Mary Louise Wilson arrived at SXSW at two in the morning on the day of the premiere of “She’s The Best Thing In It,” a film about her life as a working actress. You might think Wilson might take the occasion of a career-spanning documentary as a sign to slow down and savor the moment, but at 83, Wilson shows no such inclination, stepping off the stage of the American Airlines Theater in New York where she’s a featured performer in the Broadway musical “On the 20th Century” on Sunday night and right onto a plane to Austin.
“I don’t know who I am right now,” the actress said, who, in spite of whatever grogginess she was experiencing, was hiding it well.
“It’s called a trouper,” shot back the film’s director Ron Nyswaner, who would know having spent the past half-decade figuring out how to convey that ineffable star quality that has made Wilson such a welcome presence on the stage and screen for such a long period of time.
The resulting film, Nyswaner’s first nonfiction effort after his celebrated work as a screenwriter on such films as “Philadelphia” and “The Painted Veil,” is naturally wide-ranging, tied together by an invitation for Wilson to teach her very first acting class to college students at Tulane University in New Orleans. As Wilson returns to the place where she was raised, the film looks at how her insistence on playing characters that drew upon her inestimable skills, including a biting wit and unflappable poise, but couldn’t be further from her otherwise led to a career in which she could never be pinned down into one particular type for better or worse. Cannily, Nyswaner collects stories from other actresses who have shared Wilson’s fate, from Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons to Tyne Daly and Charlotte Rae, to see how much of being a professional actor is shaped by forces other than one’s aptitude for art or craft.
“She’s the Best Thing In It” details Wilson’s literal rewriting of her fate, taking control over the roles she’d play by penning herself a juicy part in “Full Gallop,” a 2003 play in which she assayed legendary fashionista Diana Vreeland, but you discover what the formative influences throughout her life both through visits to her sister Octavia, who once sent her press clippings of actresses who threw themselves out of windows as some perverse form of encouragement, and the way in which she attempts to get her students to lose their preconceptions about performance and really be in the moment. With Wilson at its center, the film is naturally lively on its own and during the actress’ brief stay in Austin – the Tony-winning actress for “Grey Gardens” did, of course, have to be back in New York by Tuesday for a curtain call – I was able to speak to her and Nyswaner about how the two friends and neighbors partnered on the project, what she learned from teaching and what the experience of looking back is like while she is still very much moving full-speed ahead.
How did this film come about?
Ron Nyswaner: We’ve been friends for a long time, about 20 to 30 years, maybe, and we had houses together in upstate New York near the famous little town of Woodstock. I always wanted to go to New Orleans and hang out with Mary Louise because that’s where she was raised and then she said, “I’m teaching a class down there,” and I thought, “Hmm, maybe there’s something there to make a film about.”
Since this was the first time Mary Louise’s first time teaching, did you ever think, “Maybe we shouldn’t have a camera here”?
Mary Louise Wilson: Yes, I did think that, but then it was there, so I had to come up to the plate. [laughs] I was frightened to death. I don’t see myself as an authoritarian person— when I was in school, they wouldn’t even let me be the fire warden. I was hopeless. I was the class clown, and here I was teaching. But I had great time and I learned a lot. I think I did some good.
Ron Nyswaner: Actually, it was funny because on the first day everyone had to sign releases and we wondered, would any of the students say, “I don’t want to be on camera”? I remember you said, “They’re making this film here and of course you don’t have to be in it if you don’t want to.”
Mary Louise Wilson: Of course no one did. They all wanted to be on the camera!
Ron Nyswaner: As a matter of fact, Joseph, one of the students joined the class because he heard it was being put on film. The students surprised us because at first …
Mary Louise Wilson: Oh, at first I thought this isn’t going to work at all. I think I say that in the film, it’s just like they were zombies.
Ron Nyswaner: There was like a glass wall and they were blank faces.
Mary Louise Wilson: I was going to show films. I thought that would be the way to reach them because they would know Meryl Streep and her work. I remember screaming about her eyes in “Doubt” and they just look at me like, “What is she talking about.” Young people, I do think have this wall of cool, but you have to break through it.
Ron Nyswaner: As they started exposing themselves in the exercises and being emotional, that was really surprising. Behind the camera, I was saying, “Good. Great, I have a story now.”
The film runs on three parallel tracks – there’s the biographical element, the acting class and the interviews with working actresses. Did you start out wanting to make a film that had more of a focus on one of those things and grew or were they always interlinked?
Ron Nyswaner: I decidedly did not want to do a traditional biopic. I was told by somebody who gave me a piece of advice for my first documentary, “Don’t just go and shoot things and figure it out later. Write a script in your head, then allow that to be your guide. You can go off-script, of course.” I’ve never made one before, but a lot of my stuff is reality-based in the sense that real people have inspired them or they’ve been literally about the real people, so I always do a lot of research. Knowing Mary Louise was going to her home where she was raised and where her sister lived and teaching, I knew somehow what came up in the class could interact with what was being revealed about her personal life and her career because they can’t be really separated, can they?
It seems there was always meant to be a film about Mary Louise’s life, if for no other reason all the remarkable footage you find of her family….
Mary Louise Wilson: Oh, I’m glad you feel that way. I do think I had a rather colorful family.
Ron Nyswaner: My associate producer Anya called me, and this was only a year ago, and said, “We have home movies!”
Mary Louise Wilson: They last about two seconds. It’s so funny that whoever was filming just went boop, boop. I’d never seen those before myself. [In general] it was fascinating to go to New Orleans, and to go to the house I grew up in to see that again. It was in the process of being renovated inside, probably for the 14th time since I had lived there back in the ’40s. My sister is still alive, so that was one reason why I’d go down and see her.
This also shows a reality about acting that you never see on film, the idea it’s a profession as much as an art. How did that make its way into the film?
Ron Nyswaner: It was because I’m not only a friend of Mary Louise’s, but I’m a fan. We read each other’s work, so I was really inspired, especially in the ’90s when Mary Louise reinvented herself as a playwright and an actor in “Full Gallop.” I wanted to tell that story [about] when the calls stopped coming, and she said, “Well, I’ll write a play for myself.”
Mary Louise Wilson: It changed my career, completely.
Ron Nyswaner: Mary Louise and I were in a writers group together as well, and she was looking back at her life.
Mary Louise Wilson: I was writing short stories about my life, my past and my childhood and then I was starting to write a memoir called “My First Hundred Years in Show Business.” It fits with the film, because it was really about being a character actor, not being a star, the longevity of a character actor.
From what I gather, you’ve always been an open person, but has it been a time when you’ve really felt free to express things?
Mary Louise Wilson: Yeah, I’m not building a career anymore. I’m just sitting on my laurels enjoying life and I can do whatever I want, which I’m so grateful because that doesn’t happen a lot. The memoir started off to be just about how I put this play together, “Full Gallop” and how I changed my career. Then it just metastasized into this. People said, you’ve got to put more in this book about you — I couldn’t figure out what [this film] could be about because I just didn’t see myself as being that interesting. But I did.
Ron Nyswaner: That was the big discussion in the writers’ group for a while. You would read a chapter and we’d say, “What were you feeling during that?” And you’d say, “That’s sentimental. I don’t want to write about my feelings.” But I knew what you meant because Mary Louise and I are both people in our culture talk too much about their feelings.
Mary Louise Wilson: Yeah, “I confess… I had a terrible family…” Yeah, right.
Ron Nyswaner: You have to find the unsentimental way to approach those things.
Mary Louise Wilson: Also, I wanted to write about what it was like to do TV commercials in the ‘60s. Here I was as an actor and I had to wear business clothes andhouse dresses and things, and come into a studio where all the advertising men were in jeans with hay coming out of their mouth because it was the 70’s, smoking [joints] and I was [seen as being] uptight. It just drove me crazy. It was a weird period.
Did the autobiography and the film actually inform each other at all?
Mary Louise Wilson: Yeah. It wasn’t intentional, but it just happens that the book is coming out in May and this is coming out now.
Ron Nyswaner: Because of the writer’s group, I knew about Mary Louise’s life and I knew certain stories that you told in the writer’s group, so I would steer the interviews toward, “Tell that story about your brother’s apartment in Manhattan.”
Ron, are you happy with how your documentary debut turned out?
Ron Nyswaner: I wouldn’t be here otherwise. We’d still be in the editing room and making it better. I’ve been working on it for five years and there was a point where it wasn’t exhaustion, it was just knowing, “It’s complete now.” Only a couple months ago, there were just these couple sections where I felt, “This is redundant, we’ve said this already and I don’t know how to fix it” or there was just a little piece that we could never fit in. There’s the sign on the stove where [Mary Louise] says, “Do not leave stove unattended.” I love that shot. That only went in a couple of months ago, right before we locked the film because we couldn’t figure out how do you just get that in and tell the story. My genius editor Eric Martin figured it out.
For Mary Louise, what is it like to have this kind of document of your life?
Mary Louise Wilson: I feel a little embarrassed, but you know it’s fine.
Ron Nyswaner: She’s a character actor. She likes to disappear into roles, as she says in this film.
Mary Louise Wilson: Yeah, that’s where I’m comfortable. This is me.
Was there anything you ended up learning from the class you taught?
Mary Louise Wilson: I studied with Sanford Meisner, who was one of the great teachers of all time and I had his book with me and tried to access him. Thank God I did. I think I had a measure of success [in engaging the class], which I think all you can hope for if you have a group of actors. If one of them becomes an actor, that’s pretty thrilling. That’s true of any class that you teach, I think.