"I know when I'm good, I'm like a piece of granite," said Grace Zabriskie of her role in Marguerite Duras' "L'Amante Anglaise" (at Stages through Sept. 1).
Zabriskie plays Claire Lannes, "a woman with a mind and a sensibility that have totally been discounted and overwhelmed by the situation she lives in, the town she lives in, the husband she lives with--and then this deaf-mute housekeeper is brought in. One day, Claire gets up, murders the deaf-mute, takes her down to the cellar, chops her up in pieces and throws them into passing trains. The police reassemble the body, but never find the head."
Hardly the stuff of nursery rhymes. Yet while audiences are taken along on a reconstruction of events, it is the revelation of this fascinating woman that eventually surpasses the actual deed. "In the end, there are no explanations. It's an existential act: She did it because she did it," Zabriskie said.
"I don't judge her," she continued. "She's guilty; it was wrong. Marie Therese didn't deserve it." And yet, she remains protective of Claire: "I don't like her, I love her. I love the part that has tried and failed (to be with) people. And the way she thinks about things, the way she's succeeded in clearing away everything in her life that would distract her."
In the last regard, the parallels between Claire and Grace "are so strong, it's not funny."
"I'm always torn," she sighed, "between love and intimacy with another person (actor Tony Maggio, whom she met when they co-starred in the play "At the Mat") and the part that's not functioning a whole lot these days: my writing. (Zabriskie has composed poetry for years and contributed a short story, "Screaming Julians," to the anthology "Pleasures: Women Write Erotica.")
"I never wanted to be just an actress," she said. "I was a silk-screen printmaker for six years in Atlanta; I really love that. What I do now is collages out of photographs--and carpentry, framing. I have to do things with my hands."
Yet since January, Zabriskie has been acting almost nonstop, filming a movie in New Orleans ("The Big Easy") while flying back and forth to Los Angeles to work on "Hill Street Blues." When the film ended, she returned in earnest, shot an episode of "Cagney & Lacey," filled in for her understudy in "At the Mat," then jetted off for six weeks in a New York play. Back home in May, she began shooting the film version of "At the Mat," simultaneously rehearsing her role as a madam in "Look Homeward, Angel" at the Pasadena Playhouse, and, on her off-night, performing in "L'Amante."
It is the actress' second crack at the role (she originated it three years ago, winning an L.A. Weekly Award)--and a welcome return.
"She's better," Zabriskie said of Claire this time around. "More concentrated, less busy. I'm more concentrated." The last time, her over-intense delivery resulted in torn chest ligaments--and one night, in a gagging scene, her bile rose to choke her. Now, the only concession to theatrical accuracy was a brief sexual abstinence: "I wanted a few days of more of what her life was. I didn't want that release. What it actually gave me, who knows. But I needed it."
Zabriskie also uses what she calls facial and vocal "sets." They've helped her portray such diverse characters as the Kentuckian mother-in-law to Farrah Fawcett in "The Burning Bed," a frazzled factory worker in "Norma Rae" and the tattooed lady in the Taper, Too staging of "Talking With."
"With a dialect or accent, the most important thing is not the pronunciation of the words, but the vocal timbre--which is unique, which is specific. Each culture teaches you how to hold you body, your face, your mouth. . . . I've always noticed stuff like that."
And she's often been praised for it. As early as age 3, "people would say to my father, 'What a beautiful, brilliant little girl.' And I remember thinking, 'You shouldn't say that. I'll be spoiled.' "
It's a sentiment she still carries.
"Part of why you work is to get that stuff (adulation). But you're a fool if you believe it too much."