“Expecting Mary” is a heart-warming story of a pregnant teenager (the utterly winning Olesya Rulin of “High School Musical”) who runs away from home and is taken in by the quirky residents of a trailer park. It has an exceptionally strong cast and I was honored to have a chance to speak to two of my favorite actresses, Linda Gray (Sue Ellen in “Dallas”) and Lainie Kazan (the mother in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”). Both were very happy to talk about the film and what it meant to them.
Gray was performing in a theatrical version of “Terms of Endearment” written by Dan Gordon. She told me that “I literally cried my eyes out eight performances a week for six months. I said to him, ‘I love your writing but could you write me something lighter?'” She wanted to do something fun and funny and sweet, and she wanted to return to comedy. “I didn’t want to be Sue Ellen Ewing, I didn’t want a very powerful man. I wanted to be a woman who comes from her heart, who has an indomitable spirit.” Ever since her iconic performance as the wife of J.R. on “Dallas,” she had been cast in dramatic roles. But before “Dallas” she appeared in the short-lived Norman Lear sitcom “All that Glitters.” Here she plays Darnella, a one-time Las Vegas showgirl (Frank Sinatra gave her a T-bird), now performing in a tiny Indian casino run by a widow named Lillian Littlefeather (Kazan). She brought into the production her friend and costume designer Donna Barrish to help create Darnella’s look on and off-stage. And she is indeed funny and endearing as the kindhearted Darnella, whose essential goodness and generosity of spirit inspires those around her, including an enthusiastic truck driver (Elliot Gould), her grumpy landlady (Della Reece) and pig-tending neighbor (Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman). “Darnella makes the best of what it is, she looks at the bright side, she makes it glamorous, she has hope.”As she described the production to me, it was clear she was its fairy godmother behind the scenes as well as on camera. Everything was filmed in just 18 days, and everyone involved did it as a labor of love.
Kazan told me she could tell immediately that the script was “delicious.” She said, “It’s sweet, it’s a family film, it’s inspirational, it’s entertaining – the performances are terrific.” Like Gray, she spoke a little ruefully about being typecast too often, in her case as a series of ethnic mothers. But, she said, “I’m an actress who will go the limit. I will find the truth in everything.” She keeps a “character closet” and throws into it any odd or end she thinks might work for a character she could play. In this case, she was able to assemble the wardrobe for her character as the Jewish widow of a Native American casino owner from the goodies she had accumulated over the years.
I loved talking to her about her early days in show business. She understudied for Barbra Streisand in the original production of “Funny Girl.” “I wasn’t very interested because I knew it was a frustrating job and Ray Stark [the producer] offered me $50 a week and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I had a front row seat in seeing the making of one of the most extraordinary stars – believe in yourself and know that if you are prepared and ready to make and accept mistakes as growth, a learning process, then you can do anything.” She is considering playing the role of the mother in the upcoming revival. She will be on “Desperate Housewives” this season and performing her nightclub act at Feinsteins on October 5.
The film opens in limited release this Friday, September 10. For information about where to see “Expecting Mary,” check this list of theaters.