Was it challenging to imbue a teapot with charm?
I think the way you approach her is as a little fat woman who was the cook and who happened to be in the guise of a teapot for the purposes of an animated movie by the Disney Studios. Consequently you attack it purely as a whole person, not that she's made of china or that she's breakable but that she's a little busy, fat, overweight lady who's a bit of a charmer, who cares very much about her little boy and is a strong member of the workforce at the castle. You play a whole person.
Was this animated role your highest-profile one to date?
Absolutely. It's high on my list of credits, as they say. Funnily enough, I was looking at the Turner Classic Movies [site] this month as the star of the month, and I was looking at all the things that I've done, and you realize that this is the one and only time in which I was able to play a very warm, cuddly, little person who's a teapot, and it's not included in the group of movies, sadly. But nevertheless, it did strike me as I was reading through, and I thought to myself, "Thank goodness, I'm so grateful to Disney for letting me do this."
I guess this would be the anti-Mrs. Iselin, your ruthless "Manchurian Candidate" character.
Totally. [Children] don't know that I've done those other things. They know me by my voice because children hear me in a supermarket; sometimes I'll be chatting with a friend about lettuce, and suddenly a child will say, "Mrs. Potts!" It's enchanting.
If you stop and think about it, you could say Mrs. Potts was [inspired by] our friend in [the original 1979 Broadway production of] "Sweeney Todd," Mrs. Lovett. Mrs. Lovett also was a lovable little person — with a heart of steel. Mrs. Lovett and Mrs. Potts are not so far apart.
They're both little cockney ladies. There's an ocean between them.
Yes, one is a murderess and the other is a Disney character.
So was the '90s a decade when the only film work you did was in animation?
In the '90s I was doing "Murder, She Wrote" through '96. Really up until 2000, I was involved with "Murder, She Wrote" two-hour movies, extension of the series.
I've read that while you were doing "Murder, She Wrote," you felt like you were trapped in your home in Brentwood.
Yes, I did.
Because shooting a TV series is a 24-hour job. You work Monday through Friday; you get up at 5:15, you get home at 7:15. You have no social life; you just have time, maybe if you're lucky, with your family over the weekend, your grandchildren and so on, and that's OK. But you have no other life whatsoever, and this went on for 12 years. After a while I was dying to get out of it and move on. But you get trapped by success sometimes.
Why couldn't you just leave the series?
Because there were too many people involved. You have to consider that my whole family was on board — my husband, my sons, my brother. We were Corymore Productions, and we produced the show for Universal. You feel an allegiance and a fondness for the workers, the gaffers, the electricians, everybody involved dependent on the show, a show that was as highly rated as we were for all the years that we played, except at the end where they moved us from Sunday night to Thursday night. We lost half of our audience and then we were replaced. So that was the end of that.
Why did you move to New York in 2006 after so many years in L.A.?
I love New York. My most happy, wonderful years were spent in New York with my husband, Peter [Shaw]. And after he died, I was here alone with some members of my family very much there for me but nonetheless involved in their own lives. I was left here, being in Los Angeles having had no life here, no social life. So I thought, 'Well, I think I'm going to get an apartment in New York and spend part of the year there. I'll go back and see lots of shows and go to concerts and opera and see lots of museums and live the New York life,' which I hadn't been able to do in the past because I was always in a hit show on Broadway.
So I find an apartment in New York, a very modest, small apartment, and buy it, and I'm not there for very long before I get a request from my friend, Terrence McNally, the playwright, who said, would you consider doing a play? ["Deuce."] So then I started back into the theater again, which I absolutely love. I come back for the holidays, do Christmas and cook the dinner and do all the good stuff that one enjoys as a family. And now I'm getting ready to put the house to sleep again and go back to New York and start rehearsals on the 10th of January for a play ["The Best Man"].
That should be an interesting choice for election season.
I think it's a perfect choice. Gore Vidal is an astute and extremely good writer, although he's not known necessarily as a playwright, but as a political writer, he's bar none about as good as you get. So I think it will have a resonance certainly this season.
It is dark, but it's the sort of thing we've been watching and noting every day on the television and on the news, the kind of brickbats the candidates [aim at each other]. It's nothing new. Politics have always been like this, down through the ages. I come from a political family so I know.
My grandfather on my father's side [George Lansbury] was the leader, the creator actually, of the Labor Party in Britain in the early part of the 20th century. And my father was involved too to a great extent although he was also a businessman.
So were dinner table discussions pretty lively when you were growing up?
Yes. I attended a lot of the great, great meetings at places like the Albert Hall in London and the huge Labor rallies. And I remember the speeches, and I used to come home and try to do imitations of women who were speaking and I would give a long dissertation on something like the public lavatories or something ridiculous like that. Because the way that people presented their stories — whatever they were pitching for — I think that encouraged me as a kid to take on characters and to be people other than myself. Because that's how you begin as an actor, I think, is impersonating or taking on the physical attributes of people you watch. And you suck it in and use it later, but it's all part of your general experience.