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Every night at 8 these days, Mercedes Ruehl morphs into Eva Adler, an overbearing, manipulative mother who tries to protect her daughter Lili (Lily Rabe) from the evils of the world — or at least, the WASP-y suitors who wash ashore at the Catskills resort where they summer. As part of the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan” (on until March 15), Ruehl also dons very proper Sixties garb and very large gems. In real life, the 60-year-old actress is a year-round resident of East Hampton, where she lives with artist David Geiser and their son Jake (older son Christopher lives in Boston). She favors slacks, sweaters and her jewelry consists of silver rings and a semiprecious necklace she designed herself on a trip to Santa Fe, N.M. Ruehl is also a much more relaxed personality, perhaps in part thanks to her Oscar (for 1991’s “The Fisher King”), Tony and Obie awards.
Here, Ruehl speaks with WWD about swapping her Queens accent for a German one, stage versus film and pink Uggs.
This story first appeared in the February 16, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: What made you want to do this role?
Mercedes Ruehl: Theater is very grueling. When I do theater it has to be really worth it, because it means from Tuesday night through Friday, I don’t see my son. It’s gotta be a good character and it’s gotta be a well-written play. But mostly the character needs to be very attractive to me. It is and it was and it did and here I am.
WWD: How did you develop Eva’s accent? Were you concerned at all that it might be overpowering?
M.R.: It happens to be an accent that came to me very easily, but a wonderful woman who works at Juilliard [also] made some tapes for me. She got a German woman to record every line in the play for me, so I was able to listen and pick and choose. The German accent has been done so much and parodied so much that now the actual accent sounds like a parody. But if [Eva] comes across as a one-dimensional villain of the piece, it’s less interesting for everybody: the other actors on the stage, the playwright and the audience.
WWD: Do you have to do extensive preparation for the play every night?
M.R.: Back in the day, I used to prepare the way I hear the other actors in this show preparing. I would do the vocal exercises and sit and meditate and it would take about an hour. Now it takes me five minutes.
WWD: On stage, your relationship with Lily Rabe’s character is fraught with tension. Do you get along with her offstage?
M.R.: I love Lily. We have a sort of brinksmanship about wearing interesting articles of clothing into the theater — “If you like this jacket, wait till you see the shirt I’m going to wear tomorrow.” I really gobsmacked her when I came in in fuchsia Ugg boots a few weeks ago.
WWD: Where did you pick those up?
M.R.: My partner David is a painter and he got them for me. He’s not a man who confines himself to earth tones. I used to say, a long time ago, “All actors should marry nurses and all actresses should marry bankers.” But David is a very creative man and he’s exceptionally well read. His response to what he sees on stage is always honest. So I depend on David for the true dish, because you never know when you are being shined on.
WWD: What about reviews? Do you pay attention to them?
M.R.: A lot of actors don’t, but I want to get a cross-section of the piece and how my work in it is received. It’s amazing when you get everything from enormous kudos to “Oh well, I thought it was over-acting,” or “That accent is unbelievable,” and you think, “Did you see this on the same night, gentlemen?” But it’s good. Sometimes you don’t get an honest appraisal from everyone else because everyone wants to be your friend. I look at it all and I think about it all.
WWD: Do you feel the pressures of aging as an actress?
M.R.: My mom always lied about her age. At one point when she went to the DMV to renew her license, there were so many different versions of her age in the records that they almost didn’t issue her a license. And she always forgot what her latest lie was. So at a certain point, I decided you have to look at this age thing and come to terms with the fact that it’s part of the experience of living. You have to cop to the age that you are and try to do it as gracefully as possible. I resent the idea that there’s something shameful about aging.
WWD: You have done extensive work in film, TV and stage. Which do you prefer?
M.R.: Stage is harder. Stage is scarier. Stage is eight times a week. And stage basically doesn’t pay. Having said that, I prefer stage, because it’s the only place the actor controls the proceedings. In film, you are at the mercy of the director and the editor. In television, you are at the mercy of the editors and the writers. But theater is the actor’s medium.
WWD: What are you doing next?
M.R.: I’d like to get involved with directing. In terms of acting, I take what comes. The best stuff in my life always comes barreling out of left field when I least expect it — like “The Fisher King.” One day you are thinking, “Didn’t I have a career?” and nine months later you get an Oscar. My number came up in the celestial lottery, you know? But then fortune’s wheel has a way of turning. You go to the three o’clock and the six o’clock position, because you can only stay on the crest for so long. The good thing is, the wheel is always turning.