Elaine has. She’s incredibly funny and incredibly touching, and the performance she gave in my play is one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen anybody give in any play. You turn from that to her four movies, or to some of her sketch comedy, and you see a range that’s just breathtaking. It’s hard to think of many other people that are that good at all the different things they do.

Though from what you said earlier, it doesn’t sound like she’s all that intimidating once you’re actually around her?

I mean, it’s intimidating because she is who she is, but she’s very friendly and kind and loving. The intimidating part is just because her reputation proceeds her—and it’s always a little scary talking to anybody that smart. But she’s not somebody who you meet who is cold and aloof or difficult to approach by any means, it’s quite the opposite. If you ask anybody else in the play, I mean, we all love her. She’s very very lovable. There’s nobody really quite like her.

Part of the problem, I think, is that she never really says anything on the record to counter the narrative that’s been out there about her for so long, that she’s difficult or always wanting to pick a fight or always having to have her way—

Not at all, not at all. I mean, I’ve worked with actors who don’t want your help. And that’s not Elaine. And I’ve had actors, very few, who don’t want to discuss what they’re doing at all, but that’s not Elaine at all. She really wants your help…but if it’s not helping, she can’t use it. And if a problem isn’t solved for her it doesn’t go away. She cannot fake it, it’s just not in her toolbox to fake things until they get better. But she also doesn’t hold things up—I’ve dealt with actors who don’t give a shit about the rehearsal, they want to get their part right and they’ll let everybody stand around all day while they figure things out—and that is not Elaine either. She’s extremely professional and courteous and understanding of the overall process. 

So there weren’t fights about things, but there were definitely long conversations. And over time, one by one, the sections in the play where what I had in mind didn’t help her slowly became her version, not mine, and the deficit to the play was zero. It was always something that worked beautifully, even if it wasn’t what I had in mind. But you know, if you just want to do what you had in mind, you should write novels —don’t go get Elaine May in your play, because you don’t need her.

Though I will say, she was not easy to move—when she had a problem with something it was impossible to move on until the problem was solved. I always say that nobody else is in the actor’s position: they’re there, totally in the open, totally exposed, and they have to feel good about what they’re out there doing in front of people. And she really wanted to make sure she could do every moment of the play without having to worry that it wasn’t on a solid foundation. So in that sense, she was difficult, but I’d put that in quotes—I mean, she was as difficult as the role was.

And it sounds like it was always in the service of the work, rather than her needs.

Absolutely. There was no preciousness and no ego at all that I could see. It was always in service of being good in the part and serving the play. 

Sounds like a pretty amazing collaboration?

It was incredible. It was one of the greatest experiences of my creative and professional life. It was just a dream come true. 

That’s so great to hear.

It’s nice to be able to say!

And just one last thing, since I’m still such a big Margaret geek and want to know everything possible about it. Did Elaine have any advice that changed anything significant about the film?

I’m sure she did, though I don’t remember the exact details all that well—it was so long ago and there were so many cuts of that film—but mostly she just encouraged me to do what I was doing, which not everybody was saying to me. She came to 2 or 3 screenings and at one point she said, not so much a note as just a general comment, “Only a 16 year old could possibly think she could affect the world that much.”

Oh yeah, I remember you saying that was a big idea behind the movie.

It was definitely a big thing for me. It wasn’t a direct action kind of comment, but it was certainly a star by which to guide the movie in a way. And she was around a lot for a big stretch of that whole process.

She also had this brilliant idea, when they were really fucking with me, to have a screening. She told me “You should have a screening and bring in the most famous people you can possibly think of, and they will shut up.” She wanted me to let them know I had powerful friends. And so I did and they really backed off, for like 6 months. But they were more resilient than I, as you know, so it only had a limited effect. But it really worked for awhile, they completely backed off and shriveled away. She has this very memorable line: “The minute they write the check you become their enemy.” (laughs)

And she would know!

She definitely would.