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Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson

Q&A with Hyde Park On Hudson's Mrs Roosevelt

February 2013

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The veteran actress has worked with nearly everyone in Hollywood and, entering her 10th decade, isn't afraid to tell it how it is.

In Hyde Park on Hudson a host of well-known faces portray an array of famous figures. Bill Murray stars as four-term US president Franklin D Roosevelt; Olivia Williams plays his wife, Eleanor; Samuel West and Olivia Colman are King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth, who arrive to spend a weekend at FDR’s upstate New York retreat with the intention of securing American support for the looming war with Nazi Germany.

And ruling the country house with an iron grip is FDR’s mother: the formidable, fiercely protective matriarch Sara Delano Roosevelt, portrayed by veteran stage and screen actress Elizabeth Wilson.

She may be less famous than her co-stars but, in a career spanning 65 years, Wilson has racked up prestigious roles in American theatre and films including The Graduate, The Birds and Quiz Show. She has worked with Paul Newman, John Gielgud, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, William Holden and Ralph Fiennes, counted George C Scott and Patricia Neal as two of her closest friends, and won a Tony Award in 1972 for her performance in David Rabe’s Sticks And Bones.

Before Mrs Roosevelt, her last major professional stint had been in a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Waiting In The Wings with Lauren Bacall in 1999/2000, but she’s kept busy since with readings and a long-running involvement in the William Inge Theatre Festival in Kansas. In a sign of the times, Wilson auditioned for director Roger Michell over Skype in her agent’s New York office.

Wilson spent four months in the UK shooting Hyde Park on Hudson. While in London, she invited me for tea at the flat which the production team rented for her near Green Park. “I keep writing little cards to my friends to say, ‘They are spoiling me!’ I’ve never been treated this well before,” Wilson said happily. “Roger is so kind and so sweet, although he makes me do a lot of takes. We did one scene 20 times where I have to walk through this big house with my cane. I came home that night and I’ve never been so tired in my life.”

Now in her tenth decade (she’ll be 92 this April), Wilson is eloquent and sparky but occasionally needs her memory prodded by the young actress who is her personal assistant and travelling companion. And she’s not afraid to call it as she sees it. Bill Murray, for one, she admits to finding “a very strange bird”, while Ernest Borgnine was “a bit of a jerk”. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, was “an angel” when they made Regarding Henry together, and Kim Stanley is the best actress she ever worked with.

Wilson has led an eventful life. She grew up in a wealthy family in Michigan, spent the final years of World War 2 providing live entertainment for the troops in the United Service Organizations, even surviving a week in the Papua New Guinea jungle after her plane crashed.

She received an early boost from actress Helen Hayes (known as the ‘First Lady of the American Theatre’) who took a shine to young Elizabeth and wrote her a note to show directors at auditions: “This is a remarkable young actress. Any one of us who can help her would be proud to boast of it one day.”

Along with Paul Newman, Wilson got her big break in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s Picnic, and has fond memories of her azure-eyed co-star. “He used to come and sit next to me in my dressing room. Oh my god, those eyes! I’ve never seen anything so blue. He was a sweetheart, and he ended up falling in love with Joanne Woodward, who was an understudy on Picnic, even though he was still married. Joanne loved Paul so much, and I think he loved her too.”

Before he achieved fame, Wilson was also close friends with Dustin Hoffman, appearing in an off-Broadway production directed by Alan Arkin together and going on to play his mother in The Graduate for Mike Nichols.

Nichols has remained a loyal friend. At Wilson’s 90th birthday party, Nichols sat beside her the whole evening, reminiscing. “He’s an extraordinarily gifted man. One of his biggest talents was in casting: he would see people in plays or movies, and then put you in the part that really suited you. There was very little he had to say after that.” She also had a small part as a diner waitress in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, although her main recollection of the shoot is experiencing a real-life avian assault when a bird circled overhead and attacked her while she was out walking in LA. “Of course I had to tell Mr Hitchcock. He said, ‘I’m not at all surprised.’” Wilson is friends to this day with The Birds’ star Tippi Hedren.

Although stage continued to be her metier, Wilson went on to play roles in several successful films, including “the office snitch” in Nine To Five (1980), a nutty doctor in The Addams Family (1991) and Fiennes’ mother in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). “I’m not a star, I’m a featured player and consciously, or unconsciously, I chose this path for myself,” she notes. “I’ve had a number of friends who became stars and their lives were dominated by that. But I’ve worked a lot, in tiny parts, big parts and everything in between.”

Wilson still has an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, but mainly lives at the home she shares with her younger sister in Branford, Connecticut. Never married, she says, “I’ve devoted my life to my friends, my family and to acting. I met a lot of interesting gentlemen in the work situation: two of them I was madly in love with. But in those days, if a woman married, they had to quit what they were doing and stay home to raise a family. I didn’t want to do that and now, thank god, you don’t have to.”
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