We know her best as Rose Castorini, the intrepid wife from "Moonstruck," the devoted friend Clarey from "Steel Magnolias," and the clear-sighted Mrs. Madrigal from "Tales of the City." Olympia Dukakis has endeared herself to audiences around the world for her dynamic portrayals of the grand transformations and subtle accommodations that are the bread and butter of women's lives.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, Olympia grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts in a neighborhood where ethnic discrimination, particularly against Greeks, was routine. Early in her career, she was advised to change her name to something "less ethnic." She refused, despite the fact that it would have paved the way to a greater variety of roles.
Olympia supported herself as a physical therapist during the height of the polio epidemic. She saved her money, returned to school and earned a Masters in Fine Arts at Boston University's School of the Performing Arts. Degree in hand, she moved to New York City to pursue a stage career. Shortly thereafter, she appeared in a production of "Medea" where she met and fell in love with actor Louis Zorich. Their forty-year marriage produced three children and a lifelong repository of unconditional support.
In 1988, after thirty years of performing and teaching, Olympia won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of the Italian matriarch in "Moonstruck." Later that year, she stood on the podium alongside first-cousin Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, as he accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It was, for her, a profound moment, a proud declaration of her ethnicity that she claimed for her entire family.
One of her most personally memorable roles was in the play "The Trojan Women." It opened her heart to what has become a profound relationship with the Great Mother, the feminine aspect of God long venerated in the ancient cultures of the Indus River Valley. In 1985, she met Srimata Gayatri Devi, an Indian spiritual teacher in the Vedanta tradition, and studied with her until her passing.
In 1992, she and several friends co-created "Voices of Earth," a non-profit theater company designed to help women, including herself, explore their spiritual heritage and birth their own spiritual transformation. Olympia describes the performances that have emerged as "emotional, physical, spiritual and joyful" pieces that explore through metaphor issues unique to women's lives.
Olympia is apprehensive, she tells me, "talking about women's spirituality in a world that has suppressed its existence for thousands of years."
Is it because it's hard to put something so subtle into words?
"No. I think it's because most of us talk one way and live another. There are a few people who truly, truly walk the talk - who are, as Merlin Stone wrote, `women who have gone over the mountain.' The rest of us just talk the talk. The rest of us are still trying to find ways to live in the world with spiritual values. Myself included. We've learned certain skills, we've learned to prevail somewhat, but we've not made it over the mountain. I sometimes truly despair at ever being meaningfully altered and affected by the things I claim are so important to me. .
"Most of us are not real eager to grow, myself included. We try to be happy by staying in the status quo. But if we're not willing to be honest with ourselves about what we feel, we don't evolve."
I tell her that I think this struggle to bring our inner and outer worlds together is an ongoing part of the spiritual life, that when we face these contradictions, we can then choose how we will `walk our talk.'
"I understand this now," she confides. "In 1985, I became very involved with Gayatri Devi, a spiritual teacher, who helped me see this."
How did you meet her?
"It was at Omega Institute. My husband, daughter and I were in therapy because of issues that came up after he had a terrible automobile accident. The therapist said everyone was OK except me, that I was behaving as if we were still in crisis. He said I had to do something to focus on myself, by myself, or he wouldn't see me anymore. I rooted around for something to do and a friend suggested I go to Omega. I had my doubts - it seemed to me like a camp for precocious adults! - but I went anyway.
"The only weekend I was free was during what they call their `Spiritual Weekend,' so I signed up for that. Friday night, the presenters sat on a stage and talked about their upcoming workshops. There were rabbis and Cambodian monks and Indian swamis and Protestants and Catholics and Native Americans. It was a whole smorgasbord! And there was this little lady in saffron robes. I was very moved by what she said, but of course, I didn't permit that to influence me! I decided to go with a shaman because I'd been reading a lot about shamans at the time.