J. Avella Talks To
What an absolute joy it is to
have Blanche Baker back on the stage where she belongs!
Well, where she partially belongs, she also needs
to be seen onscreen as well, and that is also a-happening
Blanche Baker, for those of you
who do not follow the careers of fantastic actresses,
made her film acting debut in 1976 when she appeared,
along with Meryl Streep, in the TV miniseries Holocaust
(one of the very first miniseries ever and the first
to deal with the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany).
For her devastating performance she was awarded
an Emmy at the age of 20.
The daughter of famed actress
Carroll Baker, Blanche went on to appear in The
Seduction of Joe Tynan, French Postcards
and Sixteen Candles, as Molly Ringwald’s
sister. Oh, sure, now you remember her!
Onstage she created the role of
Shelby (yes, the Julia Roberts part in the film
version) in Steel Magnolias and starred
on Broadway in Edward Albee’s infamous production
of Lolita, in the title role.
She then decided to leave acting
and devote her time to her family, raising four
Now she is back starring in Knowing
Bliss, a play by Arden Kass currently playing
at Teatro La Tea. And I am happy to report that
her beauty is as alluring as ever but it is now
tempered with a confidence, elegance and grace.
She is also kick-ass-intelligent and charming to
Blanche plays Laura, the adoptive
mother of Bliss, who is about to embark on a journey
to attempt to discover who she is. The play is ambitiously
directed by Lorca Peress, who uses multimedia and
dance in a fascinating manner. Blanche acts the
hell out of the part of the eccentric, slightly
off-kilter but well intentioned actress/mom who
never devoted enough time to her daughter. She explores
the nuances of this character with a comedic flair
as well as subtle dramatic strength.
I sat down with Blanche Baker
after a preview performance of Knowing Bliss
and she proved a delight to speak with--sweet, infectiously
passionate and terribly excited about getting back
to her craft.
Frank J. Avella: Bravo and welcome
back. What took you so long?
Baker: Well, I had four children and that
takes up a lot of time. Two are out of the house
now, so it’s doable. It’s good to be
back. I’m having fun.
Frank J. Avella: I wanted to
start out by telling you that I am a huge fan of
the movie The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
Baker: Oh my goodness! You know that was
a great film and it was so under appreciated.
Frank J. Avella: Incredibly.
Baker: Meryl Streep, Barbara Harris, Alan
Frank J. Avella: What was it
like working with them?
Baker: Alan was great. It was one of my first
films and I played his daughter. He was just such
a lovely man...he was one of those genuine caring
human beings and it didn’t get in the way
that he was a big star. It was a wonderful experience
and right out of the box there I was working with
Meryl Streep and Barbara Harris. (laughs) I was
pretty spoiled! I thought the movie was great. I
was actually surprised it didn’t do better.
Frank J. Avella: Was it Shatzberg
Baker: Yes, you’re good! Woah! you
should be on one of those game shows!
Frank J. Avella: Talking about
‘out of the box’...Holocaust.
Baker: That was one of the very first miniseries.
Now that seems like a genre that’s just been
there forever. And for me that one had a lot of
personal meaning because my dad is a holocaust survivor,
so before I did it I went to the town where he was
born in Czechoslovakia and then I traced his roots
through the concentration camps. So it had a lot
of meaning--especially that my work was appreciated
and that the project turned out well. It meant a
great deal to me.
J. Avella: In Knowing Bliss, is the mother/daughter
relationship what drew you to Knowing Bliss?
Blanche Baker: I read and I went, ‘Woah,
what a part!’ And I thought, yes, the mother/daughter
relationship is explored in an interesting way that
I hadn’t seen before because the child is
black and the mother’s white. But I thought
it didn’t fall into that sort of P.C. area
when it came to that because this mother is really
not a racist. She really was in love with a black
man. There’s no barrier between her and her
daughter. Her one flaw was she succumbed to social
pressure. The child is actually the racist. She’s
the one going on and on about the skin color and
trying to make herself this other thing. What’s
interesting is she’s (Laura) not a cracker
from the south. You can tell she’s intelligent
but she likes to crack jokes. And she’s truly
not a racist.
Frank J. Avella: Your character,
Laura, keeps a certain secret for 28 years. How
did you deal with that?
Baker: When you have daughters--I have two
boys and two girls--you sort of get it. It’s
interesting because you can’t really run away,
and I think that’s what this play is about.
You carry your baggage with you everywhere you go.
And in the end the bonds are very strong and you
can’t help it. I mean I sound like my mother,
I look like my mother, y’know (laughs)...oh
Frank J. Avella: Jane Fonda was
quoted as saying that having Henry for a father
opened a lot of doors, but once she got in, she
had to prove herself triple time. Did you find that?
Baker: Well I think it might have been one
of the reasons that I was happy to take a break.
I did feel that I was in my mother’s shadow
and that I was always trying to prove myself. I
think the truth is, it’s you on the stage,
it’s you on the screen, in the end. There
are more children of famous people that you haven’t
heard of...or they’re in rehab and you’ve
heard of them. So, it’s a hard thing to overcome
when you have a famous parent. And I think I was
troubled by that. It was one of the reasons I needed
to step back and come back now with this renewed
appreciation. Forcing myself to start over again,
which is a challenge and has been really interesting.
I’ve been very fortunate, but I think that
plays a part in it. It’s tough.
Frank J. Avella: Talking about
your stage work, Shelby in Steel Magnolias.
Baker: Yes, I originated that part, but I
had two kids at the time and it was really difficult.
It was great, though. I knew that play was terrific.
Bob Harling wasn’t known at all. And the first
time we did it was at the WPA and it changed a lot
by the time we got to the Lucille Lortel, but with
new plays, the writer needs to see it on it’s
feet and make changes.
Frank J. Avella: What has it
been like working with Lorca Peress (on Knowing
Baker: Lorca finds these new plays and gives
them life which is a great gift to give New York
audiences. She’s a powerhouse. It’s
unbelievable! (laughs) She does EVERYTHING! She’s
a very strong woman with great abilities. What I
like about this character...is she’s unflappable!
I love her strength. I think Lorca and I saw it
the same way.
Frank J. Avella: You seem to
have so much fun onstage.
Baker: I do! (laughs) That’s the thing
I like about comedy. I think that comedy in many
ways is more challenging. I’m having a good
time! But I think that that strength is my gift
to my daughter in this play. She doesn’t have
it. I think you need that. My dad always said about
the history of our family with the holocaust, that
unless you can accept it and KNOW...then it’s
a tree without roots and it falls over. That’s
my interpretation of what I give her in this play.
Frank J. Avella: I want to flash
back a bit and ask you about working with Edward
Baker: I loved it. I’m going to defend
him to the death. This man is brilliant. He’s
one of our most under appreciated playwrights. It
was such a treat to work with him. He was such an
idol of mine. I had to cross picket lines to get
to my dressing room. Women against pornography.
And I was twenty-five at the time. And the irony
is he wrote a play about love, but people didn’t
see it. They were just out there with their picket
signs. And there was a lot of infighting, which
was very hard between Donald Sutherland and Albee
and the director...but for me: I had a good time!
I was a young actress. It was the treat of a lifetime.
Every word was precious to me. I made sure I had
the motivation. I knew exactly what I was doing.
It was a great moment. And I got nice reviews. Despite
it’s (early) closing, I think it was appreciated.
When the proper work is done on his words, it is
magic. He’s a great great playwright.
Frank J. Avella: I agree. Any
film work coming up?
Baker: YES! I did two independent films.
I did a film called Jersey Justice, for
which we still have two or three days of pickup
shots. I play the lead--a soccer mom who becomes
a vigilante! (laughs) It’s very funny, but
it’s got a lot of action in it. What happens
is my son and my husband come to violent deaths
and I decide to take the law into my own hands and
I end up in leather with a gun chasing the bad guys
all around New Jersey. He's a first time director,
but he was a savant, like you, he knew about every
I did another film called Underdogs.
These independent films are great. I hate going
to regular movies. If I see one more remake of a
TV show! In independent films there’s excitement
and innovation. It’s a great way to come back.
I can work in that area and find good scripts.
Frank J. Avella: Do you live
in New York?
Baker: I live in the Bronx. Actually, Riverdale,
but it is the Bronx! We’re on this cliff overlooking
the Hudson River and all we see is the Palisades.
It’s very beautiful. I’m glad to be
back. I was born here. Central Park West! There’s
so few real New Yorkers.
Knowing Bliss is playing
at Teatro La Tea (107 Suffolk Street between Rivington
and Delancy) through Saturday, May 13th. The performance
schedule is: April 29th; May 2nd- 6th and May 10th
- 13th at 8PM. Sunday matinee on May 7th begin at
5PM. General admission is $18. Tickets can be purchased
in advance at _www.smarttix.com_ (http://www.smarttix.com)
or by calling (212) 868-4444. For detailed information
about the cast and production team visit _www.smarttix.com/shows.aspx?showCode=KNO0_