The Sally Kirkland vu from the land of the silver screen

By Kim Knode
Los Angeles, July 2000
Published August 2000

 

In preparation for my interview with Sally Kirkland, I asked Ron Howard; the director of her recent film, EDtv, to describe the Academy Award nominated actress. Howard observed that, “Sally marches to the beat of her own drummer. There are no half way measures with her.” Howard, the filmmaker famous for such heartfelt films like Splash, Cocoon and Apollo 13, quickly added, “Sally’s heart is in the right place.”

When I told Sally’s EDtv screen husband, Martin Landau about Howard’s comment, he agreed and added, “Sally Kirkland has a heart so big that I’m amazed it fits into her chest. She’s motivated by good things. ” Landau should know, since the Oscar winning actor has starred in three films with Sally. “Her work is larger than life, but she brings a reality into each role. Sally always had a freedom to be naked emotionally.”

As I arrive for our interview at Sally’s hideaway bungalow in Malibu, I see the actress coming up the beach toward me, toweling off the salt water from her swim. Statuesque five foot nine Sally looks striking in a 1950s suit with broad navy and white stripes. She greets me with a warm smile, then brushes strands of blond hair away with the back of her hand and invites me in out of the wind.

While I set up my tape recorder, Sally cuts and nibbles an orange for a fruit salad. She tells me to make myself comfortable and I look around the small living room. On a shelf stuffed with books, I notice titles like, Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide and Autobiography of a Yogi. I’m reminded of Sally’s web site, where I learned that Paramahansa Yogananda’s book launched the performer’s quest for spiritual perfection and understanding. As a student of and instructor for Hatha yoga master, Swami Satchidananda, Sally has entered extended periods of silence, celibacy and strict diets.

I compliment Sally on the healthy lunch she is preparing. She looks up from her fruit salad and says that her favorite meal is a dish of broccoli, yams and brown rice. But she confesses, “If I’m being a bad girl, I’ll go have flan – Peau de Creme at the Cafe Boheme. And I’ll have Pink Dot deliver cheesecake.” The performer leans in close, almost kissing my microphone to say, “You listeners out there, I’m very sick the next day. Basically, I can’t handle sugar and I don’t drink – my parents died of drinking.”

While Sally gathers up pillows to comfortably position herself in front of my microphone, I notice Polaroids scotch-taped on the wall showing the actress with stars like Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McCounaughey and others at a recent EDtv cast and crew party. Out of place among all the glamour, a plaque reads, “Memories are the souvenirs our hearts collect through the years.”

I begin the interview by asking about the fact that she is Kirkland junior to her mother, Sally Kirkland senior. Sally laughs, “The Sally junior was just a frustration when in that moment they were looking for a name, and they couldn’t come up with one. Personally, I think she named me because of her byline. She was in a man’s world as a woman with a byline. She was at Vogue for ten years. And the first woman to ever be made a Senior Editor of Life by Henry Luce. She was handing me the legacy — you too have the opportunity to be a career woman. Now if I had choice, I would have said, hey let’s give me another name!”

Did her dad have any say? “My father was a blue blood from mainline Philadelphia. (Her great grandfather was the mayor for thirty-seven years.) But my father broke tradition by marrying a working woman and allowing the woman to wear the pants…”

A resigned smile clouds her suntanned face. “It was terrifying to sit and eat breakfast because my mother was always surrounded with women like Veruschka and Jean Shrimpton from England. My mother had bones like Calista Flockhart. All my childhood she was telling me I was too heavy and my father telling me, ‘Don’t listen to her. She’s too thin.'”

Did young Sally have ambitions for an office on Madison Avenue like mother? “I knew I wasn’t going to be a fashion editor because she’d already done that with my name. I tried to be a designer and Christian Dior helped me with that. He scribbled, ‘Keep it up, little Sally – you’re good’ on my different dress designs.”

“My mainline Philadelphia grandfather didn’t approve of acting school. So it was decided that I could go to art school. I could be a painter but I couldn’t be an actor.”

The patrician family saw The Art Students League in Manhattan as the better choice for a young lady. At seventeen, Sally Kirkland exhibited her paintings in the Village. She chuckles, “I couldn’t make any money at it to speak of so I was a hat check girl at The Bitter End and a waitress at Figaro’s.”

“And then I was a go-go dancer at the Peppermint Lounge. I think the Mafia owned the Peppermint Lounge. They would come in and throw money at my feet. And you would see their guns in their holsters. That was pretty exciting, you know, for an uptown debutante to go from prep school to twisting in front of these cowboys – these gangsters.” She laughs and adds, “In fact, the first movie I ever did was Hey Let’s Twist with Joey Dee and the Starlighters.”

When did Sally rebel against the family’s admonitions about acting? “I was seventeen. I started at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The next year I studied with Uta Hagen (the German acting coach whose famous students include Geraldine Page, Jason Robards and Jack Lemmon.)

Were there other teachers who encouraged Sally as a young girl? “I was lucky to have David O. Selznick as a mentor when I was a teenager. He said to me – and I hope this doesn’t sound like an ego statement: ‘You remind me of Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis because you’re so strong. You’re going to scare a lot of men. You have to be patient and wait until you’re middle-aged. Then they will allow you to be a star as a strong middle aged woman. But they won’t allow you to be a strong five foot nine ingenue.’ ” Sally’s voice rises with passion, “Those were his words. And I thought, oh God please don’t project that on to me ’cause I’d like to work and I’m eighteen!”

Sally smiles with satisfaction. “I was off-Broadway like almost immediately. My first paid job was Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Joseph Papp. He was the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival. At the Circle-In-The Square Theatre, I played Jackie Kennedy in Fitz and Biscuit with Sam Waterston. Jackie came to Fitz and loved it. She had tears in her eyes. My first starring role off-Broadway was in a play called The Love Nest with James Earl Jones. I also starred with him in Best of the Best.”

I question her about her time at one of the most prestigious acting schools in the world, The Actors Studio. “By the time I was eighteen, I was trying to get into the Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg (the founder) warned me, ‘I think you have to be older to do this kind of work because it is so intense.” Sally takes a dramatic pause. “I threatened to kill myself if he wouldn’t let me in.”

Apparently the threat worked. “Dustin Hoffman got in the same year I got in and Al Pacino was also in my class. I ended up bringing Bobby De Niro to Shelley Winters and the Actors Studio because he was formerly dating my roommate. He took me to see Brian De Palma’s student film, Greetings that he starred in. I wanted someone to spar with so I encouraged our friendship in 1967 and we ended up working together for a long time. Bob was incredibly shy and sensitive and sort of insecure about social graces. He told me I made it easier for him to be out in the social world. We became very close friends”

Does Sally stay in touch with De Niro? “Well we got to have a reunion when I was hosting the Diversity Awards two years ago and he was presenting an award to Joe Pesci. Bob acknowledged the work I was doing. I’m a presenter or the host every year. Diversity gives awards to actors, directors, and writers who are of ethnic or diverse background”

Winning the Diversity Pinnacle Award this year was exhilarating for the actress. The Multicultural Motion Picture Association honored Sally for her mentoring efforts as well as her choice of roles, which have gone beyond the median range of most Hollywood actors.

I mention that diversity has been the name of the game in Sally’s career. She’s played everything from a character in Oliver Stone’s JFK to The Women Who Loved Elvis with Roseanne. The actress declares, “The most diverse thing I ever did was Heat Wave with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. I was the only white woman in an all black cast.” But when all is said and done, Sally is most proud of her Oscar nominated portrayal of the aging Czechoslovakian actress, Anna.

Her eyes dance with excitement as she explains, “At the time of the Oscar announcements, I was shooting High Stakes with Kathy Bates. I went up to change wardrobe and heard Shirley MacLaine announce the Best Actress nomination on the TV and I couldn’t stop screaming. I went into ecstasy”

I remark on the serendipity of the Foreign Press presenting Sally with a Golden Globe for playing Anna, a Czech immigrant. Have journalists from abroad been kinder than American reporters? “Yeah. They’ve been constantly supportive of me. But I’d like to add that the likes of Sheila Benson and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times have been supportive too… The Foreign Press did give me a Golden Globe nomination for The Haunted – a true story about a woman who went through four years of paranormal experiences in Pennsylvania”

“I think I’m more European in personality. My attitude is always one of sensuality, aggressive enthusiasm and kind of outrageousness in my expression. I suppose if I wanted to be the girl next door, I could have. I think America is a little too confused by someone who appears to be sexual and spiritual at the same time”

There are exceptions. Sally states, “Ron Howard is not threatened at all by me.” I ask her about her experiences working on the set of EDtv. “Just great! And Ron Howard is the saint of all directors!”

And how was it playing the mother of heartthrob Matthew McCounaughey? “Awesome. When I saw him in A Time To Kill, I said to myself, I’m going to play his mother! You know how you can get a hit of something?”

Sally’s psychic powers were seen from January 1998 to June 1999 in the reoccurring role of Tracey in Days of Our Lives. “I loved playing Tracey because she’s an environmentalist. She uses solar and wind power. She’s very into truth.”

She adds, “Now, I’m reoccurring on Felicity as her art professor, Annie Sherman. I’ve also been shooting a movie, Swimming Lessons for Lifetime Television playing Gail O’Grady’s mother. Tomorrow I’m flying to Toronto to start shooting Wish You Were Dead (a feature film) with Mary Steenbergen”

How does Sally keep bringing truth and reality to the disparate characters she plays?

“Mostly listening to John-Roger spiritual seminar tapes – he’s the founder of MSIA – the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. And I listen to Bob Dylan music on my Walkman. Sally gestures toward a pile of literature brought from the city house to her ocean getaway. On top is a pink paperback by John-Roger entitled Forgiveness: The Key to the Kingdom”

“I believe in such a thing as a need for a spiritual master and I love the ecumenical path of MSIA. The path is one of soul transcendence. It’s a path that says out of God comes all creation. And it’s a path that says not one soul is lost. It’s a path that talks about taking care of yourself so you can take care of others. Keeping the temple pure and clean has been important for me.” The actress laughs. I ask why. She reminds me, “Just before you came, I was swimming. And before that I was doing my yoga”

The John Roger tapes and Dylan recordings are her ritual preparation for a scene. “They’re both men that I love. If I’m not listening to them on tape, I’m remembering moments with them, when they have inspired me to be more authentically me. You know – sensory work”

The teacher in Sally comes out as she describes sensory work. “It’s from Lee Strasberg – method acting – you bring yourself to a place where you do an emotional recall. Or you smell what you smelled, see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt…Streisand, who hired me three times – thank you Barbara – wanted to learn how to cry on cue ’cause she had some singing scenes to her father coming up in Yentl. So I took her through the exercises with her father”

My eyes wander to her collection of music tapes, I catch sight of Dylan’s, Down in the Groove, I once again ask about her relationship with the musician. She hesitates. I suspect that she wants to keep in Dylan’s good graces by not revealing too much. Sally sighs. “I came to meet Bob through a guy named Fred Hellerman who was one of the Weavers – Pete Seeger and the Weavers. I met Bob backstage when he was performing at Carnegie Hall with Joan Baez. We re-met in 1975 and we’ve been close friends ever since.” Then the actress clams up. She won’t reveal anything else.

Does Sally desire marriage? She confesses, “Having been married and divorced twice I do hope to get married again. We’ll see what God has in store.” What kind of man? “Someone pretty powerful and isn’t going to be, um, what’s the word? Yeah, intimidated.” Like John-Roger and Bob Dylan? Sally gives me a look as if to communicate this is my last sentence about Dylan. “I will say this John-Roger and Bob Dylan have been the loves of my life. John-Roger continues to inspire me to dedicate my life to service and humanity. And I learned from Bob, the importance of getting rid of segregation and the importance of, “knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door. The part of me that is an activist is because of him. I’ve loved him forever”

Sally’s activism has recently found its expression in The Kirkland Institute for Implant Survival Syndrome. KIISS provides support and research for women dealing with breast implant complications. Problems with her own implants led Sally to have them removed in 1998. “Next to my self-imposed hell through drugs in 1966 – I’m proud to say I’ve been clean since 1975 – one of the severest depressions I encountered was when I thought I had tried everything to get rid of the crippling pain caused by the implants. From 1989 to 1995, I had multiple surgeries related to silicon ruptures. In 1995, I had the silicon taken out and saline put in.” However due to complications with saline, the celebrity had another string of surgeries. As if reliving the moment of relief, Sally says, “Finally, in August 1998 when finally all the implants were out, I felt one hundred percent healthy”

Days after her breast reduction, Sally went on The Howard Stern Show. “I know millions of people listen to him and so I got out key points, like Dow Corning in the sixties had been developing the silicon as a potential cockroach insecticide and riot patrol fluid.” The actress is grateful too for the controversial TV host’s invite to his show. “Thanks to Howard, my web site immediately received twenty-two thousand hits. And I’ve been able to help women and their concerned husbands ever since. Yeah Howard!”

What does Sally think about other stars going under the knife? “I would say be careful. I ‘ve had my day in court with plastic surgery. I just saw Cher’s album cover. She looks sensational. If it works for Cher, it works for her…There are so many terrific people that have hit fifty. I mean look at the way Raquel looks”

How does Sally hold her own in youth conscious Hollywood? “I go to the YMCA, I swim and I do Hatha yoga. And I keep my eyes on the vegetables. And meditation every day since 1969 has reminded me the value of keeping my heart open and doing service in the world.”

The sky outside is painted in pink and dark blue twilight colors. I take my cue from nature and my tape recorder, which tell me that hours of dialogue have flown by. As I pack up to leave; I remember seeing on Sally’s web page a list of service projects Sally has participated in such as feeding the homeless and care-taking AIDS patients. I mention that the list is almost as long as her film credits. She adds that, “I’m also excited about the fact that Governor Gray Davis appointed me to the Board of the California Alliance for the Arts Education”

“My life is not about acting. It’s about expressing my vision of life. No matter what, everyone deserves a fair shot”

Kim Knode’s interview articles focusing on artists, celebrities and dance champions have been published in various print and on-line publications. See more of Kim’s work at www.kimknode.com

 

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