Julie Hagerty had to overcome her fear of singing and dancing for ‘Marriage Story,’ even after a 40-year career

Julie Hagerty
Actress Julie Hagerty continues to demonstrate her versatility in her recent projects.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Julie Hagerty’s movie career has included memorable moments in cockpits (“Airplane!”) and Las Vegas casinos (“Lost in America”) but she admits she was terribly frightened by a scene in her new film, “Marriage Story,” that takes place in an ordinary living room.

Of course, the scene involves singing the Stephen Sondheim song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from “Company” with Scarlett Johansson and Merritt Wever, who play her daughters in the acclaimed Noah Baumbach film.

“It was fun, and it was hard,” Hagerty recalled in a recent interview. “Merritt and I were practicing and practicing. Then Scarlett came in and did it in five minutes. I don’t sing. I don’t dance. But you just want to do it for Noah, who is a genius. He’s brilliant.”

Baumbach had no idea she was nervous doing the scene. “She later revealed that she was terrified about it,” he said. But, as always, Hagerty pulled it off with grace and wit.

The actress brings needed levity to “A Marriage Story,” Baumbach’s intense chronicle of the painful disintegration of a marriage between an actress (Johansson) and a director (Adam Driver). Hagerty shines as Sandra, Johansson’s loving and girlish actress mother who is divorced from her gay husband. (The movie is currently in theaters and will be on Netflix on Dec. 6.)


The actress is now 64, though she doesn’t look much older than she did when she and Robert Hays starred in 1980’s “Airplane!” or when she and Albert Brooks got “Lost in America” in 1985. Over a meatball lunch at a tony Beverly Hills hotel, Hagerty is warm and engaging and shares her insights about how she viewed Sandra.

“She’s a wonderful mother who loves her grandson and her other grandchildren and loves her daughters,” said Hagerty. “She’s not controlling but she wants everything to be OK — how she sees it to be OK. She hasn’t grown up to understand that everybody has to find their own way.”

Baumbach said he’s been following Hagerty’s career for decades. “I loved her in ‘Airplane!’ I loved her in ‘Lost in America.’ ‘Noises Off.’ She’s great,” he said. “More recently I have seen her in a couple of Wally Shawn plays, ‘Grasses of a Thousand Colors’ and his adaptation of ‘The Master Builder.’ She was just so wonderful. It was a different quality [from her usual roles].”

Baumbach noted that Hagerty was a fun collaborator on “Marriage Story.” “She’s totally there and ready to play. She brings something that only she can do. We rehearsed a lot. She’s there, she’s prepared and at the same time up for anything, and with the best spirit about it.”

Besides Baumbach, Hagerty was effusive about her costars. “They are these young talents,” she said, delicately diving into her meatballs. “They are as sweet as they are gifted and talented. Scarlett would get us — if we were working late — soup and grilled cheese.”

Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty in the 1980 movie "Airplane!"
Flight attendant Julie Hagerty tries to help pilot Robert Hays with his drinking problem in the 1980 comedy “Airplane!”

Wallace Shawn, who plays an actor in Driver’s company in “Marriage Story,” has known Hagerty since the early 1990s, when they did Tom Noonan’s off-Broadway play “Wifey” and in the 1995 film version (retitled “The Wife”).

“I can’t really describe her process,” said Shawn. “She seems to be one of the most completely spontaneous actors I’ve ever met. It seems that she’s like a very young person with an incredible imagination, so that she could imagine herself into any situation the way a 10-year-old might. Everything about Julie is very paradoxical because she seems like a very naive person who might not be able to drive a car, fix a car if it breaks down. But she knows how it all works.”

Hagerty seems as an actor to be “absolutely innocent,” said Shawn, “but on the other hand, I’ve seen her act on Broadway. I know that she has an incredible, what you would call, ability to control what she does to make the audience laugh, to do whatever the director wants her to do. When you act with her, it feels as if it’s never happened before. “

Hagerty also can be seen on Disney+ in the holiday film “Noelle” as Mrs. Claus.

‘She does a lot of different things — makes sure all the elves are in order,” Hagerty explained about the role. “It’s amazing to be an adult and say, ‘I’m playing Mrs. Claus in a Disney movie.’”

Many people still remember Hagerty best as the sweetly ditzy flight attendant in the blockbuster hit comedy “Airplane!” Though the spoof was wild and crazy, codirectors Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams ran a pretty tight set.

“Howard Koch Sr. was the producer and the one who believed in the boys,” she recalled. “He was on set every day. It was a very low-budget film. You had to do it quickly. The only cut-up was Leslie Nielsen,” who played the doctor aboard the flight; he brought his whoopie cushion to the set every day.

Hagerty, who is married to composer and theatrical producer Richard Kagan, says she is “having my childhood in reverse.” She loves horses but couldn’t have a horse as a child growing up in Cincinnati. She now has three rescue horses.

Adjusting to fame didn’t come easily to Hagerty. After “Airplane!” came out, she became a fan favorite.

“Somebody asked me for my autograph and that had never happened before,” she noted. “So, I got nervous and I’m dyslexic, so I signed it, ‘West bishes, Julie Hagerty.’ The guy gave it back to me and said, ‘You spelled it wrong.’ That was my introduction to signing an autograph.”