Acting With authority
Nearly every character on “Smash” belted out a tune at some point during the first season of NBC’s backstage musical drama. Still, it came as a surprise when Anjelica Huston made her professional singing debut at age 60 by crooning a tender rendition of Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill’s 1938 ballad “September Song.”
From her Venice Beach home, Huston notes, “ ‘September Song’ is particularly poignant for me because it made my grandfather famous on Broadway in a show called ‘Knickerbocker Holiday.’ It says so much about how each moment becomes golden and precious with the passage of time. The song has a lot of resonance for us Hustons. We played it at my father’s funeral.”
“Smash” songwriters Mark Isham and Scott Wittman had to coax the actress to reprise the number made famous by Walter Huston, but once she got into character as tough Broadway producer Eileen Rand, the actress warmed to the task. “Eventually they wanted me to stop, but it was so much fun I kept singing. ‘Are you sure you have enough?’ ‘Yeah, we’re fine, we’d like to go home now please for the weekend.’ ”
The musical performance and the series represent a new direction for Huston following the death of her husband, acclaimed sculptor Robert Graham. “When my husband died four years ago, it changed a lot of things in my life,” Huston says. “I had trepidations about the project because ‘Smash’ was the first TV series I’d ever considered doing. If I were still married, I don’t know if I would have been able to pick up and go off to New York and do this kind of thing. But this is a time in my life where I’m kind of finding my way again.”
Like Oscar-winning actresses Sally Field, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, Huston, an Academy Award winner for her performance as a wily mobster heiress in 1985’s “Prizzi’s Honor,” appreciates the rich roles being offered on TV.
“I see television as something of a savior,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Downton Abbey,’ watching Maggie Smith in full sail. The idea that Shirley MacLaine is coming on to play Elizabeth McGovern’s mother fills me with such joy. It’s wonderful that older actresses are getting real parts.”
Modeling her shrewd “Smash” character partially on movie producer Sherry Lansing and the late showbiz agent Sue Mengers, Huston brought a couple of her own ideas to the table when she met with series creator Theresa Rebeck. “I said I’d like two things out of the character, largely because my life is apt to imitate my work. I’d like Eileen to get her money. And I’d like her to have a lovely love affair -- something that would give women over 50 a little hope,” Huston says with a laugh.
Eileen Rand’s love interest on “Smash,” rakish bartender Nick (Thorsten Kaye), offers Huston a chance to soften the fierce persona she’s presented in such films as “The Grifters” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The series also showcases Huston’s newly discovered gift for hurling beverages in the face of Michael Cristofer, who plays annoying ex Jerry. “If I have to say so myself, I’m the idiot savant of drink throwing. It’s amazing how good one can get at that really fast, probably from all the times I’ve tamped down that instinct.”
Most important, Huston, a six-time Emmy nominee, invests Rand with a hard-won gravitas that more nubile talents can only dream about. “Smash” producer Neil Meron says, “We needed a major authority figure who wielded intelligence, toughness and compassion. Anjelica brings such a powerful personal history when she walks into a room, it alters the atmosphere.” Meron’s producing partner Craig Zadan adds, “Besides being such a brilliant actress, you kind of want to talk to her all night just so you can hear stories because she’s so in touch with this legacy.”
Huston was born in 1951 while her father, John Huston, was in Uganda directing “The African Queen.” She grew up on an estate in Ireland, hit London in her teens during the city’s swinging ‘60s heyday, understudied for Marianne Faithfull in “Hamlet,” moved to New York at 17 after her ballerina mother, Ricki Soma, died, and became a model for Halston. She moved west, where she made movies and lived with Jack Nicholson for 16 years. After their messy breakup, Huston married Graham in 1992.
“I’m starting to feel like the Zelig of my time,” says Huston, who heads to New York in July to start work on the second season of “Smash.” “I’ve been around for a bit, and a lot has happened. Let’s just say I’ve tried to have my cake and eat it too.”