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Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

It’s always a pleasure to interview a star you have admired.  That certainly was the case when I did a phone interview with actress Swoosie Kurtz.  The occasion was a Tony nomination for her role in Frozen, a drama co-produced by friends and family in her native Omaha, which if you’ve been reading my article posts you know by now is my hometown and place of residence.  She was every bit the fun and funny bright spirit I had come to expect.  The Omaha connection extended to her having worked with Alexander Payne on his debut feature, Citizen Ruth, which was shot here. My own career has intersected with Payne, whom I have been covering since he completed that project in the mid-1990s.  As I write this, I am about to call Payne to arrange a face-to-face interview with him about his recent shoot of The Descendants in Hawaii, where he just wrapped on Friday.  One final Omaha connection involving Swoosie is my having written about the Omaha company that co-produced Frozen and my scripting a documentary that that same company shot and edited.  Small world.

My Swoosie piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).





Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz, that sometimes kooky stage, film and television actress with the dizzy name to match, is dead serious about her work. The depth of this consummate artist’s craft is on full display in the current Broadway drama Frozen, in which she plays a mother coming to grips with the void of her missing daughter, whose terrible fate she doesn’t know for 20 years.

The story revolves around the daughter’s disappearance and how this event connects the girl, the mother, the serial killer that took her and the therapist trying to discover what set this tragedy in motion. The theme of child abuse looms large in the killer’s own past and drives him to revisit his horror on others. Brian O’Byrne won a Best Actor Tony for his performance as the killer. Critics are calling Kurtz’s Tony-nominated portrayal of the shattered mother a tour de force.



Brian O’Bryne and Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen



“My character goes through this 20-year journey of having her child taken and not knowing she’s dead. She goes through all the stages — mourning, anger, depression — and, finally, into acceptance, but in a very beautiful way. The second act of the play, particularly, is uplifting and life-affirming and redemptive,” said Kurtz.

Her process is a melding of the interior Method approach that uses emotional exploration and the more classical exterior approach that focuses on body, voice, movement, makeup, et cetera. “What works best for me is a kind of working from the outside in. When I can picture a character — how they sit, how they walk, the kind of clothes they wear — it tells me a lot about the inside of the character. The process is partly intuitive and partly technique. I think a lot of actors starting out today rely too much on the intuitive and the instinctual. You have to learn your craft,” she said in a 1999 Tony Awards Online interview.

Born in Omaha as the only child to a war hero father and society matron mother, she did part of her growing up here — attending Field Club School — before her family moved west. Her career military father, the late Col. Frank Kurtz, was the most decorated U.S. airman of World War II. She was named after the B-24 bomber he flew, dubbed the Swoose after a Kay Kyser song about a half swan, half goose. Before the war, Col. Kurtz was already famous as a world class platform diver. He won a bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics and competed in the ‘36 Berlin Games.

Her mother, the former Margo Rogers, authored a book, My Rival the Sky, about being the wife of an absent war hero. Margo hailed from an old money Nebraska family headed by her father, Arthur Rogers, a cattle tycoon who headed the Omaha Livestock Commission in the stockyards’ heyday. Kurtz recalls him taking her to the yards, plopping her atop a horse and playfully telling her to “wrangle those cattle. I weighed about 45 pounds, but because he told me to do it, I thought I could. I never questioned it.” Her enterprising grandma, Gigi Rogers (formerly Conant), built three downtown hotels — the Conant, the Sanford and the Henshaw.

Kurtz had one familial tie to show biz. A maternal great uncle, Homer Conant, was a set and costume designer for legendary impresarios Ziegfeld and Shubert in 1920s New York. “So, I’m revisiting the scene of the crime here on Broadway,” she said.

Kurtz stayed with her grandparents in Omaha when her much-traveled parents were away on missions and war bond drives. Of her grandparents, she said, “They were a huge influence on me in my formative years. They were incredible. They had this big country house that my mom grew up in and I partly grew up in. When I was in town doing Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne’s 1996 film), I went to the house, just to see it, and it brought back amazing memories to revisit it.”

Her father’s many transfers meant frequent moves for her and her family. Being an only child forced her to cultivate her imagination. “I would play different games with myself and become different people and talk to myself in different voices. The characters would talk to each other. Only children have their own way of survival.”

A Eureka Moment
The theater first enchanted her when, as a kid, she attended Broadway plays with her folks. Her earliest stage acting came at Hollywood High. “I was in this drama class at Hollywood High and I did this scene from Dark Victory or some other Bette Davis movie and it was like, Whoah. Something fell into place in that moment and clicked and it was like, I can communicate with people this way better than I can on my own. It was just a eureka moment.” She began formal dramatic studies at the University of Southern California, where her parents graduated, before crossing the pond to complete her training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. There, she fully immersed herself in acting.

If anything, her Tony-nominated turn in Frozen is a reminder of Kurtz’s versatility and penchant for sinking her teeth into challenging roles. Much of her best-known work has seen her essay women-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown in plays by some of the world’s greatest living dramaturgists. Her whimsical, lost souls are tinged with a deep well of sadness and display a sharp wit.

Among her stage triumphs are her turns as Gwen in Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July and as Amy John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. Her many film portrayals include: a hockey groupie in Slap Shot; the wry hooker in George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp; the frothy wife in A Shock to the System; the ambitious mother in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons; “the world’s laziest woman” in David Byrnes’s True Stories; and a scheming abortion war fanatic in Payne’s Citizen Ruth. For television, there was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of high society living, cancer surviving Alex in the popular NBC-TV series Sisters and a socialite dying of AIDS in the HBO drama And the Band Played On.

Dangerous Ground
Even though its subject matter put her off, she felt compelled to do Frozen. The play’s executive producer is an Omaha cousin, Thompson Rogers, whose Oberon Properties owns the screen rights. “This play just knocked the breath out of me,” she said. “I hadn’t read anything like this ever. I think the issues of child abuse hit me the hardest. What struck me on my first reading of the play is that the serial killer character of Ralph, who takes my daughter, has been horribly abused as a child. And I firmly believe what the play is hypothesizing is that when children are abused…certain parts of their brain get stunted and the part that has empathy and compassion and remorse simply doesn’t develop in the way that it should.”

Playwright Bryony Lavery’s disarming examination of abuse, trauma, loss, regret, forgiveness and grace drew her in. “Just the sheer poetry of the way this subject is handled,” she said. “It’s a subject we see all the time on television and, so, we think we know all about it, and then this play comes along and presents this in a way that defies any expectation you have.”

She knew Frozen was a must-do project when reading it unnerved her. “When something scares me as much as this play did, I have to do it,” she said. “It’s so dangerous, this piece. It’s so risky. I thought, How are we going to rehearse this play? How the hell do you work on something like this and not just be a wreck? And, actually, we laughed a lot in rehearsal, which sounds really irreverent, but that was the whole key — to be irreverent about the material. Because the audience’s experience of it is very different from ours. We have to do it and go through it and it’s up to them to have the emotional response.”

Kurtz believes in challenging the gods rather than playing it safe. She recalls the time she essayed identical twins in Paula Vogel’s play The Mineola Twins, which not only required her to be two separate people, but to be on stage for all but a few seconds. Again, she asked herself, How am I going to do this? As usual, the motivation of the challenge allowed her to find a way to make it work. That discovery and accomplishment, she said, is what makes the journey into the abyss worthwhile. “And then it’s such a great feeling when you prove to yourself that you can,” she said. “You’re like, You know what? I did it. I took the leap.”

Making real the ultra-sensitive, bereaved, even mad characters she inhabits means muting the obvious comic notes to express the inner beauty. It’s about being nonjudgmental “and also having great compassion for the character,” she said. “I always find I turn a corner in rehearsal when somehow the character moves me.”

She said she learned not to play the fool when the legendary Jerry Zaks, with whom she worked on House of Blue Leaves, gave her “the best piece of direction I ever got. In my mind, I thought, I have to let the audience know right away that this woman, Amy, is a little out of touch with reality. I had this line, ‘Is it light yet?’ And I was doing it kind of spooky, like a strange woman would. And Jerry said, ‘Swoose, you are the happiest, most normal housewife in Queens.’ It was a brilliant thing that resonated through that whole piece and everything I do because people who are on the edge or neurotic or insane think they’re totally normal. And it’s that everydayness or normalcy what is sometimes so shocking.”

Citizen Ruth
If ever a performance has embodied the power of subtlety over histrionics it’s her rendering of Diane Siegler in Citizen Ruth. In this one character, Kurtz plays an arc of extreme types, but believably so within the framework of Diane’s fanaticsm. When we and the title character, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) first meet Diane, she appears to be a prim holier-than-thou pro-life advocate. Then, as we and Ruth learn, it turns out Diane’s only posing as a pro-lifer, but in reality is an openly gay pro-choice agitator who’s infiltrated the enemy camp in order to spy and reek carnage on their campaign. Diane’s hilarious “coming out,” complete with removing her dowdy wig and eye glasses to show her true identity and sympathies, is all the funnier and more surprising because Kurtz underplays it so matter-of-factly. “What was so great about that was I got to do play two people,” said Kurtz.


Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, and Kelly Preston in 1996's "Citizen Ruth."

Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, Kelly Preston from Citizen Ruth



She was impressed with fellow Omahan Alexander Payne, who co-wrote Citizen Ruth and made it his feature film directing debut. “He was so grounded and so real in his approach to everything,” she said. “Well, you know, he’s from Omaha. But he is so smart, on so many levels, that I think he sometimes had a plan in mind that we didn’t know about, and we didn’t have to know about it. He had his map in his head very clearly, but he was also very open to experimentation and open to whatever was happening in the moment.

“If we happened to ad-lib something, he was delighted with it and very often would use something. He just came up with these great sort of subversive, out-of-the-box ideas. He’d just throw some curve at us right before the take and it’d be something I would never have thought of in a million years.”

As an example, she recalls a scene in the kitchen at the country house where she and her lover (Kelly Preston), are putting up Ruth Stoops. The phone rings and Kurtz’s Diane Siegler “answers the phone as the lesbian liberal activist and then” — when it turns out the caller’s a pro-lifer — “I put on my (eye) glasses in order to talk to her. And that was Alexander’s idea. And I thought, Oh, my God. What an incredibly bizarre and amazing idea” to have her put her defense/disguise back on.

Payne is equally impressed with her. “I remember her as being so delightful and cooperative and professional. She knows her dialog. She comes prepared. She has good ideas. Highly directable. I mean, she’s a total pro. And she’s funny,” he said.

The film, still unappreciated among general movie audiences, is a favorite of hers. “I’ve never seen a movie like it. It’s just unto itself. It’s an amazing film,” she said.

Feeling the Most Alive on Stage
Kurtz has been nominated for eight Emmys (winning one for Carol and Company) and has stolen scenes in dozens of big and small screen pics, but her stage work is what makes her a living legend. She has two Best Actress Tonys to her credit (for Fifth of July and House of Blue Leaves) in addition to Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Award and an Obie. She moves effortlessly from one medium to another, but the boards is her true calling. It’s where she feels most engaged as an artist.

“An actor on stage has more responsibility than in any other medium,” she said. “You are so much more responsible for what happens out there on the stage. Film is definitely the director’s medium. They shape the film. They take what of your performance they want. They choose what the audience is looking at at any particular point. Your face may not even be on camera at that moment. On stage, you control everything. You control your body, your voice…whether the audience is seeing your profile or the front or back of you. You control how loud you are. You control the timing of everything.

“I’m not sayng film and television are easier by any means, because they’re all enormously challenging, But, ultimately, you are much more accountable in the theater for what happens that night on stage.”

Acting, for Kurtz, feeds her like nothing else. “It’s when I feel most alive,” she said. “I definitely think when I’m acting I’m my true self. You know how in therapy they talk about your true self? I think that joy just comes out. I mean, I was on stage the other night thinking, I’m so happy right now. I’m so alive.” Where real life once seemed boring compared to acting’s hyper intensity, she sees it differently now.

“I’m getting a lot more enjoyment now out of real life. Thank God, because there’s a lot of that around,” she said, unleashing her happy, kooky, bright spirit’s laugh.

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