You may not know Beth Grant by name, but it’s practically impossible not to know her face. Grant has been plying her trade as an actress for more than 30 years, having appeared in more than 100 films, three of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture — Rain Man, No Country for Old Men and The Artist. She also co-starred in audience favorites such as the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine, the cult classic Donnie Darko, and the action movie Speed, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Monday.
Grant was raised in the South, and moved around a lot as a kid. The nomadic experience forced her to be funny, as she was constantly asked to make new friends. Grant’s way with people, combined with her budding interest in politics, led her to serve as a Page in the North Carolina Senate and president of the East Carolina University College Democrats, where she received the Outstanding College Democrat Award from then-Senator Edmund Muskie. She even served as a celebrity coordinator for Jimmy Carter‘s first presidential campaign.
Of course, that was a long time ago, and I’ve wanted to interview Grant for nearly as long, as I consider her Hollywood’s preeminent character actress. She was the first actress I reached out to when Collider approved this interview series about character actors because I’ve watched her hone her craft for decades, coming away impressed with each appearance, no matter how brief. She has stood out and stolen scenes in countless films, including two of my personal favorites — her turn as Helen, the first and only passenger to die on the bus in Speed, and her beloved performance as Kitty Farmer in Donnie Darko, whose writer-director Richard Kelly gave her some of the movie’s most memorable lines.
The veteran actress has also been a longtime fixture on television, having recurred on Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill and Everwood, and guest-starred on hit shows such as Friends, The X-Files, Six Feet Under and My Name Is Earl. Theater, however, was Grant’s first love, and she has starred in nearly 50 plays, originating roles in Maya Angelou‘s On a Southern Journey, Horton Foote‘s The Day Emily Married and Del Shores‘ The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, the latter of which won her several awards, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for Best Actress. Grant has also won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast in a Feature Film twice, for both Little Miss Sunshine and No Country for Old Men.
Not only has Grant endured on the big and small screens, but she has worn numerous hats over the years, having produced documentaries, comedy reviews, and television. The devoted animal lover has also run a theatre company and raised money for local schools, having been the beneficiary of a fine arts education herself. I hope this will be the definitive Beth Grant interview, as we spoke for more than an hour about the good, the bad, and yes, even Baby Ugly. We’re thrilled that she was about to join Collider’s Character Actors Corner to reflect on her remarkable career, so I hope you enjoy, because if you don’t, we’ll both begin to seriously doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!
What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?
Beth Grant: A character actor’s journey is a very interesting journey. We have a lot of “ego deflation at depth,” but we also have a lot of joy in being able to sneak in and out of where we want to go without causing too much of a stir. But I’m getting off on a tangent…
I was born in the Deep South, in Alabama. We weren’t really from there, but Daddy just happened to be teaching at that time in, like, a community college situation. Then we moved to Columbus, Georgia; Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Wilmington, North Carolina; and I call Wilmington my hometown, because I moved there starting at age 11 and we lived there through high school. So that’s what I consider my hometown. But people who move around a lot tend to have to make friends at new places, and one of my ways of making new friends at all these new places was to sort of be a showoff and be funny and get attention and get people to like me. I still to this day think — and it’s embarrassing to say — but more than anything, I just wanted to be liked. I had heard my grandmother tell stories, and she was very funny. You know those old Irish storytellers? They’d sit out on the porch at night, and the windows would be open, and I could smell the cigarette smoke wafting through the rooms, and they would tell stories, and it was almost like a competition. One would tell a story and the others would laugh, and they’d take turns. It was so comforting to me, to fall asleep to the sound of that beautiful laughter. And I also think that somewhere along the way, I picked up her comic timing, because you know what they say about comic timing… you can’t really teach it. I stole mine from my grandmother, unintentionally. I just heard her rhythms.
My uncle had been in the Navy and he was coming home, being discharged, his name was Billy. And my mother taught me this song, ‘Oh, where have you been Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh where have you been, Charming Billy?’ She taught me this song to sing to him, and he was this really good-looking guy in a uniform and he had a great smile and a great laugh, so he kind of squatted down to listen to me sing this song, and he was smiling and laughing, and then all the relatives were there to greet him. So when I was done, they all applauded, and he picked me up and threw me around, and I was hooked from then on. So then I took those skills that I’d gotten from my family, and I’d apply them as I went from new school to new school to new school.
I was always the girl out in the hall! I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody that, but it’s the truth! The bad boys would be sent out in the hall, and I would be the one lone girl out in the hall. I’d look down the hall and I’d say, ‘oh my God!’ So I guess that’s when I got hooked. But then along the way, you had to really learn to act. You have to learn the skills, and that started in junior high. I was in a couple of plays, and I had a really good teacher who encouraged me. She was like, ‘you’ve really got something here.’ In high school, I was in the drama department, and we had the National Thespians. I was lucky because I had a very good teacher for a little southern high school. In fact, my senior year she was gone, because she went to the University of Iowa’s graduate program, but she encouraged me and we all need that encouragement. She encouraged me to audition for this school for gifted and talented students in the summer, called Governor’s School. They have it in quite a few states and I was fortunate enough to get in. I remember I had to do a Shakespearean monologue, and I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare. We had read Julius Caesar for six weeks in English class. That was it.
My mother, bless her heart, took me to some record store somewhere, and we found Dame Judith Anderson doing As You Like It on an album. So I listened to that album over and over again, and I just imitated her. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew a little bit, but not that much. So I auditioned, and I got in! And that school really changed my life, because they had professional teachers, there were people from Carnegie Mellon, and a professional director who had worked in New York. I was so, so, so lucky to have that program, which was a scholarship program. Back in North Carolina, they’ve talked about doing away with it, and I just thought ‘they can’t! It was so life-changing!’ I also took classes there in philosophy and psychology. We had dance class. It was a very, very special program.
So then I came back my senior year hell-bent on being an actress, and I won’t go through all the pitfalls and things that happened. They had suggested East Carolina University, because they had a very professional department and there was a man named Edgar Loessin, who had been the stage manager at The Actor’s Studio and directed a bit in New York. He had come down to start this theater school, and he really did want to create professionals and have students who would graduate with a bachelor of fine arts. His best friend was a man named Romulus Linney, who was Laura Linney’s father. He was a terrific writer and he had a new play, and he gave us the world premiere. It was a very Appalachian story and I auditioned, and obviously you know my face, I have a very angular, square-jawed face, a very Appalachian look, so I got the lead, and that really encouraged me to go to New York. I’d been doing all this stuff, but I wasn’t one of those kids in the theater school who gets all the leads, at all, so that was sort of a precursor to my career, doing the very small roles in these things. But once I got that role, I was encouraged to go to New York, and one of my teachers was a costume designer from New York, and he was going to be away doing Summerstock, and he said you can have my apartment for the summer. A free apartment in New York for two months? That’s what gave me the courage, and I went to New York when I was 19!
I’m from a very conservative time. The sixties in the South were not like they were everywhere else in the world. But 1967-68, my freshman year, the hippie thing started to happen. Now, when I was a freshman, girls weren’t allowed to wear slacks on campus. We had to wear skirts, unless we were going to an art class or a PE class, and even then we could only wear them if we wore a raincoat on top. God forbid we got some boy excited on the way to class! I don’t know why we weren’t allowed to wear them, but anyway, that was the rule. And then something started to happen and these kids started showing up wearing bell bottoms and they had long hair, and they’d hang out on the lawn playing music that I had never heard. We were into beach music and that kind of stuff. They’d wear old Army jackets, and I just got very excited.
I had been a debutante. My mother, she was a southern belle, and I have to say, she did always encourage me to be an actress, but she also encouraged me to be everything else, too. My dream was to be a movie star and a veterinarian, and she thought I could do both. She wanted me to marry a senator who would run for President, or marry Prince Charles. She really saw no limits to my life and pushed me in every direction. I remember one time I said to her, ‘Momma, I’ll do whatever you want, just pick one thing!’ So I did this debutante thing and I was such a misfit, because I’ve always been kind of clumsy and not skinny, and loud, and not calm, and not dignified. It’s just sort of who I am. My daughter, Mary Chieffo, who’s an actress on Star Trek: Discovery, she’s six-feet tall, so she’s like me, but more. She’s got a big personality too, and I’m like, ‘oh boy, I know where she got that!’ My brother was always saying, ‘quiet! Calm down! Take it easy!’ Bless his heart, trying to put up with his sister.
I was lucky in the South, because I grew up with very liberal parents and they were very progressive. So I had grown up in a progressive home, and I had campaigned for Hubert Humphrey in the South when people were for George Wallace and Nixon, and we had been for Lyndon Johnson. It was different then, but we weren’t as polarized. We were all still friends. We’d discuss it, but it wasn’t like it is now. We didn’t hate each other. We didn’t have any hard times with them. There really was such a thing as compromise. But anyways, I’m old and times have changed. I hope things will be that way again before I leave this mortal coil, or whatever Shakespeare said. So I started meeting some of these people, and I just found their open-mindedness so exciting and attractive.
There was this one art major who I just thought was great, and he introduced me to this whole world of philosophy and art. I’d always been attracted to art and I had a World Book Encyclopedia and I loved looking at the art section. I had these two favorite paintings, one by Van Gogh and one by El Greco. So he was very helpful in opening my mind, so between Governor’s School and meeting all these artists on campus, I decided to run away to New York on a Greyhound bus at age 19 with this hippie painter. My parents were floored, because as progressive as they were, they did not see that coming. I mean, I got a job once I got there. We weren’t those kinds of hippies, really. We were sort of pseudo-hippies, in a way, because we didn’t really embrace the life, so I had a regular job and everything. But I went to the Metropolitan Museum and the Modern Art Museum and saw things that I’d never seen before, and ate food that I’d never eaten before. I’ll always remember we went to a deli and I ordered a tuna fish sandwich, but I was shocked, because it was $1.50, if you can’t imagine that now. Back at home, our sandwiches were just 25 cents! It was so huge and it came out with so much tuna fish and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. And the coffee was better. And I had my first slice of New York pizza at the Staten Island Ferry.
We couldn’t afford a place in Manhattan, so we ended up living on Staten Island if you can believe it. Eventually, we came back to North Carolina because it was my best friend’s wedding and New York was a bit too much for us. But the funny thing was, we had wanted to go to Woodstock. The flyers were everywhere! And I had to choose to either be in my friend’s Sandy wedding or go to Woodstock, and I just couldn’t disappoint my friend. We’d also sort of seen the handwriting on the wall that we needed to go back and finish college, and get more education. Not that I was dumb, but we really realized that we weren’t ready. I was too scared to buy Variety magazine. I would walk by newspaper stands and see Variety and I was longing to buy Variety, but I was just embarrassed. I thought, somebody’s going to think that I think I could be an actress, and I literally thought I didn’t have the right.
So we went back, and I went back to college, and he got drafted, and we actually did work with friends to get him ‘conscientious objector’ status, which was actually the truth. Back when I was growing up, all little boys played with toy guns, and he never even played with toy guns as a kid, so he was the real deal. So he went off and I went back to drama and graduated from college, did the Romulus Linney play, went to New York, and enrolled in a class at Lee Strasberg Institute. I took this one class that they had which was all guest speakers. They do that a lot now, and you’ve got the Masters classes online, but back then, you had no accessibility to anybody when you started. And this was a class that brought people in. I got to meet Bette Midler, Ruth Gordon, Joe Bologna, Renee Taylor, Otto Preminger, and for this little girl from the South, that was like, ‘wow!’ And they’d answer questions, and talk to us afterwards. So it was pretty exciting to be able to get into that class that first summer. And then I got my first part, and the way I got it… I was at this place called Phoebe’s on the Lower East Side. It’s a little fancier now, but back then, it wasn’t so fancy. I was there with a friend who introduced me to another guy who was directing a play at the New York Theater Ensemble, and it was called Sid-Arthur, which was not Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. And he said, ‘oh my God, you’re perfect! I just lost the actor for this role, and you’re perfect for it. I’d love to have you in this play. Will you do it?’ And I said, ‘yes!’ Of course I’m going to do it if somebody offers me a play. I get to rehearsal and I come to find out that I had replaced a male transvestite, and I was playing a character called ‘The Food Lady,’ and it was about this guy named Arthur who was in love with this beautiful young girl, and it was based on this psychologist who was living with this 14-year-old girl. I mean, that was back then… and he had written this play for her, and it was the story of this man searching for his psyche dalliance, and traveling the world looking for his psyche dalliance, and every scene I’d roll out a shopping cart filled with hot dog buns and yell ‘Food! Food!’ And that was my very first gig at the New York Theater Ensemble. At the very end, I think I had the last line in the play. It was ‘Her beautiful. You schmuck.’ Big entrance, I know.
Then I did something at Town Hall that was also the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. I auditioned for it and they ended up hiring me to be in it, but also to direct it. I don’t know what that was based on. I had directed some children’s theater, so I guess they thought they had a director on their hands. We did it at Town Hall, and it was pretty bad. It was about all the people from all over the world coming to live in America, and we had somebody from every country, and one of the reviews said we ‘managed to insult every ethnic group known to man.’ That’s a quote! It was probably from Show Business or Backstage. Then you just do one thing after another and I got the bright idea, because nothing was happening with the Romulus Linney play I’d done in college, so I got the idea, ‘why couldn’t I produce it?’ I was 22 and I went to Samuel French bookstore, which has just been saved by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m so grateful to, and I looked for a book about producing, and sure enough there was a book called How to Produce Off-Broadway. I bought that book and did everything it said. I optioned the play, I raised the money, rented the theater, got the director to come up from North Carolina, since he was friends with Romulus and Romulus had approved of him, and we did it at the Garrick Theater, which is between Thompson and LaGuardia on Bleecker. It’s like a dream, because every time I go back to New York I go back to that area and I love it. In fact I’ve written a play called The New York Way, which is about that period of my life. I changed it to 1969 because that was first year I went. I went back after college in ’72. I made it ’69 because it was such a powerful summer, so I sort of combined my two different trips to New York. I guess I came of age twice. So yeah, we did that play and it ran for three weeks. It certainly wasn’t a hit, but it got decent reviews. I had a theater company that I started called The Sun Theater Group. Very optimistic! The people at Circle Rep were friends of mine, Danny Irvine and Marshall Mason. They helped us and loaned us their list of patrons to invite to our play. I directed a Lewis John Carlino play called The Brick and the Rose. We did a lot of small theater pieces. There was a loft we were able to use that was above the Garrick Theater and it was called The Cockroach Theater. Some of my friends from North Carolina came to see one of the things I directed and they were all dressed up, and I brought ’em to the Cockroach Theater. We had this bathtub up there that was supposedly the tub from The Godfather Part II where someone (Frank Pentangeli) gets shot, and we called it ‘The Godfather bathtub.’ We filled it with ice and put cheap champagne in it and served cheese sandwiches. We sort of put a little Southern style in everything we did. By then I had a new boyfriend and a second husband, Henry, he wanted to move to California so I came out here in 1975. I wrote with my friend Judy a comedy review called Television’s Fabulous Fifties for the Improv, and we did it and it was pretty good, but I didn’t have stick-to-itiveness as a writer. I never could… it takes such discipline to meet deadlines, and the courage to write and rewrite. I guess I’m a failed writer. I’ve done a few things thought, and I had a column for a while for a progressive country magazine called Country Connections. My daughter went to Juilliard and actually learned about structure, and she came back and did a rewrite for us. We may have a reading soon, to see if we’ve got anything. I just always say ‘if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’ It’s so corny and old, but it really is the truth. You can have the greatest director in the world and do smoke and mirrors as an actor and have a character that makes it interesting but it’s about the story in the end. our little bylines was to do plays as the writers wrote them, and later, Jim Houghton started the Signature Theater Company based on the same premise. And he actually produced Romulus Linney and Horton Foote. So it’s interesting that Signature grew out of that and they still practice that.
Are there any character actors who you look up to and came up admiring?
Grant: Thelma Ritter, for sure. I just always thought she was the greatest. I loved her in All About Eve and Rear Window, and The Misfits, which is really a very shocking movie, even today, I loved her in that, so Thelma Ritter above all. Maureen Stapleton, I know she was kind of a leading lady but she was really more of a character actors. So Maureen Stapleton for sure. I liked a lot of men, especially back then. Now it’s a very different time and people like uniqueness and more character actors get to do leading roles, but honestly, a lot my heroes were men like Jack Nicholson. Since then, I love Annette Being, who I think is a character actress in her own way. She’s very different from role to role, and certainly Meryl Streep is like a character actress now. Anna Magnani, even though she did leads. Honestly, I was so delusional in the beginning that I wanted to be Joan Crawford or Marilyn Monroe, but once I got into reality I had a great teacher Milton Katselas (of the Beverly Hills Playhouse) who really taught me the honor of being a character actress. He said, who are you to look down on Colleen Dewhurst, why are you trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the earth? It was a wake up call, so I started embracing those people more as I got older, but I was delusional, wanting to be like Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor or Joan Crawford. These days, I’ve been so in love with this show Schitt’s Creek. I think Dan Levy is extraordinary, and everybody on that show is great, but Catherine O’Hara is my queen. she’s sort of a leading lady but she really transforms. watching that i just think she’s a goddess now. She’s found a role that really works for her.
What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career?
Grant: The biggest one was probably Rain Man. The day that I came back from the set after shooting with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise and Barry Levinson… oh my god. I called my dad and I was crying. I was just crying because I couldn’t believe it. I was older, I was 38 by then, and I had done theater, I had done a play at the Ahmanson, I had a lot of little pinch-me moments, but if you ask me for one, it’s Rain Man, because I knew that my life was going to change. I had thought since the day they called me I knew I was going to do it different and do it strong, this pioneer woman, and I just felt like it was going to go all the way, that movie. I just had that feeling, because the two of them were such opposites and that story had been developed for so long, and Barry, oh my God, he was one of my favorite directors. That night I came back to the hotel crying. I’m just crying and crying, and my mother says ‘Beth, did I tell you that Jack Hickenbotham died?’ I was like ‘oh my God, I don’t even know who that is! What are you talking about? This is the biggest moment of my life!’ She also said, when I was coming home for Christmas and they were going to be promoting it, they were doing a big thing in the Raleigh Observer. I said Momma, they’re going to have pictures and everything, and she said, ‘Oh, I hope they’re pretty pictures.’ I was like, I don’t know, since I was playing a housewife3. Not quite sure how pretty they’re going to be. When she encouraged me to be an actress, she wanted me to be Marilyn Monroe or Joan Crawford, so it was a shock to her, this character acting thing. I had a recurring role on Coach and I played a maid and I’d show up all these different places, and she said Beth, can’t they promote you and make you teacher?’ I had to tell her ‘No! The role is maid!’ She couldn’t understand it at all.
It’s insane and the odds of that… I still can’t believe it. And then Little Miss Sunshine was nominated, and I think it should’ve won, personally. But it was just incredible to me. I guess I kind of got what Momma wanted after all. This is a strange thing, and I don’t mean to be bragadocious because I don’t feel braggy at all, but someone at the University of Turin did a study about the most influential actors writers, directors, etc. and I’m #10 on the actors list! Even my husband, who loves me so much, is like, ‘wait, what is this?’ I gets the study he’s very intellectual and academic and my friend Lin Shaye is on the list. We’re both with the same agent. Lin and I love each other and I called her up and said ‘Lin, we’re 2 of the top 10 influential actors who have ever lived! and she said, ‘well, I wish I could get my dog to eat supper.’ It’s a real thing that’s based on having been in so many great movies. I’m sure that Donnie Darko is one of them, because the way people still, to this day, respond to Kitty Farmer and talk to me about Kitty Farmer and the way they still quote her, and I bet Speed is one and A Time to Kill maybe, and for sure The Artist and No Country for Old Men and Rain Man, being Best Picture winners. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what it feels like it must be, those particular ones. It’s pretty neat, because when I surrendered to being a character actress, I just sort of thought I’d just be a schlub for the rest of my life, and I’ll just be schlubbing along, but it’s been glorious, and getting to meet all the people I’ve met, … I’ll do six movies in a year, sometimes! So I’m getting to work with all these different directors and different actors and different crews. I mean, I can’t go on a set now where I don’t know half the crew. It’s wonderful, because it always feels like you’re coming home. The new girl at school isn’t always the new girl at school. I’m always at home wherever I go. The color I’m bringing, and then every once in a while I get to do a lead, like Blues for Willadean. There’s a movie now where I’ve been offered the lead, so it does happen, but I’m very happy to support these other actors. It’s a way to be of service. Speaking of studies, they did a study about happiness, and being of service is the key. When people are doing for others, that’s when they feel happy, like the accidental millionaires. The people who are the happiest rich people are the ones who became rich accidentally, just following their hearts. They didn’t even realize they were getting rich. My job is all about service. That’s all I do. That’s probably why I’m so happy and I have such a young spirit at my age. I still feel six years old in a lot of ways, singing that song. So it has really, really worked out.
Which films are you most often recognized for these days?
Grant: It depends. It used to be that they’d say, ‘does your son go to my son’s school,’ or ‘do you go to so-and-so church?’ Then it became, ‘You’re an actress right? What do I know you from?’ And then you start giving them your credits and they go ‘no, no.’ You just want to go to the car and give them your reel! And then about 10 years ago, I don’t know what changed, but I remember when it happened because I was at an airport, and someone stopped me as I was buying a salad and said, ‘are you Beth Grant?’ I figured it had to be somebody I knew, and I said ‘yes,’ and she was like, ‘oh my God, I love your work!’ I was like, ‘oh my god, it’s happening!’ Now, I’m very fortunate that people do seem to know my name. It’s so different if you’re a star and you’re bombarded all the time. It’s much more friendly, and I’m certainly more accessible, too. I’m in the grocery store in my blue jeans. I don’t have an entourage or anything. It’s always very nice people. I’e never had anybody be rude. I just love the Donnie Darko fans because they’re all super smart, super philosophical, they really just want to discuss the movie, and do I think this, or do I think that, and was he really time-traveling, or was he a schizophrenic? I believe he was time traveling, but I know Richard Kelly doesn’t like to say. To Wong Foo is a big one. Loretta… Baby Ugly. They’re bringing out the DVD and I had it on my Facebook, and somebody mentioned Baby ugly and somebody else rose to my defense, saying ‘it’s Loretta.’ And it was like, ‘No no, that’s what they say about her!’ Blythe Danner says “alcoholic, low self-esteem, daddy used to call her Baby Ugly. I get a lot of To Wong Foo, and a lot of Sordid Lies, because that’s a popular cult film. I get a lot of Speed for sure, and the line they quote, ‘what about the rest of us? What about the rest of us?’ She’s such a victim.
I’ll tell you some funny things about Speed. The original script was much different than what you saw. Graham Yost had written real parts for all of us. The bus would pick us all up at a certain place. For instance, I had just gotten engaged and I had a baby little dog with me and Sandy’s character was a stand up comedian and I had been to see her show the night before. So look at how sympathetic I was! And then the part was changed to this whiny victim who jumps off the bus! And that was thanks to Joss Whedon. I teased him about it when I was doing Angel, and I said ‘you ruined my part!’ And of course then I said thank you, because it was a hit. He just came in and streamlined it and make it more of an action-packed popcorn movie. I’ll tell you another secret about it. Jeff Daniels’ character was the bad guy. There was no other bomber, it was Jeff Daniels. And I thought that was cool, that the cop was the bad guy. I liked that twist. I remember when I read the script, I hadn’t seen that coming. They decided to give it a bomber, and hey, it worked. So I give credit to Graham and I give credit to Joss, because it worked. The day of the first table read, they still hadn’t cast Sandy’s role. I had wanted a friend of mine to get it, actually, so we were waiting to see who it was going to be, and in walks Sandy. We had gone to the same college, though obviously I’m a lot older than her. But she’d been doing pretty well and the school put out this little alumni booklet and they had given her this huge picture and me… it took about 45 seconds to fall completely in love with her. She was so open and down to earth, and we immediately started making fun of our teachers. You know how it is. We just had the greatest time on the shoot, and she really saved me because I had a baby and I couldn’t bring her to the set and I was depressed about it, but Sandy kept me laughing about it, and we’d have 4 o’clock chocolate time and we would salsa dance. I don’t know, she just got me through it and I was grateful to her. And I’ve worked with her three other times since then. I got to play her mother in All About Steve, which I think is a cute movie. I like it, even though it got the Razzie. She went through the script and said, okay, you tell me how it could be better. That’s just the kind of personality she has. So cute. I get recognized for A Time to Kill. All of them had their own little followings, so you never know. This Criminal Minds episode, Mosley Lane… it was Matthew Gray Gubler’s first time directing and I was playing this pedophile murderer. He said Beth, this is a cautionary tale for parents to watch their kids. I’m gonna shoot it like a Grimm’s fairy tale. As a mother I have seen parents not watch their kids. There are 250,000 kidnappings a year. I can always find when I’m playing a bad guy. That was the key for me. They bought the series to do in South Korea and that’s the first episodes they’re doing, Mosley Lane. And Bud Cort played my husband, how cool is that? I can get on board with this because of Matthew. It depends what people like, which is great, I love it.
I guess it was that line, ‘why are you trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the earth?’ I started embracing that I was the salt of the earth. And it’s good, now, for people to be themselves, but I was definitely trying to be people I was not, and so that’s what he was saying but in a more poetic way — to be myself. I’ve gotten a lot of advice, though. I like ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ That’s what my husband and I say to each other all the time, because we’re still here, at our age. We’re still working. Last year, I might have worked more than ever, at my age. There is something to be said about persistence. Just outlive ’em and keep showing up and don’t go away, and eventually they say, ‘oh my god, give her a job!’
Which film or performance are you most proud of?
Grant: Most proud of? That’a a tough one! Well, I’ll tell you the riskiest one was No Country for Old Men. I had planned to do her pretty simple, just a ponytail with my hair pulled back. I was always going to kind of do that voice, because it was my grandmother, but when I went into costume fitting with Mary Zophres, who is so brilliant, she showed me her research book, pictures of women in 1980 West Texas, and they all those short perms, big hair, big glasses. My character was only 56, but these were old, old ladies. And we looked at these pictures, and I said ‘Mary, should we do it? Maybe we should do it. Maybe we should really do it.’ And she said ‘yeah, let me just talk to the boys.’ So she did, and they wanted to go for it. I got to the makeup trailer that day and they put that wig on and they gave me a bra with beans in it so my boobs would be saggy, and I got dressed and I thought ‘oh boy, oh boy… I am in trouble. This could go terribly wrong. I could ruin this movie with this character. I have to be so careful and keep her so real. At the premiere I was physically shaking because I was afraid of it. But then it seemed to work and it seemed to make sense to me that they needed the comedy right at that moment. Even the silver hair, because it was dark, and then suddenly there’s this person with light hair, and it worked, visually. I was just like, oh thank God. I’m also very proud of Kitty Farmer in Donnie Darko and I’m very proud of Sissy Hickey in Sordid Lies and Willadean in Blues for Willadean. I like a lot of my crazy characters. I love my character in Little Miss Sunshine with that big ol’ bouffant flip. She was a very specific choice, but I knew who she was from my life. I modeled her after someone I knew and I really felt I achieved that, and it really tickled me. It tickled me to see someone I knew from Greenville, North Carolina.
What’s your biggest professional regret, whether it’s a movie you wanted but didn’t get, or a movie you did that you wish you hadn’t?
Grant: Well, there are some that I didn’t get that I really wanted. Like, at the time, I really wanted Titanic, and Kathy Bates got it. I’ll tell you a funny story about it. I think the way it went was, James Cameron had offered it to Kathy and she said ‘no.’ Then he offered it to the red-headed country singer, Reba McEntyre, and that didn’t work out either. So at that point they brought in a bunch of us — what I called ‘the pacer horses.’ We’re tried and true, we’re gonna show up and do the job, but we’re not stars. A few of us went in, and I heard later that I was in the mix. That’s the line, ‘in the mix.’ And the next thing I heard was Kathy was doing the role, so I was like, ‘what happened?’ Now she may call me and say this isn’t true, but what I heard was that James wanted Kathy so badly, he wrote her a personal check for $100,000. And I said ‘how bad was I? I thought my audition was pretty good!’ And I heard she got a big bonus if they went over six weeks, and I think she got that. When I saw her do it though, I thought she was great, and besides, I had a baby and I thought I didn’t have any business being in Mexico with a baby. I’ve lost to Kathy a lot. One time I was auditioning for this western, and I had the best audition. I felt so good, and I did this little improv, and the director loved the line and he said, ‘well no matter what happens, that line is in the movie!’ And then he caught himself and realized that maybe he shouldn’t have said that. And I went home and told my husband, ‘I bet you anything there’s an offer out to Kathy Bates,’ and that’s who did it! That’s what happens. They put offers out to stars, and they’re not sure if they’re going to make the deal, and they want to have backup. And that’s reasonable. Remember The Boyfriend School with Steve Guttenberg and Shelley Long? I was the sex therapist, and I heard they had an offer out to a star, but I came in and wowed them and got the part, so you’ve got to take a chance, because you never know! If you have something special that they didn’t think about, maybe they’ll choose you. I never care if I’m the second choice. There are a lot of times where, if you get a last-minute call on Thursday to work on Monday, you know chances are pretty good that you’re replacing somebody, but that’s okay. What do I care? I got the part!
I imagine you’ve lost a lot of friends and colleagues over the years. Did anyone’s death hit you particularly hard?
Grant: George Romero hit me very hard, I have to say. In fact, it makes me cry right now, honestly. Isn’t that weird? I mean, I know he was an older guy, but he was such a special, special, kind man. I remember he came and sat with me at lunch time on The Dark Half. My part was very little, but he treated me like I was Maureen Stapleton or something. He was asking me questions, and then when we were working, I’d so something and he’d give me a note and say, ‘what do you think?’ And it was pretty early in my career. I had done a few movies like Flatliners and Rain Man, but he treated me like I was somebody flying into Pittsburgh. For some reason, I just always thought that we would work together again. You just get that feeling. I just thought we’d work together again, so that sort of broke my heart a little bit. I’d sent him messages through people.
And then crazy Jerry Van Dyke. I had recurred on Coach, but I also played his wife on Yes, Dear. He was the wildest thing, and he could tell so many funny stories. He was just a wild man, and I loved him. We went to his memorial service, and Dick was there, and they showed a lot of clips of them as young men. Their story was so beautiful. Dick Van Dyke was the first real actor I ever saw. I was six years old in Atlanta, and he had this local variety show called The Merry Mutes. My uncle was in town, and my mother took us to the station to watch, and they said, ‘oh, we don’t have an audience for this show.’ I guess they piped in laughter! But we were all dressed up, and I had on my black shoes, so I think the guy felt bad, and he said ‘come on, sit up in the sponsors’ booth.’ So they put us in the sponsors booth, and then Dick just played to us the whole time. I loved it! He was so funny, and so great. And then getting to work with Jerry, and meet Dick and his wife Shirley. We were all part of that whole Coach family. Coach was on a long time, and even though I didn’t do many episodes, I was close to the whole family. Barry Kemp, the producer on it, we’re still very close friends. So Jerry Van Dyke and George Romero, those two for sure.
And then, of course, Patrick Swayze. We were in acting class together, and he helped me accept myself as a character actress. We were doing Virginia Woolf, and I started to cry, and he said, ‘don’t you know you’re beautiful?’ And then years later, we were in To Wong Foo together, and we weren’t quite on the same page during one scene, and he said, ‘this is like when we were doing Virginia Woolf,’ and I got it. And in Donnie Darko, he played my hero. I miss him.
What’s the key to longevity in this business?
Grant: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘don’t die.’ I think earlier I used the phrase ‘ego deflation at depth,” which is not originally from me, I’ve heard it before. But for me, not letting my ego get involved. My friend always says, ‘my ego is not my amigo.’ Keeping my ego out of the way and being willing to say yes, and to audition. My agent, she thinks I’m Meryl Streep. We’ve been together 26 years and she’ll often say, ‘this really should be an offer.’ And maybe we’re not on the same page, but better to find out in an audition than to find out on the set. Every once in a while I won’t audition because the part’s not for me, or I’m just very busy, but most of the time I will say ‘yes’ and I will audition. I know a lot of people who won’t. I have a friend who shall remain nameless because she’ll get mad at me, but she called me one day and was like ‘I’m looking at your IMDb page and you do all these shorts. Do they pay any money?’ And more often than not I say ‘they come through friends.’ She said, ‘well why on Earth do you do them?’ And I said ‘I get to act!’ And I like it! I like to act. I do student films. I drove to Whittier once. James Franco was teaching this class with masters students, and all of the students would write the script, and then they would divide the script up and direct different segments. I was happy to help them. I didn’t have anything to do for those couple of days and it’s fun for me to be with the kids and young people who are learning. So that’s it. Remember to keep your ego out of the way and remember to be of service.
It still hurts a little sometimes. I’m not a saint! Believe me, when my part gets cut down… I mean, I’ve been cut from many movies. Poor Scott Cooper, when I got cut from Crazy Heart, he was so sweet on the phone. He said, ‘you’ve been in, you’ve been out. You’ve been in, you’ve been out. You’re still in… but not much.’ He was sweet on the phone, and he was right. They didn’t need it. I was a girl at the bar and Jeff Bridges picked me up and slept with me, and that was it. Most of the time I agree with it. I’ve had some heartbreak after getting cut, like Love Field from Don Roos. I really loved that part and they called me from the editing room in New Jersey and they said, ‘Beth, we wanted to tell you you’ve been cut from the movie.’ I was speechless, because I had so looked forward to this, playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s best friend. They said, ‘we were running long, the cut was over three hours, it was easier to take out your storyline,’ and I was like ‘Oh my god!’ And he says ‘Jonathan really loves you.’ And I’m just yelling ‘Oh my god!’ And then, so help me God, there was a lightning storm in southern California — which is rare — and the telephone went dead. And I thought, ‘my God, she must think I jumped off the balcony!’ So once we got power back, I said, ‘please tell her I’m okay. Please tell her we lost power, but I’m okay. I’ll be alright.’ Of course, there’s still heartache. I’m not saying I don’t have an ego, because I do, but it breaks my heart. But you get over it. You take a walk. I’m so lucky, I have my family, and I have a really great husband who’s also a character actor. We have this great family existence. It’s sort of like we’re not in show business in a lot of ways. We’ve just always been active with soccer and active at school, so I have a life. I think you just have to keep your ego check, and be of service, and have a life. Don’t let it be everything. Don’t chew your arms off over it, because it’s just show business!
What’s next for you, and I don’t just mean in terms of your acting career, but what’s next in terms of the grand scheme of things?
Grant: I don’t have a great answer, but I feel like I’m at a crossroads, that’s for sure. I have a secret, because I can’t talk about this series, but it’s a very fun, fun part, and as soon as I get permission. So I’m excited about that, but it’s not mine, I’m just a small part of it, but I do love it a lot. There’s a bad guy movie I may do. But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about though. I do want to go back to Italy and take my daughter, because she’s never been there, so that should be fun. I have this play I’ve been working on forever, The New York Way, and I’m going to have a table read. Matthew Gray Gubler is still a great friend and he read it and liked it, and there’s a great role for him, so when he finishes Criminal Minds maybe we’ll have a table read. We’ve done lots of lots of rewrites. That’s the one thing I finally learned about writing. You’ve gotta keep at the rewrites. My mother said to me once, ‘I don’t believe in rewriting,’ and I said ‘Momma, Tennessee Williams says writing is rewriting. She said ‘no, no, I don’t believe that.’ So I’d like to try and help get that made. And then Frances Fisher and I wrote a series with a camera. We did it with improv. The production value is terrible but we’ve got 12 episodes and a sizzle reel, so that’ll take some work. I really feel like this is the time, maybe the last time, when I get to figure that out, and it’s a very important time for me because of that. I want to follow my heart. And thank god that financially we’re very secure, and I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I’m much more calm and relaxed about my work, I have much more fun with it. I’d like to find a project with people that I love that doesn’t have any heat on it that we can just do the creative work around it with no pressure from a studio or a network or millions of dollars at stake.
Looking back on your career, did you accomplish everything you set out to do? Are you satisfied?
Grant: Oh my gosh, way beyond. If my dreams had come true, I would’ve sold myself short, because it was very superficial in the beginning. I didn’t know I could ever learn to love the actual work as much as I do. I love acting. When Kim Basinger won her Oscar, she said she loves what happens between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ and I love that line. Just put me in a black box and push me out on stage with a crowd of people. So I would’ve sold myself short, because in the early years I would’ve settled for fortune and fame, and I would’ve been a reality star instead of an artist, and I do hold my head up high that I am an artist. I’ve created all these characters, and even though my writing may not have amounted to very much, I have had the experience of finding that little moment with a writing partner, where we just cheer because we fixed that one little thing. I would’ve sold myself short, for sure.