The first time I met Mary Louise Wilson was at a screening for She's the Best Thing in It, the documentary about her life. I was familiar with Wilson's work — she'd won a Tony for her brilliant performance as Big Edie in Grey Gardens and received critical acclaim for her play Full Gallop — but I wasn't prepared for just how much she, and the film, would inspire me.
Soon after, I bought her memoir, My First Hundred Years in Show Business , and I couldn't put it down. It was full of wit and humor and determination. With a stage and screen career that spans over 60 years and is still going strong — her most recent role was in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black — Wilson has seen and done it all.
I was told that she doesn't often do interviews, but I emailed her personally and hoped for the best. The following day I received a phone call from a number in upstate New York. An unknown, but familiar voice on the other line said, "Hello. I got your email. Do you wanna do it now?" No introduction was needed; we organized to meet at her Manhattan apartment.
"I have to hug you," I blurted out, when we met the following week. "Well, OK then," she replied. Without meaning to, or perhaps she was meaning to, she already had me laughing out loud. By her own admission, Wilson will do anything to get a laugh. At 84, the actress has bought her own tombstone, and on it the engraving: "She's the Best Thing in It."
In a West Village coffee shop, we spent an hour together talking about life's great ups and downs, the glory of being in her '80s, and why it's so important for women to be funny.
Olivia Clement: My first question is inspired by the opening line in your memoir: you say you went from playing featured roles on Broadway to auditioning for bag-lady roles against actual bag ladies. You've experienced so many highs and lows in your career; what's that been like?
Mary Louise Wilson: It's hell, but it's every actor's story. You think you've arrived at some plateau, and the next thing you know, you're not getting any calls. I'd heard that if you win a Tony, you won't hear from anybody — I don't know what that's about, but it's true.
OC: The Tony curse?
OC: It's also every artist's story. Do you think that when deciding to take the creative path in life, you just have to be prepared for highs and lows?
MLW: I don't do well with the lows at all. I don't think any actor does. There have been times where I've felt like show business was a drag, but then something fabulous came along. Good parts are hard to find. Fortunately, there are a lot of good parts for older women. Between the ages of 25 and 60 is hell for a woman; you're in no-man's — no woman's — land.
OC: So it's easier to find work as an actress after 60?
MLW: Oh, yes, because there are parts for mothers and grandmothers, but it's still a man's world. Tina Fey — God bless her — she said it best: If you're not fuckable, you're out. I loved her for saying that.
OC: Do you feel like there are more opportunities for women nowadays though?