Susan, during your research on Bette Davis, what were you surprised to learn about her?
SS: I didn’t really realise how driven she was. She really fought for herself. That really shocked me. She didn’t believe in the indulgence of depression or self-pity or anything like that even in the worst of times. She was an alcoholic but she never drank during work. She felt that she didn’t have the luxury of being depressed and that she just had to figure out how to fix it. (laughs). She couldn’t stand Faye Dunaway because Faye Dunaway would keep, whoever worked with her, waiting hours and hours. Bette would never do anything like that.
Jessica, what about you? And what did you learn about Joan’s beauty secrets?
JL: I don’t know much about her beauty secrets (laughs). I wasn’t really familiar with Joan Crawford. I knew films of hers but I knew nothing about her life. And I think what really stunned me was where she came from and what kind of childhood she had. And how she got to be where she was at the height of her fame. This is an interesting piece because we see both of these actors as they’re on the wane, really. They’ve both had their tremendous triumphs and power and then as is the nature of Hollywood, there’s the question of ageism, question of sexism and that’s kind of where the story picks up. But what fascinated me was her Dickensian childhood, the tragedy that she was born into and grew up in. So as an actor that was very interesting because that’s what’s right under the surface all the time, even when she’s Joan Crawford with this tremendous beauty and kind of seemingly powerful, unflappable kind of persona that she created for herself, it’s all based on a very shaky foundation.
You must have had your share of feuds or at least antagonistic relationships with co-stars?
JL: Not a feud I wouldn’t say a feud. But when you’re on movie sets and you’re doing a project, of course because of all the egos that come together and the rather volatile situation, there are things that happen but there’s nothing that I would classify as a feud, no.
SS: Not feuds but I’ve had a couple of male actors who had bad reputations where I’ve said, ‘Look. Let’s just not waste time. Let’s just do this thing, you know, and not play games.’ But I’ve been very lucky with all the younger actors that I’ve worked with and they’ve all been very professional and I’ve seen them as an equal. Every time you take on a project it’s like a new universe so you have to find the language, you have to find the power structure, you have to figure out the way that you can contribute to the big picture. I think one of the things that’s so seductive about acting, for me, is the collaboration, is the family that you build. I need that. There are people who work from friction. That would never work for me even if I have to delude myself, I find a way to somehow love that person because I think you use the same muscle and what you talk about is an openness and I think you have to have access to that openness and the minute that you start to waste your time in an angry way everything closes up. So as much as you can do to avoid that is really important and in doing that you do become very vulnerable. Bette Davis, she covered her vulnerability by fighting. I don’t mean being antagonistic but by trying to work things out.
Do you think ageism and sexism is less prevalent than it was in the golden years of hollywood?
JL: Perhaps it’s gotten somewhat better. But you see it all the time. You see an actor in his sixties or seventies is cast and his leading lady is now in her thirties. Whereas you used to play that actor’s leading lady, right? You would be paired together. Now it’s like, three or four decades younger. So no I don’t think it’s gotten that much better. I think the roles for women certainly at my age, have thinned out tremendously. But I think what has stepped into the void is television. It certainly has for me with American Horror Story, four years.
Bette Davis thought of herself as a working actress as opposed to a star, is that something that resonates with you?
SS: Well, Bette Davis never liked to be called a star. She was an actor. I remember my daughter getting into a fight in kindergarten explaining that I was an actor and not a star (laughs) so somehow she figured it out. What you’re talking about is somebody that has media heat, that’s a celebrity, that’s what I would call a star. I’m a huge fan of the mother of the Kardashians. What’s her name? Kris Kardashian, Kris Jenner. Well, she was a Kardashian, right, and how she has built this empire and has had them living with these cameras all the time. That family seems like something you can write about with what that family’s been through. I admire what she’s done and I would consider them celebrities and what they do they do very, very well.
What made Bette and Joan such legends on screen? Who were they to you when you were growing up?
JL: Well I think they embodied that kind of magical time in Hollywood. I don’t think you can separate them from the period of films when they were at their peaks, which was the thirties and forties basically. And in some way they kind of embodied those eras. They were taught this incredible mid-Atlantic accent with the broad A’s, and in the case of Joan, she was from San Antonio (Texas). She never spoke like that. They were taught how to walk, how to talk. You could call it unnatural but it’s not really, it was just of a different time. They were exalted as movie goddesses. And Bette Davis and Joan Crawford refused to leave Hollywood, like Olivia de Havilland or Katharine Hepburn. I think it was probably very difficult to be here in Hollywood and be considered obsolete. But those two women remained. That’s something.