Michael Learned Interview: "Waltons" Icon Kills It as Dahmer's Grandma
Image attributed to Michael Learned
Michael Learned will always be known for her role as Olivia Walton in the iconic family drama The Waltons, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She was nominated for six Emmy Awards as Lead Actress in a Drama, winning three times for her role as Olivia Walton. After the seventh season, she left the show. Learned also starred as Nurse Mary Benjamin in the hospital drama Nurse, and she won yet another Emmy for this role in 1982.
Other appearances on television include Gunsmoke, St. Elsewhere, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, All My Children, Scrubs, General Hospital and The Young and the Restless. She has appeared in many stage productions on Broadway, off Broadway and elsewhere and in several television films.
“Well, it’s a dead body, grandma, and I’m cutting it up and frying him for dinner.”
Learned can be seen in Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s biographical crime drama and limited series for Netflix, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, in which she portrays the serial killer’s grandmother, Catherine Dahmer. Other cast members include Evan Peters (as Jeffrey Dahmer), Richard Jenkins, Molly Ringwald and Niecy Nash.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Michael what interested you about Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story?
Michael Learned: It’s a job. That was first. I love to work. And Ryan Murphy. Not necessarily in that order. I think Ryan Murphy is a genius, and I was so thrilled.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have to audition for the role of Catherine Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer’s grandmother?
Michael Learned: Yes, I did. I think I got it because my manager did the audition video. At the end of it, they needed a full body, and I jokingly said, “Well, if I knew you were going to do that, I would’ve worn a bra.” Apparently he left that in when he sent in the reel, and it got a big laugh. I’m convinced that’s why I got the job. You never know in this business, do you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) That’s funny, and no, you never do. Did you have someone working with you on the Midwestern accent?
Michael Learned: Yes. They had a dialogue coach who was wonderful. I also have family that live in the Midwest, so I’ve heard the accent. I was told I didn’t do a terrible job. I hope I didn’t. My daughter-in-law speaks with a very pronounced Midwestern accent, so I just kept hearing her in my mind.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about Catherine Dahmer and how you prepared for the role.
Michael Learned: I did research, and there was very little about her. There were home movies of her walking around and holding her cat, but there was very little about who she was. So I watched a lot of his interviews, Jeffrey Dahmer’s interviews, and that was really interesting and chilling because he talked about the murders like he was talking about a grocery shopping list. He was so detached from what he was actually talking about.
So I watched interviews with him and his father and a little bit of video of her, not hearing her voice or anything but just to get a sense of what she looked like and how she moved.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you play her as if she knew something was wrong but didn’t know exactly what was wrong?
Michael Learned: No. I tried to play it that she really was in such denial. At one point in the series, she said “What’s that smell coming from the basement?” “Well, it’s a dead body, grandma, and I’m cutting it up and frying him for dinner.” So denial is just a powerful mechanism. We all have it to some degree about certain things. I think she was just in complete denial about her grandson. Who could imagine?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the series, Dahmer’s mother was presented as being mentally unstable and volatile, and his father was portrayed as showing a young Jeffrey how to dissect roadkill. Do you see them as being partly responsible for what Jeffrey became as an adult?
Michael Learned: You know, a lot of people have had screwed up parents or mothers who were on pills or parents who got divorced. They don’t turn out to be serial killers. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of his interviews, but in one that I watched, he said “I don’t know. I think there’s something wrong with the way my brain was wired.” That was Jeffrey. I’m quoting him but probably not accurately but close to what he was saying.
So maybe it’s true that there’s just a piece missing or some kind of disconnect that these people are born with that they’re capable of being so detached from the horror that they’re inflicting on another human being.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you received any negative feedback from Waltons fans because you portrayed Catherine Dahmer?
Michael Learned: I haven’t gotten any hate mail yet. That may be coming. I don’t know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s very interesting is that some people cannot separate an iconic character from the actor herself.
Michael Learned: (laughs) Really?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: We put up the official Netflix poster on social media, which depicted you as Catherine Dahmer and had some people saying “You’ve shown Mama Walton as a monster!”
Michael Learned: She wasn’t the monster for heaven’s sakes! Grow up people! She wasn’t the killer. He was.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The only thing I found similar to Olivia Walton is when Catherine kept trying to get Jeffrey to go to church (laughs).
Michael Learned: (laughs) Yes. She was just oblivious. I mean, how could you not know that smell is human decay? If it had been me, I would’ve said, “Show me the damn raccoon. Show me that raccoon that you’re carving up in my basement!” And he’s hauling these bags. I don’t know in real life whether he was actually hauling them when Catherine was home or anything. I don’t really know the specifics, but I do know that he was carving people up in her basement.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Niecy Nash played Jeffrey’s neighbor, Glenda Cleveland. She kept smelling the horrible odor coming through the vent into her apartment.
Michael Learned: She was wonderful. But yeah. She knew something very wrong was going on. But nobody listened to her. That was horrifying. I guess eventually they did. But she kept trying to get them to investigate him, but they didn’t want to be bothered.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The film depicts the Milwaukee police as racist and homophobic, but the prosecutor who put Dahmer behind bars is denying that narrative. So there is some controversy there.
Michael Learned: I hesitate to go there. I just know these kids are very vulnerable, some of them that are young. They don’t feel loved for whatever reason in their family life, so a good looking charming guy comes along, and they’re prey really. It’s awful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you think about Evan Peters’ performance as Jeffrey Dahmer?
Michael Learned: I just adore him. It wasn’t hard to be a loving grandma to him. He took that part, and certainly in our scenes, he was just so lovable, so sure and present that it was easy to love him. I didn’t have to work at it at all. I had to put all my knowledge in what Jeffrey Dahmer did in the backseat of the car and just deal with the present moment with my grandson, Jeffrey.
I have a grandson living with us temporarily now while he goes to school, and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. He’s good looking. He’s sweet. He’s charming. If I found out tomorrow that something like this was going on, I would still love him. I wouldn’t stop. I’d turn him in, but I wouldn’t stop loving him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was your toughest scene in the series?
Michael Learned: Most of my scenes were with Evan. But I did play dead. I hate that. I’m too close to it now (laughs). I hate it when I have to play dead. Richard Jenkins, who plays Jeffrey’s father, and Evan were so generous and easy to be with. So we were in the moment together with whatever the scene was we were playing. It was just a real pleasure.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you watched the series?
Michael Learned: No. I can’t take it. But I like watching myself because I learn a lot when I’m watching. I don’t think I did a terrible job. Sometimes, I watch and go, “Oh, my God, I should’ve been fired!” Other times, I watch and say, “That worked.” And I can detach from it and just learn.
I learned so much watching The Waltons. My youngest son and I used to watch it together. The two older boys weren’t interested. But Luke and I would have dinner, and we’d watch the show. I learned a lot.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you haven’t watched Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story because of the subject matter?
Michael Learned: Well, I don’t watch that kind of thing much anymore. I’d rather go back when I’m a little more separated from it maybe and watch it because I think Evan Peters is marvelous as an actor. How can you end up liking someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, and yet he managed to make him beguiling so you could understand how these kids could be seduced by him. If he’d played him like a monster, you wouldn’t have believed that these kids would be going with him. But he played him with a certain amount of charm, and you could understand how a young boy, a vulnerable kid, would be attracted to a person like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m predicting another Emmy nod for you!
Michael Learned: From your mouth to God’s ears. Wouldn’t that be fun? (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of Emmys, you won three for The Waltons and one for Nurse. September 14, 2022, marked the 50th anniversary of The Waltons’ first episode premiering on CBS. Any reunions coming up?
Michael Learned: Yeah. There’s going to be one at the Hollywood Museum on November 17. It’s a daytime thing. We’ll be there, and Richard will be there as well. He’s doing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, so he’ll be in town at the Pantages. He’s wonderful in it. I got to see it in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was visiting a friend, and he happened to be on tour there. He’s always been good on stage. I can’t remember the first play I saw him in. We were doing The Waltons at the time. But it was the first time I had seen Richard on stage. I didn’t even recognize him. He was so good that I forgot it was Richard. It was about a newspaper, and I cannot think of the name of it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Some fans were weighing in on social media about their favorite episodes of The Waltons– one was “Grandma Comes Home,” others were “An Easter Story,” and “John’s Crossroad,” which was possibly the only time Olivia went to a bar.
Michael Learned: Oh, and I don’t even remember that one! Did I order alcohol?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think John ordered you an Orange Squeeze, which is made with alcohol.
Michael Learned: Oh, what fun! I know I drank champagne in one episode, maybe in the anniversary one. I think the anniversary episode is one of my favorites because I really loved Ralph. Ralph and I really loved each other deeply. It wasn’t sexual. It was just spiritual love that we had for each other and mutual respect … disrespect at times. It was kind of like a marriage without the sex, if you will. I liked him so much that it was easy to do the scenes with him. I remember once we had a big argument about something. It wasn’t about the show. It was about something totally unrelated. I was really steaming, and I knocked on his dressing room door and said, “We have to make up because I can’t shoot the scene if I’m still mad at you!” Of course, he opened his arms and gave me a big hug. He was a lovely guy. I loved him. He was a complicated man but a lovely man.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Other than the fact that it was about a family, why do you think The Waltons is still popular today?
Michael Learned: Maybe the nostalgia part of it. I don’t know. Is it still popular today? I do get fan mail. I think for people who had a childhood like that, it’s comforting to go back to it. For people who didn’t have a childhood like that, I get a lot of letters from people saying, “Your character taught me how to be a mother.” I mean, that’s really rewarding. I didn’t write it, so I can’t really take the credit for it, but it makes me feel good when I hear it, like there was a purpose, you know. It wasn’t just mindless acting.
There was a purpose that Earl intended and wanted people to benefit from. He managed to walk a fine line, and we helped him sometimes. I’d tell him, “Olivia is too perfect. She’s got to scold the wrong child sometimes.” Who wants to live with a perfect person every week for an hour? He hated doing it because he was writing about his real mom. They were real people. So he had to walk a difficult line. Every now and then, he would allow me to not be perfect, and that was fun. Those are fun things to play.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Like the episode where Olivia gets a job in the city as a dressmaker because it allowed her some independence.
Michael Learned: Yes, and she joined the Red Cross. I have to give the writer’s credit because it’s not easy to write about a nice person and make that person interesting. English do it very well because they’re not afraid of writing eccentricity. But I think they managed to make her a good person, but she had her drawbacks. She was judgmental. She was righteous at times. I’m very proud that I was part of that show.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you watched the “new” cast of The Waltons? The next one is airing as a Thanksgiving special on November 20.
Michael Learned: I saw the first one. I thought they did a really nice job. But it’s a very hard thing to recreate something that was on for nine seasons. Audiences got very familiar with the characters. When they suddenly see a whole new set of Waltons, it’s a hard adjustment to make. But for new people who never watched the old show, I hope it will attract a whole new audience. Maybe I could come back as a great grandma or something.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You made guest appearances in so many TV shows over the years. Do you have a favorite?
Michael Learned: Scrubs. That was my favorite. I did seven episodes of Scrubs, and I just loved that character. She was a really terrific character that they wrote. I really enjoyed playing her. It’s always tricky going on to a set where people have been together for a while. On The Waltons, we all joked around, and we knew each other. We’d be getting ready for a scene, and the guest actors were nervous and trying to be focused.
It’s hard to be on a set with a bunch of people that have been together a while, and you’re the new guy in town. So I felt that in Scrub sa little bit, but they were very kind. It wasn’t that they were being difficult or anything, I just felt like the new kid in town. I understood how new people felt coming on to the set of The Waltons.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have any theater work coming up?
Michael Learned: I was supposed to do On Golden Pond in Canada this past summer, but I fell and broke my wrist. But Karen Grassle stood in for me. She’s a good actress. I like her a lot. So now, I’m just waiting for the phone to ring like we do when we’re not working. At least, I’m still working. If somebody asks me, I’m there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You look amazing! Other than the wrist, how’s your health?
Michael Learned: I feel terrific! The wrist is pretty much healed. It was just a bummer because I love working with these people in Canada. They’re just wonderful to work for, so I was really depressed. But it could’ve been worse.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hope you’re still trying to write that book you and I have been talking about for years.
Michael Learned: I have a pile of stuff. I was thinking that I haven’t written about The Waltons and about coming down to LA in my little VW bug just to check out the freeways. Then suddenly, two weeks later, I’m in a TV show playing a woman in her 40s. I was 32, and it was like a big blur. I should write about that because it’s a real Cinderella story really. Maybe I’ll just sit down and write a chunk about The Waltons. I have chunks about early life in Canada and people I’ve worked with in the theater.
But it’s not a book yet. So I think I’d better write a chunk about The Waltons. I’m not going to write what was really going on, but … just kidding. We were a pretty decent bunch considering. The kids weren’t smoking heroin in a dark alley. They were nice kids. The parents were decent. Ralph and I were sober. It was a pretty good group.
© 2022 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.