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The Next Phase

August 21, 1994|SUSAN KING

Bess Armstrong had a panic attack when she read the pilot script for "My So-Called Life." "I went to my husband," she recalls, "and said: 'I don't relate to this at all.' My husband was very curious. He took it and scanned several scenes and said: 'Honey, this is you."'

In "My So-Called Life," Armstrong, who starred in the sitcoms "On Our Own" (in the '70s), "All Is Forgiven" and "Married People," plays Patty Chase, the mother of introspective 15-year-old Angela (Claire Danes). In real life, Armstrong, 40, is the mother of two boys, 6 and 2 1/2. For the last several years, she's put her career on the back burner so she could be with her children.

Prior to "My So-Called Life," Armstrong had been offered other hour series but turned them down because she felt she would never see her kids. She decided to do this series because she knew and respected executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick of "thirtysomething" fame, and her schedule would be flexible because it is an ensemble show.

Besides, she adds, "I've reached that age where there are diminishing numbers of great roles for an increasing numbers of women over 30. To get a chance to play something like this, I just looked at my kids and said, 'We are going to give this a try.' It has really worked out well."

Armstrong points out that both Patty and Angela are going through enormous changes in their lives. "I think they are both in search of a new identity at a moment of transition where they have been one person for a while, and suddenly, it doesn't work any more. They are both kind of trying to figure out who they are going to be in the next phase of their lives. There is one wonderful script where the same day Angela discovers a pimple, I discover that the lines don't go away while I stop smiling."

She and Claire have developed an interesting relationship. "Claire and I have gone to malls together," Armstrong says, smiling. "She has major mall stamina--I thought I did!. It has been somewhere between friends and actually sort of having a kind of parent-child relationship. It's fascinating because I haven't experienced that. I enjoy it."

There's a lot of Armstrong's own mother in Patty. "As much as my mother drove me crazy at times when I was a teen-ager, I'm so grateful now that I have her voice in my head," she explains. "There are moments with my boys when I think, there are no rules, you can't read a book somewhere that says this is what you do in this situation. You just have to wing it, you have to take a deep breath and make a choice. That is when I hear her. I understand the position she was in, the difficult choices she had to make--to be the hammer, to be the bad guy frequently when you know your kid is going to be angry at you. You don't want that, but you have to do that. I find that I can do that with great ease because I'm secure in the fact that (my siblings and I) have remained unbelievably close to my mother despite the fact we battled with her the whole time."

Doing the series, Armstrong says, has been enormously rewarding for her. "I feel like I'm coming alive. A lot of it's funny and it takes me in directions I've never been able to go before. I'm loving it. I don't think I could have ever been happy in a show where the characters took themselves seriously. I think my sense of humor would constantly be sabotaged."

Herskovitz and Zwick had approached her several years ago about doing "thirtysomething," but Armstrong had to turn them down.

"It was an impossible time in my life," Armstrong says quietly. "I had just had a child who was severely ill and didn't live. It was impossible timing. That's why I loved the timing of this. It was like my 'thirtysomething' experience changed overnight with that incident. I couldn't relate to most people's 'thirtysomething' experience. I couldn't do that show. So now I am doing 'fortysomething,' and we are in perfect sync."

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