Swoosie Kurtz Interview: "There Were No Rules, No Punishments, No Sort of Boundaries"
Image attributed to Perigee
A multiple Tony, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk Award winner, 69 year-old Swoosie Kurtz is a Broadway icon whose work also includes the films Liar, Liar, Dangerous Liaisons, Citizen Ruth and the television hits Sisters, Pushing Daisies and Mike & Molly.
As an only child, Kurtz shares an incredible bond with her parents. Her father (Frankie) was an Olympic diving medalist and later became one of the most decorated aviators in American history, flying a record number of missions in a B-17D Flying Fortress called “The Swoose” (part swan, part goose). Kurtz’s mother (Margo) chronicles the early years with Frankie in My Rival, the Sky, a homefront memoir published in 1945. Margo’s book ends with the couple happily anticipating the birth of a baby who will be named after the indomitable “Swoose.”
"I realize that being an only child might’ve made it more possible to do what they did, but Melissa, it was wild. There were no rules, no punishments, no sort of boundaries. Just unspoken ones. Maybe I was just a goody two-shoes. My mother said, “I didn’t raise her. I just let her become whatever she was going to become.” They just helped me every step of the way, so the book is a definite love letter to them."
At 98 years old, Margo lives with her daughter and requires 24-hour care. In Part Swan, Part Goose (released April 29, 2014), Kurtz weaves her story with passages from My Rival, the Sky to create a vivid portrait of the mother-daughter relationship and of the very different paths taken by two women of different generations.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Swoosie, thanks for taking the time today. What did you think about the recent Tony Awards?
Swoosie Kurtz: I’m an absolute pushover for Hugh Jackman. I think everyone is. Next to the word “charisma” in the dictionary is his picture. He is so amazing. I would just watch him read takeout menus. That sort of set the tone for me. Some of my friends won. Some didn’t. But I was happy to see Hedwig. I worked with John Cameron Mitchell a couple of times and to have something from so long ago be brought to life again was great.
I feel out of the loop because I haven’t been to New York in a while except for the book when I was doing just solid press, and I didn’t have time to see anything, but the Tonys are always close to my heart.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Part Swan, Part Goose is a great read!
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “I don’t have stage fright. I have life fright.”
Swoosie Kurtz: Yeah, and it’s really true (laughs). I think I’m an extrovert in front of a camera or on stage, but an introvert in life. It took me a while to figure that out. A lot of actors start out shy and then discover that they can, in front of a group of people, somehow be liberated by playing someone else.
I don’t really think it’s hiding behind the character. At least for me, it’s really having that character liberate you. Like I say in the book, when I first played another character, I felt like by becoming someone else, I became myself. It’s wild.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is your book sort of a love letter to your parents?
Swoosie Kurtz: It is most definitely a love letter to them and a real tribute and an honor to them. I really spent a good part of my life hiding the fact that I was so close to them because I thought that people would think I was kind of nerdy and weird because everybody else was like, “Oh, I haven’t talked to my mother in 15 years” or “Oh God, I hate my parents. They were horrible to me.” Then I just did a 180 and thought, “You know what? This is a real gift that I’ve been given and maybe people would like to hear about an amazing childhood where the parents were unconditionally loving, supportive."
I realize that being an only child might’ve made it more possible to do what they did, but Melissa, it was wild. There were no rules, no punishments, no sort of boundaries. Just unspoken ones. Maybe I was just a goody two-shoes. My mother said, “I didn’t raise her. I just let her become whatever she was going to become.” They just helped me every step of the way, so the book is a definite love letter to them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That is so remarkable. I can relate, as an only child, to the close relationship with the parents.
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh good, a kindred spirit! Yes. You feel like, “Well, I’m just so weird. Nobody’s like me.” Now I have company (laughs). But I finally decided that I’m proud of this. This is something I should really shout from the hilltops because it was an amazing, unusual gift to have these two people who just sent me out into the world with this incredible foundation of confidence and self esteem.
At the same time, I have to qualify that by saying that I am as screwed up as the next guy. There are times when I can’t get through the day. I think to myself, “How do people who had not a great childhood or rough childhood or God forbid an abusive childhood, do it?” If I’m struggling the way I am, how the hell do they get through the day? Anyway, I just think it’s interesting because we’ve had all the other stories about the nightmare childhoods which are so tragic and fascinating, but I just thought this was sort of unusual. I was a very wanted child. They wanted me and tried to get pregnant for a long time, so when I came, it was a big event, and I was cherished. I was treasured.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does your mom know you’ve written the book?
Swoosie Kurtz: She’s pretty amazing. She doesn’t have a lot wrong with her except this dementia, and it’s a fairly pleasant dementia. But it is living with a kind of madness because of the things she says. A lot of them make sense, and she’s present a lot of the time as Margo, but there’s some wild stuff going on, too.
I’ll show her the book and say, “Mommy, it’s all about you and Frankie. Here are your pictures.” She was actually reading it one night sitting at the dining room table. She was reading it out loud which she does with things, and she’ll know for a moment … a little light will go on inside her eyes … and then it’s forgotten. I can tell her five minutes later, and it’s brand new, fresh news.
At the moment, she appreciates it, and it makes her happy, especially the fact that her book is re-released. I keep trying to get that point across to her because that was a dream of mine for so long. You know, it’s available now as an ebook, and it has all these glorious pictures in it which her original book didn’t have. So I just keep telling her. It’s good in the moment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It seems that the big news on the Internet over the past several weeks is that you had an abortion.
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m wondering why that was such a revelation because you wrote about it in the book (laughs).
Swoosie Kurtz: (laughs). Yeah. Hello! Melissa, you actually read the book (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes I did (laughs). You described the abortion as “anguishing,” but did you regret the decision later in life?
Swoosie Kurtz: Not for a moment. Not for a moment. No. I was very young, still in college. Back then it was younger even than it is now. I just felt this was not a choice (no pun attended). This was not an option at all, that it wasn’t meant to happen, and being raised the way I was, it was particularly important to me that a child be very wanted.
I think if I had ever had a child, I wouldn’t let it out the front door. Having had these amazing parents and especially this incredible mother, that I would feel overly motherly. I would just protect the child like crazy. I would hold it close to me and never let it go, but this was not the time in my life. It’s hard to imagine now, but really back then, you had to choose. Do you want to give yourself to a man and be absorbed by another person or do you want to have a career? Now women are amazing. They do it all, but back then it was one way or the other.
That was the fork in the road, and I just felt very clear about which way I wanted to go. It doesn’t mean the decision was any less anguishing because, oh God, it was. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through in my life. I was lucky because I had a wealthy boyfriend who was able to pay for it, but that didn’t make it any easier to find a doctor who would do it.
That was something I never told my mother. I didn’t tell her for two reasons; one was that would mean I was having sex which was unthinkable back then. To just say to her, “Oh, I got pregnant, but I’m not going to have this child,” would’ve been unthinkable also. I figured out that was probably the main reason I didn’t tell her.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve been trying to guess who the man described simply as “the English Guy” was that you were so in love with (laughs).
Swoosie Kurtz: (laughs) I have to be honest with you. I don’t think you would know who he is. Back then he was kind of known in the theater and so forth, but I honestly don’t think you’re missing anything (laughs). It’s not some big reveal. I’d love to say, “Jeremy Irons.” That would be cool (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It would indeed (laughs). I read that your dad met Norman Lear in the war.
Swoosie Kurtz: Norman was in his group, the 463rd Bombardment Group and under Frankie’s command. We hooked up later out here, and we went to see Norman a couple of times at his tapings of all his great shows. I believe my dad gave him some award in the White House. I’m not sure about that. He did give Reagan an award, but he gave Norman some kind of award. Norman gave us a wonderful quote for his tribute card that we did when my dad died.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your dad ever suffer from nightmares or anxiety when he returned from the war?
Swoosie Kurtz: I think he did. He never wanted to talk about it too much. He was pretty closed about it, but he’d always say, “Look. The other guys didn’t survive.” I think he always felt that he was so lucky and almost guilty that he survived, so he kept all that very close to the vest. He was very disciplined emotionally as well as in life. I think he repressed it.
I think that generation wasn’t into emotional displays and talking how they felt like we do now in therapy and all that. My mom, in her book, describes Frankie’s vision of all of his boys being burned up on the runway at Clark Field just a few hours after Pearl Harbor, and that was something he just almost couldn’t live with.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Swoosie, have you had your dream role on Broadway or is there a character you’d still like to play?
Swoosie Kurtz: Well, I hope there’s a character out there. I really do. I can’t dream about it because I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve had so many dream roles that have just been handed to me; some I’ve had to fight for, but some of the most amazing ones have been handed to me. I think they’ve all been dreams at the time, but I sort of tend to shred what’s in the past. I like to honor it, but it’s kind of like, “Yeah. I’m glad you saw me in that. But what about now? What about what’s next?” That’s always what I’m interested in.
I’d love to do a musical. I don’t know if I can, but I would love to try it. I just love working with great people and really good material. That’s usually what I base my decisions on is the material, and that litmus test has served me well. Naturally the people I’m going to be working with is a huge part of the decision, but I think really it’s the material. Can I bring this woman off the page? Is she somebody that fascinates and mystifies me? Is it somebody I played before? Have I already done this? Does it scare me … in which case, I should probably definitely do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Maybe you can star in a musical with Neil Patrick Harris.
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh my God, he’s so great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes he is, and so is Mike & Molly!
Swoosie Kurtz: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You said in the book that you wanted to be the first person on broadcast television to say the word “clitoris.”
Swoosie Kurtz: I know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are on a Chuck Lorre show.
Swoosie Kurtz: So it’s possible! I’ve said “vagina.” It was something I said on the show the other night to somebody like, “Oh, you men always want to make it a vaginal issue,” or something like that (laughs). But I want to say “clitoris,” dammit! Let’s get specific here (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is censorship a bit more lax on Chuck Lorre shows?
Swoosie Kurtz: Definitely. Definitely. I learned that very early on Mike & Molly. I would get the script for the table read, the first draft. I would see these things I was going to say or another character was going to say, and I’d go, “Well, that’s not happening. That’s not going to make it to air.” But sure enough, it did every time!
It’s pretty awesome considering that when I think about the fact that on Sisters, we couldn’t say the word “orgasm,” let alone have them (laughs). Now, wow. It’s amazing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think you would’ve led nearly as colorful a life or be remembered as well if your name had been Mary?
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh, that’s a really good question, Melissa. It did help me stand out from the crowd. That’s for sure. They mispronounced it from the playfround to the Emmys, but they don’t forget it. I think my work would’ve spoken for itself really, but it was an added bonus for sure as much as I fought it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think your work does speak for itself. Are you having a huge celebration for the milestone birthday in September?
Swoosie Kurtz: Oh God. We were sort of trying to tell my mother how old she was a couple of years ago, and she said, “That’s just a number someone made up.” I honestly think that number has nothing to do with me (laughs). I’m not in denial about it. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve accomplished that many years, and they’ve been great (knock wood) so far, but I just can’t see that number relating to me at all.
When I was growing up, I’d see somebody who was 48 or 50 and describe them as that elderly person with the old laced up shoes and think that my grandmother and aunts were so old. Then suddenly, 60 really is the new 50, and 70 is the new 60 or 55 because I’m really lucky that way. Both my parents were very youthful looking always, and I inherited that.
I’ve always played parts younger than myself. I don’t think the victory is in trying to look young. It’s not about that for me, but I think there’s a certain energy and enthusiasm and an upbeatness that rubbed off on me from my parents, and I think that’s part of a youthful demeanor. The ageism in this business is really tough. I think to myself how grateful all of us actresses should be for television because television doesn’t seem to have that problem so much. There are some terrific parts for older women in TV. You don’t have to go out to pasture after you turn 23 (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any upcoming projects, Swoosie?
Swoosie Kurtz: I’m sure there is because this is only Volume 1 (laughs). It’s only Act 1 and II. We have to go for Act III now. I don’t know about anything yet, but I trust there will be something coming up.
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