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Frank J. Avella Talks To
Blanche Baker

Knowing Blanche

 

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 soon...

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 children.

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 boot!

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?

Blanche 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.

Blanche Baker: Oh my goodness! You know that was a great film and it was so under appreciated.

Frank J. Avella: Incredibly.

Blanche Baker: Meryl Streep, Barbara Harris, Alan Alda...

Frank J. Avella: What was it like working with them?

Blanche 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 who directed?

Blanche 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.

Blanche 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.

Frank 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?

Blanche 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 well!

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?

Blanche 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.

Blanche 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 Bliss)?

Blanche 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.

Blanche 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 Albee.

Blanche 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?

Blanche 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 film.

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?

Blanche 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_


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