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Entertainment & Arts

Talia Shire on ‘Rocky,’ ‘Godfather’ and Brando’s ‘great acting charisma’

Talia Shire stars in the new film "Working Man."
Talia Shire gets so nervous at auditions, she falls asleep. Her new film, “Working Man,” releases Tuesday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Talia Shire has spent the past few quarantined weeks performing Shakespeare in the living room of her Bel-Air home, much to the displeasure of her three dogs — who, she says, would prefer readings from Eugene O’Neill. She’s probably going to capitulate and open a solo production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” any day now.

“I’m a dog lover, but I’m not a leader of a pack,” Shire says, laughing during one of a couple of phone conversations. “Leadership is not my great talent. My French bulldog, Zazalita, she’s the alpha and I’m not the alpha, so we’re working on it.”

Shire will always be remembered as an essential part of two storied film franchises, playing Connie Corleone in brother Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy and the shy, inspiring Adrian opposite Sylvester Stallone in the “Rocky” movies.

In her latest film, “Working Man,” she portrays the loving wife of a Rust Belt factory worker who defiantly reports to work even after his plant is closed.

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“I’m going to bring up Freud. Are you ready for Freud?” Shire asks, talking about the film, available Tuesday on demand. “Freud says to be happy, a man needs a job and he needs love. This film speaks to that, which is pretty powerful at this moment in time.”

Talia Shire in "Working Man."
Shire in “Working Man.”
(Brainstorm Media)

Like everyone, Shire has been dealing with feelings of both loneliness and gratitude these days. She turned 74 on April 25, celebrating — from a distance — with two of her three sons and her grandchildren. It was a surreal scene.

How have you been spending your time in self-isolation?

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I have Turner Classic Movies on almost all the time. My favorite movie of all time is “The Red Shoes.” Oh, God. I saw it as a girl, and the beauty of it, the mythology of it, enraptured me. I love dance and movement, and it just cuts together so beautifully. And, of course, I’ve been listening to Bach. Bach has gotten me through more bad mornings. ... He can get me through this very tough energy we’re going through now.

After nearly 30 years as the LA Times’ chief film critic, Kenneth Turan steps back from weekly duties with a list of 14 time-tested classics to get movie fans through the hardest of times.

I watched “Rushmore” the other night — twice. Once with my son, and then again, listening to the commentary track with your son, Jason [Schwartzman].

I remember preparing Jason for the audition, because I enjoy that kind of teaching thing. First he had to give me a dollar though. Can I tell you something? I love to act. And I love the teaching of acting. But if it’s your own kid, they don’t respect you if they don’t give you 50 cents or a dollar.

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He got the part, so that was a dollar well spent!

I suggested he bring in props, like wearing the Rushmore blazer and having those little enamel school pins for punctuality and perfect attendance. Auditions are nerve-racking. So having those props can really be critical.

Did props help you? I understand auditioning was stressful.

I suffer from terrible stage fright. And my stage fright manifested itself this way — I’d fall asleep in the middle of the audition. How do you explain that? Vanity and insecurity? I don’t know. I’d just go to sleep. Believe me, I know it’s awful. People would say, “What’s wrong with her? Her eyes are closing.” I was terrified.

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I was warned you might be nervous just doing an interview. But you sound relaxed.

I’m falling asleep right now! You think I’m talking? I’m snoring! [Laughs]

You auditioned for “The Godfather” and you got the part, so you must have stayed awake for that.

I begged Francis for that audition, so, no, I didn’t fall asleep. You know, I should have been more sensitive because Francis’ job was up for grabs. The last thing you need on the movie set is your sister who doesn’t know what a mark is. They didn’t teach me that in drama school! I didn’t want to screw up. But I probably shouldn’t have been in that movie. It was probably very hard on him.

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Shire and Sylvester Stallone in 1976's "Rocky."
(Columbia Pictures)

Hard because there was a learning curve for you being on a film set?

You should know this. I’m very clumsy. So clumsy. I cannot parallel park without denting every single thing. And one of my first scenes, I came down the stairway and literally walked into the camera. And I’m going, “I’m the sister of the director.” I knocked it down, Glenn. And Marlon Brando came to me and he just held me. He understood.

What was it like for you as a newcomer to work with Brando?

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My acting teacher was Stella Adler, who was Marlon Brando’s teacher. And so I would call her because I was so in awe of him. All of us were. And she said to me, because she knew I had stage fright: “Your partner is yourself.” And Marlon Brando extended that. You were his partner. Therefore you were a part of his character and his great acting charisma. You feel that when you see Connie dancing with him at her wedding. The moment we came to that dance — I’m thinking about it right now — I didn’t fall asleep! That’s what I’m going to tell you!

Shire in "The Godfather Part II."
(Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Given what you’re telling me, did playing a shy character like Adrian [in “Rocky”] help ease your anxieties?

Yes. Adrian spoke to me because she was such a shy woman. And I was allowed to design her — the hat and the glasses — and play her that way. But, you know, a lot of actors are extremely shy. It goes to why I loved theater and drama. Wearing the creative mask is freeing.

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You earned Oscar nominations for both “Rocky” and “The Godfather Part II.” What do you remember about those ceremonies?

With “The Godfather,” I was pregnant with my son Matthew, and I just wanted to fit into the dress. The morning of the “Rocky” year, I had lunch with one of my favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck, at the Bel-Air Hotel. You know, in those days with the Oscars, you did it all yourself. And I had to buy a pair of shoes. And Barbara said, “What are you doing here with me? You need shoes!” But how could you miss having lunch with Barbara Stanwyck? Not in a million years!

What was the appeal of making “Working Man”?

I loved the mystery of it. Why does this man keep going to work after his factory closed? And I won’t fully get into it, because that would spoil things. But it speaks to people’s dreams and the transition we’re going through in this country. It really spoke to my soul. We all need a reason to get up in the morning.

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Does making a small movie like this bring back memories of your early days with Roger Corman?

You know, when we did the first “Rocky,” we had no money. And Burgess Meredith was this kind, collaborative teacher. And now that I’m older, I see if there’s something I can pass on to younger people. Maybe it’s telling them about Burgess Meredith or Barbara Stanwyck or “The Red Shoes.” I feel that’s part of my obligation. Being part of that community is a such an important and pleasurable part of the job, and, boy, let me tell you, I can’t wait to have that again.


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