‘F*ck You, Nora’: How Jayne Houdyshell Conquered Broadway
The Daily Beast
August 21, 2017
As she is walking down the street, the Tony Award-winning actress Jayne Houdyshell smiles broadly when people shout at her, “Fuck you, Nora.”
It is one of the most memorable lines in Lucas Hnath’s play A Doll’s House, Part 2, and it is delivered by Houdyshell’s character Anne Marie—the taciturn and wry family retainer—to her former mistress Nora Helmer in what is intended as a sequel to Ibsen’s classic 1879 play, A Doll’s House.
“I can’t imagine ever tiring of saying ‘Fuck you, Nora’ eight times a week,” Houdyshell said, laughing. “People say it to me, it’s been put on tote bags. It’s become a catchphrase.”
The modern language, design, and characterization of Hnath’s one-act, 90-minute, critically acclaimed play—directed with characteristic ingenuity by Sam Gold—are at playful odds with its 1894 setting and period dress. (Full disclosure: One of its producers is Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast.)
The play is set 15 years after Ibsen’s original, and sees Nora returning to the marital home she found so constraining to finish a last bit of business. She, her estranged husband Torvald, daughter Emmy, and Anne Marie all have their own say about what Nora’s bid for independence has meant. It is funny, savage, moving, and everyone’s points of views are taken as equal and valid: a multi-focused deconstruction of feminism, marriage, parenting, and freedom unfolds.
Over a bowl of gazpacho at New York theater haunt Joe Allen’s, the 63-year-old actress laughed heartily at the line she delivers with such relish. In loose-fitting blue shirt and tousled tumbling hair, she couldn’t look more different from the hatchet-faced Anne Marie.
“I never thought in a million years that a simple little line could give me so much pleasure,” Houdyshell said. “It never ceases to be deeply pleasurable to say.” A huge laugh and applause greets it every time. “People’s responses are so spontaneous. I guess I’m saying what they’re thinking.”
She doesn’t toy with saying it differently.
“Never. You can’t mess with something that works like that. It makes me very happy to hear that response: It’s that moment you feel validated as a character. ‘They’re on my side.’”
Later, fans at the stage door tell her that they found the play surprising, that it wasn’t what they were expecting: after all, a soundtrack of ’80s punk ushers them to their seats.
“At the stage door, people say, ‘You’re so funny,’ and ‘I’m absolutely in your corner.’ Either response is good. I don’t think there is any one response to any of the characters.”
Houdyshell has performed in nine plays on Broadway, since her first (of four) Tony acting nomination for Lisa Kron’s autobiographical play Well in 2006. (Other nominations came for Follies in 2012 and The Humans in 2016, which Houdyshell won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for, and A Doll’s House, Part 2 this year.)
All four members of the Doll’s House, Part 2 original cast, including Houdyshell, were nominated for Tonys this year (Laurie Metcalf, who played Nora won Best Actress in a Play), and now a second cast has taken up the roles, with Houdyshell the sole remaining original player.
She had loved watching Metcalf—who found fame as Jackie in Roseanne—in the brilliant and dark nursing home drama-comedy Getting On, and Metcalf had loved Houdyshell in The Humans.
Six months after both women told each other they wanted to work together, the offer came for A Doll’s House, Part 2. “Fate. She’s such great gal,” said Houdyshell. “I’d follow her down stairs to get to the stage every night. Watching the train of her dress, she always looked like praying mantis to me.” Houdyshell laughed.
It wasn’t difficult to decide to stay in the mix of the play’s second cast: Houdyshell didn’t have another show to go to, and loves performing this one. In the early 1980s she did summer stock with Julie White, the new Nora, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, the second Torvald.
While her castmates’ “energies” are different—White has a “softer edge” to her personality than Metcalf, noted Houdyshell—she feels similarly at ease with them. The difference is that she was there at the beginning, watching the production and characters assume their shape. Now everything is set down.
Anne Marie herself looks like a stern black and white-clad servant from the canvas of an Old Master. Houdyshell carries her greatest tragedy—that she had a child out of wedlock and had to give it up—within the character; and that informs her responses to Nora who gave up being a parent to pursue self-fulfillment, or for self-salvation, or both.
The critical response to A Doll’s House, Part 2 and its eight Tony nominations (including for Best Play) left the production team “thrilled in a way that we didn’t know what we had,” said Houdyshell. Producer Scott Rudin wanted to mount it on Broadway without any performances off Broadway or out of town, after a preliminary reading in his office which Houdyshell attended.
“I purposely don’t read reviews,” Houdyshell confessed, good or bad. “I used to read when them when I was younger until I had a few painful ones. I thought, ‘Why am I subjecting myself to this? It’s not helpful. If they’re good, one’s ego can can blow up in an uncomfortable way. Either way, it can be hampering. I don’t find anyone’s particular opinion of my work useful unless it’s the director, stage manager, or a handful of very trusted friends who know how to say things to me in a helpful, constructive way.”
‘I sat under a tree and wrote a little manifesto about why I wanted to act’
Houdyshell has performed many plays and musicals in a career that first saw her as an itinerant performer but never the original A Doll’s House.
She grew up in Topeka, Kansas, the youngest of four sisters. Her siblings Mary Lou, Ann, and Sue were respectively 15, 10, and 8 years older than her. Houdyshell’s real first name is Jaynie. Her parents thought she would be a boy, and when she turned out to be a girl they asked her sisters to name her.
Acting was all Houdyshell ever wanted to do. Her father Buzz had aspirations to be a performer, and as a young man had tried to break into vaudeville in Kansas City.
“But it was 1929,” Houdyshell noted, “so when the Stock Market died vaudeville died almost literally overnight. He had a performer’s impulse. He was a singer. He had acted in some summer stock companies in the Midwest. I heard him talking about that as a child. I remember him feeling disappointed about it.”
The family was musical, and sang old standards like “Down By The Old Mill Stream” around the piano. From 12, Houdyshell played the guitar.
Her sister Ann, then 21, died the same year of Hodgkin’s disease, also known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was “very hard,” Houdyshell said.
Her sister Mary Lou belonged to record clubs, so Houdyshell would hear the scores of Broadway musicals. “I wore the grooves off those records, imagining what all those productions were like,” she recalled. She loved singing and performing and became a member of a community theater.
At 14, Houdyshell started in a high school with a huge music and theater department. “I loved the big performative elements of doing musical theater, but the psychological examination of the human condition of plays appealed to me. I really loved doing it all.”
When the first play she performed in at 14 closed, she was heartbroken. “I sat under a tree and wrote a little manifesto about why I wanted to act and why it was the best use of myself. I still have it and look at it once in a while. It cuts to the core of why I still love doing it.”
In the manifesto, Houdyshell wrote that she “wanted to make people feel something that was meaningful for them. I wanted to evoke feeling. I think I perceived myself to have a lot of deep feelings about things life and didn’t always feel free to express them. I was able to find myself on stage. People told me when I moved them.
“There was meaning in sharing another character’s feelings with other people, a connectedness I longed for in my own life, and the stage was a really great way to connect with people.”
Houdyshell came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, “a time of much turmoil and activism. For my parents that was all very confusing. To them the world was kind of a threatening place for young people. I chose to go to school away from home in Detroit, which for my parents meant riots.”
She studied acting at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and in 1974 fell in love and married fellow actor Steve Shaffer. They set up the Old Creamery Theatre Company in Garrison, Iowa, converting a condemned old stone structure to a mini-arts wonderland. (It still exists in Amana, Iowa.)
New York or Los Angeles never held an appeal for her as a young actor. “Working in regional theater was a highly respected career for actors. There were a lot of beautiful regional theaters across the country in cities large and small. I was intimidated by New York at that point. I didn’t feel it was for me. L.A. had no curiosity for me. There was no theater out there, and”—she laughed—“theater actors were snooty about people who did film and TV.”
For years, Houdyshell did an enormous range of roles (more than 200 in fact, including three separate productions of The Importance of Being Earnest), not wanting to be pigeonholed. She moved to New York in 1980—setting up home first in a studio apartment in Inwood—but didn’t work in the city until 2000.
Her parents lived to see her do a few productions in the Midwest (her two surviving sisters who live in Kansas and Virginia respectively, have watched her ascent with pride).
Houdyshell’s mother Lou’s ill health prevented her from seeing her daughter in many productions, but she and Houdyshell’s father were proud of her, the actress said.
“My father was also very nervous about it because of the instability of the job. He felt a little better when I got married but when my marriage didn’t work out and then I moved to New York City for god sakes.” She laughed.
“And this for a man who had never been east of Cincinnati. He was very worried. It seemed a big bad world. He didn’t know what I was doing or who I was with. Given some of the adventures in my life he was right to worry, but I survived.” She laughed again.
“Eventually the itinerant lifestyle wore on me emotionally,” Houdyshell said. “It felt like I was forever saying goodbye to people. I was tired of going into a place and bonding, and then having to go through continual farewells. I felt bereft a lot of the time. I felt really untethered. It was no longer something I was willing to do.” She wanted to originate roles too, not just play familiar, already well-known ones.
‘I can honestly say working on Broadway was never a goal’
Houdyshell’s first years professionally based in New York (from 2000) were tough, as she tried to find her acting perch. The four-year process of working on Well provided her not only with great material, and a meaty original part she so wanted, but a route (it played off Broadway, then San Francisco and then Broadway) to meeting other actors and producers she wanted to work with.
“I can honestly say working on Broadway was never a goal. I thought, if it happens it would be nice, and if it doesn’t I’ll be OK.”
She laughed. “Broadway wasn’t the brass ring for me, but we went to Broadway. It was relatively short, six weeks, but I really liked it. I loved the building, the ratty dressing rooms, the people on staff. There was a toughness about the professionals I was working with that I really appreciated.”
There have been Drama Desk, Obie, and other prestigious acting award nominations and wins (Houdyshell’s first Obie was for Well). Receiving her Tony nominations, regardless of winning, felt like “winning the Lotto.” The rest of the process feels “chance-y,” and not something she particularly enjoys.
The first time Houdyshell was Tony-nominated for Well, she did not want to win—she insists this emphatically—because “getting up in front of people speaking as myself terrified me to the point of paralysis. Because I was so new to the Broadway community and scene then I didn’t feel I belonged.
“I was very excited and flabbergasted by the nomination. But I can’t tell you the depth of relief when Frances de la Tour’s name was called (for The History Boys). I was so happy she won. I thought, “It’s good to get to be here, but I don’t have to get up there.’”
Her second Tony nomination for Follies she didn’t see coming at all, the nomination was “icing on the cake” for having the “very small role” of Hattie Walker delivering the show-stopping “Broadway Baby.”
Houdyshell was immensely proud to win the featured actress Tony for playing the much put-upon matriarch Deirdre Blake in The Humans, as the play had been so intensely enveloping to perform. “After the show people would come up to me really crying about how they had treated their moms. People got so rattled because it said something universal about family, and addressed anxieties living in our society right now so beautifully.”
Then there is her most recent best featured actress nomination for A Doll’s House, Part 2. “More icing on the cake,” Houdyshell said. “The play is the reward. Being able to say ‘Fuck you, Nora’ is reward enough.”
Houdyshell’s marriage to Shaffer ended in 1980, and she has been single ever since. “Initially after I divorced I thought I needed to find somebody else to get married to. But I was entrenched in an itinerant lifestyle, and it was very hard to have relationships. I would battle with it from time to time. At this point in my life, it would nice not to be alone all the time.”
She has had short-term relationships over the years, and has not been “devoid of love or interest or romance, but at some point I realized I valued the autonomy and freedom I felt in a single lifestyle more than the fantasy of being with someone. So I gave up the fantasy and got on with the business of doing what I liked. Anybody who lives the single life goes through the same thing. If something comes along, great, if not I’ll be fine. I’ve been fine a very long time.”
Had Houdyshell ever wanted to have children? “I thought I did. Certainly by the time I was 40 I realized it was very good that I hadn’t. I am so career-centric. You never know until you have a child, but I can’t imagine making space for a child in my life. I feel that I live a very deeply selfish life in many ways, and I like it. I don’t bother taking responsibility for anyone apart from myself or my cats.” (One of these felines, Roo, as in A.A. Milne’s character from Winnie-the-Pooh, is Houdyshell’s screen image on her cellphone.)
‘If I have any fame it’s right-sized, it’s just enough’
Houdyshell said it would be “weird” for herself to apply the word “fame” to herself because she doesn’t feel that she possesses it, at least as it conventionally understood. Becoming as well-known, awarded, and respected as she has means she and her agents can pick and choose roles, although she still auditions for roles too.
“Being known and recognized has been fun,” she said. “If I have any fame it’s right-sized, it’s just enough. I welcome it. It surprises me. It feels nice because the people are friendly. I’ve never been in this industry for celebrity or fame. The obsession with celebrity is just off the charts, and so unhealthy in so many ways.”
Houdyshell will not say what she will be doing next, though “a huge Anglophile,” she said, “What I want to do more than anything before I die is to work in London.”
When I suggest “lead actress,” rather than featured, might be a good new category to occupy, Houdyshell laughed. “That would be great. From your mouth to God’s ears. If you could just write that in black and white for me, Tim. I have no problem with that idea.”
She does have dream, as-yet-undone, roles. Until Sally Field played her in Gold’s controversial production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (which this critic very much enjoyed; others did not), Houdyshell wanted to play matriarch Amanda Wingfield. “But the day after I saw Sally do what she did in that production, I said to Sam, ‘Damn you, now I have to cross that off from my list.’ It was just so of this time, and of this moment.”
At 14, a friend gave her the script of Brecht’s Mother Courage. “I remember reading and not understanding a word of it, but I was fascinated with it. It’s a hard play to do successfully, not many theaters are willing to take it on. I’m fascinated by it still.”
Aging is “the best thing I could possibly do,” said Houdyshell. She said she had always played older than herself ever since she was a child. Never having been “a leading lady in the traditional sense of that word,” there have been a lot of roles for her as she gets older.
“The only sexism I have experienced was always being aware that there are far more roles for men than women. But now, at least in the theater, there are more doors opening for women, as female playwrights come into their own, and more female directors also lead to more roles for women.”
She’s noticed that her playing one kind of character leads to a number of offers for similar roles, which she “nips in the bud, I need to do something different.”
Her priorities have changed as she has gotten older, Houdyshell said. “I like making money at this point. For many years I was OK with not making money and working for next to nothing, robbing Peter to pay Paul to pay the bills. That is no longer acceptable to me as I get older. I really value financial security. That dictates my choices for me.”
Houdyshell has just filmed Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows’ latest project, The Chaperone, adapted from Laura Moriarty’s best-selling novel.
PBS and Masterpiece’s first feature film, directed by Michael Engler, it stars Elizabeth McGovern (Cora from Downton) as the chaperone who accompanies a 17-year-old Louise Brooks (played by the wonderful Julia Goldani Telles of The Affair fame) to New York. Houdyshell plays a mother superior—another severe black and white uniform to follow Anne Marie’s in A Doll’s House, Part 2.
Despite this role (and past appearances in shows including Law & Order and Third Watch) Houdyshell is still mostly resistant to TV and film. “I still love theater in the same way as I did when I was 14. Humanity fascinates me, human nature fascinates me. I never get tired of stepping into someone else’s shoes and figuring out what makes them tick. That responsibility to connect with the audience still stimulates me.”
The era of Trump means theater has a political responsibility too, Houdyshell added. “It feels so to me, and everyone I talk to in the business feels like that. The theater has been known for this since the Greeks. It’s a magnificent, civilizing power we have. God knows we need civility as much as possible these days. It’s eroding in so many other aspects of our lives, and theater is about acknowledging our humanity and our fears.”
‘The parolees rehabilitate the pit bulls and the pit bulls rehabilitate the parolees. It’s a beautiful synergy’
Houdyshell does not take her roles home with her, which might seem surprising to all those crying and congratulatory fans at the stage door. “But that’s my job,” she said smiling at how immersed she appears in her roles. “I’ve never had issues with the separation between my own life and the one I live on stage.”
She is content, “communing” with her two cats in the ground floor apartment of a brownstone in Harlem where she has lived since 2007.
To unwind, Houdyshell watches “a lot of junky TV,” including HGTV shows like Stone House Revival. Her favorite show is Animal Planet’s Pit Bulls & Parolees.
“Oh my god Tim, it’s a brilliant show. If yo}ure an animal lover you have to see this show. Tia Torres and her biker chick daughters run a rescue for pit bulls and to rehabilitate them they hire parolees just out of jail. The parolees rehabilitate the pit bulls and the pit bulls rehabilitate the parolees. It’s a beautiful synergy watching this happen. It’s a win, win, win in every sense, and it’s where I find my heart and hope in this world.”
Before she headed off to the theater for that night’s performance, I asked what Houdyshell made of Nora’s last line in Hnath’s play, forecasting why the situation for women will change; she just hopes she lives to see it.
Like me, Houdyshell sees that as a darkly posed rhetorical question, given the continued struggle for gender equality. “But that doesn’t make me want to quit,” said Houdyshell. “In fact the opposite is true.” And, she added, just as A Doll’s House, Part 2 shows, “What better alternative is there to explore courage than exploring our willingness to give up?”