Julie White isn’t exaggerating when she describes as a “huge roller-coaster ride” the interlude between her final performance of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” on Broadway and her reprise as the Hollywood agent from hell in the comedy’s West Coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
In quick succession in spring 2007, White closed the show after a disappointingly short run, coped with what she calls “a runaway husband” and bounced back by winning a Tony Award for leading actress in a play in a tough category that included Angela Lansbury, Vanessa Redgrave, Swoosie Kurtz and Eve Best. Then in September, a limo that was ferrying her to the Alamogordo, N.M., set of “Transformers” -- for her role as Shia LaBeouf’s querulous, scene-stealing mother -- veered out of control and flipped over several times. She emerged shaken but unhurt.
“The medics put me on that board, and that was the worst for me,” the 47-year-old actress animatedly recalls with a clipped tone that one critic described as “an Uzi in a velvet muffler.” “Lord, if that’s the first step in waterboarding, they’ll never have to get to the water part because I’ll tell them everything they want to know. I haaaaaate being trapped.”
In that way, at least, White is like Diane, the unfettered and Faustian manipulator in “Little Dog,” who is a sister of sorts to Ari Gold, the scheming agent in HBO’s “Entourage.” Diane has a much better wardrobe and a finer sense of irony, which she wickedly exploits as she brings the audience into her confidence to tell them a Hollywood fable about her client, one Mitchell Green. He’s a handsome, closeted movie star whose meteoric career could be in jeopardy when, as she puts it, his “slight recurring case of homosexuality” threatens to become more than that when he falls in love with a male hustler. Seeing her first-class meal ticket going up in smoke, Diane springs into action.
The creators of “Little Dog” had little faith at first that White could pull off a character who has been called “Mephistopheles in Manolos.” Before “Little Dog” came along, the actress had established a thriving off-Broadway career playing women more victimized than monstrous in plays by Wendy Wasserstein (“The Heidi Chronicles”), Donald Margulies (“Dinner With Friends”) and Theresa Rebeck (“Bad Dates,” “Spike Heels”). She also demonstrated she could play wacky, as she did for five years in the TV sitcom “Grace Under Fire.” Or even meddlesome and maternal, as in the film “Transformers.” But a cold villain, as Beane had originally envisioned her?
“I wrote the play for Cynthia Nixon,” admits Beane, who says Bebe Neuwirth and others were also approached until, at the eleventh hour, the role was offered to White, who’d been involved previously in a reading of the play. “Julie was a warm, kooky lady holding court, which wasn’t really what we wanted. But she grew more peculiar, full-blooded and energetic, and I thought, well, when Satan comes from hell, he’s going to be very charming, a total delight because he has to seduce. And that’s what Julie does to an audience.”
Indeed, when the play premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage in January 2006, before transferring to Broadway, White unanimously seduced the critics. “An irresistible adrenaline rush of a performance,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. ". . . And while you might hate the cultural sins that Diane stands for, you can’t help loving the sinner.”
When White is asked if Diane is symbolic of any values that could apply to American culture at large, she laughs and says, “I’m sure some very gay graduate student is working on that thesis as we speak, so I’ll just leave it to him.” But she makes it clear that she thinks of the character as an archetypal blend of Glinda the Good Witch, Tiger Woods and a checkout girl from Pomona who saw the big glittering life beckoning and reinvented herself. Diane has replaced the apron with drop-dead couture fashion and never, ever looked back.
“Diane doesn’t think she’s shameless, just good,” says White. “She has no fear. Life is a chess game, and Diane is always 18 moves ahead because she can see the whole board. The goal is always to win, she’s totally focused, like Tiger.” And with typical spontaneity, White picks up a recording device on the restaurant table and yells into it: “If Tiger’s people read this newspaper, please, please invite me to play in the Tiger Slam. Pleeeeeease! You let Teri Hatcher play, and I can play as good as her!”
The actress is so enamored of the golfing champ that she has a shrine in his honor in her Brooklyn aerie, complete with an artificial putting green. She lives there only with her Pomeranian, Lulu, now that her daughter by a first marriage, Alexandra, is at USC. Alex’s father is a Greenwich Village bar owner, also from Texas, who did a mean two-step and made a fabulous Bloody Mary.
“What can I tell you? It was kind of a dopey thing to marry someone 22 years older than you are,” she recalls stoically. “But I’m blessed with Alex. She made me really strong, gave me a focus to balance career and motherhood in a way I never would have otherwise.”
That strength and resiliency is Texas-fired, coming as it does from a long line of pioneer women in the mold of her grandma Ruby, her mother Sue Jane, a therapist, and two other of White’s favorite icons, the late columnist Molly Ivins and Gov. Ann Richards. White was born at a naval hospital in San Diego -- “the longest baby, 2 feet 2, ever born there!” -- but the family moved back to Austin, where her father could indulge his ranching fantasies. In third grade, White was saddled with a debilitating ulcer. “Unlike Diane, I’m full of self-doubt. The minute I say anything, I immediately think, ‘Did I just say something stupid?’ ” says White. “But third grade? What could have been the pressure, my multiplication tables?”
While on sick leave from school, White was able to catch the morning Movie Musical on Austin’s Channel 24. She instantly fell in love with Gene Kelly and the “underrated” Ginger Rogers. Inspired by the exhilarating artistry and craft, she threw herself into being a drama queen. Her first professional engagement, at 16, was playing Alice in a local production of “Alice in Wonderland,” followed by a starring role in “The Baker’s Wife.” The musical’s creators, composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Joe Stein, encouraged White to make the leap to New York. “Until that moment, I never even thought that you could make a living as an actor,” she says.
Though her first major New York gig was in the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical “Lucky Stiff,” White quickly became known as the go-to girl for new plays. “I love doing new work. It’s more challenging,” she says. In fact, recalls White, an early incarnation of Diane came in the form of a saleswoman enthusiastically hawking purse-sized handguns to women in a Jane Anderson play, “Smart Choices for a New Century.” She was so convincing that people would come up after every performance and ask her where they could buy such a handgun. “I’d have to say, ‘Uh, no folks, you got the wrong message.’ ”
Underlying that character’s psyche is a clarifying anger that is recognizable in Diane, as well. “I think on some level this may be some sort of subliminal revenge fantasy, some man may have done her wrong,” White says. “Her take on the world is ‘I’ll show you because I’ll own you.’ ”
White is nursing hurt, not anger, over the breakup of her six-year marriage to Christopher Conner, a TV actor several years her junior and “another cowboy.” They met while she was guest-starring in her friend Alan Ball’s HBO series “Six Feet Under.” “Boy, that was a hard one, a real shockeroo,” she says. “It was like the car accident; I didn’t see it coming. We were so darned happy. So I guess if you have a couple of happy years together, there should be no downside. . . . The hard part was I forgot to eat, I got a little ‘rexy.’ But I’m back to normal now.”
Plunging back into theater has been therapeutic, she adds. She received more warm accolades for a recent off-Broadway appearance in Liz Flahive’s “From Up Here,” in which she played a fiercely protective mother dealing with a son’s propensity for violence and revenge at school. And now returning to the role of Diane, she’s asked how the roller-coaster ride of the last 18 months might affect her performance.
“Well, when your heart is broken, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen,” White says philosophically. “So I guess Diane might have a little more of a broken heart, maybe a few more cracks in her heart.” Then with her saucer eyes widening, she says with a laugh, “If I can find it!”
‘The Little Dog Laughed’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Next Sunday to Dec. 21
Contact: (213) 628-2772