NOTE: This interview with Udana was conducted January, 2015. In this installment, publicist Bill Murphy (BM) and multi-talented Udana Power (UP), discuss Udana’s career from 1981 up through 1989, stopping just short of her appearance on Knot’s Landing.
BM: Let’s pick up where we left off last time. In our last interview we covered your stage work with Katharine Hepburn and your work with soaps, General Hospital and all of your commercial work.
UP: Yes, okay.
BM: And that takes us up to – I know some of this stuff was going on at the same time, but as far as your movies and TV work go, 1981 was something called High Risk. Do you remember what that is? You are actually uncredited as Gail. How did you get uncredited for that?
UP: Oh, yes, that was a movie. What do you mean? How did I get uncredited?
BM: According to IMDB your name is Gail in it, but then in parenthesis it says uncredited right beside it.
UP: Hmmm…I have no idea.
BM: What is High Risk? I can see it’s four –
UP: High Risk is a movie. It’s on DVD. Bruce Davison was in it and James Brolin.
BM: James Brolin, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn. It’s a huge cast.
UP: Yes. They flew us down to Mexico. I was playing Bruce Davison’s wife. We shot in Mexico City. I had a day off and went to the pyramids of Teotihuacan and ran up to the top. I still have a little, marble frog I bought at a concession stand there. I am blown away that the production company flew me down there because all I had was one or two scenes. Bruce Davison was my husband and I was giving him a birthday party in our back yard. I didn’t go into the jungle and do all the adventure stuff with them.
It was a small role and, as you know, in the film business the slogan is “Hurry up and wait.” At one point I was stir crazy. Bruce is an amazing guy with a wonderful sense of humor. I knew him in Los Angeles. I think he’s a genius – one of the most remarkable actors I have ever seen. Truly gifted. I know he plays a lot of corporate bad guys in major motion pictures, however, those roles don’t show the full power and range of his talent. Just to give you a quick aside – a friend of mine named Norman Twain was producing a show down at what was called the Westwood Playhouse at the time. It’s now the Geffen Playhouse… but then it was a classy little theater called Westwood Playhouse. I remember you had to walk through a furniture store to get to the theater. I was watching a watching a show – I think it was Streamers – and there was an amazing actor who literally glowed on stage. His talent was dazzling. He played a gay guy in the army. He had pathos and humor and I still remember some of the things that he did on stage. I was mesmerized by his pure talent. There are times in your life when you see something very special and don’t know quite what it is… however, you know it’s special. That was Bruce Davison. We became friends through Norman so, when I got cast in High Risk, I was really thrilled to be performing opposite him. I knew he had a sensational sense of humor. One of our big scenes was in the backyard where I was giving him a birthday party with kids and in-laws sitting at a picnic table. My job was to put a birthday cake in front of Bruce, and congratulate him. It was all about this ordinary guy with a great home life going on an extremely dangerous adventure into the jungle with his buddies. I was the happy wife and snug home life. The director was cool and seemed to have a sense of humor, so I pulled him aside and said, “After we get the take you like, I’d like to do just one more where, as Bruce leans forward to blow out the candles, I gently shove his face into the cake.”.
UP: The director said, “Cool.” So we did a couple of takes and got what the director wanted on film and then he looked at me at me and nodded. Gulp. I couldn’t believe I was really going to do this. The Assistant Director slated the scene, the Director shouted, “Action!” and I entered the scene with the birthday cake and set it gently in front of Bruce. He looked up at me, made a wish and then leaned forward to blow out the candles.
I gently rested my hand on the back of his head and then guided his face down into the icing on the cake. Plop.
He looked up in shock with vanilla icing all over his face. That was a wrap on that scene.
UP: You don’t normally do things like that on a set because it can get very expensive if they need another take. But with permission we did it.
BM: Did that eventually end up the take they used?
UP: No. Hopefully it ended up in a gag reel somewhere. It was just silly. I like silly.
BM: Did you keep in touch with Bruce Davison after that?
UP: Yes and no. I haven’t kept in touch with him lately. When I started doing my one woman show in the early 80’s I was set to perform it at a restaurant on Pico Boulevard called At Marty’s. I called Bruce and asked if he would come over and give me some direction. He gave me some amazing feedback.
He came over to my living room where I had dolls set up all over the couches and chairs in the living room, like they were people. I was terrified. This was the first time I had sung like this in over 8 years… the first time since I had gone down with Candida. I had all my accompaniments on audio tape in the order I was singing them and was performing the show again and again with the dialogue in between the songs to the dolls. Occasionally a cat would wander in and wonder what I was doing. Bruce sat there on the other side of my huge living room and watched. He gave me some of the most poignant direction I’ve ever received. The show turned out to be very successful and I continued to keep his suggestions in for the ensuing 5 or 6 years that I performed it all over Los Angeles. To this day, every time I sing “Being Alive” (from Company) or “The French Song” I include what Bruce suggested.
When I did the short film “Late For The Date,” I wish I thought of having Bruce direct, however, another director friend of mine volunteered to bring in all the cameras and it all came together with a life of its own. John Callas did a terrific job. I kind of overacted, though. I produced the whole thing myself – got all the crew together and was overseeing it. Even made my costume. By the time we got to shooting day I was so tired that I couldn’t fight the director. I just wanted to get it done. He wanted me to stamp my feet, I didn’t want to stamp my feet. It was overacting. He won. I stamped my feet.
Bruce is one of our great American actors. He is deeply sensitive as well as a really funny man. I haven’t seen Bruce in ages, but it would be fun to reconnect with him. I am so delighted to see he is doing so phenomenally. That’s a great idea. I should connect with Bruce at some point.
BM: The next show in your career is in 1988. We have talked about it many times before. It’s the funny clip of you singing with Suzanne Somers in She’s the Sheriff.
UP: Oh, my gosh. That was one of my favorite shows ever.
BM: (Laughs.) How did you get that gig and what was it like working with Suzanne Somers?
UP: You know, that was one of those things that came out of the blue. Literally. Someone called me and said you would be great for this. We were thinking of you. Come in and audition. I have no idea how it happened. I went over to audition at Sony Studios in Culver City. A friend of mine, David Goldsmith was producing. I actually think it was the writers who called for me, but I didn’t know them well. It’s one of those crazy Hollywood things. I auditioned and got the job. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done. Suzanne Somers was generous and had great timing.
BM: What was the most challenging part of that? Sounds like it went really smoothly and you had a lot of fun. Was there any part that was difficult or challenging to you?
UP: No. It was like falling off a log – basically because they let me do what I wanted to do. All that counting in the background of the song – that’s from so many dance classes. I did it just like I would have if I were an amateur rehearsing. And then, out there on the ledge – it was just natural for me to hum my silly background to her song. (both laugh). They let me go with a lot of my own intuition. It was fun. And my hair was very 80s.
BM: Yeah, but everybody’s was at the time.
UP: Yes. Fluffy hair and big shoulder pads. She’s The Sheriff was one of my favorite roles ever. I’m sorry we can’t buy it on DVD. I was glad to have at least a taped copy of it. I actually met with David Goldsmith a couple of months ago (November 2014) and we had dinner. I gave him a copy of my episode. He hadn’t seen it for years.
It’s funny…looking back, that show was a total highlight of my life. So was Happy Days. And working at the Dorothy Chandler and Mark Taper Forum. When you’re in the middle of living your life you don’t realize how magical it is. You’re just doing what you do. It’s so important to just jump in and live every moment.
BM: Is Suzanne another one you have kept in touch with over the years?
UP: Yes and no. I was still very broke when I did that show. I was coming out of the long illness. I didn’t have $20 to pay for the autographed photo of Suzanne and me on the balcony. I never picked it up from the studio, because they wanted me to pay for it and $20 was a big deal then. Suzanne was already very famous and successful. She had a husband and family, a series of books and a line of clothes. I was just trying to put my life back together wondering how I was going to pay the rent from month to month.
After I became very successful in Isagenix I would run into her at health conventions. We would both have different booths and see each other across the room and squeal, “Oh my gosh!! Hi!!” And run to hug each other. During the time I was sick, I literally disappeared from the scene. I couldn’t stay in relationship with anyone. All I could do was stay home and experiment with ways to get well. After starring in The History of the American Film at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles I just went home and went to bed. I had no idea at the time how sick I truly was. It was a long hard row to hoe coming back from that. I found that there are some things that we can only do by ourselves… and with God. This was my journey back to life. We talked about this, didn’t we?
UP: I had a systemic fungus colonizing all throughout my body, attacking my liver, my adrenals and my ovaries. Candida Albicans. Nobody knew much about it in the 80s. I looked really good, but kept sinking deeper and deeper into weakness. There were times when I felt like someone pulled a cork out of my toe and all my energy was leaking out. It was scary. By about 4 p.m. every day I couldn’t finish a sentence. I would just pass out. I didn’t even talk to my family – I actually didn’t have much family. My older brother had his own life and my younger brother was touring with a rock band. My father was who-knows-where and my mom… she just didn’t know about this. I had my manager, however, he was pretty annoyed at me for being unable to work. I was fighting for my life at that point, so I really had no time for a social life. I stayed home and discovered wheatgrass and living food and kept meditating. I was doing everything I knew to figure out how to get well. And I did. The big problem was that M.D.s didn’t recognize Candida Albicans to be a threat at that time. It was pretty unknown and I had had it since I was an infant. I consider everything after my 40s to be free time. I rebuilt my health, then spent ten years learning how to write and writing eleven screenplays and one play, then stepped back to “do money.” I studied business a bit and built a strong residual income. Now I am getting back to creative work again. It’s wonderful. I have a healthy body and money coming in. That’s an important foundation for an artist.
BM: That’s awesome.
UP: Yes. I’m very grateful. Life is precious. It’s a true gift. You don’t really know how much of a gift it is until you are on the brink of losing it.
BM: The next show was a TV series with a guy you had worked with on Soap. Do you remember, Empty Nest in 1989 with Richard Mulligan?
UP: Absolutely! I love Richard Mulligan. What a gifted guy he is. Yes. I got hired by Paul Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris. They were partners on the breakthrough series Soap. Susan wrote both of them. Those sets were really warm and fun and generous. Paul, Susan and Tony chose amazing character actors for all their shows. Fabulous faces…Richard was one of them. Absolutely hilarious.
Those sets were wonderful because we actually did each three-camera episode as a mini-play in front of an audience. We would rehearse it for four days, then camera block it for a day, then tape in front of a live audience. For those of us who were from the theater it just was like falling into a warm pool of love. It was just – it was having fun with a lot of human beings doing what you love.
BM: That’s great.
UP: I would have loved to have done a whole – well, I did do a whole series, didn’t I? Oh, my God, that was wonderful, too. It was different than Soap or Empty Nest. The series that I did, The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts (L.A.T.E.R.) was done one show per day – five shows per week – like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The same writer/producers for Mary Hartman Mary Hartman created L.A.T.E.R. In Empty Nest, Soap and the other sitcoms, you had time to settle to your blocking. Paul Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris made history with Soap. None of us knew it when we were doing it. We were just doing the best we could with what we had and doing what we loved. In L.A.T.E.R. it was like running in front of an oncoming train. It was FABULOUS…just different.
BM: What’s your favorite memory of Richard Mulligan? What about him sticks out the most?
UP: The way he would process something that confused him.
UP: I can see it now. Someone would say or do something and he would just look baffled and confused and then kind of shake his head trying to process this new piece of information. You could see all the gears going inside his brain, like he was trying to figure something out. Things were whirling inside and not quite striking all the bells that they were supposed to strike. You could almost see little springs flipping out of his ears. He was a good-natured person just trying his best to understand something and not quite knowing what. He was a gifted comedian. Great timing.
You see, acting is not about performing. Acting is about reacting and processing. It’s about thinking things through in character. When you are a young actor you try to “act.” You pretend like you’re feeling an emotion. You hope you look like you’re doing it “right.” That’s wrong. And it’s exhausting. My manager gave me the most important tip I ever got about acting… he said that I have to “think the thoughts that the character is thinking. Focus on the thoughts and the words will take care of themselves.”
After he said that I went to look at some of the acting greats. There’s a scene in Now Voyager where Bette Davis is just in front of the camera thinking thoughts. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Her facial muscles are not contorting into this and that emotion…she is just thinking. I was so drawn in, I was mesmerized. Her face automatically reacts to some of her thoughts without indicating “I’m feeling this way or that.” She’s just thinking and the feelings are welling up as a result. I was flabbergasted when I studied that. It changed everything about the way I work.
That’s when I learned how to really work out my subtext – those are the thoughts behind the words on the page. I learned to write down all the thoughts I was having as the other person was talking. For everything everyone says to my character in a scene, I write down five possible replies that I might make to their comment and then choose what to say… which is the line the writer wrote. Once I started setting up those neural pathways in a scene, then I can go from thought to thought to thought rather than from line to line. It creates dimension. It’s what we do in real life. We never know what we are going to say in response to someone saying something. We always quickly scan what our reply is going to be, then reply. That leaves me wide open to watch and respond to what the other character in the scene is intending, what they are not saying and what they are saying. I can respond to it all. It becomes much more interesting for me as an actor and I’m sure much more interesting for the audiences. Then you can find the contradictions. The contradictions are what make performances rich and wonderful.
Ahhh…I can talk about acting forever. And writing. This is what I like about what Richard Mulligan was doing. He would go from thought to thought to thought, and we were glued on him. That’s what I remember about him the most. What do you think when you think of Richard Mulligan?
BM: He had sort of a funny way of reacting to things. You know, he would kind of tilt his head or he would make a funny laugh or something that was – it may have been exactly what you are talking about when he would not quite get something in character and he would react to it with kind of a funny giggle or something. It was just hilarious to watch.
UP: (Laughs.) Exactly.
BM: And what you described with Bette Davis when you said acting is not about performing; acting is about reacting and processing.
BM: I have noticed in your career from the start I have mentioned to you before your work in Hawaii Five-O or even Kolchak where I can see you when the camera is on you and somebody else is talking, I can see you just listening. It’s not like you are waiting for the next line. I can see you listening as that character would. I notice that about you right from the start. You are very good at listening in a scene.
UP: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. When I learned that, it became easy. I began to understand the process and then you can kind of disappear and it’s just the character thinking and reacting to the influences around them. Then you can go from moment to moment and have things be unexpected each time you do the scene. Then you can just turn it over to life flowing through you…and you can say “I love you” in so many different ways that it will surprise even you, the actor. It’s new each time. It’s not that you make up something new each time – you allow something new and unexpected to just take over.
BM: You know, I was just going to ask you this because everybody knows television and movies are scripted.
BM: How can you make something – in other words, what does it matter if you are listening if you already know what your next line is going to be? What is it you are doing at that point?
UP: That’s the knack right there. That’s the difficulty that new actors run into all the time. First of all they know what the next line is…and then they don’t LEARN their lines well enough. If you don’t know your lines well enough to rattle them off like Tommy Gun, then you will always be trying to think of your next line in the middle of your scene. You’re not in the scene…you’re thinking of your next line. You have to learn your lines so well that you can just rattle them off back and forth with your scene partner. You cant stop to think, what’s my next line? You have to know them. And then you also start discovering the many thoughts behind the lines. It will surprise you. You’re literally bringing something alive from another dimension.
I read somewhere that Tony Bennett won’t sing a song in front of an audience unless he has been singing it perfectly for at least two weeks. Every word in that song has to flow. You can’t think about, oh, what’s my next line? If you have to worry about remembering what you are going to say next then you are in big trouble. Spencer Tracy said it well when a young actor asked him for advice. He replied, “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” That’s his lesson in acting.
Once you know your lines that well, you never have to think of them… you can now just drop into the scene and go from thought to thought. Lots of spontaneous things start to happen. It’s fresh and new every night. The first time I did that was in a play called Jimmy Shine. After I got back from New York and Coco with Katharine Hepburn, I played Constance Frye in Jimmy Shine at the Stage Society Theater. We worked from the scripts at Samuel French. The scripts from Samuel French are small, like little poetry chapbooks. The pages are written on both sides, unlike a movie screenplay. In order to write all my subtext under everything I took a big art sketchbook, cut holes in the middle of the pages and taped the pages of the script in each big page. I then wrote all my subtext on the large white area of the sketchbook around the small script of the play. I knew what I was thinking when other people were talking. Constance Frye was a real human being. I just dropped into Constance Frye’s world every night at 8 o’clock when the show started. I didn’t even know whether I was good or not…I was just totally pretending that I was Constance. It was wonderful. I was actually surprised when I got a review from Daily Variety that said I was “the greatest thing to hit the American stage since Sarah Siddens.”
I did the same thing for Gone with the Wind at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I think of it as just creating the circuitry for it all. Then when you switch on the electricity it just flows through that circuitry. I was thinking in these terms long before computers. The point is, when it’s time to live that character’s life, I just step into that circuitry and let it take me. I forget to be nervous because once I step into it I’m thinking, reacting and it all stays on track like a roller coaster. It’s thrilling and surprising and outrageous at times… and it stays on track. The words become less important. It’s the thoughts that are going back and forth.
UP: And then it has emotional impact. Once you get there and you are rehearsing the thoughts, then all of a sudden the whole thing comes alive.
I was supposed to do a scene for the head of Universal Studios talent, a man named Bo Wilson. When I was rehearsing the scene with my partner we were still just doing the words back and forth. They got very bland after a while. I mean, you go over the same thing over and over and over and you are rehearsing in the car and in the outer office and then go and do a scene in someone’s office. It can get flat. So what we decided to do was just rehearse the ideas. We knew each other’s lines by that time, so we just threw the thoughts back and forth silently and reacted to each other’s thoughts.
Dean Rhodus, the fellow I did the scene with, is an amazing singer and a really fine actor. When we got to the waiting room we just quietly sent the thoughts back and forth to keep us focused. Then, when we got into Bo’s office we took a breath, jumped into the scene itself and let the words fly where they may. We followed the current of energy. It was exciting. Bo said later that it was the best scene he had ever seen. (Laughs). Words are just the scaffolding of a whole building. The words are only the bare skeleton of what is happening that holds it up in the physical world. That’s why an actor like John Gielgud could just sit in the corner of the stage thinking and steal a scene from actors chewing the scenery center stage. (A friend of mine witnessed John Gielgud doing just that in a Repertory Company in London.)
When you are walking into a world as an actor you want to see everything that is around you in that world. In order to do that, you have to put it there.
BM: I see.
UP: You have to build the world in your imagination around you, then walk into that world. If you are in someone’s office or on a stage or in front of a camera, you are in that world and then you just allow that circuitry of your thought to take over. Something happens in every single scene, otherwise the scene wouldn’t be there. We don’t tune into a show on TV to watch somebody watch paint dry. You are tuning into something to watch a peak experience happen. Actors live emotionally peak experiences every performance they do. It takes a lot of adrenalin.
A psychologist wrote a book entitled “The Way of the Actor.” He wanted to understand what makes actors tick so he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and studied them. What he discovered surprised him. Amongst other remarkable things, he said that every time an actor steps on stage and does a performance he goes through as much adrenalin as a regular person does in a 3 or 4-car accident. Actors do that on cue. It requires great reservoirs of energy, focus and dedication.
BM: I can imagine.
UP: It’s an amazing way to be pushed to live your life more deeply. We get to live lots of lives in one life. Another thing is that comes to mind is that we can use this same strategy to practice The Law of Attraction. We can design our character and our background and the surroundings, and then start living that day to day and start activating another energy in the world and create different results. There’s that whole story about Jim Carrey writing himself a check for $10 Million. And others rehearsing being on set or winning a great role. We carry our destiny with us wherever we go. These are the mechanics of it. It’s a different slant to do it in real life, however, this is the mechanics of it.
I read for a wonderful director at one point, a guy named Alan Levi, brilliant guy – oh, Sondra Currie’s husband.
BM: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
UP: After I read, Alan looked at the page and then back up at me and said, “I didn’t know that was in there.” I don’t remember if I got the job or not. But it felt good.
BM: Oh, wow.
UP: You build it. You put it there and then it just reveals itself and it’s like you are on a ride just as much as the audience now. But you can’t be on the ride if you don’t know where you’re going.
UP: It’s like a roller coaster. It takes you up to the top and then – whhaaa, whoohoo! You know you are going to be on this ride and it’s pushing you to places that you don’t want to go and yet you are thrilled to go. You are ecstatic and you are terrified and you are going anyway. You know? And that’s why I think interactive movies, where the audience chooses the ending, don’t work. The hero has to be forced to learn a life lesson. Just like all of us have to be forced in life to learn. Life will keep hitting us over the head again and again with the same lesson until we change something. Same with the Hero in a good movie. And we always identify with the Hero.
BM: You’re right.
UP: We get pushed into a place where we have to grow to be something beyond who we think we are. We are on the Hero’s Journey…and it’s our journey. Our life is a Hero’s Journey.
BM: Let me recount what you are saying and then I am going to ask you a question. You’re saying completely immerse yourself, know all your lines to the point where you don’t even have to know your lines, they are just a part of you.
BM: Now, in a television setting you know there’s multiple takes possible. There is a director that can say cut at any point and contrasting that with a live stage setting is very different to how you act or react knowing there is a director hanging over you at any second to say cut versus being on stage where you are out almost without a net. You know what I’m saying?
UP: That is a very good question. They are very different. In a television or movie the camera is so intimately close you can’t project like you do in a theater. In a theater, stage actors have to have the inner energy to project their Being-ness to the back of the theater. In front of a camera, they quiet that all down. We are peering into their soul. Stage actors do phenomenally in film because they have their craft, however, you have to be internal on everything. The camera is reading your thoughts. A lot of screen actors don’t know how to project on a stage and cause the audience to vibrate with their thoughts and emotions. It’s a feeling. A knack. You adjust to it. They are two different mediums. A really good director is going to help you bring it alive and help you temper it for the situation. Actors depend a great deal on a good director. I have heard that a director’s primary job is casting the right actor – that it’s 85% of getting a good performance. Then you let the actor go with their instincts and then give them the security to go into their deep emotions and help them adjust it for the scene and the situation.
Also…you’re right about the stage actor hanging out there all alone. In a movie you get to have multiple takes and different angles. And then the editor can choose the best of the best, and re-edit things to make it better. A stage actor just hangs out there on his or her own and makes it happen. There is no fall-back. You are doing a highwire act without the net.
UP: A really good director will not give line readings and will not try to impose his personality on what the actor is doing. He will provide a place for the actor to come up with what is inside them. He will help them focus it. He won’t interrupt.
A movie and a stage play are two entirely different things. In a stage play, you in the audience can be entertained and danced to and sung to and raged at. In a movie, you are peering into someone’s soul. It’s like the difference between singing on a theatrical stage in a musical and crooning a song into a microphone in a sound studio. In the theater, an audience is being entertained and pleasured by all the external stimulus. When you are listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra while slow dancing with your lover… then it’s seeping right into your soul. You don’t want Ethel Merman or even Bette Midler belting out a showtune while you’re deep in the intimacy of romance. They are two different things. A true performing artist adjusts for each medium.
Take a look at Les Miserables. On stage it was one thing…and then what Anne Hathaway did on screen was incredible. What I saw her do on screen with that song was one of the most remarkable acting performances in a song I have ever seen. The director provided the safe place and then she just opened up and spilled her guts out. From my understanding, she got that in one take. There were other takes, however, on that one she nailed it. That’s all she did that day on set. Can you imagine doing THAT for eight performances a week for months or years on end? Actors are amazing. When you see a great performance, it is a remarkable orchestration of talent, skill, and abandon.
In a theater, an actor focuses his energy out to make sure that everyone hears and experiences everything. It is projecting on a wave of authentic emotion. I’m sure you’ve seen actors “phone it in”… they will pontificate and pretend. We’ve all seen crocodile tears onstage. A good actor starts out with an authentic connection to whatever the emotional line is and moves from there. If you don’t do that, then when you get to the big emotional scene the true emotion isn’t there. If you don’t feel it, then the audience doesn’t feel it. It is an AWFUL feeling to be onstage knowing you are supposed to sob in a scene, and to not have tears come. It is unthinkable be thinking about Chinese food after the show, instead of being in the character’s world confronting the human emotional challenges we are all faced with.
UP: I learned that one the hard way. I was Melanie in Gone With The Wind at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. At 8:00 I had to be Melanie, in love with Ashley and going through the devastation of the Civil War. It was heart wrenching in parts. I was asked to sob in specific scenes. There was one night early on when I wasn’t emotionally in the right place. I had to pretend I was sobbing. It was AWFUL. Terrible. I vowed to NEVER let that happen again. Never. I made it my job to get to the theater at 5:30 every evening for the 8:00 curtain. I would meditate, focus and align myself by doing T’ai Chi on the stage every evening. I felt like I was “warming up the theater.” It occurred to me that there was never a bad audience. There may be a quiet audience… but never a bad audience. They had spent their money and their time to come to the theater…they were humans who wanted to be entertained and feel deeply. It was of no matter if they were loud and boisterous or quiet and attentive. My job was to warm up the vibrations in the theater and go to where I had to go as a spiritual being to bring forth the emotional intensity of the moment. And the amazing thing is… when I did that, the emotional intensity was inexhaustible. It was something else working through me. There’s nothing like it, Bill. It’s an amazing experience. To hear the buzzing of the excited audience out front while you’re standing behind a huge curtain. And then the live Orchestra begins to play the Overature. It’s alive and breathing. Everyone is becoming attuned to the same adventure. The audience quiets as the music soars and then the curtain lifts and you are in another world. You are all together in this magic world of creation. Of theater. Of great art. Of Atlanta or Charlston during the Civil War. Of Paris in the 1800s. Of New York City with a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Together the audience and the performers, the musicians get transported into another realm. It’s indescribable. It’s my passion. A deep, deep passion that I am so grateful to have been able to indulge.
UP: You want to connect with that same authentic emotion on a movie set, but it’s quieter. It’s hard explain. You just have to see the difference and adjust something inside.
The amazing thing is…the movie you make lasts forever. The stage show you perform in disappears the same night you create it.
BM: Have you seen the movie Birdman yet?
UP: No. I hear it’s wonderful.
BM: You are going to love it because it’s a movie with really long takes, a lot of track shots, uninterrupted. It’s like the whole thing was a filmed play. I don’t know how all these actors did that. They are just very good.
BM: But one of the characters in it was an actor named Edward Norton and he plays – he almost plays himself because it is a really cocky, over-the-top guy who likes to walk over lines or change words or all this kind of stuff.
BM: Have you ever been on a set – you don’t have to name any names or anything – have you ever been working with somebody like that who is just stepping on your lines or wanting to change things or overact or try to take the spotlight from you? Has there ever been anyone like that in your career?
UP: Hmmmm…at the very beginning I hired an accompanist who was more interested in showing his virtuosity and trills than supporting me as a singer. He wasn’t accompanying, he was competing. I finally had to work up the courage to tell him this wasn’t going to work. It was embarrassing, because he was such a good piano player. However, he was struggling to compete with me rather than creating a collaborative work of art. I have later become so grateful to work with some amazing accompanists who are also absolutely remarkable musicians.
As an actor, I remember when I started learning how to do scenes, we would learn our lines and then complain that the other person wasn’t saying their lines the right way in order for us to say our lines the way we wanted to say our lines. I look back and see how laughable that is. However, that’s one of the stages an actor goes through to learn their craft. Great actors don’t compete, they collaborate. Each actor raises the emotional power of their partner. I never felt competition on stage, however, I did get fired for being too good. So I guess that there was some competition, wasn’t there? I just didn’t see it.
BM: Oh, yeah.
UP: Really good actors are more committed to the magic that they are creating together. If someone is pompous and hogging the stage, they make themselves look shallow. The audience notices everything. I love audiences. It’s an intimate relationship. Fabulous.
When I was in New York in rehearsal for Coco, I had an afternoon off. My leading man was David Holliday, who had just finished doing Man of La Mancha. He arranged for me to have tickets for a matinee. I was floored. The guy who played the lead was so boring that I couldn’t stand it. I finally figured it out when he took his bow. His bow was so pompous and over-the-top that it was actually more entertaining than his performance. He was a terrible actor with a nice voice. Snnorrrrr…ZZZZzzzzz….
UP: There’s a huge difference between a real actor and someone who is just parading around on stage with a “look-at-me” sign blinking on their forehead. It takes a great deal of humility and personal power to move that energy from “look-at-me” to I’m a character who is passionate about attaining a goal.
BM: Well, you were really busy in the late 80’s. You had ’88 with She’s the Sheriff, ’89 with Empty Nest. You had ’89, ’90, ’92, ’93, you were on a roll here. Right after Empty Nest you appeared in the same year in a show called – it was a movie called Cast the First Stone. Do you remember that one?
UP: Oh, right. Yeah, I do, with Jill Eikenberry. She was on L.A. Law. With Susan Dey. Susan Dey was a wonderful friend! I haven’t seen her in years.
UP: In 1977 Susan and I did a pilot together – Loves Me, Loves Me Not for CBS. That’s when I met Art Metrano. He’s still an amazing friend. Right after that I went down with Candida. In late 80s I was just coming out of that whole thing with Candida. I mean, I was just rebuilding my life again, and it was really hard because I was on my own and literally starting all over from scratch.
I had to sell my condo. I was lucky to be alive. I had enough money from the condo to rent a beautiful upper duplex in Hancock Park. It was a good. I was going on some auditions for commercials, but that didn’t feel right. I can’t remember what was happening. When was that, late ‘80’s? I had come home from almost marrying Michael Morris. Artie would come over and go into his comedy routines. He was hilarious. My roommate and I would literally be rolling on the floor laughing. What a great friend he became from doing that pilot in 1977. I later did a show with Artie at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard. It was called “Fatty” – the story of Fatty Arbuckle. Joey Bishop was in it with us. Artie was Fatty and I played his wife. That was the first show I did when I had the strength. When the chose me for that I realized that it was time to come out of my shell and back into the world of the living.
After that I would spend Christmas up at Artie’s house with his wife and kids. He would invite my younger brother, Zavier, up. Zav would come and play guitar. (Zav was a virtuoso guitarist. I’m working on a book about him.) Sometimes I would sing. It was quite wonderful. It’s amazing how friendships flourish in this business.
BM: That was ’89.
UP: So that was just about the time I was going on auditions again. I think that was about the time I started writing and it was – I was living – ’89, yeah, I had moved into the upper duplex. I had sold my condo in ’84 and I was going on auditions looking to reignite my career and doing a one woman show at that point, so I wrote the show and put it together and did a few jobs like that, but at that point I realized that the jobs I had available to me as an actress were different than the one’s I had had ingénue. It was not as easy as when I had been the “fresh young thing” who was up and coming.
I had already been to India to meet Osho and back and was starting to write. I had a vivid “download” for a screenplay that a young, up and coming producer friend of mine wanted to produce, and he said, “I want to produce that. Write up a treatment. Give me a synopsis.”
I tried to write it and then realized that what looked relatively simple was really quite complex. The hard part of writing a synopsis for a screenplay is structuring it. I had no idea what I was dealing with and had never had any desire to write before. That sent me off in a direction that I’m now very grateful for, but at the time it felt like I was chewing rubber bands. I knew I had to figure it out and just set out to fall in love with writing. I had an actor friend of mine who had written Stand By Me and Starman. I called and said, “Ray, do you like writing?” He replied, “No, but I love having written.”
I really don’t know why or how I did it. It was like climbing Mount Everest, the hardest thing I have ever done. I committed myself to understanding story structure from the inside out so that I could develop a story from anything as well as to fall in love with the process of writing. It took about five years of total focus and concentration, and it happened.
During that time I started going on auditions for commercials again. I was showing up at the same casting offices I frequented 20 years prior, however, instead of there being 30 people for each call there were now about 600 actors going out on every audition.
The last acting audition I went on was the one where I decided that I didn’t want to go on another audition again.
I got the sides (the script) and had to go and be a mother who was in a convenience store with her daughter when some robbers came in and kidnap the daughter at gunpoint.
BM: That’s a commercial?
UP: No, it was a TV show. I waited politely in the waiting room with a dozen other actresses, then went into the room with the casting girl and the director, producers and whoever else was there and proceeded to fling myself into the scene. I felt like my heart was being torn out of me, begging the kidnappers to not take her.
When I was done with the scene I gathered my emotions back together and looked around. They were stunned. One of them said, “Are you alright? Are you okay?” I said, “Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I’m an actress. I was just in the scene. That was just my job. That’s what I do.”
Well, I got a callback for the audition right away. In the meantime, as I was driving home I realized that I had just felt something emotionally that I didn’t want programmed into my being. I didn’t want to create tragedies like that in my life, so I kept saying to myself, “Cancel, cancel cancel,” as I was driving home down Beverly Boulevard. At one point I decided to buy myself a shirt that I didn’t really need just to off-set the negative emotions that I had just felt. I’m not a big shopper…so it was an unusual thing for me to do. I still remember the shirt. I had to let my subconscious know that I was okay.
UP: I went to the callback a few days later and did the same thing again. When I got into the room, the casting girl started reading with me and I found myself in that convenience store with my daughter being abducted in front of me and just went for it. It was wonderful. And they again had the same reaction. They asked if I was okay. I came back to a stable emotional place and said, “Yes. I’m fine.” They were kind of stunned. What I realized is that I had a very stable “island” to come back to. When I threw myself out into that world of the mother losing her child, I could be there totally because I have a very stable place to come back to in the physical world.
As I drove home from the audition, I bought another shirt. I also pondered what I was doing to myself. Were these the kinds of roles that I was going to be going out for now? Do I want to put myself though all this?
And then my agent called to tell me that they really liked me but I didn’t get the job. I didn’t look enough like the girl they had cast as the daughter. After four days of learning lines, focusing, waiting for the phone calls, purchasing shirts and generally being distracted by the whole thing, I didn’t get the job.
Well, that kind of finished my desire to go on any more auditions. I was already working on my script about Don Juan, which ultimately became the favorite script I have ever written. I realized while writing Don Juan that I could play all the roles. I had an emotional outlet as an artist. I got to move into the world and experience it all, and at the same time create that was not only cathartic, dramatic and powerful, but also redeeming in some way. The script about Don Juan is actually a spiritual journey. It’s very physical and raunchy, however, it’s also a spiritual journey.
So I just said, “What do you want to do, Udana?” And I realized it was most important to me to stay home and become a writer.
So that’s when I stopped going on auditions. You see, everyone sees actors on the screen and thinks that’s their job. No. Their job as an actor is to go on auditions. Again and again and again… just go on auditions and go on auditions and go an auditions. I had been going on auditions for 20 years and 20 years later I found myself starting all over in the same casting rooms. I stopped and took another road. Again, the Road Less Traveled.
Any other commercials or films I did after that was with directors who called for me. The only other ones I’ll do now are for friends or are things I create with a role I create for myself. I can do that, because now I’m sleeping with the writer. Me. And my cat named Pearl.
BM: (Laughs.) Oh, yeah I know how that goes, yeah.
UP: Yeah, and I said to myself, “As terrified as I am and as much as I don’t like writing, I’m going to fall in love with writing. I have no idea how it is going to happen, but now I’m going to just keep doing it till it happens. And it did. I found a way.
Now, I thrive on writing. As I am growing older I can actually have a career and able to write and create and do all kinds of things that, in a million years, I wouldn’t have been able to do as an actress. I am developing some things now that, as they get made there will be cameos in for me. I’m also writing a one woman show. Before I was writing screenplays, I was writing songs. A song is a mini-acting performance. I love acting. I love performing. I love writing. Time for me to create things that I never would have been able to do as just an actress. I hope people like them…I just have to do them. It’s amazing where life takes us, isn’t it?
BM: That’s true and actually you know what? I was going to ask you about your next role in Knots Landing, but let’s save that for next time because what you just said is a perfect coda to our interview today.
BM: So let me stop with that and then we can talk about some other stuff.
Thank you, Udana, for your time. And Saij for her wonderful transcription.