Christina Pickles Interview: "St. Elsewhere" and "Friends" Star Talks Career and "Break a Hip"
Image attributed to Christina Pickles
Christina Pickles is best known for portraying Nurse Helen Rosenthal in the groundbreaking NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), for which she received five Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. She was also nominated for an Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for her recurring role as Judy Geller on the NBC sitcom Friends. She appeared in many other television shows beginning in 1970.
Pickles began her acting career in the theater performing in Look Back in Anger, Measure for Measure, The Way of the World, You Can’t Take It with You, War and Peace and Hamlet, just to name a few. Film appearances include Masters of the Universe, Legends of the Fall, Romeo + Juliet and The Wedding Singer.
“I loved being in daytime dramas because you could work during the day and go and do a play at night.”
Currently, Pickles can be seen in Break a Hip, a short form web series written and directed by Cameron Watson. Her character, Biz, is an older, retired actress who lives alone in a one-room studio apartment in Hollywood who finds herself hiring a young, fledgling actor to help manage her daily needs. The series also stars Britt Hennemuth and David L. Lander and guest stars include Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, Peri Gilpin, Lawrence Pressman, Carole Cook and Priscilla Barnes. Two seasons of Break a Hip can be viewed on the series website. For the role of Biz, Pickles has earned her seventh Emmy nomination, this time for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series. The 70thPrimetime Emmy Awards will air September 17, 2018, on NBC.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Christina, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Christina Pickles: My pleasure. Where are you speaking from?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Birmingham, Alabama. Can you detect an accent?
Christina Pickles: (laughs) It’s very nice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): First, congratulations on being nominated for an Emmy this year!
Christina Pickles: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This is your seventh nomination, the first being Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for St. Elsewhere in 1983. How did you feel that first time?
Christina Pickles: I was so surprised. That was my first series, and I hadn’t been in Los Angeles doing a series before, so I didn’t know how it all worked. I didn’t know at all that I would be included in the list of nominees. So I was absolutely stunned and very, very pleased.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it tough each time to hear another name as the winner?
Christina Pickles: Oh, yeah. To hear somebody else’s name being read out? (laughs) Yes (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think your chances are of winning the Emmy in September?
Christina Pickles: Oh, I have no idea. No idea. You just never know. I always give it away, you know. When I walk into a room for an audition, and I see another actress up for the same role and I know her work, I always think, “Oh, well. She’ll get it.” It’s all part of the business of being an actor. You have to be sensitive but not too sensitive or you’ll die.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did Break a Hip come about?
Christina Pickles: My friend, Cameron Watson, and I were having lunch. I said to him, “We should do a web series.” He said, “A what?” And I said, “Web series.” He said, “What’s that?” I told him that I had just done an episode of Childrens Hospital, which was a web series, and I’d never done one before. I didn’t even know what it meant. The atmosphere on the set or the creative feeling was so wonderful that I thought it was something we probably could do.
Cameron’s a writer and has directed me in several things. We go way back and met when we were doing a pilot together many years ago, and we’ve kept up a friendship and working relationship. He was very interested in the idea and said, “I think I know what to do. I think I’ll go home and do it.” And he did. He had written a script called Lonely on the Moon based on the character of Biz who I play in Break a Hip, and it was about a retired woman. He had been a young man in Hollywood as an actor trying to survive and make a living. He answers a call from this woman just to be a helper to her like going to the market and to help her with things. She was very lonely. She lived in a bed sitting studio apartment with a Murphy bed. Her husband had died. Many of her friends had died, and those still alive weren’t calling her.
It’s not an uncommon situation for an older person. This young man to whom she was very rude appeared, and she hired him. She paid him cash. She said that we’ll call it “mad money.” There was a spark between them. She was desperate. He was desperate. Together they went on a very interesting journey because, for some reason, she bolstered him and he bolstered her. So it was important that they meet. It was lucky they met before it all ends.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found it to be very funny but also very moving.
Christina Pickles: That’s good to hear.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Especially the last episode of the first season.
Christina Pickles: I beg you to watch the first episode of the second season. It’s hilarious because she goes through a complete change.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Oh, I will. I am hooked! So did you say, “Let’s get Allison Janney and Octavia Spencer?”
Christina Pickles: No. Cameron said that. Cameron knows Allison, and he knows Octavia and Peri Gilpin from Frasier. I knew them through him socially, but not as well as he did. They loved the script and really wanted to be part of it, which was exciting because everybody had such a nice reaction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The episodes are only about seven minutes, so is your approach as an actor different in this short form genre?
Christina Pickles: Not really. I guess acting is acting, but you have to pull yourself together and get on with it. You have to learn the lines very well, know it backwards and work on it alone and then try and find time to rehearse with the other actor in the scene because we didn’t do too many takes because we didn’t have the money or the time. So we had to be on it right away.
Cameron, knowing me so well, was able to steer me with a word or two, you know. We had a way of communicating which we’ve done over the years. So it’s actually incredible fun. I wish that more people could experience it. Well, they probably will because maybe web series will get more and more popular. But to be able to think of doing something and actually do it, you feel like you did when you started in the business when you thought everything was going to be creative all the time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of starting in the business, what or who influenced you?
Christina Pickles: Actually I do come from a theatrical family. My uncle, Wilfred Pickles, was a very famous comedian during the war in England, and he had a radio program. He was so famous that when I was a student at the Royal Academy, I went to get my shoes resoled. I don’t think anyone does that anymore, do they?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Probably not as much (laughs).
Christina Pickles: (laughs) I took my shoes in, and he said, “What’s your name?” I said, “Pickles,” and he said, “Any relation?” I said, “Yes. He’s my uncle.” He said, “They’ll be ready tomorrow.” My uncle was that famous. He was sort of like an Arthur Godfrey, I suppose, in a way. So he was very recognizable. Now my niece and her children have gone into the business, and my granddaughter is going into the business, so she’s going to be the fourth generation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How very nice.
Christina Pickles: Yes, it’s nice. But in England many years ago, it wasn’t that difficult when you said you wanted to be an actor. You knew you were going to train and then go into the theater and go all over England in all the various rep companies. You knew you had that kind of a career ahead of you. Of course, it all changed with television, I suppose.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your early work in television included two daytime dramas.
Christina Pickles: I loved being in daytime dramas because you could work during the day and go and do a play at night. I was first in Guiding Light all those years ago. Another World was fun. I remember someone said to me, “Excuse me. Aren’t you from Another World?” (laughs) I said, “Not really, but yes.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that work a training ground for you, or perhaps it was theater?
Christina Pickles: It sort of was. You had to learn lines very quickly in the theater, and we did a new play every week. But for daytime drama, a new script every day was quite a challenge.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): St. Elsewhere was the forerunner for medical shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, and you were given the groundbreaking breast cancer storyline.
Christina Pickles: Yeah. We were the first people to do that in a series. Producer Tom Fontana and I researched it together very carefully. The writers were so great on that show. It was my first series, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was very green in terms of television and Hollywood. It was all new and very exciting and quite frightening in a way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): William Daniels, who played Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere, is still acting at 91 years old, recently appearing on Girl Meets World.
Christina Pickles: He lives in Santa Barbara now. He moved out of town. But he does still work, and I believe his wife Bonnie still works. We had Denzel before he was Denzel (laughs). He was just a young actor, you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have fans approach you on the street because of Friends?
Christina Pickles: Yes, especially young people because they are still watching it. It’s incredible. That show goes on and on. I asked Cameron why that was, and he said that the writing was wonderful and the kids were wonderful, but it was before cell phones. So if they wanted to contact someone they had to go over and knock on the door or make a phone call or make an arrangement to meet. It wasn’t all texting. I think he’s right.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Also before Facebook and Twitter were popular. Do you use social media?
Christina Pickles: Oh, God, I do. I do, and I make mistakes. I blurt out things, and I call my granddaughter and say, “Help!” (laughs) I feel it so frustrating to feel totally inadequate one minute and quite proud of yourself when it actually works (laughs). It’s an enormous challenge (laughs). But I do try very hard to keep up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still doing theater work?
Christina Pickles: Not at the moment. The last play I did was On Golden Pond with Hal Linden in 2011. But I’m still interested. I never lose the love of making an audience laugh. It’s my greatest joy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has been the highlight of your career?
Christina Pickles: In the theater. There was a play I did called Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, and I was doing it at the same time as St. Elsewhere. It got very well reviewed, and I got a lot of notice from that. Then I was asked to do other things because people had seen me in that. It was my first play here in Los Angeles, although I had done lots of Broadway in New York. But that play was a very beautiful play and very touching, but funny. I remember the last night. I thought, “Oh. That’s my last funny line in this play. I won’t have any more after that for a while.” It was wonderful feeling the audience going along with us, you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must be hard and sad sometimes just to shut off a wonderful experience such as that.
Christina Pickles: Yeah. I loved the play so much. It was a wonderful play. Men played women, and women played men. It was all mixed up and way before its time. But it was so touching. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I do think that theater and great music and great paintings are really necessary for the soul. And when you play a part like Biz who’s mean as sin but also a frightened, sad, lonely woman underneath, as many of us are, and to be able to illuminate those kind of people, it’s why I entered the business.
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